Friday, April 16, 2010

Day Three

Got my internet back, baby!

Day three in India and it was already time to change hotels. It was Monday morning and Ryan’s vacation was technically over – as he was supposed to start his paint trials at the Rapid Coat plant in Ghaziabad (about 45 minutes from Delhi). Once again, I was wide awake at 5am so I decided to just start packing my suitcase. I thought I was being really quiet...unhooking all of my clothes from the wooden hangers so they wouldn’t clank together...but over breakfast, Ryan revealed that he was watching me the entire time and laughing at my efforts to be (what I thought was) “quiet”.

Breakfast at the Taj was much more entertaining than yesterday. Now that I sort of had the hang of things, I felt free to look around a little and act like I’d been there before. I was also less surprised to see baked beans and wok-fried vegetables next to the omelet station for the second day in a row. It was also clearly Monday morning – a work day. The hotel was packed full of guys in business suits hosting breakfast meetings and making business deals. There were certainly more “white” faces in the room this morning, which would never have occurred to me unless I’d just spent the last 3 days being the minority – an experience every white American should try, in my opinion. One guy in particular caught my attention right away. He was wearing black pants, a starched white shirt (no jacket), black and white striped socks, black and white patent leather dress shoes (like spats), and a pinky ring. I knew I was supposed to take him seriously because he had super slicked-back hair and a skinny, well-groomed chin beard. I couldn’t help but wonder what business he was conducting in Delhi – other than perhaps the representation of a young Bollywood star or a new chain of Douche-bag night clubs. I was delighted to hear that he was indeed American – the booming voice and wild gestures was enough to make me proud.

As Ryan and I returned to our table with heaping bowls of cereal and completely reasonable portions of sweet breakfast pastries, one other character caught my attention…an overly-tan guy in cargo shorts, wearing a youth-medium t-shirt to further accentuate the steroid-pumped muscles of his upper-body. I could only assume he was in Delhi to lay by the pool and work out. Then he spoke. He unleashed a fit of rage at the waiter who had just brought him a to-go bowl of liquid that was evidently not what he ordered, “What is this? You call this porridge? This is SOUP! I asked for porridge! Who would eat this? I don’t even know what this is. It’s certainly not porridge” in an accent we couldn’t quite place. Was it Irish? Australian? Italian? I was ready to write the guy off as a total a-hole until Ryan overheard him telling another waiter that his wife was very sick and waiting upstairs for her porridge. Ryan said, “I can only imagine how stressed I would be if we were in a foreign country and you were sick and I came downstairs for your breakfast and they gave me the wrong thing.” As he said that, I looked over and the guy had his head down on the table. Whatever happened to us that day, it was going to be better than anything that guy had going on.

At 9am sharp, Luke joined us in the restaurant for breakfast, followed closely by Ajit who was there to drive us to his plant in Ghaziabad. While they finished up their breakfast, Ryan and I gathered our luggage upstairs and checked out of the Taj Mahal Hotel. With slightly more judgment than I anticipated, Luke helped us get ALL of our (oh. My. God. You guys brought so much stuff. I only had this one back pack) luggage in to the trunk of Ajit’s car. (I’m sorry, but 1 suitcase and a carry-on for a 15-hour plane ride seemed perfectly reasonable to me!) Luke was a nice guy, but his “experience” traveling to India made him sort of jaded and unsympathetic to our pedestrian ways.

In our rush to prove we could fit ALL of our luggage in to Ajit’s car, I realized I shoved my camera in the trunk. Dang it!!! I cannot even tell you how many picture-worthy moments I missed on the car-ride from Delhi to Ghaziabad. It still bothers me. At one point, there was a traffic jam and we took a little “off-road” adventure past a giant field where workers were spreading cow poop on flat, stone surfaces and letting them dry in the sun. They were forming the dry ones in to round disks and stacking them in to huge piles to be gathered and sold as fuel. I made the mistake of asking what the “fuel” was to be used for. I wasn’t entirely clear on the answer but it had something to do with cooking food. I’m hoping they limit those to residential use and the somosas I ate in that restaurant yesterday weren’t cooked using dried cow poop. Gross. Mequite BBQ flavor would take on a whole different meaning.

The traffic jam also afforded me an up-close and personal experience with a cart full of chickens being pulled by a tooth-less, sweaty guy on a bicycle. No matter how many times the traffic moved or how adept Ajit was at cutting through the mess of cars, every time we stopped, I was face-to-face with this sick cage of dying, pooping, blind, feather-less chickens shoved in to tiny cages, miserably stacked on top of each other. I had a strong desire to go strict vegetarian for the rest of this trip (and possibly the rest of my time on this planet) but I mostly wanted to avoid whatever person or restaurant was about to buy those chickens.

