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November 11th, 2004 - King Rat — LiveJournal
Private Life

Today's agenda covers mostly old Delhi. But the first place on the agenda is the Lakshmi Narayan Temple, or Birla Mandir. I believe Birla Mandir translates as Birla's Palace. The temple was built in the 1930s by India industrialist B.D. Birla. I believe he was primarily into cement. And if you've been to north India, you know how much cement they use. Anyway, he talked Gandhi into opening the place, and acceded to Gandhi's requirement that the temple be open to Indians of all castes, including the untouchables. Even today, India subjects the untouchable castes to much discrimination and prejudice. In the 1930s, the soon to be country had barely started on the road to tolerance.

The temple is dedicated primarily to Lakshmi and Narayan. But there are also shrines to many other gods as well. I particularly remember Ganesh, the god of luck and Hanuman, the monkey god who triumphed over worldly distractions represented by females in his shrine. There was also a painting dedicated to a Sikh guru, which I found a bit odd. According to the guide, it's all just a different view of the same god-hood, so it's okay to venerate gods of other religions. While an admirable view, it doesn't mesh completely with what I know of Hinduism. Originally Hinduism was a heterodox religion, meaning that it did not forbid other religious beliefs or gods. But given the Hindu conflicts with Islam, Sikhism and other religions, I thought it had veered in practice from that origin. So the presence of non-Hindu figures in the temple surprised me.

The temple has a waiting area for foreigners, where I left my shoes. No photography allowed inside either. The guide explained each of the shrines to me and noted a bit about a few of the gods represented. Vishnu is the preserver. Shiva the destroyer. Brahma is the creator. All other gods are incarnations of these three. Lakshmi, the dedicatee, is the goddess of wealth. At each shrine, my guide stopped to pray for a bit. At some she made donations. She invited me to participate, but I've always felt that non-believers should remain as observers only, when even that is allowed. I noted that there doesn't seem to be the tradition of silent prayer or reverence that pervades most religions with which I am familiar. Kids ran around in and among the various participants. Adults would pause their prayers to take cell phone calls. Folks would stop and chat with people they knew.

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On the edge of Delhi is a large park-like area containing cenotaphs for a number of historical figures of India. In particular, three of the key people in India's independence are memorialized here: Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Indira Gandhi. Sadly, my guide only pointed out the Mahatma Gandhi site. Had I known, I would have liked to have seen the others as well. The entrance to the park had surprisingly few hawkers. A snake-charmer. A man making and selling wire figure toys. We skipped past them on entering. After a short walk, we turned left into Raj Ghat, the cremation site for Mahatma Gandhi. It's a large square area, with the black marble memorial in the middle. Earth has been piled up on the outside of the square, with a walkway around the top. Two short tunnels server as entrances to the memorial proper. I first climbed the outside to view the samadhi. After that I left my shoes with watchers at the entrance and walked inside. Not too many people at the moment I was there, though shortly after a busload of tourists entered. The marble memorial is perpetually decorated with marigolds, and an eternal flame burns next to it. Three Hindus sat, chanted and played an instrument.

It is simple and powerful.

After retrieving my shoes, I walked a ways past the entrance to put them back on, rather than use the benches right there. The bench further along had sunlight. As I laced my boots, several Indians approached me. None seemed to speak English particularly well, but they haltingly asked if they could take a photo with me. I agreed. They had a young woman (I think unmarried) and a young boy sit next to me for the photo. I find it pretty odd the attention I get. While I am definitely whiter than most Indians, tourists seem pretty common in Delhi. But if it makes me a rock star, I won't complain.

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Not much to say about the Red Fort actually. Why? Because the guide skipped it. We viewed the outside, and then headed over to Chandni Chowk. I suspect she kept the entrance money from the travel agency. I was too cowed to protest.

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Chandni Chowk is a maze of markets and bazaars in Old Delhi. Alleyways barely an armspan wide are packs with small shops. Vendors sell food from stands, and sometimes just from cooking pots in corners. We rode through it on a rickshaw (a.k.a. pedi-cab). At least until a policeman or security officer (didn't get a good look at his uniform) made us stop telling us the lane we were following became one-way… the opposite way. But we didn't really stop to shop or anything. In retrospect, that's a good thing because the guide would have gotten a kickback everywhere. Next time I'm in Delhi, I want to wander the streets of Chandni Chowk without a guide.

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Jama Masjid is the Friday mosque in Old Delhi. It consists of a huge plaza on a hill facing a building where the muezzin call the faithful to prayer. The plaza faces toward Mecca, which is in the west in India. Marked across the plaza are painted lines. For some holy days, there are over 25,000 people attending prayers. The painted lines exist to line them up. If everyone follows suit, all can fit. Otherwise many would have to prayer outside. There are two minarets at the mosque. For a free, one can climb to the top. In India, there is almost always a fee.

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I've been keeping a paper journal. So all those entries will show up here at some point. At first I wasn't going to check email or live journal, and heavens to Betsy I was not going to update this thing.

