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

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