Monkeys on a Train … or … The Secret of High Energy – part I

Samuel Nigro, Varanasi, India

I found out about the Granite conference in Bangalore at 2 pm, Monday.

Thanks to Anil, a trusted tuktuk driver of Navneet and the residency, who makes himself available for people associated to Kriti Gallery, I was able to make it to the travel agent by 5 pm in Assi Ghat. This travel agent, another friend of the Gallery, somehow got me a ticket for a train to Bangalore leaving at 11:30 pm that night to get me there by Wednesday evening at 10 pm, so I’ll only miss the first day of the stone conference. Booking on the Indian Train System is notoriously difficult because of rules against overbooking, and late trains and high-demand; and it is unheard of to get a ticket the day of your travel. You usually have to book it weeks in advance. I am grateful to Anil for driving me around at the last minute to get to the travel agent, ATM and few other stops around Varanasi. He negotiated rush hour traffic with a Gandhi coolness and gets me back to the residency by 6 pm, without honking once. Anil is a gem. My India plans just turned on a dime in finding out about this stone conference, and I have to go – it is overdetermined that I go – it is an opportunity that I can not pass up, but …and … uhmm … doubt …

Rise to the Challenge, Sam … It will work out.

Ok. Ticket in Hand, I am back at the residency and I walk into my room. It is 6 pm. I have three hours to pack and prepare. The train station is not in Varanasi, but at a town about an hour away. In my studio, I have papers and notes everywhere, flow-charts, lists, mind maps. I sit at my CPU, files and files of unfinished essays, quick notes, quotes, facts, figures, bytes and bytes of images. Books – I’ve accumulated a few, “Which am I going to bring? I can’t bring them all?” See: I’m coming back to the residency. The original plan was to leave the residency for good and go South and find Granite to work with and finish my project, then who knows. Navneet and Olga both made it clear to me that I am welcome back to the residency after my excursion south or whenever I need a safe place to be. (That conversation was a week ago and a relief.) I pull down my piece of luggage and I click into “speed/stealth” mode. I grab, pack, make quick decisions about everything and don’t look back. I run to the kitchen and the laundry room. Thankfully, I did laundry that morning and thankfully my clothes are dry. It is getting progressively hotter in India and dryness wasn’t really a question, but cleanliness was and I am glad all my laundry is done – luck, randomness, foresight … doesn’t matter… it’s just the reality. Clean clothes. Now: food.

So, from my research, I had already determined that I wasn’t going to buy anything to eat or drink from the train: the risk of sickness was too great, because I had to be my most capable at this conference; I can’t afford a few days or weeks lying sick in a hotel room. And, I was told that you don’t have time to get off at train stations to buy stuff. If you can believe it, I have yet to but any food in India. I’ve only eaten at the residency, hotels and restaurants … oh … and I’ve eaten food that I brought with me from America – still have some walnuts left and I throw them in my bag. There is not much in the kitchen, and Chinta, the cook, is gone and even if she were here, she’d have no time to cook anything for my trip. Ergo, I am on my own and I need go out and buy provisions for two days. I walk out to the street vendors, it is dark and I walk to the first guy with a cart full of fruit. The negotiation begins. I grab a huge bunch of bananas:

“How much?”


That’s cheap, because it is a huge bunch, or rather about 3 hands of bananas; and I suspect he said 40 just out of habit,
because I’ve watched other westerners buy bananas
and no matter how many are grabbed
the vendor usually says … “40”

one ­– 40
ten – 40
3 hands – 40

I point at oranges and indicate to put them on his scale. 3 … I exhibit hand movements for more … 6 … I use both hands to say “keep it coming” … 9 … I beckon a few more with the first two fingers of my right hand … 12.
He weighs and I grab the bag and they are heavy.
So much for traveling light …

Don’t worry, Sam. You’ll eat them.

 I hold up the bag and ask how much.


That’s fair, I think, sorta. I grab another, smaller bunch of bananas – about 2 hands – and place them with the first group.

“How much all together?”


“Wait. What?!”

