Tuesday, January 26, 2010

India Journal, December 2009. Entry 4

Friday afternoon

The alarm on my cell phone wakes us with a start at 2:00pm. The street noise is at high-pitch, and I wonder how we could have slept through all of the commotion emanating from three floors below.

We brush our teeth with bottled water and splash cold water on our faces, taking extra, fearful care not to ingest any of the non-filtered stuff. We are determined to make it through the next 10 days without having to take the precautionary antibiotics that our HMO has provided us. Siobhan has already prepared me for how to dress in northern India: even though it is warm, hot even, a woman must be modest and covered at all times. I choose a white blouse with a discreet neckline and three-quarter length sleeves. My navy culotte skirt only shows about an inch of skin above my socks. Sturdy walking shoes and a headscarf complete my not-so-fashionable-by-Western-standards touring outfit. As a man, Tim’s dress is less prescribed, but he chooses his clothes with an obvious desire not to stand out: a brown, loose fitting shirt and cargo pants.

We look at one another, take a deep breath and unlock the door. I think we are both a bit intimidated by the thought of once again facing the crowds, but as we have only this day in Delhi, it is time to set out to explore the old city.

The early-morning enterprise in the lobby has passed, and it seems that the lone person running the operation is the manager behind reception. He is greeting and registering four new European guests, backpackers who must have read the same guide book that brought us to The Grande Godwin. As we want our host to arrange for a cab-tour of Old Delhi, we take a seat and wait, a bit impatiently on my part, while the precious minutes of daylight tick away. Fifteen minutes pass and finally bell-boys are summoned to escort the new quests to their rooms. Tim approaches with our request. The manager-reception-clerk-bell-captain and concierge must put his “Ring Bell for Service” sign on the reception counter before he crosses to the concierge desk to assist us.

“And how may I help you today, Whalens?” he asks. Tim explains that we only have a short stay in Delhi and we wish to see the city with a driver who speaks English and can point out some of the important historical sites.

“I know of such an excellent driver. Are you willing to pay?”

“Within reason,” replies Tim.

“Then for six hours you will pay driver 500 rupees (about $10./USD) and you will pay me 200 rupees.”

Siobhan had also prepared us to expect to negotiate prices for everything, as we would immediately be identified as rich Americans who had lots of money. “That seems like a lot of money for a booking fee”, I counter. The smile leaves his face and he returns an icy stare. For the rest of the “negotiation” he speaks only to my husband, the man.

I am marginalized, put in my place. I pout.

We pay him 500 rupees for the driver, and 200 for his efforts.


While we wait for our cab, Tim continues to seek his help in securing train reservations for our trip to Jaipur. We want to travel the next day, on the early train that leaves Delhi’s main station at 6:30am. The concierge checks his computer, rubs his chin and pulls out his cell phone. A rapid Hindi conversation ensues, and he hangs up shaking his head.

“I am sorry, Whalens. You can be only # 34 and  # 37 on the waitlist. Third class. No AC.”

“What does that mean?” I ask, forgetting my place. He glares at me and addresses Tim.

“It means you will pay me 300 rupees each for your waitlist ticket. There will also be a 200 rupee fixer’s fee for me. But you will waste your money. There will not be any seats for waitlist, especially high numbers. The train will be gone and so will your money.”

I am getting frustrated. “But why wouldn’t India Railway honor our tickets for another trip?”

“That is not the way it works here in India. You buy ticket for train. You take. It’s in contract.”

I am beginning to think that an extra hundred rupees would fix this problem, but we will not give in. “Maybe you stay here, in Delhi, for a few more days,” our friend says. “I make sure you see all sights and eat at fine restaurant establishments. I will take care of everything for you.”

“No. We must meet our daughter tomorrow,” states Tim. “Is there anything later in the day that would get us into Jaipur before nightfall?” Again, the concierge consults his computerized schedule, shakes his head and picks up his cell phone.  He nods, smiles and hangs up.  “OK. Here is what I can do for you. You take 10:00am train from other station and get into Jaipur at 3:00pm. AC chair car. Is nice for day trip. I can do for 500 rupees each and 300 fixer’s fee.”

I look at Tim. Frankly, this back-and-forth is giving me a headache and making me anxious and angry. I want to get into our taxi and see the sights, to leave this man to his “fixing”.

“All right.” He smiles broadly and makes a great show of pulling up the online reservation. “You all set, Whalens. I have car for you tomorrow morning at 9:00. Meet here in lobby.” And at that, he looks up to greet our driver.

