Diary of a Greeter

Leg 7 – Kerala, India

I got called away before Al and Jon had even left the mat. At the time, Jon was busy pulling fourteen rupees and an onion bhaji from behind my ear, so I was just as happy to be on my way.
Oh crap. Do I have to do this? Do I really have to do this now? Yeah, I know, if I don’t do it now, I never will. You are a harsh and cruel mistress, diary. Harsh and cruel…

After my little Bollywood adventure, BVM wasn’t taking any chances that I would jump ship. I got called away before Al and Jon had even left the mat. At the time, Jon was busy pulling fourteen rupees and an onion bhaji from behind my ear, so I was just as happy to be on my way. (Dudes, you’re in last place. Try to be just a little glum about it, could you?)

“Let’s get a move on. Next stop, Kerala – a whole lot nicer than this overcrowded sinkhole.”

I thought sinkhole was a bit much – after all, Mumbai did hold the future of my film career – but I took his point about the crowding. “All the more people to watch you in my epic!” said Cecil B., from somewhere inside my head. Sigh. It was time to go.

JB had booked a helicopter to take Phil, BVM, and a few of the more vital (or in my case, chronically truant) production crew to the next stop. A few hours in the air and we’d be there, probably before the teams even left the Pit Stop. From the way Phil and BVM were cackling to each other about this leg (“Twenty-four hours, no air conditioning!” “Some people even bring chickens on the train!” “And goats!” “Mwahahahahahaha!”) it looked like we’d have a nice, leisurely set up. We climbed aboard and strapped ourselves in.

The first sign of trouble came when Phil passed me a Styrofoam box. “You didn’t get to eat at the Pit Stop, so I packed you some lunch.” I popped the lid and eyed the contents suspiciously. “What?” he asked. “It’s traditional Indian cooking. Curried… something or other. And look at that naan bread, loaded with… are they caraway seeds? They look kind of like seeds.”

They looked a whole lot less healthy than seeds to me, but as the aroma hit my nostrils I realized how famished I was. Besides, I said to myself, the whole point of the spices was to kill off anything really toxic. How bad could it be?
An entire marching band, shod in flaming hobnailed boots, marched up and down my digestive tract, playing a samba on red-hot trumpets.
Three hours later, I had my answer. My colon was an inferno. An entire marching band, shod in flaming hobnailed boots, marched up and down my digestive tract, playing a samba on red-hot trumpets. I waged a desperate struggle just to keep my insides in. A tuba blast reverberated above the din of the rotors and the cabin filled with a fetid stench. Even after everything we had smelled over the past weeks – Venetian canals, Viennese sewers, Dutch manure, and Indian fish guts, all with a fragrant undertone of racer flopsweat – it was too much to take. Two PAs actually passed out.

Phil looked at the pilot, his eyes watering. “I-think-we-all-need-to-stretch-our-legs-and-have-a-breath-of-air-let’s-land-down-there-RIGHT-NOW.” I was impressed that he got it all out without ever having to take a breath.

We landed in a field behind a little row of shops. While the rest of the crew wandered around enjoying the fresh scent of the nearby cow pasture, I waddled, as fast as my spasming guts would allow, over to the gas station.

I didn’t even have to ask. The attendant took one look at my posture and pointed to a door. “In there.” I scampered over and flung it open, to reveal my worst nightmare.

I looked back at the attendant, desperation in my eyes. He laughed viciously. “You don’t like it? That’s okay. You can always try the hotel… it’s just ten minutes up the road.”

Phil’s voice filled my head: “A detour is a choice between two tasks, each with its own pros and cons. In this detour, teams will have to choose between Hole and Bowl.

“In Hole, racers will have to defecate using only this primitive squat toilet, located in a rank chamber that hasn’t seen a scrub brush since Nehru wore his first jacket. It’s vile and repulsive, but it’s right here.

“If they choose Bowl, racers will have to make their way through this dusty village to the only open hotel within miles. There, they will be able to use a genuine porcelain flush toilet, complete with paper – if they can get there before their bowels erupt.”

I looked back into the stall. I couldn’t, I just… couldn’t. I scampered out the door, the attendant’s mocking laughter echoing after me. “Good luck, mister! Keep clenching!”

Six and a half minutes later I skidded into the lobby and looked wildly around for the washroom door. “Can I help you, sir?” enquired the man behind the desk.

“I just… oh God… I just need the washroom… urgh… please?”

“Washrooms are for guests only, sir,” he said in a tone of mild reproach.

“But this is… agngngn… urgent.”

“If it is urgent, sir, may I suggest the gas station? Just ten minutes down the road sir.”

