The India diaries, part 2

Our adventures in Delhi continued during the next three days, as we visited many of the city’s incredible archaeological and architectural sites, such as the Humayun’s Tomb, Lodi Gardens, Lotus Temple, and Qutb Minar. By then we could almost even pass as loscals (besides, you know, the looks): bargaining with tuk-tuk drivers for cheap fares, moving around in the Metro, ignoring unwanted vendors, and even walking around in a 35-degree-celsius temperature in long sleeves and long pants like it was no big deal. We had also made a habit of trying the Butter Chicken and the Naan at every Indian restaurant we went to, and I was growing very fond of finishing my meal with Gulab Jamun for dessert.

It was also during those days that we came upon a fascinating discovery: the “Women’s –only” carriage in the Metro. I cannot put into words the relief we felt when we first saw the hot pink sign with white flowers and the bathroom-sign-like silhouette of a woman, clearly pointing out that the last carriage of the train was reserved for the female share of the population. Now, I do not intend to delve into the cultural and social issues regarding the treatment of women in India; all I can say is that, although quite aware that a women’s only carriage does not fix the underlying problem, it sure feels more comfortable and safe to travel this way (not to mention it saves you a lot of stares.)

Our weekend adventures included travelling to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and then driving to Jaipur, where we were looking forward to taking an elephant ride up to the Amer Fort. On Friday we took the train from Delhi to Agra (by “we” I now mean my friend and her parents, who were actually the ones who took care of booking the train tickets, hotels, and tour guides… I was just lucky enough to tag along as a cultural addition to the family for the weekend…). The second we walked into the Delhi train station I realized that this whole weekend trip was going to be quite an “interesting” experience. In fact, it almost felt like a bucket of cold water for us to acknowledge what this trip would really be about: having an open mind and being able to go with the flow.

The first step in this process would be for all of us to let go of any European/western ideal of what a train station was supposed to look (and smell) like. We made our way to the platform amid all the people sleeping on the (not so clean) floor, and all the station workers moving packages around. We searched in vain for any actual benches to sit on, and just pretty much remained standing in the middle of the platform, still trying to absorb the reality in front of us: people moving everywhere, people sleeping on the floor, people eating on the floor, people running around the platform, people carrying wheelbarrows loaded with packages, and on the background, a voice switching between Hindi and English, informing passengers to which platform they should move to to take their respective trains.

My friend’s dad managed to figure out which was one was the “first class” carriage that we were supposed to board on our train. At this point, none of us could have been more sceptical of the journey ahead. Just stepping into the carriage was enough to activate our fight-or-flight reflexes, and start looking around our designated carriage very carefully for any possible sign of danger. The “first class” consisted of a cabin with four beds, a small table and two ceiling fans. Since a 3-hour train ride did not require any of us to actually sleep, we turned the two lower beds into two rows of seats and sat there… still speechless and sort of thinking: “What did we get ourselves into?” Soon enough a train worker knocked on our cabin door and offered us a meal, which we politely rejected (although still being quite hungry), and, with a delay of only 25 minutes (I guess the train was supposed to leave at 1:05 pm Indian time), we were finally of to Agra!

Apparently our status as foreigners was even more obvious in Agra. Just as soon as we stepped out of the station entry we were swamped with offers of taxis, rickshaw bikes, tuk-tuks and tour guides. We managed to reject all of these and headed instead to the seemingly more reliable “Tourist Service Point”, where we got a fixed rate for a comfortable car ride to the hotel.

“Welcome to Agra” -our car driver greeted us very happily.

 “Thanks” –we replied in unison, but apparently not loud enough for the driver to hear, as he now shouted:

“WELCOME TO AGRA!!”

 “THANK. YOU.”

 “So where are you from?” –and so the small talk begins…

“Italy” –my friend’s dad says.

“Oh! I can speak some Italian: “Buongiorno”, “Buona sera”…”

“Yes. And: “Pizza”, “Spaggetti”…” –My friend’s dad replied, not very amused (at this point we were all pretty exhausted and hungry).

“And where are you from?” –The driver asks, looking at me through his rear-view mirror

“Me? Dominican Republic” (I honestly didn’t expect him to know where it was…)

“Ah, I KNEW you didn’t look Italian” (Turns out this would be but the first of the many comments about my apparent non-italianness during that weekend…)

To no surprise, our driver started advertising his tour-guide services immediately after that conversation. He offered to take us to the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, around the city and back to the hotel in that same vehicle for 1,500 rupees.

