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October 21, 1997


Manjula Padmanabhan

In Poseidon's realm

Dominic Xavier's illustration There are very few countries in the world where Indians are welcome. In the first world, we are either ignored or despised. In the third world, we are looked upon with a mixture of distrust and envy. And we ourselves often behave with such an astonishing lack of tact, courtesy and common sense that it is not surprising our passports cause expressions of despair to cross the faces of immigration officers at every international checkpost.

Having just returned from a short and wonderful trip to Greece, however, I can say that this is one country in which we are not only welcomed, but cherished and admired. It is a most unfamiliar experience. Once or twice, people stopped us in the streets to admire our clothes and shopkeepers gave us discounts, saying, "... because we like you!" Unlike other Europeans, the Greeks do not appear to react to differences of race and colour.

My sister and I went on three guided tours, each lasting one day, alongside battalions of polyglot tourists and didn't sense from the tour operators even the faintest shade of prejudice. Perhaps the sheer volume of tourists pouring into Greece has created amongst Greeks such a familiarity with the foibles of humans in transit that they have become tolerant by default.

The wonders of the ancient world are almost eclipsed by the spectacle of our species in tour-group mode. On the tours we took, elderly Americans and short, neat Japanese honeymoon couples made up the bulk of the groups.

On one of the cruises we went on, there were separate buses for different language groups, including Russian, Japanese, and Spanish. That tour also happened to be one on which the boat we took had fewer deck chairs than passengers. So we came on board from the bus which had collected us from our hotel to find all three decks, above, below, front and aft, seething with passengers sitting belligerently in their white plastic seats, daring newcomers to unseat them.

There may have been about four hundred people on board that ship, swarming in every which direction, looking for a place to park their posteriors while savouring the gorgeous vista of the Aegean Sea around us. North American voices could be heard raised in nasal complaint, "Excuse me! I can't find a chair!!" while Far Easterners, in silence and stealth, occupied all the available niches. My sister and I found a few feet of open space in the coffee lounge and sat there pretending that the reason we were drinking coffee recklessly had nothing to do with justifying our continued existence in that spot.

A young Greek woman was working her way through the heaving throng, saying 'Hello! Photo?" And before one could say "Da" or "Nyet" had clicked her booty. But photos are part of the cruise scene. As passengers scramble on board the ship, they are grabbed and held firmly in place at the entrance by a smiling Greek couple in traditional costume as the camera positioned directly in front of them flashes and clicks. The pictures are developed on board. Towards the end of the cruise one can see the whole lot strung up, revealing countless tourists with startled expressions, struggling in the grip of the two stunningly beautiful Greek peasant-dancers on either side.

Lunch was served in three shifts. We had a waiter who sorrowfully whispered that he found American tourists "... so loud! And I am allergic to noise!" Another waiter quickly located table companions for us, the first being a lean and melancholy man who looked frightened at the prospect of eating in the presence of two female strangers, then looked even more dismayed when our table was joined by two Ecuadorians, a mother and daughter. He ordered a beer, filled his plate from the buffet and then, having barely tasted his food, vanished. The four of us left at the table burst into giggles at this masculine failure of nerve, while the younger Ecuadorian lifted the beer-can, discovered it was still half-full and said with youthful cynicism, "He'll be back!"

Later in the afternoon, when all the shifts had been fed, when all the three islands on the list for the day had been visited, the game of musical chairs started again. But we were luckier this time. We reached the middle deck just as two white-haired travellers, whose skins were the ruddy carmine of the well-cooked westerner, were getting to their feet. We shared no language but the winks and nods of those who are about to give up their precious seats to those who have come just in time to snatch them. Even as we settled into place, a grizzled American tourist rushed over to his friends just in front of us, calling excitedly, "Hurry! Lindy's holding four seats in the sun!" But we, lulled by good food, ancient ruins and friendly Greeks, stared dreamily at the white foam sparkling on the Prussian blue waves of Poseidon's realm, forgiving and accepting everything in the wind-whipped beauty of the moment.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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Manjula Padmanabhan