Saturday, November 17, 2007

first trip to New Dehli

We are staying in a wonderful house on the outskirts of New Dehli in Uttar Pradesh (that's actually in a different state than Dehli proper, the city is on the state border). It's the home of Alex who founded this branch of the Pocket Testament League over twenty years ago. His son Ashish picked us up at the airport at 4 in the morning our first night. His wife has been providing us with wonderful meals and they have a beautiful home in a nice neighborhood. I couldn't have imagined a better start to my India experience.

Alex brought up a large team from Kerala ("the Indian Massachsettes" - most educated people and best run state in India) when he founded PTL. Every morning they car pool into the city from this suburb so we caught a ride on Friday.

I have been struggling to come up with a description of driving in India. I'd say, imagine a flock of owls, sparrows, mosquitoes and turtles flying at high speeds (that world be a Lewis Carrol turtle) navigating with the agility and sonar enhanced close range of bats and the noise of a tree full of grumpy crows. It's a wonderful thing to see. I don't know how it works but it does. People navigate within an inch or two of each other at high speeds with the right of way going to the largest. The horn gets used for various phrases such as "I'm here", "I'm coming by", "You're in my way", "I know, get off my back", "My fare is a stupid tourist who's paying way too much" and "cow, you are a wonderful and holy being but get out of the way". The best part: nobody gets angry (that I've seen yet) and I feel safe but fascinated the whole time.

They dropped us off at a New Dehli metro stop. Now, I've seen many of the public transportation systems from around the world:
LA's crappy excuse for a system,
Rome's confusing buses,
Boston's woefully inadequate T,
SF's well done BART and annoying Muni,
NYC's fairly reliable and wide spread subway,
Moscow's deep underground bunkers with stations rightfully called the Jewels of Stalin,
London's wonderful Tube,
Washington DC's pleasure ride, and
Germany's system in any city - unparalleled

I would rank Dehli's up with the best of them: easy to use, clean and efficient. If I lived here, I'm sure I would complain that it has far too few stops for such a gigantic city but it's being extended in many directions. Everything works on radio tags. You either have a card or buy a blue token and press them to entrance gates. The gate tells you how much money you have left and then you deposit the token at your destination so it will let you out. We only took it one stop more so we could see how it worked. All I have to say is: "well done, dehli metro, well done"

We wandered aimlessly around Old Dehli. The first thing to get used to is being stared at constantly. My first time in Germany, the guys I passed would stare me in the eyes the entire time we were in sight. I thought they wanted a fight. Turns out, it means nothing. It's just a little body language difference and the same is true here. Just stare back or look around. They mean nothing by it. It's just what you do.

We got to the Red Fort, one of Dehli's biggest tourist attractions. Shah Jahan, the great Mughal emperor and builder of the Taj Mahal, constructed this beautiful red sandstone fort. During the First Indian War of Independence (or the Sepoy Mutiny depending on your perspective), this became the rebel headquarters and received heavy damage during the brutal British reprisals. Having an Indian flag flying over the Red Fort became a point of pride during the Independence movement. Now, the Prime Minister holds his address to the nation here on Independence Day.

We put in to practice my newest trick: whenever you're in a new (and especially touristy) spot, sit and watch for awhile. It helps you figure out what's going on and even to spot operators in the area. As we sat and watched, we saw Indians would get waved through the front gate while obvious tourists got pointed to the ticket booth. Technically, Indians do need a ticket but it only costs them a few rupees while foreigners get charged several dollars. However, it made me mad to realize that native Muslims and Buddhists also got turned back. Only, Hindus got waved through for free. I will probably see this quite a lot but this was my first time and I didn't like it. We decided to boycott entering the fort (though I should mention we weren’t that interested and the ticket line was long).
We headed through slums to the Jama Masjid, the beautiful mosque also built by Shah Jahan. I love Muslim architecture and this did not disappoint. We removed our shoes and wandered around inside the huge courtyard in front of the main building. This mosque and the Red Fort were the only places we witnessed a large number of foreigners. This corresponded to the only places that people harassed us or begged for money. Just like anywhere in the world, the tourist spots have the worst people.

We spent most of the day away from tourist spots and had a wonderful time. After the mosque, I headed in the direction of a major shopping area to try to find a present for our gracious hosts. We ended up in tiny, twisting little back streets with shops smaller than a closet and textile factories the size of my college dorm room. Random people made small jokes with us and it just felt like a perfect little area. It got me excited to stop traveling and settle down somewhere that I can get to know all the people in a neighborhood like this one.

Eventually, we ended up by some large roads with no people or houses nearby. I had gotten cranky (as I often do when hungry) and lost. Luckily, I got over my pride and hailed an autorickshaw to take us to the shopping area. The young kid driving told me it would be 80 Rs. I said I know the law and you have to turn on the meter. He said it was broken. So I pushed the on button and not surprisingly, it turned on. He switched it off and said it was still broken. I said I'm not getting in this thing without a meter. He dropped the price to 30 Rs. I should have bartered for less but he was the only empty one for a long time so I took it. It was my first time in an autorickshaw and I got quite taken by it. The breeze felt great and the scenery rushed by along with the almost head on collisions. I followed along on the map until he told us we arrived. I told him this was not the right metro stop. He disagreed but finally asked another driver how to get there. I still had to point him in the right direction but we finally got there. I get out my 30 rupees and he says there's a 50 rupee tax. I laugh and hand him the fare. He keeps insisting, more and more faintly, that we need to pay another 50 rupees. As we walk away, I hear him forlornly repeating "50 rupees" over and over again to himself.

The shopping area is called Connaught Place and I hated every inch of it. Our host tried to steer us away from spots we had to barter because he figured that street merchants would take advantage of us. However, I like to barter. It's a fun game. I probably still get taken for a ride but I usually get them to drop the price to a third of their asking price. Connaught Place had lots of expensive stores with set prices. It felt a little like 5th Avenue in NYC, the bane of my existence. Instead, we sat in a beautiful little park to read and sleep before going back to Kashmere Gate by Metro to be taken home.

So ended our first foray into an Indian city by ourselves. I loved everything except the touristy areas. That’s a good sign for things to come.


Ned said...


Ned said...

Great post. I loved your description of traffic flow and your rickshaw story made me laugh out loud.
On another topic, I just read some of the best articles in the Economist, "Special Report, Technology in India and China." It's the November 10th to 16th edition. Several of the articles are brilliantly and poetically written. You really shouldn't miss it. Its available online.

Erin Pelger said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Randy said...

Lex: Sounds like you're having a great start to this new adventure! I'm envious. Nancy and I have talked about going to India someday. Reading your blog makes me think that day should be sooner, rather than later. Enjoy! Watch out for those damn Monkeys.