India 6: Googling at Gurgaon

Pounding bricks in Gurgaon, IndiaToday I’m going to take you on the world’s shortest sightseeing tour, in which we will cross the street from one shopping mall to another. The shopping malls are located in India Shining, the proud, new, resurgent India out to take over the world; however, the street is still firmly in Bharat, the ageless, eternal land of preordained destiny and reincarnation.

Our journey starts at the DT City Centre mall in Gurgaon. It’s a smallish box-shaped shopping mall, three stories high, with maybe 50 shops, rather cramped, and would be entirely unremarkable in most of the developed world — but it was among the first to open in Gurgaon and is a landmark of sufficient stature that a Metro station planned outside will be named after it. Tenants include Ruby Tuesday, where Indians get to indulge their fantasies of being America (wood paneling, cowboy-themed crap, old Coke ads on the walls) and meals of hamburgers and fries cost Rs.500 (~US$10) a pop. Opposite it is Pizza Hut, in the inner atrium is a Barista coffee shop, and most other tenants are small little shops selling jewelry or scarves or CDs or whatever it is that small little shopping mall outlets sell.

As we step out the door, we can watch the security parade, in which all shoppers are made to walk through a metal detector. As everybody is toting purses or backpacks, the detector duly says “beep”, which the security guards duly ignore as they wave everybody onward. But we’re going in the opposite direction. Outside the shopping mall is a parking lot, with modern, expensive cars (nearly all recently dented, scratched and banged). But between the parking lot and the street, there is a 20-meter strip of rutted dirt, muddy in the rain, dusty in the sun. It’s on an inclined hillside, but there are no steps or stairs, so shopper clambers over it randomly, gingerly treading around cow poop and garbage. There’s no road from the parking lot either, so you can also entertain yourself by watching cars try to avoid the worst potholes and pedestrians try to avoid getting run over by monster SUVs.

The strip has recently been bisected by a strip of pavement, running parallel to the main road, but not connected to the parking lot or the main road. This road is inhabited by a permanent logjam of rickshaw drivers, and the strip of dirt next to it has the guy who sells roast yams for Rs.5 (~US$0.10) a pop, the guy who sells paan masala and a scrum of beggars: the mother with listless rag doll child, the wizened old sadhu who looks at you with sad eyes and wordlessly motions toward his mouth, the aggressive ten-year-old girl with a dusty shock of hair, a permanent coat of grime and bony fingers that she uses to pinch those you who don’t pay up.

If you turn your head left, you’ll see a chunk of land cordoned off with Delhi Metro barriers: they’re doing preliminary drillings for an elevated high-speed mass transit system. On the right side, there is a massive construction site for a new shopping mall, and you can watch men bending steel and women carrying baskets of bricks on their heads as the work proceeds. Once the mall is complete, there will be an unbroken sprawl of malls eastward: DT City Centre, One India Place, Vipul’s Agora, Sahara Mall, CWC Mall, and MGF Mega Mall.

But we’ll keep going in a straight line. Ahead of us is Mehrauli-Gurgaon (MG) Road, one of Gurgaon’s two main links to Delhi. It’s three lanes in both directions and full of cars, autorickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, cows and the occasional bullock cart from morning till night. Unusually, there is a pedestrian crossing with traffic lights here; however, the lights are near-universally ignored, and people can thus only cross on foot by massing into clumps of sufficient volume that their bulk and the messy cleanup that hitting them would require intimidates even the most leadfooted of drivers. In the middle of the road is a median strip and a fence, with a gap here for the crossing, usually inhabited by a beggar lady and her baby, whose shit-streaked, naked, blue behind attracts both flies and alms.

If you make it across without being flattened by a truck (Tata Bye Bye!), you’ll find yourself standing in the busy lanes used by cars driving into and out from the MGF Metropolitan Mall. There are no provisions of any kind of pedestrians, so you just have to pick your way across the lane dividers and traffic wardens towards the stairs that come out of the mall and abruptly terminate on the pavement. MGF is anchored by a big cinema multiplex, and from the outside you can also spot a large McDonalds, a popular TGI Friday’s outlet and a Citibank ATM, which is permanently watched over by a dedicated security guard.

