Monday, April 25, 2005

The Delhi Tour

April 14
In Delhi, just below Manu’s office, a guy is sitting at a desk selling tickets. The sign behind him is in Hindi but Manu says I can get on a city tour here for 100 Rupees (US$2.25). First there is the small matter of buying a ticket. The highway isn’t the only place where India eschews the idea of forming a line, rather the style of driving is a single symptom of a culture of mini-mosh pits. Though there are only three or four people waiting to buy bus tour tickets we jockey for the teller’s attention and finally he takes our 100 Rupees and I get my bus ticket.

“He’s going to try and get you a seat in front with the big window,” Manu says after we buy the ticket. “I didn’t even ask, he just offered. That’s Indian hospitality.” I’m learning that people everywhere take great pride in proving what great hosts they are; in every country there’s a small number of people hoping to swindle you but everyone else is almost always helpful.

“The tour is in Hindi,” Manu mentions, “Is that okay?” Sure.

I am the only non-Indian, the only non-Hindi speaker, the only white guy on the bus. (And though it’s a country of 1 billion and the temperature is over 100 degrees I am the only person in India wearing shorts. This is not really an exaggeration.) The bus does not have air-conditioning or an English translation. It will be an adventure.

Our first stop is the Red Fort, one of the major Delhi tourist destinations. The bus pulls over on the side of a six-lane road (okay there aren’t lanes but it’s six lanes wide) and drops us off. “We have an hour here,” my seatmate Janeel translates. The tour guide has offered to translate for me when possible. On the walk from the bus to the Red Fort he grabs me hard by the arm and looks up at me wild-eyed like he’s about to tell me where the bomb is planted or who shot the judge. “Red Fort was built in 1639!” he shouts at me. “It was finished in 1648! It took nine years to complete!”

We approach the Fort and he explains the admission policy to the group. “It’s five Rupees to enter,” he says. “And 100 Rupees for foreigners.” Or in our case, foreigner.

Red Fort was built as the new home of the Mughal empire when they moved their capital from Agra (home of the Taj Majal). It housed Indian troops until just 18 months ago.

Throughout the nine-hour tour we were told (at elevated volumes) countless facts, tidbits, and anecdotes concerning Indian history. I can tell you none of them because I didn’t understand a word. Once in a while Janeel would tap me and tell me what we were all looking out the window at. At Gandhi’s tomb Janeel somehow got lost and didn’t make it back on the bus. After that, without translation, I spent the time between stops working on my crossword book.

There was plenty of time to work on the crosswords because there was a lot of driving. Delhi suffers from miserable urban sprawl, though I suspect the seeds of the problem were planted long before folks in L.A. or Houston coined the term. From north to south the city is about 15 miles, it’s a little less east to west. Manhattan is 12 miles north to south but the comparison fails. If you’re visiting New York you can go to Macy’s on 34th St, walk up Broadway through Times Square and reach Central Park all within 1.5 miles. You’ve seen a good chunk of New York. In Delhi there’s no central place to go and see the city, it’s all spread out. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “There’s no there, there.”

Anyway, enough of the temples and forts it’s time to ride the subway! Around noon with the temperature around 100 the guide ingeniously killed an hour by having us ride on the air-conditioned subway. Delhi has a gleaming, modern, empty subway system that’s about five years old. Our group of 45 bought our seven rupee tokens and headed for the train, but not before a lengthy explanation of how to use the tokens.

The tour group was made up of Indians from other parts of the country and for many of them riding the subway was the most exciting part of the day. It is a certain kind of cultural encounter to be doing something as mundane as riding an escalator and watch as a busload of people ride an escalator for the first time. Mounting and dismounting the moving stairs was a point of great anxiety.

After riding the train for three stops we got off, exited the station, bought new seven rupee tokens and got back on the train to return to where we started and get back on the bus. At least we had cooled off.

By now I had made friends with Rahul, who was in Delhi to interview for M.B.A. programs. Later that day he’d take the 35-hour train ride back home but he hoped to go to school here. “Delhi is the city of opportunity,” he said.

Next we stopped at Qutb Minar (“India’s Eiffel Tower”), where there were a bunch of food stalls. This was our chance to get lunch. Rahul and I walked over to the food but Rahul only wanted a mango lassi. “I’m not going to eat lunch,” he said. He didn’t trust the food here and if he couldn’t eat it I probably shouldn’t either.

Ultimately I ventured for a samosa which they served with way too much rice. “Should I eat with my hands?” I asked Rahul, since everyone else was eating with their hands.

“It’s up to you,” he said diplomatically and unhelpfully.

“What would you do?”

“God gave us only our hands,” he said.

So I broke off pieces of samosa and grabbed some rice and shoved it in. I didn’t get sick. I did get overcharged though.

We saw more forts and temples and Rahul told me where I should take my shoes off and what the meaning of the different temples were and then we had a Pepsi in a glass bottle as the sun went down and they dropped us back where we started.

I found a bookshop with a Lonely Planet for India and happily paid 850 rupees for it. Some English guidance will be nice.


Post a Comment

<< Home