Friday, 30 September 2011

29, 30 September 2011: Surviving My First Rickshaw Accident

Last night ended up being nice. I'm already becoming more comfortable and confident in my surroundings. I think maybe the beer I had with dinner helped to loosen me up a little, though not so much as to drop my guard. I came to terms with the fact that I'll be seen as a source of income by most Indians. I realized, though, that that doesn't necessarily cheapen my interactions with the people I meet. I can still be friendly and create meaningful connections.

After only one day, I'm starting to recognize people and they me. I say hi to the man who sold me my phone every time I pass by, as well as to the man who sells me my water. Last night, I was sitting on the balcony of the hotel when one of the staff members I'd previously interacted with asked if I'd like to have a beer. Of course! He put the bottles on ice for a bit while I wrote and gathered my clothing for the dhobi wallah. I then sat on the patio for an hour and a half with an Indian lager, watching and listening to the street life below me. There was a Hindu puja happening to my left and a Muslim salah to my right. I saw my first holy cow. It was magical!

This morning, I woke up with a resolve to see more of the city. I decided to ditch the internet and the Lonely Planet and find breakfast on my own. Soon after I left my hotel, I was approached by a young man who started asking me questions. Instead of ignoring him, I told him where I was from and that I was looking for breakfast. Tangentially, Indians always ask if I'm either English or Australias. When I tell them I'm from the U.S., they say I don't look American. I'm not sure what to make of this? Anyhow, he led me to a tiny South Indian restaurant that provided the very environment I was lamenting last night: a ground level shop with an open view of the street where I could sit and watch and eat and drink. Plus! I finally found some heat in my food. I had a masala omelet which was perfect. I then drank both a tea and a coffee while I watched the city wake up (most shops don't open until 11). I probably sat for an hour. The proprietor was careful to seat new customers in booths that didn't obscure my view of the street. People have been so kind!

After that, I started wandering in search of a similarly appointed street view. On the way there, another young man, ostensibly a tout like the first, approached me and started asking the same questions. Where are you from? You like India? Where are you going? I played along and answered his questions. In addition to lying about the length of time I've been in India, by the way, I've also invented a fictitious boyfriend who's always taking a nap at the hotel. He took me to a tiny stall along a back alley and bought me a chai. He then offered to be my guide and take me to the Hanuman temple in Connaught Place, the so-called heart of Delhi. I agreed.

I took my first rickshaw ride ever to get to the temple. It was a hairy drive, as were all of the proceeding trips. But for about $0.50, I was able to travel a couple of miles in a novel form of transportation. 

The temple itself is awesome. For one, it's built beneath this huge, as in multiple story, statue of Hanuman. 

You take off your shoes outside the temple and pay a little boy to watch them. You enter the temple through Hanuman's mouth and walk down a staircase. 

Once inside, you essentially walk up to statues of various gods, touch their feet and then bow to them. A priest pours a teaspoon of water into your hand which you sprinkle on your head. You also receive a lucky orange tilaka (you can kind of see mine in the top image). I hope my temple worship today counters the Kali curse I received yesterday. See, I'm already thinking like a Hindu. Inside the temple was a low cave that took you to a basement full of yet more gods and goddesses. The ground was flooded above my ankles. Finally, you exit through the mouth of a lion. I enjoyed it more than I expected to and look forward to visiting other temples.

Sunil, my guide, exiting the Hanuman temple.
After this, my guide/tout, Sunil and I took the Delhi Metro into a different part of Connaught Place. It's such an efficient form of transportation. It's a raised light rail. Why is Arizona's light rail at street level? This is so much faster. Delhi does public transportation remarkably well. For about $0.10, I traveled a couple of miles in 3 minutes. Incredible.

I bought a salwar kameez in hopes of minimizing some of the attention I've been getting. We'll see if it works. I kind of think I went to a place where Sunil gets a commission, because the prices, even after my haggling, seemed a bit high. I spent about $12 for 3 scarves and the salwar kameez. Later on, I bought a pair of pants I like better for only $2. I don't know. Even if I was ripped off, I don't mind because my day was so rich and varied thanks to Sunil's guidance.

After that, we went to a South Indian restaurant for lunch and I ordered a thali meal. So much food!

Then I lifted up the puri—the puffed up bread—only to discover more food!

