anthropology 302: warming up to India

The plane touched down amidst heavy low lying clouds. When we could see out the small plastic window the landscape surrounding the runway strip looked like that of any other southern Asian airport. We cleared customs and immigration without a smile or even a look from the attendants. We found an ATM and got out a handful of large bills, then bought a Cadbury chocolate bar in order to break one of the notes into smaller bills. This is a must in southern Asia, as any place you go you’ll only get the answer “No change” for anything worth over $5. Finally, we opened the wide doors and walked out of the airport.

India!

Immediately a taxi driver approached us and asked, “Where are you going?” “To the prepaid taxi stall,” I replied. “It’s no good there! I give you discount: 250 rupees, ok?” At this point the man had no idea where I was even headed. “No thanks! I’ll go there.” I knew that if I accepted his offer we’d spend the next three hours stopping at all his “family’s” shops, where we’d be relentlessly pressured and guilt tripped into buying things we didn’t want, until the driver had received a sufficient commission to take us to our destination.

We purchased our prepaid taxi for 400 rupees (about $6.60), a beaten down, old black vintage-style taxi that looked like it’d been kept barely alive since the colonial days of British rule. At the last moment our driver jumped out and grabbed another customer so that he could make more money on this trip. And we were off!

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Within minutes we were caught in one of Delhi’s never ending traffic jams. A car had broken down on the overpass, blocking half of the road. In America cars would be backed up for miles, and edgy drivers would start contemplating ramming their cars into the guy who just cut them off with a quick lane change. Here there is an elegant flow to the chaos of trucks and taxis and auto-rickshaws and bicycle rickshaws vying for every single inch of pavement. Though we’re half a mile back from the traffic obstruction and the other vehicles have pulled in so close that we couldn’t open a door more than a finger’s breadth, we clear the jam in under 5 minutes! Orderly chaos.

We get to our guesthouse, take an afternoon nap, and then decide to take a look at our surroundings. As we step outside and walk down the road men openly stare at us from every direction. When we walk by and smile at them some smile back and wag their heads in the classic Indian sideways head bobble, which can be deciphered as “I mean you no harm.” Others’ gazes appear so menacing that I feel like I’ll have to fight them if I meet their eyes for more than a split second. After ten minutes of walking I remark to Jessie about how we haven’t seen a single woman yet.

I’m carrying my small black backpack. Inside, wrapped in a plastic bag to keep it weatherproof, is almost everything of value that we own: an iPhone, an iPod nano, a 1 TB external hard drive, a Nook (e-reader), a wallet full of Indian rupees, Thai baht and US dollars, credit cards and debit cards, and a Nikon DSLR camera. I wear the backpack on my stomach so that no one has access to it without my full awareness. As we walk we see a million things we want to take pictures of and a dozen things we want to eat.

But it’s still too early; we haven’t gotten a feel for the people yet. I certainly do not mean to say that we’re overly paranoid or believe that we’re going to be mugged on this busy road at any minute! But in our travels we’ve found that its always best to gain a certain level of comfort, which only comes by studying and understanding more about the native people, before pulling out the big camera and flashing our “riches” in front of them.

We also want to avoid the unavoidable: Delhi belly. It’s a rite of passage for anyone who comes to India to get a violent stomachache and have liquids coming out of both ends for half a week. We avoid street foods for now.

We have our first meal in India: bottled water, lemon soda (fresh squeezed lemon juice topped off with soda water, navrattan korma (mixed vegetables in a sweet curry gravy), muttar paneer (Indian cottage cheese chunks with peas in a spiced gravy), butter naan and rotis. In a day of highs and lows, this is definitely a high! Afterward, we retreat back to our room. “Are you afraid?” “A little still. Are you?” “Yeah, a bit.”

Photo Aug 05, 6 15 14 PMOn day two we walk all around Old Delhi. We shake our heads and say, “No thank you!” five hundred times as we slowly shuffle past miles of stores selling saris, copper Buddhas, jewelry, t-shirts proudly displaying “I (heart) India,” and thousands of intricate handicrafts. Businessmen stand on the sidewalk and show you their ‘authentic’ Ray-Ban sunglasses that they’re willing to part with for 100 rupees ($1.70). “You don’t want that? OK! Look at this!” Out of nowhere appears a musical instrument fashioned out of a coconut shell and bamboo or a package of henna paints. Every once in a while we pause to take out the camera, take several candid photos, and then move out of the area.

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Halfway through the day we get up enough nerve to try chaat (street food). An old man squats over a large tin pail, peeling garlic cloves. There’s a divider inside the pail housing fresh ingredients: white chickpeas, brown chickpeas, finely chopped onions and garlic, tomatoes, cilantro, lemon wedges. He puts a spoonful of each onto a small square of waxed newspaper and squeezes a lemon over it. It’s delicious! We want to scarf it down but we decide to be judicious. If we eat just a bit of street food each day maybe we’ll ease ourselves into it and not get the dreaded sickness. But later we have to stop to get some more food. The vendor sells small, hard hollow balls made from deep fried flour that are punctured by the thumb and then filled with small amounts of chickpeas and potato slices and a savory green liquid. He prepares one in our bowl. Jessie eats it. Immediately another one appears, so I eat it. No sooner is it in my mouth than another one has found it’s way into our bowl. After two rounds of this we get wise and tell him “We’re finished!” BEFORE eating the final ball. Once more, later on, we pass a small corner business with fresh samosas and jalebi and decide to partake. The samosas are the best we’ve ever had. The jalebi is kind of like a funnel cake that’s been soaked in sugar syrup long enough that the syrup seeps into every part of it, and then it’s deep fried. Oh…my…word!

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By day three I’m walking around with the camera in my hand, firmly strapped around my wrist, for long periods of time. I take many more pictures, although I still can’t bring myself to put my camera up in someone’s face to take that coveted ‘Look at this interesting old guy’ national geographic-quality picture. Although locals haven’t been shy about taking our photos, asked for or not! But we can tell that we’re already relaxing and finding our style of being within this culture.

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Previously I’ve written about overcoming fears while traveling, in a post about Cairo. (You can read the post here.) But no matter how extensively you’ve traveled, there’s always the fear and the excitement of the unknown when traveling some place for the first time. We’ve found that if you sit back for a while and make yourself comfortable with the place first, before you start ‘playing the tourist,’ you’ll feel much less conspicuous and much more confident being there. To supplement our India adventure, Jessie and I have been reading the 900-page novel “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts. He says many wise things in this book, but one quote has particularly helped me to deal with the stares:

“Foreigners were stared at in India. Somewhere in the five or more millennia of its history, the culture had decided to dispense with the casual, nonchalant glance. By the time I came to Bombay, the eye contact ranged from an ogling gaze to a gawping, goggle-eyed glare. There was nothing malicious in it. The staring eyes that found and followed me everywhere I went were innocent, curious, and almost always friendly.” (Excerpt from: Roberts, Gregory David. “Shantaram.” St. Martin’s Press, 2003.)

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