No Alcohol for 30 days – Afterthoughts

Freedom from fear

In my last post, I forgot to say something really important that I think is at the core of my recent positive feelings. I mentioned that not drinking alcohol gave me more energy, physically and mentally. The direct consequence is that it has given me the strength not to act on my fears. Fear hasn’t disappeared from my life, and I think everybody has fears and uncertainties about their future, their choices, their relationships, their jobs, their security… I am skeptical when someone says he or she is not subjected to fear, at least when the latter expression is understood in the English sense. However, I think that people differ in the way they react to their fears; and I believe it is possible to not be “subjected” to fear, if I understand the word “subjected” in the French sense.

In French, the expression “être un sujet” means “to be at the order of”. In the middle ages, the society was organized between the lords and their “subjects”, i.e. the people who were living on the lands of the lords and working for them. Taking a break from alcohol, and suddenly gaining strength, has helped me gaining freedom from my fears. They are still there, they exist, but I am not at their mercy. I don’t act like they suggest when they come knocking in my mind. I decide the course of action. That is why I have been saying I’ve been feeling like I’m in such a good place. It needed to be added to my concluding thoughts, because this is the great gift of this trial.

India highlights

I have also said that increased sensitivity was a direct consequence of not drinking, and India rewarded richly my new sensual awakening. Much has been written about India, and I don’t believe I can go to the degree of depth that has already been achieved in talking about this country. But experiencing a glimpse of this culture and attending a wedding there was like the universe saying to me: “do you realize how strong life can feel?”

The cab ride from Chhatrapati Shivaji International airport to the Bombay Yacht Club (my hotel) was symptomatic of the rest of this week. Many flights arrive to (and depart from) Mumbai in the middle of the night. My flight didn’t escape this rule, and I arrived in Mumbai at 2 a.m. The ride was made in pitch dark, but I was able to see two things that constituted a trailer for the week to follow.

The taxi stopped at a checkpoint to exit the airport, and two little children came to my window to beg for money. I had been warned not to encourage beggars, and therefore not to give to children. They came with a beautiful smile and their deep eyes stared at me, as they said: “give me a small English coin sir…” “Ok, hello sir, give me 10 rupees”. 15 minutes later, I started to see people who were sleeping on the sidewalk. As I kept paying attention, I realized that all throughout the way, homeless people occupied spots on the sidewalks, sometimes entire families.

During the week there, poverty has stared at me (and at my companions- and probably at the people who live here too). You cannot escape the sight of poverty in India, whether a big city, a small town, a village, or upper class wedding festivities. It is always there. Sometimes clever, sometimes funny, sometimes annoying- but always touching.

As the cab was driving through the dark roads, we passed by a group of people who were dancing and partying on the sidewalk. A spotlight shone on the numerous colors of the sari dresses of the women. My window was opened because of the suffocating heat and their music made its way to my ears. Blue, red, yellow and green forms were undulating to the rhythm of the song. This vision was brief- only a few seconds- but it had all I would keep witnessing throughout the week: colors, music and elegance.

***

Bombay traffic

By the way, for people who don’t know (and don’t be ashamed, because I wasn’t entirely sure before I came there) Bombay=Mumbai. As a westerner, it is difficult to remain insensitive to the chaos created by Bombay traffic. I woke up to the sound of car horns, and the concert of honks (what am I talking about a concert? a symphony, rather) doesn’t stop until cars are off the road and people are fast asleep. Why is that? Rear-view mirrors are not used in India, and hearing is an important part of driving. Not honking is dangerous. By honking, you make your presence known, and therefore, you prevent a car to suddenly sway in front of you and cause an accident. All big vehicles actually have at their back: “Horn OK Please”, which means really: “if I crash into you, it’s your fault, because you didn’t honk and I didn’t know you were there.”

Lanes are mere suggestions. Stopping at a red light is optional. Well, that’s not entirely true. At night, on Sundays and on holidays, they are optional for everybody. During business hours, only small cars stop at red lights. Buses and trucks don’t. It’s their right as the strongest vehicles on the road. Isn’t the police doing something about it? Yes, it is. But the flat rate to bribe a policeman is 100 rupees.

