Delhi, Take 2

Originally posted April 6th, 2014

The Transportation Adventures Continue…

One of the nice things about celebrating Holi was that it gave me an excuse to go back to Delhi and see the city through less jet-lagged eyes.
Getting to Delhi involved typical India-travel struggles. As it was both the day before Holi and the Dalai Lama was in McLeod Ganj, the town was of course bursting with tourists and we had to speed walk part of the way to the bus station since the streets were too crowded for taxis. We were told that our bus was actually half an hour later than what we’d previously been told and a certain bus behind was repeatedly pointed out as being the one going to Delhi. And then 40 minutes later we were informed that, no, our bus was at the original time and had left ages ago. We had to catch it in Dharamsala. Of course by the time we made it we had missed the bus but eventually got onto another after many debates with the man working there about whether there were seats and whether we’d have to pay again – so we set of several hours late and mentally exhausted, but the important thing was that we wouldn’t miss Holi.

After a crazy day in Pahar Ganj ‘playing’ Holi, we got to unwind on rooftop cafes drinking coffee. The crowded streets of this neighbourhood were instantly more charming when observed from this safe distance, with the abrasive sounds of traffic and vendors pleasantly muted.

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It was an early night for all of us in Delhi as many people were feeling ill – unsurprising given how much coloured powder we probably all swallowed during the course of the day, on top of the general pollution, heat stress and overwhelming crowds that come with walking around Delhi. We’re used to clean mountain air and quiet country roads up here in Naddi so just about every time anyone goes to Delhi they come ill.

But luckily I was feeling okay and the next morning, those of us still up and running (3 of us in total!) walked down the main road in Pahar Ganj which leads straight to the metro. This was my first metro experience in Delhi. After walking through security to get into the building we wait in a long line to purchase our travel tokens – little plastic coins you use to get through the gates. Then the lines separate by gender and you go through security once again – this time more thoroughly as the first one felt incredibly ineffective. Waiting for the metro itself, as girls we walked all the way down to where the first carriage would be to stand under the “women only” sign, pleasantly decorated with flowers to emphasise that this area was for females. While getting into the station was hectic and crowded, the car itself was really pleasant and it seems like a thoroughly efficient system.

We got out in Old Delhi and took our first of many rickshaws that day to the largest mosque not just in the city, but in India – Jama Masjid. It was built in the 1600s by the same emperor who oversaw the construction of the Taj Mahal and of the Red Fort. Any camera or camera phone brought into the mosque has to be paid for, so no pictures of the interior this time around I’m afraid. It was a very spacious courtyard with impressive, tall towers and domes making up the main part of the building. It felt peaceful walking around barefoot and in the robes provided at the gates, surrounded by beautiful Mughal-era Islamic architecture. This made it all the more shocking when people took time from admiring this structure to turn around and take pictures of me – the Western tourist.

IMG_1697.JPGFrom there we went searching for the spice market of Old Delhi. Which took slightly longer than expected because whenever we asked anyone for help they just pointed in what turned out to be entirely  arbitrary directions. We finally gave up and took a rickshaw. Since there were three of us and these were technically 2-person vehicles we had to take turns sitting in the little luggage rack at the back, which was quite the bumpy, uncomfortable ride, but made for a cool view of the streets we were riding through. In Old Delhi streets are separated based on what they’re selling, so we passed a road exclusively for stationary – mainly wedding cards – and a street full of shops selling wedding outfits. We even walked through one area where all you could see was store after store filled with car parts. The spice market was once again filled with vendors all selling exactly the same thing and, as we weren’t actually buying on this trip, after the first few it became quite redundant. And then we were stuck in Old Delhi and it was hectic and parts quite unpleasant and there didn’t seem to be anywhere to eat besides street stalls so we went back to the, at this point, comforting  familiarity of Pahar Ganj.