“What’s the best time to see the Taj Mahal?” –We inquired, still pondering our decision.

“6:30 AM” –He quickly replied without giving it a second thought.

I know what you’re thinking now. Seeing the Taj Mahal at 6:30 implies waking up probably around 5:45 AM…. ON A HOLIDAY! But we knew the Taj Mahal would only get more crowded and the day would only get hotter the later we went, so we all sort of went “Why not? Let’s do it”. And just like that, we agreed to meet our driver-soon-to-be-tour-guide offer and agreed to meet at the hotel lobby at 6:30 AM the next day.

Entry to the Taj Mahal was 12 US dollars, which is not bad at all to see one of the wonders of the modern world. PLUS, it includes a bottle of mineral water and some pretty badass shoe covers. I was surprised that the site was so crowded despite the early hours in the morning. That said, the Taj Mahal itself is as impressive as you would expect it to be, and it served as the perfect background for a classic roll of very touristy photos…

I took the “Taj Mahal on the horizon” photo, the “Taj Mahal close-up” one, the “Me-standing-awkwardly-in-front-of-the-Taj-Mahal” one, the “Me-sitting-on-a-bench-in-front-of-the-Taj-Mahal” one, the “Taj-Mahal selfie” one, and of course, the “Optical-illusion-looks-like-I’m-grabbing-the-top-of-the-Taj-Mahal-onion” one. For this last one, our tour guide kindly volunteered to take the photo, saying how I should “leave it up to him” because he was a professional by now in taking this type of photo. It was indeed a successful optical illusion photo, and I complemented him on it, to which he replied with a smirk:

 “See? I told you I was a professional”

As soon as we left the Taj Mahal some kids started following us trying to sell us this pack of supposedly “handmade” pens. They started at 600 rupees, then 500, then 300… Later came the kids trying to sell us snow globes of the Taj Mahal: 400 rupees, then only 250! After five minutes of harassing, the kids realized that we were not in the mood for shopping, and so they headed back to their main headquarters to search for more fresh tourist meat.

We saw a couple of more sights in Agra, after which our tour guide strongly insisted that we go see how they make carpets and jewellery in the town. So we ended up going to three different little stores that each tried to tourist-trap us and rip us off on their own way. To their disappointment, I was the only one that bought anything and it was only a fridge magnet for my collection.

The plan for the rest of the day was to drive to Jaipur and stop at Fatehpur Sikri and Chand Baoli, two interesting sights that supposedly “we couldn’t miss”.

Fatehpur Sikri took tourist harassing to a whole new level. As soon as we entered the parking lot to take a bus to the city Fort we were surrounded by vendors trying to sell us hats, keychains, pens, wooden elephants… We dismissed all of them and tried to keep walking, but a few persistent ones kept following up:

“Hello! Italian?” –A vendor asked my friend’s dad. He must have overheard them speaking in Italian.

“Yes” –He replied, again not very amused at the whole street-vendors-chasing-us-around thing.

Right away the vendor started speaking perfect Italian to my friend’s parents, marketing his services as a tour guide, and asking us to please go see his shop.

“She’s not Italian. Guess where she’s from…” –My friend told the vendor, pointing at me, sort of to shift attention from his dad.

“Ah! I was gonna say you don’t look Italian! You almost even look Indian! You’re local ” (If he only knew that my Dominican ID actually classifies me as “indian”. Ok, parenthesis here: Dominican ID’s until this year used to include a line with the person’s skin colour, assigning a “B” for blanco, or white, a “N” for negro, or black, and an “I” for indio, or “indian”, which is pretty much everything in between. I know that this was probably not very subtle and would have been the subject of huge controversy in any first-world country, especially considering the fact that “indian” is not really a skin colour and the correct word would actually be “mulatto”. Anyways, I guess the DR authorities realized how silly, inaccurate, and useless this whole including-the-person’s-skin-colour-in-their-ID was, so they deleted that for the new biometric data ID’s issued this year).

Anyways, back to India. I told the guy I was from the Dominican Republic. To no surprise, he looked confused.

“…in the Caribbean” –I tried helping him out. Even if he had never heard of the DR before, “the Caribbean” had to ring a bell.

“Ah yes! So you speak Spanish?”

“Yes, speak to her in Spanish!” –My friend continued to tease him, and to my surprise again, he also spoke perfect Spanish. He was now asking ME to go see his shop, saying how he could give me souvenirs at a good price, and how, even if we did not buy anything “Mirar es gratis”

We finally managed to make our way to the bus stop, and before hopping in the bus the vendor continued, now back in English:

“Just promise me you’ll go to see my store! Even if you don’t buy anything! Store number 21!”

