Eeek! Time has been flying by. I have already been here 2.5 weeks and only have 1.5 weeks left. Here are some of the things that stood out to me during my first week about the culture and living here.
I don’t know what I expected from Delhi and India in general. Before departing, I felt really nervous about how I would get around and traveling by myself. For some reason, when I went to Morocco I wasn’t half as anxious about traveling by myself as a female in a country where social norms are so different and—might I say it—misogynistic.
One of the first things I discovered was that you have to constantly haggle over things. In Beijing and Shanghai, the metro system was awesome and we would walk or take a taxi cab to get to the nearest metro station. Of course, you have to be wary that a cab driver might try to drive you the long route, but—for the most part—our transportation was relatively cheap, convenient, and easy (despite the crowds).
I quickly learned that the nearest metro station to the house was too far to walk (especially in the summer heat), and that everyone gets around by auto-rickshaws (endearingly called “autos” or tuk-tuks in other cities). Now, it only costs 30 rupees (45 cents) for this ride, but you can get auto drivers trying to tell you it will be “*pause* 100 rupees.” (They always pause as they gauge how much of a foreigner tax to try to charge you.)
I hate this paranoia(?) slash this constant sneaking suspicion that I’m being ripped off or paying more because of my otherness. This happened to me when I was buying fruit in Delhi and scarves in Varanasi and Udaipur. Even if you would be ok paying these prices in the US, it doesn’t make it that much more OK-er to be paying 3-10x as much as the locals would.
You’re bargaining for autos, bargaining for fruit on the street, bargaining for clothes and gifts… For the most part, I haven’t had to bargain for meals. But sometimes they will tack on a huge list of taxes or service charges and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because we’re foreigners. I even had to bargain down the price of ice cream on the street…
The metro system is nice and air conditioned and they have a females-only cart at one end of the train, but sometimes you have to travel such a long distance to transfer lines that it’s cheaper and/or more convenient to take an auto directly to your destination… Which means you have to try to figure out how much you should be paying so you can haggle for that price.
I also learned that no one really walks anywhere because labor and autos are so cheap… and it’s so hot right now. And in the neighborhood we live in, it doesn’t seem like there’s much of anything to walk to. Walking around trying to find food was a struggle… there is a Happy Hakka, Beijing Street, Baskin Robbins, and fruit stands that will try to rip you off. Not many dining options in the vicinity.
I was also hoping I could find a convenience store to purchase shampoo/conditioner, little tissue packets, and anything else I might need… I didn’t find any less than 10 minutes away in the block around our house. (I eventually found one at GK-II market and it still didn’t have the little tissue packets.)
Tied to the modes of transportation… everyone. honks. always. In the States, I hate it when people honk at or around me because it gives me this sense of shame or self-consciousness that I’m being a bad driver. Here, there is constant honking just to alert other drivers of their presence. Or they’ll honk to try to get people to hurry up or move over… but most of the time, it seems unproductive and meaningless noise.
Again, as in China, any lines on the road are more of guidelines and drivers will try to squeeze into whatever space they can.
Crossing the street is also a bit of a free for all most of the time, but I’ve had to get used to looking the other way to check for cars because the drive on the other side of the road. I’ve almost gotten hit a couple times…
Somehow, I didn’t notice the pollution very much when I was in Beijing and only at the tail-end of my Fall semester in Shanghai. I figure the presence of so many tall buildings in these big cities in China is part of the reason why I was so oblivious and unaffected by the pollution during my 6 months in China. In Delhi, there aren’t any skyscrapers around so you can see much of the sky and it is a constant haze. I’ve only seen blue skies when traveling outside of Delhi.
It creates this shitty “haze filter” and makes many monuments and tombs seen backlit when I’ve been trying to photograph things. Also, as you’re traveling around in autos surrounded by cars on all sides the first week was really rough for me and my throat. I didn’t bring any face masks or scarves with me because I thought I would be able to purchase a scarf early on in my time in India. I took to carrying my cardigan sometimes so I could cover my nose and mouth and cough into it when it felt really nasty to breathe.
My first meal out was at a food court at the metro station close to our house (Epcuria Food Mall by Nehru Place metro). I got a thali, which is a platter with a bunch of different things. I offered some to my roomies and “host mom.” One of the girls took a bit with some naan and tried breaking off a piece of one of the balls in the curry (really crappy explanation of what it was, sorry), and I offered her one of the two spoons. Ashley commented, “Oh, you’ll get used to eating with your hands.”
It wasn’t until dinner that I understood what she meant. I ate dinner alone with Suparna (the “host mom”) because the other volunteer left for her flight home and Ashley was out with a friend for sightseeing and dinner. We served ourselves and I got a fork for myself. And then I noticed that Suparna was eating her meal with her hands (including the rice and kind of soppy curry/lentils—everything). So I awkwardly ate my meal with my silver utensil across the table from her.
The next day, I joined in eating with my hands with Ashley and Suparna. It definitely takes some getting used to, and I’m a slow eater already as it is… I feel like it slows me down sometimes, but I’ve seen some progress as time has passed. The worst part is when your fingernails get stained yellow if you don’t wash them off enough right after eating.
I already knew from research online beforehand that there were both squatting and western toilets (as in China), so I wasn’t too concerned about this. I learned that many people don’t eat with their left hands because they use their left hand and water to wipe after using the restroom.
What I didn’t expect was that I wouldn’t be able to find convenient tissue packets to carry around with me in my purse. I brought a couple with me, but thought I would be able to buy more at the store (they had these everywhere in China). The water-wipe thing also makes it a bit gross to step into the washroom sometimes (as on the train) because the floor will be wet and it’ll smell like pee.