Tag Archives: Delhi

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 2: Delhi)

Saturday, Nov. 4, 2011


Delhi airport

Delhi. The only way I can describe Delhi at this point is, Yikes! And I can only begin to imagine what it would be like in July — “Yikes times ten,” perhaps.

Today I set off on my own to see two Mughal-era landmarks the Rough Guide insisted I should not miss: The Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, “India’s largest and most impressive mosque.” I did not see either, but I did get a personal tour of a Hindu prayer site and I also got whacked by a woman in the street as hard as she could hit me. So it’s not like nothing happened.

The major problem with Delhi for me is that a lot of people really don’t speak English very well, and I speak Hindi even less (namaste being the only word I know). So I set out for the Metro with only general instructions on how to get to it and no real sense of what the hotel manager had told me to do when I did get there. It’s about 80 degrees F. today, and the streets of Delhi are just like you see on tv — an absolute maelstrom of vehicles of all kinds, from bicycle rickshaws to trucks, none of them adhering to any of the lines that are painted on the street (a woman on the plane who is originally from Delhi and was coming back here from Brisbane for FOUR weddings in the next two months told me that in Delhi, the lane markers are considered no more than decorations on the streets. No one pays any attention to them). Our tour guide, who I met just an hour ago for the first time, told our group that the reason there are so few accidents in Delhi are “good brakes, good horns and good luck.” As I sit in my hotel room here in Karol Bagh (an area of many inexpensive hotels) the sound of horns in the streets outside my window is incessant. The sidewalks are few and far between, and usually jam packed with people both horizontal and vertical, hub caps, motorcycles, garbage, dogs, you name it. So the pedestrians kind of just walk around the vehicles (and through/between them, when it’s an intersection) on the edges of the streets themselves.

So I made my way to the Metro station about six blocks from the hotel, darting through the traffic as best I could and attempting to follow close behind other pedestrians when crossing busy intersections, and then I faced the challenge of finding someone else to ask about how to get to where I was trying to get to. The ticket seller at the Metro seemed not to have heard of the Red Fort so I pointed it out to her on my map, and that didn’t seem to help her much, but she did sell me a tourist ticket for INR20 or thereabouts that would get me around the city for one day.

I entered the station (which has a security system where you need to get patted down before you can go through, then send your bags through a scanner. Women go in a different patting-down line than men, as I found out by trial and error. 😉 ) When I got onto the platform I asked two other people (I chose people in uniforms wearing guns who were positioned as security around the station, thinking that they seemed to be fairly safe bets) and by the time I actually got on the train I had learned that I’d need to go two stops then get off and transfer.

I did that, and then went through the same rigamarole at the station I got off at (a pretty central one named Rajiv Chowk), trying to find someone to tell me where to get another subway for the Red Fort in Old Delhi, and finding almost no one who could help me. I also appeared to be the only Western female in the entire city today, so I was trying my best to act like I knew what was going on but I’m sure no one was fooled.

I disembarked at the correct station and emerged into a very busy market area, crowded with shoppers, vendors and street people. I walked steadily in the direction I thought was correct (and probably was) but there were no signs in English and at a certain point the market thinned out and there were more street people than shoppers and as always many many more men than women.

I grew unsure of myself so I turned back and near the Metro I stuck my head into an intriguing-looking building, dark pink with small towers and many rooms containing (it turned out) statues of various holy men and gods that Hindu visitors were coming by in droves to honor. Despite the fact that the place was packed with devotees, a woman at the door welcomed me in, asked me to remove my shoes and wash my hands, and then gave me a tour of the premises, explaining who each of the statues depicted and showing where I could drop a bit of money into that deity’s coffers. I understood almost nothing of what she said and she didn’t know where the Red Fort was (although she did know of Canada. Lots of people here know of Canada and have relatives and friends in Toronto.)

As I was leaving the prayer centre another woman came over and pointed to a narrow arched lane nearby and told me to go down it and turn left to get to the Red Fort. The lane was standing room only, accommodating at most four people across, who were all basically pushing their way along the lane. It was lined down one side with with tiny shops selling brightly coloured fabrics and other goods which people paused to check out, slowing progress further, as did those who struggled against the tide to go in the opposite direction.

