Thursday, March 4, 2010

Serial Impressions of Delhi

Left Dulles Airport at 10 p.m. Tuesday; arrived in Frankfurt at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, and landed in Delhi at 1:30 a.m. Thursday. My window seat across central Europe, Georgia, Caspian Sea, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan was wasted as I slept through the daylight hours.

Knew I was in India when 4 very large Brahma bulls walked across a main street near the hotel.

Worked all morning and until 1:30 then decided to be adventurous. Walking toward Connaught Circle, a mile away, I was struck by the filthy air and the partial/stopped/under construction everywhere, including and especially torn up sidewalks. I was picked up by a young man who is clearly in the business of guiding tourists around. He suggested a government run emporium first, waiting outside. I looked at the wares, walked out and told my guide that I wanted to take the Metro to the Red Fort (a prominent part of the history of the seige of Delhi I had read a year ago). "No, no. You need motorcycle rickshaw". Having recently experienced the death defying Bangkok tuk tuk, I thought I knew what I was in for. Not.

He made a call on his cell phone -- everyone is carrying one. in 5 minutes Kumar appeared. Later I learned he is Hindu, was born in 1946 in Pakistan, and fled with his family to Delhi after the partition of 1947. He has been driving a motorcycle rickshaw for 42 years -- and is really good at it, in the same way that Lesley Vonn is really good at downhill (but you don't want to be sitting on her shoulders). Kumar agreed to take me to the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid Mosque, key graves and a store, for as long as I wanted, for 340 rupees (about $7.50).

Off we roared. We were shortly in the old city of Delhi. Imagine K Street in Washington at 11 a.m. Keep the same number of cars and buses (but the buses are really old); drop in motorcycles at 3-4x the number of cars, motorcycle rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, and bicycles each the same number as cars; and then have pedestrians walking into the streets all along the block, wending their way through the traffic. Then have all those with horns use them at least twice a minute.

I hung on for dear life as Kumar accelerated into this maelstrom. Every couple of minutes we came within inches of smashing someone or being smashed, but Kumar always somehow avoided disaster.

Our first stop was the enormous Jama Masjid Mosque built in 1656 by the Emperor Shah Jahan, who also built the Taj Mahal. Built high up, with three marble domes covering the prayer hall and a large open area with a pool in the middle for bathing before prayer, it can hold 20,000 people in prayer. Shedding my shoes and socks, donning a full length skirt to cover up my bare legs from shorts, and paying my 200 rupee fee ($5) to take pictures, I was taken over by another guide -- a short, animated, intense guy who spent 45 minutes teaching me about the place entirely with grunts, gestures and facial expressions.

We walked on the prayer rugs under the domes; he showed me the pock marks on the exterior walls created by bullets in some attack; he showed me the cracks and destruction from an earthquake (throwing his hands in the air); he pointed out the sheep for sacrifice grazing on the roofs of some buildings below; he trotted me way up one of the minarets for a birds eye view of Delhi. It must have been a couple of hundred steps in a tight circular upward path.

At the top, I joined 8 other tourists, precariously perched on some of the 18 inch wide circle of stone around the open hole of the stairs down. OSHA would close it down. I took pictures from all directions, especially the long line of the walls of the Red Fort, but the air was so dirty I don't think they will show much.

Back down on the main level, my guide took me to the far corner, where in a room in the wall, women were allowed to pray. He called the head guy in the front, who moved the women forward, and proceeded to open the large padlock on a large white wooden chest at the back of the room. The head guy crawled into the space. I was told to stand and watch, as the guide told the curious crowd to stand back.

The head guy spoke reasonable English . I was amazed when he proceeded to share with me the holy relics of the Mosque. I have no idea whether these are genuine, but it was amazing to have them presented to me. The first was a fragment of the Koran written on deer skin by Ali, son in law of the Prophet, and founder of the Shiite faith. The other part of it, he said, is in a museum in Istanbul. The second relic is another part of the Koran written on deer skin by Mohammed's grandson. The third was a long, beard hair of the Prophet, mounted in an airtight glass case. The fourth was the remains of his right sandal. The final relic was a foot print of the right foot of Mohammed; again the other is in the Istanbul Museum.

Throughout the presentation, both my guide and this head guy kept shooing the curious locals back. Go figure. On request for a contribution of some sort, I was happy to contribute 200 rupees.

Off to the Red Fort. It is an enormous sandstone structure covering 10s of acres with walls 60 feet high or more. Kumar apparently has a very low opinion of it (and there is clearly no convenient parking), because he told me the only thing I should do is photograph the front gate quickly as we turned at the closest intersection. He said my 500 rupee ticket to get in would show me nothing. Based on the book I read, I think he is wrong, but I wasn't going to fight my tour guide.

