Happy Hindustani Holidays!

This Christmas was the first that Brian and I have ever spent together, and an unusual Christmas it was.  Christmas Eve, we feasted on Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Yes, you can get KFC in India, but instead of providing mashed potatoes, gravy and biscuits in the “Family Feast” menu option, the chain offers saffron rice, salsa and “Indian” gravy.  To top it off, KFC sells mojitos (not sure why, since mojitos are neither Kentuckian nor Indian) with REAL mint and lime.  Holiday joy in a cup.

On Christmas Day, Brian and I went to surrogate-mom-in-Delhi Christine’s house, where she and her family threw an absolutely delicious holiday luncheon, complete with a Western meal that nearly made Brian cry with joy. (Plus we tried our first Christmas pudding, which Christine rechristened as Brian’s birthday cake.)

Once back at home, we exchanged presents, some which Brian had brought back from the U.S. and some from Lajpat Nagar.  The jug of peanut butter filled pretzels from the Cook side of the family and the peppermint bark from the Wardell side also almost made us cry with joy.  For dinner, we had yummy and cozy mutton stew and broccoli, prepared by Erica, a Fulbrighter visiting for the holidays.  For dessert, we celebrated the most important holiday of all…Brian’s birthday….with birthday-candle topped donuts.  Brian donned a very becoming Spiderman birthday hat.

While there was no snow, no apple pie, no “It’s a Wonderful Life” (which Brian was happy about), no illuminated tree, our Indian Christmas made for a memorable first noel together.

Teatotaler

The ubiquitous chai is a staple of life in India. Our cook Anita brews a fresh pot for us every morning. (Yes, I feel spoiled.) Shopkeepers magically make tea appear if you’ve hung around their store too long. Chai-wallahs set up bunsen burner-like contraptions on the sidewalk, heat up dented metal kettles, and voila — heaven for 8 rupees. Paying 18 cents for a cup of fresh brewed chai is way better than paying 5 dollars for a Starbucks latte.

Here I am cooling off my chai and about to drink it like a pro.

Thanks to my “surrogate Mum” Christine for taking the picture and taking me out for lunch!

Accidental Communion

A few days ago, our cook Anita invited the E-45 Lajpat Nagar roommate posse to visit her home.  We jumped at the chance.

The next day, a grinning Anita led Reena (roommate), David (roommate), Nick (future roommate), and me down the street to the rickshaw stand, negotiated an agreeable price with two drivers, and gestured for us to climb aboard.  Reena, Anita, and I sat three-across in the back of a rickshaw as we drove through the crowded, dusty streets.  We chatted away — Reena and me in English, Reena and Anita in Hindi, Devin and Anita via Reena (translator).

We arrived in Anita’s neighborhood, maneuvering around chickens, dogs, goats, and a growing gaggle of giggling young kids.  We followed Anita up four flights of stairs, past adults and children peering out of dimly lit apartments.  Soon we were invited in to Anita’s apartment where her youngest son Sagar greeted us.  (Given the apartment’s tidiness versus Anita’s warnings about the mess, I’m pretty sure Sagar had been put to work cleaning in preparation for our arrival.)  The four of us Americans sat on the bed and the cot next to the bed, while Anita and Sagar busied themselves as hosts.  Anita prepared chai in the kitchen while Sagar presented us with tea biscuits.  Soon Anita joined us, and we balanced our chai on our knees and chatted away.

In addition to the conversation, a constant stream of activity kept us entertained.  Anita’s late husband’s brother lives next door along with his family, including Anita’s toddler-aged grand-nephew and grand-niece who had been awakened from her nap to be introduced to us.  While she was not particularly pleased, even in her cranky state she was adorable with kohl-rimmed eyes (to ward off the evil eye) and silver anklets (just to be pretty, according to Anita when I asked the significance of the jewelry…).  The most adorable aspect of these kids though was their nicknames: Ladoo which is, as Reena aptly puts it, “like an Indian donut hole”, and Aloo which means Potato.  After little Potato had been put back to sleep, Sagar’s two friends popped in and out one by one, and since they were both named Abhishek, we were slightly confused.  All the while, the TV focal point of the apartment blared Die Hard 2.

