Thursday, July 24, 2008

Friday, May 30 “Our dubious day in Delhi”

Erin awoke feeling pretty sick. Lily and Dawn didn’t feel quite right either, but we all managed to pack everything up and catch the 6 a.m. train, but Erin got sicker and sicker. This train just had seats, no beds, as it was only a 3-hour train ride. We settled back and all the girls and Byron slept. We passed more interesting countryside, until about an hour out of Delhi (I think) we saw what looked like tenement housing. The tenement housing went on, and on, and on, and on. I think it stretched all the way into Delhi. Very crowded housing, lots of palm-leaf woven walls and roofs, very haphazard-looking huts and buildings, all with clotheslines between anywhere a rope could be hung, and covered with colorful clothes drying in the sun and grime. The closer we got to Delhi, the small huts and crowded houses gave way to high-rise tenement style housing.

We arrived in Delhi, and stood on the platform in our usual post-train-ride “where are we?” daze. I think some people prey on that look, as we were immediately approached by a man in a green striped shirt who said he would help us find a good driver for the day. We gullibly followed him, feeling too exhausted and some of us feeling a little too sick to protest.

As we followed the green-shirt guy, a young girl came up to me and started begging. Not wishing to dig into my wallet to find a few rupees as I was trying to keep an eye on Mr. Green Shirt, I spotted Dad’s bunch of bananas nearby and thought I’d try handing her a banana, and see what she would do. I thought she might be offended, but she seemed surprised and pleased at the same time, and stopped begging.

Mr. Green Shirt led us out of the train station for our first glance at Delhi. I couldn’t believe how many people were on the streets. I couldn’t believe how much more congested the traffic was here than in Chennai. I couldn’t believe this guy was leading a family of six people (including luggage, a stroller, and kids) across this busy, congested street, and that by just holding up his hand he expected the cars rushing by at pell-mell speed to stop and let us cross, but they did.

We followed him into a building and up some very narrow, extremely steep stairs. We sat down in a tiny room and waited for a man behind a desk to get off the phone. The man looked at us, and asked what kind of car we wanted. I answered, “We need an air-conditioned car big enough for six people and our luggage to take us around to a few sites in Delhi for the day, and to drop us off at the airport in time for our 8 p.m. flight.” The man asked what sites we wanted to see. We admitted we weren’t exactly sure what we had time for, but thought maybe the famous Red Fort and perhaps Gandhi’s gravesite. The man made a few calculations, and told us the price. It was twice what the travel agent in Chennai had told us we would need to pay to hire a car for the day in Delhi, and more than the Agra hotel concierge had said we’d have to pay, but we paid it.

That was the start of our dubious Delhi adventure.

About 30 minutes later, we were ushered out to an old car that looked and reminded me of an old Rambler that my parents owned when I was about 9 years old. On second thought, I think it WAS that same Rambler. Fortunately, our luggage fit in the trunk, and we fit in the car, sort of. The young man driving had some rather obnoxious American rock music playing, but looked excited to have us as his clients. He asked where we wanted to go. Byron said, “Red Fort,” and the man began driving toward the airport. (His English-comprehension wasn’t stellar, to say the least.)

He did ask us when our flight was, and when we told him it was 8 p.m., he began to argue with us and tell us that it was too early to go to the airport. We then discovered his misunderstanding, had a good laugh, and headed toward the Red Fort again.

Meanwhile, Dawn’s appetite began to return, and I told Byron that I simply couldn’t wander around a fort in this hot weather until I’d had something to eat. I asked the driver to stop someplace where I could buy a snack, such as potato chips or ice-cream. (The only two recognizable foods that I know can be found almost anywhere and would be sanitary enough to eat.). The driver acted like he understood, but drove past 5 or 6 potato chip shops and ice-cream stands, and then ended up at the Red Fort.