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I had a bus back that evening which I had booked the day before in one of the many travel centres in the area. I was supposed to show up at this small road-side office a few minutes before my bus was scheduled to depart and they would tell me what to do from there… I showed up a bit early and spent the entire time trying desperately to read, acting oblivious to the sketchy Indian-Sopranos style transactions taking place around me.

When I first sat down there was this guy from Afghanistan there trying to exchange his currency. The man behind the desk had a friend hanging out with him who suddenly brought up how there had been this other guy from Afghanistan who had recently been arrested for trying to cross the border with a huge amount of gold. They moved onto other topics and then this guy brought up the gold again… And then said, “You know, it’s a bad idea to bring in that kind of gold”. Silence again and then “But you know, if you had any gold… We would give you good price. We could help you out”. The first man protested that he didn’t have any and he’d really like to just get some rupees and they all nod and start counting out bills and then: “It doesn’t need to be a lot of gold, not an illegal amount. Just if you had a bit…” Clearly this didn’t go anywhere but then they started arguing over exchange rates and when the man finally gave in and took what they were offering, he got up and left and the two guys in the ‘office’ starting laughing like they’d just totally ripped this stupid tourist off.

And then for 20 minutes various, massive piles of different currencies were counted out and handed over to or exchanged with various colleagues who stopped in for a few minutes at a time. There was some guy outside too who would come running whenever he was called, and the whole time I’m there observing this bewildering behavior getting more and more anxious that there is no bus and that I’ve just paid this guy a lot of rupees which are going straight into his pocket. But half an hour late some man showed up asking for anyone going to Dharamsala and I ended up following him around the city picking up others along the way and finally getting to what I assumed was the bus stop. But of course it wasn’t. We were an hour later than I had planned on leaving at this point and he piles us all into rickshaws and we set off across Delhi to god knows where. For a while I thought maybe this was how we were getting back to Dharamsala. The rickshaw driver certainly didn’t know where  we were going either because all of the sudden our rickshaw is separated from the others and he’s wandering around a heavily guarded area asking men with guns where the place is he’s supposed to be taking us. We turn onto a busy highway when we spot our group across the two heavy lines of traffic. We inform our driver and he just swerves right into traffic, cutting horizontally across all of it to get us to the other side of the road. Not that he needed to rush because now we wait for 2 hours for the bus to show. At least I had a good book and it was a pleasant evening, and when the bus did show it was quite luxurious – large, comfortable seats with blankets and water provided and I had a whole row  to myself. The Bollywood film even had English subtitles!

It was a rushed trip. Most of the time I took off for Holi I spent on buses, but that’s the sacrifice you have to make to see things here in India. Transportation will take up time, it will probably not go smoothly, and it will be an adventure. But why go so far away from home to have everything be the same!

Playing Holi in Delhi

Originally posted March 22nd, 2014

Celebrated in the north of India to show joy about the coming spring, Holi is one of the oldest Hindu festivals and an incredibly distinctive one. More about fun than religion, Holi starts the evening before with bonfires and on the day is celebrated by raucous and playful behaviour; pulling pranks and, of course, the iconic throwing of coloured powder and paints – then hugs all around and wishing everyone a “Happy HOLI!”. Still, this holiday does of course have its roots in Hindu mythology. I couldn’t actually get anyone to describe what these roots were, so I looked it up.

Apparently the term Holi comes from the name Holika – the legendary sister of a power-hunger king with a very long name I can’t even begin to pronounce who wanted to be worshiped by all of his people. When his son Prahlad worshiped Vishnu instead, this king told his sister to kill the boy. She had the power to walk through fire without being burned (I can’t say I would find this a very useful power day-to-day, but I guess it’s cool) and so walked into a fire with her nephew in the hopes that he would perish. But of course he was saved by the Gods and she died instead. This is where the bonfire tradition comes from. Then when it comes to the paint-throwing, apparently this is attributed to Krishna who, as a child, threw coloured water over milkmaids as a prank. Fairly loosely related as far as I can tell, but there you go!