Our conversations were held in a mix of English and Hindi, and since I’m learning Hindi, I piped in with random vocab when the word seemed relevant.  This got me in the best kind of trouble when I assumed the Hindi conversation had turned to desserts, and I decided to start exclaiming random sweets that I know how to pronounce.  “Oooh!  Gulab jamun!” to which Anita said (or I assume she said), “Sagar!  Go get Devin some gulab jamun!”  My current and future roommates and I instantly started begging “no no no!  That’s not necessary!”  But 15 minutes later we were all a little guiltily and a lot happily munching on gulab jamun, which is essentially also a donut hole soaked in rose-flavored sugar syrup.  (It’s amazingly delicious, by the way.)

As the visit wound down, Sagar came to each of us with a bagful of what looked like puffed rice cereal, and he handed us each a bit in our cupped hands.  “Ooh!  More fun snacks!” I thought, and I threw back the snack mix.  As it turns out, the snack mix was actually a prasad or a temple offering that had been blessed.  I had unwittingly taken my first communion.  Sort of.

Our visit drew to a close, and Anita led us out of her apartment and through the winding alleys of her neighborhood.  While wandering Delhi’s busy streets and observing the dress and habits of the people has helped me comprehend my current home, the most intimate glimpse into this foreign world has certainly come from the warm welcome we received in Anita’s home.

I am a giant compared to Indian women. Also confused about where the camera is.

 

temple and lavender walls in Anita's home

 

boys unified by gadgets

 

Anita's neighbor

Images of India

Police

Security in Delhi is omnipresent but seems to serve primarily to intimidate.  For instance, metal detectors mark the entry point for the many markets here.  Unfortunately, in our local market these police officers aren’t phased when shoppers bypass this checkpoint, nor when the detector starts beeping furiously as you pass beneath it.

The security in the Metro (which is the nicest public transportation facility I’ve ever seen) instills greater confidence.  In addition to attending to the metal detector, police give a free pat down with every ride.  (Plus there’s a line for both “gents” and “ladies”!)

Food

“Wallahs” selling fruit of all shapes, sizes, and colors roll their ware-laden carts down the streets at all hours of the day.

 

 

For the sake of my stomach, I’m trying to avoid street food in these first few weeks.  But I have no willpower when it comes to french fries of any kind, and I gave in to these enticingly delicious masala (spice)- topped fried potatoes

 

Haggling

Haggling is expected in the markets, and if you’re well practiced, you can score a pretty good deal.   Unaccustomed as we are to Indian price tags that literally list the “Maximum Price Retail”  aka suggested bargaining starting point, Brian and I are marketplace vendors’ dream customers.  This picture shows a handkerchief salesman in the middle of our local market, and he looks pretty sullen considering I just paid almost $5 dollars for handkerchiefs that can’t be worth more than one.  I’d be smiling if I were him.

 

 

Brian gets a Haircut!

Brian got a haircut.  Then a head massage.  The stylist offered to provide the same service to me, even though ladies do not typically get to enjoy such things.  Well, he pronounced my lady-like scalp “rough” and then attempted to fix it…by dousing me with tingly red oil and giving me the most aggressive head massage you can imagine.  A day and a half later, my scalp is still sensitive.  But Brian looks interview-ready!

Marble Floors and Ululations

We have an apartment!  This morning we piled our bags into an air conditioned cab (luxurious compared to the auto rickshaws we’ve been riding around in)  and headed to Lajpat Nagar and our new home.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vX0a_LyCM6c] (And yes, the cars and rickshaws get so close to each other on the road that you feel like you’re in an ongoing game of chicken.)