At an intersection an 8 or 9 year old boy squirmed his way into the middle of the stopped traffic to try to sell cheap plastic pens. He tried to force them on me. When I refused, and the traffic started to move, his hand darted to the seat next to me and stole the postcard of the Mosque I had been given by my tour guide there.

Everywhere I am struck by the number of people, almost invariably men, who are standing, sitting or lounging on the streets, apparently doing nothing. In stark contrast are men straining on the pedals of bicycle rickshaws overloaded with stuff, and men straining to pull and push two wheel carts with enormous loads.

I see 30 men squatting in a row, each with a bag of tools, ready to be hired for carpentry work. I see rows of bicycle mechanics working by the roadside fixing bikes and pedicabs. I see innumerable tiny pharmacies and dental offices, and then an enormous hospital. Once an ambulance goes by. I cannot imagine that there are not trauma injuries occuring every second in the city. Amazingly, everyone on motorbikes is wearing a helmet. Otherwise, this city is a field day for injury prevention specialists. However, this city would clearly grind to a total halt if 20 percent of the drivers drove defensively.

Next stop was the grave of Jahawarl Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. His ashes are in a mound set in a very large public park that has the remains of all the modern heros of India: mostly the assassinated Gandhis: Mahatma, and Nehru's offspring. The signs at each entrance describe it as "a sacred place", frequented by foreign visitors, and plead with Indians to keep the grounds nice.

Walking to Nehru's grave in this public park, I encountered 4 children, ranging from 3 to 6. One was a naked boy. The eldest tried to beg from me half-heartedly.

I gave my respects to Nehru, who I remember admiring while he lived. His grave is a simple mound of grass, backed by a stone wall with quotations from him. Behind it is the grave of his assasinated grandson, Sanjay Gandhi. It is in a park with a pond. What a contrast from old Delhi from which I had just come! Walking out by a different route, I came upon a 3-4 year old girl standing in front, crying. That has bothered me ever since. I didn't know what to do. In the US I would have picked up the child, found a social services office, and turned her over. Here I simply did the stupid thing of greeting her and trying to make her smile.

Two hundred yards, and five kids with whom I could have pulled a Madonna.

Driving down the road next to the park we passed large gates with signs for the graves of Indira Gandhi and then her son, Rajiv. Then we arrive at the memorial to the founder of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi. A long walkway with fountains leads to a raised berm in a square with a walkway on top to look down on a 100 square yard place in the middle of which is a large two foot think black granite slab with his initials and flowers on top, next to an eternal gas light flame. After taking pictures and having them taken of me, I went around to the side where no one was, kneeled, and gave thanks for the man of my century who I believe is closest to a saint.

Diving into more terrifying traffic we suddenly were on a four lane overpass, over another four lane road. Kumar shouted to me: "Delhi yesterday (with his thumb pointing back); Delhi today (pointing down at the bridge)". Indeed, it was the proverbial two sides of the tracks. We went to see the Krishna Temple, a modern Hindu temple, passing loads of apartments, government buildings, schools and the like.

Kumar then delivered me to the tourist shop. Presumably he gets a cut on whatever I spend there. He waits outside. I am warmly greeted by a phalanx of highly motivated salespeople.

Basement is rugs, first floor curios and women's bags, second floor women's garments, and third floor bronze curios (including to die for large elephants like I climbed on as a child, but my grandmother left to my cousins). Great stuff. I am jumped on by Omar, a super salesman originally from Kashmir. He makes the guy (of the same age and style) in Bangkok a month ago (who got up to 6 suits and 15 shirts before I escaped) look like a rank amateur. Omar proceeds to tell me about wool from under the neck of baby goats (where it has no exposure to rain or sun), about girls who spent two months embroidering the single traditional Indian tunic I should buy, about families that spend not 3 or 4, but 3 1/2 years making a single rug, about them tearing up patterns so the rug is unique.

I make it clear that I can't buy a rug without consultation. I take pictures. The price on an amazing Kashmiri 6X9 keeps coming down. It started at $2700. I have an offer of $1500 including VAT and shipping as I walk out the door.

When I escape and get back in the motorcycle rickshaw, Kumar says: "Why didn't you buy the rug?" I roar with laughter and explain. He goes back to talk with the gaggle of men sitting on plastic chairs outside the store, returns, and off we go.

We pass a quarter mile of stables of city draft horses along a main road, just before the huge international hotel where 12 field hockey teams are staying now for the World Championships.

What a day! Back to hotel, swim in a very cold pool, steam room for a while, cold shower and wonderful Indian dinner. Hours more calls and work. Life is good.

1 comment:

elgooG said...

It's exciting to read your blog! Will visit often :)