It was delicious. I was maybe able to put a third of it away. The total? About $2.25.

At this point, I was getting hot and exhausted and needed to get back to my room and my glorious, powerful ceiling fan. So I told Sunil that my “boyfriend” was worried and that our day together was coming to a close. We took a rickshaw back to Paharganj and that's when the accident occurred. I'm not quite sure what happened, but it involved our bumping into a cab. The fender bender was followed by 15 minutes of heated argument between the drivers and a cop. My driver ended up being fined 100 INR, a miniscule fee. The driver was very good natured about it.

Reckless rickshaw driver
Back in Paharganj, I bid Sunil adieu and here I am, in my blessedly cool room at Rak International. I'll probably go pig out some more in a couple of hours and have a final beer before I begin my six and a half weeks of abstinence. 

Oh yeah! The best news of all! Vadim bought his tickets and got his visa. He's coming for real and I couldn't be more thrilled! Hooraaaaay!

Thursday, 29 September 2011

29 September 11: Afternoon and Evening

It's 1800, Thursday night. Getting accustomed to a 24 hour clock. I'm sitting at a rooftop restaurant off the main drag enjoying a bottle of Kingfisher and waiting for my vegetable stew to arrive. The city is still very busy below me. This is my third time venturing out today.

I found an internet cafe right by my hotel and bought some cool electronics there. I bought a basic but functional unlocked cell phone. For under $50, I got the phone, an international SIM card and enough minutes and texts to last most of my trip, I think. For $55, I bought a USB modem and one month of unlimited internet access. It's a great piece of technology. You just plug it into the port and are able to connect anywhere. I don't know why these aren't available in the U.S. I'm connected right now on this rooftop. It's great. I won't need to use internet cafes anymore. Both the SIM card and the modem are without a contract. I just stop by a store or order online when my plan runs out. Unlimited data comes to just under $20 per month. If I had a smart phone, I could use the USB modem in it as well.

So far all significant purchases have required a copy of my passport, including hotel rentals. It's interesting to me that in such a huge, seemingly anonymous country, faces are important. I also had to take a face picture for the SIM card. I had to send in a face pic to the yoga school too.

This afternoon, I found a reprieve from the bustle in the form of a Christian cemetery. It was full of old trees that obscured the noise from the Bazaar, just yards away.

I liked it because most of the grave stones told why the person died: tragic bus accident, cancer, bicycle crash. It fulfilled a morbid curiosity that most cemeteries only tease. The one thing that was missing from the cemetery, and so far, New Delhi in general, was public seating. The only seating available is on rooftops. Which is fine. I just don't know of enough rooftops yet.

I also encountered my first aggressive beggars. Everything I've read says to not dole out money. It's really hard though, when I have so much of it. I hate that I can refuse someone 10 measly rupees and can then turn around and spend 2000 on a phone without blinking. I think the first woman I refused cursed me, calling down Kali's wrath upon me. It felt shitty. I hate curses. I ended up buying street food for another woman and her daughter. I chose the place, so I didn't feel like she was intentionally taking me to an establishment where she gets a cut and I get overcharged. I dislike feeling so distrustful. Other than being cursed and catcalled, the locals have all been incredibly kind. It feels unnatural to automatically dismiss people like this. I've decided that ignoring doesn't work: I need to explicitly say no thank you, I'm not interested. Oh yeah, everyone asks how long I've been here. I figure that saying, “since 0300” pegs me as a mark, so I've taken to responding with “for a while.”

Other backpackers. Where are you? I see you, but you're unwilling to return eye contact or smiles. I keep showing up at places where you're supposed to hang out as per the internet, and yet you're not there. It's been so long since I've talked to anyone. I hope I meet people soon.

By the way, my vegetable dish from Metropolis Hotel was good but greasy. As in there was a pool of orange grease, maybe half a cup, at the bottom of the bowl. And no spice. I'm still nursing the Kingfisher.

Bathing is on my agenda for tonight. I will purchase soap and a wash cloth. I also want to get a day bag with a zipper so I can lug something smaller than my backpack around. I now have the internet along with a catalog of media to consume. I may hit up my rooftop and see if anyone converges there.

Oh yeah, two liter sized bottles of water cost $0.40. Not bad. I've yet to see a trash can anywhere. 

Oooh. Tonight was awesome. I'll write about it tomorrow.