As you enter the mall, through another metal detector whose sole purpose seems to be to provide background noise (beep beep!), you’re greeted by a 10-meter pair of curvaceous breasts, barely contained in a lace top. It’s an advertisement for lingerie, in a country where an on-screen kiss in Dhoom 2 (released Nov 2006) generated outrage and a ongoing trial for obscenity. On the left wall, a Bollywood actress in butt-hugging jeans and a clingy silver top; on the right side, a model shows off her backless dress, two slinky legs and pumps that could also be used to skewer kebabs. At the far end of the mall is Chor Bizarre, where you can pay Rs. 500 (a decent monthly wage in some parts of Bihar) for a meal of Delhi-style street food, served by liveried waiters from an antique automobile converted into a buffet table, and whose general manager wrings his hands in genuine distress if you complain that the golguppa shells are a little too chewy.

Road upgrading donkey style, Gurgaon, IndiaThe laws of writing dictate that I’m supposed to provide some kind of pithy closing statement here, but this is one of those times when India leaves me at a loss for words. Nowhere, but nowhere, in the world will you find the wealth of sheer misery that is India. The slow rollback of Gandhi’s murderously deluded policies of self-reliance and recent surge of economic growth is the best thing that has ever happened in this benighted land, but this distance to be covered yet is dauntingly vast. I’ll be back some day, but for now my quota is full.

And oh yes — do you want to do something? Donate to WaterPartners. Amoebic dysentery nearly killed a friend of mine, but she had the best medical care money can buy: millions of children every year aren’t as lucky, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die.


India 5: A Jaunt to Jodhpur

‘Twas the weekend and the time for my maiden venture into Rajasthan. Having learned from my Haridwar near-misadventure, I made sure I arrived at Delhi station an hour ahead of time, and it’s a good thing I did: this time, the train display board was correctly showing platform 16, but only platforms 1 through 13 seemed to exist. After asking random people and some brisk walking (have I mentioned that Indian train platforms are really, really, really long?), it transpired that platforms 16 through 18 are hidden behind the building, next to platform 12, at the opposite end of platform 13. With the platform spotted, finding the train was easy enough: I located my bunk and clambered on board for my first overnight train trip in India.

First impressions were about par with expectations: air-con two-tier sleepers (“AC2”) are spartan but clean and functional, with a neat pile of bedding already awaiting me. There were six bunks, one row parallel to the tracks, two perpendicular to it, with upper and lower beds in each, and I had an upper perpendicular bunk. The train chugged off on schedule, swaying far less than Malaysia’s narrow-gauge equivalents, and I stretched back, looking forward to a good night’s sleep after a more than usually stressful week at work.

No such luck. The beds were about 10 cm too short for me, and while I could poke my feet out the curtain, if I did so the constant parade of people up and down the narrow hallway bumped them all the time. A flourescent light in the middle of the hallway stayed on, shining bright and clear through the night. There was no secure place to store my backpack, so I had to share my pillow with it. But what pushed me over the edge were my bunkmates, three out of five of whom snored. The guy below me kept his volume down to inoffensive levels, while the guy across the aisle in the upper bunk was stentorian in volume when in full form, but usually stayed silent. My nemesis was in the bunk opposite mine, without even a curtain in the way: he alternated between regular log-sawing and supercharged exhalations like somebody forcefully jumping onto an airbag, the transition between the two states always marked by a disturbing sequence of frantic, gibbering squeaks of the type most of us resort to only when being forcibly sodomized by tentacle monsters. Around 1 AM, four hours after departure, I started seriously contemplating homicide — and I then realized I could hang by bag from the little hook above the window and lock it to the railing. With an additional square foot of space thus obtained, and a temporary lull in the trio, I finally managed to fall asleep.

Around 6 AM the chai-sellers started volubly touting their wares and I invested three rupees in a cup of sweet and milky goodness. We were scheduled to arrive at 8 AM, but the train rumbled on until 8:30, paused for the better part of an hour for no obvious reason, then pulled into Jodhpur station just a few min down the line at 9:20.

One of Jodhpur‘s epithets is the Sun City, located as it is next to the Thar Desert in the western reaches of Rajasthan, so needless to say it had been drizzling all morning and the city was a quagmire of mud. (This is about par for course for me: my first visits to each of the Negev, the Sinai and the Dead Sea, on separate trips at that, have all been marked by rain or, in the case of the Sinai, snow.) The guesthouse sent a guy on a bike to pick me up and we merrily splashed through the puddles, the wrong side of the road and across a field to Durag Niwas, an exuberantly colorful family-run place at the edge of town. I chowed down on a bowl of porridge, pausing occasionally to spit out small rocks, and planned my day ahead.

