Oh India. Where do I begin? If you have ever been to India, you may understand why I struggle with even knowing where to start. How to start. What to say. How to say it. It’s impossible. For the first time in my life I have a hard time communicating. Which is why I haven’t blogged until now. We are 7 days into our trip, we have arrived in Kolkata, I am seated at the hotel bar, I am the only person in the whole place, and I ordered jalapeño poppers (who orders those in India?) and the local Sauvignon blanc which is too sweet for me, but it’s wine. And so, I will drink it. I have been actually far too overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated, sick and confused to write. Until now. And while I am not a professional writer, I can appreciate that thing they call writers block. I call it India block. So while I don’t have India block, I will write!
When Rick and I decided to go to India and while we planned our adventure, we knew it would be an amazing experience but unlike every other place we have ever traveled to, we had absolutely no idea what to expect. None. When we told people we were going to India, every single person gave us different responses. That was probably part of the reason we had no idea what to expect. The inconsistencies of direction and advice were humorous. Here are a few:
- Don’t drink the water or eat ice.
- If you stay at a nice hotel, it’s fine to drink the water and have ice in your drinks
- Delhi is just like Chicago
- You can eat the fruit and vegetables, just not off the street
- Under no circumstances eat anything raw
- There’s no meat in India as the cow is holy
- McDonald’s only serves chicken
- You will see a Mercedes and upper class culture and then the next minute you will see slums filled with garbage
- The poverty will shake you and the women and children living on the streets and begging for food will break your heart
- The food is delicious…just don’t eat from the street vendors
- I got sick from the food and had diarrhea the whole time
- It’s absolutely beautiful and amazing in India
- Don’t go.
What would one take from this advice? What we took was complete confusion. And so I just blocked out everything and forged ahead with the trip and didn’t think much of it until we landed in Delhi. And on that note, I will start this India recap with Delhi, part one of our adventure in India.
Monday, November 14
Arriving in Delhi after a 14 hour plane ride, it was around 5:30pm and oddly it was dark outside and the air was filled with smog, the smells were, well, indescribable and the sounds of car horns dominated our eardrums. We were exhausted and delirious. There were tons of cars and drivers at the airport and luckily we found ours right away. A handsome man in his 40’s, in a navy blue outfit who actually didn’t look like a local Indian. He wore a sweet smile and didn’t speak English (mental note: this guy would be driving us for one week to three different cities…cities that each had collectively more than 2 billion people residing in them…where poverty prevails…and he doesn’t speak English and we don’t speak Hindi. Yeah, adventure is an understatement.). Unlike the States, drivers (or chauffeurs as some call them) are very normal in India and you would not be considered wealthy, per se, for hiring one. They are relatively inexpensive and based on our experience, 100% necessary. Culture shock #1: The driver drives you everywhere and is at your beckon call 24/7. He drives you around the town and even out of town, where he finds a place to sleep and shower each night. He is punctual. Friendly. And can maneuver the streets of India with the best of them. Mulkrag (pronounced mull-croj) is his name and that is nearly the extent of what we will learn of him.
After 45 minutes in the car experiencing our first look at Delhi, heading to our hotel, we were hit in the face with poverty, car sickness, piles and piles of garbage, honking, 6-7 different forms of transportation on one street (more to come on this), smog, beggars, a guy peeing, shacks, dirt, another guy peeing. Culture shock #2.
We arrived to security guards at the entrance of Le Meridien Delhi, our hotel. Or better known as our luxurious, hospitable sanctuary. While going through metal detectors before entering a hotel isn’t appealing or the warmest of entrances, once we were through, the level of service and attention were that to be recognized. The front desk agent, Sanjay, took us to the room, gave an overview of all of the hotel amenities and facilities and reviewed everything about the room. Shortly after, the bellman arrived in the room with our bags. Finally, everyone leaves. Roughly 30 minutes later, Sanjay called us and invites us to their club lounge for happy hour. We weren’t’ exactly happy, but we figured, what the heck. We enjoyed some snacks (local term for appetizers) and some bottled water (per advice point 2 above). And then at 8:30pm we went to bed. 3 hours in Delhi were conquered!
Tuesday, November 15
Up at 6:30am and we hit the gym. When we get back to the room, Rajeev, the lovely front desk agent, greets us with a phone call at 8:00am and 20 minutes later, he is in our room while Rick asks him 18 questions about Delhi, the hotel, getting a local cell phone, etc. My hair is wet, I’m barely functioning as I am still in a state of shock from the night before and here we are…Rick, Rajeev and I having a bonding moment at 8:30am in our hotel room. Classic Ueno travel moment. And in true Rick fashion, he gets Rajeev’s cell number and Rajeev becomes our go-to-guy in Delhi where we call and text him for just about everything.
Around 10am after an elaborate breakfast in the club lounge, Rick’s tailor arrives and comes to our room, or as I started calling it, Grand Central Station, to take his measurements. Our dear friend, Arun, from Chicago, who is a former Delhi native and currently owns an Indian restaurant in Chicago and is the General Manager of the Four Points in Chicago, was a God send. He was the one who connected us to our driver, Mulkrag. He had the team at Le Meridien take care of us. He connected us to his friends in Delhi. And recommended this tailor for Rick to have some suits made. He would take Rick’s measurements and have three suits completed by the time we leave Delhi, five days later. Impressive. And cheap.
