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India Trip Notes

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4-03-11 - "Hey American!"

September16, 2003. "Hey American!" I was standing by the exit to the Delhi airport, having just done a money exchange, thumbs around my backpack straps, looking at the taxis and auto rickshaws and mob of drivers rushing up to people departing, waiting for me to walk out there too. Hmm. I had made no inquiries, had no plan, hadn't even looked in Lonely Planet or Rough Guides, knew not what to do. Many people were eager to help me.

I was so fortunate the first time I went to India. Good lord, talk about angels watching over. My angel though was in the form of a gangly, hip Aussie who had been in front of me in line at the Indian Embassy in Bangkok. We had talked a bit and then he went up to a window with his passport and I got involved in a conversation with an attractive, well-dressed Thai woman behind me and forgot about him.

She was most interesting, a documentary film maker in her forties who said she'd been through I can't remember how many passports but out of the country 167 times. She was involved in social issues and attended conferences and gave talks in the US and France. When the next window opened I said I'd like to talk more. "How about lunch?"

"Okay."

I'd thought it would be across the street. This woman doesn't know me, but she bid me enter her Mercedes and used me to sit in the car while she ran into buildings to do quick errands - for two hours. I used to do that to Elin long before we were amorous. I'd have a bunch of errands to do in the city and would drop by the SFZC's City Center and find someone to ride around with me so I wouldn't have to park and cause it was fun that way and Elin was my favorite. But that's an aside in an aside so back to the Thai film maker.

We had a late lunch by the river and she told me about growing up a doctor's daughter in a Bangkok free of smog and honking, full of wonder and tradition. We talked and ate for another two hours. Thailand has the most outgoing, friendly women, and this one would soon be on her way to Chennai for a conference on women's rights. A week later she sent me an email that she'd been attacked there on the street.

A few days after that I was standing dazed at the exit to the Delhi Airport gazing outside and then at a stand inside with a sign that read, Hotels and Taxis. I scratched my head.

"Hey American!" I heard someone call again,  I turned. "Oh!" I said in recognition, it was that Aussie from the visa line in Bangkok. He was walking toward the doorway pushing a luggage cart, a woman carrying a baby behind him. "Hi!" I waved.

"Don't go there! Come with me!"

I followed him gladly. "Don't pay attention to anyone," he said as we were approached by many drivers at once, "We can all fit in here."

He ducked into an auto rickshaw, what we'd called tuk-tuks in Thailand. As I got in I noted there was a cow standing in the street not far away. We took off weaving in traffic. More cows, trash. Lots of men in white and brown and women in various colors on both sides of the road. More than lots - throngs. I gazed at the buildings as we rode on, some with rebar sticking up from the roofs thinking, I'm in India. He said I should stay where he stays, it's fairly cheap, run by Brahmins whatever that means, near the center of the city, and frequented by old-timers to India.

I checked in with him. They knew him. Name, passport number, date, a few other blanks to fill out. 400 a day. My room was near the front door. It was cement - cement floor and walls, cement shelves. A platform with a mat covered by a thin cotton spread for a bed. I'd chosen a room with a bath. There was no bath, just a squat toilet and shower head and sink. It smelled sort of yucky. Went out and walked around. I was hungry and there was food on the streets and I ate on the streets in Thailand but was afraid to eat anything here. Found a Western style place, expensive. Beer and a sandwich. Walked around for a couple of hours. Had the card of my hotel.

There was a knock at the door. Woke me up. It was the Aussie saying "Let's eat." I went with him outside. We were on a fairly big street, a British bank across the street he said would take foreign ATM cards. I ran across. I stood before it. I'm always afraid at a foreign ATM - I'm so dependent on them - but they almost always work.

We went around a corner. Gravel, rocks, paper, plastic, people, dogs, a cow. We entered a busy place, no sign, sort of dark, many people eating, sitting, many in white cotton, waiters rushing with full plates in and empty plates out to the back room. He went to the back and talked to a man there. The floor was dirty. I stayed near my friend, like a child afraid of new surroundings by its mother's skirt. Soon we were walking out with containers of food, food that frightened me.

We sat around his bed and ate with our hands - rice and vegetables and some sort of sauce or something, and drank water he poured from a bottle and washed our hands in his sink - before and after. His wife fed herself and their baby, maybe a year old. I wanted a drink. I still drank alcohol then. He said, okay - the best was to get their cheap gin or vodka, told me the names and said to ask the man at the desk where to go.

