Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Welcome to Delhi

Hello loved ones and those I merely like, alike. 

This is my hotly anticipated first blog post about the adventures that are happening to and around me in the pungent city of Delhi. I'll try to catch you up on what's been occurring. 

Well, I left sunny England on Saturday the 16th and suffered the flight with the patience and good will you've all come to expect from me... Ha! No, I cried for the first hour until I became aware of how acutely uncomfortable the two men sat either side of me were. We were fine though, and by the end of the trip, the gentleman next to me named Anubhav had extended an invitation to his for dinner my way, in an example of Indian hospitality that I've grown to be reliant on. I struggled through several very bad films and tried my hardest not to fall asleep - I was determined not to be jetlagged! 

There was hideous turbulence for about two hours, but we landed safely and soundly, all intact. I was met on the other side by a hurried looking man in a turban, who impatiently let me withdraw money then led me (lugging my inordinately heavy bag) to his thankfully air conditioned car. It was here he broke his frosty silence and we had a wonderful discussion about the many and varied hospitals we were passing and how people from England are all, invariably, lovely (absolutely not making that up..) However, as pleasant as he was, the journey to my new home was my first experience of A) Indian traffic and B) life without satnav or maps.

Let me try to explain Indian traffic to you. So as well as cars, predominantly 4x4s I might add, you’ve got motorbikes – often with two or three passengers, rickshaws, bicycles and autorickshaws – which are like the Thai tuk-tuks. Let’s say there are three lanes, what you first need to know is that no-one indicates, not even those in cars. Instead, the driver will hit their horn if they’re about to change lanes. There is no concept of a safe stopping distance, everyone is packed in as closely as they can. If there is the slightest bit of room, autorickshaws and motorcyclists will awkwardly squeeze their way through the gaps. At intersections, people will happily swerve the wrong way down a one way street if it’s a short cut. As for pedestrians, they’ll happily walk blindly across the street and rely on the drivers’ skill to avoid them. All of this is twenty times worse in an autorickshaw where you are literally centimetres away from death or murder at all times…  but more on that later!

Anyway, my driver didn’t know where my new home was, so he trawled slowly around, shouting out of the window for directions at anybody who happened to be standing on the street at the time. Even after calling Sushma, my host mother, three or four times, he didn’t know how to get there. Eventually, about an hour and a half later, we pulled up outside a house with a woman standing outside. This was Sushma, and she whisked me quickly up to my (amazing) room on the third floor. I’m in a large room with a bed as wide as it’s long, an amazing air conditioning system and ensuite bathroom. It’s beautifully decorated too, orange and blue.

The next morning I woke up at 11, in time to remember where I was, get ready and go down for a chat with Sushma about the house rules. Then Kathryn, our local co-ordinator, came to meet me and just talked me through the basics of living in Delhi. After that, we went to Dilli Haat. It’s a food plaza/bazaar showcasing regional crafts and goods. They change every few weeks so it’s always good to keep popping back. Anyway, this was my first experience of real India, so I was eager to look around. It was here I discovered that pashmina isn’t actually what we all wear at home, but actually a luxury item. However, managed to tear myself away from the scarves, as I had resolved not to buy anything for the first few weeks. I had lunch, and trusted Kathryn’s judgement on what to get – a paneer masala, which was a curried cottage cheese in this wrap type thing, it was gorgeous either way!

 After that we met up with Hannah and Abbie, who are living at Sushma’s with me, and also the boys, Chris and Sam. We split up from Kathryn and wandered round the shops again. I had told the boys expressly not to let me buy anything, but as we strolled past a shoe stall I couldn’t help but be drawn by some brightly embroidered slippers. I stepped over; surely there was no harm in looking? At once, the man singled me out and insisted I tried a pair on.. I did, and as expected, they did not fit. I gestured in despair, secretly elated that they didn’t have my unexpectedly large size in stock. However, moments later, he’s brandishing another pair at me. I try them on, and elation mingles with despair as they fit. He asks for 850 rupees. I make a ‘pft’ noise, like a seasoned haggler and use my last tactic to prevent myself from buying these beautiful but impractical shoes; I say 450 rupees. He shakes his head and says ’750?’ I respond with a sigh, ’500 rupees is really the highest I can go…’ confidant that he won’t go that low. So imagine my surprise when moments later I find a pair of impossible slippers in a plastic bag in my hand and my wallet a little lighter. The boys were impressed though, as I was with myself! Although hopefully my good sense will prevail a little more for the rest of my stay here.

We take the metro back home and call it a day; I lie back on my amazing bed and read and finally sleep.

Monday morning is my first day at work, and Kathryn meets me at half ten to take me to Katha. We take a rickshaw and arrive at this amazingly beautiful building. There’s a giant dinosaur board outside, which makes the whole place look very friendly. We go inside and up two flights of stairs into the office, which has exposed brickwork and high ceilings and – thank goodness – fans everywhere. I read the annual report of Katha, suddenly very awed of what they’ve achieved, and meet Ekta, who sends me their style guides and gives me some tasks. However, Jetlag soon catches up with me and, pleading exhaustion, I return home and sleep for the rest of the day.

