Friday, December 18, 2009

New Delhi I

Our plane touched down in New Delhi, India at about 5:00 AM. We knew check-in wasn't for a few more hours so we hung around at the airport watching people go by. We got a water and soda from the snack bar there and were amazed by the cheap price. When it was time to go we got a pre-paid voucher for our taxi - that way we would just give the voucher to the driver and not have to worry about haggling or paying any extra money. It was about 10 or 15 km to the hotel and we got to get a taste of what was to come along the way. It seems that traffic is just as bad, if not worse than in Cairo. I would venture that its worse actually. Slow bicycles and cows mix with the cars and motorcycles, everyone squeezing themselves through narrow openings between vehicles in their anxiousness to get ahead. Sometimes people just drove into oncoming traffic to pass, and people cut each other off all over the place. Honking galore. A fair amount of shouting. A lot of barely-avoided accidents. It's madness! At least to my mind. But it works for the most part. As for the sights along the way, they weren't pretty. We noticed a lot of men pissing on walls. The air is incredibly smoggy - you can see the haze between yourself and things that are just 20 feet away. It's so bad that on a clear day the sun still doesn't actually shine. Everything is covered in a layer of brown, dusty dirt: streets, buildings, signs, etc. I don't know if this is from the smog, or if New Delhi has dust-like dirt that's hard to control (like the salt-rust that's unavoidable by the sea), or if people are just dirty. People just drop their garbage on the ground, expecting someone else to clean it up. You frequently do see people sweeping the area around their shop with their little hand held straw brooms, transforming the scattered trash into piles of trash, but then it just sits there. Either it's not picked up often (and come to think of it, I never saw a garbage truck in India), or there is so much garbage that there is always a pile. We also saw some monkeys on the way to the hotel. They were just chilling on the corner, picking at each other and climbing the big electrical box they had claimed for the day. No one seemed to be bothering them and they seemed perfectly at ease with the city. After we got to our hotel and checked in we immediately fell asleep. That wasn't the best way combat the jet-lag, but we were so tired! We woke up around 4:00 PM due to the noise, mainly honking. The honking is worse than anywhere else we've been. At least they're creative with their horns though. Mixed in with the regular one-loud-blast honks are horns that blast 6 or 7 honks, getting quieter with each one. Others have honks with a rhythm, or some with changing pitches. Some sound like a little jingle or song. A lot of the time people just lay on the horn for 20-30 seconds straight. It can be really really annoying. So with all the honking we figured it must be time to get up and get some food. Our hotel is in an area called Pahar Ganj. It's know as the "backpackers" area and is one of the busiest, loudest and dirtiest parts of New Delhi I think. But also one of the cheapest. So our first venture out into the madness - without the protection of a car - was kind of scary to be honest. Everything was covered in that dirty dust, the piles of garbage were scattered everywhere, and there were all sorts of people walking about, many staring at us. We discovered that you have to watch out for the cars and rickshaws because they don't like to bother avoiding you. I was clipped on my wrist by a motorcycle handle and had a sore wrist for the next few days. As for finding a place to eat, we had no idea how that worked because the restaurants did not look like we expected them to. A lot were only 8-10 feet wide and had no front door. In fact, there was no front wall at all. They were dimly lit and the kitchens typically consisted of portable equipment. Electric stoves don't appear to exist in India – it all runs on gas, or just a coal fire even. We walked up and down one of the busier streets, eyeing the restaurants and shops warily. We ducked into the grocery store at the end, trying to avoid having to brave one of the restaurants. We got some bottled water (absolutely necessary in India) and chips for $1 US. But we couldn't avoid it any longer after that. It was eat or starve. So we went into one of the larger places and took a seat. It was called Sonu South Indian and was a vegetarian place (a lot of joints are). We were happy to see that the menu was in English, but still put-out by the fact that we had no idea what the items were. So our first taste of India was randomly chosen: a Masala Dosa, Dal Fry, and rice. Man, were we satisfied. It was all very spicy, but so tasty. The Masala Dosa is a tube of crispy, thin crepe-like bread filled with a mix of spiced potatoes, cauliflower, and other veggies. The Dal Fry was basically a lentil curry. It was a great introduction to Indian food. And the best part was the cost. It was enough to fill us both up and only cost a total of $2 US. That's a great deal! Back at the hotel we weren't feeling tired at all thanks to our nap and ended up staying awake until 5:00 AM. Ugh.

