No, I Didn't Wander the Streets of Calcutta. I Survived. That's All.

Place: Delhi International Airport

Time: 11:30 PM (plane delayed)

Location: At the gate, sitting

Who: Me, three other Americans, and an Indian. We all happened to sit next to each other.

One of the other Americans was a theater professor at UC Riverside. The other two were a couple from…where else…San Francisco. Both had just finished their travels in India.

The professor spent 10 days in Calcutta, a week in Varanasi, and some other small villages. The San Francisco couple also spent two weeks in remote parts of India where “we didn’t see another foreigner.” They both loved their trips. They started telling stories.

“You think Delhi is intense?” the professor asked me, “You should go to Calcutta. I mean, that’s intense. There were times when, in the back alleys, I said to myself, what the fuck am I doing in Calcutta, but man, it was so worth it.” He proceeded to tell a variety of close-call stories, tender moments with local families, and ground breaking cultural experiences. Since he’s a theater guy, he over-dramatized everything and “performed” each phrase with tremendous energy (unintentionally). I tried to take notes on this conversation as it unfolded me but i was laughing too hard.

The San Francisco couple then talked about all their wild adventures, meeting Indian generals, not seeing another white person for weeks, etc. It’s their 6th time to India.

“So where did you go?” they asked. I told them I was in Mumbai and Delhi. They looked at me as if I was some kind of copout. “You should really stay out of the big cities,” she said with a “Oh how cute” smile, “the small places are much better.” So there I was, sitting in Delhi, happy that I’m even ALIVE and SANE after two weeks in this third world country, and I’m immediately out-done by the people sitting around me.

Finally the theater guy engaged the Indian sitting there quietly. The Indian, it turned out, worked for software outsourcing giant Wipro and as he described his work, the theater guy clearly didn’t understand a thing. If you don’t understand what someone is saying, there are two good paths. One is to smile and pretend to understand, the other is to ask what the person means. Never, ever, ever positively affirm a statement if you think you don’t understand.

“Companies are moving into India for their software work…” he said.

“Got it, so they’re finding other places than India to do their work,” theater guy responded genuinely.

“Investment is flowing into India AND China,” he said.

“Ok, so China is stealing the Indian investment dollars,” theater guy responds genuinely.

That’s when I started laughing. I felt bad for the Indian guy, who probably thought his English was just not good enough to communicate these basic ideas. Soon enough, the theater guy gave up trying to understand, and both he and I returned our focus to killing the mosquitos buzzing around us.

Somewhere along the way I learned the professor teaches at UC Riverside full-time but does adjunct work at Pomona College, too. I told him I’m going to Claremont McKenna. The Indian guy said, “Where?” Professor responds, “Oh wow, Claremont McKenna. There are these five colleges in LA, they’re like the Ivy league of the west coast, they’re very private schools, these small colleges. CMC is VERY conservative though. I mean way out there. So many right wing wackjobs. They are so…” At this point cut him off. I had to stop the theater professor whose carry-on reading, I noticed, was a book by Hugo Chavez. “CMC’s political balance is 50/50, for both profs and students. This makes it very conservative by higher ed standards, but balanced objectively.”

Finally, we boarded, I faced the disrepair that is an Air India airplane, and we jetted to Hong Kong on the red-eye. So long, India. More detailed reflections on all you gave me, forthcoming.

India's Airport Security Inspires Comfort

When you check a bag at an Indian airport you run it through the security screener before you check-in. So they screen it, paste a “security cleared” tag on it, and then give you back your bag. You walk around with it, check in to get your boarding pass, and then give your bag to the ticketing agent who rolls it down into the airplane.

In the States you give your bag as you check in and you don’t see it again. They screen it after you turn it in.

Doesn’t that make a lot more sense? After my bag got cleared by security in Delhi I walked around with it for 30 more minutes. It would have been easy to sneak an explosive in there or any other kind of dangerous item. Their only deterrent against this behavior is a weak, white band that wraps around your bag. All zippers are still accessible.

Scared yet?

How about this. My zipper on my backback got jammed as I waited at 12:05 AM for my flight to Hong Kong to leave. I was at the gate waiting to board the plane. I had already been cleared and searched by security. I consulted the guy sitting next to me in the terminal how I should un-jam my zipper. He said get a knife or scissors. I laughed. “Yeah, I’ll go up to a security guard and say, ‘Can I have a knife?'” He laughed. I got up, walked to a security guard, and asked if I could have a knife to un-jam my backpack. He didn’t blink. He grabbed some scissors, gave them to me, and let me do my business.

Thank goodness I’m not a terrorist.

Images I Won't Forget in India

The naked baby playing in trash.

Being the only person in the whole city of Mumbai wearing shorts on a hot, hot day. Apparently shorts show too much skin!

A random cow — yes, a cow — lying in front of a discount plumber on a city.

