Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Day 2: Mr. Toad's Wild Ride in an Auto Rickshaw

James remarked earlier today (May 17) that he felt like he had been here for about a week. I concur. This day has been so full, so varied, that each hour feels like a 24hour period. At 11 a.m., after the flurry of dollars-for-rupees exchange at the money changer down the street, and spending a good hour in the communications store next door, reading email and making arrangements to meet for lunch with Gaurav, a friend of my friend Nancy, we walked to the entrance of the Delhi Railroad Station. The ever-capable Derek arranged on the spot for each of us to travel in groups of three by auto-rickshaw to the famed Connaught Place. Some call it the Connaught Circus. Geoff, wedged between Danielle and Erica, noted excitedly that the rickshaw reminded him of an unpredictable version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland. I found out later from Gaurav that the rickshaws (actually nicknamed “autos”) as well as the public buses run on natural gas. It occurred to me that the distinct scent and haze of diesel fumes did not hang in the air, as they had in Nepal so long ago.

Our driver was a bit surly at times, and would attempt to drop us off not at the American Express bank location as we had requested, but at any old money-changing station. “No; we said. “No money to change; we meet friends at American Express.” Eventually, we found our friends and were charged, well, a bit too much for our auto ride.
“Fifty Rupees,” the driver said. “Each.” We balked as he insisted on 150 rupees from us. Danielle gave him 100 Rupees (about 2 USD) and I gave him 20 rupees. We found out later everyone else paid 30 Rupees for the entire group. We were stewed about being soaked, but hey, it happens to everyone. We arrived at Connaught Circus and broke up into small groups and walked around the shopping district. We came across Rikhi Ram, Musical Instruments Manufacturing Co., est. 1920. This, as I learned from the Jeremy Priven Travel Channel show, was where the Beatles encountered sitars for the first time. I even recognized the owner sitting in the back room, among employees and other men. The store was rather narrow, the sitars were mostly behind glass and six Americans filled it up pretty quickly. Since we were not in the market for a sitar (not that I know of, anyway) we moved on and discovered another instrument shop. JT, Geoff and Jamie bought these snake-charmer horns that, when blown, sound like a traffic jam. I’m going to try to get a photo of them playing these things later. Maybe even an audio podcast. The shopkeeper, a woman with close cropped dark hair and a beautiful pink sari, made the best-worse face as the boys attempted to play the horn.
“It sounds lovely,” she said, and we all burst out laughing.

At 1:30, after talking with touts, buying stamps and postcards and making friends with Sanjeen, 11, and Raj, 12, we reconvened for lunch at the Kwality Restaurant. Do not be fooled by the “Kw” of Kwality. This was a fine, classy establishment with incredible service and quite fancy from what we had seen to date. Our tables were long and were soon filled with bottles of water, and later, plates of naan bread, shahi paneer curry; chicken seekh kabob, navaratan vegetable curry, mutton chops, vindaloo, rice and more rice. I ordered my first of many lassis (a refreshing yogurt drink), and awaited the arrival of Gaurav.

Gaurav arrived and, thanks to Nancy, who had emailed us photos of each other and who was instrumental in bringing us together, we recognized one another immediately. Gaurav was such a pleasure to be around; unfailingly helpful and knowledgeable about Delhi. He has lived for the past three years in Fredericksburg, Virginia, expanding his family’s furniture manufacturing company, but has lived most of his life in Delhi.

After lunch, we all went to the Jantar Mantar, a sculptural sundial of sorts that is supposed to tell the time within 20 seconds of accuracy. In a gated park area, the sundial was plastered in a matte red, with white plastered staircases and these curved geometric spires and ramps. It did have the feel of a skateboard park, and it was virtually impossible to take a bad photo, what with the beautiful symmetry of the lines and the contrast of the red edifice against the blue sky.

This being our group’s first full day in India, we had some free time available to us to relax, or to return back to Pahar Ganj. Gaurav had suggested that I bring a few friends to join us for a drink. So, Lynda, Geoff and I accompanied Gaurav to the Sheraton in Delhi. It was a stunning facility, far too fancy for our dress of sturdy walking shoes and hot-weather travel clothes, but we were greeted warmly by everyone (who knew Gaurav). We went to the restaurant and had drinks. I had a strong Turkish coffee with boiled milk (the teapot of scalded milk was hotter, I believe, than the coffee itself), and a lime soda water. An odd combination, but I wanted, and enjoyed, both. Gaurav had said earlier that it was important to see all strata of Indian society, and our time at the Sheraton certainly offered a stunning contrast to the people and streets and scenarios we had encountered earlier in the day. We stopped by the Indian Habitat Center, a performing arts facility, to see whether there were any cultural performances scheduled for the next few evenings. Then Gaurav drove us back to Pahar Ganj, and ventured with his minivan onto the narrow street closest to our hotel. He observed that it seems where we are staying is more “Indian” than how most Indians live. It is my hope I will be able to see him, and to meet his family (parents, wife and daughter) before we leave Delhi. Gaurav’s hospitality and was outstanding, and I only hope I can return his generosity when he visits Greenville, NC.

In the evening, we had a group meeting on the roof and then traveled en masse to a bakery/eatery. There, we celebrated Josh’s birthday. We never learned how old he was… perhaps he’ll tell all later. The cakes (one chocolate, one yellow/orange flavored) were gorgeous and had “Happy Birthday Josh” written in Hindi. Josh was more than happy to pantomime blowing out his candles. Then he cut the cake and our festivities began. An hour or so later, we returned to our hotel (the air conditioner in our room simply needed a hidden switch to be turned on). Indeed, one day’s worth of activity was enough to fill a week. I wonder if each day will be this full. Tomorrow, we are visiting the Red Fort (designed by Mughal Sultan Shah Jahan) and after that a masjid (Islamic temple). More photos and dispatches to follow… as technology allows!

A Kwality report!

I've been thinking ... If there is any place to be monetarily had, India seems to be ideal. Being ripped off for only $1 is a good way to learn to assume that the auto driver will try to get more rupees than warranted.

I hope that Turkish coffee helped with the jet lag. But, of course, if it feels like you’ve been there a week than you should be over the lag, eh?

PS. You’ve only been gone 3 days. Wow!
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