We woke up super late on the 3rd. 4:00 in the afternoon. We got food at that same place again. This time we got the Punjabi Thali (a thali is like a meal with 2 or 3 different curries, rice, and roti bread). We decided to try and eat the Indian way by not touching the food with our left hands and not using silverware. We managed to tear our roti using just or right hand and then use the pieces to pinch up piles of curry soaked rice. Our left hand was only used to scoop curry onto rice with the spoon and otherwise stayed out of the whole ordeal. We had rather dirty fingers by the time we were done, but I was a bit proud of my attempt to eat like a local. Of course, it seems everyone has their own way of eating so I'm sure we could stuff our faces using just a spoon and no one would look twice. Watching other people eat, I've seen some that use both hands, others just the right one, some use utensils, some are very messy and some tidy. It was kinda fun to get my fingers all up in there - an acceptable way to play with my food. After that we tried to find an ATM but they were all closed or broken. No money for us apparently. Back at the hotel we brought the laptop downstairs to check emails and also call Citibank (the bank we use). We had received an email from them just before we left Egypt telling us that our cards had been compromised and we had until December, at which point they would be disabled. They informed us not to worry though, because our new cards were already in the mail. To my Mom's house. On the other side of the world. What. The. FFFFFUUUUUUU. Of course, since that day we'd been very upset with them, and were forced to try and either have our cards "un-black listed," or get our new cards sent to New Delhi. Otherwise we would be cut off from our accounts at some point and that's really not a good idea when you're traveling around the world. Citibank's customer service was good about trying to help us the best they could. After explaining our situation to the woman on the phone - she was surprised at our being in India and amusingly bewildered at the fact that it was nearly midnight for us and the middle of the afternoon for her - she told us she could have another set of cards expedited to one of the Citibanks in India. She couldn't send it to our hotel for security reasons. The only catch was, once she sent the cards our current ones would immediately become un-useable. I didn't understood why, since they had apparently already sent a set to Mom's house and our cards were still working. Gah. So we decided we had better wait and get a bunch of money first, then have them sent. So that was that for the night. I have to give their customer service props for seeming to want to try and help us. I don't give props to Citibank and their policies though. Granted, I understand the whole "flagging" of our cards for being used in Egypt I suppose, but the inability to just re-instate the ones we have was incredibly annoying. Truly a huge inconvenience for us! And once again, we ended up in bed late. At 2:00 AM this night. I guess it's better than 5:00 AM.

