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Monday, July 18, 2011

Travel Journal: Visiting India - October 2005

Oct. 4/05
Tomorrow we leave. Tonight is the final Canadian night. CBC on the TV tells us the local Winnipeg news. We argue about packing. I don't buy the proper timer for the household lights. T can't let it go. The shine on this trip is fading. The more I look forward to going the more I realize the person who most condemns my faults is going to be my tour guide...
The weather turned cold yesterday, and it is colder today. CBC news predicts tomorrow will be 30 degrees celsius. The trees are in their autumn bloom and I can feel winter's fingertips in the wind. There should be snow before Halloween. Maybe.
I can't even imagine 20,000,000 people. Destination: New Delhi.

Snow in Winnipeg this morning, blowing and wet. Limited visibility and wind gusts up to 70 km an hour but the planes take off on time. This is Winnipeg after all. We have a reputation.
Malaria prevention medication makes me ill. One pill a day. I'd rather have the malaria.
T is nervous and taking it out on me.
Here I am standing in the international departures gate at Pearson International airport in Toronto. I was supposed to meet up with my best friend but we missed each other. I try not to worry and make a plan to e-mail him from India. G, sorry I missed you. I hope you didn't show up so you didn't have to wait around, but I know you did. I should have brought his phone number.
Weather in Toronto is clear, warm, and bright. Winnipeg will be a blizzard until tomorrow at least. New Delhi is another 18-20 hours away.
A fellow in a wheelchair begs to be let on a flight and is taken away by security. There is no such excitement as we board.
Bollywood in-flight movies, screaming babies, cramped naps, and airplane food. Surprisingly T is in generally good humour. I begin to see her harsh edge in context. She's used to crowds.

It's 8am and Midnight and I'm not sure what day it is. Flight attendants stopped answering calls sometime last night. The plane is full and I'm the only person of European descent flying to India today.
We've flown over the Arctic, over Europe, over the subcontinent...
The plane lands and I smell burnt magnesium and incense.
We disembark. I encounter humidity, crowds, and the most well-armed airport security guards I have ever seen. I can now stop wondering what an AK-47 really looks like.
I'm through customs like a breeze and I see more people in the airport lobby than live in my home town.
T's father meets us. We leave the airport in a driven car of some sort, not a taxi exactly, and we pass more security as we leave. A dusty haze covers everything and dims the city lights until everything is washed in an orange glow.
We drive to T's house. Roadside markets are alive and well. I observe the Laissez-Faire nature of urban planning and traffic laws. There are green and red lights and not much else. Traffic lanes are optional, the horn is a turn signal. I wonder about the laws that structure the economy, the roadside vendor sitting, it seems, in the middle of nowhere, and urban dairy farms. I see more farm equipment than I expected. New Delhi makes me think of a village that has gotten away from itself.
T's childhood home is a single flat in a gated community. It is a well kept house made of concrete and brick just like any other building in the city. Heavy locked iron grates protect windows and doors. T's mother looks well despite the late hour, and cancer recovery.

It is confirmed today is the 7th. 12+ hours were lost on the plane. Air Canada will return them on the flight home.
We wake-up, eat breakfast, and meet the two maidservants.
#1 is plump, older, grey-haired, and very kind. She is a sweeper and she cleans the back stoop for each flat on the back lane.
#2 is very skinny and young-looking. U wears a purple sari and has dark brown skin. I forget she's in the house while she sweeps and mops the four room flat. Both women knew T from infancy and compliment her on her choice of partner (me). There is affection in their relationships but also a very clear class divide.
Water closet means closet, and water is rationed.
I walk around the neighbourhood with T's dad, in a very busy, loud, warm, and dirty city.
In the afternoon we all hit the shops. The drive over reminds me traffic laws/regulations/rules are in fact just suggestions. Most drivers agree to drive on the left side of the road, nobody agrees on where the lanes are. Traffic is an unregulated flow, while water is not.
"South Extension" and "Lajpat Nagar" are malls with every shop open to the street. No department stores. Shops offer brand name clothes at $10.00. Note $1.00 = 30-35 rupees.
Everyone is a hawker. Don't let the beggars overwhelm you. Everybody wants something. Some very attractive women shop here. The store clerks are friendly and always have time for paying customers. I have to haggle for everything I want to buy but even so foreigners pay 3 to 4 times more for goods than locals.
There are so many people, it is impossible to follow just one in the crowd. Individuals are quickly swallowed by the swirling, colourful mass. Capitalism is unrestrained, closer to a natural state. Bureaucratization of anything impinges on it, but I have a personal bias against paperwork.
This city's air is smog, and perfume freshened with the human disregard for regulation of commerce and housing. Yet water and power consumption are closely monitored.
Back home everybody seems to like their gifts.