For our first full day in Delhi, we decided to tackle the three main attractions: The Red Fort, India Gate and a temple (in this case, the Sikh temple). On our way to the Red Fort, I saw the first of many transportation culture shocks which brings me to Culture Shock #3: A man, presumably the father/husband, driving a motorcycle, on the seat behind him was a 2-year old little boy without a helmet and behind him was the mother in a beautiful red and gold sari. Holding her infant, breastfeeding. No helmet. A family of four on one motorcycle driving 30-35 mph. My head was spinning. And seconds later another mother and child approach our car, shoeless and walking, in the middle of complete chaotic traffic (literally 10 times worse than NYC traffic), knock on our window and beg for money. This would soon be a norm we would have to get used to. I felt as if I were dreaming…this just could not be real.
20 minutes later, we arrived to the Red Fort. And within minutes of our arrival, we were stared at and asked by the local India tourists to take our picture with them (comical at first, but after 10 times it became invasive and overwhelming. This would also be a norm we would have to get used to). Even though we were at a huge tourist attraction, we were probably 2 of 20 Caucasians out of thousands of tourists. Culture shock #4. Being the American minority in India. Rick and I joked that we may have been the only Americans in Delhi during our time there.
After a long day, we escaped back to our amazing room for an afternoon nap. And then, the hotel phone rings. Our new $20 Nokia phone beeps. Hotel room doorbell rings. Sleeping wasn’t meant to be. Yet another norm for us to get used to. And then, Mambir, our first local friend, an old friend of Arun from Chicago, arrives early to meet us. The guys enjoy coffee and I enjoy red wine in the club lounge while we get to know each other. After happy hour with Mambir, we were scheduled to have dinner with Dr. Walia and his wife, Ritu, who is a dentist. Dr. Walia was the family doctor of Arun from Chicago back when Arun and his family lived in Delhi. I couldn’t believe these people would give up their time to have dinner with us! Culture shock #5: Indian hospitality far exceeds the U.S., both at a personal level and at a professional level. They are just generous, caring people and truly know how to take care of their guests.
Dinner was amazing. We soaked up moonlight views over Delhi while snacking on delicious and spicy Thai food on the rooftop of the restaurant, High Thai. Enjoying great wine and laughs with our new friends, it was a moment of our Delhi adventure that I won’t forget. Dr. Walia and his wife were so kind, outgoing and helpful for our stay in India. They offered recommendations. Made calls for us to help us during our travels. And were just lovely people. After nearly a four-hour dinner, we ended our evening after midnight and Mulkrag was ready and waiting to drive us back to Le Meridien for a much-needed good night sleep!
Wednesday, November 16
We did our best to sleep in but still woke up by 7:30am to start our day. We tackled the National Museum and Delhi Haat, a local shopping bazaar.
At around 3pm, Dr. Walia’s wife, Ritu, picked us up and took us shopping at the Delhi malls to buy kurta’s (amazing hospitality yet again…case in point). I wanted to make sure I had 1 or 2 Indian outfits to wear while I was here so while slightly westernized, I went with two kurta’s and underneath I would wear my black leggings. We ended our [very long] day at the Walia’s house with some tea. It was such an experience to visit a local Delhi house, to meet their kids and to understand their culture better. Culture shock #6: experiencing a Delhi family culture firsthand. Dr. Walia’s mom lives with them (the father recently passed). In Indian culture it’s very common to live with your parents and even your grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. Their house is a four-flat and has been passed down for several generations. The Walia’s have two full-time live-in housekeepers around the age of 15 from Kolkata. One for the third floor (kitchen/living area) and one for the fourth floor (bedrooms/bathrooms). They have a full-time driver. They have a woman who comes once in the morning and once in the evening to help prepare the food and meals. 50% of their income goes into a savings account for their two kids for college, their weddings and for them to get started in life well. They have one primary concern in life: their family and quality time with each other. So in their case, both parents choose to work (Ritu works part-time) and therefore, they outsource help in order to ensure they maximize their time together as a family.
Our evening was spent with Mambir and another friend where we enjoyed local Indian food at a restaurant named Kwality. It was delicious and again, another great experience getting to know more about two Delhi locals. I may sound ignorant here, but I will share with you Culture Shock #7: What is a turban? Mambir wore one and leave it to Rick to just ask him why he wears it and what the significance was (which, frankly, I was happy he did because I didn’t know either!) It’s actually quite simple. Mambir is Hindu (one of the largest religions in India, next to Muslim) and he told us that religious Hindus wear a turban to hold their hair up as their hair is very long. Their hair is long because they believe God wants them to be completely natural, so they have never cut their hair. Ever. Nor have they shaved their beards. Often you will see Hindu men with longer beards. In Mambir’s case, he, too, had a longer beard. But, it’s tied up/held back but a rubber band that wraps around his face so it actually looks like his beard is short.
November 17, 2011
One thing to note is at this point, I am completely delirious still. My sleep was off. We had been pushing it every day since we arrived. We both felt as if we had been in Delhi for a month. And when you add the mere experience of Delhi in it of itself, it’s enough to put you in a state of permanent culture shock. I was borderline in it.
We woke up early again and headed to the gym for a quick workout before Mulkrag was picking us up to depart Delhi and head to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. My India part one blog ends here. But let me give you a sneak peek into the next one…it’s named The Road to Agra, after The Road to Hana in Hawaii. Not for its beauty like in Hawaii. For its ability to physically and mentally make you nauseous (if you have ever driven the road to Hana you know exactly what I mean).
Hmmm…pretty ironic that on the way to see one of the seven wonders of the world, one of the most beautiful palaces ever built that one would be physically and mentally nauseous, ha? Stay tuned 🙂