During what I can only assume is a typical commute to work, we saw crammed, dirty busses full of guys in “the uniform” – a short-sleeved cotton shirt, black pants and sandals. Every once in a while, a guy would hop off of the bus and just start walking down the middle of the street. Then the bus would pull forward a bit and other people would jump on the bus (no doors or windows). The situation with the motorcycles continues to blow my mind. I’ve seen as many as 6 people crammed on to the seat of a single motorcycle. The women all ride “side-saddle”, sometimes carrying backpacks and holding small babies and children on their laps – no helmets. The men wear helmets and sometimes balance one or two kids on their laps in the space occupied by their arm’s reach.

In cars, there’s no such thing as child seats. Kids are propped on laps – sometimes standing between the driver and the front passenger seat. Auto rickshaws (all the power of a hair-dryer on wheels) can carry as many as 8 people – usually stacked on top of each other with one or two guys hanging out the side. Evidently the cost is the same, no matter how many people are crammed in there, so they keep piling in like a clown car at the circus. It’s insane. Without looking like a complete weirdo, I’ve been obsessed with capturing a decent picture of the traffic situation. No lanes. No rules. No seatbelts. No helmets. No signals. And they drive on the left side of the road which means there are roundabouts instead of intersections and they merge by squeezing themselves in to the tiniest place you can possibly imagine and hoping the other guy backs off.

I’ve asked Ajit (and every member of his family) how you go about getting a driver’s license in India and I’ve gotten a different answer every time. Evidently, the process ranges anywhere from walking in to an office and buying a driver’s license to taking a driving test – which you may or may not fail on your first try. I still can’t fathom how you would fail a driving test on a road with no rules...perhaps by blatantly driving on the wrong side of the road? But I have to say, I’ve seen that here too.

We eventually arrived at the Country Inn and Suites – the hotel where Ryan and I would be checking in for the next 5 days. I had an idea in my head of what the Country Inn and Suites might look like but there weren’t any chain-smoking hicks behind the counter and the lobby did not smell like a swimming pool. It was all glass and marble and contemporary furniture – staffed by well-groomed people with all of their teeth. I immediately got my camera out and started snapping pictures when we got to our room. Awesome marble bathroom with water-fall shower; clean cotton bed sheets with fluffy white pillows; a retro Eames chair in the corner next to a glass-top table. Were you reading my diary, Country Inn and Suites?

Ajit took us to his office next – a factory called Rapid Coat that he started 35 years ago simply by reading/requesting books about powder coating. He built the entire factory himself and most of the equipment inside. He’s incredibly smart and incredibly humble. He and Ryan got along right away. We walked in and everyone in the room immediately stood up. They have a lot of respect for their boss and they work hard to keep their jobs (and from what we’d seen, there were clearly more people in India than jobs – especially in nice, air-conditioned offices). During our tour of the plant, it was great to see Ryan in his element. The floor was concrete instead of laminate and the lab was make-shift instead of state-of-the-art, but Ryan recognized all of the necessary components and he was really impressed. The plant was loud – lots of machines going at once – which made me proud that Ryan remembered his ear-protection (which he frequently carries just in case we find ourselves in the middle of a random fireworks display or a balloon-heavy birthday party and I’m catatonic in the corner). I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I smiled a lot watching Ryan with Ajit’s employees – easily a foot and a half taller than everyone – ducking as we went through doorways. I just hung back and followed them around – waving and smiling like some sort of powder-coating diplomat.

We ended up in Ajit’s office to talk over the plans and expectations for the next 5 days. There were cold bottles of Pepsi, drinking glasses and huge bottles of water waiting for each of us, which I found really sweet considering they made a special effort to refrigerate our drinks. Electricity is really expensive – as evidenced by the frequent, mandatory power-outages that occur throughout the day. I quietly drank my Pepsi and smiled while the guys had their meeting, then Ajit’s wife (Saroj) and his son (Anooj) joined us so we could all drive back to the hotel for lunch. Ajit drove his own car, but Saroj had a driver named Naveen who was very sweet and quiet (and CRA-ZY skinny! Wow! That boy’s biceps were smaller than my wrists.) The whole way back to the hotel, Saroj and I made plans for all of the shopping we were going to do after lunch. In the front seat, I could tell Ryan was getting really nervous. I was making plans to go shopping with a woman wrapped in gauzy, embroidered, linen, dripping with diamonds, being driven around by her own personal driver. Awesome.

You wouldn’t think a hotel restaurant was anything picture-worthy, but I immediately broke out my camera. It was gorgeous. There were three, big open kitchens with chefs in tall hats preparing fine, Indian (all vegetarian) cuisine; huge copper kettles for making fresh naan bread; buffets full of fruit and bread and cheese just for starters; a dessert bar with hundreds of tiny bite-sized desserts all lined up like delicious little soldiers and an ice cream bar with flavors like mango, fig and pistachio. And it was gooooood!