Anti-malaria meds give me weird dreams. I dream I wake up in my mother's house and her second husband is still alive. Luckily I wake up here.
Then I have a busy day. Haircut - best in my life for under $1.00.
Neighbourhood cows are very friendly.
Roads are twisted veins of traffic clotted with vendors and road side storefronts.
After a brief stop at a market for a wedding sari, we make the long drive to my new Uncle in law's house.
Maternal Uncle=Mama
Maternal Uncle's Wife=Mami
Honorific is preceded by the person's proper or familiar name. Therefore T.....mama and M...mami. They have two teenage daughters, 5' tall, dark hair, eyes darker than T's, but skin and complexion are fair and smooth. The younger girl seems shy, while the older one is quietly confident. Both are intelligent, easy-going, and well-behaved. Uncle's house is the bottom flat of a three-storey dwelling. Above lives T's second Uncle, who is working in Tanzania, and his wife, another Mami, B....mami. She is insightful, very smart, seems to be a troublemaker, and has a fun personality. The empty top flat belongs to a third uncle living with his family in another city. This is a strong hearth culture.
Three languages are being spoken. Two remain locked away from me like music I've heard but can't identify. T translates. With different accents even our Englishes fail to mesh.
The women prepare and serve 4 dishes for lunch and a fifth dish for dinner. I'm given two bowls of ice cream and eat until I nearly burst. Between meals the women argue about T's wedding spread until T cries. I offer comfort and we sleep until 6pm.
After supper a birthday celebration across the street commandeers the neighbourhood square. City streets are no less busy at night.
Malaria meds make my stomach cramp on the ride back to T's flat. I arrive and experience the most massive BM of my life. Personally astounded by the feat, I flush away the Guiness record before it can be properly recorded.
Forgot to note, yesterday I met my first squatting toilet.

Early morning, we take a trip to India Gate, then Lodhi Gardens, and Sirifort. Sirifort is an ancient auditorium. Lodhi gardens has four tombs from the Lodhi dynasty, two square, and two octagonal. Someone (the British) turned the area into a park. Sikander (Alexander) Lodhi has the most interesting tomb.
We drive past a strip of lumber and construction material stores, and any number of storefronts, then come home and sleep. Anti-malarial medication is giving me terrible indigestion.

