Saturday, January 5, 2008

India: Day Two (Delhi)

In case there were any question about it, it has now been confirmed: I am decidedly posh—not a terribly spoiled brat, because I will happily suffer less than five star accommodations, but certainly a well-heeled American who gravitates toward creature comforts. Today, a driver arrived at eleven to take us to see some alternate accommodations. We first drove to the Habitat Center, where the conference for which we are here will be taking place. This would have been the most convenient of accommodations, and was not terribly more expensive than our current one, though it was infinitely more plush and Western. They were, however, booked, and our driver brought us to the next hotel, and the next. He is a Punjabi Sikh, and his name is Matkhan Singh. He runs to open doors for us, and it makes me dreadfully uncomfortable. I kept telling him not to worry, that I could open the door myself—I am, after all, perfectly capable—but he would not hear of it, language barrier or not.

We stopped at the Claridges hotel, which would have done fine, but the only available room was a suite, at the cost of INR 15,000 ($400) per night, outside of even our extravagant budget. We continued on to the Intercontinental, located on the busy Connaught Place. Driving from hotel to hotel was our first real experience of Delhi, and I had hoped that I would find the “there” there—city streets through which I could walk, unchaperoned, and explore. But there seems to be no city center. Instead, the roads all interconnect at landscaped roundabouts, mini parks in which people sleep. Delhi seems to be a city full of vagrants; if you’ve been to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park panhandle, and witnessed the vagrants there, simply imagine a city in which every person is one of them, only duskier and covered in dust. Connaught Place has a huge open market, but it was closed today because of a grand celebration for a Sikh holiday. The buildings in this area are the first real high rises we’ve seen, and the streets were more crowded and dusty than the rest of what we had seen of Delhi. Mom deemed it too crowded and dirty, and we drove on to the next hotel—Le Meridian—without stopping inside of the Intercontinental.

When we arrived at Le Meridian, we had arrived. The lobby is modern, with marble mosaic floors, leather designer chairs, twenty-five foot ceilings, and a twenty-foot high glass sculpture behind reception. The air smelled clean and fresh. At reception, a gracious hostess offered us a room for INR 12,500 ($300) per night, and took us up to see it. The seventeen floors of rooms radiate off of an interior central atrium, which is completely open. The view from the elevator recalls a Gursky photograph. The room is wood paneled, has a wired internet connection, and a designer marble bathroom. The décor is fully reminiscent of a newly-constructed loft in New York. We immediately decided to take it for the next day and the remainder of our stay in Delhi, cost be damned, particularly as unlimited internet usage, full American champagne breakfast, English high tea, and unlimited happy hour alcoholic beverages are all included. I wished I could move in that very moment, and take a long, hot bubble bath (I had taken a rather interesting shower at the Gymkhana club this morning, and had washed my hair squatting naked under a tap less than three feet from the floor, and had then spent fifteen minutes tracking down a hairdryer, which was refused to me until 11 AM (it was only 8:00), until I proffered INR 100 to the Ladies’ Cloak Room attendant, who had been sweeping the floor with broom made from bundled branches). Instead, we had lunch in the hotel’s restaurant (it was, unfortunately, rather uninteresting and expensive, as members of the Gymkhana club described five star hotels in general): soup (tomato basil for me, minestrone for Mum), and a shared vegetable lasagna (which contained broccoli, carrots, and a few other as yet unidentified vegetables that would not be found in a New York lasagna, all though I once found those items in a New York burrito), and tea.

We then had the concierge call our driver to return, and he came to pick us up. My mom told him that we wanted to do some shopping, and he took us to a few of those sorts of shops where tour buses bring their trapped minions to buy overpriced trinkets. I walked right out and refused to stay. He brought us to another, which was bigger, but more of the same. My mother had promised to bring gifts to people—silver earrings and carved elephants—and she insisted on staying and looking at the goods. I did see some beautiful things—cups and saucers made from a glowing green stone, hand-painted plates with pictures of Krishna and Kali, and huge, carved, wooden furnishings and doors, but everything was extremely expensive. Most impressive were Louis XVI-style couches and chairs, in silver instead of wood, with Indian brocade fabric cushions, and a silver swing with red velvet cushions. These cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I looked, touched, and moved on. My mom had found some elephants carved from stone, but the prices were high: INR 9,000. She considered buying for a long time, but I had the rupees and eventually, I dragged her out, empty-handed. We explained to Matkhan Singh that the store was too expensive, and too fancy—that we wanted something less touristy. He took us then to a strip of shops at which everyone looked at us strangely, as we were the only foreigners. I took some pictures, and bought some beautiful stationary for INR 65 at a small store that was selling the exact same elephants for INR 125. This time, I let my mother buy them.