New Delhi has two circular roads in the center. We were right next to the outer ring. I was told to cross that and go to the right then left toward the center and ask again there. You could cross above and take your chances or use what they called a subway which was an underground walking tunnel. There were descending steps before me going into the dark. I looked behind and there was a stand and peeked in at what the man was selling - gum, cigarettes, newspapers. I got a little boxed fruit drink and stood by a tree, surveying the buildings and traffic curving toward me from the right and away from the left. Grooved with the rhythm of the lights. Stop there go here etc. Across the street I noticed a blue neon sign that said Blues Bar. To the right was a long old dirty building with columns that held a roof over the sidewalk. A kid came up to me and asked for money. I gave him a rupee. Within twenty seconds I was surround by a dozen kids demanding money.

I ran down into the darkness wondering if I'd get lost in a labyrinth. People were walking here and there past other people without fingers sitting by bowls and women with babies sitting on cotton spreads in the semi-dark begging. There went all my change before I came up on the other side.

I went to the right as I had been told but wasn't sure where to go to the left. I went up to a man and said, "Excuse me," and he said, "Yes," so he spoke English, and I asked if he knew where I could buy liquor. He looked shocked and said he didn't know and walked on. I went down the sidewalk inside the columns. No one there. It was dark and a little mysterious. Here's someone. Didn't know. I kept on. I was directed down a side street and finally found what I was looking for, a hole in the wall store with no sign in an alley. There was a counter in front and bottles behind on shelves that one could see and choose from. I got a small bottle of the local vodka and it was cheap. I was never into expensive vodka or gin so this was no sacrifice. The man put the bottle in a paper bag and called out to put it in my pocket when I started to walk off with it in my hand. This is the center of the capital of India and buying alcohol is hush-hush, maybe even black market.

I found another store where I could get some fruit drink to mix it in. I said what it was for and was told by the young guy at the counter in a quite non judgmental way that it's better not to drink. I said that a drink a day is supposed to be good for you. The guy looked at me and said I'd probably be closest to that goal if I didn't drink at all. I stole that line from him on the spot.

Walking back I passed a travel office. A man outside asked where I was from. We talked for a minute. He showed me a poster in their window of sights in Delhi and there were a lot that looked interesting. He invited me inside, said that they had cheap half day and all day taxi tours and then multi day tours of other places. As soon as I entered a man at a desk saw the bulge in my pocket and asked, "Is that alcohol?" I said yes. He said I had to leave it outside. I went back outside and was told to hurry back. The Aussie and I drank it up. His Thai wife didn't drink. Later he and I ended up on the roof with the guys who owned the place drinking whiskey and listening to them talk tough and get loud. The Aussie and I went downstairs and smoked a joint he'd procured - I still did that then.

The next day I asked to moved to a room without a bath. I liked it better because there wasn't that odor. Like here in Chennai I think it must be from not venting the plumbing. The third day I was there I came downstairs to the desk and said that the sink in the hall was completely covered in dried blood. The man called out and a member of the hotel staff who was lying down sleeping on a ledge sat up and then walked off to take care of the problem.

The Aussie introduced me to a friend of his, a Swiss woman who'd just completed a tour of India for a group of Germans. She lived in Bangkok with her English husband who had a pool hall there. I knew the area. I sat and listened to them tell stories. She told about coming back to India from China through northern Pakistan earlier in the year. This was the fall of 2003 and all I knew about northern Pakistan was that it was full of terrorists who wanted to kill Westerners. She said that the people there were wonderful and kind and asked her how come she spoke their language, Urdu. She said she only knew the Urdu that was the same as the closely related Hindi. At that point she said their eyes would get big and they'd ask why did she know Hindi and she said that she lived in India part time and was on her way there now and then she said they'd get distressed and say don't go there, it's violent and dangerous!

My first morning in Delhi I went out to find some coffee - I still did that back then. A man dressed nicely in Western clothes came up to me and said hello. He spoke well. He was a cook. He said he liked to help people. I said I was looking for coffee. He took me through an alley, down two streets, over a giant pile of bricks and stones, up some stairs to a southern Indian coffee place. The waiters wore turbans. Nobody down here wears turbans. Maybe they do somewhere else in southern India. Good strong coffee and dosa, my first dosa, roasted in ghee, butter, with a creamy coconut spread in a stainless cup. Sat there eating, drinking, talking, looking out the window at the path we'd taken to get to where we were and thought, here I am in the center of the capital of India and I had to climb over rubble to get a cup of coffee. Later I discovered Barista, the Starbucks of India, and other places - there was lots to choose from with less rubble, but that was my first impression.