After lunch, Ryan, Anooj and Ajit headed back to the office to get the paint trials going while Saroj, Luke and I headed off to Delhi. We had to get Luke back by 3:00 for a meeting and Saroj and I had big shopping plans! The traffic headed in to Delhi was worse than what we faced coming out of it, but I was getting used to this commute. Delhi is a much larger city than Ghaziabad and everyone drives in there to work. Plus, the entire city is under construction for the Commonwealth Games (expected to take place in November 2010 despite the fact that there’s no stadium or infrastructure built yet) so the roads are completely torn up with detours all over the city. It’s a good way to make an already filthy city even dirtier. Just put heaping piles of dirt and trash by the side of the road so families can crouch next to it and grout some tile for the next 7 months. And I’m talking *entire* families…babies with no pants, kids with sticks as toys, dogs, women and men are all crouched next to the frantic, busy highway building sidewalks. (or something…I honestly have no idea what they’re doing. Several times, we drove past big groups of dudes just standing around eating bananas – like, “it’s 4:00…time for a banana!” One time we watched a girl just pick up bricks one-by-one and chuck them 2 feet away from where she was standing. Seemed tedious and a little unnecessary but whatever.)

Saroj and I dropped Luke off at the Taj Mahal hotel and headed off to Connaught Place – the city’s oldest shopping center. It is currently being restored (like everything else in Delhi) so we didn’t actually get out of the car. We drove around and around it until we could find the one and only entrance to the center, then we fought like crazy to get through a congested parking situation (not so much a parking lot, just a big open space where cars were triple and quadruple parked in a mass that looked like complete chaos). Connaught Place basically looks like The Colosseum, except this one is for shopping, not fighting to the death. Saroj explained that there were apartments on the second story of this building and the people who lived there once had the rights to paint/decorate them however they wanted, so they got all run-down and gross and the city mandated that everyone move out and they sort of start over. The shops had to be more uniform with their signage and the apartments above had to maintain a certain level of integrity. The restoration really looked beautiful (where it was close to being finished). They are restoring classic Roman columns and installing floor-to-ceiling windows in the apartments above – which are going to sell for 1 million dollars per square foot when they’re finished.

Next, we went to something Saroj called a “flea market” where vendors set up booths and tents full of everything from jeans to nightgowns to jewelry. We had to go through a security gate, but I looked back to realize that the guy standing next to it wasn’t a cop. He was just a guy selling electric fly-swatters. The street smelled like pee and I was trying my best to avoid mysterious piles of trash on the ground, so I didn’t get many pictures of the market. I also didn’t want to lose my host who was booking it toward a display of cotton nightgowns.

It took me a while to warm up to the flea market, but eventually I realized they were selling 100% cotton shirts for 100 rupees. That’s like $2.50. Of course, you can’t try anything on and you’d certainly want to wash everything before you wear it, but I was there for the experience and the thrill of the hunt. I wasn’t going to regret a $2.50 contribution toward their economy. Saroj bought a cotton, embroidered nightgown and tried hard to get me to do the same. “T-shirt and pajama pants” just didn't translate. Then we went to a tent selling cotton quilts, pillow-covers and wall-hangings. They were amazing. All hand-embroidered and machine washable, according to this lady. It was well shaded, but still over 100 degrees in that tent. The woman and her husband took nearly every quilt off the wall and spread it out to show it to us. Saroj bought one for the new house she’s building (she knew just where she wanted to hang it) and I debated long and hard over a cheerful yellow quilt with elephants all over it. (I could picture it in the baby’s room or laying across the foot of a guest bed...a conversation piece if anything.) Saroj did her best to bargain with the lady but she was firm on 1,000 rupees. Saroj said it wasn’t worth that much – maybe 600 rupees – so we walked away. I didn’t stop thinking about that elephant quilt all night.

I didn’t know what was happening most of the time. Saroj switched back and forth between English and Hindi at a rate I couldn’t fathom. Most of the time, she asked questions in Hindi, then the vendors would reply and she’d say something like “Oh…I see” and I’d be all “what just happened? What did you ask?” as I followed her out of a tent. At one point, she asked if I wanted a Pepsi or a Sprite or something to drink (again…so unbearably hot), so we made our way out of the flea market to a sketchy little cart selling food and drinks. This was exactly the type of thing I was told to avoid in my instructional video. The guy shook his head as Saroj asked for two words I recognized (something-something-Pepsi? Something-something-Sprite?) Then she turned to me and said, “you want apple juice?” Um…no. How about a bottle of water? She turned back to the guy and he handed her a thing that looked sort of like a Frappucino in a tiny bottle without a lid and I got really nervous. Saroj took out a straw and began slurping it up. The vendor re-appeared with a huge (slightly unmanageable) bottle of water and I was relieved. Because if that brown drink was water, we were in trouble. It turned out to be iced coffee and Saroj finished it off in about 5 seconds, then she set the bottle in a crate by the trash-can (it was the closest thing to recycling I’ve seen so far. I used to think India banned plastic bags, but every single thing we purchased was shoved in a plastic bag before I could get my money out or explain that I already had a bag and I could just put it in there. As if I wasn’t foreign enough. Weirdo.)