Two dogs facing opposite from one another, stapled together at the ass…unable to move.

The refugee camp tents…tons of tents and slums right next to a modern apartment building.

A city street taken over by 40-50 cows with no human in sight leading them.

Massive piles of bricks in the most random places. Hundreds of bricks. Also random piles of dirt in abandoned lots and mini-landfills in the middle of the city.

The Pressure on Indian Children

The pressure kids are under here is insane.

Some are in tutors or school classes all day long.

Some 200,000+ students apply to Indian Institute of Technolgoy and some 5,000 get in and all attend. All based on one standarized test.

Most Indians still have arranged marriages and there’s pressure on kids to marry while relatively young.

At the most destitute levels some parents mangle their children’s arms or legs to be more attractive beggars to the jaw-dropping western tourist.

I don’t want to seem too extreme. I met tons of happy kids and loving families, but some of the cultural practices around pressure on kids is scary.

I wouldn’t want to be a kid here!

Wanting to Hide Under My Bed – Delhi Day 1

Today was one of those days where you find yourself walking alone on a freeway overpass, looking out great landscape of landfill, inhaling the fresh aroma of trash, listening to the sweet voice of the tout who’s followed you for literally five minutes on bike…and you say to yourself, "Please, Lord, take me back to my hotel room and let me hide under my bed."

My first day in Delhi sucked. I had such a big vision: take a day trip to Agra (5:30 AM – 11:00 PM commitment) and see the Taj Mahal. That’s why I came to Delhi, after all, instead of doing software stuff in Bangalore and Hyderabad. I woke up at 5:30 AM this morning — ouch — and met an arranged taxi at 6 AM. We trekked from my hotel, which is out in concrete jungle suburbia (bad location but a good deal and quiet), to a remote train station probably built in the late 1800s.

I arrived at the train station and now know why tourists are supposed to avoid this means of tranist. Totally filthy, smelly, and like everywhere else in this country, jammed with people. I arrived at 7 AM and the train to Agra departed at 7:15 AM. I needed to buy a ticket. I went to the "ticket office" and was greeted by a total madhouse. I’m used to no queues, but this was a zoo. And the dirt and the smell! This may be wrong of me to say, but I felt like by merely breathing I was picking up some disease. After a few minutes of wondering whether I should go in and throw some elbows around like I do on the basketball floor, I figured I’d just try to board the train on my own.

Oops. The train’s been sold out for weeks. Why did I think I could buy a ticket on the same day? Maybe because Delhi was a last minute thing. The train — which looked old and terribly uncomfortable — took off without me.Img_2029

Totally screwed, I searched fruitlessly for a chair to sit and ponder what I should do. My hotel gave me a "map" that actually wasn’t a map so I had no idea where I was. I knew the moment I stepped outside the station I’d be harassed by touts. I tried to delay that reality as much as possible. I flipped through my guidebook and wondered whether I should try to take an 8 AM tour at the tourist office. I decided I’d try to find a taxi to go to the tour start location.

I stepped outside and, indeed, was harassed. It’s one thing for people to shout "Taxi, sir!!" It’s another thing for people to touch you in the process. Although I’m sure many of the rickshaws and taxis were legitimate, I didn’t want to risk it, so I left the station by foot. I can’t imagine what it’d be like if I were a small guy — seriously, I bet you 50% more people would harass you. The station’s neighborhood was an impoverished shithole that offered no good walking options. Undeterred, I continued to walk. No taxis. I was trailed by a tout on bike who, every 30 seconds said, "Good hotel, 50 rupees, ok?" I literally did not say one word to him and yet he followed me. Finally I started walking on a freeway — a common sight in India — and he gave up. I walked for 20 minutes and at one point had a mirage-like vision: Was that the hotel where the city tour started? How foolish. I must be losing my mind.

Poverty_delhi_india At last I gave up on my "walking tour" of terrible poverty and slums. I walked up to a rickshaw and said I wanted to go the domestic airport. My thought was to go to the airport and then go to the pre-paid taxi line where I could take the pre-paid back to my hotel. That way I wouldn’t be ripped off. I bargained a rate with the driver and ultimately got back to the hotel at 10 AM. I went to bed at 11 AM – 12:30 PM — pretty astonishing that I could actually sleep at this hour, indicates how low on energy I am — and then worked the rest of the afternoon, did a workout, and had dinner. In this concrete jungle there’s only one restaurant — the one at the hotel — so I feel like best buddies with the waiters there.


At dinner I saw other hotel guests for the first time. One American guy was sitting at the "bar" holding a bear and watching cricket on TV, clearly not understanding a thing. All but one party were solo travelers. All were wondering how the fuck we ended up at the Citrus Cafe in New Delhi, India.


(NB: I grabbed two of these photos off Google Images because I couldn’t muster the energy to take photos of the poverty myself. They look exactly like what I saw on the ground.)