India – Going Home to a Place I’d Never Been Before

India, I kept telling myself, would be foreign, exotic, different – a whole new experience – but not at all. It felt like comfy slippers, a Vin Diesel movie and a lime diet coke. Yum yum.

I know a lot of it was being with my friend Y’s parents. Not just being able to stay in their apartment and get delicious, homemade food; personal tours of the city and shopping assistance but their kindness and warmth. Less important is that I have eaten in a lot of Indian restaurants and seen a good number of Bollywood movies – whatever the reason I felt utterly at home in Delhi. Never scared or out of place, not a weird deja-vu feeling – but a happy, safe, “Oh I totally get this” kind of feeling. 18 times a day in London I would wonder ‘Who ARE these people? What do they think they are doing?’ but Delhi was fab fab fab.

Now getting to Delhi, on the other hand, well hmmm. As one friend who is an English professor has told me ‘there is always a structure – you just need to make it visible.’[1] Thus you have in your mind a structure of how an airport/ airline works which might be very difficult to articulate – then you run into a budget airline in the Middle East and OH MY the fault lines between expectation and reality appear.

Like you walk through the metal detector, it beeps and no one notices, in fact no one is actually watching the metal detector at all. Or you put your bags through the scanner and a small sticker is put over the zipper, a small sticker, easily removable

As for the airline – the stewardesses looked like they were borrowing their untidy, elder sisters’ uniforms; the captain looked like a baggage handler. As we went down the runway for take off about 10 baggage compartments popped open and stayed open the whole flight because no one could be bothered to close them. The bathroom still had that little slot to put used straight razors in and an ashtray. Drink choices were Coke, orange juice, water and beer. Drink service was really slow because the stewardess would stand and flirt for 10 minutes with any cute male passengers. It was only supposed to be 2 1/2 hour flight – we arrived 50 minutes early. 50.

Sun was just over the horizon as we left the airport so Delhi appeared very slowly – dark and foggy then gradually brightening (although never that bright – air quality is, shall we say, seriously impaired. It makes you think of one of those lines about ‘living in X city is like smoking 2 packs of cigarettes a day’).

So the city – yes, there really are big cows wandering everywhere and dogs sleeping all over the place in perfect peace as no one hurts animals. Mostly 2-4 story buildings built VERY close together; few skyscrapers. Very compact living/ working.

The main roads reminded me of Cairo in that you have public buses (very extensive bus system), trucks, tuk-tuks (green and yellow mini-cabs, driver sits in front, little bench for 2 or 3 people behind him), donkey carts, bikes and cars all going together. The cars are all very small, representing each of the past six decades and brands I have never heard of: Cedric! Ambassador! Sumo! Esteem! Scorpio! You are clipping along on an ultra-modern overpass and behind you is a Tata (who makes Tatas?), to the left is a cow and to the right is a Hummer, ahead is a bicycle rickshaw. And yet all very familiar – public ablutions and small shops loaded with heaps of goods like in the Middle East; apartments with real marble steps and floors like Athens and stands with flower garlands like Thailand.

Streets are almost all one lane each way, divided, some with streetlights, either lined with tiny shops or there is a low wall and open scrub land. For such a highly built-up place, there is still lots of unused or park areas. Very green city – trees everywhere and plants in pots in front of most shops and houses – but you can feel the plants are battling the air pollution.

Most people live in ‘enclaves’ – group of apartment buildings in a 1/2 city block to several blocks area surrounded by wall; sometimes it is series of U-shaped 4 story apartment buildings built around a “park” of about 50 by 100 feet. Some parks are merely bare dirt with a few trees hanging on by the tips of their roots. Some parks are quite lush – green grass, flowers, shrubs and happy trees. Within enclaves there are ‘lanes’ – strip of paved tarmac without markings with about a 6 foot space of compacted earth on either side between tarmac and the wall of an apartment building.