Headache, brain stuffed with cotton, indigestion is gone.
Sleep until 3am, then toss and turn until 5am. Read some. The heat is a constant fever. No incandescent bulbs, only fluorescent, and each room has an airplane grade ceiling fan/propeller.
In the news an earthquake on the 7th shook the border between India and Pakistan. Tremors were felt near New Delhi. We felt nothing.
Language remains rapid-fire and distant. I can pick up the sense of a conversation but not the words. Occasional outbursts of English are spinning signposts on a twisting midnight highway.
Today's plan: 11am - T's new glasses, bought on the 8th will arrive.
12pm - Visit Durga Puja pavillion.
1pm - Connaught Circus for shopping. Also visit Rural Handicraft Emporium.
Evening - Visit local Durga Puja celebrations.
I'm still looking forward to real tandoori chicken.
At 11am a 10 year-old boy delivers the glasses. Shouldn't he be in school?
The Durga Puja Pavillion is huge and hot. The celebration of the goddess Durga is, at this time of day, more like a carnival or midway than a religious experience.
I see Israeli and European tourists shopping at Connaught Circus. It is a very diverse shopping experience, and all I buy are pants.
We go to the restaurant Nirula's for lunch. I finally have Tandoori chicken and it is excellent. So is the ice cream. The digestive after-effects are the opposite of excellent. It's not the food, it's the anti-malarial medication.
The traffic is immense; tail to cheek, nose to jowl.
The Rural Handicraft Emporium is a five level building stacked with intricate rural handicrafts; quilts, 1/4 scale statues of elephants, decorations, jewellery. It is expensive and no barter is allowed. I buy a scarf for my sister, an embroidered bedsheet for my mom, and a bedsheet for T and I.

An early start sends us to the Kutb Minar. A national heritage site it commemorates an historical Islamic dynasty. The British attempted to restore the site and then turned it into another park. When they left it became a major cultural symbol and later a tourist centre. The main feature is the Kutb Minar, a multi-storey tower hundreds of years old. There is also an Ashok pillar, a coincidental relic. A cast iron pillar 20 feet tall, inscribed with the laws of the land during the time of Ashok, this pillar is one of many found throughout India. The pillars were too difficult for later conquerors and dynasties to cut down.
Then to Gurgaon, developed into a retail centre over 4 years. Shantytowns, slums, and farmland paved and converted to North American style, multi-storied malls. Shopping, mall food, then back home for siesta. I read instead. My stomach is in much better shape. The more I eat the better I feel. Physical systems seem to be back on track.
After the household nap we dress-up for the neighbourhood Puja.
There is an unofficial Durga Puja competition between Bengali neighbourhoods - whoever throws the most entertaining party wins. We sit in a sweltering, noisy, crowded, tented pavillion with some of T's old acquaintances to watch a dance drama about Arjun and a princess.

A day off - no shopping. T's dad finishes the final wedding preparations by noon. A whole day of rest means I finish reading a historical retrospective analysis and comparison of Stalin and Hitler. Then I start reading "The Way of Acting" by Taduki Suzuki.
When I return to Canada should I audition for my friend's play for the Master Playwright Festival, or a former professor's Shakespeare production? Stick to the original plan, or make a new one?
Later today we will return to T's relatives' house for three days.
In Canada, when the weather is this warm for this long there is a thunderstorm. Here, there is no relief, only surrender to the drowsy, sweaty heat. The locals seem unfazed but even this October warmth is unseasonal.
Lighter clothes are worn for the Puja, and evening and morning coolth mediate midday burning.
Behind the house a pick-up game of cricket starts in the small common square. Children ride bikes, wild adolescents ride scooters. Vehicles go everywhere in this city except for up. Sidewalks have 12 inch curbs to prevent people from driving on them.
Office buildings are regal and grand brick structures neighbouring tent communities of transient labourers following work, usually road construction or excavation.
It cools off and I can sit outside. Space is precious here. Bricked in terra-cotta courtyard, 30 square feet of private property is the middle-class norm. That and a minimum of two maid servants. Space is precious, labour is cheap.
People are everywhere, the streets are living.
I go inside, enter a room, turn on the light and the ceiling fan.

