First Days In India

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Qutab Minar

I’ve been in India for three weeks, struggling to encapsulate my experience. There’s too much. So this is a collection of anecdotes and impressions, divorced from theme or analysis.

The food in Delhi is consistently incredible. Growing up in the Midwest, black pepper was an aggressive spice. Here, it is an incidental seasoning. The flavors at play in Indian food are still a mystery to me, but they’re delicious.

However, and not to put too fine a point on it, my GI tract is like Delhi pollution. It’s always at an unsettling level, but with a few New Year’s Eve fireworks, it becomes deadly. My Wisconsin stomach is adjusting.

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Qutab Minar

When I was little, my elderly neighbors invited me to rake the leaves in their yard. Rather than focusing on improving the order of the lawn, I took joy in entropy, piling the leaves up to be scattered with a leap, until their brittle frames were pulverized into unrakeable dust. My memory suggests I was raking for weeks, though in truth, it probably took a couple days. Nonetheless, slow work for a couple hour job. With a regular employer, it would have been fraud. But that wasn’t the point. They were neighbors. They wanted to give me a gift, and the leaves were a good, Protestant work-ethic building pretense.

I don’t remember how much I was paid. At the time, anything over five dollars was as good as a million. What I do remember is that my labor was incommensurate to the payment. My mom explained that I couldn’t accept that much, that I had to negotiate down.

This was true all throughout my childhood. I would house sit and leave behind money in the envelope. Christmas gifts were ritually refused before accepting. On a trip to a theme park with my girlfriend’s family, I was dextrous enough to pay my admission to avoid the uncomfortableness of the gift.

That was my upbringing, and it’s deeply ingrained. I fall back on it instinctively. I’m not a master negotiator.

This is not standard operating procedure in India. Rickshaw drivers are almost insulted if you take them at face value, or at the very least flash an instantly recognizable smirk. The bathroom at Qutab Minar cost five rupees, and all I had was a fifty. Three ten rupee coins were slammed onto the table. After I insisted, another ten rupee coin followed.

I cut my losses to attend to a more pressing matter. Paying for a ride later, I discovered that the last coin was counterfeit.

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Old Delhi

My previous orientation to payment doesn’t work here. If I were a better economist, I would speak to how information assymetries, like knowing the price of a particular rickshaw drive at a specific time of day, create a dynamic price mechanism that functions outside of the classical microeconomic model of a fluctuating market that arrives at a single price for all sellers. But I’m not. So all I know is that that counter to my instincts, I bargain down on price, not up.

It’s stressful, moving so far outside of my normal. But it’s also kind of fun. The first time I negotiated a ride from a hundred rupees (“absurd, sir”) down to fifty by performatively walking away, it scratched the same itch of socially sanctioned lying that I got from theater. While I still find the constant attentiveness draining, once I knew the rules of the game, it became fun.

Plus it’s mostly in good faith. The quoted price is high, but if I make it clear I’m a “serious negotiator,” I usually only end up paying a 10 rupee foreign white kid fee.

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This brings me to a key part of my experience. Somehow, as I walk around, everyone can tell I’m not Indian. This manifests in pretty benign ways, like the fact I’m going to pop up in a lot of vacation selfies. The red hair gives me an exotic flavor.

Broaching conversations with strangers is more casual than it has been elsewhere in my travels. They run on a script. The prototypical was a conversation with a pair at Qutab Minar.

“Where are you from?”

“Uh, the States…USA.”

“Ah, America. First time in India?”

“Yes.”

“How do you like it?”

“It’s beautiful.”

“Is it beautiful or,” he gestures to the ancient palaces around us “so beautiful?”

This bit can also go the other way, like the college kid who complained about the dustiness. But eventually, we always got around to some version of this:

“We would like to go to America.”

“Oh, cool.”

“Do you have a number we could call?”

Now, I’m really not that well connected to the US immigration office. So I declined.

Even if not asking for bureaucratic favors, there’s an aspirational quality to the idea of the US that I’m still thinking through. Like most good liberal arts students, I have an appreciative but critical view of my nationality. It’s tricky to think about how people here understand it, and how that shapes how they read me.

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There are less pleasant aspects of my conspicuousness. I was killing time around Rajiv Chowk, waiting for my friend to finish work. I knew there was an underground market someplace nearby, but I was struggling to find it. Passersby, recognizing my confusion, kept pointing where I should go, but also suggesting I take an auto-rickshaw there, “it’s safer, and only ten rupees.” I was wary and resisted, as this was written up as a classic tourist scam. But after the sixth guy recommended it, I thought how could all of these people be in on the same scam? Plus, 10 rupees? That’s like fifteen cents.

So I hopped in and I was taken to a street of mall like buildings, filled with tourist crap. Clearly not where I was supposed to be. But when I walked outside to leave, all of the rickshaws that had been jostling for my business ignored me. When one finally responded, the price had quintupled, and my bargaining skills floundered. I gave in. On the trip back, my driver informed me that they all got a commission from the mall, so i had to beat their price. Annoyed but appropriately chagrined, I got back to the Metro stop, and went to the first recognizable shop I could find: Dunkin Donuts. Their coffee tasted the same as it did in the US. It was pretty bad. But familiar.

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The Red Fort

As far as my project goes, I’ve had some trouble figuring out where to start. Getting in touch with people, and even figuring out how to get in touch with them, has been trickier than I expected. But I travel to Kerala soon, where I have a palliative care organization that should give me some more guidance. In the meantime, I just went to a Punjabi Sikh wedding, and that has definitely left me with plenty to think and write about. Did you know they can last five days? And another five to recover?

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6 thoughts on “First Days In India

  1. Jesse, thank you so much for your fabulous pictures and very interesting information about your current visit to India.   My vicarious journey with you through Ireland and India is great.  I look forward to all your future reports and pictures!   Enjoy and stay safe! Love,Aunt Lorene

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    1. Hi Aunt Lorene,

      Thanks for you kind words! I’m glad it’s interesting to read. It’s been just incredible so far, and I’m looking forward to all of the rest. Dad sent a scan of your card (my address isn’t fixed enough for me to really get mail), thanks so much for the birthday wishes!

      Love,
      Jesse

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  2. Loving your updates Jesse….just finished reading a new text:

    Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour

    Mark Twain’s observations on life and death while visiting India in late 1895 are fascinating….how life changes and remains the same! So wish I could join you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow, things looks like a fascinating book to read. I saw some quotes from his trip to India in a couple books I’m reading about Varanasi. The place seems to sit heavy in people’s imagination. I’ll see if I can check his take out. Hope to see you soon!

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  3. Jesse I love your observations! You are having the adventure of a lifetime and learning so much. I appreciate your generous and honest sharing of your adventures.

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    1. Hi Aunt Betty! Glad you like it, it’s tricky to know what people might find interesting or not. I’m blessed to have a friend who’s a Delhi native to guide me around, and the generous hospitality I’ve experienced has really made the trip.

      Love,
      jesse

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