Will the Indian ‘Me’ Please Stand Up

I’m trying to rediscover who I am here.  Especially coming from Sweden, where everything is comfortable, safe and people are reserved, I feel very open.  Today I was swinging back and forth between openness and suspicion.

My openness led me to be dragged to several tourist shops by my autorickshaw driver.  I guess there is a strike on in Delhi today, so all the shops at Connaught Place were closed.  As I was walking, a man started talking to me.  I told him I was was shopping for a sweater (it’s cold here!), and he said I should grab an auto to a bazaar close by.  He said don’t pay more than 10 rs.  He then flagged down an auto and told the driver to take me there.  Instead, we went to two high-priced tourist shops.  I didn’t complain, and just strolled around each for a few minutes.  We mostly spoke in Hindi, and I said that I was looking for something cheap to keep warm.  “You want local,” he said, and proceeded to take me to a small bazaar with clothes for locals.  I found a nice sweatshirt for 125 rs.  All’s well that ends well.

Then on the metro, there was a guy who was obviously interested in talking to me.  He started chatting, and in rather broken English, told me he was from the U.K.  My beware-of-scam alerts were going off.  Then there was an announcement over the intercom, and he said that we had to get off that train, because it wouldn’t stop at my station.  I was very suspicious, but lots of people got off at the next stop, so I reluctantly followed.  Everybody stood there, and about 30 seconds later another train came, and we all got on.  He was genuinely trying to help me.

My people reading skills are a bit rusty.  In Sweden you can pretty much trust anybody implicitly.  Many people here in Delhi are just interested in trying out their English, or being hospitable to a foreigner.  I try to treat all the people that approach me that way.  The trick is picking the touts out from the rest.  Actually, one guy was totally honest with me.  “Let me show you some shops,” he said, “I’ll be honest, I get 2% commission.”  I was honest too.  “Sorry man, I was just taken to two shops that I didn’t want to go to.  Maybe next time, I’ll see you first.”

Return to India

You can never step into the same river twice, or rather, you can never go to the same Delhi twice.  I arrived yesterday morning, and so far my second trip to India feels very different.  It’s not just that I’ve been here before, and know what to expect.  Delhi has changed.  The first hint came at the airport, which is shiny and new.  It could be any international airport anywhere in the world.  Gone was the chaos and people yelling at you.  Immigration and customs was quick and efficient.  Was I really in India?

Things also felt differently because I was coming home to friends Maria & Robert, not to a hotel.  I caught a pre-paid taxi from the airport and after a bit of asking random pedestrians and then repeated calls to Maria, my driver and his sidekick (a guy who jumped into the cab as we left the airport) managed to find the neighborhood.  I was then able to relax and drink a cup of coffee with Maria.

Today I caught the new metro down to Connaught Place.  The metro was also shiny and new, with spotless cars and platforms.  There were even automated announcements for all the stops.  After strolling around Connaught, I met my friend Parvez for lunch at Saravana Bhavan, a wonderful South Indian restaurant.  I then went back to his place and hung out while he practiced with a friend for an upcoming concert.  Before heading home in the evening, I stopped at my favorite paratha stand for one andha and one aloo paratha (egg and potato stuffed breads).

Prices have changed in an interesting way.  Mid-range and expensive things have gone up a lot.  Meals that used to cost 60 rs in 2004 are not 120 (so at least 100% increase in 5 years).  On the other hand, prices for common things have only gone up very slightly. My aloo paratha only set me back 10 rs (up from 8 in 2004).  That seems to tell me that there has been a lot of income growth for the middle and upper classes, but those at the bottom have not benefitted.  I should go dig up the World Bank figures.

Other things that are new for me here: plastic bags are a thing of the past.  I bought some fabric yesterday, and they gave it to me in a little cloth bag.  I commented that it was nice not to get plastic, and I was told that plastic bags are now banned.  I wonder when the U.S. and Europe will catch up.

The End of a Journey

Well, it’s almost over. I can hardly believe that six months have gone
by. In some ways it feels like I just stepped off the plane. At the same
time, I have adjusted so much to the life here, that my arrival seems in
another lifetime. As I sit here in Delhi at the end of my trip, I’ve
been thinking back to my first few days in India. I was so dazed and felt
so small. Now I know my way around, argue with the auto-rickshaw drivers
in Hindi, eat in little shacks on the side of the road, and hardly notice
the noise and pollution. I think I’m in for major culture shock when I
get to Germany.
I spent the last two days hanging out with my friend Parvez. I sat and helped him and his assistants edit a movie yesterday. They were amazingly open to having me make suggestions. I have never really done video editing before, and I found it very fun.
I went to Saravana Bhavan (a South Indian meals place) for lunch. Did some more shopping: I discovered the other day that I am allowed twice as much baggage as I thought, and have been shopping ever since.
Tonight we went to a concert at the Habitat Center, which was sponsored by the Spanish Embassy. It consisted of flute, guitar and dance. Afterwards a group of us went to a little dhaba near Parves’ house (my idea for my last meal in India).
Now I am just waiting for the taxi to take me to the airport, and biting my nails worrying that I have forgotten something.
I would like to thank everybody who helped to make my trip so wonderful. Special thanks to Vish (and his cousin Anu) Jasdip (and his father Harjit), and Babu (and his cousin’s family in Ahmadabad).

