Monday, July 14, 2008

This Past Saturday

This Saturday I woke up and took a warm shower now that I am smarter than the hot water switch on my wall.

In these matters of everyday difficulties, I am only comforted by the fact that everyone whose been up to my room has shown similar confusion when confronted by my deadbolt—even the hotel’s IT specialist, Alok, couldn’t figure the thing out. Julianne couldn't close the door behind her. So perhaps I’ve been facing these bizarre challenges for good reason.

Anyway, after my shower and a Skype conversation with Scott, I got a call from downstairs, “Ma’am, your driver Sonu.”

I said, “No, I don’t need Sonu today. I told him that yesterday.” I wasn’t sure if Sonu was just hoping for work or if there was a problem communicating, but I hoped for the former. I’d hate to be the reason for a day of unemployment on his part.

Shortly after I hung up with the guard, my phone rang again. It was Julianne. She’d arrived at ten o’clock on the dot, just as she promised when I spoke with her on Thursday.

Julianne is the sister of a woman who works in my Iowa office. She has been in Delhi studying language for six months already. I called her when I got here, and we planned to get together on Saturday. She said she could meet me where I was staying—and I think I had a hard time believing that an Iowan was just going to show up at my door, but she did.

We’d emailed briefly, but I really didn’t know much about her save that she was younger than her sister. I walk downstairs to meet her. She looks really young (or maybe I am just feeling older). Her brown hair is pulled back and she’s wearing a flowery kurta (a long Indian style shirt) with brown western-style pants and a pair of sandals she had custom made to fit her feet for around six dollars at a hill station north of Delhi. She carries a big shoulder bag that is a pastiche of embroidered fabrics. I compliment her bag.

“Thanks,” she says, “Maybe we can get you one like it today!” We planned on visiting some nearby markets.

She asks if I still want to shop today and I say absolutely. I’d packed light on clothes because I planned on buying some while I was here. Julianne wants to know if I want to shop for western style or traditional clothes. Now I am less decisive. She looks down at her own outfit, a mish-mash of both cultures. “I think my style has changed since I’ve been here,” she says. “I don’t think I ever would have worn these things back home.” I debate the kind of clothes I should buy. When I visited the office I was surprised to see that very few of the women had a very western style. Most of them were dressed in rather traditional Indian styles—and why not. It’s all such beautiful clothing, so shiny and glittering and bright and fun. Still, I don’t know that I’d be comfortable adopting an Indian style. I might feel like a poser. I tell Julianne this and she says not to worry. “People won’t think you’re weird for dressing Indian. In fact, you’d probably blend in more that way.”

I tell her it doesn’t matter what kind of shopping we do, and she says she knows a great place to go for clothes. I tell her to lead the way.

We set out from the Ahuja Residency toward the Defence Colony market just a few blocks away; from there we can catch an auto-rickshaw. Julianne says this is the cheapest and easiest way to travel short distances. We’re headed for the Central Market (also called Lajput Nagar), and it’s not too far away.

Julianne and I are happily chattering away and walking when she stops. “Monkeys,” she says with some trepidation. I stop and follow her gaze. Two monkeys are crossing our path in the road.

“Monkeys!” I exclaim, and scramble for the camera in my purse.

“Be careful!” says Julianne. “They steal things. They’ll take your camera.”

I envision my splendid, new Cannon getting smashed to bits or carried off into the Delhi rooftops by these hooligans. “Should I not take their picture?” I ask.

“No,” says Julianne. “Just be careful. The monkeys are mean. They take things from you, especially food. They break into people’s kitchens sometimes.”

I snap a few furtive shots as the monkeys scowl in our direction, then hide my camera in my purse. We wait for them to pass as though it’s West Side Story and they’re the Sharks on their way to a rumble.

That night I tell my husband about the monkey incident. He asks what kind they were and I describe them to him. He looks it up on the Internet and, instead of finding information about the species of monkey, he finds two recent news articles: one about drunken monkeys attacking a rural village, and a second about a throng of angry monkeys knocking the deputy mayor of Delhi off his balcony and to his death. Monkeys killed the deputy mayor. If you don’t believe it, Google it for yourself.

Luckily, the monkeys Julianne and I encounter are not out for blood. We let them cross the street then hurry on. “Can they smell my fear? Should I avoid eye contact?” I wonder as we speed our pace.

At the Defence Colony market, Julianne begins talking to the auto wallahs (the auto-rickshaw drivers) in Hinglish—a curious blend of Hindi and English spoken by most people here. “Lajput Nagur,” she says. “Meter say?”

The auto wallah replies, “Forty rupees.”

“NihaN. Too much. Twenty?” Julianne replies. The driver shakes his head no, and I follow Julianne to the next rickshaw where she proceeds in the same fashion but this time gets her price of twenty rupees. “They’re supposed to run the meters, but almost none of them do it even though it’s the law,” she says. “So you have to just bargain with them.”

We climb into the back of the rickshaw. I wonder what will keep me from flying out. There are no seatbelts, no handles. I am pleasantly surprised that the auto-rickshaw goes pretty slow, so there is no careening around corners and between giant trucks. It’s a calmer ride than I thought.

