Diminished expectations by
25
(42 Stories)

Prompted By Family Trips

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I suppose most memorable family vacations have something that goes wrong.  And so, I remember our trip in 1962.

I suppose most memorable family vacations have something that goes wrong.

It must have been something my father planned.  We had arrived a number of months earlier in Dacca (now Dhaka), and it could have been a December school break, but I think the trip was mostly designed to make my mother happy.  She had found her life since arriving there stultifying–no job, hard to find a crack in the male-centric culture where some women wore burkhas, a tiny ex-pat community in a poor, struggling and crowded land of heat and flooding.  Although she prided herself on doing the unusual and getting to know the world, this was not going well.

Why not explore, maybe something a little out of the way?   The plans sounded great–a train ride, a trip to India with a rich heritage of festivals, an ocean beach. And so we headed off to Puri.

The train:  My mother and father, younger sister (ten years old) and I (twelve) set forth on the short, bumpy airplane ride to Calcutta, where we were to take the overnight train.  We would eat on the train, bunk down, and then awaken to the oceanside town.  Unfortunately, the reservations we thought we had, we didn’t.  If we wanted to get there, we could go in the second class car however.  Some eye rolling and exasperated looks ensued, but with no real alternative, we did.

The car we boarded was crowded, but it did have seats, and we found two wooden benches facing each other with everything else crammed in helter-skelter.  People had brought along food and bags overstuffed with assorted possessions; we stuck out with our Western dress, luggage and pale faces.  As far as I knew, everyone was friendly enough, if bemused.  This would be a long, long, long trip.  At every stop, vendors would thrust bits of food through the windows, and we might have bought something (I seem to remember oranges), since there was no dining car option and we hadn’t planned ahead.  It was hot, of course, and so the windows were open, but the precious breeze also bore smelly soot and cinders from the smokestack as we screeched along.  We didn’t talk much and tried to make the best of it.  My travel outfit of cotton plaid skirt and weskit, and everything else, was coated in gray grime by the time we arrived.  As hours wore on and darkness fell, we tried to sleep sitting up, while those around us settled in, leaning on each other, and took over every spare spot, be it the floor or the luggage racks.  Finally my sister was able to squeeze in a spot in the rack above us, and I dozed on and off.  I doubt either parent slept a wink.  There must have been a toilet option; I think I remember seeing the railroad ties passing underneath it.

The town:  At last, sleep-deprived, grumpy, and definitely worse for the wear, we arrived.  It was morning; streets were bustling and full of color.  We took a taxi through town to our hotel, as my mother took pains to educate us about the fabulous yearly Jagannath parade, famous for enormous (“juggernaut”) floats to honor the gods.  The dense crowds would press in and people would throw themselves under the giant wheels and be crushed, according to European descriptions she had read. (Although, according to Wikipedia, it seems most likely that deaths would be accidental, not sacrificial.)  In any case, it made a big impression on me, and I was horrified.  We weren’t there at the time of the festival, but I cast a wary eye as we drove through the streets, just in case we would run into an unexpected crush of people and gargantuan rolling floats.

Puri temple

What I did notice were many people with enormous limbs, grotesquely enlarged to several times the normal size.  This was elephantiasis (lymphatic filariasis), the result of endemic parasites that block lymph drainage, and a local scourge.  At some later point, we visited the Jagannath temple, but were disappointed that we were only allowed on the outside, where a scattering of people begged, many afflicted by the parasite.  No parades, no colorful temple interiors, just a suggestion of what might be, tempered by the reminders of earthly sufferings.

The ocean:  The hotel was a sort of low whitewashed colonial-style bungalow with exuberant bougainvillea in front of the verandah, its charm not completely making up for the heat.  Of course there was no air-conditioning, although it had big, slow ceiling fans in the darkened rooms.  Across the street was the wide expanse of dirty sand, stretching off in both directions.  The ocean air was a relief. The beach was fairly empty, but there were some very persistent hawkers who came by every few minutes with simple beaded necklaces, woven hats and bags, which we dutifully purchased.  It turned out that the ocean in these parts was known for its fierce undertow, and we were advised to hire one of the fellows with the strange pointed white caps that identified them as lifeguards.  My mother had never been much of a beach person, and this did not convert her.  She knew about undertows from living in San Francisco–the Pacific Ocean there is also famous for its treachery–and she spent most of the time nervously eyeing her children in the waves with the guardian white caps, fearing they would be swept out to sea at any moment. This was not turning out to be a vacation to cheer her up, and she was not one to hide her opinions.