My first stop was the obvious one: Mehrangarh Fort, founded at the same time as Jodhpur itself and acting not only a defensive bastion, but the Maharaja’s palace as well. It succeeds superbly on both counts: 3 km in diameter, it completely dominates Jodhpur’s skyline and projects a sense of awesome power (with reason: it has never been taken by force), but the inside of the fort hides not just delicately carved sandstone lattices of the palace and its harem, but disco-like entertainment rooms of colored glass and, (for me) most surprisin of all, a large garden within the ramparts, used to this day to cultivate produce. By far Jodhpur’s top attraction, it was well set up with an audioguide system that explains finer points of art and history, plus a wide assortment of living photo-ops in the form of turbaned guys banging on drums or smoking opium (yes, the real thing) from a hubble-bubble — it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it. I spent a good three hours wandering around, snapping away like crazy, and on my way back down the hill paid a visit to Jaswant Thada. Built by one of the maharaja’s wives as a tribute to him (how’s that for a Valentine’s Day gift?), it’s just a tiny fraction of the fort’s size but pretty as a pearl and picturesquely perched above a little lake.

In the evening, I completed Jodhpur’s trio by zooming across town to Umaid Bhawan Palace, which holds the honor of being India’s newest royal palace (completed 1944) and is now split in two: one half is still inhabited by HH the Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Marwar-Jodhpur, but the other half has been taken over by Taj Hotels, who rent out rooms for a token US$575 a night. Even at that price they seem to have no shortage of takers, as the maitre d’ claimed full occupancy as in order to stop riffraff like me from entering their terrace restaurant. Fortunately, his heart melted when I truthfully claimed that it was my last night in Jodhpur (neglecting to mention that it was also my first), and I was granted a seat at a table by the back, away from the garden and its views over the city. The next two non-resident couples who showed up weren’t as lucky — or maybe they were?

Shortly after I placed my order, it became clear that the flashes of light on the horizon weren’t just for show, and by the time the pot of Rajasthani lamb curry showed up, the palace was hit by a veritable thunderstorm. Tablecloths flew, cutlery clattered to the floor and, while covered by a good ten meters of roof, I was still gently spritzed with rain whenever the wind gusted the wrong way. I chowed down on my pilau, dipped my naan, crunched my poppadums and, by the time I’d finished, was the only guest still braving the tempest outside. I opted to finish my large bottle of rather aptly named Royal Challenge beer inside and, as a token of gratitude, the harried staff neglected to enforce the Rs. 1500 cover, allowing me to slip away for a token Rs. 1340 — or slightly more than my overnight train and guesthouse combined.

Fabric sellers at Sardar Market, Jodhpur Next morning Jodhpur was its usual Sun City self and, after a truly terrible attempt at scrambled eggs that resembled the porridge (if minus the rocks), I set off to the city center on foot. You can really feel the edge of the desert in Jodhpur: unlike the Arab world’s Bedouins, who mostly bash dunes in Land Cruisers and watch satellite TV on their goat-hair tents, the open fields just outside Jodhpur are filled with scraggly nomad camps complete with camels, and Rajasthani women walk around in amazingly colorful dress topped with veils in order to keep both sand and people’s gazes out. Today, though, the air was wonderfully clean and the temperature was just about perfect for walking: warm in the sun, nippy in the shade.

Nai Sawak, Jodhpur’s main shopping drag, terminates at the Sardar Market, a riotous Indian explosion of sights, sounds and stinks. I chowed down on a delectable 6-rupee samosa outside, then headed in, stepping about even more carefully that usual as its alleys were flooded with mud from yesterday’s storm. In addition to the usual profusion of spices, fruits, saris, bangles, utensils, screwdrivers, DVDs and cow poop, Sardar Market seems to specialize in omelettes (thanks to a recommendation for “The Omelette Shop” in Lonely Planet) and steel scrap, with most of the east portion devoted to the noisy disassembly of refridgerators and ancient stereos.

After I’d had my fill, I complemented the samosa with a rawa kachori (onion puff) and headed back in reverse, pausing only to pick up a few bottles of 8% Cobra Gold beer and gawp briefly at another riotously noisy and colorful (I’m starting to run out of adjectives) wedding procession banging and firecracking its way through the streets. I settled down on a quiet bench at a playground near the guesthouse, and amazed at finding a spot in India that was simultaneously quiet, pretty, cool and clean (an unimaginable combo in Delhi), whiled away the rest of the afternoon with a Murakami Haruki book.