The key issue is that there is something going on everywhere – every block is a microcosm. There is a man sitting against a wall with a bathroom scale in front of him – this is a business. Open air laundry and barber services. Woman with a mat on the ground selling nuts; men going by on bicycles calling to buy used paper or selling popcorn. Handcarts full of vegetables (you call down from your apartment what you want and the seller will walk it up to you – they pass constantly, very handy if you are in the middle of a recipe and realize you are missing a green pepper). Small, moveable food stands which sell hot snacks served on small bowls made from banana leaves, a glass of cold water or hot tea. Man sitting with a small propane stove, fry pan, container of ghee, loaf of bread and a flat of eggs – the egg sandwich guy. Overhead is a tangle of wires – easily 25 jury-rigged cords going into one apartment building. Everything is very compact – tiny cars, every single space is used, trash picked over by various groups of people. The ‘Baskin Robbins’ store was maybe 10’ by 10.’

Gas stations were a hoot – regular size but they all had about 15 men in uniform, another random 10 men just standing around and about 20 cars, some broken down, some trying to get gas, some just stopping by to hang out at the gas station (which were all most attractive with potted plants on either size of each gas pump.)

As for the people issue – lots of people. People living in the middle of roundabouts in shacks, living on the sidewalks, living in the parks. A lot of people so that you would have, for example, a man with a rifle standing guard not just outside a bank, but outside a car showroom or a restaurant. One person to style your hair, one person to hold the hair dryer. A guy to come deliver the DVD you want to watch. One man to walk down the road with a broom with two foot bristles to sweep the gravel off the road. If you want a sidewalk built, you hire a group of people to crush the rocks, carry them in baskets on their head and handmake you a sidewalk.

And all the people bundled up in their woolies – the temperature was perfect for me, a little crisp in the morning, warm at noon, but everyone was wrapped up in wool shawls and scarves over their heads (tied like they had a toothache!) but oh such clothes! You would see a woman with 3 rhinestone clips in her hair, a pink sari with crystals, elaborate beaded shawl, little gilt slippers stepping out to buy dish soap. Tight leggings under a stunning tunic, with hand-woven shawl and little leather slippers to go pay the electric bill. The clothes! The colors! The fabrics!

When I got to the Y’s home we all took naps – then breakfast – homemade chapattis with two splendid vegetable dishes and homemade chutneys. Then they took me on tour of Delhi, after which we went shopping. Mrs. Y is charming, sweet, quiet,  and gentle – until you get her in a conversation with a shopkeeper. I would pick out what I wanted and she would channel her inner dragon queen and the bargaining would start. Like having your own personal tiger. Then ‘tea’ (with samosas), then Chinese Indian food and a Hindi movie.

N.b. – it is an excellent thing to visit people who drink tea. They never suggest epic hikes up mountains or tedious things like “Let’s go pick out heating pipes!” (true stories from visiting my relatives!). Tea (and diet Coke) drinkers are always ready to laze about and have one more cup/ glass. I tell you – beware coffee fiends! They have far too much of the wrong kind of energy! True story – I once visited a coffee drinker and was dragged to a carpet repair warehouse. I myself drink coffee but it is carefully tempered with tea.

The next day we slept in, then I got homemade potato sandwiches for breakfast (my favorite! yum yum!) and then we went shopping. Such lovely lovely lovely things (like Paris) the fabric, the leather goods, the carpets – everything was just my style, just my color.

I do have an unerring knack for finding the ‘government’ shops – much more expensive than the regular places, regulated quality and nicer goods. I managed to find about 5 of them. At one I bought my cherished mama (who was a Pueblo Indian in a former life) a raw silk scarf in shades of beige and brown which is so gorgeous that even though I don’t LIKE beige I want to cry when I see it.

We ate out a Rajistani restaurant (had ‘tali’ – you get a metal platter with about 8 little cups of different vegetable dishes, yogurt, raita, something sweet and a few poori or chapattis). Then we took a long brisk walk in a park and discussed the ozone layer. Ha ha ha! It’s India! Y’s cousin and I got henna designs on our hands, then went to her house for homemade pakoras and ‘winter sweet’. Home for a nap, tea, dinner (palak paneer, aloo mutter and yet another sweet). Hindi movie. Bed.