Puri Lifeguard

We stayed there a few days.   It was, indeed, a break from Dacca, and we kids were fine, and we did take away memories.  I imagine that my parents found their main source of enjoyment in their cocktails on the verandah–in truth, no small comfort.  Words may have been exchanged. I remember little of the return trip, but am confident that it did not include cinders flying into the open windows.

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Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Khati, you capture so well that Indian trip through your childish eyes, and you’re certainly the most widely travelled amongst us, I love reading your travel tales!

    I’m reminded of George Orwell’s writing about Burma, read “Burmese Days” if you haven’t already.

    And those cocktails on the verandah sound lovely!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I will have to look for George Orwell’s writing on Burma–not familiar with that, but would be interesting to read. The cocktails were an important antidote I think, though I was too young to partake!

  2. Good Khati, and for more on the days of the Raj, read EM Forster’s masterpiece Passage to India if you haven’t yet!

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Given all your worldly travels, Khati, I was expecting some exotic locale and out of the ordinary experiences, and you sure didn’t disappoint. I admit I am more of a “cocktails on the verandah” sort myself, but I loved reading about your much more unusual experiences, even if I might not want to emulate them myself. So thank you so much for sharing them with us, and so evocatively!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      It was only when I reflected on the trip that I saw it outside of my own child’s view—and it occurred to me how this played out for my parents. My dad really loved my mom, and maybe felt a bit guilty about dragging her around when she had her own dreams. Unfortunately this holiday didn’t atone.

  4. Marian says:

    Quite a holiday, Khati, and how exotic. I felt the heat on that Indian train. Hope your mother eventually was more satisfied and got her bearings. At least there were cocktails.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      My mother ended up (surprise—not) teaching at the Dacca American school, and then was the principal the second year. That was a challenge (she also was the default basketball team coach—another story—every kid in the “high school” years was needed to make up a team), took in a teen boy in need, found a few friends to commiserate with over gin and tonics, and picked holidays in the cool Hindu Kush mountains. Made lemonade out of lemons in the end.

  5. Suzy says:

    Khati, what an amazing story! Don’t you also have an older sister? How did she manage to get out of taking this trip? It sounds exotic but extremely difficult, what with the missing train reservations, the people with elephantiasis, and the undertow. I bet those cocktails on the verandah were sorely needed by your mother! Thanks for taking us along!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      You have a good memory–yes, I do have an older sister. She was in Geneva at school that year (no high school to speak of in Dacca at the time), and it was too far to come back for school breaks–so on this trip, it was just me and the younger sister. You don’t expect that being a tourist in India will be glitch-free, and our travails still put us in the category of privileged folks, but this stretched our idea of vacation for sure. And yet, memories…..

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    You have had so many interesting adventures, Khati. I imagine this one was not even close to what your parents envisioned, but clearly it made an impression on you.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Travel is kind of like that—the fewer expectations you have, the more delighted you can be on discovering new things, if you keep an open mind. Sometimes things just don’t work out and finding something worthwhile in the experience is more challenging, but there is usually something to be learned. Kind of like life I suppose.

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    Khati, your exotic travels spin great stories for the rest of us! This one does not disappoint. I wonder what happened to those great train tickets with the overnight accommodations that did not happen. I could smell the cinders and feel the grime from the train.

    I’ve had both my children (when much younger) pulled under by undertow on a beach on Martha’s Vineyard. It is very scary, indeed. Thank goodness your parents could at least relax with those cocktails at night. Your mother earned them. Thank you for sharing this fascinating tale.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Undertows are indeed wicked. I was nearly pulled out to sea on a floating raft at Assateague Island (Atlantic off coast of Virginia) once as a teenager, and really had to work to get back to shore–it was alarming, and the beach was pretty empty–I had just gone with a couple of friends. I don’t think my parents ever knew about it, among other things kids never tell parents because it would only worry them. Amazing we all made it to adulthood.

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