Tag Archives: living in delhi

their New York struggle, part I: impressions on the ride from the airport

For three-and-a-half years, this site has viewed Delhi through New York eyes. It’s time for the opposite: New York as viewed by Delhiites.

Because for every planeload of Westerners desperately memorizing the Lonely Planet as they fly east, there’s an equal and opposite jet heading west. One such recent plane contained Tiya and Divya, two students at Teachers College at Columbia University, one of the city’s most prestigious institutions. And their experience mirrors ours: wide-eyed wanderers in a foreign culture, with camera in tow.

“Wall Street Area”, photo by Tiya

We have never met either girl. Tiya recently wrote in to join the mailing list for our upcoming book, mentioning in her note that she was living in New York. We responded by asking her for an analysis of our culture to contrast with our analysis of hers. Tiya drafted Divya to add her thoughts; and in the first part of our interview, we focus on first impressions.

Specifically, the drive home from the airport — the journey during which so many first impressions are formed, and so many minds are made up.

I initially arrived in Delhi a week before Jenny did, so our first impressions are not shared. (Her impression, as recalled over instant messenger a few moments ago: “Over-stimulated, overexposed. Dry, pungent, bumpy, crumbling, chaotic, thrilling!”) My first impression involves flashes of landscape snatched during my conversation with Mahua, my company’s HR representative, who picked me up at the airport and instantly became the only human being I knew in all of Asia.

This was before NH-8 was complete, so our route to my temporary home in GK II took us through Mahipalpur. Like Jenny, I recall flickers of imagery more than any one image: bright signboards with unfamiliar script; painted walls; flashes of bright saris; and a road that seemed far too narrow for all the cows and people and cars and bikes and rickshaws simultaneously traversing it.

Mahipalpur at sunset, off the main road. Photo by Flickr user SteelboneLex.

As the picture makes it clear, first impressions often don’t entirely reflect reality. For instance, Divya debarked the plane and drove directly to the relative tranquility of New Jersey. So her first impressions of the US were pastoral.

“I landed and went straight to New Jersey with my family, which seemed like a beautiful countryside somewhere in the Northern part of India. This was extremely amusing for my family, who was nervous about me feeling unsettled and alienated.”

I imagine Divya is referring to this aspect of New Jersey…

Photo by Flickr user carroll.mary.

… and not this aspect of New Jersey.

Photo by Flickr user jeremylogan2.

Tiya, on the other hand, drove from the airport directly to Manhattan, so her first impression was quite different. And what she told us reflects an immediate insight into our city that’s far deeper than our first thoughts of hers.

“My friend came to pick me up; and between all the chatter, I struggled to focus on what we were driving past. But I distinctly remember hundreds of little rows of houses that looked exactly the same. ‘Organized, yet lacking identity,’ is what I thought. Which is ironic, considering the culture is all about individualism.”

For some perspective, here is an example of the kind of housing Tiya probably saw on her way towards Manhattan:

Photo by Flickr user Rego-Forest Preservation Council

And here’s the building in GK II where I spent my first month.

Photo by me

Comparing those two pictures, Tiya is right: which architecture seems more at home in a culture that’s supposed to be renowned for its rugged individualism?

Tiya and Divya will share other observations in the next installment of this interview. (A preview: “The way people talk here. They ask how you’re doing without really caring about how you’re doing. And some are excessively polite and/or diplomatic, so many times I find it difficult to discern what the person’s real intention is.”)

But first, I’d like to open this up to Indian readers who landed in the US, or Americans who have visited India. What impression did  you receive from that first drive home from the airport? Please add your comments below.

If you like this post (and the reader contributions below) you’d like our upcoming book: a humorous travel memoir of expat life in New Delhi. Send us your email or follow us on Twitter so we can add you to our mailing list!

the meals we (almost) couldn’t eat

There were times in Delhi when eating out required steeling ourselves against sights that made us want to run with waving hands for the first flight to Paris.

There were times we’d see a cook’s sweat dripping into his mixing bowl. There were times when we’d enter restaurant bathrooms so dirty that we’d curse our bladders for forcing us to see such a sight before we ate.

There was even a time at a trendy restaurant in Basant Lok when a mouse ran across the feet of the four people seated across from me; the impromptu chorus line that occurred as they all kicked would have been funny if I hadn’t been so busy jumping up on my own seat as well.

But a cook’s special seasoning or a four-legged foot massage would not deter us from enjoying our meals.

We’d adapted to Delhi’s culinary landscape, which sometimes required relaxing our sanitary standards a bit. Because through the moistest of alleyways and upon the greasiest of tabletops awaited some of the most unforgettable meals we’ve ever had.

We learned to follow the reaction of people around us: if nobody else seemed bothered by what was revealed when the kitchen door swung open, why should we worry?

Still. Sometimes our eyes saw sights that were too much for our hungry stomachs to bear. On one of our last nights in India, our friends took us to a set of competing storefront kebab stands near Nizamuddin (immortalized by my friend Sam Dolnick in the LA Times), where grease from daytime auto repair mingled on the cement with that of nightly mutton burra.