Jodhpur Airport (JDH) reminds me of Indonesia’s provincial airports, although with a grand total of 4 flights a day it’s even sleepier. (The present cozy Indian/Jet duopoly is about to be shaken up though, as Deccan has announced cheapo flights from March.) It’s fairly new, thoroughly unstylish (although the exterior is shaped like an ersatz Rajput palace of blue and white), filled with police in offputting shades of brown and facilities are limited to a few tiny gift shops with extortionate prices (Rs.40 for a can of Thums Up?). The only item of food in sight was a solitary Veg Puff on the Cafe Coffee Day counter; after hearing that my flight was delayed by at least 1:30, I snatched it up and settled in for a fast. Airtel had kindly provided a phone charging point, which didn’t work, but at least the electricity outlet for it did and, thanks to my Huawei data card, it was surfin’ time.

We were eventually let into security and The Gate, but in a surprise touch Indian mollified its passengers with a free cup of coffee/chai from the solitary gift shop within. Soon enough, a mere hour after we were supposed to leave, an Airbus (still painted in the old IA livery) roared onto the tarmac and another half hour later we were let out onto the tarmac to clamber on board.

This plane was easily the crappiest-looking Airbus I’ve ever rode on: I though Thai’s A300s were museum pieces, but this A320 must have been one of the first off the assembly line, all beige plastic and scuffed fabrics. My seat pocket, for example, was torn open at the button and could only hold things if the tray was fastened shut. The windows were so beat up it was hard to see outside, although as I was sitting over the wing on a night flight I wasn’t missing much.

But soon after takeoff Indian surprised me: on this flight of slightly under an hour, we were served not just a piece of candy, but a full warm meal: rice, palak paneer, dal makhani, chapattis, pickle, mithai, a box of juice and a bottle of water. The meal was catered by TajSATS, the joint venture of the hotel behind the aforementioned maharaja’s palace and the catering wing of Singapore Airlines, and while not quite gourmet it hit the spot very nicely. Score one for state-run behemoths.

We arrived at Delhi, and spent another forty minutes lazily looping over it while we waited for a slot to land. Once on the ground, two buses most emphatically not of the low-floor variety (score minus one for protectionism) arrived to pick us up, and after corpulent grannies had huffed and puffed to hauled their bare bellies and bulky belongings on board we headed for the terminal. With no check-in bags I breezed out to meet my driver — and then spent the next half hour in a traffic jam trying to get out of the airport. Welcome back to Dilli!

India 4: D is for Depressing

Delhi in December is damp, dismal and depressing — and so is this blog entry, which veers from the trivially tiresome to the thoroughly tragic. Grab a box of Kleenex and, err, enjoy.

  • There is a kitchen in my office, about 2 sq.m. in size, with an automatic Nescafe-making machine. Two people are employed to wait in the kitchen. If somebody asks for tea or coffee, they take a cup, press the button and hand the drink to you. Only one of them has a chair.
  • In India’s state of Orissa, under one in five households has electricity.
  • Most factories in Gurgaon have signs prohibiting child labor. Instead, 8-year-olds spoon out dal and wash dishes in the dusty roadside eateries outside them, and 12-year-old rickshaw-wallahs cycle the adult workers to work.
  • Half of India’s children are malnourished. Television commercials heavily promote zero-calorie sugar substitutes.
  • The Delhi city government decided to give all elementary schoolers an aid package consisting of a school uniform, school bag, shoes and two pairs of socks, valued at Rs. 290 (~$5). This is also the price of a single 8″ pizza and a Coke at the food court in the MGF Metropolitan Mall in Gurgaon.
  • India has over 5 million people infected with HIV. Under 50,000 of them receive treatment.
  • Whenever the power fails in my condo in the evening, there is a moment of pitch black silence, and then the screams of terrified children start to echo through the tower blocks.
  • The average per capita income of Malawi, the world’s poorest country, is $161. Average per capita income in India’s Bihar state is $94.
  • “A three-year-old boy was eaten alive by a herd of pigs in a village on the outskirts of New Delhi after family members did not notice him wander outside his home. Only the boy’s limbs were recovered.” (Reuters)
  • Flat surfaces in the Indian countryside (and Delhi’s slums) are neatly lined with drying patties of cow shit. They are used by the poor for fertilizing fields, as cooking fuel, for heating houses, as insect repellant, as insulation and to provide durable flooring.
  • One of Gurgaon’s many epithets is “the Singapore of India”. Unlike its namesake, it has no public transport system, and in November alone 28 people were murdered by a gang preying on people hailing illegal cabs.
  • The average Indian spends 2.9 rupees ($0.06) on telecommunications yearly. It would require over a million of them to employ me for a year.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I’ll confess that I’m actually starting to like India, warts and all. But the next episode will probably concentrate more on Gurgaon, the bizarre yet intriguing site of a continuing slow-motion collision between hypermodern India and ageless Bharat. Tune in next time…


