When I was leaving Boston’s Logan Airport at the beginning of my travel to India, an overly friendly TSA agent chatted me up, curious about my destination. When I mentioned I was going to India, he started with a litany of advice: “You’re going to get sick, so just accept it. The pickpockets are rampant; be careful.” The negative comments continued as I passed through the first checkpoint and moved to the conveyer belt, removing my shoes, scarf, and sweater. I nodded politely, wondering how I could get rid of him without delaying my transition through security. Yet as I took my laptop out of my bag, he said one thing that resonated: “Write down everything you hear, smell, and see, so you can remember it later.” Ah ha, I thought; now that’s good advice.
I’ve been thinking about that TSA agent since I arrived in Delhi on Sunday. This city is more alive for me than Mumbai. Most of my time in Mumbai was spent in a hotel, attending a conference and going to meetings. I met many committed, smart, welcoming Indian citizens who could not have been more gracious and enthusiastic. Since I am, after all, here on business, it was good to have time to connect with new colleagues and begin discussions about the possibility of my organization working in India. But I didn’t really get to know Mumbai at all. In Delhi, however, I had only a day of meetings, with a few other days open for sightseeing and exploring. I’m staying here a bit longer than my colleagues, in fact, just to see a bit of India.
Back to that TSA agent’s advice. What has been some of the sights and sounds of India that I hope to hold onto? Many of my observations, I’ve noted, have been steeped in contrast (the rich versus the poor here) and difference (that which is so not like home). To share a few…
*At lunch and dusk in Mumbai, when I was outside speaking with colleagues, I could hear the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the city streets. The sound was profound, moving, and clearly woven into the fabric of day to day life, regardless of religious beliefs.
*Yesterday, in an auto rickshaw—essentially a small green and yellow souped up moped with seats for the driver and passengers—traveling from one market to another, two small children approached. As one played a drum, the other danced, doing back flip after back flip, in the middle of traffic, until our driver shooed them away. The children, rail thin and bedraggled, were performing for money. They didn’t look more than nine and six years old. They—two of the thousands of such children in India—broke my heart.
*I learned to negotiate my way through the street markets. It’s exhausting, mind you; I don’t ever haggle when I go to the grocery or mall at home, but here it’s the way things are done. I got some good deals (I think) and many holiday gifts.
*Delhi feels different than Mumbai. While Mumbai is hot, chaotic, and intense, Delhi, India’s capital, is replete with bright green trees, purple bougainvillea, and sweet bushes of yellow flowers. The air is crisper here, a bit more breathable than Mumbai.
*Today, a small girl—five years old perhaps?—followed me down the street, trying to persuade me to purchase a ball-point pen. Her hair was messy, and her clothes were dirty. She looked to be the same age as my daughter—my daughter who is back home in the US. My daughter’s day will be very different than that little street girl’s: she will go to school, take a bath, and eat a healthy dinner. I will hug her tightly when I get home, feeling very grateful for the luck of fate that has given her a safer and healthier childhood.
*The hotel at which I am staying—The Imperial—is something out of the British Empire. With mahogany and brass everywhere, shiny marble floors, and artwork that captures the waning days of Great Britain’s rule here, I have felt that all I need is a long white dress and parasol, and I will fit right in.
*This week is Diwali, the Indian festival of lights “which signifies the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair” (thanks Wikipedia). People celebrate by buying one another gifts, eating special foods, and decorating their homes and businesses. The traffic—already intense here—is a bit epic as a result, causing extra long commutes, according to locals.
*I indulged myself yesterday, getting an Ayurvedic massage at the hotel spa after my meetings. The treatment consisted of a consultation with an Ayurvedic doctor who, after asking a series of questions and taking my pulse, adjusted my massage slightly and made food and drink recommendations (no melon or cold liquids, add leafy green vegetables and bitter foods, including chocolate, to my diet). The massage used special oils that were selected to help me relax and get in balance. It was decadent.
*As my colleague and I were driven to a business meeting today, we passed a rickshaw, piled high with children—about eight of them—in navy blue and white uniforms, going home from school. The rickshaw driver pedaled his way carefully through traffic, taking the children and their backpacks, which hung off hooks on either side, past honking cars and overcrowded vans. A very different kind of school bus.
*Lunch today was a crisp, delicious dosa, a meal I have had at home but never, ever this good. Dinner last night was Palak “Imperial,” a rich spinachy sauce over cheese, peas, and mushrooms served with rice. I will miss the food; it is so delectable.
This trip is a bit like an appetizer for an amazing meal that I won’t be able to eat all of now; I’ll have to come back at another time to finish up (i.e., see the rest of India).
As this post goes online I will be, fingers crossed, visiting the Taj Mahal and other sites in Agra. I can’t wait to tell you all about it!