“No!” I exclaimed. “I need a snack before we go to the Red Fort. Please take us where we can buy chips or ice-cream.” The driver looked confused, but started up the car again and drove for about 20 minutes (past many, many chips and ice-cream shops again) to stop at a corner featuring an ice-cream stand. We unloaded the car and each of us bought an ice-cream bar. After one ice-cream bar, we each had to have another, and Dad brought out his miniature bananas to supplement this strange breakfast. Normally, I don’t like bananas, but was hungry enough (and curious enough about those tiny bananas) that I ate one because Dad kept saying they were so sweet. My banana wasn’t as sweet as I had expected, but of course that was after eating two ice-cream bars for breakfast.

Newly energized, we asked the driver to take us to the Red Fort. On our way there, he tried to explain something to us that took a full twenty-minute drive for us to understand—something about a bomb scare, a woman terrorist, and the Red Fort being closed today. What? We emerged from the car to find police-tape all around the entrance to this fort, and tan-uniformed policemen/women guarding the entrance. They told us that we could walk around the periphery of the fort, but no one was allowed inside.

How odd, we thought. First demonstrators are blocking the roads to Delhi, and now a terrorist is threatening to blow up a national monument the very day we want to go visit it. What is up with Delhi? Also, didn’t the original man who hired the driver/car know about the Red Fort (one assumes that anyone in Delhi who read the newspaper or watched TV that morning knew of the Red Fort’s closing)? Could he have told us that it was closed? Why didn’t our driver tell us the first time we were at the Red Fort that morning (prior to our ice-cream breakfast) that it was closed to a bomb threat?

The day was hotter than we could almost bear, probably close to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and we dreaded getting out of the car into the heat (even though the car had the weakest air conditioner I’d ever experienced). One of the policeman standing nearby spoke enough English to explain that we could hire a pedi-cab driver to drive us up and down the road in front of the Red Fort if we wanted to take pictures (it would have been a long walk). We thought about it for a moment, and then decided we were absolutely too swelteringly hot to accomplish such a feat. We spent only a few minutes gawking at the outside of the Red Fort and plodded back to the car, wondering where to go next.

We finally decided on Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation site, which was listed as noteworthy in our India Guidebooks. The driver looked at us and said, “Ice-cream stand beside Ganhdi’s cremation site.” Oh bother. We had BEEN there when we were buying ice-cream for breakfast. Another 20-minute drive in a car that was becoming hotter by the minute, and we arrived. We found that it was a long, long walk from the road to the cremation site, and at the cremation site, there were STAIRS to climb and NO SHADE if you wanted to get up close to the actual site. We elected to stand on a balcony overlooking the cremation site, noting the black granite platform and the eternal flame burning nearby. We aren’t sure if Gandhi is also buried here.

We felt as if we were melting into puddles on the sidewalk, we were so hot. We trudged back to where the car was parked, but thought it would be prudent to visit a bathroom first. Passing a few stands selling Gandhi souvenirs, we were surprised to find that a popular toy sold at these stands (and a few little boys standing nearby showed evidence that it was popular!) was a toy automatic rifle. We thought, “Didn’t Gandhi promote PEACE and non-violence, perhaps more than any other world leader? Isn’t this a bizarre souvenir to sell at his cremation site, along with pictures of him and quotes including a very poignant one along the lines of “If you wish to know my religion, watch how I act.” Of course Gandhi’s quote was much better worded, and I googled it but can’t find the exact quote. Now I wished I’d stopped long enough to write it down.

Perhaps this is more than anyone wants to know, but can I just say that when you’re hot, sweaty, tired, hungry, and not feeling very well, having to use squat-pot style toilets is the epitome of dreadfulness? And then having to convince all three of your daughters that they really should use the restroom before they get back into the car. . . . . It was almost enough to bring Dawn to tears.

Okay, we’re back in the car, and it’s evident now that the air-conditioning isn’t working. We are roasting. The driver’s English seems to get less understandable the hotter we get.

We stop at a stoplight. A beggar comes to our car and bangs on the window to get our attention. Experienced at this, we ignore him. He bangs on the driver’s window to get the driver’s attention. The driver ignores him. The beggar finally leaves, walking behind our car. We hear a “clunk!” We all turn around to look, and see the beggar fiddling around with what looks like either the back right corner fender, or possibly the brake-light. The driver looks, but doesn’t seem concerned.