We get to the market and jump out of the green and yellow rickshaw. Julianne has favorite stores here and takes me to them all. When we arrive, the shopkeepers are just opening their shudders and pulling their merchandise out. It’s a bit early for business: about 10:30. We find an open shop and look at a few kurtas. They’re all priced around 350 rupees—about eight dollars. Since I’m low on funds, we ask the shopkeeper for the location of an ATM. He points us off down the street. On the way we find a cute blouse. Julianne buys one in white and I buy the same one in tan. Because we buy two, we get a better price. Julianne tries to talk them down further because we’re the first customers of the day. This is auspicious, good luck. “First customers!” Julianne pleas, but the shopkeepers are firm. We get the blouses, then continue our quest for the ATM. We walk past what Julianne says is a stationery store. You would never know it from the outside. She wants index cards for her language study and thinks they may have them. We go inside and she describes to the clerk what she’s looking for.

“Oh,” he says, “You want library cards. Nobody has those.”

India is like this. Think of some mundane item you bought at Target or Wal Mart or the grocery store last week and chances are you wouldn’t be able to readily find it here. And if you do find it, it’s by chance. Julianne wound up finding her index cards when we wondered into a “toy store” in the Defence Colony market by my apartment on Sunday evening.

After the stationery store, we find another clothing shop, which is what this market is known for. Lajput Nagar: the place to go for clothes. Markets seem to have their specialties. The market by my house is good for restaurants and food shops (I won’t say “grocery stores” because they really have no relation to our concept of such).

Anyway, clothing shops are in no short supply in the Central Market, nor are jewelry stands, tailors, shoe shops, henna stands and whole shops that sell Indian bangle bracelets.

At the next clothing stand we find, all the tops are 99 rupees. It dawns on me just how much I’ve been overcharged this past week. Oh well. I still like everything I’ve bought—and I still think the prices were decent by western standards.

But now I’ve found some authentic shopping. These 99 rupee shirts are two dollars a piece—and they’re beautiful. I get three.

Then we find a ten rupee earring stand. I get five pairs (and spend a bit over one dollar).

Julianne asks if I like bangles and I say “no” until we walk into a bangle shop and I am hypnotized by their glinting shine. I also see that they cost fifty cents for twelve. I get a dozen bangles.

We still haven’t found an ATM, but everything’s so cheap, I don’t need one.

I buy a sleeveless shirt, and the shopkeeper tells me the sleeves are sewn into the inside. If I want the shirt to be a short-sleeved shirt, I can pay the man two booths down to sew in the sleeves for ten rupees. I decide to do this just for fun. They measure my arms, and ten minutes later, I have a short-sleeved shirt.

After more shopping and bargaining, we decide to find lunch. There aren’t many places to eat in Lajput Nagar. We have our choice of a food court or McDonald’s. Each sounds fascinating in its own way. I tell Julianne I’m a vegetarian so we’d better check out the food court, but she says McDonald’s has almost no meat. Just chicken. All the burgers are vegetarian. This is something I have to see.

We visit two ATM’s before dining. The first one tells me “transaction denied,” and I totally panic thinking my bank shut down my card even though I notified them of my travel. Julianne looks at my card. “Oh look at that! That’s my bank too,” she exclaims, happy for the little shared slice of home.

We try a second ATM and my card works fine. Relief.

We walk into the McDonald’s, and it’s very crowded. People keep pushing ahead of me in line. Julianne says people will do that here and it’s not rude. Just like the traffic, if you see a chance, you take it.

So you can’t order a Big Mac in India. You order a Maharaja Burger. I opt for the Big Cheese combo dinner. It costs extra for Diet Coke, as this is considered a luxury for some reason. It comes with fries. The same gross fries you get in the US. It seems like all the gross things are the same: the pigeons, the fries, the flies.

They throw four packets of condiments onto my tray, and I go find a seat before Julianne gets her order. It is the last table left. The place is packed.

I look at my condiments. Two packets say “chili sauce” and two say “ketchup.” I try the chili sauce for my fries first and kind of like it. It tastes a little like barbeque. When the chili sauce is gone, I open a packet of ketchup.

“This is interesting,” I say to Julianne.

“It is?” she says, surprised. “It tastes normal to me. Is it weird?”

Yes. It is weird. It tastes like the chili sauce without the spices, which is to say it is watery and is not like any ketchup I’ve ever had.

“That’s so weird,” says Julianne. “I guess I’m just used to it.”

We have this conversation many times: I bring up all the things that surprise me about India and Julianne laughs at how normal these things seem to her now, remembering her similar shock as a newbie in the country.

“There are no seals on the doors or the windows!” I exclaim, telling her about the lizard that ran into my room.

She replies, “Oh, I guess that’s different. Yeah.”

The Big Cheese “hamburger” is also an oddity, but Julianne doesn’t dispute this at all. It comes encased in a mountain of mayonnaise and is composed of a hard outer breading with tiny bits of in-tact vegetables inside. I can make out a pea here and a chunk of potato there. It is, in a word, terrible and has the distinction of being the only meal that has soured my stomach during my stay in India to date.

Go McDonald’s! I should have known better.

We are both pretty tired after lunch, so we decide to take another auto-rickshaw back to Defense Colony. Julianne does her expert bargaining again and sees me home.

We decide to do church and the zoo together tomorrow, and hug goodbye.

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