By now, we were exhausted, and my mom seemed especially psychologically weary, after a teenager with dusty withered legs, moving along on crutches, came to ask us for money. Thus far, I’ve given not even one rupee to a beggar. I don’t know whether I am bragging about that, or ashamed. My mom was probably ready to go home, but I wanted to go back to the Lodi Gardens, which we had passed near the Habitat Center. I had seen some gorgeous ruins in the distance, and wanted to take some pictures. Matkhan drove there, parked the car, and escorted us through the park. Thus far, this was the most pleasant experience in India. The park is dusty and dirty, and the grass, like all the plants in Delhi, is mostly brown. And yet, the park is filled with local people, relaxing, chatting, practicing yoga, and martial arts. I made a video of three boys who caught my eye, as they seemed at first to be playing capoeira (it turned out to be another as yet unidentified martial art). They smiled and waved at me when I gave them the thumbs-up sign for their flips. The ruins are those of Mughal tombs from the 16th century, made of red stones with grand domes and cornices. They were filled with local graffiti and bird droppings, but majestic nevertheless. I took a gazillion pictures. We say lime green birds with turquoise tails flying everywhere, and Matkhan told us about his eight year old son. As dusk was coming close, mom became neurotic about mosquitoes (we are not taking malaria tablets, on the recommendations of our doctors). I hadn’t seen one flying insect, but she was feeling phantom itches, so we returned to the car, and to the Gymkhana club. Here, I paid Matkhan INR 1,000 ($25) for his day of services, and we went to our room to recuperate.

My mom wanted a cocktail, but the bar was closed. Since all I wanted was a nap, this was fine with me. We each had a triple sec mocha at the café (she didn’t like it and I drank them both), demanded from reception that four bottles of tonic water be delivered to our room, and returned to our room, where I climbed into bed. I fell asleep immediately, and soon enough my mom must have as well, since we woke up with a start at 8:30, a half-hour past when we were supposed to meet for dinner with four people I had met at breakfast, who were also staying for the conference. (After my morning shower, during which my mom was stone asleep, I had found my hairdryer and gone in search of a cup of tea. I had instead found a full breakfast, with an overcooked chive omelet, a delicious fried thing (of Indian origin), and a bowl of oatmeal. There were also fresh fruit and yogurt, which I avoided as per everyone’s digestive warnings. Whilst eating (as quickly as possible, since I had left my mom asleep, locked into our room, since the door only closes by slide-bolt from both inside and outside), I overheard four Americans at a nearby table discussing the Habitat Center, and thinking they might be part of the conference, I introduced myself. They were indeed, and one of the two couples was equally as disappointed in the accommodation. I described briefly my own experience, and our plans to find alternate lodgings that day. They planned to walk around and explore Delhi. The other couple had hired a car, and were planning on visiting a number of tombs and other historical sites. We had agreed to meet at eight for dinner together, where we could share our information gathered throughout the day.

So having woken up with a start, we threw on jackets (it was so cold that I was shaking again) and went to the dining room. On the way, we ran into Collette, one of the two women, who told us that the other couple were in the bar, and she was off to find her partner. We all convened in the dining room, where I ordered tonic water and tea, with dal, paneer (spinach), chicken biriyani, and nan. I ate and ate and spoke a bit; my mom spoke more and ate less. Having company for dinner took the onus of conversing off of me, for which I was grateful, being half asleep. After dinner was through, it was nearly ten, and I was exhausted. Mom wanted to sit in the bar or in front of the fireplace with a drink, but it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. We went back to the room and back to bed.


Anonymous said...

Dahlia heard about your blog from Perry. I recommend three places.

You should go to the Kahn market (it's a high end shopping market frequented by locals and expats) there is an American style soda fountain/ice cream place there that is worth visiting for the weirdness of being in an American style cafe in India.

You should also go to the goverment emporia on Baba Kharak Singh Street. They sell handcrafted goods from all over India at reasonable fixed prices. They are part of the goverment's attempt to make a good impression on tourists. And finally
I recommend The National Museum. It has significantly better Indian antiquities than the Prince of Wales museum in Mumbai.

I am sure Dehli is much more pleasant in Jan than June.



Dahl said...

Thanks for the tip, Bayard. We're also going to Jaipur and Varanasi, if you have any familiarity or suggestions about those spots.

Anonymous said...

I haven't been to Jaipur or Varanasi. Varanasi is supposably crowded, dirty and intense. I hear Rajasthan is beautiful, but Jaipur is pretty touristy. You might try to get to Bodhgaya, which is close to Varanasia. It is the place were the Buddha found enlightenment and apparently relatively tranquil and nice. It is filled with Buddhist temples from all over Asia in different styles.