Another driver yells at our driver, and gestures to the back fender. Our driver waves him off.

I mentioned to the driver that sometime during our day in Delhi, could he take me to a shop where I could find Indian dolls? (Yes, I’m tenacious when I’m working toward a goal!) Several people in Chennai and in Agra had told me that the best place to purchase Indian dolls would be in Delhi. The driver seemed to understand, and pulled up to a spiffy-looking line of shops, gesturing that we needed to go shopping. We get out, and start wandering into the shops. They all featured quite expensive wares, and not one of the shops sells dolls. But we are grateful for the air-conditioning in the shops, so we linger.

Finally, we return to the street, but we can’t find our driver. We wander up and down the street, wondering where he has gone with our luggage and our airline tickets, which are in his trunk. Finally, he shows up, apparently unconcerned about the panic he has caused us, and unapologetic. We ask him to find us an air-conditioned vegetarian restaurant for lunch. He pulls up to one, and we find our way in. We scrutinize the menu, recognizing a few Indian dishes and deciding to try the soup for Erin, Lily and Dawn, whose stomachs aren’t feeling at all well. We ask the waiter to bring us soup with absolutely no spices in it. When the soup arrives, it’s spicy enough to light a book of matches.

Erin and Lily initially refuse to eat, but finally nibble on some “naan,” which is a delightful type of Indian bread that we were introduced to in North India. Heidi eats a little rice. Dawn can hardly bear the sight of food, but tries some of the stir-fry vegetables. The spear of broccoli alone would be spicy enough to spice-up 3 large pots of chili. Dad and Byron eat well. We finish in about 45 minutes. We look for the waiter because we want to leave. After all, we’ve been in Delhi for most of a day and have seen only Gandhi’s cremation site, a few wildly expensive shops without dolls, a restaurant, and a bathroom. We want to really SEE Delhi before we fly out that evening.

But the waiter seems to have gone to lunch himself, and no one would bring us our “bill.” After Dawn huffs a bit, the waiter finally appears with our bill, and takes his time bringing us back our receipt. Eager to get back out to our car and see some more of Delhi, we emerge to find that although the car is in the parking lot, our driver is nowhere to be seen.

More huffing (at least on Dawn’s part) and again, we begin to melt in the relentless heat, wondering where the driver could possibly be. Suddenly, we notice some foreigners looking at us, and then two women approach Dawn to ask, “Didn’t we see you in Dakshinachitra last week?” It was the students from Wisconsin who have traveled to India for a month to facilitate trade between Indian farmers and the global market! What a small world! Who would think we’d see them the next week in a restaurant parking lot in Delhi?

We chatted a bit, and I asked them how long they’d been in Delhi and what they’d seen that was noteworthy. They’d been in Delhi for a day or so, had seen a ruin, and a Lotus-fountain. I said, “I have two questions for you. Have you seen anything in Delhi that is an absolute “Must-See,” and if so, would you think young children would be interested?” The young ladies thought for a moment, and said, “not really.” They were on their way to Agra to see the Taj the next day. We warned them about the aggressive vendors, and then they had to run, as their driver was leaving.

That reminded us that our driver still had not appeared. We split up to go find him, and suddenly he appeared, unapologetic, and with no explanation. He seemed to be agitated about something, though, and when we loaded up in the car, he said that his car was a “piece of junk,” and that the air conditioning wasn’t working, and the something was wrong with the brake light. We weren’t sure, but we thought he mentioned something about changing cars, and that another driver would be taking over. Huh?.

Meanwhile, he pointed out an underground shopping bazaar, where he thought I could find Indian dolls. Close to this shopping area, he pulled over in front of a small Honda Civic-sized car. He got out, and explained that the small Civic was our new car, and he began to move our luggage to the tiny vehicle. We began to assist him in moving our luggage, until we got a good look at the new vehicle we were transferring to.