I woke up in the early hours of the morning and couldn't sleep, so I read for a while. After finally falling asleep again at 6:00 AM we both got up at noon. Chuck was feeling cool and shiver-y so we got out our thermometer (we like to be prepared with our fancy medical equipment) and discovered he had a bit of a fever. It wasn't too high, so we decided to go to Citibank despite his situation, since we really needed to get money. As for showering, it sucked. No hot water. I quickly discovered I can happily (“happily” isn't actually the most accurate term, but it'll have to do) bathe using a wet sock to scrub only a few, necessary parts. The bathrooms in India typically consist of a sink, a toilet, a shower head, a faucet, a 10 gallon bucket, a half liter bucket with a handle, and a short stepping stool. Note that the shower head and faucet have no area of containment or curtains. The whole bathroom is the shower and there are typically two drains set in the floor. I'm not sure how everything is supposed to be used, but I can tell you how I decided to use them. I would fill the big bucket all the way with the cold water and dip my head into it to wet my hair. I shampooed and rinsed under the faucet so I didn't have soapy bucket water, but I used the big bucket to rinse the conditioner out. I found that just plunging my hair in still water and swishing it around a bit makes the conditioner work better! Then using my little sock as a scrubby I scrubbed what needed scrubbing, only splashing water on the individual parts as necessary, striving for as little contact with the cold water as possible. Then my favorite part - slowly pouring the big bucket of water right onto the floor of the bathroom and watching it all flood away into the drains. I think I might be alone in being so entertained by that, though. Tada! Clean as... a slightly crusty plate that's still useable. I still don't know what the stepping stool is for though. So! After the showering we headed out towards Connaught Place. On the way we got to see some of the day-to-day life of New Delhi. There are always a lot of people on the streets so you have to pay attention and weave through the throng. Men apparently just unzip and relieve themselves on any wall, as long as there is no one in a 10 foot radius around them. Some spots are more popular than others, and you know you've found one when the scent suddenly burns your nostrils and makes you want to gag. The smell of old, rotting, warm, sun-baked layers of urine has to be one of the worst things in the world. It is absolutely disgusting. We also met an Indian man along the way who started chatting with us. Mainly he told us about how to get train tickets and guided us right to the front door of some tourist shop. No thanks. As for Connaught Place, it's a huge round-about that rings a decent sized park that many people like to hang out at. On the outer edges of the round-about are arcades of shops and a few restaurants. There is also a bazaar in the area with lots of shouting and activity. It's a happening place. The buildings are old British-built, colonial, pillared things, whose white color has long since been dusted over by the Delhi-dirt. Pretty much every section had scaffolding, or a trench, or thick wires hanging from the story above, or a tarp. Every bit of the place seems to be under construction. The ground just off the cemented paths were barren packed dirt with no sign of grass or life other than the shoppers, workers, and occasional beggars. Our goal was a big red building on the south side that was easy enough to find. When we arrived, my purse was half-heartedly checked by the woman guard (they don't like to have men check women's belongings unless there's no other option) and we made our way to the Citibank on the first floor. We took out 20,000 rupees which was pretty awesome, just because it looks like so much money. It was about $400 US though, and had to last us until we got our new cards. That was all we needed the bank for - just the money. So back to the hotel again. On the way we got a mango drink called Slice. It's a thick, tasty juice, but not something I'd want to drink very often. We also stopped and got some cold & flu pills at a tiny pharmacy stall for 25 rupees - or .50 cents. Wow. After getting some groceries to sustain us for the night we went back to the hotel to rest. We authorized Citibank to send us our new cards to a New Delhi branch of our choosing, and then I did my best to take care of Chuck for the night. Chuck's temperature was at 101 by then and I was feeling a bit worried. I even mopped his forehead with a cool, water soaked sock for a while (not the same one used for the shower mind you).

