Saturday, January 7, 2012

Two Sides of Delhi and the Absence of the Middle Class

Lodi Garden, New Delhi
After waking up at 3:30am this morning feeling too awake for that time of night and then falling back asleep before waking up completely ready to start the day at 4:30am, I am determined not to take a nap at all today like I did yesterday. I need to force myself to stay awake during the day no matter how tired I am to try and switch over to the India time zone. 
Tomb in Lodi Garden

As I sit down to write this, it is 8pm and I have succeeded in not taking a nap today as well as in trying Indian cuisine! I also got a chance to use my new point and shoot camera I got for Christmas to replace the unfortunate toilet camera. It was an eventful day for me and I have now discovered for myself that there are two sides to India (or at least to Delhi): yes, you can get things very cheaply here but there is also a high-end lifestyle as well. I discovered this while out shopping. I think there is an assumption that because I am a foreigner (more specifically, a westerner), that I have money. Certainly not the case. I found some shop owners willing to listen to me when I said “no” to things that were out of my price range and others that did not. More on shopping later... Delhi itself is a very interesting city. I saw much more of it today and I can’t quite figure out how best to describe it. I’ll start from the beginning. I spent a few hours this morning reading since I was awake at an obscenely early hour. Once I determined it was a respectable morning hour, I got up and got ready to head out. I walked to the metro station and took it one stop to Rajiv Chowk which is at the center of Connaught Place. My plan was to head to the official India Tourist office to get a better map (mine fails to show many of the streets and also doesn’t name them). I walked out of one of the several exits of the metro unsure if I had exited at the appropriate gate. When I walked out, I found myself in the middle of a deserted torn up road. Looking clearly unsure of what to do, a man asked me where I was going and offered to point me in the right direction. The India tourist office was unfortunately on the road that was being completely reconstructed. With help, I did make it there and was immediately offered chai tea as I discussed my plans (or more accurately, lack thereof) with one of the tourist workers. The office was a lot smaller than I thought it would be (I foolishly had something in mind more like the tourist offices in Scandinavia).  Although all I had planned to get from the office was a better map of Delhi, I left with a map, a personal guide for the day to take me on a tour of Delhi, and a completely planned two day/one night trip to Rishikesh - a town at the base of the Himalayas and the start of the Ganges River. I am sure I could have planned the trip myself for much cheaper than the price I paid for it, but at least I don’t have to worry about anything and it is all inclusive (including guided tours of Rishikesh and the surrounding area) except for a couple of meals. Plus, it actually turned out to be around the same cost as one of my weekend excursions while I was in Sweden. 

Parliament House
After my second cup of chai tea, one of the other workers took me to a shop that is apparently known for it’s textiles. This was an example of a high-end shopping place in Delhi and a place where the shop owner was not listening when I repeatedly told him that I was a student and could not afford the hand-detailed 100% pashmina wool scarf. I ended up caving and buying a nice pashmina scarf (although not the hand-detailed one) and was feeling quite concerned that I had been taken advantage of until I did price comparisons at a couple of local bazaars. Turns out that 100% pashmina is expensive, even in India. I have learned my lesson that I need to be more forceful and aggressive in my “no” and I think by the time I leave India, I will be much better at that and at haggling prices - two things that are difficult for a girl from the midwest of Scandinavian decent who just spent 10 weeks in Sweden where “forceful and aggressive” don’t seem to exist. After that successful&failure of a shopping trip, we headed back to the tourist office where I met my driver for the day. It was really nice to have a personal guide although I would have liked to have had the opportunity to meet people on a larger tour. I enjoyed my experience today, but I think after I return from Rishikesh, I will join a (cheaper) group tour to see more of the sights of Delhi. 

Lodi Garden
My personal tour today focused on sights in New Delhi. In a really old city has been rebuilt and expanded several times with a population of around 13 million, it is all but impossible to see all the sights in one day. We started out with a drive around the Parliament House and the President’s home. All of the government buildings are in one area and I was immediately impressed by their size and elegance. They were built during the time of the British colonization and are surrounded by lush green gardens. I took some quick pictures from the car because you are not supposed to take pictures of any government buildings/structures in India. After the Parliament House, we drove by the India Gate which is a memorial to the 90,000 soldiers that died fighting in WWI. We then made our way to the Lodi Garden. I was not expecting what I saw when I went walking through the garden. The garden houses tombs from the 15th century of Sayiid and Lodi rulers that are remarkably well preserved. It also is an incredibly lush garden and green space. The air was cool and seemed fresher than in many of the other areas of Delhi that I had been to. I got a brief history lesson at one of the tombs sites from a local guy trying to earn some rupees off of tourists. As I was walking around, a fellow walker greeted me (change from Sweden where strangers never greet you) and asked where I was from. When I said the USA, his response was "That's one of my favorite countries!" I couldn't help but feel slightly proud. From the gardens, we made our way to the Indira Ghandi Memorial Museum. I didn’t go into the museum (although admission is free) because I wanted more to get a sense of Delhi on my day’s excursion. It looks like a fascinating museum and I will definitely need to come here before I leave Delhi. Thankfully I have one full day after I return from Rishikesh in Delhi plus another two full days after I get back from Jaipur before I head off to Bangalore. We left the museum and made our way to a nearby bazaar which was located inside a large building and sold everything from textiles, to rugs, to trinkets, to jewelry, and more. There are several salespeople offering tea and wanting to be of assistance for my shopping. I’m guessing they work for commission. I learned here that you pay for the quality that you get. The bazaar “pashmina” was not the same as the high-end “pashmina” and even as a novice in textiles, I could tell a significant difference in the quality. I felt a little better about my splurge earlier that morning. 

