Goodbye friends (and Delhi)

22
Jan
2015

I have somewhat mixed feelings about Delhi. Is is a crazy large, chaotic city with some attendant wonderfulness that one finds in most such agglomerations. There is some great night life, amazing food, incredible history and fascinating sites to see. But there is also horrible traffic and the worst pollution in the world. The pollution somehow seems even worse than 8 years ago when I was here last, and I can see why the numbers for respiratory and other health problems are through the roof here. At many times, one can not see the sun on an otherwise sunny day.

But then there are the absolutely remarkable people I know here, who make every visit a total delight. Meeta, Digraj, and Aashni have really made this trip special. They are kind and generous hosts that I love spending time with, and they have been sharing the best of their city (especially the food) with an amazing warmth and playfulness.  They make Delhi a fantastic place to visit, and make me want to come back again and again. I always have fun with them, and I will miss them.

Did the CIA send you to kill me?

22
Jan
2015

My hair was looking a bit ragged, so I thought I would go for a haircut. Meeta told me she knew a good place and would book for me, and asked me if I wanted a head massage. I wasn’t entirely sure what this involved with respect to my haircut, so I was a bit sheepish, but she went ahead and booked it. In the US, they will kinda sorta give you a little massage while washing your hair, and old style barbers will do a couple of minutes on the back of the neck, but this is nothing I have ever ordered separately, so I wasn’t sure if we had actually ordered a service or were just asking whoever to be sure to spend a little extra time touching me while doing their normal wash and cut.

I arrived at the salon and they seated me and told me that the massage guy was busy, could he do it after the cut, and I said sure. I showed the stylist a pic of myself with a previous haircut I liked and told him that was what I wanted. He then asked about my beard and I said sure, trim it a bit to match, but no shave. The guy was pretty thorough I will give him that, trimming my hair and then beard and nose hairs and eyebrows and then taking the straight razor to trace a nice beard line in my neck and cheeks. I was pretty impressed already as the massage guy came over to do his bit. He covered me in towels, then asked me if I wanted coconut or pineapple or about 4 other things I can’t remember. I wasn’t sure what exactly he would be doing, but I have positive associations with all things coconut, so I chose that.

Nothing could have prepared me for what came next. It started innocently enough, with a general top of the head rub down that became progressively more vigorous. Then, he really started to put some elbow grease into it, and it felt like he was trying tocompletely knead out any line or furrow or vein that might be interfering with some platonic ideal of smoothness. He reached for the coconut oil or lotion and started to work it in to each and every pore on my head. At one point, both his thumbs were pressing very deeply into my eyes and I had a slight, panicky realization that he could be an assassin sent to kill or at least blind me. Then he moved away and back to the top of my head thankfully, which was quite pleasant if by this point a bit hallucination inducing. Following that, he moved to my neck, front and back, and then attacked each shoulder, arm and hand with an intensity I have not witnessed outside of certain experiences combining drugs with sex, or perhaps in a movie that depicts a deranged vet on a killing spree of some kind. After that, it was back to my head and face, where he spent another few minutes rubbing, and polishing. At this point, some 20 minutes had passed and I was wondering if the service was one in which I was supposed to say “stop” (or just as likely, “uncle”) when I had had enough.

Just then, he stopped, and abruptly walked away. I was left there quivering and wondering if I should now get up and get my jacket and leave. I sat there for a few minutes pondering the correct course of action in this culture, when suddenly he returned with a steaming hot towel that he very tightly wrapped around the top of my head as he leaned me back in the chair. Then he got some sort of moisturizing lotion and started working it into my face and eye sockets and nose, squeezing and pushing and preventing me from catching my breath. After a few minutes of this, he put hot towels on my face as well, and left me immobile with those on my face, with nothing but a tiny breathe hole for several long minutes. At this point I was pretty sure I must be on some sort of Indian version of Candid Camera, and any minute someone would come out to ask me how it felt and why didn’t I tell him to stop or figure out that this was all an elaborate joke.

Finally, he finished, and then washed my hair and dried it, and I paid and tipped and left. The entire encounter ended up costing about $16. And when I saw Ashni I asked her if it was normal to have this treatment for a simple head massage and she verified that it was as expected.

Wow. I definitely have to try this again sometime.

Humayun’s tomb, Fabindia, and Old Delhi

20
Jan
2015

Trying to stuff as much India into Ken’s last day here as possible, we rented a car for the day and alighted on several sites worth visiting. First up, and a good alternative since we missed the Taj Mahal, was the stunning Humayun’s tomb. I have been here before and absolutely love this monument for its beautiful, simple design and rigid symmetries and axes. They have done a lot of work restoring the gardens and fountains since the last time I visited, and it was certainly a treat. It was also quite a peaceful place, with very few people there and a quiet, contemplative atmosphere. This was a good restorative for Ken I think before we plunged him into what was to come, the sine qua non of India experience, Old Delhi. But before we headed there, we first made a stop at Khan Market to have coffee and shop for kurtas at Fabindia. After that, it was a delicious outdoor lunch at the Delhi Golf Club with Meeta and Aashni, after which we were finally ready for Old Delhi.