The next few days consisted of the both of us being sick together. I had a fever of 102 for a day, but that was the only symptom I had to deal with. Chuck cooled my forehead with a sock for a bit after his fever broke. We slept a lot. Chuck did a quick run one day for take out, and another day we weakly hauled ourselves to a nearby restaurant. Even after we were over our fevers, we were still were not up to full strength. Even going out for lunch or something simple would make us light headed and weak. Chuck was also developing the smog cough that is common in Delhi. We've frequently heard people hacking in the streets or adjacent hotel rooms, sometimes to the degree that I wondered whether they might actually be vomiting. I was woken up one morning by someone in the room next to us have a truly nasty coughing fit - the kind that makes you want to gag a bit as you imagine a pink squishy lung dangling out of his mouth. To add to those problems, I was lucky enough to have my digestive system disagree with Indian food for about a week. I tried to avoid the spicy foods for a while to see if that helped me adjust, but it's very hard to do that in India. Fried rice and chow mein were both just as spicy as the Indian dishes. Even KFC's non-spicy chicken is a tad spicy. By the 9th we expected that our bank cards should have arrived, so we hauled ourselves down to the Citibank in Connaught Place via rickshaw to check. A rickshaw is a bicycle powered contraption used to taxi people around the city. It's like a big tricycle with a small seat hardly big enough for two people, positioned over the back two wheels. The drivers work so hard to get you where you need to go that they are usually standing up on the pedals using the full weight of their slight bodies to force the wheels forward. I always felt rather guilty when I took a rickshaw. A lot of the men in India are so skinny, and to have an older thin man hauling us two plump Americans on the back of his rickshaw is just...wrong. On the other hand, I'm sure he appreciates the money. We grabbed a Limca - a carbonated lemon drink - from one of the many cart stands around to try it out. It kinda tasted like sweet, carbonated Pine-Sol with lemon. Interesting. We waited forever at Citibank because the woman we needed to speak with was on a break or something. Meanwhile, Chuck and I noticed that we were still weak and woozy and had to sit down - how long would this sickness last?? When she finally got back we were told that our cards had not arrived yet. Sigh. Later we experienced our first true beggar outside KFC (I needed a non-spicy fix). As soon as we stepped outside of the restaurant a dirty woman and a two year old kid with hardly any clothes on swooped in. They thrust their little cupped hands in front of us and tugged on our sleeves as they constantly murmured something about "food" and "baby." They walked with us as we made our way to the road, touching us or pulling gently on our clothes the whole way. It seems the street was like a magic barrier for them because once we began to cross they turned around and went elsewhere. It's quite annoying to be begged like that, and it certainly doesn't encourage me to hand over my money. In fact, it makes me less likely to give you money! And even when I do feel a twinge of pity for a beggar, I still won't give them anything because I've read about begging-gangs in India that do terrible things to people (especially children) to make them more pitiable. Like hacking off a leg or burning out their eyes. Wasn't that in that Slum Dog movie? Am I mixing Hollywood with reality here? Maybe there aren't really beggar-gangs... But maybe there are! Also, I've been surprised at how many Indians actually give money to beggars. It always seems to be only 1-2 rupees, but still - a lot of people hand out money to beggars. That night - the 9th - was pretty bland except that Chuck saw a nasty accident when he went downstairs to use the internet. Apparently some guy was just standing on the edge of the 10-foot-wide dirt path that is the road outside our hotel, when BOOM! A van came right at him, slamming him into the wall of our hotel. It wasn't a hard enough hit to do any damage to the building, but it sounds like it was enough to possibly seriously injure the guy. Chuck didn't go outside and get involved, so all he recalls seeing was a lot of blood on the ground by the guys leg. Chuck recons he might have ended up legless. I was oblivious to the whole thing, putzing around in our hotel room on the third floor. There were never any sirens, no masses of police, no one asking for official witness statements. I assume they just tossed the guy in a tuk-tuk and drove him to a hospital. Actually, I wouldn't even be too surprised if he just skipped a hospital all together and decided to deal with it on his own.

By the 10th we really needed to get over our little illness, so we got ready and went out to see the Red Fort. We got a great deal on our tuk-tuk ride there, from a nice older man. A tuk-tuk, by the way, is basically an auto-rickshaw. The whole contraption is very small - a 5x5 foot box perhaps, with open sides. There's one wheel in the front-middle, and two more wheels in the back. Like a tricycle. The steering isn't done with a wheel, but rather with a set of motorcycle handle bars. Drivers often like to decorate their tuk-tuks with religious pictures, or hang a string of chillies and lemons to ward off evil spirits, or - my favorite - attach glittering tassels to the front, like on a little girls new bicycle. Many of the tuk-tuks are old and starting to rust, but a few are freshly painted and still have some spring in their seats. They are a fabulous and inexpensive way to get around and I think we should start catching on back in the states. So, our convenient and cheap tuk-tuk ride deposited us outside the entrance to the Red Fort for 50 rupees. To get our tickets we had to stand in the 'foreigners' line - which had no one in it - and pay 25 times the Indian price. Indian citizens pay 10 rupees to get in, whereas foreigners pay 250. I'm not actually complaining about this though. Chuck and I at least can afford to pay the $5 USD to get in, as opposed to their $0.20 USD. I just hope it actually goes toward good use. Since this was our first "real" time out in Indian culture we got to finally see how people