Passage to India
I make no secret that my visits to India have turned me into something of an Indophile. I don’t think I want to live in the subcontinent on a permanent basis but, if given the right situation, I would enjoy taking a long stay there to further my understanding of the nation, its long history, its languages, its music, dance and arts, its culture, people and, of course, it’s many different cuisines. The trip to India from which I returned home on April 30 lasted only eight days but I took the opportunity to enjoy as many things new to me than ever before.
My plane arrived in New Delhi a little early from its scheduled arrival of 8:30 on a Sunday night. The Continental crew in New Delhi put me into a wheelchair, I had lost any energy to object, and they rolled me first through customs where a bureaucrat grunted and hit my passport with a rubber stamp. We then proceeded to baggage claim where my guide quickly found my suitcase (it’s easy to distinguish as it has a Hawaiian floral print on it) and we rolled out to the area where people can meet those of us arriving in New Delhi.
“Just look for the prettiest woman in the airport,” I told my guide as a way to find my friend. He laughed and we rolled out into the crowd. “Chris! Over hear!” I heard a familiar voice yell and I pointed in the direction of the voice. My guide rolled me to my friends and we gave him some money and headed out to the car. My friends laughed at how silly and angry I looked seated in the wheelchair with my carry-on on my lap.
We got into my friend’s car and drove to the Crown Plaza where I would stay for the coming week. In the car we chatted and caught up on things we’ve done since my last visit two and a half years ago. Upon arriving in the hotel, I checked in and we went to my room where I would change my clothes for the first time in forty eight hours, wash my face and head down to the restaurant for a late night dinner. The hotel restaurant’s fare impressed me and I enjoyed it much more than I generally found the food in western owned hotels. My Indian friend also enjoyed the food so I accepted that it must be reasonably authentic. I returned to my room, put BBC on the television and tried to sleep.
An American watching any of the English language news programs in India, especially those from the same brands we see in the US (CNN, MSNBC, Fox/NewsCorp etc.) immediately notices that the international versions use profoundly less sensationalist headlines and much more subdued music. When the George Tennet book story broke, the coverage in the Indian versions of CNN and MSNBC had virtually no people yelling from the left or right but, rather, the presentation gave the former CIA director his say, provided the viewer with the White House response and a few statements from others in Washington from both parties. The analysis seemed far more rational than the screaming white men we get on the same brands of news here in the states. I cannot tell you why the great difference.
On Monday, I met a friend for breakfast and set out to do the business which had paid for my trip to India. I went to some meetings and ate a very expensive and dumbed down meal at the Intercontinental which had definitely been designed for western travelers who prefer avoiding local culture as much as possible. In the afternoon, a friend asked me if I felt more adventurous this trip than before and if I wanted to try sampling the delights sold in road side stands. I did very much want to expand my horizons and agreed to try some “street food” this trip.
Our first stop brought us to a chae stand where we enjoyed what was likely the most delicious cup of tea I had ever had at a road side stand. This chae cost ten rupees (25 cents) for two cups and completely pleased the palette. We made a point of enjoying afternoon tea in the car every day for the remainder of the trip.
On Tuesday, a young woman friend of mine invited me to her Indian classical dance class. I sat on a comfortable cushion in the front of the room, not far from the dance guru who sang and played percussion while barking orders to the young ladies in the class, while imagining myself a Mogul king in his harem while twenty young women danced and sang purely for my pleasure. I enjoyed the interesting time signatures used in Indian classical dance while basking in the aroma of incense mixed with the sweet summer perspiration rising off of those who danced for my enjoyment. While the concept of an actual harem remained pure fantasy, the experience of the dance class will not soon be forgotten.
On Thursday, we went to a south Indian restaurant. Almost all Indian food we eat in the United States at various restaurants derives from northern Indian cuisines. These foods tend to contain a lot of butter, thick sauces and lots of spices. Food from South India surprised me in many ways. The spices remained distinct but had less of a burning effect. The dishes contained much more yogurt and had no meat. The combination of sweet, sour, spicy and the unique textures made me wonder how I had missed this cuisine until now. People in South India also enjoy very good coffee, reminiscent of that served in the Middle East and North Africa and I enjoyed the best cup of coffee I ever tasted in the subcontinent. Indians seem to believe that Americans prefer Nescafe over all other real coffees and, upon seeing a white face, try to insist on serving us the instant. I need to explain that I had gone native and prefer the local brew.
We toured museums and historical sites. I had never before heard of the Harappan civilization (circa 4000 BCE) and enjoyed the introduction to it provided in the Indian National Gallery.
This museum, at the heart of the Indian capital, had the strictest security detail I encountered while in New Delhi. The building was surrounded by Jersey barriers lined with young men carrying AK47 machine guns. Unlike most places in the US, India remains on the front lines in the battle against terrorism. Religious fanatics, Islamic, Hindu and other groups; political extremists of all kinds can easily cross the porous boarders from the wild west like Pakistan, Bangladesh and even Iran and sneak into India to cause havoc. While 911 was a huge tragedy in a single day, peaceful Indians live with the threat of bombings very often but manage to move on with life without much fear. While the signs of the Indian security system are visible in many prominent places, there is far less talk of fear than we have in the sensational US press.
The Indian National Gallery has many blind friendly exhibits. Much of the art is carved from stone and heavy woods and all but the most ancient and fragile items can be touched by visitors. So, as my friends read the descriptions and the history behind various items, I could explore them with my hands and get a good idea of their shapes and sizes.
Shopping in New Delhi for handicrafts still provides a lot of bargains on very interesting and quite beautiful items hand made in traditional manners. This trip, I brought back lovely handbags for my mother, my wife and a friend’s wife as well. I brought some brass ornaments depicting Hindu Gods and some wood carvings as well. I’m developing quite a collection of such objects.
So, as I sit in my Florida home far from the sights sounds and smells of India, I think back on another terrific trip there. I hope to return soon with my wife and stay for a longer period of time doing nothing more than learning the history and touring around a part of the world with 6000 years of civilization and some of the most interesting tastes, smells, sounds and sensations one can find on Earth.
India also has lots of aspects that can only find a description in the unpleasant category. I really enjoy my visits there but will write a piece soon about some of the uncomfortable elements of spending time in New Delhi, including some truly horrible smells, poverty of a type we never experience in the west, heat up to 45 degrees C, dust storms and crowds that make New York and even Tokyo seem spacious.
Since returning home, I’ve spent most of my working time thinking about math and new presentation models for delivering methods to generate and manipulate equations for blind students. I would very much appreciate any ideas or pointers to articles that the BC readers can send me that might help inform my work.
I’ve also seen a demo this week of the most revolutionary innovation in AT that I’ve seen in a very long time. I can’t say much about it but it is super cool and will be hitting the streets soon.