India 3: Jamming with the Gods

At 6 AM on a Saturday morning, I clambered into an autorickshaw for a freezing, exhaust-laden journey across pre-dawn Delhi, landing at New Delhi station half an hour before my train. Touts attached themselves to me like magnets before I even reached the building, but I stomped on: an electronic display clearly showed that Shatabdi (check) number 2018 (check) to Dehradun (check) was leaving from platform 2, so there I went, and indeed the train to Dehradun was waiting. Here was the sign for coach C7… but under it was wagon S16, containing 2nd-class sleepers, not AC chair cars. I walked the insanely long train (there must’ve been a good 30 cars) from end to end twice, not finding a single matching wagon, and asking a guy in uniform only produced an embarrassed handwave of “in that direction”. Announcements blared non-stop, but they seemed to say something about the Dehradun Shatabdi leaving from platform 11… which, I realized with a sickening feeling, was half a kilometer and a huge scrum of people away. I barged my way through, opting for the unlabeled platform between “8/9” and “12”, but the train there wasn’t mine. Only 5 minutes remained until departure and I crossed the platform: “Shatabdi”, said the sign, but to where? How do you spell “Dehradun” in Devanagari? I speedwalked onward — A/C chair car! Number 6! DEHRADUN! — and clambered aboard to claim my seat. I just about had time to catch my breath before it lurched off.

Most of the next 4.5 hours were taken up by food, brought piece by piece by bow-tied waiters balancing stacks of trays. First newspapers, then a big bottle of water, a round of tea and biscuits, then some toast, butter and gummi bear jam, a package of mango juice, some more tea, then two mashed potato croquettes with a few token peas and french fries, all spiced up with a small cockroach, a spider and an ant clambering past my seat. I munched on these goodies and stared out the window at the Indian countryside, vast rows of cow patties neatly lined up to dry near the tracks, swarthy, turbaned men trundling past fields on bullock carts, women in flourescent saris carrying jugs of water on their heads, little kids with shirts hiked up and nothing underneath shitting by the side of the track. As the train marched onward Delhi’s haze gradually lessened and countryside slowly grew greener and greener.

I arrived at Haridwar‘s station and halfheartedly haggled with a cyclerickshaw driver to take me to Hotel Teerth. After following the main road for a while, he plunged off into an incredibly dense bazaar, much too small for even an autorickshaw, much less a car, banners swiping again my head as he pedaled onward through the twisty alleys. He parked the cycle and motioned me to follow on foot, past a small herd of holy cows munching on offerings of grass, suddenly popping out on a ghat by the side of the Ganges. There was my hotel, and after a moment of confusion they even managed to find my e-mailed attempt at a reservation (or, more probably, kicked out somebody who wasn’t paying rack rate).

Teerth is a thoroughly nondescript midrange hotel where the rooms have just one redeeming feature: balconies with views over the Ganges, the riverside pier of Subhash Ghat below and the holy bathing spot of Hari-ki-Pauri just a stone’s throw away. I must’ve spent hours up there, just watching the endless parade of pilgrims young and old, rich and poor, sadhus wearing orange capes and tattered burlap sacks, some with shaved hair and otherwise with wild, matted dreadlocks, lepers pushing themselves around on carts with their bleeding fingerless stubs, itinerant vendors hawking little Chinese Buddha figures of white porcelain, with chains of glittering plastic diamonds glued onto their plump bodies. And behind it all, the Ganges still pure and turquoise, men and women alike wading in to wash themselves, their clothes and their sins.

There was only one problem: my camera, which had been acting up for a while, took this moment to stop recognizing my memory card entirely. After a fruitless fight, I gave up and left it at the hotel, setting off with only a wad of rupees in my pocket. Feeling naked yet exhilerated, like skinny-dipping in front of a Girl Scout camp, I plunged back into the fray, gobbled up some Veg Manchurian (an ascetic interpretation of an Indian version of the south Chinese version of a northeastern Chinese dish; lord only known what it originally was, but only the soy sauce and ginger seem likely to have survived) with naan and headed towards the holy temple of Mandi Devi Mandir, high up on a hill above town. A cable car proudly sporting its ISO 9001 certification ferries people there, promising them salvation in the afterlife, not to mention liability payments of up to Rs. 2 lakh (that’s around US$5000) in the unfortunate event of death. Pilgrims toting offering bags of coconuts, marigold flowers and Rice Krispies crowded into the temple in single file (enforced by steel fences), eventually compressing into a tight mass, jostling for forehead paint and positions at the altar, chanting in sync with the exhortations of the priests, the scents of incense and sweat, grains of puffed rice and flowers mashed against our bare feet, the bloated belly of some Hindu big mama pressed disturbingly against my ass. I emerged from the scrum dazed but alive, a better fate than that of four pilgrims in Bhubaneshwar that very day. Oblivious to it all, some slept on the floor, wrapped in filthy blankets, paying no heed to the clouds of flies buzzing around them.