T.....mama's house. We are joined by T's oldest maternal uncle A...mama, his wife R...mami, and their two teenage sons. B....mami is also there. Four more relatives arrive tomorrow.
The ladies take me to a nearby street market to watch them get intricately patterned henna tattoos on their hands and arms.
I film part of this, standing out in the crowd like a tall pale North American with a shiny video camera in an Indian street market. An old man approaches me. He is 5'4" with short, sparse, grey hair, a cane, a woven satchel, a broad smile, and bad teeth. Is he a grandfather, a monk, or a con man? We talk about where I come from, and what I am doing in India. He tells a story about being a language teacher in Burma and stands too close to me.
There is a breeze across my face, impossible in the crowded alley. It tickles my nose and I sneeze. It happens again, again, and again. My eyes are watering and a small group of grubby children or really short adults appears. T sees something is wrong and pulls me over to the henna stand. The strangers vanish like a sneeze in a tornado.
I sit on a wicker stool at the edge of the street market and look around at the endless storefronts and second level residential flats. The market is everywhere.

New Arrivals
T's maternal aunt, her husband, and their son and daughter are here.
Maternal aunt = first name + Mashi, therefore B...mashi
Maternal aunt's husband = first name + Mesho, therefore S....mesho.
B....mami's father and sister also stop by. Her sister works for the United Nations and is responsible for getting T the plane ticket that brought her to Winnipeg in the first place. She attends the wedding as the honourary matchmaker.
The whole day is spent eating, interrupted for dressing, the purification ceremony that takes place before the wedding, and the traditional stealing of the grooms shoes. After finding my shoes we wash smoke over our heads, and touch our hands to our chests. An aunt draws a pattern on the terrazzo living room floor and the family crowds in. I wear my wedding regalia, T is in her sari. Her oldest uncle gives her away. The ceremony is complicated and the room is noisy. Solemnity is excluded. The Hindu priest, his helper, and T and I sit on different sides of a small fire on the terrazzo. Her family gathers in a circle around us. We chant and offer clarified butter to the goddess by burning a spoonful at a time. The flames burst and shrink, burst and shrink.
We circle the fire seven times and we are married. A cousin videotapes the three hour ritual. Relatives shift and shuffle to follow the camera competing to be in every shot. Throughout the chanting and offerings T's female cousins giggle and fuss with my garb and her sari. The boys crack jokes. The adults freely comment and compare this event to their own, and other weddings they have been to. Ours is a small family affair, not the typical 3 day community party. We take many pictures eat and drink some more. At the end of the day T and I tally the gifts. 25,000 rupees is quite the haul.

T and I chill out on the terrace of B....mami's second storey flat. There is nothing to see but city and bright blue sky. Inside and outside it is close quarters for all.
We take a cramped dangerous car ride to yet another part of the city to T.....mama's new flat. T's uncles have agreed to sell the three storey townhouse their parents left them. The new home is spacious with a large terrace but needs some repairs. He says it cost him 17 Lakh which translates into 1,700,000 rupees, or $57,000.
We head to the wedding reception. Understated at 40 guests it is usual to host 300-1000 people. There is food and more food. Always food.
I dance with my aunts and my new, young, pretty cousins.
Return to T's parents flat to discover the power was out for two of the three days we were away.

To do: Buy more postcards for a friend of mine and hand deliver when I return.
Today's Plan: More relaxation punctuated with moments of rest.
Addendum: Original plan interrupted by more shopping.
Ansell Plaza is a melding of the traditional marketplace/street market concept, with a modern mall, a Greek amphitheatre, and a round Indian courtyard.
The building is red, semi-circular, four storeys tall, and features an enormous flatscreen TV on the exterior wall facing a stone-paved public area and fountain. The roof is rounded and clad in stucco like the walls. There is a covered section between two symmetrical arcs making the building a single entity. Armed security guards and metal detectors frame the entryways.
Parking is crazy here as T's dad jockeys for a spot but it is much improved over the traditional malls like South Extension. That is an open market-place with a labyrinthe of outward facing store fronts where parking lot is like a cattle corral. The attendants are lazy, confused cattlemen prodding and guiding cars into 2, 3, 4, up to 10 deep parking stalls. Keys on strings for the cars they park are wrapped like bandages up and down their arms.
We return home from Ansell Plaza by 5pm and do laundry.

