Posts Tagged ‘Rickshaws’

The saga of a Chicago Cubs baseball cap

June 29, 2011

24 May 2011

There is not a possession of mine with more sentimental value to me than my Chicago Cubs baseball cap.

The hat is actually the third Cubs headpiece of mine, but the first was merely a visor, and the second was lost sometime in 6th grade. So for six years this cap has marked my loyalty to Chicago’s more popular baseball team. I’ve worn it on the grass of Wrigley Field in Chicago. I’ve worn it in some of the most beautiful cities in North India. Lately, I’ve taken to wearing it daily around Nagpur, a necessary weapon against the searing sun.

The cap is facing forward on my head as I enter a rickshaw sawari se, as I’ve grown accustomed to in the last two months or so – with others. My placement in this rickshaw is more awkward than usual, and both my knees are sticking out in the open air. Without a backpack, my Hindi copy and water bottle are perched precariously on my lap, and I use my free arms to keep myself in the auto. My head is facing the stiff wind as the rickshaw accelerates, and I can feel the air tugging under the bill of my cap.

The rickshaw turns a corner, speeds up, and my cap flies backwards off my head into the road behind us.

My first thought was whether or not it was worth telling the auto-wallah to stop.

My second thought was an immediate “yes”.

I instruct the driver to stop. It takes 50 meters or so for him to understand what I’m trying to say, but he eventually comes to a halt. I pay him and walk back towards the spot where I’d lost my cap. I can catch another auto later. Right now I needed to find my cap as quickly as possible.

Just after getting out, a lady on a bicycle tries to tell me something. She doesn’t speak English – only Hindi. I understand a bit of what she’s trying to say, but her speech is too quick and frantic for me. I think she’s trying to tell me she saw someone take my cap. Whatever her message, I’m in a hurry to run back and retrieve the headgear, and I turn to go and get it. But she keeps talking. Is she trying to tell me it’s out of my hands forever? That I should just let it be taken?

I walk back, moving as quickly as possible given the traffic and the absence of functioning sidewalks. Passing through a dimly lit tunnel makes my journey back a slow one. It takes two minutes for me to arrive at the spot where I’d lost my hat, and I scan the street left and right. Am I two minutes too late?

I look at the people in the surrounding shops. No one is wearing it.

I look for a flash of royal blue and a red “C” on every surface. It’s not there.

I begin to contemplate the fact that my hat has been lost forever.

It isn’t the beauty of the cap that I would miss. Jagged white stains cake the outside, salty preservation of my perspiration. Threads are missing or sticking out awkwardly at every angle, colored much darker than they were on the day of purchase. The bill has patches of something black and grimy – perhaps oil from the many times I’d adjusted the chains of bikes in our convoy of foreigners before adjusting my hat. My name is written, underlined, and accentuated with artfully drawn initials on the bottom of the bill – the novice art skills of my 14-year-old self rendered immortal with a Sharpie.

This cap isn’t just about my support of the Chicago Cubs – Lord knows it hasn’t done anything to help them win many baseball games lately. Rather, it’s about the things I’ve done with it on. I’ve played tennis in it in Champaign, and I’ve played cricket in it in Nagpur. I’ve been to baseball stadiums in it in America, and I’ve been to cricket stadiums in it in India. Friends have worn it. Family has worn it. My cat’s worn it. Even a goat in Jaisalmer wore it once – (though the knowledge of that would make my friends reluctant to touch it for some reason). In both America and India, the best moments of my life had come with it on, or not far away.

This hat meant more to me than it meant to anyone else in the world. And that’s why losing it felt so bad.

I finish looking and walk back where I came from, beginning a secondary sweep of the area in case I’d missed it earlier. It isn’t lying in the street. No one is wearing it. It isn’t to be found anywh…wh–

What’s that?

A 20-some year old mechanic is holding my cap in his hand, the adjustable Velcro strap in the back having been tightened to its fullest. Whoever had just been wearing it undoubtedly had a small head. My heart leaps. I call after him.


He turns and looks at me, the blue-billed cap still grasped firmly in hand. I point at it and ask for my cap in simple Hindi. “Mera cap! Yeh mera. Haa, yeh mera cap hai.” My cap! It’s mine. Yes, it’s my cap.

The man seems sad to relinquish this treasured symbol of Western culture. His expression is akin to the one of the man who picked up my watch when I dropped it in the road one day. Then, too, I came back looking for it, and spotted it quickly. The man had responded with a somber “okay”, as if I was supposed to tell him to keep it. Most Indians love the idea of America, but they love America’s stuff even more. The man with my cap seems as let down by giving up the valuable as I had been just 30 seconds earlier. Reluctantly, he hands it over.

This cap has been through a lot lately. So have I. But we’re both still here – weather-worn but intact. This cap, like me, has survived another day.

Before I flagged down another auto, I fastened the cap around my head more tightly than before.

From now on, it will be staying firmly on me.