29 September 11: First Night and Day in Delhi

So I'm looking for my cab and here's where I mess up. Kind of. I'd arranged for a driver from the hotel to pick me up. I searched the crowd several times for a placard with my name. I have this stubborn streak that prevents me from asking for help or appearing vulnerable when I don't know what's going on. I try to appear composed and in control and do so at the potential cost of making a rash decision. As an aside, I'm sure India will quickly wean me of that tendency. Anyway, I entered that mode of unerring false confidence when I couldn't find my name anywhere. I didn't want to appear desperate or lost as I didn't want to look like a potential victim, and I certainly wasn't up for deferring attention and sales pitches after 48 hours in airports. India doesn't operate under the same strict adherence to a time table that the U.S. does. I know that. I also knew that I'd gotten through customs with alacrity and ease and was likely earlier than my driver expected me. Even so, the thought of standing there and, gulp, waiting, with that wall, albeit an orderly wall, of men standing opposite me and staring, was unbearable, so instead of waiting a few minutes for my driver, I walked to a government-approved taxi stand and gave them the address of my hotel. 

And that's where I screwed up again. As soon as I got into the cab, I remembered that it's important to get a prepaid cab. I hadn't even negotiated a price yet. My cab driver was sweet, though, and gave me an impromptu tour of Delhi as we drove the 40 minutes to my hotel. After about 15 minutes on the phone with my hotel ascertaining its location, my cabbie dropped me safely off. He even called the hotel and had an employee come out to meet me at the car and walk me back. I really appreciated that. I ended up paying at least twice what I should've for that cab ride, plus I had to pay the cab price I'd prearranged with the hotel. So I paid $30 on cabs last night. Outrageous, but I learned a lesson.

As to the driving in India. Ha ha. It's as advertised. It's Mario Kart with aggressive horns. The lane divisions are arbitrary as are the speed limits. I found it much more nerve-wracking as a pedestrian today, though, than I did as a car passenger last night.

Delhi itself is green and tropical. There are huge Plumerias growing all over. It was dark during my drive through the better landscaped, or even just landscaped, parts of Delhi, so I wasn't able to identify too many plants other than to see that they're lush, green, and moisture loving. It's hot and humid. It was 77 F when I arrived last night and it's certainly in the high 80s today.

My hotel room is up 4 flights of stairs. I'm actually off of a balcony that leads down to another balcony and an outdoor restaurant. I'll likely eat there tonight if it's open. The room is pretty nice. There's a big clean, hard bed without bedding. I'm glad I brought a big scarf to wrap the computer in as it's been doubling as a blanket for me this whole trip. The bathroom is tile with a drain in the middle. There's a sink, a western toilet, and a shower. There's also a geyser, which is a hot water heater, but I don't know how to turn it on. A large bucket is provided for bathing. A small bucket is provided next to the toilet for hand cleaning your bits after your business. I packed toilet paper :) There's one outlet in the room and a much needed fan, which quit working at some point during the night. When I arrived, I hand washed all my filthy clothes in the sink with shampoo as my Dr. Bronner's was confiscated at Sky Harbor (nooooo). Just now as I returned to my room from breakfast, a dhobi wallah came down from the roof above me and offered me his services. I didn't need him today, but will likely avail myself of him tomorrow or Friday. Support the local service economy and all that. I haven't bathed since China, other than to wash my face. It seems kind of superfluous here and I don't feel at all self-conscious of my rancidity the way I did in the sterile Beijing airport. My natural perfume blends nicely into the olfactory chaos of Paharganj.

Clothesline I set up in bathroom. It's too humid for clothes to dry, so I've since sent them off with a dhobi wallah.
Butt washing bucket
Oh yeah, Paharganj. This is the neighborhood I'm staying in. I'm just off the Main Bazaar, which is lined with colorful storefronts selling everything. I went out this morning to find an internet cafe so I could check my email and such. It was a little overwhelming.

Views from my rooftop

Dhobi wallah
And the men. There are so many freaking men here. I want to stop and look at things, but some dude immediately gloms on to me and tries to talk to me or sell me something. “Hello Madam. Nice sunglasses. I do not need anything. I just want to practice English.” “Very beautiful. What do you need?” “Come to see my shop.” “How long do you grow your hair? You have hair like Indian.” And then they follow you for a few yards. “Madam. Madam. Madam. I am try to talk to you, Madam.” It was initially scary, but it's already gone from being a safety concern to being an annoyance. I feel unable to linger on the streets. I have to keep moving. I want to take pictures, but that would mean standing still. I hope to hookup with some backpackers tonight or tomorrow whom I can explore the town with. 

