India 2: How are you relaxing?

So my first week in India is coming to an end, and I had the time to take a spin around central Delhi‘s tourist trail over the weekend.

Transportation in Delhi is interesting. I took a taxi from the hotel, one of those ancient Ambassador jobbies that still form the bulk of the fleet, and asked the driver to use the meter. He punched buttons on it around 17 times, grinned a bit too widely, and I watched the numbers spin dizzily upwards as we set off.

– How long in India, sir?

– Four months.

– Oh…

By the time I got to India Gate, some 5 km away, the meter read 350 rupees — quite literally ten times the real metered fare. Now it was my turn to grin and tell him his meter was crazy: he grinned back and said no need to use the meter, why not just charter him for the whole day? I grinned more, gave him the smallest note I had (100 rupees, alas) and sauntered off without even a whimper of protest.

Delhi is not a walking city, to say the least. Footbridges seem to be totally absent and pedestrian crossings are about as useful and protective as the painted little swastikas on the back of cars. Navigating from India Gate thus involved crossing the traffic circus’ (such an appropriate word) lanes of non-stop vehicles the same way I did in Jakarta and Saigon: just step out onto the road, hopefully to the leeward of a few locals, and walk in a straight, predictable line so drivers can try to swerve around you. I stomped my way to Mandi House, where there was supposed to be a Metro station according to my map, but the map was off and it was just a construction site — it was another km to the end of the line at Barakhamba Road.

The sparkling new Delhi Metro, complete with squeaky clean Korean-made coaches, is a technological marvel made only more so by the chaos above. After a quick stroll and lunch at Connaught Place, I took the Metro to Chawri Bazaar (6 rupees), and stepped out of the train onto a cycle-rickshaw to the Red Fort (20 rupees). It was another world: the road was jammed from side to side with bicycles, cyclerickshaws, autorickshaws, three-wheeled trucks, motorbikes, bullock carts, pedestrians all jostling for space.

On the way back to the hotel, I took an autorickshaw and negotiated up front for 50 rupees. The first one refused this, but the second accepted, so I can only presume I was in the right ballpark this time.

* * *

India’s intelligentsia and newspapers bemoan the lack of equality in the country, and print the matrimonial service ads neatly sorted by caste and expected dowry size. At one intersection, a bunch of darker-skinned Indians wearing Vanilla Ice masks were advertising some type of whitening lotion. Chemical trucks careen on expressways, hazmat signs marked with neatly stenciled letters saying “CORRECT TECHNICAL NAME”. But rest assured: a roadside safety campaign proclaims “Accident brings tears, safety brings cheers!”

One day, we went out for lunch in a Gurgaon pizza parlor, curving past a beggar woman holding a baby with a bloody bandaged head and flies buzzing around its bare soiled behind, into a strip mall that wouldn’t be too far out of place in New Jersey. In Ruby Tuesday’s faux-American surroundings, all Texas license plates and old Coca Cola ads, entrees cost 500 rupees a pop (this in a country where income of above Rs.1100/month means you’re not considered poor) and our group of three was fawned over by around five staff. As soon as I’d popped the first mouthful of curry into my mouth, one of them materialized next to me and asked: How are you relaxing, sir?

I could only think of the McDonalds ad in heavy rotation on local TV, where an older Hindu couple jabber away in Hindi for a few seconds. The sari-clad grandmother-type, hair curled into tight gray bun, bites into a crispy McVeggie Burger(tm), then lifts her hands up in the air, twirls her head in the Indian figure eight and proclaims with a lilt: Ooh, I am loving it.

* * *

Next on the agenda: a weekend trip to Haridwar and Rishikesh in Uttaranchal.

Soundtrack: Shoulder Surf, by Sukshinder Shinda feat. Takeova Ent


India 1: First impressions

Twenty-four hours have passed since my passport was stamped into India, and it’s time to distill what I’ve seen so far into a series of witty insights, dodgy comparisons, fatuous overgeneralizations and outright mistakes.

A useful travel skill is not expecting too much out of the places you’re visiting for the first time, as this makes it much easier to be pleasantly surprised by them. (This, for example, is the only way to enjoy the Slovenian coal-mining town of Trbovlje.) For Delhi, this was easier yet: I expected a shithole with absolutely no redeeming qualities, and having now discovered at least three, I’m actually looking forward to the rest of my stay here.

The Expected

India is poor, New Delhi is no exception, and economic pundits who think India will be catching up to China any time soon would do well to go to Shanghai and then compare notes here. It’s not quite as desperate as I was afraid (I’ve yet to see any corpses or people shitting on the street), but beggars and shantytowns abound even more profusely than in my previous benchmark of big-city squalor, Jakarta.

Indian infrastructure is famously bad, and here too Delhi is no exception. Traffic is crazy, with three-wheeled autorickshaws emblazoned with “Horn Please”, sacred cows, clunky old Ambassador cars and crazy bus drivers, jostling for space on unlaned roads. Signage is laughably minimal, traffic lights are rarities and Jakarta’s sweeping elevated expressways shine in their absence. Especially at night, with clouds of dust whistling among the trees, it feels like an unusually busy night back in Chipata, Zambia.

The Unexpected

Delhi is both more flat, more spread out and less congested than I expected: there is so much wasteland and so many derelict buildings that you just don’t get the same sense as in Bangkok or Jakarta that every square inch counts. Then again, I’ve only been in southernmost Delhi and Gurgaon so far, so I fully expect Old Delhi to be much more squished together.