Aashni decided to come with us, and we took the car to the outskirts of Chandni Chowk and hired a bicycle rickshaw to cart the three of us to the Jama Masjid. The guy wanted an exorbitant price for hauling us in, about 5 times what I had paid on a previous visit. We negotiated down to 3 times the previous amount, but with him huffing and puffing trying to cycle our collective weight through, I just felt too guilty to give him anything less than he had originally asked for, and he seemed quite happy at the end of our trip when I gave him the money. He offered to wait for us to take us back, but I told him we would walk out, as that was part of the experience I wanted us to have.

We first entered the Jama Masjid and walked around for a bit, which is quite a nice experience for anyone who has never been (even if the entry way smells terribly of feet). After that, we made our way down the side and plunged into the narrow winding streets of Old Delhi, making our way out to the main road of Chandni Chowk before heading back towards the fort and our driver. I could tell by the look on Ken’s face that he was surprised (after our trip around Amritsar and in Bombay) that there could be anything more chaotic and foreign seeming than that, but clearly this was it. We kept him close as we made our way slowly past the outdoor butchers, sellers of old auto parts, papers, bangles, some jewelry, all manner of knick knack, paan wallahs and paratha sellers to come out the other side.

One thing that has been a bit of surprise on returning to these types of places is that they are far easier to navigate than they used to be, thanks to something that has become ubiquitous in our lives: smart phones and Google maps. Where it used to be a forbidding maze where one could easily feel trapped, now it is a rather simple affair to navigate one’s way. It is striking in fact how much technology has changed my experience of India this time, making things that used to be such a hassle so much easier.

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Food, glorious food

18
Jan
2015

It has been a treat being back in Delhi and hanging out with Meeta, Digraj and their lovely daughter Aashni. Yesterday they took us to a chaat place for lunch, where we sampled papri chaat, aloo tikki, chole batura, pakora,  gol gappa and finished off with a little dessert of ras malai and kulfi. It was all a bit heavy, but very tasty and I enjoyed my food coma afterwards as we made our way to Dilli Haat for a little browsing in the very nice weather.

Ken and I wanted to thank our hosts for their hospitality, so for dinner we took them to a place I had taken my parents many years ago (on their two day stopover in Delhi), and one that Nik had reminded me of a couple of weeks ago, Bukhara. Although a bit tourist heavy, this place serves some of the tastiest meat I have ever had in my life. In particular, a dish called raan which is a roast leg of mutton. They also have fantastic (and famous) slow cooked black dal (named appropriately enough “Dal Bukhara”), and I also sampled some chicken and fish dishes that were delicious.

Feeling happy if a bit bloated, we returned home to pass out shortly afterwards.

The road to Delhi

17
Jan
2015

…from Haridwar by private car sounds rather glamorous, and by Indian standards, it kind of is. After reviewing our options (train, bus, and car) we decided to splurge on the private car because it seemed like it would be the fastest, at an estimated 4 hours. And the cost to hire a private car and driver to take us to Delhi was by our standards quite a good deal at about 50 bucks, so we decided to go for it. As for the 4 hour estimate, all I can say after the fact is Ha. Ha. HA. The journey took about 7.5 hours total, as there were a shit-ton of obstacles in our way. For much of the journey, there was a pea soup level fog surrounding us. There was also all manner of badly constructed road, missing pavement, potholes, piles of dirt and stray pieces of metal, wood, and what-have-you. On top of that, there was crazy traffic. At various times we were stuck behind people walking or auto rickshaws or families of 5 on a single scooter or tractors pulling giant bails of sugarcane to market or just run of the mill traffic jams. And of course, the occasional single cow or herds that were leisurely crossing the highway. And then there was the driving itself, which is quite interesting in this part of the world. Drivers here have a pathological need to be in front of the person in front of them, and will risk any amount of danger to get there. This usually involves crossing to the side of oncoming traffic to zoom ahead of whatever is in front of us. This results in a series of quite near misses in an epic game of chicken, since of course the drivers on the other side are all trying to do the exact same thing. You can imagine how the thick fog added an even greater element of delightful surprise to this little game, as sometimes headlights would emerge directly in front of you with only seconds to spare. Fortunately for me, I am used to the culture of driving in India, but I am afraid that for poor Ken (who was sitting in the front seat) it was a bit more harrowing. I tried to explain that while incredibly stressful at first, once you have made peace with the fact that any drive in India could be your last, you kind of just relax into it and hope for the best.

Once we arrived in Delhi and peeled Ken off the ceiling of the cab, we were warmly welcomed by Meeta and Digraj, and into their lovely home. And after a few stiff drinks in a local bar, Ken and I were much restored from the day’s travel. I am looking forward to spending a few days in Delhi, showing Ken around and getting caught up with my friends.