The shopping looks like lots of fun, and I have an aversion to shopping. I'm pretty sure I'll come back to the States with a duffel bag full of costumes and scarves. The textiles are fantastic. Just wish I could look at them more closely. If you ever come to India, only wear what's on your back and buy everything else here. I'm tempted to chuck all my clothes and start fresh.

Breakfast was milk chai and paneer paratha with delicious, chunky, sour yogurt. The chai was too sweet and the paratha too rich. While I'm glad I'm not attempting to remain vegan on this trip, my body still isn't accustomed to rich, buttery foods. Even though I didn't eat last night, I could only finish half the paratha. The total meal cost about $2.

I'm back in my room now, writing this and grabbing some tights to put on. I'm wearing a below-the-knee dress with a t-shirt over it and sneakers. I'm going to add the tights to make it a little more conservative and hope that cuts down on the attention at least a little. After that, I'm off to search out a coffee shop I read about that I hope will provide a comfortable, anonymous view of the street life.

I imagine I'll be writing a lot over the next couple of days since I'm not yet sure enough to venture too far out of this neighborhood. It's going to be a lot of diving out there, tentatively looking around, and then coming back to the room to decompress. The writing will certainly fall off once I'm in Rishikesh.

Also, I've already decided that, as a woman at least, I'd much rather explore cities like this with another person. It'd be nice to share observations and have the semblance of a buffer against the crush of humanity out there.

Wow. I haven't written this prolifically since college.

28, 29 September 11: Beijing to Delhi

During the duration of my overlay at Beijing International, I ate chopped cucumber in a spicy red sauce along with seaweed udon soup. I later enjoyed a snack of marinated peanuts and celery. I enjoyed trying the various new (to me) beverages in the vending machines. The prices were high in the airport. I blew through $30 just feeding and hydrating myself. I wandered a lot. The corridors were lined with Balenciaga, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Chanel. A Starbucks was under construction. Efficient bathroom attendees entered the stall after each use to sanitize and perfume. I used my first squat toilet. It was spotless. I'll post pictures soon. I didn't talk much all day. I offered to take pictures of a family and after that they gave me grapes, but our interaction was limited as we could only share food, not a common language.

My flight from Beijing to Delhi was again very restful. Lots of sleep punctuated with an occasional groggy rise to check the time. I slept through meals and drinks on this flight. The passengers of this flight felt more foreign compared to those on my flight into Beijing. While there were plenty of westernized Indians, many still wear traditional clothing, especially the older generations. The style is so distinctly Indian. Old Sikh couples, he in his turban, she in her sari, look so distinguished. I don't really know how to discuss this without exoticizing and “othering” Eastern culture, so I'll leave it at that for now.

I expected more pandemonium at the Delhi airport. It was quiet, clean, and orderly, if not as modern and state of the art as Beijing's. I received my first “namaste” in the bathroom, which had a Western toilet. I quickly passed through customs and had no issues changing my dollars and yuan to rupees. As an FYI, 287 USD got me over 12,000 INR. My room tonight costs 450 INR, or about $9, for comparison.

Everything I'd read said the exit from Indira Gahndi airport is one of the most intense first experiences of India; that there's filth and noise and stink and humans everywhere. I braced myself and headed out and... nothing. There were orderly rows of Indians behind the partitions, there to pick up guests or greet family members. There was traffic and it was humid, but it was far, far tamer than I expected. I picked up two bottles of water, paying what're likely to be exorbitant airport prices, for about $0.80.

After that I started looking for my prearranged cab....

27, 28 September 11: LA to Beijing

I can't leave the airport! I need a visa. Should've checked it out before I left. That said, if I'm going to spend a day in an airport I'm glad it's this one.