react to us. There was a lot of staring. Women stare just as much as men and children do. Some people look away if you see them staring while others just continue. The kids are more likely to take it one step further and actually say something. They love to say "Hi" or "Hello" with a big grin and wave. There were a number of school groups there during our visit. At one point we were walking behind a crowd of girls (in their British-style pleated skirts, white blouses, striped tie, and knee high socks) who kept turning around to stare at us with giggling curiosity. Like we're... monkeys at a zoo or something. It is really very strange - first of all to be the minority for a change. But more than that, it is strange to be some place where it is acceptable to stare at a person so blatantly. We had many stares where the 'offender,' upon be caught mid-stare, would not flinch an inch and continued to stare right back. Right into your eyes. I'm the type of person that once I look into a strangers eyes - whether I was caught staring or the one doing the catching - I look away immediately. That is the appropriate, typical American response and I'd venture to say that it's a fairly strong cultural instinct. It is really weird to receive such unabashed staring! Some moments I feel like a celebrity and others a circus freak. All part of the experience. The Red Fort was fairly nice. It really is a red color, hence the name. More a burnt red, but it's vivid. The buildings had nice architecture and a few marble water-ways built into the center of walking paths. Nothing spectacular, but nice. We noticed that India seems to have a lot of chipmunks who seem to only live in areas that have trees. Trees aren't too common in New Delhi, and the ones at the Red Fort might have been some of the first we'd seen. Our tuk-tuk back to the hotel was a rip off. That was disappointing, but still only $2 USD.

We woke very late again on the 11th and ran down to Citibank to check for our debit card. "Not yet," they told us. We were pretty sure it should have already arrived and made plans to call Citibank as soon as we could. Before that though, we took a trip to see the India Gate. It's a massive war monument and home to the Indian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A really cool sight, but marred by the haze from the smog in the air. There were a lot of people there - vendors and visitors both. A few groups of young people said "Hello" with a bit of excitement as they passed by. A number of women were selling their henna services and men were selling snacks and sodas. Others were trying to sell drawings or toys. We didn't stay there long, as it's really just a big monument with nothing to actually do. We got a Coke on the way out, but weren't convinced it really was a Coke. There was hardly any carbonation or hiss when we opened it, and although the label had the Coca-Cola logo on it and looked almost genuine, there was something not right. We had a few sips, but in the end decided not to drink it. It just felt funny. I think that glass-bottle sodas in India are frequently re-bottled. In many cases, I'm sure the soda really is Coke, or Fanta or whatever – but sometimes I think they cheat with a cheap substitute. That situation was the only time we were pretty sure we had just been ripped off though. On our tuk-tuk ride back, while we were stopped at an intersection, a two year old boy waddled over to us, through the three lanes of stopped traffic. He had on a dirty little shirt and dirty underwear, and had smudges smeared all over his little body. He did a few somer-saults on the asphalt beside our tuk-tuk. He was too young to even be able to turn to us with his hand out for money. He seemed he would rather do a somer-sault than beg at this point in his life. Since I can be rather cold-hearted in this sort of situation, I thought he was adorable - as so many of the children through India are - but I had no desire to give him any money. I think our tuk-tuk driver might have decided we were cold-hearted bastards at that point. I imagine a lot of our tuk-tuk drivers have come to that conclusion. I sensed him giving us penetrating glares in his rear-view mirror after that. He dropped us off at the end of our road, so we got to walk a half mile and take in the hectic sights. Restaurants set-up under permanent tin tents, barber shops on the sidewalk, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, and dogs all trying to make their way down the street in what looked like a free-for-all. I know there actually is an amount of method to the madness, but it's still over whelming. And the dogs are interesting because they're all stray, dirty, very skinny, and frequently have a broken or missing a paw. That doesn't stop them though - they go about their business as if us humans were merely moving scenery that one treats with ambivalence. It was like they had their own separate society from the human one and didn't acknowledge anyone unless they had to. At night we often heard groups of dogs barking and howling and sometimes whimpering painfully across the city, reminding me of some sort of doggie Fight Club. Back at the hotel we called Citibank and double checked the delivery address, checked on delivery confirmations, etc. I finally realized that the bank it had been sent to was not the one we kept going to check for it at. So the new plan of attack was to go to the bank where it was actually mailed. Things are looking up! We figured we would get our cards the next day, for sure.

