October 21, 2013
Goodbyes are never easy, even when you are on the brink of a great adventure. Our journey to India started with a lot of tears and I have the charming fish living in the Vancouver Airport Aquarium to thank for those tears drying.
Kyle and I both slept nearly all the way through our first ten-hour flight, landing groggily in London. We were thrilled by the mixture of coincidence and the grit that inspires a person to brave London traffic that allowed us to meet up with dear Coventry friends, Matt and Laura, on our layover. This put us in good spirits to brave the eight-hour flightthat followed far too soon thereafter. Although we had to sit separately and endure terrible turbulence, I did have the good fortune of being able to help an old woman manage her claustrophobic fear of being locked in an airplane washroom.
We were met at the Indira Gandhi Airport with a wave of sweet, hot tropical air, honey lassis in red clay cups, and a security guard with a machine gun. My first glimpses of New Delhi were through a painstakingly rolled-down window of a rickety, seatbelt-less taxi with hot, dusty air blowing through my hair. When I managed to peel my glued eyes away from the apparent madness of the traffic I saw streets that were dusty, smog-filled, and run down butthat were humming with activity by people covered in colour from head to toe. I saw vendors selling everything from aromatic delicacies to gigantic teddy bears wrapped in plastic to motorcycles helmets, presented in a neat pile. I saw dogs sacked out all over the sidewalks and streets due to the heat. I also saw a glimpse of a slum.
We were greeted at our guesthouse, Chhoti Haveli, by a man who keenly hoisted my suitcase up the five flights of stairs from the street to our room and then promptly made us a cup of tea. I practiced my not-even-rudimentary Hindi to learn that he is named Tapa and is from Nepal. From the moment we arrived, I was thankful for the comfortable, quiet oasis that is Chhoti Haveli. It is decorated in a simple but ornate Rajasthani style and is complete with air conditioned rooms and the warmest hospitality.
That afternoon I had my first taste of Indian food in India. We ordered takeout which cost us 325 rupees (just over $5/£3) and it blew Canadian and British Indian food out of the water. I had never tasted paneer so creamy or curry so full in flavour. I have since learned that this quality is typical . I send my sympathy to the Indian Visa Officer in Vancouver who misses nothing of India but the food.
Despite the unceasing din of Delhi, Kyle and I slept from 3pm that first afternoon until the next morning. We were greeted to the new day and to our new routine by Tapa’s questions, “Madame, breakfast-a-start? Coffeetea?”, the latter question posed in one speedy, smooshed-together word, followed by his scurrying over to the kitchen to fry up parathas (Indian pancakes). We met the guesthouse owner, our gracious hostess, Surinder Maini, who has proven to be a great delight and an exceptional help.
Qutub Minar, the great tower built during the reign of the Qutub Empire, was our target for our first venture out. Our route there allowed me to experience, for the first time, an auto-rickshaw and the Delhi Metro. I was taken aback by the pair so starkly juxtaposed in modernity and style; the auto felt like it might crumble into pieces as it dodged in and out of traffic at a bargained-for price, while the Metro was cleaner, cooler, quieter, and less crowded than the London Tube.
Our experiences at Qutub Minar and, the following day, at India Gate were similar. Both monuments were truly awe-inspiring and Qutub Minar was exactly as I imagined the Tower of Babel to look. They were situated in gorgeous, green parks, perfumed by plumeria trees. People crowded the parks to admire the wonders.
Unfortunately, oftentimes we, in our light skin, seemed to serve as wonders ourselves and so were observed intently and constantly. I was confused when at Qutub Minar we found three Indian men asking to take photos with us; before I knew it I was smiling and posing for the camera of total strangers. I did not know that this is a completely normal phenomenon and by the end of our trip to India Gate, we were able to recognise the body language that pre-empted such questions and made haste to escape.
We also found – quite expectedly, this time – that tourist spots make us prime targets for hawkers. I was somewhat shaken by an experience at India Gate where a woman holding a henna pen approached me to kindly ask if I would like henna. I politely declined, but she insisted with increasing aggression, until she grabbed tight hold of my arm and poised herself, without my permission, to paint. I had to firmly yank my arm away and dart through traffic to escape her. Minutes later, Kyle was approached by a woman claiming to be a teacher who wanted to put an Indian flag sticker on him. We suspect it was an attempted pickpocketing distraction.