This nice man then took me to a travel office where I got a half day tour of sights which was well worth it. My driver dropped me off at a temple full of color and carvings, a museum of wondrous ancient statues (like Zen Center's two East Asian Buddhas) and artifacts, some big impressive arch in the government building area. At each stop I'd be besieged by a hoard of insistent hawkers waving post cards and memorabilia in front of me. I paid two hundred for an intricately carved tiny chess set in a small carved fitted wooden box. The driver told me they'd have taken one hundred. Why didn't you tell me? I said and he shook his head saying he couldn't get in the way, that he goes there all the time and they know him. He told me I'd learn. But then I looked at it and felt that it was impossible for it to be that cheap or wrong and mixed feelings welled within me.

He insisted on taking me to a place he called an Emporium. They use that word all over. I didn't want to go because it was obviously some sort of store, but that didn't stop him from taking me there. He said he had to. I hate shopping. I don't want to buy anything. I hate saying no. I feel like I shouldn't enter a store without buying something. I don't bargain well. Kelly does. When Kelly and I were in Thailand together in '88, if I wanted to buy something, we'd go into a store together and I'd point at what I wanted and walk out. But the Emporium was worth it. They treated me like royalty, said it didn't matter that I didn't want to buy anything, that it was their pleasure to merely show me what they had, they offered tea and beer and I think they were Muslims. They showed me the most incredibly beautiful rugs and the prices were astoundingly low. I ended up buying something cheap, paying them to ship it home and it got there.

After the taxi tour the driver wouldn't take me to my hotel but drove back to the office where his boss hit me up with various travel packages via taxi. One day to more of Delhi , two days to Agra, two weeks through Rajasthan. They were quite reasonable but not in my budget and anyway, I didn't want to travel that way. But saying no didn't seem to be an option so finally I said that it was all so interesting that I wanted to think about it and return the next day to select which travel package I would prefer and now would you please drive me to my hotel? I could see defeat in the eyes of the man across the table and the driver who'd been begging me to buy one of these packages all half day. As I exited, I met the nice man who'd brought me there. He asked if he could have a little something for his trouble. I gave him 100 rupees. He asked for another 100. I complied. I thanked him.

I went to this giant underground market the next day cause I was told I should see it and passed a shop that was selling just the type of glasses that I wore, little horn rims in oval metal cases - and I wanted another pair. I could get them for six dollars back home at Wal-Mart. "You like these? Only 1200 rupees!" That was about thirty dollars then. No way, I said. I eventually got them for 200 and felt like I was really learning to bargain. Later I passed another stand and looked at the same glasses and the man said, "Do you like these? Only 100 rupees!" Oh my god, he was starting at half of what I'd paid at the other place. Oh well.

I went to the Blues Bar a couple of nights. It was great. Young people were dancing, drinking, being gay in the old fashioned way. Got into conversations with different guys, professionals, businessmen. The second night there was no blues. I'd been having a conversation with a young lawyer and was thinking how cool he was and how much we had in common and so forth and we kept drinking and I smoked one of his cigarettes - I still smoked some then. I said that I'd really enjoyed the blues the night before and was sorry they're playing more standard American rock favorites tonight.

"Oh," he said, "You want blues?" I'll get you blues."

"Oh no, it's okay," I said. "This is fine. I just meant that it would have been nice but no big deal."

"No! You want blues! You're the customer! The customer is always right!" There was a slur creeping into his speech. He stood up and pushed his stool aside.

"Really, really, that's okay," I said.

"My father is a very powerful man in this city," he said. "They will play blues."

Before long he and the Blues Bar staff were standing in the middle of the floor screaming at each other. I slipped out.

The first night there was Blues. I spent the latter part of the evening with two young Latin dancers, a tall one from Mexico and the other from Costa Rica. They were there studying Indian dance. They were fun. I escorted them home. They said it wasn't necessary but it was my pleasure and it was late. They didn't live far off. We took a tuk tuk and dropped the Costa Rican off first. I insisted that we wait until she'd entered her place and secured the door. I do that in the states too, especially having lived in dangerous neighborhoods. The Mexican woman told me don't worry, go on. She wouldn't let me wait. She wanted to buy something first at a stand that was right there. It was a small street with plenty of people on it. I gave in and told the driver to go on.

The next day we were supposed to meet but she didn't show up. I waited at a charming tree-lined shopping area which ran around a small traffic circle, drank tee, read the paper. Gave up. Went to her dance school and saw a show we were going to go to together - dance from China. She wasn't there.

The next day I got an email from her apologizing and saying that she'd gotten accosted as soon as I'd driven off in the tuk tuk that night. She said no one would help her but she fought back and screamed and knocked the heck out of the guy and got him arrested and had already testified against him.

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