These dispatches have finally caught up with real time. Lisa and I are in a crowded internet cafe in Shimla reconstructing the last few days of India.
India is a remarkable place. It’s not clear to me whether it’s what Lisa expected, but it seems like a real shock to me. [I have to watch what I write; the little girl next to me seems to be reading....]
Delhi: We arrived in Delhi late on the 31st after two fabulous experiences wiht Air India, whose motto is “you might not like us, but we don’t care.” This seems really strange, because India seems full of wonderfully friendly, polite people. It’s a little unnerving, but I’ve come to really enjoy it.
It seemed to take forever to get our luggage after a quick trip through immigration. This is where we had our first “authentically Indian” experience. An Indian man was shouting: “I’m going to take my papers and leave! A bribe! Is that what you want! . . .”
Then we made our first mistake that we’d been warned against. We skipped past the “radio taxi” line, headed outside, and were in what seemed to be a private cab. A porter appeared out of nowhere, took our rolling bag, and asked for a tip a few 100 feet later. Then we were hurtling down the Delhi highways at a fast rate, weaving in and out of traffic, and crossing over the center dividing line past trucks 15 feet high pack to the brim with God knows what. Everyone else was doing it, too, while dodging each other, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, and wild dogs (okay only three dogs, but still).
Our hotel was nice: ultra fancy, we almost needed a guidebook to turn off the lights at night. The next day we made our second mistake. We went out for a walk. The concierge showed us a few ATM sites on the map as well as a place to get some clothes and a SIM card for our phone. (Our new number is 9899098612. Call us if you want. I’m not sure the country code for India. Perhaps one of you nice readers can leave a comment.)
The next thing we knew were being pressed between the two hot plates that is Delhi’s 100-degree heat. “Hey, where are you going? Do you want a ride? I can show you all of the sites and take you to places for shopping. Hey, you’re going the wrong way. I’ll take you wherever you want for 10 rupees [about 20 cents].” The voice persisted on and off despite our appeals for peace for about 10 minutes before we relented, hopped into the autorickshaw, and took a somewhat terrifying ride to a place in the midst of Connaught Circus in the heart of Delhi.
It sold neither SIM cards nor reasonable clothes, and there was no ATM. But we were having tea with a Kashmiri carpet trader. He had quickly decided that Lisa wanted a carpet and was showing us everything that we could take back with us on the plane. 20 minutes later he relented, and we were looking at silk paintings. We actually bought a nice souvenir, and then were wisked away to menswear, womenswear, silks, pashminas, etc. We were growing increasingly more insistent and eventually escaped, a few rupees lighter and an hour older.
Surprise, surprise. The same autorickshaw driver was there to take us somewhere else. We hopped in again, seeing nothing else about and somewhat farther away from our hotel than we wanted to walk under the Delhi sun. “No more stores!” we finally said after stopping (unexpectedly) at another bazaar. “Accha!” and we were back.
After lunch, we hired a driver for an hour to do the same errands. Our Sikh driver drove us around to the lower level of the hotel, where we got money from an ATM. Then three blocks later in a different direction than the concierge suggested, we bought a card for our phone that gave us an Indian phone number and incredibly cheap rates. (Call us, we want to talk to you!) We had about 45 minutes left with our driver, so we had him show us some of the main attractions downtown from the comfort and safety of an air conditioned car.
Trains: Yesterday was a day of contrasts. We were up. We were down. We were on the train.
“Kalka.” It all started around 5:00 AM when we got a ride over to the New Delhi station, which is India in a microcosm. Teeming, smelly, chaotic. But also helpful and full of promise. It was all castes and classes (except perhaps the ultra-rich.) It was also full of hucksters, entrepreneurs, and people lying about or sitting on their haunches waiting for their trains. It was perhaps the saddest and most intriguing place I’ve ever been. But there the Indian hospitality shone through as random people offered to tell us what platform we needed and later showed us their tickets with the same destination printed on it.
“Biscuits-Chocolates-Bottwater-Chips.” At first we thought people justted hopped on the train to sell almost every kind of Indian food and some western snacks, too. But after seeing the same people hawking the same goods, we realized they simply walked the length of the train. We later bought some chips — Indian-spiced Lays, yummy — but didn’t contemplate the foil-wrapped fare. Leslie overheard some of this as we called to wish her a happy birthday.
“Main hindustani nahi hoon.” The 30-person coach from Kalka to Shimla — another 5 1/2 hours after the initial 5 hour ride from Delhi — was much more intimate than the trip to Kalka in the air conditioned car. The second trip was hot and winding and devoid of on-board vendors. It also was our first introduction to non-Western plumbing, which Lisa described as absolutely vile. We were hot, we were hungry and thirsty, but we were celebrities. The people who sat at our end of the car spoke English well, but a couple seats away was a big vacation party with minimal English (and I gather less than perfect Hindi, too). The latter group treated us — or at least me — as a celebrity. Where are you from? “USA” Oh! Wow! How do you like India? “It’s interesting.” Hindi? “No, I’m not a Hindi person” was my response (in Hindi). It’s about all I was able to successfully pick up of conversation, but it was a huge hit. It sealed my fate. At the first stop, we were mobbed by the teenagers who wanted their photos shaking my hand. It took a little explanation: “Ap! Ap! [You!]”
The trip was long and hot. Five plus hours riding through essentially the same terrain with Hindi all around and quiet whispers between the upper cast family (presumably) about the lower caste contingent. We ran out of cold water and were too thirsty to eat, so we tried to snooze but failed. I was not thinking charitable thoughts after the first hour of the trip.
But after eating well, washing, and sleeping in a very comfortable and very British style room, we’re really enjoying the place a lot more. Our celebrity status is unchanged by our location and demeanor, too. Today as we toured the interesting and picturesque Viceregal Lodge, more people wanted to know where we’re from. “USA” . . . “America.” Oh, America! Photos all around.
Now we’ve walked about town, napped a bit, planned out our adventure tomorrow, and it’s time to wrap up.