This was our fourth eatery of the night but the first to give us pause, even though two of the preceeding three weren’t quite models of salubrity themselves. First had been a paratha stand across from the Times of India building, where we’d enjoyed stunningly delicious stuffed bread from a stand built on cracked pavement; though cockroaches darted about, they were far enough away that we could pretend they always kept their distance from where food was stored.

The second stop was a perfectly hygienic restaurant in Old Delhi. But the round of parathas after that came from a vendor outside the Nizammudin Railway Station whose stand would have been far too close to the public urinal for nasal comfort had the breeze not been so favorable.

At this kebab stand, though, Jenny and I exchanged looks as we watched an employee stomp through puddles of black water on his way to a basin of steaming brown liquid in which he started dunking dirty plates. As we stood around in a circle as we waited for them to hose off a table for us, our friend Supratim idly rocked back and forth on a poorly-fitted manhole; though he didn’t notice it, his absent shifts on the unbalanced lid caused bubbles of black liquid to gurgle forth from the loose seal.

We could smell the kebabs cooking, but we could also smell something else.

We had full trust in our friends, and we reminded ourselves over and over that they’d never steered us wrong before. But we couldn’t do it. Suddenly I loudly realized that that very last bite of that very last paratha had, amazingly enough, been exactly what it took to make me completely full, and Jenny took the opportunity to remind everyone that she was a vegetarian but no, she didn’t want any paneer tikka because she wasn’t hungry anyway.

three hospital visits that (surprisingly) never happened

Our first brush with danger came from plugging things in. Electrical plugs in India are two-pronged or three-pronged, and thin-pronged or thick-pronged. Some outlets can accommodate both thick prongs and thin prongs, and very special outlets can accept almost everything: thin three-pronged plugs, extra-thin two- pronged plugs, and American-style plugs to boot.

Such a marvel of engineering!

This variety of sockets was confusing to us, leading to a surprising amount of time wasted shoving large prongs into small holes. But even more confusing was the inner shield in these outlets. This spring-driven shield presumably protected empty sockets from prodding baby fingers; they lifted only when a three pronged-plug was stuck into it.

So what to do when trying to stick a two-pronged mobile charger into a three-pronged socket?

See the shield? See the problem?

For our first few weeks in India, we jammed toothpicks and pencils into the third hole to lift the shield. (And we were never electrocuted even once!) Eventually, though, we discovered the deft wrist motion that enabled our two-pronged chargers to slide in where they didn’t belong: an initial approach at an acute angle to reach under the shield, and then the rapid lift-and-shove to stick the prongs in before the shield slammed shut.

Which gives you a method for telling tourists from locals: ask them to plug in your charger.

* * *

Light bulbs were our second challenge. Bulbs in India didn’t screw in—instead, we had to push them into the socket against the pressure of a surprisingly resistant spring, and then maintain the force as we twisted the bulb to slip the prongs into the grooves.

Officially known as the bayonet mount (as opposed to the Edison screws Americans are used to), this supposedly-simple technique terrified us every time because the spring was always so strong. We’d have to push on the bulb itself with far more pressure than a glass dome should be capable of sustaining. Half our dead bulbs never got replaced for fear of squeezing too hard, shattering the bulb, shredding our hand, plunging our fingers into the socket, and electrocuting ourselves in tragedy made hilariously ironic by how flippantly we stuck toothpicks and pencils into electrical outlets without incident.

* * *

A less ironic death for us would be a cooking gas mishap. Gas for our counter-top burners came from two heavy iron canisters locked on our terrace. Each canister contained about two months’ worth of fuel, which meant that we’d invariably run out with our dinner half-cooked on the stove.

Ours was like this, except the canisters were outside. This photo by Flickr user überkenny.

There were just a couple valves and knobs that required turning when it was time to switch canisters, but the technique confounded me every time. I’d struggle, grunt, sweat, curse, smell leaking gas, panic, and finally ask our elderly neighbor for help.

Our elderly neighbor would have it switched within seconds.

Still, you can’t say I didn’t try. But I was frightened by the explosive potential just waiting to be unleashed by my clumsy American fingers. I treated the iron canisters as porcelain vases, terrified of their delicacy until the day Jenny saw how workers unload them from the truck: they threw the tanks to the ground, where they’d land on their sides with enough momentum to roll down to where they were being delivered.

Photo by Flickr user miselenaeous.

Canisters that rugged surely wouldn’t blow up just from changing the valve. So the next time I had to switch canisters, I put all my strength into it. But the problem persisted—I couldn’t get the valve to close. The valve must have been jammed, or perhaps it was rusted shut. So after a few more minutes of unrequited shoving, I finally called my elderly neighbor to get his opinion on the matter.

He took the valve in his hands and it was attached not ten seconds later. Nothing was harmed, except my ego.