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I’ve read that Holi is a time where anything goes; where rules and conventions are put on hold and everyone can participate in the fun equally, regardless of age or gender. This is what some sites wrote about Holi:

“Everyone gets involved – with no distinctions between caste, class, age or gender.” BBC

“Women, especially, enjoy the freedom of relaxed rules and sometimes join in the merriment rather aggressively.” About.com

I’d say this is a pretty misleading and simplistic description when compared to how Holi actually plays out in most places around India. Based on my own experience and what I’ve heard from others, the very fact that rules are relaxed and chaos encouraged leads to incredibly apparent challenges for women. Maybe this is a holiday where men and women are allowed to leave social conventions behind and play by the same rules – or rather, lack of rules in this case – but this is India and in much of the country men and women simply aren’t equal here for 364 days of the year and this mindset doesn’t suddenly vanish on Holi. So on that one day where anything goes, obviously the effect isn’t equal for both genders.

Maybe in places like Naddi Holi is equally participated in and enjoyed by all involved, and maybe that’s what Holi is supposed to be, but what I experienced was very far from the descriptions I included above. There wasn’t one single Indian woman in sight in Delhi. And for good reason – most young Indian men used this festival as an excuse to touch women, some more innocently with lingering hugs and others more overtly. It can also just be very aggressive – water balloons are thrown from rooftops, coloured foam is sprayed in your face and powder forcefully rubbed into your hair. Often all of this is happening simultaneously and with all the anonymous hands grabbing at you at once it’s incredibly disconcerting and overwhelming. Most of the people I talked to who had been in India for Holi before stayed locked in their hotel rooms all day this time around. It’s the kind of thing that most people tend to do once to experience and then spend every other year avoiding.

In fact, I even read that in 2012 in Delhi, International Women’s Day fell on the same day as Holi and any activities planned had to be held days earlier because women were too reluctant to leave their homes.We also talked to a shop keeper the day after Holi who, when we asked him if he’d enjoyed the celebration, replied that he’d stayed inside all day. He said that young people these days use Holi as an excuse to get immensely drunk, harass people in the street and pick-pocket. He claimed that this is quite a recent change, and I’m sure that it’s far more common to manifest itself like this when celebrated in city streets among strangers than in small communities of relatives and friends – how it was traditionally celebrated.

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Still, I had a pretty great time all things considered and I feel very lucky to have had the chance to participate in such a unique holiday during my time here in India. I took an overnight bus to Delhi with some friends the night before, arriving in the city early in the morning on the day itself. We checked into a hotel, had breakfast, and as soon as I stepped outside to make a phone-call, it began. There were quite a few of us interns from Naddi, Rajol and Punjab and it was fun walking around as a big group and seeing everyone transform throughout the day.

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A Whirlwind Day in Delhi

Originally posted Feb. 10th, 2014

So, I’ve never been to Asia before. My only extensive travel experiences up to now have been in Europe and I’m quite used to figuring out countries as I go. I tend to appear in the center of some new city and, while I usually don’t know the language, I’m able to work out certain words or – at the very least – feel incredibly confident that if I need it there will be some travel office in the vicinity staffed with English-speakers.

You have certain expectations about what the center of the city will be like: old buildings, busy offices, lots of restaurants and cafes where you’ll know at least a handful of items on the menu. Within reason, wandering around central areas is safe and you don’t have to significantly alter your behaviour from country to country.

Immediately upon landing in India I could tell I was way out of my depth. I think I can safely say that I’ve never truly understood the sensation of ‘culture shock’ until that day; every single thing around me was different. Some were blatantly so and others much more subtle, but I certainly was incredibly conspicuous and extremely clueless. I suddenly realised that I had no map of the city, no money other than British pounds, no grasp on the language and no phone or internet.