As you are starting to notice – this was a deeply exhausting, emotionally traumatic trip for me.

Next day I got potato sandwiches again for breakfast (yum! yum!), then we had tea – then more shopping! Saris! Bangles! Crowded markets which smelled of every kind of spice, perfume and incense! Who was happy? Rode in a bicycle rickshaw and went to South Indian restaurant for lunch (dosa! idili! vada!) with iced coffee. Then we walked around and went to special stand for jellabis (sweet dough deep-fried and then soaked for a few minutes in sugar syrup made from beets and carrots). Nap. Tea. Then a simple salad of radishes and broccoli lightly sprinkled with vinegar and a small, plain baked squash while we talked about the World Bank policies and the International Monetary Fund. Ha ha ha! It’s India! We had fancy cocktails with 8 ingredients, yet another different sweet and watched a Hindi movie.

Next day I got to take special bus tour – all the major sites. I have to tell you I am one with the Moghuls[2] – of all the places we saw (which I am not going to list because if you haven’t been to Delhi, you won’t know what they are – and if you have been, you have seen them[3]) the Mogul buildings are the ones which I just feel in love with, not to mention all the Mogol (yes, you can play with the spelling!) sites had chipmunks (who knew India had chipmunks?) and green parrots.

Birds are a big theme in India – some kind of bird about the size of a crow but dark blue with a handsome light grey neck and breast were everywhere. You could always see some kind of big bird with wide wings (I am quite the ornithologist!) circling overhead.

I will also say that with my constant attention to detail and unswerving diligence I managed to avoid looking at a map or tour guide of Delhi, much less India, before I went or while I was there. I find this greatly enhances the experience of visiting a city – no tedium of plotting location and no getting upset over the important sites you didn’t see. Too much information is not good – if I told you directions in India I might not have enough brain cells to remember the fabric! The colors! The food!

My favorite place was the Red Fort (Mogul!). I like visiting palaces but they always make me a little sad because I am not living in a palace. Museums, with rare exceptions, interest me only if they are built pre-1940, full of pre-1940s stuff and have an excellent cafe, preferably in a courtyard with a fountain. But a fort, a nice, safe, huge fort always makes me happy – strolling the battlements, inspecting the cannon – what could be nicer? And Mugul forts are simply the best because they had that whole warrior thing but when they settled down, they hired the best architects and decorators in town. Let’s put on one more turret, scatter a few balconies, verandas, and plazas! Another fountain? Of course! Marble flowers, fret work and screens; lace-worked stone, moldered plaster with real jewels, pieceworked floors, flowers everywhere, mini waterfalls and small streams, hanging lanterns – these are my people, these are my decorating soul-mates.

Went back to the Y’s apartment. Nap. Scrumptious dinner.

The next day, to continue the cultural theme, we got up early and went to the national folk museum of farming implements and social advancements. Ha ha ha![4]  It’s India! We slept in and then I went to the salon. Got my first haircut in six months, manicure and pedicure.

I know you are longing to know the difference between Arab and Indian beauty parlors so I will tell you. Arab beauty parlors start with the premise that beauty is WORK – you get waxed (legs) and threaded (eyebrows) like body hair is a personal insult to the beautician; massage is usually with a machine reminiscent of a jack hammer. Getting henna in your hair means getting your head wrapped in plastic and stuck under a HOT dryer for hours. They do pedicures with a straight razor. Indian saloons go ‘pat, pat, pat’ – gentle gentle – rub your feet like handling porcelain.

