Almost Famous
pilgrims on the way to Sabarimala Temple -- this could be a Peace Corps picture ...

Almost Famous

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Ever wondered what it’s like to spend a day as Madonna or Bono?  India lets you sample the forbidden fruits of super-stardom, albeit at a smaller level, but also without the bother of having to wear outrageous lingerie in public or try to save the world in between cutting albums. 

India has seen its fair share of foreigners.  If it wasn’t the various invaders over the centuries, it was the trading partners-cum-invaders of the Portuguese, Dutch, French and, of course, the British.  Smack in the heart of the spice routes, India has gotten visitors.  But that doesn’t change the fact that foreigners today are still strange and wondrous beings for much of the populace.  Maybe not at a “Gods Must Be Crazy” level, but it’s still a bit of a change to be, if not revered, at least the center of attention wherever you go.  (For better or worse, Indians are still savvy enough to know that you’re not a great white god as Pizarro found to his advantage.)


Yes, in India you can feel a bit like a rock star.  The only qualification you need is to look different.  White skin helps.  As do shorts or other funny, non-Indian garb.  Cameras are a bit of a giveaway.  And, of course, blond hair is worth its weight in gold.  Rumpelstiltskin would be proud.


I took family pictures with families I didn’t know.  I was given newborn babies to hold.  I became the “it” thing to see and touch for groups of school kids on field trips who were supposed to be looking at murals, statues or the like.  I would be singled out in a crowd so locals could shake my hand.  I signed autographs, being sure to add “USA” next to my name as if I was the starting point guard on Team America’s basketball squad (Condi Rice plays the 2 spot).  Trips in buses, cars, rickshaws, etc. sometimes had the feel of an inauguration parade as people on the sidewalks would spontaneously start waving and I’d feel compelled to wave back looking like the Queen; well, looking like a queen who had been wearing the same T-shirt for a week.  Well, not really looking like a queen at all. 

New Year’s was a trip as shaking hands with a foreigner seemed to be an omen of good tidings for the coming year and those who were not Indian were besieged by well-wishers wanting to press the flesh.  Imagine a handful of foreigners among a sea of thousands of well wishers.


I had to duck away from groups of kids if I saw them coming just because I couldn’t afford another afternoon of answering the same cute questions about where I’m from and taking photo after photo of the kids by themselves or the kids with me.  Even in fairly well traveled cities, you can walk down the main street without drawing a crowd but turn a corner and kids will light up at the good fortune of having a foreigner on their street; as I kept managing to get myself lost in cities, I had a lot of experience with this. 

But that brings up the other side of what it must be like to be a celeb.  You’re always on stage so to speak and you have to grin and bear it at times.  I must have answered the same few questions hundreds of times while in India – often a half dozen or a dozen times in a day: What is my name, Where am I from, What my job is, Where I have visited in India, etc. 

Yes, it’s fun to be a celeb but it’s nice to be able to step away from it too.  After some long days you start to understand how celebrities sometimes just lose it and start rampaging through the paparazzi or hapless bystanders.