I have heard many things about India.
That one will either love it or hate it. That one will inevitably and surely fall very ill on their first visit, and that it will be a sickness like no other. That any sense of rationality or reason that one has, will be challenged and defied in India. That one must spend a minimum of 3 months to get a feel for India. That no matter how long one spends in India, one will never understand it.
I was very excited to finally have the opportunity to visit India. I don’t know why, but I always felt that I should put off going to India until I felt that I was ready. I wanted to be in a good state of mind, in a good place in my life, and with more experienced eyes to be able to see what I was meant to see. I wanted to make this virgin passage to India with a maturity and curiosity that would be worthy of experiencing the soul of this beautiful country. Little did I know that I was in for some serious spiritual ass kicking.
My brother and his family moved to New Delhi a couple of years ago, and it was the perfect opportunity for me to visit them. It always makes a difference to know somebody who lives there and to have a place to stay. They have already experienced the traveler’s diarrhea, the stomach aches and numerous other mystery illnesses that come with living in a city like New Delhi, and they warned me to be careful with food, water and frequent hand washing. They were so concerned with making sure that I didn’t get sick, that for the first 2 weeks of my 3 week visit, we stuck to home cooked food and upscale restaurants. The restaurant scene is quite lively in New Delhi with an explosion of establishments offering authentic global cuisine, and I was excited to explore this part of the city.
I had amazing Indian food at Sahib, Sindh and Sultan Restaurant in Gurgaon. A Sindh Thandai drink made with milk, crushed almonds, saffron and cardamom was delicious. Tandoori Malai prawns flavored with lemon were plump and juicy, and the traditional dahl was rich. Their specialty, Butter Chicken curry or Murg Makhani, was one of the best that I have ever had. It was so delicious that I was scraping every last bit of curry off the spoon with my garlic naan.
The Smoke House Deli, inside of the Emporium Mall, was a relative newcomer to the restaurant scene. The adorable interior with stenciled wallpaper and printed frames was too cute for words, and the clean and sterile environment of this deli-restaurant was almost surreal. I felt like I was in a Parisian bistro, far away from the polluted streets of New Delhi right outside of the building where dirty street dogs sniffed through heaps of garbage on the pavement.
I had a glass of refreshing kiwi, cantaloupe melon, lemonade and jasmine tea cooler with big succulent chunks of fresh fruit. We even had imported Italian wine, a Rubicon Trebbiano, with the house special filet mignon, a tenderloin steak with rosemary emulsion, and a lightly smoked lamb shank with tamarind hash and rosemary quenelle. The food wasn’t to die for, but I was impressed to be having contemporary cuisine in the heart of this city. The menu offered soy and vegan options in addition to angus burgers and ham sandwiches, making it apparent that there was a large ex-pat community in New Delhi that the restaurant was trying to target.
I couldn’t help but feel uneasy and uncomfortable stepping out of the restaurant and into the shopping mall where wealthy Indian madams toting Louis Vuitton bags and flashing their decadently embellished saris pranced from the Gucci store to the Armani store while their humble chauffeurs waited outside. How ironic that these drivers relieve their full bladders on building walls and eat 50 rupee street food for lunch while their employers recklessly use Platinum credit cards for pleasure? The privileged rich had a greed and hunger for precious gems and stones for which India is very popular, and I saw many women flaunting their gigantic rocks. Yet they paid their servants and maids mere pennies for long hours of intense labor. I was starting to see numerous contrasts and contradictions in this city of New Delhi.
The streets of New Delhi were always congested, from dawn till dusk, with a mix of rickshaws, auto rickshaws, taxis and chauffered import cars. Sacred yet filthy cows dominated traffic while monkeys, dogs, camels and goats also stirred up more back ups on the main roads. On one occasion, on our way to drop off my niece at her school, we witnessed a strange sight. 2 lamborghinis, one white and the other blue, were racing each other through the chaotic morning streets as they aggressively swiped past elderly men on bicycles and auto rickshaws clearly carrying 3 times their capacity of passengers. I hardly ever see lamborghinis in Los Angeles- what were they doing in New Delhi? Rich and poor constantly collided yet co-existed in this capital city of India.
