From the Safety of the LZ…
Well, that was quick… We’re safe back in Prague now, reinstalled in our home sweet home and busy filling up the hard drives with video. I want to take a few lines to thank all of the people we met in India who helped us to better understand the immensity, complexity and beauty of what we were seeing – even and especially when we saw the first two but not the third. Of all the places I’ve seen, India is one where you will definitely benefit from the advice of a local friend.
Anujeet and Mukesh, for gently assuring us that we weren’t staying at the Hilton 😉 and introducing us to the more cosmopolitan side of Delhi.
Abhishek from Sun – It’s very rare in my experience for successful and highly motivated people in any field other than education and tourism to be so consumed by passion for their city. You are certainly a feather in Sun’s cap, and thanks to our extremely enjoyable evening together, I left Delhi with a much better understanding of what makes the city keep on ticking. Any appreciation of the place that I manage to convey here is largely thanks to you.
Jigme from Dharma Guesthouse, Manali – The whole staff at Dharma was fantastic – we’ll never forget the Secret Garden Pizzas that nursed Barbara back to health 😉 If you’re going to Manali (Vashisht) we highly recommend the big house up on the hill. Great rooms, beautiful views, excellent food and friendly staff. Jigme, I hope you’re on your way to enjoying the winter in Goa now, and look forward to seeing you again.
Tito – aka Yashbir Kumar,Vashisht – One of the greatest characters I’ve met anywhere, Tito the palm painter was the missing Indian character from a Mahfouz story… A refugee for his art, he spends half his year in a tiny shop in Vashisht, on the Manali road, inviting customers to peek past the “welcom” sign and see a little bit of the India tourists used to care more about.
Vivek from Open Ladakh, Leh – If you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism, in practice and in theory, we can’t think of a better person to go to or a better place to meet him.
Angchuk, Angmo and Norbu in Leh – For welcoming us into your home, where culture, local knowledge and hospitality couldn’t be further from the fake, plastic NGO marketing buzzwords we saw all around us, we couldn’t be more grateful. Juleh, and thank you again!
Our last few days in Delhi were consumed by the heat, but we still managed to get some basic rickshaw tourism in. The Jamaa Mesjid, although historically impressive, was utterly ruined by the touts and unruly beggars allowed inside. Political correctness aside, a mosque is a place of worship, and without that austere peace, what is meant to be a refuge from the outside world becomes nothing more than a big patio. The most common “scam” we encountered were gangs of children begging for you to take their photo. Once you snap, the hordes descend, demanding “bakshish”. They are obnoxious, certainly not Muslim and ought to be banned from the place. There are plenty of places for them to beg outside, but jumping in front of my camera when I’m about to take a shot, then demanding money for it is not going to get you any sympathy. In all, it was a disappointing trip – not really worth the ride and definitely not worth the searing heat. Compared to even the lesser mosques of Cairo or Istanbul, the JM was not terribly inspiring. It was built in the 17th century, and might have been quite beautiful on a different day or during prayers.
The following night, I met up with a number of people from Sun Microsystems who were helping me out with a series of interviews. Stepping into the Sun office was truly like stepping into another world from the Delhi we knew. Everyone was busy, for one thing! My overwhelming impression from these guys was that India is changing quite rapidly. This statement is ubiquitous in any “developing” country, but here, it has a ring of truth. For the first time in modern history, many young Indians are returning from abroad, seeking opportunities inside India rather than overseas. I don’t know the statistics, if there are any to support this notion, but all of the guys I spoke with confirmed this, saying that it is a part of a new optimism Indians are feeling about their own culture and identity – not to mention the huge possibilities provided by Western outsourcing.
The idea of accomplishing complicated, team tasks in Delhi seemed… well… foreign to me. Abhishek explained why he thought Indians are excelling lately in the programming fields especially as a result of the chaos around us. “We Indians are used to acting on instinct,” he said, lightly tapping his horn as we plowed around a rickshaw on an unmarked highway. “It’s part of our everyday lives, so perhaps we adapt this thinking to the way we approach other tasks. Programming takes that creativity, that willingness to let go of the instructions and just see what can be done.” It made sense, but I buckled my seatbelt regardless.
It was refreshing as well, after seeing only the “dark” side of Delhi, to know that hope, responsibility and creative thinking were not foreign to the city. If anyone were reading this, I’d probably get heaped with abuse for suggesting such a thing, but my impression was that Delhi was a hopeless, soulless place, dominated by an uber-wealthy minority who could care less about the teeming city of living beings at their feet. To make matters worse, the teeming masses don’t seem to give a rat’s ass either. We saw the whole gamut of textbook abominations – from self-mutilating beggars to impoverished, untreated lepers to waif children holding baby siblings over their shoulders, begging for rupees in the middle of traffic jams. This was not out of the ordinary, and it is not something you “accept” or just get used to. Like I said before, the only people who could “get used to” such a concerted misery are delusional types – racists and others still carrying the white man’s burden. Perhaps they think they can make it better. They fiercely avoid education, hygiene and honesty in Paharganj, and I doubt it’s much different in the other “ragged” quarters. I won’t say that impression has changed much, but meeting Abhishek introduced me to a side of India that is not at all apparent to the backpacker who finds himself checking into a cheap hotel, and it is an impression that, as a visitor, you owe yourself a glimpse of. There is a generation there who are quite aware of the near-term predicaments their country faces, but are willing to ride it out and fight for what is theirs, even if they’re 1 in 1000. That’s admirable, and bound to lead to no small success for those folks. Whether or not the attitude and the energy will ever translate down remains to be seen.
The evening ended with a fantastic Punjabi meal at a fairly European-priced restaurant – Abhishek’s treat. If you’re ever in Prague, you know where to come 😉
We cruised back to Paharganj in his new car, mindful of the cattle, of course. Stepping out into that mess made me feel 10 times more the foreigner than I had felt before, which was strange. There was the air conditioned comfort of a clean new car, then there was an abrupt heat, and the chaos of the hard-sell marketplace – the India that I’d become accustomed to. He drove off quickly, and I walked off just as fast.
The next day, we decided to make it out to Qutb Minar – the tower of Qutb. The complex was built to celebrate the Islamic victory over Hindu India in the 12th century, and it was appropriately grand. In the oppressive heat, we wondered at the invaders’ willpower and dedication. In a heat like that, I would have settled for some fireworks and a beer. At the center of the complex is the tower (minar) itself – a 70 meter sandstone and marble thing, which appears delicate in a way that photos can’t really represent. The tower is surrounded by the ruins of a mosque and an old madrassah. The highlight here is a ten or twelve meter pillar of iron, which was planted in the middle of the old mosque. The pillar has sanskrit inscriptions on it which date it to well before the 11th century, and nobody seems to know how it was made. The Iron is evidently so pure that it has resisted rust for more than 1000 years.
This, in contrast to the mosque, was a peaceful, secluded garden spot. No doubt, this is due to the UNESCO efforts at the site. Anyway, it was nice to see an Indian couple picnicking beneath the trees and tourists snapping shots off without the aid of tripods (strictly forbidden by the local security force 😉 )
A day well spent, and with that, we were ready to catch a plane…
Anyone reading this – please feel free to contact us for details of where we stayed, where we ate or anything else that might help you enjoy your trip.
— Micah and Bara