Finally, I emerged from the tunnel to the light and turned left. The streets here too were crowded and noisy and there was no sign of other tourists. After a few blocks when I could still see nothing resembling a red fort or any minarets, I decided it was pointless to go farther: I felt that I could not stop to take out my guidebook and look for a map or even dare to take a photo, as revealing my “tourist” status would just reveal me as a mark. There were no signs to the landmarks I was looking for — at least not in English — and there seemed to be no one official anywhere to ask. So I turned back, and this is when a woman in a sari, about 40, maybe about five foot three, came across the sidewalk at me with her fists raised. I thought she was shouting angrily at a man nearby but she kept coming at me at and she struck me hard on the chest and arms with her raised fists. It hurt but not a lot: mostly I was just amazed. I just kept walking, trying to appear as though nothing had happened, and the woman didn’t follow me.*

I made my way back to the tunnel lane and pushed my way back up it toward the Metro. A couple of children attached themselves to me, asking for money, but I refused — concerned that if I gave them anything, swarms of other children would emerge from the crowds also looking for money.

Back on the Metro, which was now more crowded than it had been earlier, I decided to get off at Rajiv Chowk and have a look at Connaught Place and maybe see India Gate and some of the more upscale market promised in the Rough Guide. But up top when I emerged from the Metro station, it was store after store (many western ones there) and again few tourists, so again I was unsure how to get to the sights I wanted to see.

I decided to admit defeat, and to take the Metro back before rush hour got any closer. By then I felt like a pro at using the subway system and I think the achievement of my day was going as far as I did without much signage I could read, through all of those crowded confusing streets, and then making it back safely to my hotel — because if I’d got lost in Delhi, I’d have been really lost. It’s amazing what a little fear does for my sense of direction!

*Please note that I don’t attribute the woman’s behaviour in any way to the fact that she lives in Delhi: there are crazy people everywhere. And if she does live on the street in that city, she probably has a right to hate me on sight anyway.

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 1: En Route)

Hong Kong Airport, November 4, 2011

One thing I like about airports is that you don’t need to pretend that you’re not a tourist, like you do in major cities when you don’t know your way around. Here, everyone looks lost.

So I’m sitting in the Hong Kong airport and it’s about 6 a.m.. local time but it’s about 6 p.m yesterday in my head, so I’m having supper. I’m eating spicy chicken noodle in fish soup and HK really means it when they say “spicy.” With a tea, it was only HK$54! (Honestly, I don’t know either, but I gave them US$20, and got back HK$90. So not much.)

I extend my gratitude to all those who suggested books they’d take with them if they had a 16-hour flight and several other long hauls ahead of them. There were great suggestions for books and authors I hadn’t heard of. I’m going to check out quite a few of those when I get back. The books I finally did bring with me are, in paperback: Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black and Peter Carey ‘s Illywhacker (thanks, Bert and Victor, respectively). On the iPad I have Arivand Adiga’s Last Man in Tower and Russell Banks’s Lost Memory of Skin (thanks for both suggestions, Charles, but how come every book you suggested is available only in hardcover? Do you think I’m made of money and built like Hercules?) (actually, I think I know: you read review copies, right?). I also (thanks to Rhona) have with me The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever. So I’m well nourished every which way. So far I’ve started the Adiga and the Carey, and they’re both light-handed but engaging, and they’re going to be perfect.

Some of the suggestions I liked about the kinds of books to take on long trips from other people were: to take classics so you’d be forced to finally get to them; to bring an old favourite; to include a Calvin and Hobbes collection to break up the heavier reading; and to take a selection of genres such as a mystery, a local history and some more challenging books as well.

As I started to write this post, I was nearing the end of the first leg of my journey, the 16-hour flight from Toronto to Hong Kong. I had read a few chapters, slept for a while, done some crocheting, watched a movie (Bollywoodish), and been wellfed (as Joyce might have spelled it) twice. It was crowded in my window seat with my own stuff plus the blankets, pillows and headphones they handed out, and the plane was full. Still, it was much better than I’d thought it was going to to be and I hope the rest of the flights go as easily.

I saw nothing out the window as it was night from the time we left Toronto till we landed in HK, except one brief time when I noticed a bit of light under the lowered blinds. I am not sure where that happened, as we flew up over the top of Canada and Alaska before heading south again towards Hong Kong, where it was about 5 a.m. when we arrived. Where could there have been light? Also mysteriously (to me) it was 5 a.m. on November 4 when we arrived although we left Toronto at 1:30 a.m. on November 3. Time to learn about the International Date Line, I guess.