Happy Losar

Losar is the Tibetan New Near. Sarah and I came up to McLeod Ganj to be here for the celebration which started on Saturday. It seemed like a good idea at the time. However, almost all of the town is Tibetan-run, so the town has been all closed for most of our stay here. There is also not much peace and quiet, since firecrackers are constantly going off.

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Amritsar Again

On Monday night Sarah and I packed up our stuff and headed to New Delhi Railway station to catch the “Golden Temple Express” train to Amritsar (scheduled to leave at 7:35). When we arrived, we discovered that it was delayed by 3:15 minutes. After going out for a chai, we found that the delay had increased to 4:30 minutes. We decided to go back to Mark’s apartment to get away from the crowds of people, and loud announcements. We returned a bit after 11:00 P.M.

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A Trip Delayed

I am sorry I haven’t written in so long. The last two weeks have been a bit crazy. Sarah was scheduled to arrive on February 7th, and we had our plans all set. We were going to go to Pushkar and Udaipur in Rajasthan, and then head north to Amritsar, McLeod Ganj and Mussoorie. Our plans were changed due to problems with Sarah’s visa.
Usually the Indian Consulate gives visas the same day they are applied for, but because Sarah was applying in Germany, and was not German they said they needed three business days. This, combined with problems getting seats on a later flight, meant that she ended up arriving a week late.
After the initial panic and disappointment wore off, I was left with a week with nothing planned. I was staying at my friend Mark’s apartment in Delhi, but he had left town, so I decided to head up to Mussoorie and spend the time with people I knew. So I cancelled our Rajasthan trip, and booked a ticket for Dehradun. It was interesting retracing my steps after so much time in India. The last time I had taken the trip, I was still a bit dazed and confused. Now I knew my way around and felt confident.
Mussoorie was very cold, and I decided to stay at a hotel down in the town rather than up at Devdar Woods, which is 1000 feet higher (and where there was still snow on the ground). This made it easy to visit my friends, and take a Hindi lesson from one of my old teachers. I had a very quiet week, and then headed back to Delhi to meet Sarah.
On the morning Sarah arrived, I hired a taxi and headed to the airport. Sarah’s re-routed trip brought her first to Mumbai, and then by Air India to Delhi. So, I directed the driver to the domestic airport. When we arrived there, I discovered that Air India lands at the international airport, so I jumped back in the taxi and we sped off. I still managed to make it to the airport a few minutes before Sarah’s flight landed. I waited about fifteen minutes watching strangers wander past. Then she appeard in the crowd. It was such a relief to see her: after the disappointment the previous week, I wasn’t letting myself believe that she was really coming.
We spent the next two days zipping around Delhi to see monuments and to do some shopping. I have to say that she held up much better than I did in my first two days in Delhi. We wandered the back streets of some of the busiest Bazaars in the city, ate at little roadside Dhabas, and got to know each other again.
More soon, I promise…

Parvez Imam

I think I wrote about my first evening in Varkala, when I met a couple people playing guitar and singing songs. One of them was Parvez, a documentary filmmaker from Delhi. When I got back to Delhi this time, I gave him a ring, and he invited me over for dinner.

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Pune and Ahmadabad

Pune is the second largest city in Maharashtra, and provided me with a one night rest on the way North. I visited the Tribal Museum. Yes, there are tribes in India. In many rural areas, there are people with cultures distinctly different from the dominant Indian culture.

While wandering the back alleys of Pune, I came across a small ‘café’. The proprietor sat cross-legged on a little platform with his tea-making equipment surrounding him. I ordered spiced milk and watched as he leaned this way and that to make it. This simple activity was so artistic.

Hampi

I returned to Chennai before leaving Tamil Nadu. I wanted to see more of the city, since my last visit had been so short. Unfortunately, I had a fever and muscle aches, and spent most of my one full day waiting in the doctor’s office.

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Pondicherry Snapshot

On a side street, next to the District Court, I found a chai and a somosa cart next to each other. I squeezed between them to join others on a bench along the wall. Over my shoulder was a small hole in the wall, where Advocates would poke there heads out and shout for tea. Then their black-robed arms would reach through to accept the chai when it came.