I knew when I was beat. I clenched my teeth and forced the words out. “Do you have any… vacancies?”

Five minutes, fifteen hundred rupees, and one elephantine blast later, I had reached nirvana. Pants around my ankles, a copy of The Indian Times, and all the toxins of Mumbai leaching from my system. Peace, comfort, at last. This wasn’t turning out to be such a bad day after all.

Wockawockawockawockawocka…

That was a familiar sound. Where had I heard it before?

Wockawockawockawockawocka…

Oh. God. No. I burst out of the stall and ran to the window.

Wockawockawockawockawocka…

There, in the sky, swooping away, was my ride. My job. My luggage.

Crap.

I sprinted back into the lobby and out the door. “Thanks for staying, please come again!” called the desk clerk. As I ran back to the gas station, I told myself there were probably a lot of helicopters in India. Lots and lots.

And I’m sure there are. Just not in this part of India. As I stared at the empty field behind the gas station, the attendant called out to me. “Hey mister, you need me to tell where you can buy some new pants?”

As I walked towards him, he sniffed the air cautiously. “No, I guess not. But you’re not looking too happy…”

“I need to get to Kerala, as soon as I can.”

“Well, there’s a train, but it doesn’t leave until tomorrow morning. Maybe someone’s driving that way? We don’t get a lot of traffic by here, but if you head out by the main road…” He pointed into the distance. “If you need to make a sign, I got a pen I can sell you.”

Fifteen minutes and four hundred rupees later I was standing beside Indian State Highway Number 4, one hand holding a sign that said KERALA and the other waving a wad of banknotes.

Two hours, one stopped car, three burly youths, and a head butt later, I was still by the road, still holding the sign, but I was no longer burdened by cash. The sun was setting, and I was just about to give up and look for the train station, when a battered VW beetle pulled over. I looked in the passenger window and enunciated carefully.

“I… need… go… Ker… A… La. You… drive… me… I… pay… Good?”

The driver stared at me incomprehendingly. Great. Figuring I hadn’t been slow enough, I started again. “Me… go…”

He opened his mouth and out came fluent suburban American youth. “Whoa, dude, I’ll get you as close to Kerala as I can, but if you can’t talk any faster than that it’s going to be a gnarly ride. Hop in! My name’s Ranjeet. Want a JOLT?”

It turns out that it didn’t matter how fast I spoke; Ranjeet didn’t let me put three words in a row for the next six hours. “Kerala? Sweet. I love it down there. You going to see your family? Course I can’t get you all the way there, but I’ll drop you off in Bangalore. Not too far away, maybe you can take the train. Why didn’t you take the train? No money, I guess. You’re unemployed? Yeah, you seem a little slow…”

I was trying to figure out why he kept talking to me as though I lived in India. Then I looked down at the back of my hand. My nut brown hand, still covered in Cecil B.’s make-up. Of course – he thought I was an impoverished untouchable or something. I was now out of The Amazing Race and starring in Punjabi Like Me.
Luckily, his total lack of interest in anything that wasn’t him prevented awkward questions from coming up.
Luckily, his total lack of interest in anything that wasn’t him prevented awkward questions from coming up. I just nodded and smiled in all the right places, and he filled me in on his life story.

One hour and eighteen minutes: “…yeah, so I was going to the university in Calcutta ‘cause my Dad really wanted me to study classic Hindu literature so I would be a suitable husband for his business partner’s daughter, but I was like ‘No way!’ so instead I spent all my time in the computer lab hacking UNIX and trying to figure out how to get a green card…”

Two hours and forty-two minutes: “…it was a pretty cool company, full-on Silicon Valley, and I had options at, like, fourteen cents, but I figured something was up when all the suits started having closed door meetings, so I started downloading the phone logs and I see they’re all calling big New York headhunter firms…”

Four hours and twenty-one minutes: “…and so the night before the pink slips went out my sniffer alerted me that the words ‘liquidate,’ ‘terminate,’ and ‘divest’ had appeared in four different management emails, and that just blew, so the next morning my pal and I backed a U-Haul up to the main loading dock and we got thirty-two servers, two pinball machines, forty-seven Aeron chairs, and a draft machine before security figured out we weren’t working for the sheriff…”

Five hours and thirty-six minutes: “…and I used the last four servers to set up India’s first chain of Internet cafés and we’re just smoking now, I’ve got forty outlets in fifteen cities and we’re bringing a new one on line every two weeks – hey did you ever think about high-tech? Nah, you don’t look like the type – but it’s a sweet business model I’ve got going…”

And so it went. It was two in the morning when he dropped me off in front of the train station in Bangalore, but his jaw showed no signs of fatigue.. “There are trains from here all the time to Kerala. Good luck! Give me a call if you’re ever in Pune!” And he was gone.

