Monday, November 26, 2012

NEVER GET OUT OF THE BOAT! India 2012 part 4

View from the roof. Sunstar Heights, Delhi
I awoke early and climbed the stairs to the roof of my hotel. What an amazing view of my neighborhood, Karol Bagh. There was still a thick haze covering the city and the thick smoke turned the sun into a rusty hole in the sky. 

I noticed two little beggar girls on the street below motioning me to come down. I really wanted to walk the streets and get a feel for the city, so I grabbed my mom and we headed down. The moment we headed out, the two girls came up to us and asked for money so that they could eat. They spoke a little English but kept repeating , "Chapati, chapati." Chapati, I later learned was an Indian flatbread. They also kept saying, "For the baby. For the baby." and they motioned behind them. Across the street a small group of children had gathered and in the middle was the aforementioned baby. I asked if I could take a picture of them and they said, OK. 

"Chapati, chapati. For the baby."
Once we hit the streets, we had beggars hitting us up from both sides. A group of female beggars rushed us and asked for money, exclaiming, "Chipati, chipati. For the baby, for the baby." A few of them even grabbed my shoes, stopping me from moving. We broke free and slipped away behind a few cars and came out on the other side of the street. That's when the rickshaw crew hit us. A popular move with vendors is to engage conversation with you. They will ask where you are from and if you want to see the city. No less than 3 rickshaw drivers crowded us all wanting to take us to see Delhi's wonderful sights. We explained that we already had a driver and he would be picking us up soon. That's when the bidding war started with each driver promising that their guided tour would surpass each other's. My head was spinning. We politely said no and headed back to the safety of our hotel. The beggars returned and my mom and I, weaving in and out of traffic, escaped their advances. 

The lesson learned was that it was OK to ignore people. That kind of was a sting for me. I like to talk to people. I want to know what is going on in your neighborhood. I need to know what makes you tick. Unfortunately, that type of interaction encourages vendors, hawkers, beggars that you want to do "business" with them. Actually, it took me a few tries before actually learning my lesson. More on that later.

View #2, rooftop, Sunstar Heights, Delhi

View from my window. 
Once we were back in our hotel, we patiently waited for our driver, Keshav, to show us around the city. I had wanted to see some sights, but most importantly I wanted to visit the National Museum. I read that they had an awesome musical instrument exhibition. Plus I love looking at relics and art. 

Keshav showed up and we loaded into the Indian mystery machine and we were off to see the town. 

The Indian driving experience is mind blowing. Drivers drive on the left side of the road and the driving seat is on the right side of the car. Although lanes are marked, they are ignored. A typical three lane road will usually accommodate 5 lanes of vehicles. Buses mix with mini vans. Mini vans mix with tuk tuk's. Tuk tuk's mix with motorcycles. Motorcycles mix with rickshaws. Rickshaws mix with bicycles. Somewhere in between are the pedestrians. It's an amazing process and utterly jaw dropping to witness. Amazingly, despite the chaos, I only witnessed one small collision. And this was between a bicycle and motorcycle. 

Our first stop was the India GateThe India Gate was a monument built to commemorate the First World War between Pakistan and India. I knew this because a man selling a toy made from rubber bands told me this. This vendor looked like an Indian version of Viggo Mortenson. Scores of  of people came up to mom and I trying to sell us things. One guy had a glass hookah that you used to smoke cigarettes from. Another guy had small wooden elephants. Another guy wanted to take our picture "holding" the monument in our hands.

The Viggo look alike was a great source of information, but he kept following us hoping we would buy his toy. He was really bummed when I finally told him that I did not want what he was selling. I probably should have bought one, but at that point, it was not something that interested me at all. As we were leaving, I told him good luck on the rest of the day. He turned back and told me that it has nothing to do with luck. It then hit me the true source of his disappointment. He was bummed because he thought his presentation was lacking. He prided himself on his selling technique. Because he did not make a sale meant that his technique was not good. This also became evident in a clothing store in Jaipur. The owner asked why my mom didn't buy anything from his store. It must have meant that he had a poor selling technique. 

The awesome India Gate, Delhi.
Our driver, Keshav, then took us to a shop. It's well known that drivers or guides have a relationship with certain store owners who pay them commission for bringing clients in. I'm positive that this was the case here. The store had three stories of Indian wares. Silver daggers, bronze deities, jewelry, clothing, carpets and a huge selection of shawls. They had some musical instruments too but they were all children's toys. Despite bargaining on a few items, now, I can honestly say that we paid way too much. This was our first day and our bargaining skills were not up to par. These would come out later in the trip. 