“Samy. This is Whalens. They want to see Delhi history. You take. Six hours.”

“I would be honored,” replies Samy. Samy is a handsome, stockily-built Sikh. He wears the traditional red turban, and his beard is styled in the prescribed Sikh manner. He has a broad smile that reveals straight, white teeth and one gold eye-tooth. His eyes twinkle with some secret amusement; my own are glazed-over. He gives out a deep laugh as we all exit the lobby and walk to his car. “I see you have survived your dealings with Rajesh.” He laughs again.

And we are off to see Old Delhi.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

India Journal, December 2009. Entry 3

Friday morning, continued

Having survived the ride from the airport so far, we navigate through the narrow streets and alleyways of the neighborhood where our hotel, The Grande Godwin, is located. Tim’s “Rough Guide” bills the place as “clean, centrally located, good food”. I have no idea of how central it is: sprawling Delhi, with its wild roundabouts, has so far defied any of my attempts to orient according to landmark.

The driver stops on the sidewalk in front of the Godwin. I admit to being fearful as I look out the cab window. The street, to my mind, resembles a war zone: it is littered with piles of broken concrete and bricks, mounds of garbage, pan* wrappers. There is yelling, arguing, and cat-calls and whistles. It is not quite 7:30am and the area is so dense with people that our driver has to physically insert himself to stop curbside traffic and get us and our luggage into the hotel lobby. Within that short trip from cab to front desk we are pointed at, then pressed against, and pleaded with, for money.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” I say to Tim as we climb the four steps to the entrance.

The lobby is cool and serene, an oasis from the chaos outside, with spotless marble floors beautiful plants and several very attentive bell boys. The gentleman at reception welcomes us and offers up a cup of steaming tea with lemon zest, fresh ginger and honey. Revival. Okay. Maybe after a hot shower, a bite to eat and a nap I can venture forth into the crush that is mid-day Delhi.

Our room is on the second floor, and we climb a beautifully arched staircase to reach it. The room is small and clean, as the guidebook promised, with a comfortable bed. The bell boy shows us the bathroom. “This is the cold tap, and this is the hot tap”, he says as he points to the sink. “And this is the cold tap and this is the cold tap”, he says, indicating the shower. It’s a nuance that escapes us upon first hearing, but becomes very obvious when we attempt that hot shower.

Awake and refreshed after our chilly ablutions, we head to the rooftop restaurant. The food is simple, but very good and abundant. We eat and talk about the day ahead, while watching several large, hawk-like birds circle above. Then, bellies full, we’re suddenly hit with a wave of exhaustion. We have been traveling for thirty one hours. We’ll summon the courage to tour Delhi later in the afternoon.

Back in our room, we sleep without stirring. I dream that it is already Saturday afternoon and Siobhan is meeting us at the Jaipur train station. She is riding an elephant and singing to us in Hindi.

* Pronounced pon, this is a popular after-meal digestive, usually consisting of sugar, mint, menthol or cinnamon which coats the main ingredient -- fennel seed.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

India Journal, December 2009. Entry 2

Friday morning, 5:05 AM

Our Gulf Air flight touches-down in Delhi a full twenty five minutes early. And, as Siobhan predicted, the entire plane population rises and starts to pull down their overhead baggage as soon as we are on the runway. Frantic stewards run up and down the aisles telling folks to take their seats, but no one pays much attention until the Captain halts the plane and gets on the speaker to remind us all of “safety measures”. Much grumbling ensues, but after three or four minutes the crowds is all re-seated and the Captain proceeds to taxi to our gate.

Tim and I are excited to get our first glimpse of exotic India. We are among the last to deplane, though, as we’re too exhausted to become part of the pushing crowd that is filing rapidly toward the exits. Once inside the exit ramp, we’re hit with a wave of choking smoke, the smell of a thousand charcoal fires. I panic. Is there a fire somewhere inside the terminal? No one else seems phased, so we proceed on to luggage claim, where the haze is even denser. I cover my mouth and nose with my scarf and scramble for my inhaler as I start to cough. Everyone is anxious to clear Customs quickly, and the lines are fluid and without discipline. Even though we start out mid-line in aisle one, we are soon back-of-line in aisle two. No matter. The hotel is sending a car for us and we know that the driver will wait.

