Blog #9 - Frustration and Worry vs. A Good Spicy Curry

We arrived in India from Singapore, with our eyes wide open and a mix of excitement and nervousness pulsing through our veins.  The first stop on our month-long crazy Indian adventure would be Delhi. 

Well, the drama started even before we took off, in the line to board our plane.  Just as a small gap opened up between us, with Steph ahead, it was immediately filled by a cunning and curious Indian man of roughly Vince’s size and build.  He invaded both of our personal spaces.  So much so that Steph just thought it was Vince.  In fact, he was so quick for a second Vince even thought it was Vince.  We soon realized (and Vince remembered from his last time in India) that budding (or “cutting line”) is a national sport here, and that the halo of personal space is much smaller.

Upon boarding the plane things didn’t get much better.  We discovered our window seat was being occupied.  We tried to explain that it was our seat, but the woman seemed not to speak English.  So we just let it go and switch seats to accommodate her.  However, by the end of the flight she somehow knew enough English to discuss the customs arrival card with us.   

All of the above in such a short period of time caused us to flip between taking long controlled breaths, and giggling like kids.  It also led us to the adoption of our first code phrase “in control…”, which we have continued to used, in particular, when dealing with something super-frustrating that calls for saint/guru-like patience, which in India, is all the time.  We got it from the Muppets movie we watched on the flight over.  You only need to watch the first twenty seconds to get the idea: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQdiJoGoTxU

We arrived in Delhi late at night, which is never a good idea with arriving anywhere new (no matter how cheap the flight ;).  However, we booked with a well-rated mid-range hotel, and arranged with them a pick-up from the airport.  We did this partly because you can’t always rely on taxi drivers to exactly follow your instructions in some countries (India included).  Oftentimes, they will take you for a tour of various other hotels, and clothing and/or souvenir shops, in hopes that they can make a commission.  So having the airport pickup gave us one less thing to worry about.  

As we came out of the terminal, we saw lots of drivers holding signs with names, but no “LUCIANI”.  Since our flight was early, we waited almost an hour with many hungry drivers cajoling us, staring us westerners down, when finally our guy arrived holding a sign with our names.  Awesome!  Then he tried to get us to pay for his parking.  Not awesome! 

Did we mention we had booked in advance a mid-range hotel?  So, here we go…

We drove in the dark for about 45 minutes through the highways and roads of Delhi, taking in the sights and smells on route to the neighborhood of Karol Bagh.  When we arrived, we were ushered down a dark alley to a small door that looked like it was connected to a dungeon.  This was not good.  It had the same name as the hotel we booked, but we recognized none of it as the pictures online did not match reality.  We were not comfortable as we followed our driver up the narrow stairs to the reservation desk.  In the ‘lobby’, three stories up, we were greeted by a pair of guys who were polite but otherwise not helpful.  They tell us to wait.  We ask a few questions but we can’t discern any information in the replies we get. 

Then comes in an older man, the innkeeper.

He informs us there is no room for us (even though he received our booking, fully paid in advance though a third party website).  A part of us was relieved at first, as we are definitely not standing in the hotel we want to sleep in, however, panic soon set in as it was closing in on midnight and we did not have anywhere to stay.  But, hold on, the innkeeper says – lucky for us there is another hotel just down the street for no extra cost and nothing for us to do, just walk over there and all will be fine.  

Now, reading up on “Delhi scams” on the plane ride to Delhi was probably not a good idea as now our backs were fully up and we were two seconds from calling a cab and the police and having whoever showed up first take us to the nearest five-star hotel.

Instead we took turns looking at each other, then him, then our driver (who just wanted to get paid), for at least 15 minutes, as we tried to assess the situation.  After enough of that awkwardness, we felt we had made ourselves heard, and we agreed to at least go look at the other place.  We were bracing ourselves for the worst.  We let him take us to the other hotel (despite our gut instincts, as the bait-n-switch is a common scam), based partly on advice a wise friend once told us: in India just wake up every morning and accept that you’re going to be scammed, otherwise you’ll go bonkers (thanks again for the advice Phil)!

Well, we were led to an amazing hotel!