Christmas in India: Part four

January 15, 2011

Four hours after falling asleep, the alarm on my watch woke me around seven on Christmas morning. There was no rush downstairs towards a thickly ornamented Christmas tree, no pile of presents off which to rip red wrapping paper, no cold cocoa left half-sipped on the dining table next to a thank you note from Kris Kringle.

But why focus on what this Christmas didn’t offer when there was so much more that it did?

The product of the past day’s media coverage had been manifested in the morning’s paper. I was pictured posing with the others, my palms together over my head for no reason but the aesthetics of the photo. Two other pictures were shown with the accompanying article, but the highlight was the given caption. France, Germany and Canada had apparently been forgotten; according to the caption, the performing Rotary students apparently hail not only from the USA, but also from Sweden and Japan.

So what was it? Did we get new exchange students overnight, or had there been some secret cross-continental emigrations courtesy Santa’s sleigh?

Journalistic inaccuracies laughed aside, we said goodbye and began our search for separate autos home. Amanda, Anaïs, Nisha and I decided to share a ride, given the proximity of our homes. With activity on the streets this time of day scarce, finding an auto was proving to be a challenge. Rarely did anything pass us on the street, let alone an auto. The few our eyes could catch were just taunting us, full and unable to accommodate us. It was a solid ten minutes before we flagged down an auto driver that would give us a reasonable rate for a ride home.

Halfway home, that is.

The rickshaw came to a stop on an empty street, and I knew as soon as the driver turned to us and said “No petrol” that I had another signature moment in my already memorable holiday. I doubt I’ll ever again be stranded in a rickshaw on Christmas, and as the situation resolved itself minutes later when another rickshaw came by, I was slightly disappointed. Couldn’t there be some unexpected twist or epic encounter, like our ride getting stuck in quicksand or chased by a horde of wild elephants?

It was in relative peace that I jogged home from where the second rickshaw dropped us. I could have walked, but it seemed more prudent to run as quickly as possible. Once again I became self-conscious, wondering what the few locals on the street were thinking of the blue-jean clad foreigner jogging through Nagpur on Christmas morning. Patches of sun made their way through the trees and cool air blew softly across my face. Normally caught in a tangled mass of pillows, blankets and dreams this time of day, the morning’s atmosphere was another blatant, refreshing contrast to my ordinary life.

Most members of my host family were not yet awake, but I wished Merry Christmas to those who were. Running on four hours of sleep, the double bed in my room tantalized me with its comfort, but I sat on it quite upright and finished wrapping my gift.

I was Nisha’s Secret Santa. The idea of Secret Santa had been pitched during the South Tour, and the names had been drawn on a train ride in the waning days of the trip. This way, everyone would be sure to give and get at least one Christmas gift. Pandora’s box had been opened slightly, and the identities of some Secret Santas no longer remained secret. But as of Christmas morning, Nisha didn’t know I’d drawn her name, and I didn’t know who’d drawn mine.

Just the way I wanted it.

As all my other Christmas gifts would have to be shipped halfway around the world (or had been already) I put some serious thought into Nisha’s gift. Ultimately I decided on a book entitled Awesome Facts, which I’d found with surprising ease whilst returning home from practice some days earlier; driving to the bookstore required me to make a detour of about three feet, and the book was featured at the front of the store.

After finishing the accompanying note, wrapping the gift proved to be more of a challenge than I’d expected. Unable to find any suitable wrapping paper, I’d used an old Marathi newspaper – the thinness and fragility of which made taping a delicate, tedious task. By the time I’d finished applying the “bow” – an orange lanyard from my hometown and a purple ribbon – there was no time left for my mid-morning nap.

All of us were to meet at Modern School one last time before a bus would drive us to Suraburdi Meadows, where the conference was being held. And our tablas and drums weren’t the only equipment we’d be taking from Modern School.

A small Christmas tree, courtesy of the Khatris, was being kept in the back room. No matter that it was just over four feet tall. No matter that the needles felt nothing like those of pine. No matter that the branches stuck out like a skinny seven-year old measuring his wingspan.

It wasn’t a traditional Christmas tree, but since when had this been a traditional Christmas?

Two days before, I’d stolen from Brii an unused pizza box and cut a lumpy white cardboard star using a pen cap and an uneven slit in the ground. Only Dascha’s scissors skills salvaged my atrocious artwork. Placed atop our tree was probably the ugliest ornament to ever adorn a Christmas tree, but at least it was decorated.

When all 13 of us had arrived, we took the tree aboard the bus and drove off, late as usual. We placed our presents around the tree, forming a surprisingly sizeable pile at its base. One at a time, the gifts were distributed, unwrapped and opened.

The most exciting part of Christmas had begun!

The opening of my gifts had always been the climax of my holiday season. The gifts I gave out were usually afterthoughts, and my involvement included little more than wrapping them the night before. Even the “Candygrams” I sent to my friends at school were just notes with a candy cane attached, about the size of an iPod and about 1/1000 the cost. The focus of my holiday was always on what I would be getting back. Its success hinged on the quantity and quality of the parcels and notes I’d get back.