Finding any location in Delhi is a minor adventure.  Drivers seem to only generally know the place you’re looking for, not to mention that the city doesn’t seem to have a clear system for numbering addresses.  So in order to find Number 45 in the E Block of Lajpat Nagar III (not I, II, or IV) or any other address, drivers “crowd-source” instead of using GPS; they stop to ask directions of the fruit seller, the security guard, the fellow driver in the neighboring lane of moving traffic, or anyone else who seems to know his present location in the wilds of Delhi.   This seemingly absurd system works like a charm.

Once we climbed the stairs to our apartment, we began to relax in by far the biggest and potentially most luxurious apartment I’ve ever lived in.  For example, while Brian and my apartment in Boston had wood floors, this one has marble.  Whereas the apartment I shared with Rachel Sommer in the East Village had a sketchy, rusting fire escape that couldn’t have passed building safety codes to save a life, this abode has four balconies.  While we thought we’d be living in a mold box, we’ve actually upgraded living arrangements.  (The one oddity is that the cold water spigot in the bathroom will only turn on if the shower is running.)  And the best pampering of all….we have a cook — Anita.  She makes okra that is to die for.

Our new roommates include Reena, an accomplished composer studying Hindustani music, and David, an experienced traveler of India and a scholar of Indian history.  Reena has been a fabulous hand-holder as we bargain with marketplace vendors for sheets, ask a million questions (“We shouldn’t use the tap water to brush our teeth, right?  Definite no, by the way), and generally bumble our way through our first 72 hours.  David’s Hindi is pretty damn impressive, and most importantly, he knows all the hidden food joints in town.

Life is good in Lajpat Nagar.

Given that investigating textiles is technically why I’m in India, I should probably mention that I made my first textile purchase today.  Reena and I went to the market to buy sheets and towels.  The salesmen at all the stalls are relatively disinclined to unfold items and let you handle them.  Thus got home and realized the sheet set included only one large sheet; no top sheet.  My fluffy and promising light blue towel has a big, suspicious red stain in the middle.  Perfect excuse to go shopping for hand-wovens tomorrow!

Additional observations:

  • Women ride side-saddle behind men on motorbikes
  • Street food is really hard to resist, especially when it is potatoes fried in giant metal vats or freshly cut pineapple sprinkled with black sulphur salt (seriously!).  I give myself 3 weeks, and then I’m digging in.  For food, I am willing to face the consequences.
  • There is a Ladies-Only car on the metro (which is way nicer than any subway I have been on in the states).  The signs for the cars are all pink, and there are guards that blow whistles at rush hour to keep the handsy men from boarding.
  • Street vendors push carts laden with fruit, furniture, bangles, books, milk, and anything else you can imagine needing to purchase.  Walking the streets, they advertise their wares with singsong voices that evoke ululations.

Mangocupid

At 1:30am, we lugged our baggage (primarily full of toiletries, including Tylenol made in India, ironically) up four flights of stairs and opened the door to our bedroom at Vandana’s B&B in Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave.  There was a brief moment of panic when the oppressive heat in the room led us to believe that there was no air conditioner.  Brian thought about getting back on the plane.  Luckily, we discovered the air conditioner, blasted the cold air, and got our first night’s sleep in Delhi.

When we woke up (technically at lunchtime), we sat on our rooftop terrace and ate a delicious breakfast consisting of:

  • A superflavorful egg and onion pancake.
  • White toast and mixed fruit jam that tasted like a cherry Jolly Rancher.
  • Mango juice boxes, emblazoned with anthropomorphized mangoes.  Brian’s juicebox featured a mango named “Mangocupid”, since it had been shot through with an arrow.   My mango wore an umbrella hat and was therefore obviously named “Mangobrella.”
  • Cornflakes with a side order of warm boiled milk.  Personalized pasteurization!
  • And ohhh the chai. (BTW, chai is the word for “tea”.  No Oregon Chai syrup here.  And haven’t seen a Starbucks yet!)

You can't tell Bri loves Mangocupid.

I love warm cornflakes...it must be the jetlag.

And the food….it just keeps getting better.  More later on our meals.  (I’m going to have to resist the temptation to make this blog completely food focused.)