On the 12th we decided to go out again! Yay! Our strength was coming back and it was nice to be outside (although if I'd had a choice I would certainly not have chosen to spend my outside-time in New Delhi). We grabbed a tuk-tuk to Humayun's Tomb which was a good distance away, but closer to the Citibank we needed to visit. The tombs were very cool! But... I hate to keep mentioning it, but I can't help it: the smog was so bad. The dirty haze covered everything! When we go to these beautiful old sights I can't help but notice it and be disappointed. Grrr. The first building we saw was my favorite. It was an octagonal stone building, with eight small pavilions on the roof and a big domed center. We climbed up a short but dark stairway to the roof which was fun. The main tomb – belonging to Humayun herself - was impressive, especially in its size. It was huge! There were also small river-ways sunken in the marble walking paths that crisscrossed across the whole complex connecting to simple fountains, large and small. I enjoyed the visit. However, when we left the area we were accosted by tuk-tuk drivers, waiting like vultures for us naive tourists to come stumbling along. We asked one fellow for his price to the Citibank at Nehru Place and he told us 250 rupees! That's ridiculous if you ask me. We managed to get someone to take us for 100 rupees, which I realize now was actually a pretty decent price. Tourists are usually quoted much higher prices than the locals are - a 10 rupee trip might cost 50 rupees for an unsuspecting tourist. In our research on India we read that 10 rupees per kilometer is a pretty good deal, so our 10 kilometer ride to Nehru Place for 100 rupees was lucky for us! That's what happens when you haggle though. If you think your tuk-tuk is charging too much tell them "No thanks," and try the next one. That's what we did, and we got a good deal. At Citibank we were searched and wanded (although they were very half-hearted about it) before being allowed to go inside. We asked quite a few people whether that had received anything in the mail with our names on it and no one seemed to be able to find anything. I was rather frustrated by this bad news, so I asked if I could use a phone to call Citibank in the US. After finally figuring out how to dial out to the US I was told by Citibank that their records showed that it had already been received by the bank. Funny. The bank insisted they didn't have anything. We annoyed the hell out of them for a good 30-45 minutes before finally heading back to the hotel empty-handed, sulking the whole way. Why oh why did they have to cancel our cards?? It had truly turned into a serious annoyance.

We ended up calling Citibank yet again and had a another card sent out, this time to our hotel. The only way we managed to get them to send it to such an "insecure" location was by answering security questions about our mortgage loans and car payments - all of which are non-existent, so that was easy. We waited around for another four days, checking every afternoon with the reception for any packages. The staff at the hotel all knew who we were by now and I think the manager was happy that we were apparently stuck in town. We watched TV, used the internet for an hour each day, played on our computers, and were generally rather bored. Indian TV can be somewhat interesting. We only watched the English movie channels, but we still saw the Indian commercials. There were commercials for "skin lightening lotion" for both men and women. I never thought about that fact that people in other parts of the world might want to lighten their skin rather than darken it! In the US I know they have lotion with tanners in it, but I had never heard of bleaching lotion. And the actor in the men's lotion commercial was frightening! He had these weird evil eyebrows, a squinty eye and a crooked-toothed, lopsided grin that scared me. There were also a lot of commercials for face-creams for women that I felt were a tad sexist, or at least a bit offensive on some level. For example, one commercial claimed to make your skin younger and more beautiful in just seven days. Then they show a scene of a man romantically asking his wife to "marry him again" and the voice-over says "See a change in your husband in just seven days!" So... they're basically saying your husband will suddenly fall in love with you again because you're not as ugly? Something about that claim just feels offensive. And in another commercial a girl is having her portrait painted by her boyfriend over the course of a few days. Of course, she's using her miracle face lotion during this time and he keeps being impressed by her improving skin quality. When he finally reveals the portrait at the end, he's painted a fat diamond ring on her finger, as though the fact that she now has nice skin has made him decide he wants to marry her. It's a particularly goofy commercial. And other commercials show an apparent love of singing and dancing. I think that's kind of nice though - singing and dancing is fun. The internet at the hotel proved to be a pain. One of the reasons we chose the hotel was because they said they had wifi throughout the whole place. We've since learned that hotels will claim they have every possible amenity when they really have... none. We were actually lucky that our hotel had any internet at all! At least we were able to bring a laptop downstairs and plug it into the internet in the lobby. We noticed an interesting cultural difference after a few trips downstairs to use the internet. The staff were more than happy to stand behind us and watch what we were doing on the screen. There wasn't much sense of privacy. So, there would frequently be someone blatantly watching whatever we were doing online. I think they watched Chuck more than they watched me though.