Tomorrow we head to Shimla, today we relax. Finally. I'm done all my reading.
T's dad wants to come to Canada. Problem: How to transfer/bring money and savings from India.
Last night I met the sisters Neha and Megha. They are neighbors and were only children when T left. Neha is 18, Megha is 16. The are very similar and very pretty. Neha acts as a tour guide around the neighbourhood, Megha is a bodyguard elbowing crowds and intimidating hawkers who get too close.
Bright eyes, lovely figures, intelligent, friendly and very curious about T. She seems to be a hero to these girls. She escaped from her parents, but also succeeded in her career and chose her own husband. Her culture is highly integrated and promotes positive social ideals. There is a lot of pressure on the young to perform and conform to standards.
Neha likes chocolate and French. Megha never speaks.
Tina is shy and embarrassed by her community even as I'm fascinated. So far she is disappointed by our trip and would rather stay in bed.

I wrote a poem today:
The end of a life so beautifully wrought
is a tale too sad to tell.
Mangled and rotten and bloody stumps
of firewood to sell.

I also missed two days. On the 18th:
Up at 5 am to go to Shimla, a 9 hour drive into the big, big foothills of the Himalyas. The highways are full of truck traffic until we reach a town and then cars take over again. English disappears from road signs, one mile outside the city. We stop at an unspectacular truck stop for breakfast, and then drive straight through. Our driver shows his expertise at turns and dodging large buses and trucks on the switchback road up to Shimla. A roller-coaster of death.
The highway passes below the town. We unfold ourselves from the truck, and shake off the nausea. Elevators take us up to Shimla proper. The whole village is terraced on the side of the hill. There are no cross streets. Steep concrete staircases connect avenues again lined with flats and storefronts. The main drag is at the top of the elevator. Restaurants, shops, hotels, and clubs line the mall road. We stay at the Bridgeview hotel, a middle-range establishment for honeymooners, but this is the off-season so it's almost empty. Every view is a postcard. We can't take enough pictures.
A stop for tea. Look out the window and see the entire village stacked on the side of the foothills and a distant panorama looking away from the base of the Himalayas. The tea costs 4 rupees. T is scandalized, we are being ripped off, that is way too much. With the conversion it costs 11 cents. I have two more and leave a tip.

19th: Hotel room looks out an a patio at the geographically lower end of the street. The shower takes forever to warm up. Frost on the ground in the morning. I wear long sleeves and a light jacket. In -country tourists wear toques and parkas. I have my first taste of North American food since landing, at Baristas, a Starbucks/Second Cup style cafe. Coffee and chocolate cake for breakfast prepare me for the long trek ahead.
We walk the strip, to the high end of the road and take a tour of the Institute for Higher Learning. It's a Scottish castle, built by the British. We follow the path through the magnificent gardens while we wait for the tour to start. These days it is a renowned centre for post-Ph.D. studies in the humanities. Previously, it was used as the Presidential summer residence. Originally the British Viceroy summered here when Shimla was the summer capital during the British Raj. The grounds and the building are neat, tidy, and scenic.
It is a long walk to reach the building and a longer walk back. We stop at Devico's for some Indian fast food and escape the cold rain that starts just before lunch. Our meals are adequate and we return with T's parents for dinner.
Shopping is inexpensive and merchandise is relatively high quality along the tourist strip. Book stores, clothing stores, and a number of stores selling nothing but scarves. We visit three scarf shops and buy gifts. Shopkeepers barter with T and lower prices to 180 rupees. I ask and receive the standard reply, "No, sorry 320 rupees." However they are eager to impress both of us with the quality of the fabric. They boast like sari salesmen, "I will show you ten colours." If we didn't stop them, they never would.
My legs ache.

