February 02, 2009

India: the Weary Travelers Swap Stories

How hard can it be for a group of storytellers and storytelling fans travelling together (and living in the same hotels for two weeks) to get together to tell stories?

Harder than you'd think. On a fifteen day trip, our story swap didn't take place until Day 12.

There was plenty of time on Day 1 at San Francisco International Airport... but we weren't all assembled. Two of our group were already in India, and 3 or 4 were flying from New York instead of SFO.

The first couple of days were a wash too, as we navigated culture shock, jet lag, and began to feel out the vibes of our local hosts and tour guides.

Once we got our bearings, our trip leaders talked about a story swap, but there were plenty of other logistical snags they needed to manage, and our days, though scheduled to include evening free time, ran long, so that dinner often ended at 9 pm or later (and we'd been waking at 3 or 4 am with jet lag, or 5 am if we wanted to hit the beach for Laughter Yoga). Also, our hotels rarely had a comfortable place where more than 4 people could gather.

It turns out the tour bus was the best place for all of us to gather... but not an ideal performance venue, given not only the seating arrangements, but also the variable quality of roads in India, and a temperamental PA system.

Day 11 should have been the day. After a morning of sightseeing at the world heritage sites in Mahalabalipuram, and shopping for souvenirs at a "fixed price" shop (for being a fixed price shop, they were certainly ready to make a deal if you tried to walk away from a sale), the Tharisanam storytelling tour delivered us to a beach resort, and gave us a free afternoon and evening.

This would be a perfect time to swap stories. We had heard some of our group tell stories at the Kattaikuttu school or in the rural Irula villages, and over various meals we'd gotten to know each other. But even after a week, we had not yet sat around with each other in a story circle to share a favorite yarn.

But at the resort, we dispersed all too quickly to our own cabins, some to partake of the resort's pool or aryuvedic massage services, others to dip their toes in the roaring surf of the Bay of Bengal, others to deal with various sorts of local vermin (of both the mammalian and arthropod variety) who had apparently had double booked the same rooms we had. I found a hammock on the beach, cracked open my John Irving novel, and eventually took a nap.

Wednesday, Day 12, we had a full day planned. A morning trip to DakshinaChitra, a heritage museum of architecture and traditional art, as well an afternoon of shadow puppetry. It may have well been the hands-on shadow puppet workshop that made a swap possible. After a 40 minute demonstration and Q&A, we were turned loose with paint and posterboard and scissors. For nearly two hours we were engaged in small group process actually making tangible artifacts, and despite being weary from 12 straight days of touring (and the various respiratory and intestinal ailments that inevitably accompany such trips), the excitement of the group was energizing (it helped that our master puppeteer had a hard exit time in order to catch his train home, so we were racing the clock to finish our creations). The puppetmaking brought out the talents of the folks on the trip who weren't storytellers. Their eye for color, design, and topology (my team was making two mirror image parrots) allowed them to participate in the trip's activities in a much more active way.

Back to the city of Chennai on the bus, sadly passing right by but not stopping at the Madras Crocodile Bank, home of seven thousand snapping reptiles (as seen on The Amazing Race Season 10 Episode 5), back to the New Woodlands Hotel. My roommate Jeff and I agreed that tonight would be a good chance to organize a story swap. I had my doubts that the tour organizers would be up to wrangling such a meeting, so Jeff and I agreed that we could host it ourselves. Jeff did a quick survey of those seated near us on the bus to gauge interest. I started pondering options for locations.

My first choice: the hotel next door to ours. One driveway down the street from us was the Savera, a fancy four star high-rise hotel, with two bars. My primary hope was that they might have a lobby more conducive to sitting around a telling stories than the New Woodlands, the midrange hotel where we were staying. When we arrived back in Chennai, I stowed my bags and set off to the Savera. There were several parties going on there, so the lobby was noisy and crowded, I couldn't really see telling stories there. Besides, we weren't really dressed for weddings or birthdays, and I felt like we'd stand out for being underdressed. But, the concierge informed me, the hotel had two bars, and we were welcome to come by and visit them. I peeked in one: comfy chairs, but smelling of old cigarette smoke, and three television screens showing cricket matches and music videos. Not an ideal venue for storytelling (but the following night would provide an ideal venue for some of us to unwind over a pitcher Kingfisher beer.) The other I dismissed, as it was the poolside bar, and our group was weary of battling mosquitoes.

Second choice: our own hotel lobby. The desk clerk told us that yes, we could have a "meeting" in the lobby, and so, at dinner, Jeff and I announced that at last, we would host an official "unofficial" (i.e. not on the tour itinerary) story swap in the lobby at 9:30 pm. Many of our group begged off, citing the late hour and flagging energy levels.

And at 9:30 we gathered in the lobby to find that the city electrical grid had cut off power to the hotel again, so that hotel management cranked up the enormous diesel generator outside to power the place. But... the door from the lobby to the outside had to remain open (I can't recall if this was because the air conditioner wasn't working or because the doorman was off-duty), and so the sound of the generator drowned out any chance of storytelling. Jeff pleaded for the door to be closed, but the staff insisted it had to remian open, and that's how we ended up with 15 people crammed into Jeff's and my double room.

I felt bad as host that we could offer neither refreshments nor adequate seating, but our group didn't seem to mind crowding onto the furniture:

So we went around the room, eleven storytellers (and four additional listeners) from our group. We heard James Thurber's "The Unicorn in the Garden." We heard a Native American tale from the Pacific Northwest, a Buddhist fable, a Sicilian fairy tale, an original story about grief, a Japanese ghost story, a personal childhood story that connected to Indian mythology, an Abenaki tale, a folktale from India, and a Japanese legend.

We were delighted to hear each other's individual styles and choices. Despite the late hour and the weariness, we all listened appreciatively.

In the past, I've found storytelling round robins uneven affairs... usually because there's a layer of social navigation that's underdeveloped-- an ad hoc gathering of storytelling aficionados doesn't form bonhomie spontaneously (and even with warm facilitation, it can be a struggle). But in our hotel room, things were different. This group had spent nearly two weeks together on an adventure, and spent a significant part of the day together working collaboratively and creatively. Sharing stories and listening to each other not only gave us each a chance to step out of the role of tourist, but to share with each other a familiar and comfortable gift.

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