“Ok, ok, we’ll go” –My friend’s dad told him as we walked away.

“REMEMBER! STORE NUMBER 21!”

I can swear those were the most intense two minutes of trying to get rid of a street vendor. We hopped on the bus to see two other clearly tourist couples, both looking as exhausted and as lost as we did. The bus took us to the Fort, which is one of the main attractions at Fatehpur Sikri. We spent like half an hour walking inside the fort, and the first thing we see coming out is a group of four children approaching us…

“Oh no” –I thought: “Here comes round two”

Turns out these children were a bit subtler. I was obviously expecting them to start trying to sell us touristy stuff right away, but they actually started walking alongside us and talking to us. It was the same nationality routine all over again:

“So where are you from?” This kid asks.

“Italy.” –My friend replies.

“Aaah… io parlo italiano!” –The kid replied, and then started counting in Italian: “uno, due, tre, quattro…” very excited to show us his prowess. I still can’t get over the fact that even the kids picked up these languages spoken by tourists just to be more effective as vendors. I mean, I guess it makes sense when you think of the fact that this was probably mainly a tourist small town. Anyways, the kid then turned to me:

“And where are you from?” –This time I was not even gonna bother with the DR, so I told him:

“The Caribbean.” –The kid sort of went silent for a bit, so I asked him:

 “Do you know where that is?”

“No.” -So I just went as general as I could go:

“It’s in America” (Of course, when I say “America” I usually mean the entire continent, otherwise I just say “United States”)

“Ah!” –He responded, happily: “OBAMA!”

“uhm… yeah… sort of” (Close enough anyways I guess) And THEN he went for it:

“Buy me these pens, 200 rupees, handmade by my family” –He was of course selling us the same pack of pens that other children were trying to sell us two cities behind… And to think that for a minute I ALMOST thought he just wanted to be our friend and know where we were from.

As we walked back to the bus some 5 other children came trying to sell us THE SAME pens. After we declined they then kept asking us to give them the tickets we used to enter the Fort (I’m still not sure why they were so eager to collect these tickets, I think it’s because when you present it on one of the sights you get a discount on the next ticket you buy. I still don’t know how that would work out for them though…). We searched for our old tickets and gave it to them so that they would all stop insisting, spending also our last bit of energy in dealing with any more street vendors. Turns out we still had yet another round of vendors speaking English, Italian, and Spanish, after we took the bus to the parking lot. Needless to say, I had never been felt as relieved hopping into a car as I did right after. Agra: check. Fatehpur Sikri: check. Next stop: Jaipur.

Standard

The India diaries, part 1

Being 100% honest, upon the eve of my trip to India my biggest concern was the infamous Delhi-Belly.

 Of course, as a firm skeptic of stereotypes, I was initially inclined to believe that the gastro-intestinal issues that are commonly associated with visiting India are pretty much an exaggeration, the product of careless western tourists that have been spoiled all their lives by drinking tap water in their homes just because they can. Since (having been born and raised in the Dominican Republic) I never had that luxury, I told myself initially that I was almost immune to Delhi-Belly. Plus, I probably already have all the antibodies in my system that come from food not properly managed and conserved in a Tropical environment…

However, my scientific mind required more proof to effectively discard the hypothetical possibility of getting Delhi-Belly , so I collected testimonials from friends and friends of friends who had actually been to India. To my great concern, it appeared that indeed, many of them had fallen victim to this malady, and so, maybe it would be prudent to take extra precaution from my part…

“You have to take 1 Nexium every morning for your trip, STARTING NOW”  -Were the words of wisdom from my mom, who wanted me to start “protecting my stomach” weeks in advance of the trip. My dad, on the other hand, made sure I had enough probiotic, antacids, antibiotics, and oral electrolyte powders at my disposition. Of course, since hypochondriasis is contagious and runs strong in the Valdez family, I also made sure to stock up on my personal go-to saviours for stomachal discomfort: Tums and Alka-Seltzer. (Turns out, all I got in the entire trip was a sore throat)

Anyways… I arrived to India on Monday, September 8th at 1 in the morning; so needless to say, I was pretty jetlagged for the entire first day. I was traveling with a friend of mine, and staying at her parent’s house in New Delhi. (I think it is important to highlight the fact that neither my friend, nor her parents are Indian, they merely work there for the time being. In other words: we all pretty much looked like foreigners, a stamp that, as we would later find out during this trip, would doom us to incessant harassing by street vendors and self-proclaimed “guides” in tourist sights, as well as make us the subject of stares everywhere we went.)

