There are a number of amazing things about India, but three have stood out: the head shaking, the amazing spices and the almost complete lack of beer.
People here shake their heads for everything: yes, no, hello and nice to meet you.
I’m not sure which shake means what but I try, when someone looks at me, to do what I believe is the hello shake, a slight tilt of the head back and forth. It may not mean hello, but people smile (or is it laugh?) in response so I figure whatever I’m actually saying is something positive. No one has glared at me yet, at least not when I’ve shaken my head. That so far has only happened when I’ve asked for beer. But more on that later.
So while the hello shake is a slight tilt of the head each way, a more vigorous shake from side to side means yes. Which is exactly like our no.
And no matter how many times I remind myself that no means yes, when it happens I always get it wrong.
The first time was when I was buying ice cream one night in the town of Mahabalipuram.
Two little girls, who looked like sisters, sidled up to the ice cream cooler and looked at me longingly. So I asked them if they would like an ice cream. The youngest one shook her head from side to side. Too shy to accept ice cream from a stranger, I thought. The older one said “yes” loud and clear, so there was no misunderstanding. But when I bought an ice cream for the elder sister it was clear the younger one wanted one too. So I bought her one as well, despite her original reluctance.
It wasn’t until later that evening that I remembered no means yes and she had been saying yes all along. The little girl hadn’t been too shy at all!
The second time was in the town of Munnar after a day climbing through tea plantations.
Our guide had said the town was not much to look at but I loved it. There were so many colourful people, and it was the first local market I was able to visit. So I took lots of pictures.
When I saw two young, pretty and colourfully dressed teenagers sitting in front of a store I asked, with hand signals, if I could take their picture. The girl looking at me shook her head from side to side, so I smiled and walked away. I was too far away to turn back when I realized she had said yes, not no!
Like China and Vietnam, people have been great in India, polite and helpful. Yes, there are vendors trying to get you to buy their wares, but they do that to the locals too. My best vendor experience came in a small town I visited for a few hours when I had finished the cycling tour and was hanging out on a beautiful beach south of Cochin (or Kochi to the locals).
I took the local bus to the town, which was an adventure in itself with the women at the front of the bus and the men at the back.
In the town I was walking down the main street when a man grabbed my hand and put something into it.
“Smell,” he said.
It was cumin, the best-smelling cumin I had ever come across. He then repeated the gesture, and I willingly let him, with star anise, cardamom, and too many spices to remember, as well as handing me a cinnamon stick to suck. It wasn’t my first visit to a spice vendor but it was definitely my most enjoyable.
If only buying beer was equally easy and fun. The cycling tour was full of Canadians, many from British Columbia, and all of us craved a cold beer at the end of the hot rides.
But many of the hotels we stayed at didn’t have bars. And those that did hid them away in the basement and kept them very dark, a clear (or as clear as those dark rooms could allow) indication that drinking was frowned upon and was only to be done in secret.
And while no one ever kicked me or the other female cyclists out of one of these bars there was no other women in them.
One town we visited, Palani, was known for its temple and as we cycled to it to it we passed many barefoot pilgrims who had been walking days or even weeks to worship at the temple.
When we asked our Indian guide where we could buy beer he looked at us uncomprehendingly and said he was pretty sure there would be no beer in a town known only for its temple.
He obviously hadn’t met thirsty Canadians before.
So down an alley we went, following a sign that said “wine” to a dark cement-walled windowless room where I’m sure no one was drinking wine. There, through an opening carved in the wall, we bought 12 beer (is this the time to mention each beer is 650 ml?) which we took back to our hotel.
But that wasn’t the end of the difficulty. While our hotel agreed to put the beer in its fridge for us, when I was sent on a beer run to ask for two more of our beer, the hotel employee refused to give them to me. It was clear he understood the word beer and it was also clear he was not going to give me any as he shook his finger at me and ranted at me in a language I’m glad I don’t understand. After discussions with the desk clerk and the manager the same man was eventually forced, clearly against his will, to provide the two beer to me. He did so, head lowered, yet eyes raised in order to glare at me. I guess drinking is bad enough, but drinking by a woman is unacceptable.
So not a positive head-tilting wag or nod in sight. But at least I didn’t go beerless.