Tuesday is my first time of getting to Katha by myself, so at 9.30 prompt, I wait in C Block Market for an autorickshaw. This is the first of what will be many despairing moments, waiting in a sea of people for a rickshaw. The rickshaw driver is a god at rush hour. He calmly and indolently pulls up to the pavement and inclines his head towards the first in a queue of people, they explain where they want to go, but perhaps it is not the direction the driver wants to go today, or the person is not willing to pay the extortionate fares that rush hour inevitably brings, and it is to a torrent of pleas or abuse that the driver slowly moves on to the next person in the queue, and so on, and so forth, until luck and impatience unite in a customer and he drives off, leaving a crowd of disgruntled pedestrians in his cloudy wake. And if you are lucky enough to get a rickshaw within an hour of arriving at the kerb then you still have to hope that he knows where you’re going, or that he won’t take a particularly convoluted route as the meter goes, or that you won’t break down on the middle of the highway, or that he won’t stop and pick other people up while you’re still in the rickshaw. I can’t even begin to describe the terrifying experiences I’ve had in a rickshaw, it seems the only things that are safe on the road are the cows.

To begin I was given a copy editors test, which had basic proof reading and blurb writing skills. There was a bit of a leftfield question, where you had to write a story including words from a list, mine was this:

’It’s time for school!’ mama declared
to all her kids’ delight,
she pushed the children, 1, 2, 3,
into the morning light
and waved through the glass window as
they skipped out of her sight

’So I shall take the bus’ said One,
not wanting to be late
’I like to get there early and
be the first one through the gate,”
and with a smile, he sat right down
by the bus stop to wait.

’But I am going to take my bike’
said Two, ‘it is so quick
that I can cycle to market
to buy a new lipstick.”
and with a smile, she pedalled on
through all the mud and bricks

Three didn’t mind he was alone
to walk through cars and crowds
he trotted on towards his class
his head above the clouds
but when he arrived at his school
he stopped and gasped aloud

”Oh no, I’m late. I’ve missed the start
and One and Two are there,
how can I enter the lesson?
I can’t… I do not dare!”
but teacher’s helper beckoned in
while everyone else stared.

”Oh,  you should know, number three,
it’s not very clever,
to wait outside when we learn to
work hard and endeavor.
Just remember this; with learning it’s
 better late than never”


 My first week’s work at Katha was primarily researching and designing a children’s section for the website. I was a little cowed at the prospect, I mean, the first stage was easy, researching current children’s educational websites. But when Mumta (my boss-ish) asked me to design the architecture of the website, I admit I was stumped. I had no idea where to begin! I think my CV says ‘competent in web design’ under skills actually… although I meant that to refer to the basic HTML that I used on MySpace. Perhaps that needs to be undone… After it became apparent that I had no idea what I was doing Mumta sent me a book from a new series they’re releasing. They’re each based on a different kind of development, for instance, mine was themed on social development. I was to design a series of lesson plans to accompany the book. It wasn’t exactly an easy task, I had to design lessons for 8 year olds on themes like overpopulation and deforestation and inflation to be taught in their second or third language. However, a week later and I think I’m getting there. I have a meeting with Mumta tomorrow on my progress.

The best thing about my work is the Chai lady, who three times a day will come round with a tray of tiny mugs of Chai and offer everyone one. Chai is this amazing spiced milky tea that I’m determined to bring home with me. I’ve already acquired a recipe for myself and all I need now is some practice.

Lunchtimes at work are fairly dismal. The only place selling food nearby is the ubiquitous CafĂ© Coffee. It’s sort of a downmarket Starbucks, and they’re getting to know me in there. It is, however, very expensive for India (£2 for a meal!) and I’m looking at alternative ways of feeding myself at lunch.

At the weekend we stayed in Delhi, new girl Sara and new boy Johnny joined us. We started off by going to Lodhi gardens, a beautiful parkland not too far away. Then we went to Connaught place in search of a southern Indian restaurant recommended to us by Sushma. Connaught place is tourist central, but I think we avoided most of the traps, but got waylaid on our journey by the presence of several markets. The A/C market is two underground concentric circles of what seems to be the same 8 stalls looped over and over again. We could have been the only shoppers in there, with so many stallholders lining the walls calling us over to them. It was a bit dreamlike, going round and round in circles, turning down the same awful shoes or beautiful saris or gold watches over and over again. I was leading the pack, but only so when I veered towards a stall, the others could rein me in. One man happened to catch me in conversation when I was looking at some particularly hideous shorts that look like what used to be called bloomers, in a floral pink pattern. I found myself, out of habit, bartering with him, getting him down from 350 to 150. He’d bagged them up and thrown them at me. I was horrified, I refused to own these… fortunately, I spied some nicer looking trousers behind him. I told him I would pay 150 for those trousers but not for the shorts… He chuckled, saying that those trousers sold for 550. I just shook my head at him until he brought them down to 150. Feeling fairly smug I paid as he told me that was less than cost price, although I severely doubt that.

Eventually we found our restaurant, only to see a crowd of about 20 people waiting outside it in a scrum. It appears that this restaurant is so popular you have to add yourself to a waiting list and then hope your name is called. We sat and waited in McDonalds for half an hour and then returned, just as our names were called. We each ordered a mixed Thali, which is 8 different dishes, chapatti and rice. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever eaten. I’ve developed a little indian food dance before I tuck into something new and I don’t think a food has ever been more worth celebrating.

On our way back I managed to get sidetracked once more and buy a ornamental rug thing. It’s beautiful and only cost 150 rupees!

On Sunday we went to Delhi Haat again to show Sara around and I fell in love with a teapot that I managed to not buy… so far! We then went to Sarojini market which is a cheap cheap market where I bought some more trousers and a dress (bartered from 500 to 150) and then to EDF mall to purportedly find a women’s festival, but we couldn’t see it, so instead we went to Costa then went home.

A reasonably successful first week, I’d say.