We looked in astonishment at the tiny car that would not even hold seven people (six passengers and one driver), much less our luggage. The first driver said we could tie our luggage to the top, but that wasn’t a pleasant prospect. How long would luggage in the open stay in place? The new driver spoke NOT ONE WORD of English, which was even more alarming.

Someone pointed out the first driver’s back right brake light, which was at the corner of the car where the beggar had had a little incident. The brake-light was hanging by a wire, and Byron noted that this brake-light had not been properly attached anytime recently.

We contemplated our situation.
Stay with the larger car: this option includes the driver who keeps disappearing without explanation, who understands little English and speaks even less, no air-conditioning, and a car that seems to be rapidly falling apart.

Go to the new car: this option includes loading up like sardines in this tiny car which supposedly has air-conditioning, but whose driver looks slightly older than 16 years old, and speaks not a word of English.

Dad said we just couldn’t fit in the smaller car, and that we’d paid for a larger car, and this was NOT OKAY. Byron, who was helping one of the girls with something, sent Erin over to whisper, “Daddy said to take lots of pictures of both the cars just in case we need to talk to the police!” Dawn finally interrupted the two drivers who were in intense discussion, and said, “This will not work. You cannot put all of us into that tiny car. We paid for a big, air-conditioned car, and we want a refund RIGHT NOW. You are wasting our time!” I was getting more and more worked up because our one day in Delhi was turning into an adventure with a decrepit car, rather than our once-in-a-lifetime 9-hour opportunity to see the sights of this ancient, famous city.

The first driver suddenly realized how upset we were all were, and said, “Okay, you stay my car,” and we moved all our luggage yet again into his decrepit, but bigger, vehicle. That turned out to be a blessing, because Byron had found that we had accidentally left Heidi’s backpack full of her favorite toys to use as airplane entertainment in the bigger car. We would probably have never seen that backpack again if we had moved into the itty-bitty car.

Okay. We load up in the decrepit car again, and the driver tells us he’s taking us to an underground shopping bazaar, where the shopping is very good and very cheap, and where he is certain we can find Indian dolls. He drops us off within yards of where we had left the tiny not-an-option-anymore-car, and pointed to the underground entrance. He wanted to meet us in 2 hours, but Byron got nervous because this driver had a habit of not showing up until 30 minutes after it’s time to meet up again, so he said, “We’ll meet you in one and a half hours, right here.”

We entered the underground shopping area, and found what looked like a smaller version of Spencer Plaza Mall in Chennai. Lots of shops, vendors yelling and hawking their wares from their shops, coming out of their shops to hold their wares up and entice you to come in.

I was pretty sure this would be the last chance I would have to find and purchase Indian dolls, so I was on a serious mission. But at the first promising-looking shop we stopped at, we found that it was a tiny handicraft shop, and they were selling dolls! I took all they had (4) and asked where I could find about 5 more (I have a list of people who want dolls). The shop-keeper disappeared for about 15 minutes, and arrived with 4 more. This shop ended up having some lovely items, such as little Indian dolls hanging attractively on a string, little dolls hanging under a canopy, and of course the ever-present elephants-within-elephants. There were so many pretty things packed into this tiny shop that the girls and I spent 30 minutes just looking around.

Finally, we moved on. Dad bought a belt, and we had vendors urging us to purchase leather wallets, purses, and belts. They would hold the leather item in our faces, then light a lighter and touch the flame to the leather for about 20 seconds, then blow out the flame and hold the leather up for us to see and smell. I think they were trying to show us that leather doesn’t burn (at least not as easily as plastic or imitation leather would). There were lighters lighting up every few feet as we walked down the aisle between shops.

Our hour and a half was rapidly passing, but we decided to return to our lovely handicraft shop once more to look at a few more things there. The girls and I, even Dad, were enjoying looking around at all the cool things in there, but Byron was getting nervous because our allotted shopping time was up. He went out to meet the driver, just so the driver wouldn’t show up, not find us, and disappear again.