But I've run smack into something that I thought I could work around: I fear the unknown. Big time.

I am extremely uncomfortable here, and I am on my own, more or less. So I feel lost. And scared. Wishing I had familiar people around me. I fucking hate tour busses and canned tours, but in retrospect, coming to a place like India that might have been a better route than the one I took.

No matter. I shall soldier on and enjoy myself.

Since y'all aren't necessarily wanting to read about my insecurities, I'll post a bit of my experiences so far.

There are lots of people in Delhi. Think of that park just south of the King County Courthouse where all the derelicts hang out. Now triple the people and multiply the size to the size of western King County. That's Delhi. People are everywhere.

Erin, if you thought driving in New Zealand was frightening at times, this place would give you a heart attack. The good thing is that no one drives faster than 40 km/hour or so in the city. There's no such thing as a freeway or even something like Aurora here. In fact, I can't really think of something comparable in Seattle. The bad news is that pretty much every traffic law is treated as advisory. Lanes? Vehicles go where they want. Generally they drive on the left, but that's not 100% of the time either. Vehicles fight with trucks, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, and ox & carts for space. And pedestrians. Horns are used a lot. Though in the U.S. horns are used in anger mostly. Here, it means I am here, give space.

My guide subjected me to one of the nicer rackets here. She was supposed to take me to a few sights (which she did). However, she afterward we took a detour to a rug store, where she told me having a cup of tea with the proprietor was a tradition. Essentially, it's a high pressure rug sale. No matter how much you protest I don't want to buy a rug they keep going almost until you walk out. Considering I was in a part of Delhi I didn't know, I was a little freaked (I didn't want to walked out and find myself without means to get back to the hotel). Even after I finally ended the attempt to sell me a Persian rug, she would not go until I perused the shop downstairs. I still bought nothing. I do feel somewhat sorry for her, as she went through a lot of work for her commission from the store. It's a common practice here, and I knew about it, but I didn't catch her doing it until we were out of the car and headed into the store. I should have specified to the travel agent here in India that I woul appreciate getting a guide who would not subject me to that.

I will end with the typical patter I've gotten from the touts here, in an attempt to get me to purchase something or to make my travel plans with a friend of theirs. Almost invariably the touts are young men; one was perhaps 10 years old. I've run into a few older ones. They invariably start off with I like your hair. Followed by where are you from? After I tell them Seattle, they get a blank look on their faces but also invariably say nice country there. Next they want to know where I am going. And how I am getting there. It's at this point, about 30 seconds in that I tell them I am not interested in getting help. None give up though. The young boy followed me into an upscale (by standards here) shopping district, but only got about 30 feet in before a security guard stepped in front of him blocking his way. He said something briefly to the tout, and then cuffed him smartly and shoved him the opposite direction.

Actually, I won't end on a negative note. I've found most people to be pretty friendly. My skin obviously stands out. I think my hair stands out even more so from the other foreign tourists. That and I am travelling alone. Four or five of the hotel's staff members have sat down to talk with me in the lobby. Same patter as the touts almost, but when it gets to the point where the touts tell me about their recommendations, the hotel staff talk about other topics. I visited the samadhi of Mohandas Gandhi today. There's a raised hill around it, in the shape of a square. Then I went inside, where you are required to remove your shoes. Afterwards, I picked up my shoes and walked a way out to sit on a bench to put them back on. Wanted to enjoy the sun there, rather than the shade of the concrete tunnel into the samadhi. After I had one shoe on, several Indians walked out and then requested that they could get their picture taken with me. Turns out they wanted a picture of me with the girl and a son of one of the others. I can't be really the only white person they've seen, but it's pretty rare for white tourists to walk around alone. People have been mostly very friendly. Now, if I can just learn the quick trick to know which ones are being friendly for friendly's sake, and those who are being friendly to sell me something.

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I did not like my guide much. Perhaps it was the commission racketthing from yesterday that soured me. We skipped the Red Fort, and I paid for the rickshaw and entrance to Jama Masjid. Altogether the difference is less than $15, but when I paid the travel agency for this, I don't expect to be charged again. Her explanations for things have never been illuminating either. Mostly she spent her words extolling how great the things she showed me were. I'dr ather get an explanation than a sales pitch. I will let the agency know, so they will use other guides instead.

Afterward, I came back to the hotel and rested a bit. I ate a lamb-burger at the hotel restaurant, then had a freak-out for a bit.

I forced myself to wander down to Connaught Place. I needed to get over my fear of being in a strange place. Not fully past it, but that helped overcome the worst of this episode. The touts are relentless. I wrote about this online so I won't repeat it here.

Connaught Place is definitely more upscale than other places I've been. Still, it's dirty and wouldn't pass even for the worst shopping in Seattle. I did find a bookshop (several) and purchased a few more books,as I am quickly working through the limited stash I brought.

After returning to the hotel, I finally learned the hotel system enough to dial through to Kartik's cousin, Amit Nanavati. We've made plans for tomorrow. It will be nice to see what locals do, especially since I will then get to spend Diwali not in some touristy thing.

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