Lodi Garden
When I finished browsing at the bazaar, my driver suggested stopping for lunch. I requested something with good Indian food that was relatively cheap. My driver had the perfect place. I asked my server what he thought the best dish was at the restaurant. He first asked me what I wanted in terms of spiciness. Knowing that I probably was not ready to handle the Indian idea of “hot,” I settled for mild-moderate. He suggested the butter chicken. On this menu, you could choose between a full, half, and quarter order. I had no idea what this meant in terms of portions so I ordered a half. Another lesson learned - always order the smallest size possible when buying a meal for one. The half order was huge and in addition to the butter chicken, I had a plate of rice and garlic nan. I maybe ate about half of my food before I was too full to finish. It was delicious and I am proud to have had my first real Indian food in India. 

Lotus Temple
Next stop was the Lotus Temple (Bahai House of Worship). It is a new (built in the 1980s) temple built for followers of the Bahai faith and is in the shape of a lotus flower. All are welcome to meditate and pray in the interior. The Bahai faith centers on peace and the building itself emulates that. It is a beautiful large marble structure with clear blue pools of water surrounding it. Like all holy places in India, you are required to remove your shoes before entering the temple. They have “shoe checks” where you drop your shoes off and are given a number which after your visit you turn back in to retrieve your shoes. It was kind of fun to be walking around barefoot in the temple. Right before I left the temple, I walked into the bathroom thinking it would be a good place for a pit stop. HA! I have to say that one really good thing about surgical rotations is that they teach you to hold it for long, long periods of time. Not sure that is quite healthy, but on occasion it comes in really handy. The toilets were of the more typical Indian style - a hole in the ground. That didn’t bother me so much as the fact that the method of cleaning yourself is not through toilet paper, but with a jug of water and your left hand. There also was not soap at the sinks. No, thank you. I will use those if I am absolutely desperate but I really hope not to find myself desperate on any point on this trip. I also am carrying around a small amount of toilet paper and hand sanitizer with me to make sure if I do find myself needing to use those toilets, I won’t have to use my hand to wipe. 

Lotus Temple
Delhi is full of bazaars and after leaving the Lotus Temple, we headed to another one nearby. This bazaar was a fixed price bazaar and seems to benefit from the hordes of tourists that visit the Lotus Temple. When I walked in, a woman employee immediately attached herself to me as my “personal shopper” for the bazaar. She was delightful and actually listened to me when I said I was a student and didn’t want to spend a lot of money. We walked around to the different sections of the bazaar where she served me a chai tea and showed me the various qualities of products with the prices. If there was something I liked, she would ask what quality level I wanted and then would pull out a multitude of colors in that quality level for me to choose from. She didn’t try to pressure me much and I found the shopping experience to be a lot of fun. It was here that I found that the price I paid for my authentic pashmina was a fair one. I guess that will be my one expensive authentic India gift for myself. 

My driver was going to take me Humayun’s Tomb for our last stop of the tour but unfortunately the road to the Tomb was so backed up with traffic that we were unable to get there. That is definitely on my list of places to visit on one of my three full days I have left in Delhi. Instead, we went to a very new Hindu temple - the Swaminarayan Akshardham. The temple was built in 2005 and is massive and over the top ornamental. The grounds are overwhelmingly huge (100 acres of land). To enter the temple, I was required to go through an extensive security check. The only personal items allowed into the temple were my passport, money, and jewelry. I went through a metal detector followed by a wand search then a pat down more invasive then any I have had in any airport in the US. Thankfully there are separate sections for women and men for this search. I’m not sure whether to feel comforted by the security measures or alarmed by them. The Delhi metro has a similar security system although the pat down is not quite as invasive. You are required to go through a metal detector, a wand search, and a pat down and place your bags through the security x-ray. The temple itself is built entirely of pink stone and marble without any use of steel. It is the most ornamental architectural work of art I have seen so far in my travels. The building is comprised of thousands of detailed sculptures of Hindu gods, elephants, and other symbols of the Hindu faith. Like the Bahai Temple, I had to remove my shoes before entering. Inside the temple was a huge gold plated statue of the yogi Bhagwan Swaminarayan for whom the temple was erected. He was a child yogi starting at the age of 11 and is an example of Indian culture and the Hindu faith. The exhibits at the temple provide a detailed historical background but due to time constraints, I limited myself to just wandering the grounds and the temple and being impressed by their richness. 

The visit to this temple was a perfect example of the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty that I have found in Delhi. The temple is rich, lavish, ornamental, and a complete example of Indian luxury and wealth. This is in contrast to the neighborhood of my hotel with its dingy crowded streets and run down buildings. The neighborhood of my hotel is also a contrast to the lush green spaces of nearby New Delhi with it’s wide tree-lined avenues and gardens and parks. Delhi is a city that has been rebuilt and and added to throughout its history and this is apparent when traveling through the city. There are areas of the city that provide me with a picture from Haiti - rubbish and crumbled remains of buildings that once stood at the site, homes made from scrap materials very reminiscent to the slums of Haiti and the tent cities, and homelessness. Then there are areas of Delhi that are clean and green with brand-new modern skyscrapers displaying the names of international and local corporations. The 11th annual international car exposition is in Delhi this upcoming week bringing in more examples of wealth to contrast the poverty that exists in the city. The best I can describe it is a city of juxtaposition and extremes - wealth or poverty. The middle class does not seem to exist to any large extent in Delhi. Next up, my trip to Rishikesh and the northern mountainous region of India. Namaste.

1 comment:

  1. beth you are so brave! look at you haggling in bazaars in india! you're amazing. also, the bathroom situation-omg. soo glad you came prepared. omg. speechless. ps: i miss you!