We turned the corner and found even more shops – these were on the street and they had air-conditioning and doors. I purchased a scarf for 50 rupees ($1.00?) and decided I should come back for more of those before I leave! I also purchased some fun, authentic bangles in a giant plastic sleeve – perfect for my outfits that require rhinestones and jingly accessories!

I could tell Saroj was getting a little tired of the crowds and the noise, so I asked her if there was anywhere else she would like to go. She said, “Oh, yes Ashley. I will take you to some very fine shopping” and she pulled out her phone to call her driver. He was at the curb in about 30 seconds and we were off.

The next place didn’t allow any pictures and I’m not even sure how to describe it. We were dropped off in front of a big white gate on a cobble-stone street that was off the main road. There were no cars honking and there was a valet guy ready to park our car in a safe, non-mirror scraping parking lot. It looked like a garden the way it was all fenced in and private. Through the white gate were little stone pathways through green, plush grass and along the pathways were individual “hut-type” boutiques. There were peacocks roaming around and twinkle lights in the trees. It was about 10 degrees cooler because there were hardly any people around. Barely any noise at all. It was heaven.

Saroj took me to a store called “Anokhi” where I picked out a few scarves and debated a cotton throw for the bedroom. The prices here were a bit higher but the craftsmanship was much closer to what you would see in the U.S. (and more consistent than anything we saw in the flea market). I took my scarves up to the check-out and stood behind a woman purchasing one of everything in the store. And I’m not even kidding. Her total came to over 1 million rupees and then she paid in cash. Gulp. A guy standing next to her looked at my measly scarves and said (in a super sexy British accent), “You really must buy more. Best prices in all of India. We’re only here for 5 hours and this is the only store we plan to visit.” Alright then…looks like you’ll be here for a while anyway...might as well have a look around. I decided to try on a caftan (though nobody here calls them that). I pictured myself on a yacht somewhere, wearing my authentic Indian caftan ("I'm on a BOAT!") – or going to Mexico with my friends in October – using this cotton shirt-dress as a swim-suit cover-up. It fit perfectly and I figured why not. Plus that British guy told me to. While standing in line, I noticed some cute little ruffly tops that turned out to be dresses for little girls. Perfect! I hadn’t bought anything for Delaney yet. She would love it. It’s summery – it twirls – and it’s a dress!

After Anokhi, we ventured through the garden to a tiny little jewelry store that welcomed Saroj like a regular – because she was. They brought her a glass of water and a chair so she could sit next to the gold jewelry counter and pick something she liked. She really wanted me to buy an embroidered pashmina, so she insisted that the girl bring out stacks of pashminas while she shopped. After spending my last rupee in the previous store, I graciously declined, but she continued to try on gold bracelets and insisted that they bring her “something”. ”I want to buy something” she would say whistfully as she brushed her hair out of her eyes. This lady was a trip.

We drove back to Ghaziabad around 6pm and Saroj made the comment “you sure do like to take pictures, don’t you?” as I clicked away – hoping to capture a small fraction of the mess we saw on the roads that morning. We made plans to shop again tomorrow but I realized after I got out of the car that I had no idea how to get in touch with her or what time to be ready. I was feeling nauseous from the stop and go traffic and I was anxious to take a shower. I’d also had a perpetual runny nose all day so I decided to upgrade from my Claratin-D to my Benedryl.

Ryan called the hotel room around 10pm to say he was on his way home, finally. I’d been completely zonked out for the last 4 hours and missed dinner entirely. Ryan knocked on the hotel room door around 10:30 and I vaguely remember waking up to say hello. My Benedryl had really kicked in so I was semi-conscious for the following events: Ryan got home, realized the internet connection in our room wasn’t working, called an I/T guy to come fix it (which means a stranger was in our room for 20 min while I was completely unconscious on the bed), Ryan called the front desk to have someone come up and fix our TV (it was making loud, humming noises that were super distracting and annoying), somebody brought a whole new flat-screen TV in to our room and hung it on the wall, Ryan called room service and ordered food, somebody brought a huge cart full of food in to our room and Ryan ate dinner right next to me. I sort of remember eating his bread and a bite of biryani, but that’s about it. Benedryl, man. That stuff WORKS!

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