I point: 40, 40, 150 – 230. He points at the original bunch of bananas
and does a mock count, then booms, “50!”

“no. no. no… you said forty.”

“50 … !$%*!”

“You said forty and the other bunch is smaller than the first.”

“Ok. Ok … 50 and 50”

This is comedy. He says “OK” and keeps his inflated price …

[– an aside —

I have been in India for about two months and have developed a paradigm for negotiating within this particular and other similar Indian situations. I’m willing to keep it flexible and change and be challenged on this, but here is the current iteration:

1. It is a game – and therefore not about money but about respect, so for respect you have to be discerning about the pricing and engage with the discussion; western views of “market-value” and “invisible hand” rubbish will cloud your thinking.

2. Have compassion for the playing field – by almost any calculus you use to examine yours and the negotiating parties financial dockets, there is zero economic parity here. A few rupees extra means a lot, so relationships matter, kindness matters, reputations matter; this makes a one time interaction – like buying bananas at a random vendor – much more raw, so the better the history you have with someone … well … you’ll get better service with people you’ve built relationships with and everyone will get a fair price; but, if you pay too much – especially with those one time interactions – you not only do a disservice to others who come after you, but also warp the local’s sense of their economic strength that can then harm their own, future negotiations, I don’t know what the balance is, but there is one; and,

3. Protect yourself because context is everything – you’re not going to know all the rules of the game or the terrain of the playing field because they both not only morph, but also have been shaped by historical, economic and political forces that have been in play for a long, long time and way beyond all of our control, you are a cog in a machine that is the clashing of horns where East meets West, so trust your instinct, protect your person and learn how to say “No.”

My understanding of this changes and evolves, because the more I learn about the people and culture the more complex, deep and layered this all becomes. Please note: nowhere in this paradigm is there a function for ruddiness or cordiality, they apply but not the way you think. Better to just forget – rather, cross-out – your perception of these two qualities. For example, a “No” could be a look, a shift in body posture or a mixture of all of the above. It took me a while to learn when it was appropriate to add a second sentence to a verbal “No,” which is “Get away from me.”

It is obviously not appropriate to apply this paradigm to All of India. This applies to a very specific interaction, like buying fruit from a street vendor or hiring a rickshaw … and even, as you will soon read, buying groceries from the grocery store or standing in a train station – I am open to being corrected about all of this, I’m still new and still learning, but this has helped me find a way to operate here.

— end of aside –]

… we are haggling about 30 cents and my clock is ticking. I will pay too much no matter what: I need to go. I pay the 250, and it is fair-ish – just don’t like how he changed in midstream­ – I let it go and trot back to the residency, drop off my close-to-20-pounds of fruit (approx. I don’t remember, but it was heavy), and run back out to the street to the grocery store that is in the opposite direction of the fruit stand. It is very dark out by now and rush hour traffic is in full swing, and I am weaving in and out of dogs, cars and tuktuks (Oh, look – there’s a puppy siting on top of a cow …), breathing in plenty of dust as I run. Honk. Honking. I had been to Spencers before, but had no clue as to what to buy or what I would even want to eat … I grab a jar of honey and a couple of large bags of pistachios in the shell and a couple of packets of these combo packs of nuts and dried fruits. I walk over to the aisles where the processed food is and – and it all looks Hindi to me – and I try to determine if there is anything I’d like to eat, chips, cookies etc … hmm, nothing … I glance at the produce … Ugh … I tried this before, and no luck. This trip is going to be a Spartan culinary experience.

I get to the checkout counter. The tally is high and I hand over my credit card and my unconscious mind throws up a yellow warning flag. This is not going to go well. It’s his body language, the way he moves the credit card machine, the nervous movement in his eyes and shoulders that ripple all the way down to the hesitation in his shuffling feet. I’ve been through this before. He goes through the motion of swiping my credit card. We wait and wait. He looks at me, shrugs and head movements. He hands me back my card, but I don’t take it: I stare. He stares back. I say:

“Make it work.”

He stares. I stare. I point at the credit card machine:

“Make … it … work.”

