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Friday, February 24, 2006

Bananas about Bananas

I’m in INDIA.

That, to me, blows my mind. I don’t think at any point in my life did I ever think I’d be visiting INDIA. And yet, here I am. I know so little about Indian culture, that I’m awed by every turn of my head, every moment of time that I experience in this country. I feel like I’m learning just by having stepped off the plane. And, there’s so much to learn, as India full of contrast. You have uber-rich and filthy poor living next to each other, Hindus and Muslims praying next to each other, East and West culture vying for representation, North and South, old and new. India may be a lot of things, but it will never be boring, that’s for sure. There’s drastic differences everywhere – dress (saris being replaced by jeans and t-shirts), food (North Indian vs. South Indian cuisine – on the plane they asked what I wanted for breakfast “a North Indian breakfast or a South Indian one.” I shrugged and asked dumbly, “what’s the difference?”), religion (Hindus and Muslims), castes (Sikh, Punjabi, Brahim, to name a few), and the chasm between all of these competing differences is deep.

I arrived into Delhi at around 6 AM. My friend Matt is an Associated Press correspondent (Chief Correspondent, sorry…) here, so he’s graciously offered his place. I arrive to his neighborhood which is called Sunder Nagar. It is one a few enclaves of the wealthy in New Delhi and it is beautiful. New Delhi surprises me. As the car Matt sent to pick me up (so nice to see signs with your name at the airport in India, trust me…) at the airport whisks me through Delhi at sunrise, I’m shocked to see how clean and expansively green New Delhi seems. The streets are wide, properly paved and spotless, surrounded by much grass, beautiful gated bungalows (that is the word use to describe an estate here, go figure…) and quiet. Matt’s apartment is another surprise. It’s a house really, that he occupies the second floor of (but the first floor is non-functional), and it’s enormous. 12-15 foot ceilings, all with fans creating breezes and hums, 2 bedrooms, 2 studies, a living room/dining room that is easily 30 x 40 feet, kitchen with a breakfast nook area beyond, a verandah overlooking a meadow out front, marble floors, French doors opening out from most rooms. It’s fantastic. A place like this would cost $5 million in NYC. MORE, who am I kidding? Then, of course, India being a service country, he has Jaya, his housekeeper ($120 a month!!!! That’s two cleaning lady sessions for my 500 sq foot apt in NYC) who cooks, shops, launders, cleans, and generally, loiters all day long, re-sweeping and re-straightening. There’s a variety of other service people, the one who presses his shirts, takes the garbage, drives him. It’s a cultural thing. Me, I’m like, cleaning the floor WITH Jaya, and for every “Ma’am, I washed your sleeping clothes. Ma’am, can I get you anything at the market? Ma’am, is there anything you like to eat?” I cringe. No, no, no, no…I’m fine. Even if I’m starving, I’m just FINE. I’m just not used to having a servant, I guess. I’m like stealing bananas for sustenance rather than ask Jaya to COOK for me. Oh god, I cannot!!! (I’m coming thru Delhi four times, though, so…..maybe on my last visit, I’ll have her do me up a dosa or something, just to have the EXPERIENCE of being servant-fabulous in India…Maybe.)

We spent the day exploring New Delhi, continually astounding with it’s very beautiful British built government buildings on Raj Path. As Matt remarked, it looked like when the British built New Delhi, they thought they were going to be around for a while. Too bad they got booted. It’s that impressive. Raj Path runs to India Gate on the other end. Around India Gate is a park space where tons of Indian families were out relaxing and enjoying the day. Then, onto Lodi Gardens, another outdoor space, the Central Park of Delhi, if you will. It just seemed so normal, so comfortable.

That perception changed quickly the next day as I headed into Old Delhi in a rickshaw. Being a Monday, the traffic was insane, the pollution from the traffic, making it worse in my open-air taxi. I was breathing in my hands (looking as if I was continually sneezing -or vomiting - the whole ride) to keep the air from the exhaust from getting into my lungs (like this really helped). We arrived at the Red Fort, which is off Chandi Chowk, the main thoroughfare in Old Delhi. What a difference!!! Old Delhi vs New Delhi. Night and day. THIS is your National Geographic India. This is your CNN Presents. This is what I was prepared to see.