While we were paying for our goods, I saw a poster hanging on the wall behind the counter. It depicted a headless man swinging a sword. He was holding his own decapitated head. The shop owner informed me that this was Baba Deep Singh. Baba Deep Singh was a great warrior and subsequent martyr in the Sikh religion. After hearing that a holy Sikh shrine was demolished by an Afghan warlord, Deep Singh, already in his late 70's, gathered up men from the local villages to atone for the desecration and rebuild the temple. The Sikhs and Afghans battled and Deep Singh was decapitated. So great was the might of the warrior that he picked up his own head and continued fighting, his army defeating the Afghans. Deep Singh's double edged sword has been preserved in a temple in Western India! Heavy!!

The mighty warrior, Baba Deep Singh.

After that mighty battle it was time to eat. I urged Keshav to take us somewhere where kings and queens eat, as we were starving! He took us to a place called the Spice House. It was empty when we got there so I was a little nervous. I had heard so much about people getting sick in India because of the food so I was slightly hesitant in ordering. I stuck to what I know best; beans, rice and tortillas. Only in India, it's called dal makhani, vegetable biryani and naan. When the food came, we tore into it like wild dogs. It was so good. I washed it down with a beer called Kingfisher. My group and I would be drinking a lot of Kingfisher in the weeks to come. We paid our bill, our driver got his commission and were out of there!

Pretty much all I ate in India for lunch and dinner. Beans, rice and tortillas, Indian style. 
After some discussion with Keshav about not doing anymore shopping, he reluctantly took my mom and I to the National Museum. Keshav was cool, but he kept wanting to take us places that we did not want to go. I'm assuming that we wanted his commission from the stores where we would have taken us. 

Well, the National Museum did not fail to impress. It was four floors of Indian antiquity housed in a musty and creaky mansion. My mom elected to stay on the first floor as I wandered the museum. There were many great exhibitions to view. My favorite was the instrument floor. Many great relics packed into a small and airless room. There were guards everywhere. It was great! 

After the rush of the museum, my mom and I were worn out. Keshav wanted to take us to a few more places, but I told him to take us back to the hotel. We would have to meet out group in a few hours, and we wanted to get some rest and freshen up. 

Saw some interesting things on the way back to the hotel. I saw a funeral procession. The body was covered in a white sheet and there were 4 men carrying it on a board. They were headed to the crematorium. The corpse was decorated with colorful flowers. I saw a guy riding an elephant down the street. I had to slap myself to make sure that I was really seeing this. There were also whole families riding on one motorcycle. Oldest in the rear and youngest upfront. 

Hanuman temple. Delhi
Needless to say, we slept in. Our meet up was scheduled for 6:00 PM in the tiny hotel lobby and it was already 5:45! Ugh! We both felt like crap as we stumbled blindly trying to get ready. The hotel desk even called us to say we were late. Double ugh! We slithered down the stairs and met our group leader for the first time. His name was Saurabh Joshi. He spoke great English and was a friendly guy. Good start. I briefly met the rest of our group and we all walked over to a different hotel where we would all get to know each other during our group meeting. 

Our fearless leader, Saurabh Joshi. 
Intrepid Travel's policy is to have small tour groups on each of their trips. Our group, including our group leader, included 13 people total. It was the perfect amount. We piled into the conference room of a different hotel and introduced ourselves. We said our names and where we were from. Our group was pretty diverse. We had a family of five from Brighton, England. A couple from Golds Coast, Queensland in Australia, one gentleman from Manchester, England and another couple from Australia. After a briefing of our tour, we walked the intense streets of Karol Bagh and ate our first dinner together at a restaurant called CrossRoad in the Hotel Airpit Palace, just a few blocks away from our own hotel. Every time I see the name I think Hotel Armpit. The CrossRoad logo was a hamburger, but I ordered my Indian staple. Dal, biryani and naan. Had an extra strong Kingfisher to calm my nerves. Life is good!

I sub-titled my India trip, NEVER GET OUT OF THE BOAT, from a classic line in Francis Ford Coppola's film, Apocalypse Now. Two of the film's characters venture in the jungle, leaving the safety of their boat which had been traveling down a river, in search for mangoes. They are accosted my a tiger and one of the men, hysterically threatens to never leave the safety of his boat. He's mad, tears his clothes, eyes rolling in his head. For him, getting out of the boat implies danger; death. And's that's how I felt. As we walked down the dark streets to get back to our hotel, I peered down strange and alien alleyways feeling a sense of fear (imagined or not). My safety net was our group leader, our boat was his knowledge of the streets. Any deviation would also mean certain death. And during the remainder of the trip, our group would venture down the river seeing sights, hearing sounds, of things new, sacred, immense, unnatural. Demons and angels would peer from dark places, high in the sky. Holy men, tattered and torn, would cast shadows miles long. Temples, stone and forlorn would rise from the ground, monolithic in size. Ghostly waves of sound crept out in the early morning like angry phantoms wanting to devour. I've already been in India one day, but from this moment on, the journey would begin now. 

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