Luckily what I did have was one incredible academic son (a university tradition where you ‘adopt’ a first year when you’re in your third year, and, after this trip, livelong proof for me that children are a very worthy investment). He lives just outside of Delhi and – very fortunately – was still in the country for a few more days before returning to school. Upon hearing that I was heading to India and had a whole day in Delhi before I was due to catch a bus heading north, he offered to pick me up from the airport and entertain me until it was time to deposit me at the bus station.

After a very long five minutes waiting outside the airport amongst a swarm of taxi drivers looking inquiringly in my direction, I finally saw a familiar face in the crowd and immediately anxiety gave way to post-travel exhaustion. But I didn’t have long in Delhi and wanted to see some things while I had the chance!

Our first stop was Gutb Minar. The tallest minar in India, this distinctive red spire covered in Arabic carvings stands as a symbol of an Islamic past. While this monument is the main attraction, the surrounding area is filled with various grand tombs celebrating 13th and 14th century rulers (some so unrealistically ambitious in their designs that they still stand unfinished).

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The intricate carvings were absolutely beautiful, but I have to say that I was mildly distracted by the fact that I was walking around in January overheating in a cardigan and boots and by the appearance of bright green parrots casually resting in the shade of these buildings.

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I also experienced my first instance of “look, it’s a white girl! Let’s take a picture with her.” The second my Indian companion walked away, an older Indian woman shyly approached me and gestured to her camera. I thought she wanted a picture with her friends, but it turned out she wanted me to pose with her. Which I did and she was lovely about it. And then returned a few minutes later with her sister and sister-in-law who all wanted pictures as well.

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Second on the list was dilli haat, an enclosed market which cost a very small amount to enter (not that I had any conception of what rupees were worth at this point) and in return the stalls were all quiet and the street food more hygienic than the average. Or so I was told – I didn’t stick around Delhi long enough to find out. I wasn’t much in the mood to actually make any purchases as I had only just arrived and had no desire to add weight to my baggage before I got to my destination. But what the sleep-deprivation and prospect of upcoming travel did not eliminate was my interest in food. I was cautious because the last thing I wanted was to be sick on a 12-hr bus ride (I had already been hoarding all the free snacks from the plane in case I couldn’t find a meal I was confident about in Delhi) but I figured all things in moderation…

So I tried goat for the first time. It’s called ‘mutton’ here and we had it in the form of sausages. Not particularly inspiring – very salty – but nice to try something new. We had a delicious paneer dish and an outrageously large order of momos (dumplings), fried and boiled.

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We were running out of time to do anything significant at this point, and I was severely low on energy, so we ended up going to a bar for our remaining hours and having the national beer of India – Kingfisher – while catching up on life. We also ordered some fish kebabs which were delicious but unfortunately I don’t have photographic proof because my camera battery was confiscated on the way into the bar… Still unclear as to why; perhaps there were Indian celebrities hanging out in there with us.There was also a brief trip to a phone store to try and get a SIM card, but I was informed that I could not do so without a Delhi hotel key or address. So I was to continue without the ability to get in touch with the outside world for the next leg of our journey.

Giving ourselves what we thought was plenty of time to get to the bus station, we ended up in stand-still traffic and I got to experience Indian-driving for the first time. There are no rules and lots of honking. There are of course many places in Europe where this applies, but India proved to be a whole new level of disorganised chaos.

I don’t know what I expected from Delhi, but it isn’t what I got. I realise I only saw a very small area, and most of it from the window of a car, but I can’t say that my time there left me eager to return. Immediately upon leaving the airport, we were surrounded by small, crowded shops lining the road, all selling the same things and absolutely covered in advertisements for phone companies and Coca Cola. There was trash everywhere and animals on every street eating this trash. When crossing the road we had to literally just step into traffic and hope it would stop because there was just no other way. There was a lot going on and not in a particularly vibrant or interesting way. But as I said – this was the first impression of a weary and nervous traveler seeing only a small part of a large city. I’ll have to spend some time there before I fly out and give Delhi a second chance.