At night, I watched the evening aarti from my balcony, Hari-ki-Pairi packed to bursting with devotees setting off dozens of diya floats of leaves, flowers and ghee candles down the river. At Chotiwala’s for dinner, the smiling waiter asked if eating their vegetarian food made me feel “special”; I think their version of paneer in curry was pretty far down my list of experiences on this day.

The next morning, I was awakened at dawn by the pilgrims chanting and singing on their way to their morning bath. The crowds were even denser than the last night, and after a breakfast of burned toast and chai, I took my seat on the balcony again, watching the show unfolding and dodging the occasional monkey.

As I still had plenty of time before my 6 PM train back, my plan had been to day-trip to Rishikesh, 26 km and some 45 minutes away. But I hadn’t figured on today being Kartik Purnima, the 15th day after Diwali, which was the reason for the crowds, and what awaited me at the bus station was utter chaos. Decrepit Ashok-Leylands packed to bursting were scattered about randomly, not a word of English anywhere and only utterly useless staff manning the ticket counters. After a few rounds, including stepping into cow shit and getting smacked in the face by a giant bluebottle fly, I found one guy who seemed to have a clue and a command of English; evidently I’d just missed one bus to Rishikesh and would have to wait for the next one. It was approaching noon and my time was slowly running out — I accepted defeat and headed to the taxi stand to charter a taxi for myself.

A “taxi” in India is, almost inevitably, an off-white Ambassador, identical in specification and prestige to the cars used by minor government functionaries. I was assigned a driver who spoke, and I quote, “mini mini” English, and after the token battle over how much I should pay in advance (we settled on 200 rupees) we set off to Rishikesh.

Or at least we tried to. After passing through the town center, we arrived at the bypass road, which the driver pointed to and said: “Jam.” How bad? “One hour, two hour, three hours…” One and a half hours of crawling along the road later, we had traveled 8 kilometers of the 26 km to Rishikesh. I did the math, stopped for a leisurely lunch at a nearby Country Inn (the fanciest hotel in Haridwar, where decent penne arrabiata cost a locally extortionate $3), and then turned around for a quick peek at Bharat Mata Mandir, the “India Mother Temple” with seven floors of statues of local worthies, ranging from Hindu deities to Sikh gurus and Mahatma Gandhi.

Then, with three hours to go before my train, we rejoined the traffic jam. The two-lane road was packed with five rows of vehicles, all stewing motionless for 5-10 minutes and then lurching forward by a few meters. Another one and a half hours passed, during which we nudged forward a total of two kilometers. I thanked my lucky stars for packing light and traveling in the winter, shouldered my backpack, and humped it on foot for the remaining 4 km into town. I got there in time to imbibe a cold Coke at Haridwar’s backpacker hub Big Ben, which features aircon, peace and quiet, pseudo-European decorations that went out of style thirty years ago and an only slightly overpriced menu.

Every square inch of the floor space in Haridwar station was occupied by dozing pilgrims. The displays showed “platform 1” for my train and, distrustful after my previous experience, I confirmed three times that yes, it was correct. The displays also showed that the train was on time, which of course it wasn’t; 15 minutes later, they said 10 minutes late, and 25 minutes later, they said 20 minutes late.

Half an hour late, the train actually came and I clambered on board. The only scenery now was the pitch black of the Indian countryside, the very occasional lighted shed floating past like the diyas of the Ganga aarti. 4.5 hours later, I arrived New Delhi station, semi-accidentally elbowed an overly insistent tout in the stomach, wheedled some spiced cashews out of the Hyatt bar staff and blasted my way to my new digs in Gurgaon, my mustachioed fortysomething driver Guldash blasting out his favorite cassette:

Whoah! We’re going to Ibiza Whoah! Back to the island Whoah! We’re gonna have a party Whoah! In the Mediterranean Sea Far away from this big town… –Vengaboys

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.