Anticipating my jetlag, me and my friend didn’t schedule any sightseeing for that first day. In fact, all we did was drive around New Delhi to go somewhere for lunch, and later retrieve all the necessary ingredients to make dinner at many different markets in the area (I noticed how there was not one “big” supermarket where you could find everything in one place… but hey, I guess market-hopping for hours is more fun anyways).

Again, being 100% honest, New Delhi was not at all how I imagined it. The traffic did not seem one bit chaotic or disorganized, the parts of the city we were driving around did not look dirty at all, there were not “lots of people everywhere you look”, and I was even a bit disappointed  to not  see a single cow walking on the street that day. The vegetation even looked remarkably similar to that in Santo Domingo, and, if it weren’t for some clear architectural differences in the surrounding, I could almost swear I was driving around Ciudad Nueva

 Old Delhi, however, would tell a different story.

I guess when people that have not been in Delhi think about Delhi the images that come to their mind are taken from Old Delhi. This is the source of all the stereotypes about traffic jams, pollution, noise, and “lots of people everywhere you look”. Even though this seemed far from the reality in New Delhi (and particularly the areas we found ourselves driving around more ofter), I realized how it still was pretty accurate in areas of Old Delhi. In other words, these stereotypes were not necessarily wrong but merely incomplete.

The day we went sightseeing in Old Delhi was basically our baptism by fire of being a tourist in India. Our itinerary for the day was to see the Red Fort, then go to the Jama Masjid or “Friday Mosque”, grab lunch somewhere nearby (our Lonely Planet guide recommended Karim’s, just behind the mosque), and then go see the Spice Market. We were lucky enough to have a driver that would drop us off at the Red Fort, from where (according to our guide) we could walk to the other sights.

I started noticing how, with every inch closer that we got into Old Delhi the traffic jams become longer, the sidewalks and the streets became more crowded, the vehicle horns and the yelling on the street became louder and more frequent… basically the same city suddenly felt 20 times denser. At that moment the thought of eventually getting off the car and actually walking around the area became more unsettling, it was more a fear to the unknown than a fear of actual danger: How would we even get around the area? Would we be able to ask for directions? How do we even go back home from here? What if we actually get lost?

 As we approached the Red Fort I kept looking for some sort of tourist-friendly sign to point to where the entrance was, or at least for identifiable groups of tourists for psychological reassurance that even if we had no idea where we were or how to get around everything would be OK. Nothing. The driver dropped us near Lahore Gate (the main entrance) and told us we could take a tuk-tuk to the nearest Metro station to get back, which shouldn’t cost us more than 50 rupees.

So off we were. Sightseeing in Old Delhi. Maybe I had underestimated how foreign both of us really looked, or how relevant was the fact that we were both women, but I have never felt stared at that much in my entire life (and I’m from Santo Domingo, which is saying a lot). Not only that, but in the five-second lapse that took us to get off the car and cross to the entrance of the complex we were swarmed by all the tuk-tuk/rickshaw bike drivers, food vendors, necklace vendors, flower vendors, souvenir vendors, and self-advertised “tour guides” for the fort, etc, kindly saying “no thanks” to every single offer we heard. Al least this particular attraction had the advantage that the Fort sort of separated us (or “protected us from”) what actually was Old Delhi, so I had more time to mentally prepare myself for later…

The entrance fee was an astounding 4.11 dollars (250 rupees) for us tourists (Indian nationals only have to pay 16 cents of the dollar, or 10 rupees), and as we made our way in we passed the (airport-style) security check, where they scanned our bags and made us walk under the metal detector. The protocol was to segregate men and women (or “ladies” and “gents”) into two different lines so that the “gents” were further scanned by a male officer, while the “ladies” walked behind a curtain to be scanned by a female officer. Later I would realize that this is actually the customary procedure for entry in every tourist attraction, hotel (where they also scanned the car), shopping centre and even metro station. #cultureshock

Our walk inside the Red Fort served as confirmation of our foreign status, as every Indian family, couple, or individual turned around to give us the top-down stare (I guess it also didn’t help that we were carrying a selfie stick around and continuously looking at our map). At one point, this Indian guy even stopped us to ask:

“Picture?” -He said, gesturing with his camera-phone.

 “Sure, I can take you a picture”  -I replied, going to grab the camera.

 “NO… PICTURE.” -He would say again, pointing to where his wife and three children were already posing for the shot.