It made no sense.  This was not how the scam was supposed to work.  Indeed it was just around the corner, however it was clean and bright and probably one or two stars upscale from the place we had officially booked.  The first night was shaky as we had our guard up for anything strange, however, the shock wore off as we got to know the staff, and we ended up staying for the entire three days for which we were booked.  Thank you Olive Inn! 

Luciani's 1 and India 0....yippee!

The next day we woke up ready to conquer Delhi.  Vince had this idea that we were going to walk to the metro (subway) like the locals and take the train down to the city centre, Connaught Place.  As we started to walk, it became very quickly apparent that there was no way this was going to be easy, or pleasant task.  Put simply, two foreigners (including one blonde), can’t go more than a block without being harassed by a team of rickshaw drivers.  They would pull up beside us, corner us, get out of the ‘car’ and talk our ears off about this and that and how they respects us that’s why they keep dropping the price, etc. etc.  One guy even stalked us at a distance, and would reappear every time we turned a corner.  At one point it looked like we were leading our own parade down the street – all we needed was a baton to twirl and our own marching band.

After twenty minutes of harassment, having no map or WiFi (I know, we’re spoiled) we assumed we were not going to make it to the metro (nor would we want to) so we retreated back to the hotel to regroup, specifically, the shop next door called Karachi Sweet Shop.  After two teas each, we could think again. 

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The store was run by an awesome, calm, well spoken guy, Amit, and the sweet shop had been in his family for over sixty years.  Not only did he speak great English, he also wrote down a few Hindi expressions for us to use that would deter the aggressive attention.  He gave us advice on where to go and what to see, and even arranged for a private driver for the rest of that day and the next day to see Delhi.  He even let us use his cellphone because our SIM card application was being processed.  AMAZING!  Thanks Amit for all your help and also feeding us the best desserts, Samosa and Poori.

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So, let’s highlight a point mid-way: in India many things don’t really work well, or quickly, or even at all. 

For example, when we needed to book our flights out of Delhi, it took us hours.  We started by trying to use the internet (credit cards got blocked), and then we called using our driver’s cellphone (call dropped).  Finally we put up our hands and said “drive us to the airport!”, and with that we started our city tour at the domestic terminal ticketing office in Delhi.  We were much relived to get at least one task done so we could enjoy the rest of the day.

When we returned later that night to the sweet shop, Amit shared with Vince a funny story - after we left for the airport, his friend who had witnessed all of the above turned to him and said “that guy married a western girl?”, to which Amit replied, “that guy is not Indian!”.  As you can see, it didn’t take Vince long to blend right in with the locals.  Too bad for Steph, she sticks out like a sore thumb.  So much so, she has become a bit of a circus freak with line-ups of people wanting to snap her picture.  Line-ups…no joke!

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India is the most frustratingly fabulous place you will ever visit and if you can let go and just let it lead you, you are way better off than trying to fight it.  Remember, India always wins.

Ultimately the three days in Delhi went quickly.  We visited a lot of the famous sites and got some great photos.  We left aside some of the sights however as we are planning to return to Delhi to meet up with our friends, Ritu and Jay to do an organized Golden Triangle tour, starting on March 13.  Yeah Taj Mahal…here we come :)

With our flights good to go, the next day we flew to Kerala (in South India) to stay for a few days with the parents of Vince’s friend Shaju.  

We were very much looking forward to borrowing Shaju's mom and dad for three days and share “retired life” with them for a while, as we continued to acclimatize and sort out our next moves around this crazy country.

We stayed in Kerala three days and ate home cooking and walked the small town and just relaxed (and napped) in the crazy heat.  It was great.  With Mr. Mathew’s help we even managed to get a driver take us on a tour around Kochi one day.

Special thanks to the Mathew family and the Chummar family for letting us barge in with only a days notice and letting us stay in their apartment.

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While we were there we figured out our whole India itinerary.  For now we would head to the famous Kerala “backwaters” and then venture north to try to get a seat on the Nilgiri Express which it one of the rare “toy trains” in India that is really hard to get a ticket. Wish us luck!

In summary so far, India definitely builds character and tests a relationship and can make you experience a whole new level of frustration...but even still, we highly highly recommend coming here at least once.  No matter how hard your day is here, there is always the best ever curry waiting for you at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Its truly an unbelievable place to be.

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