Holi

The holiday I attended on my first day in Mumbai was called “holi”. Isn’t that ironic? Holiday-Holi… no? Ok… Anyway.

Holi, is known in the West, I think, as the festival of colours. Before I met with my friends, I went to an ATM next to the hotel. On the way there, a child covered in purple and red colors came to me. “Hello sir… Where are you going sir?” I replied: “to the bank.” Then I thought: ‘Why did I just say that?’ The kid replied: “ok, after you give me 10 rupees.” As I came out of the ATM booth (attended by a security guard), 15 children were waiting for me. I walked in a decided manner away from them, but the first kid kept following me. When he saw I didn’t reply, he said: “ok sir, pick a color”. I didn’t reply, because I was afraid he would have the nerves to charge me for it. He put his hand on my arm that became purple. “Happy Holi sir” and he left. This was the start of Holi festivities.

I met up with my friends, a Parisian and a local, and we went to a Holi party in someone’s courtyard. We came equipped with bags of color powders, water pistols and water balloons. The goal here is to get as messy as possible and paint people’s clothes and faces with all the different colors we have in our bags: blue, green, red, purple, yellow, etc… Getting people wet is also part of the fun. There are food and drinks available. The local friend serves me a drink called “Bhaang”. I ask him: “Is there any alcohol in it?” He said : “No.” So I took two sips. Then he said: “it’s worse than alcohol. It’s bhaang. It’s got weed in it. Or opium.” I thought he was joking with me, so I gambled: I drank a glass, hoping that he wasn’t right (but also kind of hoping he was). As a safety net, I drank only one. He drank 7 of them. The party started at 1 pm. At 2:30 pm he said: “guys, I’m not feeling right at all, I’m done, I’m going home,” and he left. He slept until 9 am the next day !

As for me, my one glass got me stoned. It was treacherous, because I didn’t feel anything for a long time, and after the drug had gone through my digestive system, it suddenly kicked in. My Parisian friend and I took a cab with two locals, who were stoned as well. You know some people say: “drugs expend your perception”. I think it’s the exact opposite. I repeated numerous times during the no drinking trial that sobriety actually enriched my perception, and made me open to the world. Being drugged actually created the opposite: I was completely shut down from the rest of the world, but so were the other two in the car. Nobody was talking- just staring blankly in front of them.

Scams

Scams exist everywhere. I hear stories about foreigners coming to Paris and getting scammed by cab drivers. But in some places, scams are expected to happen and India is one of those places. And I’ve got to say: Mumbai delivered on expectations.

Some of the scams in Bombay are plain-right annoying: it’s mostly taxi drivers who over charge the foreigners who don’t know about the system. Basically, there is a meter, that was installed some decades ago, and there is a price chart that details the equivalent between what’s on the meter and today’s prices. Problem is, that chart is never shown to the tourists (I’ve seen it only once) and when you ask the driver to pull it out, he pretends he doesn’t speak English (he probably doesn’t, but I’m sure he knows the word “chart”). For the same distance, a ride can be charged anywhere from 15 rupees to 250 rupees.

On the contrary, some scams are very ingenuous and you have to bow to their cleverness. A couple of European friends got pulled by a lady, who put a bracelet on the wrist of my friend, then pretended to do a little tour of sights. Then some people hit her with a cane and she said it was the police (it is unclear if this was the police or some accomplice). She said: please buy milk and sugar for my child. My friends tried to give her 20 rupees, she said: “if the police sees you give me money, they will kill me.” So she took them to a shop, asked for milk and sugar, and the vendor said: “ok, it’s 750 rupees”. After 1 day in Mumbai, you know that there is NO way it would be 750 rupees. With 750, you dine at a luxury restaurant. The vendor was part of the scam. My friend wasn’t so sure, but he thought something was wrong, and he said: “look take 20 rupees, or take nothing.” He just acquired his first street credentials!