My flight from LA was comfortable and uneventful. The plane was only 80% full so I had an empty seat next to me. On both flights so far, I've been next to the window, which is my preference. I like to squeeze myself into the 90 degree angle made by the seat and the wall of the plane. I slept like crazy. Luckily, the flight attendant woke me to ask my dietary requirements. Otherwise I would've been stuck with beef and pork for dinner and breakfast, respectively. My timeline is obscured because of the amount of sleeping I did. I only woke for my vegetarian meals. For dinner, I had a greasy noodle dish, and for breakfast, I ate seaweed and onions with rice. I preferred breakfast. We arrived here at 0500, Wednesday.

It took a while to get through security. Customs seized my bike lock. Whatever.

This airport is fantastic. I found an amazing shower in the women's restroom. It's a separate room with a divided shower and bidet, as well as a huge vanity and sink. The room was spotless, and I was unsure if it was available for use. I used it anyway. The shower itself was at least 8 feet high, with double shower heads, one of which was detachable. My period started last night during the flight, and travel always makes me extra greasy and gross looking. Bathing felt so good. All the better because it felt forbidden. Why would something this nice be available to anyone? And if it was broadly available, why wasn't there anyone else waiting to use it? I took my sweet time. I shaved and shampooed and brushed. I even applied makeup. What the hell. I changed my clothes and washed my underwear. It was perfect.  When I left the shower room, the cleaning lady gave me a long, dirty look, but I'm getting enough of those in general to not know whether it was my appearance or my behavior that warranted it.

I like being foreign so far. I like looking at people and not caring. I like that anything foolish I do will be attributed to my culture and not to me individually. I like the liberation that anonymity provides. I like that when people are looking at me, it's through a lens I can't identify with, a language and culture I know nothing about. Thus far, I'm remarkably comfortable and confident. I worried that in the face of a novel situation, I'd panic, but it's been the total opposite. I'm very excited for India because I recognize that it'll be on an entirely different level than this. Everything here is organized and clean and efficient. There are international outlets in the floor every 10 feet to charge laptops and electronics. At Sky Harbor, I found only one outlet. At LAX, there were only outlets available at special stands, where you were squished between other technology users. I did have to scan my passport to use the free wifi. I'm sure the government could read this message if they wanted to. The price of all this comfort is a lack of privacy. I had to scan my passport in order to access the wifi. Also, certain websites, like Facebook, are inaccessible, and many internet searches related to China cause the browser to shut down.

Right now, I'm clean and cozy on a bench that overlooks the dismal skyline. It's so hazy that visibility is probably limited to under a mile. There are buildings in the distance, but they're just an outline, only a shade or two darker than the sky. I knew China was polluted, but never had any concrete visualization of what that pollution looked like. I'm also publicly enjoying a frosty Chinese lager that I bought from a vending machine, not so much because I felt like a beer, but because I could. I'm going to surf the internet and people watch for the next 8 hours before my flight.

I've been people watching and wandering for hours. This is the biggest terminal in the world! And only 5 restaurants. This doesn't feel like a developing country at all. It reminds me of the U.S. in the late 90s and early 00s. All ostentation and acquisition.

26 September 11: Phoenix to LA

I just begrudgingly spent $5 on a 12 oz chai at an LAX Starbucks, but comforted myself with the fact that that same denomination will buy me at least 50 chai masalas in the coming months. 

On the flight from Phoenix to LA, I sat next to a man en route to his home in Guatemala. As you know, I'm enamored of Central America. He kindly obliged me as I assaulted him with a barrage of questions. He lives in the mountains, so doesn't have to deal with humidity. The winters are cold; it freezes but never snows. The summers get hot, but I can't imagine they're anywhere near as hot as Arizona. He says the heat is intense because you're so much closer to the sun. The cost of living is cheaper than in Arizona, but no where near as low as it once was. It's natural beauty is breathtaking. I want to visit. 

Things I forgot to pack: tampons, headphones (picked up some cheap ones in the airport), phone charger (though the phone will likely be worthless in a few hours). I'm already grateful that I packed as lightly as I did and will likely ditch this fat Lonely Planet once I get to Delhi. 

I spend all of tomorrow in Beijing. Right now, I don't have internet access because I don't want to pay—f you t-mobile for your wifi monopoly—but hope upon arrival to research the ease with which I can leave the Chinese airport and explore the city for a few hours. I'd really like to ditch my belongings in a locker and ride around town for a bit. Eat some strange food and people watch. Otherwise, it'll be a long day in the airport, and it's my understanding that information access is severely truncated in China, no?