On the 17th we were woken up by the sound of our door buzzer going off accompanied by insistent knocking. A package had arrived for us! Yay! We finally got our debit cards! Or, just one card to be accurate. Chuck got a debit card - but that's all we really needed. So we did the activation phone call, headed down to the local Citibank to withdraw some money (the tuk-tuk driver had the gall to keep upping his price as we were driving), and indulged in some Indian McDonald's. Since they don't do the beef thing in India, there was no beef on the menu. Where's the BEEF? So I tried the Chicken Maharaja Big Mac and Chuck got a Mexican Wrap. I have to say, India is missing out by foregoing beef. The Chicken Big Mac didn't come close to the satisfaction one gets from it's beefy cousin. I'm sure many of you will completely disagree with a Big Mac giving any kid of satisfaction though. I wish I could be more like you guys!

The next few days were spent trying to figure out how to get out of New Delhi - now that we could - and see other parts of India. I never expected that their railway web-site would be so ridiculously impossible! Actually finding a train and getting to the booking page was a struggle, and then having it reject our brand-spanking-new debit card over and over was just too much. When we tried to go down to the train station in person to book a ticket we were guided first to the pre-booking station, then down to the "government travel agency" where a silver-tongued travel agent painted a beautiful picture of their package deal to Kashmir, India in the north. When Chuck and I told him we wanted to discuss it over lunch before making any decisions, he showed us to "a really great restaurant" just around the corner that I was stupid enough to actually decide to eat at. We are 95% sure that the fellow who turned up and just happened to sit right next to us when we were the only other people there, was sent by the travel agent. He talked with us the whole time, subtly hinting at Kashmir being great and non-chalantly confirming that the quoted price was a pretty good deal. One thing that clued us in to the scam was the fact that he described the travel agency to us at one point, and then after we were finished eating he asked us to show him where it was, as though he didn't know. When we walked him to the corner and tried to just point him towards the agency he asked us to show him right to the door. Really?? You can't find the door with the giant "Government Travel Agency" written across it? I think it was lucky that we ended up just walking off because we later read about a scam involving the "Government Travel Agency" in New Delhi flying people to Kashmir where they find themselves in a semi-war zone. When it's time to leave they're told their flight out was canceled and they end up having to pay 1-2 weeks of extra housing and food costs before the agency finally manages to find them a flight back. The scary thing is - I was actually considering doing it! In fact, if we hadn't so obviously been set-up at the restaurant I might have. Basically it was starting to look like we just weren't going to be able to make it out of New Delhi. Before long we were searching for flights to Thailand for as soon as was possible. I had been trying so hard to convince myself that there must be something worth seeing somewhere in India. That it can't all be dirty, noisy, smelly, poor, and full of scams. I was sick of the smog cough we both now had. Sick of being stared at like some weird alien. Sick of people constantly trying to scam us or get us to buy something useless. Sick of dodging cars, bikes, tuk-tuks, and people. But I knew that there had to be some reason that people come back from India claiming to have loved it and that it was beautiful. I really wanted to see that. So I did one more search and came across our savior: It's a much easier and user friendly train-booking site for India. And it actually worked with our credit card! So before we knew it, we had booked a train to Agra! We just had to wait a few days to actually leave. Indian trains fill up hella fast, so you're lucky if you can book a train three days in advance. The wait can be even longer out of New Delhi. So all we had to do was survive a few more days of Delhi.