 “Ah… you want US in the picture”

 “YES” -He was so happy we understood. Of course, we felt we couldn’t say no, so we embraced our minute of celebrityness and posed with the guy’s family for a picture.

About 45 minutes and 30 photographs later (a couple of which would be later featured on my Instagram) we walked out of the Fort, mentally prepared to actually embrace the chaotic atmosphere of Old Delhi and walk to Jama Masjid. I realized that we would have to make our way out again through the nest of local sellers trying to tourist-trap us.

“Hello! Excuse me! Spanish? Italian?”  -This vendor guy yelled at us, as he started walking approaching us.

 “Me, Spanish (sort of, I guess he meant language-wise and not nationality-wise. Either way, I didn’t expect him to know where the DR was so…) She (pointing to my friend), Italian.”

He then started telling us in spanglian how he had a rickshaw bike and he could give us a tour of Old Delhi and all the sights that there were to see.

 “No thanks, we just want to get to Jama Masjid”

 “250 rupees, for the entire tour”

 “No thanks, we don’t want a tour. How much to take us just to Jama Masjid?”

 “200 rupees, Jama Masjid, Silver Market, Chadni Chowk, and then Silver Market”

“No, it’s ok, we’ll just walk to the mosque”

Ok, 150 rupees. 150 rupees!”

 “Ok, 150 rupees to Jama Masjid. But we don’t want a tour”

 “Listen, 100 rupees, that is my final price. I take you to Jama Masjid, I show you the bazaars in Old Delhi and finish off at the Spice Market”

(How is this even a business? Why does he want to take us around longer for less money instead of just dropping us at the mosque?) At this point we were sort of looking at each other not knowing whether we should just go for it… I guess we were not so sure it was completely safe.

 “100 rupees. Fixed price, I guarantee.” -He said again, hopeful.

O.K. I guess we could do it… So we took is offer and started our rickshaw bike “tour” of Old Delhi. The guide told me to wear my backpack on the front and not on the back, since there are pickpockets in the area. He spoke surprisingly good English and explained to us how this was “the real Delhi”, how diverse and cheap were the markets that you could find here, and how Chandni Chowk was such a landmark street/avenue. (To any Dominican reading this post, Chandni Chowk is probably something like La Duarte but 40 times busier, with tuk-tuks instead of carros públicos). We took a turn in a very, very narrow street, which our guide told us was the silver market. I think this probably was as claustrophobic as Delhi could get, as I always had the feeling our bike would bump into something. Dogs, cows, men pulling wooden wheelbarrows everywhere, stores one on top of the next, and LOTS of people EVERYWHERE you look… Yup, real Delhi indeed

All and all, this ride wasn’t too bad. We got to Jama Masjid and told our driver that we would probably have lunch after seeing the mosque, and that we did not want to make him wait. He of course insisted that this would not be an issue, but we paid him there anyways and thanked him for the tour.

There was no ticket office at Jama Masjid, but a sign at the entrance stating that we had to pay 300 rupees to get in. There was an old guy below this sign who looked at us and pointed at the sign. Apparently he spoke very little English, and he pointed to our shoes.

 “Yes, we’ll take them off to go in” -This of course I expected before walking in to a mosque. What didn’t occur to me was that before going in, the old guy would also stop us, pick up a couple flowery robes from a pile at the entrance and made sure that we wore it and that it was securely tied in the front. As the old guy was helping me tie the robe I tried to repress any thought of when was the last time –if at all- these robes were washed, or who might have worn them before us. Nevertheless, we embraced the experience once more, and I guess that, besides from the fact that I burned the soles of my feet walking barefoot under the Indian sun, and the dozens of stares we received once again (now looking extra touristy by being the only ones in the mosque wearing these flowery robes) our visit to the Jama Masjid went by smoothly.

We exited the mosque from another gate, and for a second looked ahead at the bazaar in the streets in front of us… how surreal it seemed that we were there in the middle of all that chaos, and how, regardless of where we chose to go next we still had to make our way ahead this unknown area. We were only halfway through our day, and already feeling exhausted. I guess it was the intensity of Old Delhi and the incessant bustling of its streets.

And the heat.

Definitely also the heat.

At that moment, all of my Dominican pride of “I can take the heat”, or “I’m used to bad traffic and traffic-jammed streets”, “I am used to vehicles horning all the time”, “I’m used to street vendors trying to chase me to sell me overpriced stuff”, “I’m used to seeing beggars on the street”, etc, pretty much faded away. This, I came to realize, was definitely a whole new level.

Standard