So why was it the opposite this Christmas? Why didn’t I care which of the parcels under our makeshift tree was mine, or what was in it?

Jordan, my Secret Santa, had bought me a notebook and pen – probably the two nicest I’ve ever had the privilege to call mine. I recall a conversation with him on the South Tour about wanting better writing utensils for the North Tour. Considering the amount of time I’d spent on South India with a pen and notebook in hand, his gifts had personal meaning that went far beyond any listed price.

I can’t speak for Nisha, but I think she was satisfied with her gift. And so was almost everyone on the bus. Giving these gifts did more than complete an unfinished Christmas Day task. Even though each of us received just one gift, getting something meaningful makes it all the more memorable. And it makes the smiles even harder to suppress.

It took 18 years, but I think I’d finally realized something about my favorite holiday.

Giving, not getting, is what Christmas is really about.


Christmas in India: Part two

January 12, 2011

I have no prevailing fear of rickshaw drivers, but it took until Christmas Eve for me to ride alone in an auto in India.

For five months, I’d gotten around without many rides in the three-wheeled, open-air miniature taxis that are found in abundance across India. My ride to Jakob’s house, where most of us would be congregating before dinner, was uneventful except for the fact it was the first auto-rickshaw I’d taken without a companion (or two or three). Heretofore, my bike had taken care of all my transportation needs in Nagpur, its convenience outweighing its relative slowness (and relative safety).

I was so full of sugar after my two-hour stopover at Jakob’s that I don’t even know why I ate dinner. In addition to the sweets Jakob’s host family had provided, Amanda had brought with her a huge tin of desserts she’d been sent for Christmas. By the time we left Jakob’s, I’d had peanut brittle and Skittles, Indian sweets and Rice Krispie treats, chocolates and chocolate-chip cookies. Our brief meeting had turned into yet another full-fledged food party.

At about 10, I got into Jakob’s car to go to the PC Club for dinner.

And so did 13 other people.

Allow me to put our ride in context before judging us. On the South Tour, some of us were among 18 fit onto a jeep after seeing a Kathakali dance. A couple days before, six girls squeezed into a rickshaw supposed to seat three. All facts that I know will have the parents reading this digging fingernails into their palms.

But that’s all nothing compared to what you’ll see on the streets of India everyday.

Two-wheelers are supposed to be two-seaters, but it’s common to see four people on one moped. I’ve seen rickshaws on national highways carrying over a dozen people. As for city buses, I don’t think there’s any limit on their capacity – you’ll often find them packed with 100 people or more.

As we drove to dinner, we broke out into song. What need was there for a radio? In the course of our 20-minute ride, I think I heard every Christmas song ever written. Everyone but the driver had heard Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer, O Christmas Tree, and Jingle Bell Rock. Hoarse, antsy, and considerably more hyper than usual owing to the night’s circumstances, we belted out the lyrics to the songs we knew – and hummed or whistled to the ones we didn’t. My voice was considerably more off-key than the others but what did that matter on a night like this?

The front windows were kept open as we drove. Although most of our faces were obscured, our voices rang through the open windows anyway. I wonder what the people on the streets thought as we passed them by. It was probably the most bizarre Christmas caroling they’d ever heard.

It was certainly nothing like riding alone in an auto.

And I loved it.


But the caroling didn’t end when we got out of the car (with some difficulty, as both finding the handles and refraining from toppling over each other posed problems). No, our Christmas Eve was just beginning.

CP Club is a classy, high-end establishment, the kind of place to which you only go for very special events. The pavilion was decorated for Christmas, with green and red festooned everywhere. We’d barely walked inside when we met Santa Claus – barely five feet tall, with a face and beard that quite literally seemed to be made of plastic. With most of the club situated outdoors, our voices didn’t carry that far – a fact which mattered when we discovered they had a karaoke machine.

Playing Christmas songs.

We rushed towards the microphone before we were shown to our seats. The first song I remember hearing was I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. For some reason, the word “kissing” had been changed to “tickling” in half the verses. Even for India’s high standards of censorship, that seemed a bit much.

But it was music. Christmas music. And that’s exactly what we needed.

Why was it so much easier to broadcast our voices in front of a couple hundred people on Christmas Eve than it would be to showcase our talents the next day? Some of us were more willing to come onstage than the others, but there was no pressure to perform here, no stage fright. One of a group of about eight, my back was to our audience as we sang, and most of the crowd was paying more attention to their immediate conversations than they were to us. There wasn’t a single butterfly in my stomach as I sang Jingle Bells, my voice alternating awfully between the two octaves in which I was capable of producing sounds.

Christmas karaoke came to an end, giving way to music videos for Ke$ha, Lady Gaga and Madonna songs. We snacked on cotton candy and popcorn, putting off dinner even as midnight drew closer. Our dinner was an appropriate one: instead of individual plates, we ordered several dishes and offered everyone at least a bite of each.

After a month of eating like this on the South Tour, how could our Christmas dinner have been any different?