After our two days of sightseeing, we accomplished Kyle’s registration at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where he is a research affiliate. This took two days, which, according to Kyle’s colleagues, was record-breaking in speed and efficiency. After our painstaking visa application process, this was my next good taste of Indian bureaucracy. Our days were filled with waiting, waiting, waiting, a moment of action which involved walking back and forth between two buildings multiple times as interlocutors for JNU employees, waiting, and waiting. One particularly entertaining scene involved an administrator whose computer drop-down list was not working. Instead of refreshing or trying a new plan, he literally clicked the defective drop-down list about 15 times, let out a huge breathy sigh, and then resumed carefully pouring over individual pages of Kyle’s registration package. The package was comprised of four perfectly identical photocopies. The administrator would look at one page, carefully read it, flip to the next page, carefully read it, flip again for a careful read, look at his computer and the drop-down list, and then go back to re-reading the four identical pages. Meanwhile, his assistant sat at her desk, incessantly tapping the case of her ink pad in complete boredom.
Most of the JNU campus is a lush and beautiful, with paths that lead you from building to building, through gorgeous, humid jungly gardens. The standards of the administrative buildings are not nearly as high as the grounds and I was reminded, when I saw a gigantic pile of Western toilets piled up outside of the Science building, of wise words from Aunty Zo Ann: piles of garbage in India don’t mean it’s a dirty place but rather one where someone took the time to clean the area by putting all the garbage in one place.
At a JNU canteen I had my inaugural run at eating with my hands. Once I got over feeling terribly self-conscious I found that it is a wonderful way to eat; it adds a tactile element to eating and it leaves your hand smelling like delicious curry for the rest of the day. I also had my first go at using a squat toilet. JNU washrooms are a little on the rough side, never mind toilet types, so I cannot say that it was as pleasant an experience. I did learn from it, however, and will now be carrying my purse with me at all times, equipped with a roll of toilet paper.
We experienced modern shopping in Delhi this week as well. On a mission to stock up on Indian clothes, we visited Ambiance Mall in Vasant Kunj, our neighbourhood. It felt like we had stepped into the TARDIS in the dusty, noisy streets of India and landed in Park Royal or the Bull Ring. It was cool and clean and unsettlingly almost entirely Western. We were pleased, however, to find Shopper’s Stop, which sells Indian-style clothing at affordable, fixed price-points. We also found Indian trousers for Kyle, which are sold long and un-hemmed, with the feature of free and fast post-purchase hemming – a perfect system for the long-legged. The food court was filled with all sorts of tasty delights, but we chose to eat stir fry at Kylin Express because the restaurant name suited us really quite nicely.
(New clothes on the stairway up to Chhoti Haveli.)
Although we covered a lot of ground and a lot of ‘firsts’ for me during the week, the weekend was still full of excitement. I ventured out on my own for the first time on Saturday to grocery shop down the road at Big Bazaar. Aside from unwanted attention from one questionable character, my experience was good and I wound up with some interesting food, including a green, lumpy fruit which I later learned is called a ‘custard apple’. I am pleased that they are in season and plentiful right now as they are sweet, delicious, and extremely good for you.
Later that day, we were relaxing in our room when I heard a sound outside and joked that it sounded like an elephant. Then I remembered that we are in India and it probably was an elephant! So we scrambled down the stairs almost dangerously quickly and, sure enough, there were two enormous elephants, painted beautifully, standing in the park next door, surrounded by a crowd of people. Next to them were two huge camels snacking on tree leaves. We experienced, again, the phenomenon where we were garnering more attention than the magnificent beasts. Thankfully this did not last and everyone’s attention was re-focused on the elephants dextrously peeling bark of tree limbs with their trunks and eating the bark with supreme enjoyment.
The crowds gathered increasingly throughout the day as a covered stage and chairs appeared and two days of wrestling matches began, serenaded by fireworks so loud they nearly stopped my heart. We watched a few matches during the lamp-lit evening but found that it had a similar effect on us as on my dad when he would watch wrestling on TV – it didn’t take long before we were being put to sleep.
After a relaxing day of reading yesterday, the fireworks kicked off again so we decided to head out for the evening, this time to explore the city-centre ring road, Connaught Place. The British influence there is abundantly evident as the area looks uncannily like a more crowded, dirty, and sociable Leamington Spa Parade or Regent Street. The street was lined with high-end shops, but our plan was to turn down a side street to find the wondrous Central Cottage Industries Emporium. Perhaps tied only with Fortnum and Mason’s, the Emporium is the most fabulous shop I’ve ever been in. It is full of delightful decor, dishes, art, and jewellery, all in South Asian styles, and, best yet, its products are affordable. We purchased a stunning, Indian-style gold ring to temporarily replace my wedding rings which are at home for safekeeping. We finished our evening with a trip to Hotel Saravana Bhavat, an amazing, vegetarian South Indian restaurant featuring dosais two feet long. Surinder, our hostess, had it right when she described the food as “to die for”.
We greet the new week with the hope of finding a volunteer position for me while Kyle works hard on a paper on historical photography in Mizoram, which he will present next week at JNU. With a week like the last one, I’m sure it’s not even in the realm of my imagination what this week will have in store for us.