The Grande Godwin has sent a quiet, tall and very polite young man to safely transport us to the hotel. He holds a sign on which our name has been carefully written in bold, block letters. After we identify ourselves, he wishes us “Namaste” and leads us down a long narrow hallway and out of the terminal. I hope that the closeness and smoke of the terminal will relent, and look forward to getting out into the fresh air. We find ourselves in a dark, muddy parking lot populated by cigarette-smoking cabbies. I take a long, deep breath as the cool air hits my face. My stomach lurches. The smoke is compounded by an almost overwhelming smell of urine and the cooking of breakfast by both lorry drivers and the squatters who live outside of this terminal.

We reach the driver’s car. It is spotless. He introduces himself, pronouncing his westernized name quite deliberately. Jay. He is proud of his English, which is very good, and he tells us almost immediately, and with great pride, that he is from Nepal. When I relate that our niece is from Nepal, he becomes quiet, and remains so for the rest of our trip. Somehow I think I have offended him.

If we slow down at all, beggars run to the car, women carrying babies, children, banging on the windows. Our driver therefore tries to avoid any slowing down. Our breakneck trip to our hotel in the center of Old Delhi is breath-taking. I cannot remember seeing a traffic signal. Horns toot-toot and people shout. Motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, rickshaws, cows pulling cartloads of bananas, a camel. The city is teaming, and it is not yet dawn. Vendors sweep the cement slabs in front of their stalls. A few feet away a pile of building rubble and garbage stands man-high. They seem oblivious. From the rooftops of buildings, people rise and shake out their bedding. Sheets and coverlets hang from windows and balconies like crazy flags. On the street level, from under protective tarps, families wake and start their small charcoal braziers for tea, and if they are lucky, a boiled egg.

I thought I was ready for India. In my heart, I know now that I am not.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

India Journal, December 2009. Entry 1

East Passage

It wasn’t until I returned home that I read V.S. Naipaul’s “An Area of Darkness” on the recommendation of my friend Chris. As we traveled, I had shared impressions of our trip via FaceBook: wonder, awe, fear, delight -- and an overwhelming sense of grief. She thought the book might help put my short experience into perspective.

I found it most interesting that he, too, approached the sub-continent from the East, through Egypt. Our own journey commenced in Boston and continued on to Paris and  Bahrain International Airport for a five hour layover.  His travels took him on a more leisurely route, via steamship. But, like Naipaul, I felt a certain “falling away” of all things Western on this trip East.

Bahrain International Airport is a study in modern contradiction. I stand out here, the only blonde woman in the departure lounge. I am being observed, and I try to observe my surroundings discreetly. It’s a challenge. I am already fascinated with differences. Women in full burka or embroidered jiljabs, revealing only shy but beautifully made-up eyes; wealthy businessmen in traditional white amirati thobe and ghutra, sporting Italian loafers and showy Rolexes; perfectly-groomed saleswomen in western dress, Santa hats and head-scarves; the Bahrain Polar-Express Bear Band.

I guard the cover of my US passport but know that my appearance has already marked me as an American. Our Gulf Air flight from Paris to Bahrain takes us directly over Bagdad @ forty thousand feet. How absurd to be this close to, yet above all the “action” on the ground. I say a prayer for peace; I say a prayer that Obama will move with more speed to bring our young men and women home.

The row of chairs in the waiting area face each other, and across the aisle sits a young Muslim woman with four precocious youngsters, all appearing to be under the age of nine. She seems to be traveling, too, with a parental couple, perhaps her own parents or her in-laws. She wears a full burka; her shoes are designer, quality; she speaks almost non-stop on her cell phone while her children play tag, argue, drink juice and get crackers all over the carpet. A stooped man with a hand broom must come by several times to keep the area clean. She is oblivious.

I need to find a restroom before we board, and unlike other international terminals I have been in, there seems to be no signage for the washroom facilities. I ask one of the pert Mrs. Santa saleswomen and she directs me down the hall and around the back of one of the many Duty-Free shops. I follow an elderly Muslim man and very pretty, meek young woman, whom I assume must be his daughter or niece. (I pray she is not his wife!) I also assume he is escorting her to the ladies restroom, and follow them down the corridor - and into the men’s room. She will not be un-escorted – anywhere - in her travels. She briefly catches my eye, and then looks way, embarrassed.

My heart breaks a little for the first time on this journey.

They are calling for boarding when I return to the departure lounge.

Another eight hours and we will be in Delhi.