I also witnessed this stark contrast of wealth in every hotel that we visited. For a city that has no infrastructure for public sanitation and street cleaning, I was flabbergasted at the high quality of world class hotels. Urination and defecation on public streets is not unusual in New Delhi, especially in areas close to the numerous slums scattered throughout the city, yet the majority of hotels were more impressive than any that I have been to in Tokyo or Los Angeles. Marbled floors in the grand entrances of each hotel were so clean that the 3 second rule was more like the 3 minute rule. Outdoor and indoor bars were fully stocked with the finest spirits from around the globe and mixologists who were prepared to shake up any cocktail of choice. Nicola Conte’s funky beats livened up beautiful lounges with plush couches that young rich socialites would love to party at. Impressive interior decor of historic Mughal style and modern contemporary flair decked the jaw dropping hallways of these institutions which saw no paucity of ex-pats and rich locals alike.
The Aman Resort was my favorite hotel, but a close second was the historic Imperial Hotel where I had a delicious chicken masala dosa and a tomato onion uttapam. This colonial style hotel, lavishly decorated with expensive artwork and Italian furniture, was the kind of upscale place that could bring out the snob in any humble human being.
Another cultural contradiction struck me. Here I was in one of the finest hotels in the world, getting first class service from the most attentive staff imaginable. The highly efficient staff wouldn’t allow so much as a crumb to land on my lap, and the degree of hospitality was almost overwhelming. A simple question of ‘where is the restroom’ would inevitably lead to 3 people escorting me and practically wiping my butt for me. Yet, outside of the hotel environment, in any store or business in the real outside world, an unfathomable degree of inefficiency and lack of work ethics would prevail.
Outside on the streets of New Delhi, in any store that I would go to, I would receive a beautiful smile and a warm welcome. They would all enthusiastically answer to my requests with a cheerful ‘Right away miss!’ or ‘In one minute’. Yet, they would continue to talk on their cell phone or finish eating their plate of dahl for 30 minutes before I would have to remind them again, to which they would give me the same response. I quickly learned that I cannot take things literally in India. If one promises to have something done in 1 day, I need to clench my teeth and accept the fact that it probably means 1 week. If somebody says ‘right away’, I should probably go home, take a shower, eat lunch and come back after a long nap, at which point there will still be a long wait. When I would ask my sister-in-law about these things, she would only shake her head and say ‘That’s India’.
Like most modern cities with a long rich history, it was interesting to see old architecture and UNESCO sites try to co-exist in the same space with high rises and new office developments. It wasn’t unusual to see numerous McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken stores flanked between paratha stands and samosa stalls. I took a peek at the McDonald’s menu, and did not see anything familiar on the menu. Maharaja chicken sandwich, Paneer salsa wrap and McAloo Tikki were so beyond the golden arches that I couldn’t even get myself to try one for kicks.
I was having a difficult time wrapping my head around the fact that in this country with such deep religious roots, I was observing a city that was so plagued with poverty yet simultaneously infected with the desire to flaunt wealth. India is where Siddhartha became Buddha, the Enlightened One, and where he spread the message of letting go of all humanly desires in order to be free from suffering. I didn’t see any of his teachings being carried out in New Delhi, where any bit of wealth and social status was openly flaunted and advertised. Rich and perfectly coiffed Bollywood stars dominated news headlines, sending young people the message that it’s better to be wealthy and beautiful. Fair skin, green eyes and a mean six pack abdomen will get you what you need in life, not who you are or how you give back to your community. Apparently facial bleaching creams are all the rave in India, as women desperately try to throw away their natural beauty for a more Westernized look.
In this country where foreigners make their pilgrimage to seek a path to Nirvana by attending yoga retreats, ashrams or Ayurvedic camps, crime and cheating is rampant. When I bought a travel guidebook for my India trip, I was surprised and appalled to see that the first 50 pages of this book were dedicated to featuring traveler’s horror stories and travel don’ts. How people got drugged at restaurants and teahouses, only to wake up the next morning naked, bagless and passport-less. How they would inadvertently get jipped through local travel companies and tour guides, and end up having to pay hundreds of dollars in excess. How women would get kidnapped and raped. How not to trust anyone, because the smiling benevolent appearing good samaritan is the one who is scamming you. Is this really what it’s like in India? Maybe it’s just New Delhi, I thought, and hoped that my trip to the Taj Mahal would be different.
Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world. A sacred and beautiful mausoleum that Shah Jahan built for his beloved wife. Behold this white jewel of India, this ethereal beauty that radiates bright light in the city of Agra. That was what I wanted to feel, but it was really difficult with the numerous boys who hustled me every 5 meters to buy a Taj badge or a Taj calendar. ‘Look miss, good quality. OK, for you special price, I give you for 200 rupees.’ Imagine 10 boys surrounding you in a circle, all shoving poorly constructed and frankly ugly Taj souvenirs in your face, not leaving your side until the next group surrounds you. They are not allowed to enter the Taj grounds, so I thought that I was safe when I went through the entrance gates. But another even more aggressive group of tour guides, claiming to give me a good price for an English tour, came chasing after me. I couldn’t get a moment of peace in order to take in the majestic sight of this world wonder. ‘That’s India’, I could hear my sister-in-law saying.
As I watched the sun set behind the Taj, I sighed at the thought of another adventure packed day in India coming to an end, and reflected back on my growing confusion over the different opposing dynamics at play in this culture. I’ve visited many countries where there was such a stark disparity of social status and wealth, but not to this extent. It seemed like the Indian caste system was very much alive and present, even in New Delhi, where the social stratification was an accepted and matter-of-fact way of life. Was I completely naive in thinking that by the 21st century, this system would have been completely abolished?
Back in New Delhi, I had a conversation with my 10 year old niece about Indian street children. They were present everywhere you looked, and even if you weren’t looking, they would remind you with an aggressive knock on your car window at a stop light. Sometimes they would press a baby, wrapped in tattered dirty cloths, right up to the window to show you how desperate their situation was. My niece told me that her teachers at school suggested donating food and candy, but not money. The money may not necessarily go to the children, but to their leader or pimp who would use it for something else. On several occasions my niece rolled down the car window to distribute cookies and snacks. But every time she did so, the street children, expecting money and hard cash, gave my niece a dissatisfied and critical look. You just can’t win…’That’s India’.
By the end of the second week, I was getting impatient with myself for seeing and judging India through a foreigner’s privileged eyes. I wanted to go deeper into this culture and try to see a little more of the truth that lay buried under the cloak of expatriate comforts. I became friends with a local chef, who wanted to take me to Chandni Chowk, the oldest marketplace in Old Delhi. He told me that this was where the true essence of Indian life existed, and where I would feel the raw crudeness of the working class spirit. I was excited to finally try some real Indian street food.
But alas, although I was extra careful with sanitary precautions and food choices, I became ill. Yes, everybody told me that I would almost certainly get sick on my first visit, but I didn’t think that it would happen to me. In fact, I became so sick that I had to go to the hospital. In those dark days of relentless vomiting, and the darker moments in the local Emergency room where I watched helplessly in horror as they inserted an IV needle into my vein that seemed questionable, my spirituality and moral strength was put to test. I really thought that I was going to die there, in the nucleus of chaos, contradictions, nonsense and paradox. I eventually recovered, only to find out that my local chef friend was also very sick that same weekend of our planned outing. ‘That’s India’.
My last week in India was spent slumped over the toilet, and I missed my outing to Chandni Chowk and a weekend trip to Rajasthan. 2 weeks proved to be barely enough time to get my feet wet in this country, but I was still left with a strong impression. I remembered back to what people had told me about India. That I will either love it or hate it. So far I can honestly say that I love India, even for all of the puzzling cultural nuances and even despite my violent illness. I had a feeling that I would be drawn to this beautiful country, and did not hesitate to get a 10 year visa. I’m planning to go back in May for a second visit. Hopefully my immune system will be stronger then.
Random trivia: Legend has it that upon completion of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan ordered all of the sculptors and craftsmen to have their hands chopped off and their eyes gouged out. This was so that they would never be able to see or build such a wonderful monument as the Taj Mahal. To date, thankfully there has been no evidence to prove these myths to be true.