Bangkok looking very wet, Nov. 4/11

I have no idea what happened to my photos of Hong Kong but here are a couple I took as I landed in Bangkok briefly on the way from HK to Delhi. Bangkok was just beginning to recover from the flooding. I thought the airport was appropriate — its arches looked “Siamish” to me —

Bangkok Airport, Nov. 4, 2011

Into India (1)

India has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. When I was given the  incredible opportunity a few months ago to choose the “trip of a lifetime,”  it didn’t take me long to commit to India for my destination. I have now booked a ten-day, small-group excursion in November that begins in Delhi and tours northern India for several days, then takes an overnight train to Mumbai for a quick look at that city before winding down on a beach in Goa.

I know that to say “I am fascinated by India” is simplistic, and sounds naïve. India is not a single thing—it is a blend of cultures, religions, economies, perspectives—and I also know that many of the things it is are likely to repel rather than appeal to me. I realize that India is nothing an outsider like myself can even begin to understand.

Maybe it is my perception of the impossibility of defining the subcontinent that attracts me to it. “I am fascinated by India” is a very different kind of statement than is “I am fascinated by Belgium,” or “I am fascinated by Kenya,” or even (to choose a larger geographical space) “I am fascinated by Australia.”

Being fascinated by India is like being fascinated by garam masala: I have no idea what it’s made of, and even if I did, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be all that familiar with the constituent parts; the mystery of the parts as well as of the whole is a lot of what makes it appealing. I know that India can be a dangerous place to go, and its dark side may be part of the attraction too. It ain’t Switzerland, and I know it.

All in all, I am beside myself with excitement at the prospect of going there.

It has become my goal to conquer in advance as much I can learn about India from books and other media – to gain intellectually what I can before I face the country emotionally and physically. What I already know about India’s cultures and its history I have learned primarily from novels (by Salman Rushdie, Vikram Shandra, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, E.M. Forster, and several others) and films (Deepa Mehta and Satyajit Ray, for example), but I have never made any attempt before to gather these bits of knowledge together into any kind of historical framework. After consulting several sources, I decided to start by reading India: A History by John Keay.

So far I have read the introduction and first chapter, and already I have learned some fascinating stuff:

  • Despite evidence left behind since at least 2000 BC by several highly evolved civilizations in the geographical territory encompassing what we now call India (and Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, etc), no one set the history of the area down in writing until about 1200 AD;
  • The story of the flood that is found in both Christian and Jewish scripture may have come from a inundation that entirely wiped out the Sumerian city of Shuruppak, possibly around 3000 BC and/or from another flood or series of floods around 2000 BC that submerged the highly productive and sophisticated Harappan civilization, an agriculture-based society in the region of the Indus river basin;
  • While the Harappan civilization left no written record of its existence, it did leave a legacy of artifacts and ruins that have been uncovered since 1920 in a wide swath extending (in terms of current-day geographical reference points) more than 1800 miles from the southern shores of Pakistan, down the coast of the Arabian Sea towards Mumbai, and west beyond the city of New Delhi;
  • The first and most extensive archeological evidence of the Harappans is located north of Karachi at Mohenjo-Daro. Although this civilization left no written record that can yet be deciphered, it was evidently a sophisticated culture that used imprinted soapstone seals for trade, and created figurines, pottery, tools and jewelry from precious metals such as bronze and silver, and other materials like lapis lazuli and soapstone. Their buildings, including homes, granaries and public buildings, were constructed from brick;
  • The Harappans are conjectured to have been the first civilization in the world to have planned their cities, woven cotton, and used wheeled transportation;
  • Incredibly, at the same time as the Harappan civilization evolved and then disappeared without (apparently) leaving a single written word describing its existence, another whole civilization, the Aryan, was also flourishing, possibly in the same geographical areas and at approximately the same time. The Aryans, by contrast to the Harappans, have been thoroughly described in Sanskrit in the Vedas; also by contrast, there is no physical evidence that they existed.

It appears that the second chapter of India: A History will focus on this Aryan contribution. I’ve been hearing about Sanskrit since I took a course in English etymology in university, and I am looking forward to learning more.