Another friend got caught in the very elaborate balloon scam. A balloon vendor walks around with enormous yellow balloons. My friend thought: “oh, I will buy this for my nephew.” He asks for some, and a tough negotiation starts. At the end he gets a pack of balloons, but he is so exhausted by the negotiation that he doesn’t care to look at the product he was given. The vendor leaves; another comes and says: “oh, you’ve been cheated on. He didn’t give you the big balloons, he gave you only small ones.” My friend opened the bag, and indeed, it was filled with little balloons. My friend gets upset, tries to find first vendor, doesn’t manage to, and the second one says: “look, give me some money, and I’ll exchange the small for the big ones” My friend accepts. The second vendor leaves. At that point, a third one comes and says: “you’ve been cheated, these are the medium sized balloons, here are the big balloons!”

Scammers and beggars always have the brightest smiles on their faces; and at the end of the day, it’s better to be had by a clever scam than to be pickpocketed. At least, you respect the work put into thinking the scam.

Children beggars are especially difficult to say no to. As I was walking alone in the market, a little girl started to follow me and started begging. She was a beautiful little kid (like the two ones at the airport) and I felt so cold-hearted to deny her request. The day after, I saw her at a street corner, and an old lady passed by her, and gave her food. It was her lunch break; and the old lady was her “employer”. I felt a less guilty, because now I know that a) this girl is fed, and b) the money would go in that old lady’s pocket (or whoever is at the top of this organization). It now is obvious to me that this was no coincidence that the kid beggars who came to me were all beautiful: they are chosen by their employers because they are the ones with most chances to melt the hearts of the foreigners

The wedding

Many movies have been made about Indian weddings (Monsoon Wedding being the most popular one with the Westerners), so I won’t repeat here what’s already been described. However, there is one moment of the ceremony that I really want to share with you. On the second day of the festivities that we attended, the official and religious vows of marriage were pronounced. The whole afternoon touched me deeply and I will attempt to describe the events as I witnessed them.

Around 3 pm, the party separated in two clans: the people invited by the groom, and the people invited by the bride. All men from the first clan had a red turban tied onto their heads. Men of the second clan wore pink turbans. The groom arrived in a jaguar, was welcomed by a vintage orchestra straight out of the fifties and was put on a decorated horse. It was a juxtaposition of grand class, old-fashioned colonialism and superstition; for some reason, this mix worked very well. As the groom approaches the house where the bride resides (symbolically) his party stops him and starts dancing around him. This is of course to rejoice with him, but this is also to slow him down, as if to enjoy the last moments with him as a single man. It takes a good 20 to 30 minutes for the groom to make its way through the last 200 meters before the house.

A grotesque scene takes place, as two bands compete for the tips. People of the groom’s family, in their dance, hold 1000 rupees bills that they waive over the groom’s face in circles. This money becomes blessed and is distributed as tips to the orchestra; the problem is that two bands who wanted those tips desperately, and they would not stop playing (even though they were playing different music) and would press the tippers to give the money to them. This didn’t help make things go faster 🙂

Finally, the groom arrived at the threshold of the house, where a crowd of pink turbans were waiting. The people with pink turbans came down and welcomed us all, sometimes putting a string of flowers around our necks, sometimes hugging us. The mother of the bride opened her arms to receive the mother of the groom. The clan of the bride came down to dance with us as well, and the colors that were separated were now united in the festivities; red and pink moved together in this joyful crowd.

The groom then went up the stairs, and he was then stopped at a second gate where his bride was waiting for him. When he came at the threshold, both were lifted up the floor, and they did a ritual that I didn’t really understand, but in the end, she put a collar of flowers around his neck, and everybody cheered and applauded. Yes, I was looking at two friends getting married, but I felt I was looking at much more than that. The colors, the music, the actions of the ritual put us all in a kind of reverie. What was happening in front of our eyes transcended our cultures and our times. The groom symbolized Man. The bride, Woman. And as she put a collar on his neck, she accepted him in her house, in her family, and she welcomed him in her heart.

I wonder if it was a coincidence that the groom kept going up (physically). It is as if he must elevate himself to deserve his bride.

***

I am writing this as British Airways flight 198 is about to launch the security announcement and depart for London. I made a donation at a hindu temple yesterday and I guess I got immediately rewarded as I got a free upgrade to business class ! I love it !

A guy whom I recognized from the wedding just passed by. He saw me in that great business class reclining seat. He must think I’m some kind of hot shot. I’m not going to do anything to go against that impression 🙂 Stay tuned for next trial !

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