The train to Kerala was only six hundred rupees, and it left first thing the next morning. Which was a real break for me, except that it was five hundred and ninety eight rupees more than I actually had. Exhausted, I lay down on the sidewalk, covered my face with my sign, and fell asleep.

I was awoken shortly after dawn by the gentle nudge of a boot to my rib cage. “Phil?” I muttered drowsily. I looked up at a skinny guy with bad teeth and a mustache, holding some sort of riding crop.

“Hey you! Your sign says Kerala. Where do you want to go?”

“Uhhh…” I racked my brain for the name of the town Phil had given the pilot. “Erak… Eran… Ernakulum?”

“Ah yes, that’s good! That’s where I’m going!. Passenger train’s too expensive, eh? I can help. You help me, and I’ll help you.”
Which is how I found myself two hours later sharing a boxcar with Shorty Shankar and his six anorexic elephants, shovelling pachyderm crap out the open door and trying not to get stepped on.
What could I say but yes? Which is how I found myself two hours later sharing a boxcar with Shorty Shankar and his six anorexic elephants, shovelling pachyderm crap out the open door and trying not to get stepped on. I asked him why he was taking his elephants to Ernakulum.

“Special job. They called me special ‘cause Kerala elephants are too damn fat. Everyone knows I’ve got the boniest elephants in all of southern India. The man specifically wanted them bony. ‘I want backbones that’ll cut a man in half!’ he said. Crazy Americans.”

Americans? “Uh, what was the man’s… name?”

“Bertie? Barney? Something like that…”

“Bertram?” I offered.

“Yeah, Bertram, that’s it. Crazy guy.”

Oh yeah. Wild and crazy.

It was a long and uneventful ride after that, to the extent that any ride involving a total deposit of seven cubic yards of elephant dung can be considered uneventful. Our freight moved pretty slowly, but I didn’t worry about it; I had BVM’s elephants. For once, I got to relax and enjoy the trip.

All too soon it ended. We pulled into the station early the next morning. BVM stuck his head in the door and I waved. He snorted.

“Should have known I’d find you here. Six giant asses and a load of crap; where else would you be? Right, get yourself to makeup. We’ve got a good one for you today.”

I was in makeup for a long time. Long time. Lots of work on this one. “Relax,” snickered Phil as we stood at the mat, “You look lovely.”

“Fuck off.”

“Gender balance,” he said. “It’s all about the balance. We need to respect and represent all our viewers.”

“Fuck off. This was your idea, wasn’t it? Pervert. Next time you get the hair extensions.”

“Hey, I’m the Philiminator pal. You’re just local colour. Now shut up and look exotic, they’re coming.”

Two vaguely familiar guys ran up to the mat. It was Dave and Jeff! Wow, I finally remembered who they were. Of course, they weren’t any more interesting – just a more familiar form of bland. They got another cruise. Jeez, what is with all the trips? Like any of these guys will want to travel again. If I ever get home, I’m not even going to the corner store for at least six months.
Clowns. Can’t live with ‘em, and it’s illegal to hunt them down and kill them in most states. What are you going to do?
Al and Jon were next, as disgustingly cheery as ever. Clowns. Can’t live with ‘em, and it’s illegal to hunt them down and kill them in most states. What are you going to do?

Kelly and Jon were next, looking particularly bow-legged. Nice work, Shorty. As they left the mat she whined something about her cookie being broken. Well boo-hoo, honey, hit the buffet table and grab another one. I’m sure Jon will.

When Millie and Chuck arrived, I realized that love was fading. Mine for Millie, I mean; I never bought that stuff about those. We’ll always have LeMans, but the Race is taking its toll and she is looking pretty rough. And I’m shallow that way. Anyway, they arrived fourth, which didn’t stop Phil from pausing long enough for me to head behind a tree for a quick leak (not easy when you’re in a sari) before he checked them in.

Reichen and Chip were looking pretty stressed when they got in, and they were mighty relieved to still be in the race. I think this leg really shook them up, to the point where they forgot they were giant closet cases and actually hugged each other on the mat. Wow. That almost looked affectionate guys. Keep working on it.

Finally, Tian and Jaree. Muddy Tian. Mmmmmmmmuddy Tian. Hey, I thought to myself, if they are eliminated, maybe they’ll have some more free time. And I have to say, after seven legs of racing, I think Tian is finally warming up to me. I’m pretty sure she was checking me out. Maybe she liked the sari. This might not be such a bad leg for me after all.

Wait a second. She liked the sari? Or what was under it? Aw crap. Come back Millie, all is forgiven.

See you around, diary.