Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Tales from India

I bet you're saying "finally!" and by you, I mean my mom, my most faithful reader. I think I should win some sort of award for this blog post. Something along the lines of "World's Longest Amount of Time Spent Procrastinating Writing a Blog Post." That could be a thing, right? I even procrastinated a little bit more before starting the actual writing of this post by reading up on procrastination. I might have this down to an art form.
Interesting handout from The Writing Center at UNC, by the way.
So where should I start? I think the beginning is always a good place to start but in this specific case the beginning started nearly 28 years ago and I don't believe I have time for that. The abridged version of the 28 year long story? Well I've always had a love/hate relationship with India. I love to hate it and I hate to love it. Oh wait...that's sorta the same thing, isn't it. Well let's try to define my relationship with India and you might begin to realise why this was a complicated trip for me. I am of Indian descent, but not from India. I'm a practicing Hindu, but I don't practice speaking Hindi. I love Bollywood films and music, but I'm as lost as a man who refuses to ask directions without subtitles. All of this leads up to the fact that I have been asked, ALOT, if I'm a 'real' Indian, but I have no idea what that's supposed to mean. In short, I have very mixed feelings about India.
I have a lot of friends who are always complaining about wedding season and the 23 weddings they have to attend because all of their friends are getting married. I've never had that problem. I haven't figured out if it's because I have no friends or if they just aren't getting married. Joking...I have no friends. In the year 2012 I had two friends get married. Of course they both chose the EXACT SAME WEEKEND. How on earth could I possibly choose between India, a place I'd always dreamt (or had nightmares) about, and Thailand, a place I'd definitely always dreamt about? In end I chose India because I had visions of a jewel-clad elephant, or horse if I'm being realistic, prancing down the street surrounded by dancing girls and singing boys. Yes, I'm talking about a Bollywood movie come to life. I didn't really think it was going to happen, but that small part of me that thinks I'll actually win a round of poker kept saying, "you never know."
"You never know" is what prompted me to choose India even though I only had 10 days to spend and everyone I talked to said that 10 days in India is crazy talk. Hey, I wanted to start another blog called "The Lazy Travellers" with my friend and former roomie Helen Robbens (shoutout!) but I knew that I'd just procrastinate doing that as well. I digress. Back to the 10 days. I'd just taken that amazing two week trip to Cambodia and Thailand with my family and due to my uncanny ability to get sick every month due to all the pollution in Saigon I was short on vacation days.
I flew out late Tuesday night, had a 1 hour flight on Qatar Airways (which is ah.mah.zing) to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, a 5 hour layover there, then a direct flight on Jet Airways (which was absolutely disgraceful compared to Qatar) to New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport. Tip: In my opinion, you should pack light if you have long layovers because this way you can just tuck your bag under your head as a pillow and pass out.
Before leaving for India I spent hours communicating with my family back home. My uncle-in-law is from India, but he left as a child and, as a result, doesn't have the highest of opinions about India. For example, I stupidly mentioned that I wanted to take a train out to the edge of Rajasthani Desert and go camel trekking. I'm pretty sure they heard, "I want to try and take drugs through the airport in Thailand so I can be arrested and put in a Thai prison to rot." That idea was quickly nixed and before you think it, I know what you're thinking. "You're an adult in a foreign country with no one to check up on whether you went camel trekking or not. Just do it!" That was also their reasoning for why I shouldn't go just in case I was kidnapped and sold into sex slavery. I'm not trying to be facetious here, but I'm about 18 years too old and 100 lbs overweight for that to happen. In any case, I'm a mostly obedient niece so I nixed the idea and decided that I'd try to take it easy. I was also told, multiple times, that I should closely guard my bags as I'm exiting the airport because people rush up to you and try to grab your stuff. I, of course, listened carefully and tightly held onto my backpack as I walked out the airport ready to face the hordes from hell. Instead, I got crickets. I'm pretty sure there was literally no one around as I walked out. I mean, there weren't even any taxi drivers rushing to hound me and they're pretty much staples at most Asian airports, aren't they?