Pollution here is really bad. On Singapore’s PSI index, I have no doubt that every day here is well over 100, although mornings seem to be particularly bad. I woke up today sneezing with a really bad runny nose and a headache, triggered by the double whammy of dryness and pollution — fortunately it seems to be getting better already.

The Positive

After a few too many nasi gorengs, Indian food is excellent. It’s just one of those great cuisines of the world that defies easy description: Khmer cooking can be passably described as “half-Thai, half-Vietnamese”, Korean food is “Japanese with chili and garlic”, but how to describe the country that invented the curry? After a lifetime of eating the stuff only in dedicated restaurants, it still feels weird to actually find myself in a country where it’s eaten three times a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m loving it — and looking forward to my first McMaharaja Burger tomorrow. (I’m planning to go veggie for the first few weeks.)

Indian music (especially the more dancy styles of bhangra) rocks. And so do the babes in Bollywood music videos. (Unfortunately, and less surprisingly, they seem to be a rather rare species in reality.)

Second impressions to come this weekend, after I actually get a chance to see something other than fancy hotels and data centres…


India 0: A Taste of Bureaucracy

Unless you’re Bhutanese or Nepali, which I am not, the first step on a long journey to India is getting an Indian visa.

I chose to get mine in Singapore, which has a fairly sizable High Commission to cater for the 6-7% of Singaporeans who are of Indian descent, but need a visa to visit their homeland. The local High Commission thus doesn’t even allow visa applications from anybody else… unless they’re resident in Singapore, like me, in which case they’re grudgingly accepted with extra charges and processing time. Here’s how it went.

Weekend: The High Commission of India in Singapore has a surprisingly informative if somewhat confusing website, where I could also download the application forms I needed. One was PDF and printed out fine, but the second one was only available in MS Word format, with alignment shot to hell and question marks all over the place indicating missing Indian fonts. I filled out the two page PDF form, which, among other things, required two references in Singapore and two in India; a little perusing on Thorn Tree indicated that these aren’t necessary for tourist visas, but nothing on the application form or the HCI site said this. I left them blank and also prepared a copy of my Singaporean identity card.

Tuesday: Having been forewarned of the 3-hour queues that awaited, I avoided always busy Monday and showed up at 9 AM, just as they opened the gate. A stampede for the queue number machine followed and I grabbed slot 30. The embassy was supposed to open at 9:15 AM, and some people showed up at their desks, walked around randomly, answered random questions from random people and shuffled a lot of paper. Some people lined up at counter 5, and I asked what was going on, only to be informed that this is where you deposit your passport after your application has been accepted. Counters 6-9 were devoted to a milling mob of India-Indians (no queue numbers for these guys!) applying for new passports, reporting missed ones, claiming Person of Indian Origin visas, registering marriages and whatnot. And at counter one, a Tamil couple explained something, in extensive detail, to the person behind the counter for over half an hour nonstop. At least they seemed happy when they finally left.

Nothing continued to happen (giving me plenty of time to fill up that missing third form, which turned out to be entirely different from what they had on their website) until 9:45, when the first queue number popped up. 1! 2! 3! 4! 5! 6! 7! all flashed in quick succession, until around 12 somebody actually showed up to claim their spot. Of the eight desks in the visa room, two seemed to be employed in actually processing passports. Number 30 came up around 10:30 AM — I deposited my application forms and paid S$20 (a “fax charge” for resident foreigners). The lady behind the counter clipped the application forms together, punched away at her PC for a while, printed a receipt on an aging dot-matrix printer, scribbled random things on it and my application by hand, ripped off the extra paper with a practiced draw of the ruler and told me to return 5 days later “before 10 AM”. The queue numbers were pushing 100 by the time I left.

Next Monday: I showed up about 10 minutes “late”, only to find (as expected) a huge queue at counter 5 with people waiting to deposit their passport. I twiddled my thumbs for half an hour until I got to hand in my passport, leading to a search for my previous application in a stack yay big and a repeat of the pay-clip-punch-print-scribble-rip routine. This time I forked out S$80 for the visa itself, and was told to return at 4:15 PM sharp.

Monday, part 2: On a hunch, I showed up at 4 PM sharp, once again in time to see the gate swing open and savvy visa hackers jostle for queue numbers. I got “159” and settled down to wait, and around 4:30 they started blinking numbers again, starting around 140. This time the queue actually moved fast, and less than ten minutes later I was the proud possessor of a 6-month multiple-entry Indian visa. Whee!

Conclusion: If there’s a more convoluted way of applying for a visa, I’d like to hear about it (as long as it doesn’t happen to me). For me, the triple trek to the embassy wasn’t too bad as it’s just three subway stops away from my house, but I could imagine this being a serious nuisance for somebody who lives on the other side of the island and has to get this done during working hours to boot. Then again, that’s why there are travel agents who’ll do it all for you, charging just S$20 extra for the privilege — not much if your own time is worth anything at all.

On the upside, I did get the unlimited-entry 6 month visa on the first try, which I gather is pretty unusual for India. Better yet, I didn’t have to fork out a single penny in bribes facilitation service fees, unlike Indonesia where my multiple-entry business visa ended up costing around US$400.