He goes through the motions again. We wait and wait. He picks up the machine and shows me the digital read out
and I already know what it is going to say: “Card denied.”

“The Card is good. Make it work.”

There is a line forming behind me. People are getting anxious and push up against me, wanting to pay. Time clicks on. I feel bodies pushing, rubbing up against me. I push back at the groping and turn and summon my inner Harry Callahan and say: “BACK … OFF ….” This is the clash of horns of East and West, where all circumstances are out of our collective control but we behave within a machine that was set in motion long before we were born. We will change because of it and be neither east nor west – something new has got to arise for the good of us all. I gesture for him to put down the credit card machine. I contemplate Indian Closeness and the exercise of Indian Quietude:

“The Card is good.”
“Make … it … work.”


“This … is … how … I … pay.”
“Make it work.”

He talks with the other cashier in Hindi, goes around me and walks to another credit card machine. It works. I sign. I walk out the door with my train food and don’t look back. I jog to the residency with my ruppees that I had gotten out of the ATM when I bought my train ticket back at Assi Ghat intact – i.e. not spent on food but ready for the contingencies to come, and there will be some … I’ll bet on it.

I’m in my room, again. My papers, which are representative of my ideas, efforts and progress, are everywhere.
I can’t face my CPU: so much undone … the tension …

Take the time and eat dinner, Sam.
The important tasks are done.
All is good.

 Yes, ok. Dinner is waiting in the kitchen and the last time I ate was breakfast. But first,

I check my water filtration system: it functions. I am reassured, but redundancy doesn’t hurt. I gather the empty water bottles scattered around my room and put them in a bucket that seems to be a common appurtenance of an Indian Shower System. I use my bucket for easy carrying between my studio and the kitchen. I walk in the kitchen. Olga: “Are you ready, Sam?”

“Umm … basically … uh … barely”

Tom and Sharon are there. Haven’t introduced them but they are a married couple from New York. We are the only artists at the residency at the moment. They have been at the residency for less than two weeks and one of my disappointments is that I probably won’t hang with them again in Varanasi. Our immediate paths are different and I hope to see them in New York.

We have light conversation as I fill my water bottles at the water cooler for my journey. I spy a loaf of bread. Olga, “Take it.” I put it in my bucket with the bottles filled with fresh water and I sit and eat: preoccupied … more conversation. This post is getting too long, so I’ll move it forward. 20 minutes later I excuse myself. It is 7:30 pm. I have an hour and a half before I climb into my taxi.

I get back to my room and there is a lot of admin to do: backing up the computer, storing hard drives, filing notes and deciding what stays and goes… then, there is my digital presence… I kind of hate this: what is the most important thing here? One is to complete the tasks I set out to do while in India – a project with Indian Granite. I look at my sketchbooks I’ve worked on in Varanasi, “All that will have to wait.” I leave them, but take my video camera, leave the tripod, take my first aid kit, but leave the secondary emergency pack and leave my reserve toiletries, trying to take just the minimum.

But, the tension between blogging vs. writing vs. creating vs. digital presence vs. questioning vs. what I am doing here … a big mental welter – ugh! The common thread is curiosity and the tension comes from its outward expression; and I know that I have to drop all my preconceptions, because my path has just changed. Stepping through the threshold of my studio room into the Varanasi evening, I’m not sure if I made the choice or if it was made for me: I let it all go.

“Huh …” I think, “that was easier than I thought.”

I am outside with my bags.

9 pm, Monday – the 0th hour.

I give Olga my key. Hugs. She wants me to let her know when I get there. I tell her I’ll be in touch. I wish Anil could take me, but the trip requires a real car, not a tuktuk. The cab driver takes my small bag, and lurches at the weight of it. “Don’t worry,” I adopt Indian quietude, “It’s water. I’ll take it.” He goes for the piece of luggage and lurches again. Sheepishly, “It’s food. You can roll it. I’ll help.”

I’m in the taxi and I am gone and I fear that am not ready for this.

Yes, you are …

To be continued …


Filed under Sculpture, Story

9 responses to “Monkeys on a Train … or … The Secret of High Energy – part I

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