Then after all this self-indulgence, we had a simple lunch of rice and lentils and meditated. Ha ha ha again! It’s India! We had yet more delicious vegetable dishes for lunch then we went shopping. I got more henna designs on my hands, which meant I had to keep my hands perfectly still for three hours. So Mrs. Y. made me a coffee frappe and had to hold it up to my mouth so I could drink it – in between patting the henna designs with warm sugar syrup so the color would become darker. SPOILED ROTTEN! Then, since my hands were sticky with sugar syrup and had little flakes on henna on them, Mrs. Y had to pack all my belongings for me. SPOILED ROTTEN I tell you. [Women quest for dark henna designs like surfers looking for the perfect wave. After the design is put on (squirted from a little tube, like cake frosting, but thinner lines – you can get it down on the street by guy with a little stool to sit on or in fancy saloon) your hands are useless for the next day or so (you cannot touch water at all) and every woman has their own secret to make the color become darker and last longer – coconut oil, Vicks vapor rub…]

Got to the airport the next morning, and if I can now mention one tiny little flaw in an otherwise unsullied ointment about being in India, there is simply no concept of standing in line. None. It took 5 (FIVE) airline employees working full time, no other responsibilities, to get passengers to stand in line to check-in. Amazing.

Got on the plane just fine, but while looking out the window saw something to make me wonder. Now I know you are going to say “Darling, you did not see a van drive up, stop underneath the wing, a man climb up on the van’s roof, take a handkerchief out of his pocket, tie it to a bamboo pole that happened to be laying on the van’s roof and poke the end into the engine”. But yes this happened. And then when we got out onto the runway – runway mind you – same van, same guy, same handkerchief, same poking – and then the guy shrugged. Shrugged I tell you. And off we went.

Back home the first thing to do was have a coffee. Then later than night I had a salad for dinner, and since I was not in India – it actually was a salad. Bummer.

A few last notes on India: very few foreigners. Even in the most ‘touristic’ places – at most 5 or 6 Westerners. There were 15 people on the bus tour – one German woman, one Swiss and myself  – everyone else was Indian.

I think it was much easier to go to India older – if I was 18, I think it would have been a huge shock and much more difficult, but having it remind me of other places and being old enough that I don’t get any unwanted attention – everything felt very safe and easy. (Plus I would go into raptures of delight over all the fabric which created an instant bond between shopkeepers and me, although being called ‘Madame’ is still startling.) Most travelers to India write about the poverty – if I had never been before to a country with a large percentage of the population beneath the poverty line, it might be very difficult but it wasn’t that much of a difference for me. There were fewer beggers than Cairo or Alexandria. Brindisi, Italy is still the rattiest place I have seen. Plus, I was staying in an upper middle class enclave – if I had been staying at a student hostel or cheap flop house, I might have felt more uneasy. As it was – such a lovely place! such a lovely time!!

[1] It was also he who advised me to eat yoghurt every day for several weeks before I went and every day while I was there. Which I did (as in, if he told me to hop around on one foot and sing ‘Camptown Ladies’ I would) and I, despite eating right on the economy at times, never had the slightest, shall we say, gastro-issue. So I pass this advice on to you. (Although, gee, when you go to India, you won’t be able to eat Mrs. Y’s marvelous special homemade yoghurt every day. So sorry. Hate to rub it in. Ha ha ha.)

[2] They were Muslims who invaded (Hindu) India in the 1526, led by Babur (ruler of Kabul before he decided to move south). Important rulers include Shah Jehan (ruled 1628-1658) who built the Taj Mahal as tomb for his favorite wife and himself and the Red Fort. Their power ended in 1739 when the Iranian leader Nadir Shah invaded India and sacked Delhi. Moghul ‘emperors’ held on, with no real power, until 1857 when the British took over.

[3] OK fine. The Jantar Mantar: open air, ‘astronomy park’ from 1720s with structures that helped people tell the time/ day/ season etc. Birla Mandi: huge Hindu temple. B’hai temple (shaped like a lotus). Qutar minar: Afghani-style stone pillar, was much better than it sounds. Red Fort (my fav). Place where Gandhi was cremated. Humayun’s tomb (16th century Muslim tombs complex/ park – restored by Aga Khan Foundation. We drove by India Gate (like Arc de Triumph/ Hadrian’s’ Arch), parliament buildings, residential district from British era with adorable little white bungalows in the middle of lovely gardens, Jama Masjid (huge mosque), embassies and sports center.

[4] I don’t really like “folk” anything. “Authentic” gives me the hives. “Authentic” makes me think of itchy grey woolen stockings and stale bread with weevils.