March 27, 2011

Early Impressions of India

Now that I've been in India for, well, I'm not sure how many days. I think it is two full days at this point, I can share some early impressions.

The first is that I am not very jet-lagged, although it is bound to catch up with me later.

The real first impression is the smell of smoke. Walking from the jetway to the Delhi terminal it smelled like fireplace smoke and that has been the case for both Delhi and now Chandigarh.

Next impression is of people everywhere, moving at all kinds of paces on all sorts of modes of transportation. From feet to bikes to scooters, motorcycles, taxis of every shape, donkeys, trucks, buses and cars. Everyone who has a horn uses it to talk with their car to the other drivers, alerting them to their next move. On the roads, everyone is equal including the cows that wander at their own pace and move not always in the direction of the traffic.

My favorite site so far, besides the cows on the road, are the women in sarhis riding on the backs of bikes and motorcycles, balanced on one hip and holding on with one hand. Entire families ride on scooters; a small child on the handlebars, dad steering, another small child behind him and then mom securing the rear. No helmets for anyone but dad - who is probably just wearing one to avoid a fine. Here in Chandigarh, an area highly populated with Sikhs, I've seen men in turbans riding their motorcycles one hand steering and the other stretched across their face holding a cell phone to their opposite ear.

Another impression are the people who work as servants and laborers. This is where you really see the caste system start to play out. My brother-in-law Mandeep met me at the Chandigarh airport, which is under construction by all kinds of unexpected laborers. There is an old terminal which is still fully functional, but quite old-school in terms of every-person-for-themselves. As you exit you are immediately behind the new terminal which is not yet opened. Building it are men and women, dressed in somewhat formal clothing, carrying the materials on their heads. I arrived on Sunday and yet the place was busy with workers, families it seemed, constructing the airport. Women in beautifully colored sarhis were doing most of the work. It was almost impossible to believe that they had built the modern terminal which looked more like a spaceship had dropped it from the sky onto their village.

I am lucky enough to be staying in people's homes and this is a wonderful way to experience India. The first home was a friend of Mandeep's in Delhi who generously picked me up from the airport and put me up in their guest apartment. They have two servants, a young man and woman, who took care of my luggage and made me breakfast. Servants are like family members but not exactly. When I followed one of the servants up to the main apartment he went so quickly ahead that I lost him. I entered the wrong room and it turned out to be the servants' quarters which were so different from the family's living area. It was like peeking into the behind-the-scenes inner-workings of the home. Realizing my mistake I quietly exited and found the family's apartment entrance.

Now in Chandigarh my sister Marlene, her baby Chetana and Mandeep are staying with his family in this beautiful home. It looks very modern from the outside and inside it is incredibly comfortable, cool and relaxed. What I love most about this home and its neighborhood is the social ecosystem that exists all around it. Yesterday Marlene and I went for a walk and just outside the door there are families that supply services such as ironing and construction. It may seem so un-American that there are people in these comfortable, modern homes and then a few feet away people living in cement blocks and working in make-shift shacks. It is very non-American. There would be much expressed frustration and anger between these contrasts of rich and poor it this were America. Here people depend upon each other from every class. The working class intermingle with the more wealth class providing daily services. If I had read a sentence like that two days ago I would have scoffed at the naivete but it really does make sense here - that is as long as everyone is able to have the food, shelter, clothing, and health support needed to co-exist.

Last night, as I lay in bed, I listened to the quiet and its disruptions. There are people sleeping above you in the house and a few feet away from you on the street. Everyone slept soundly until the neighbors rottweiler, which earlier in the day my sister had alluded to disdainfully, began to bark, endlessly. People generally do not keep dogs as pets here, dogs are usually feral living in parks and along the streets, practically comatose. Not this healthy beast which barked furiously all night. Finally, another neighbor started screaming to demand the owner take control the dog. Then someone living in a hut nearby said, "shut up!" I found the interaction very amusing. Above is a photo of the garden outside my window and behind it the rottweiler's palatial home.

Now I'm sitting behind a screened door in my marble-floored bedroom as the breeze blows through the house. Mandeep's mom is straitening my bedroom and a servant has just moved my camera from the bed to the dressing table so that he can put the comforter back on my king sized bed. It is now made-up for Chetana to enjoy her frequent naps. Next I will venture into the bath/shower which Mandeep took the time to explain to me yesterday. It will be a hot day but it is not very humid - just breezy and beautiful. Hopefully Marlene and I will venture out for some shopping. Yesterday was quite amusing as we stared at the people and they stared at us. A small child yelled, "I love you" at us as we walked by a dusty cricket match of kids in all types and colors of clothing. People are so colorful here in Incredible India!