Byron arrived again in about 10 minutes, to give more explicit directions to be sure Dawn could find where he was waiting for the driver. Wrapping up our retail experience in this underground shopping bazaar, we trekked together up into the sunshine to hunt for our driver. As we approached the meeting place, we passed outdoor vendors who were standing on their carts, singing, chanting, clapping and snapping as they attempted to catch potential customers’ attention. It was highly entertaining, but they didn’t seem to appreciate it when I stopped to take their pictures.

Byron was starting to panic because our driver was not at our meeting place, and now it was close to 20 minutes since our agreed-upon meeting time. We waited, and waited, and finally after about 30 minutes, the driver showed up again. We were ready to leave Delhi. It was time to go to the airport to catch our flight back to Chennai.

We climbed gingerly into this car, which seemed to detereriorate before our eyes. The car looked worse and less road-worthy every time we loaded up. This time, the air conditioner wasn’t even putting out a tiny breeze, so we were sweltering in the afternoon heat. The driver puttered down the road, and Byron noticed that the car was slowly starting to overheat.

Byron muttered to me that we needed to start praying that the car would at least make it to the airport before overheating. The driver looked tense, and Byron was a bundle of nerves himself. We didn’t want to think about what it would be like to overheat, have to pull over to the side in this crazy free-for-all traffic, and hope that someone would come along who would help us get to the airport on time.

Well, we think it’s a miracle we got to the airport. We hurriedly unloaded our luggage and were never so glad to bid a person (our driver) goodbye. As we crossed the street to the airport, we suddenly noticed a marching drum band coming down the road. We stopped and gaped as about 15 people, men and women, marched determinedly past the airport and down the main street—about 4-5 male drummers, with the rest of the group following them. We figured it was some kind of demonstration, but have no idea what it was for. Was it some of the same group who had burned tires on the roads and thus prevented us from driving to Delhi? These people didn’t look violent. They did, however, look determined, but no one said or shouted anything as they marched by.

We hustled our baggage and ourselves through a crowd and into the airport, where we encountered a uniformed man who took one look at our airline tickets and said we were at the wrong place. “Go there,” he said, gesturing across the street. We were totally confused. “Isn’t this the airport?” we asked. He said it was, but that we needed a different terminal.

We should not have been surprised that our Delhi driver managed to get the last thing he did for us completely wrong by dropping us off at the wrong part of the airport.

In complete confusion, we followed the uniformed man out to a bus, where he told us to board and he would get our bags loaded underneath. Dad and Byron stayed to ensure our bags were loaded as I took the girls, some more bags, and the stroller into the bus. When the bus was full, we took off, hoping that we were actually going to the right place!

After a 15-minute ride, the bus stopped at another much busier-looking terminal. We unloaded ourselves and hurried into the building. It was the correct place, and we happily found airport personnel who spoke English and could direct us to the right counters.

While Dawn and the girls used the bathroom, (a cleaning lady in there took one look at us American females and ran away, only to reappear moments later with a roll of toilet paper. It was a very kind gesture, but there was no place to put the toilet paper when we were done using it, and she wouldn’t take the roll back. (There is no toilet tank to put things on when only squat pots are featured, and there were no countertops at the sink. The floor was wet from a recent mopping. I went wandering around the ladies’ restroom wondering where on earth to put this brand new toilet paper roll. Now I can’t remember what I ended up doing with it!) Meanwhile, Byron and Dad re-packed our luggage and left all our water bottles behind—eliminating one cardboard box that we had been using for luggage.

As we stood in line at the ticket counter, we couldn’t help noticing a western-looking couple standing a few feet in front of us. The woman was wearing a chudy-da, and since I was dying to know what the marching-drum band demonstration was about, I decided to ask them if they knew. They ended up being delightful, but it turns out they weren’t a couple at all! The man was from Utah, and just happened to be standing next to the woman who was from Australia!

They didn’t even know there’d been a marching band demonstration, but the woman filled us in a bit more on the reason for all the Delhi roads being closed—because of that lower-caste protesting that their government protection had been lifted.