There were people EVERYWHERE, millions of them (probably an accurate # given Delhi’s population). First thing I noticed, all the different ways of getting around competing for road space – pedestrians, rickshaws, cyclos, moto-cyclos, buses, horse/buggies, bicycles, taxis, cars. Insanity. And there’s no such thing as safe driving here. There are NO lanes, no rules. The government actually has put up road signs all over that say “Lane driving is Sane driving” b/c the driving is so out of control. Kinda funny. I was probably stepped on 20 times, and fell over/into potholes or off curbs (a VERY normal occurrence for me here in Asia (you should see the bandage on my knee TODAY (there have been many). I just made peace with the fact that I’m an awful klutz). Then, I notice all the people. Beggars, just like you’ve seen in photos, holding out silver pans, coated in grime, filthy children with lice ridden hair - you can SEE the bugs moving all over their scalp, dirty fingernails, years worth of life on their clothes, old men laying on the pavement, blind men with canes navigating the chaos, limbless flaunting their lack of, business men on cell phones oblivious to it all flying past, women in saris – colorful beautiful saris traveling in numbers, throngs of hungry, homeless crowded and kneeling 10 -15 people deep on the ground outside food establishments waiting for leftovers from the plates of diners, vendors hawking junk, fortune tellers offering to read your palm, little boys with scales to guess your weight, it’s INSANITY. Then, you notice all the animals roaming the city freely: cows (very very sacred here, they don’t serve beef anywhere, it’s a black market item, Matt informs), pigs, goats, camels, monkeys, sheep, parrots (sooo pretty and green, flying all around), dogs and, gulp, elephants being ridden thru the streets. It’s unbelievable. I spent the better part of the day walking through the bazaars and markets around Chandi Chowk, mezmerized.

After Chandi Chowk, I head to the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque. An old gorgeous architectural building with the typical architectural “balloons” (that’s that I call the hot air balloon looking domes of the mosques) floating above the city. Being a Muslim country, I’m stared at a lot, my clothing, especially tank tops (shoulders uncovered, fitted), the way I carry myself. I’ve learned QUICKLY to ignore it. It’s very interesting b/c the men would NEVER disrespect a Muslim woman the way they disrespect Western women. It’s also infuriating, I want to smack every man I walk past, but I refrain, obv... I’ll be hung and stoned in no time if I sass myself around India, creating a ruckus. But at the Jama Masjid, it was dreadful, not to mention, um…sacreligious. I was swaddled from head to toe before entry because of my “offensive” clothing. I looked like the baby Jesus, walking and female, and yeah, 31. Then, on entry, I was hissed at and followed by disgusting Muslim men, with leering, lusty looks dripping from their features. And these men are bold, they look you in the eyes, they speak to you, uttering dirty, perverted things. I try very, very hard to just ignore and focus forward. Sometimes it’s really hard. I’m not good at biting my tongues, as we all know. Two teenage boys (around 15, maybe) followed me around the the duration of time I was at the mosque going “I love your breasts, I want to squeeze your breasts. I love you American. Can I touch you? Let me touch you.” I MEAN……. They would be put to death if I were a Muslim woman. But all rules (shocker) go out the window with foreigners. I didn’t stay at the Jama Masjid too long, as you might imagine…

Then, I went to lunch. Ok….I’ve tried everything at this point. Dosa, Dal, Paneer, Kebabs, Aloo, Nam, Pokhra, Masala, Biryani, Tandoori. EW, EW, EW... I just can’t get into it. I love spice, I love the ingredients, but the way they’re put together here just DOESN’T work for me. It’s like spice mush with lots of ghee (the fat they use) floating on top. When I got to town, I said to Matt “I’m ONLY eating Indian food for three weeks. Big talker, me. Day three, he’s like – I don’t feel well, I think I’m going to get some soup from Chinese. My eyes lit up! YES YES YES, sounds great. I don’t even Chinese at home! So…yeah. Food sucks. And I have 2 more weeks of it . . . Instead, I eat lots of fruits. My P’s – pineapple, papaya and pomegranate are staples. And, ready kids….bananas. I know, I know, I’ve been a banana basher my whole life, shooting down sharing banana desserts all the time. Well…I love them now. The fruit, not the flavoring, mind you. I peeled a banana and ate it the other day, publicly. It felt amazing. I felt so cool. Peeling, eating a banana. I’ve never done that before. Like, carried one in my backpack and had it for snack. I had to come to India to realize this. The irony….

On that note – I’m going to go grab a banana and explore more of India. There’s just so much to see. More soon on Agra, Mumbai and the rest…