Day 1: I arrived in India on Wednesday about 10 am. After arranging for a taxi inside, which is pretty simple actually. You pick a counter, give them the address you're going to, they'll tell you the price, I don't think you can haggle with this one but you can sure try, take the ticket once you realise haggling is useless and head outside to find your taxi. The tickets have numbers that correspond to the numbers on the taxi. Easy peasy. The people at the currency exchange counter and the taxi stand were so nice. No one asked if I were a real Indian. Thanks to my oh so obvious American accent and inability to perfect any other kind of accent they knew where I was from and asked if it was my first time there. I said yes and they wished me luck and not in a "oh ho you're gonna need it" kind of way. It was nice. I found my taxi, stashed my stuff in the boot, hopped in and prayed to God it was a legitimate service and that I wasn't going to end up dead. I found myself saying that a lot during my travels. I digress. My first impressions of India were "God, it's hot" and "hmmmm, this looks just like Trinidad." (Trinidad, I'll write a letter to you one day thanking you for resembling so many other countries that I've never felt homesick or frightened.) We finally found the apartment buildings, but when I tried to pay I realized that I only had large bills and even though I did want to give my driver a tip I didn't want the tip to be larger than the fare, but I couldn't explain that to him. I mimed to him to wait and rushed into the building trying to find someone who would be willing to break my large bill. Large bills are kind of like a poisonous snake. No one wants to own them. I finally found a guard who just gave me the rupees I needed. He was so sweet. No one wanted to break the 1000 rupee note I had and I just wanted a 50 so he gave it to me. I eventually tracked him down and tried to give it back to him, but he refused it. I think I'm being a bit mean here but I can't imagine an American doing that for another one unless they were homeless and even then it's still pretty improbable. I finally found the apartment where I was staying, and oh...I haven't even mentioned where I was staying. I was all up for staying in a guesthouse or hotel, but my aunt mentioned that my uncle's cousin lives in Delhi and that they had enough room and after a multitude of emails and dropped calls I finally found my way to their apartment. I have to say that I really appreciated staying there and not because it was pretty swanky and that there was a cook, a cleaning girl and a driver. I mean, sure, that was a large part of it, but it was also due to the fact that I was staying with an Indian family who spoke English who could and would properly answer the billion and one questions I’d inevitably have. To sweeten the deal they were incredibly and genuinely nice people who never once said “oh, you’re not a real Indian, huh?” (If you imagine that sentence being said in a thick Indian accent it’ll be 59 times funnier.) I had Tanushi, the fiery spitball of a 10 year old girl, and Tanay, the 23-year old who I mistook for a 15-year old for company while I was there. My first day there I was pretty wiped out because I’d been in school since 3 pm the day before, taught class, stayed to plan for my lessons after I returned from my trip and then headed straight to the airport. So Sunita, my ‘aunt’, insisted that I eat and sleep before I did anything. That evening she took me clothing shopping and before you roll your eyes thinking "she's in a foregin country and the first thing she does is go shopping" I have a good excuse. I had AN INDIAN WEDDING TO ATTEND and the fanciest thing I owned in Vietnam was a cocktail dress that wasn't even that fancy and the only shoes I had that were slightly suitable would make me three feet taller than most people there so I was in desperate need of clothes and shoes. So yaaa, I went shopping. Sunita and Tanushi took me to Lajput Nagar Market, which is great because you can find pretty much everything you need there and it has a real homey feel to it. Plus, hardly anyone looked at me funny. Even with my bright red hair. Long story. Oh and they have Mehndiwalas, guys that are lined up along one side of the street sitting on stools with plastic tables full of tubes of henna. For shockingly low prices you can get henna done. I've also seen this in Malaysia and Singapore, but they weren't as prolific as the Mehndiwalas in New Delhi.
Back to the shopping. I bought two saris, a salwar kameez, two pairs of shoes (I was glad to be in a country that carried my size) and a loads of trinkets for souvenirs. I also bought the. best. thing. ever. I finally, and by finally I mean after 15 years of waiting, bought a black sari. Ever since I saw the movie Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and fell in love with Kajol and her black sari (2:19) I have been coveting one.
I selected the materials, got measured for the length of the underskirt and top, paid the man and we left. It takes them several days to get everything together so I arranged to come back on the Friday, just in time for the Sangeet on the Friday evening.
One of Sunita's favorite foods is from a food stall in Lajput Nagar and she has to have it every time she goes there. I desperately wish I could remember what it's called. I'll have to email her and ask her the name at some point. Anyways, she promised that it would be okay because it was fried and didn't have any fresh vegetables in it. Sounds healthy, doesn't it? Well, it doesn't matter if it was healthy or not because it was scrumptious. We stood there and finished an entire order by ourselves and then she looked at me and I felt that I could read her mind because I said "one more for the road?" It was the right thing to say. We bought two, finished one in the car (while the chauffeur drove us home) and gave the second order to Tanushi. My first day in India was complete. I had shopped and bargained with notorious cheapskates, I ate street food and I didn't die. I would call it a success.

Day 2 TBC soon. I promise.

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