One thing we've noticed in India is the affection between men. Men will quite happily hold hands while walking down the road, fingers entwined. Or when they're just standing around they'll lean on each other, or put their arms around each others shoulder. It's all heterosexual affection, but with our western - or more specifically, American - upbringing, it's very strange! That degree of physical touch between men is reserved for romantic relationships in the States. But here in India - and also in Egypt - holding hands is fine. Touching between women and men is a completely different story, though. Pretty much no touching. You don't even see couples holding hands very often. I even read that kissing in public can be a big no-no. Supposedly a foreign couple was actually fined for kissing at their own wedding! Once again, compare that to the US. In the US contact between men and women is fine - whether romantic or platonic. Of course, if you're slobbering all over each other in public you'll get nasty glares, but I think it takes much less to get those glares in India. They even advise against foreign women offering to shake hands with Indian men, unless the man initiates the hand shake. So I guess we're really just opposites in a way. In India, men touching men is ok and women touching men is not okay. In the US, men touching men is not okay, but women touching men is okay. Oy! On the 20th we saw a parade of some kind go by the hotel. This wasn't the first time the parade had gone by actually. It had passed through about 4 or 5 times during our three week stay at the hotel, but this was the first time we came down to watch. It was a small affair and started with a disorganized marching band. They played on beaten up brass instruments and even had on marching uniforms. The music was very chaotic and somewhat out of tune, and they didn't actually do any marching. They just walked down the street, randomly playing repeating tunes. Behind them was a group of drummers that beat out fun, energetic, and simple rhythms. After them was a group of people that just seemed to be along for the ride. At their center was what looked like a shrine of some sort that was being carried on the shoulders of a group of men. To make the most of the celebrations, children were setting off really loud fireworks that even made the locals flinch. When a group of kids caught sight of us standing outside the hotel they ran up and all wanted to shake our hands. They even got a bit rowdy and tried to yank me along! I'm not sure what it is about shaking a foreigners hand, but the kids seem to love it. I also got a business card from a cross-dressed Indian man. He gave me an intense look as he - or she - handed it to me. It was fun!

On the 21st we finally packed our stuff up and checked out of the hotel. We caught a tuk-tuk to the train station where we encountered the Indian train system. The station itself was pretty filthy, and the train platforms all smelled like a bathroom. The place was completely packed. Luckily, we found our train listed on the departures board and didn't have any trouble finding the platform. We had to walk what seemed like half a mile down the platform to finally find our carriage. Those trains are long! Then we waited around with the horde of other people until our train let us all board. I noticed that many Indians prefer to squat rather than sit on the ground. I'm too chubby to squat myself - the fat in my thighs chokes off the blood supply and I'll end up with noodley legs. But the thin Indians seemed to be very happy with the squat position and will just chill out like that all day long it seems. At the train station, by the corner store, going to the bathroom - the squat is popular. Once on the train we sat around until departure time. Then we sat some more, without the train having moved an inch. We finally pulled out of the station about 40 minutes late. The train was definitely a bit old, but still useable. Our chairs would automatically recline if you leaned back too far which was annoying for the people behind us. And occasionally the tray on the back of Chuck's seat would snap open, scaring the fellow behind him. A train-man came around selling food and we got these surprisingly tasty omelets that had been fried with onions and herbs for just 50 rupees. There was always something for sale: chai, chips, or water. The ride to Agra actually wasn't so bad.

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