The lady said she was in India on a 2-year assignment to create, design, and oversee malls in Mumbai. She had managed malls in Australia, and was in the midst of building plans for a Mumbai mall. She said that, among her duties, was to teach the Indians that Westerners like to be left alone when they’re shopping, and that Westerners get really turned off when shop-keepers get in their faces and continually offer them services.

She also explained that the Indian method of buying and selling is very ingrained in their culture, as they are a very service-oriented people. The Indian housewife, for example, just loves to go to the shops where she is waited on, with the clerks rushing around looking for things she might be interested in, and holding things up for her to inspect and either buy or reject. I still have serious doubts that the average Indian housewife gets mobbed quite as much as westerners do when we go shopping in India.

This Aussie lady also was awfully nice in coaching us through getting through security. She said to make sure that each piece of our luggage, carry-on included, gets a sticker when we went through security. If each bag doesn’t feature a sticker, you will be sent back through security just as you are getting ready to board the plane. She said that had happened to her once. She was getting ready to board a plane and they wouldn’t let her, gesturing that she needed to return to someplace within the airport. She said, “And no one spoke enough English to explain what the problem was. It was pretty stressful, as I saw that my flight was about to leave and they couldn’t tell me why I wasn’t allowed on board!” I can imagine!

We had to go outdoors to board the plane. Dad noticed several sets of stairs seemingly moving around on their own (but must have had a driver inside them somewhere), and it struck him as very funny. He said it looked as if the stairs were frantically looking for the plane along with the rest of us. We also laughed at the not-so-outrageous thought of these stairs careening around in traffic. Finally, we found our plane, our stairs found the plane, and we boarded. How lovely to get the kids all settled and just to sit down and relax for an hour or so.

The kids went to sleep almost as soon as we sat down, and slept through the whole flight. A nice vegetarian Indian meal was served, and though it looked delightful, I could hardly bear the sight of food so could only pick at it. I was surprised that the flight attendants came through offering each person some “chai,” which is my favorite Indian drink. I knew the girls would have loved to have had some, as they adore chai also. We also received the cutest little water bottles I’ve seen, and so hung onto several of those for the kids. Heidi is in a stage where she likes to cuddle water-bottles and pretend they’re her babies, so I knew she would fall in love with this tiny “waterbottle baby.”

Ahh. The flight arrived in Chennai, and I was so happy and relieved to be “home” that I nearly cried. We woke up the kids, and sleepily but excitedly made our way out of the airport, looking for Mani. Suddenly, he was right there, with a grin from ear to ear, excitedly calling out to the kids, “Heidi! Lily! Erin!” and of course offering to carry our bags, push the stroller, and be of service. We nearly embraced him in a bear-hug.

What a relief to clambor into our roomy, air-conditioned car. To have a driver who spoke English so well (at least compared to the other drivers we’d have the past week) and who knew where we were going. I think Mani was almost as relieved to see us as we were to see him. Perhaps he really did think we wouldn’t survive our trip north without him!

We all talked a mile a minute telling Mani about our trip, how much we missed him and were glad to see him, all about the Taj Mahal, our driver in Delhi, how we found Indian dolls (he gasped in surprise at this), and how we liked South India, specifically Chennai, so much better than North India. He just grinned and nodded and grinned some more. I’m sure we were all talking too fast and interrupting each other too much for him to understand most of what we were saying, but it sure was good to be home.

Mani took us home, where the nightwatchman was full of happy grins for us, and Mani helped us with our luggage up to our 2nd floor flat. “What time tomorrow, Ma’am?” he asked as he brought up the last bag. Even though it was close to midnight, we still intended to attend church the next day (since it would be our second to the last time there), so we said, “Mani, how about 8:45 a.m.?” Of course he said, “Okay, ma’am,” and was off.

In order to ensure that the next morning would go smoothly, and in order to find our pajamas, we basically had to unpack practically everything except the souvenirs. Then we fell into bed completely exhausted and so, so glad to be home.

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