20th: We leave after a too short visit and swerve our way back down the hills to Dehradun. The scenery is beautiful but I turn as green as the trees. Luckily carsickness is not fatal, although I'm wishing it is. T's mom and I are both extremely nauseous. I pass out from illness when the road finally straightens and wake-up outside T's oldest uncle's house.
Dehradun sits on a dusty, rocky plain some distance from the foothills, on the other side of swampy, boggy terrain. The city appears more cobbled together than Delhi and the streets are potholed and cracked.
A...mama's house looks very nice. The yard is small and enclosed by sturdy fortified concrete walls. The building has two storeys, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a second storey terrace. A wiry-haired, female, Pomeranian-mix named Snowy is frantic to meet us. She wags and licks as hard as she can and I pet and scratch her and discover she can sit and stay before she's again shooed outside.
This is just an overnight visit. R...mami cooks dinner, we eat, listen to music, watch T.V and go to bed. T and I are given the master bedroom, T's parents sleep in one of the boys' rooms, and the boys share the other, while A...mama and R...momi sleep on a mattress downstairs. I don't feel bad about being the guest of honour.

We return from Dehradun. On the way we stop at Cheetal's, a high class cafeteria and outdoor garden. When we reach Delhi we visit the Baha'i temple. So do a lot of other people. T does not agree with organized religion, any of them. She's grouchy again.

Return to T.....mama's house and go out for dinner. We pay to say thank-you for hosting the wedding. 35 rupees = 1 dollar. The conversion makes us look generous. After that we socialize, and since the hour is late we sleep over. T is in a better mood.

On the way back from T.....mama's we stop at Lajpat Nagar and Sarojini Nagar for shopping. Both bazaars are packed with shoppers preparing for the next festival, Diwali. Wherever I go in this city I am struck by the profusion of colours and decorations and the proud declaration of various faiths in the ubiquitous religious iconography.
I buy two pairs of pants and T buys a watch at the open air bazaars. The watch is defective and T returns it. I buy another shirt, and two kurtas to give as gifts.
Beggar children approach us twice in Sarojini and we discourage them by ignoring them and walking away. Begging is their job. Each time they are rebuffed they return to a group of glaring adults. The youngest child looks to be. A German tourist spares a few rupees and is chased mercilessly through the crowd by a mob of youngsters. In Lajput professional adult beggars ply their trade. We ignore them too.

T's mom returns to work after a leave of absence due to cancer. T, her dad, and I drive to Connaught Circus so he can go to an Indian branch of a Canadian bank and open an account to transfer money to Canada when he and mom immigrate. Then we shop some more. T's dad buys a new video camera. T buys some books to read on the plane, I get a Hindi to English dictionary. Maybe I can teach myself Hindi and finally know for sure what everyone is saying. We drive home after T buys me two more pairs of jeans. I try them on and they are too small.

Oct. 25/05
We return the pants, buy the proper size, and hang out at the house until it is time to head to the airport. T.....mama's family, and B....mami telephone and say their farewells. We leave the house and even though the traffic conspires to keep us there our Sikh driver makes it to the terminal on time.
We say our goodbyes and see you soon's and go through security. I am through first. Just before I enter the international departures lounge there is a table set up. It seems to be an additional luggage check but the woman in front of me with two small children opens her wallet and looks away as the official managing the table reaches in an takes out a wad of cash. He does a perfunctory check of her carry-on and waves her past yet does not even want to talk to me and waves me by with barely a glance. T follows me and he calls her over to the table. She plays dumb until I walk over and ask her if everything is all right. The fellow lets her go without a bribe. There are no further complications when we board. The plane is almost empty the whole way back.

We are back in Canada and wide open spaces. Winnipeg is frozen and drab.

Jet lag.

I return to work.

I watch the news on CBC. Bomb blasts in New Delhi kill 59 people. One bomb exploded where I stood on the 23rd in Lajput Nagar. I recognize the place from the images on TV and know what it looks like without scorch marks, rubble, and bloodstains. The bombings are later linked to militants opposed to co-operation between India and Pakistan.

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