Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Shouldn't You Be Paying Me?

I arrived at Delhi International Airport late in the evening on October 4. As soon as I cleared immigration (surprisingly quickly considering the surging"line," at no spot thinner than four abreast) and collected my bag, I walked outside for my customary post-flight decompression, situation-evaluation cigarette. I like to steal a few moments, after being jammed in a container full of screaming babies and anonymous intestinal problems, by myself, before making any decisions; nobody bothers me because I am clearly occupied, smoking. A person just standing, looking around, attracts attention. People ask if they can help, or they look at you as if you were crazy, or they ask if they can sell you something; but if you are smoking, it's clear that you are doing something and not in need of assistance.

No such luck in India. I wandered around for about 5 minutes, picking my way through the cotton shrouded men laying on the ground, lounging on rails, and squatting on curbs. I eventually settled for a curb myself, but was not allowed the usual privacy and lack of curiosity afforded to the smoker. Instead, the three turbaned men next to me visibly leaned forward and craned their necks to stare, not to steal a glance, but to stare. Turning my head to avoid their eyes, I noticed that every other lounger was staring too. I scrapped the cigarette plan and lined up for a cab.

There is an official taxi system at Delhi International, meant to spare tourists and yokels from getting ripped of. You line up at a window, name your destination, pay the price, and get a ticket. Having done this, I was shown my driver, and he showed me to his cab. So far so good; and then not 30 meters from the ticket window, my driver stopped and hollered in Hindi into a crowd of men lounging on a median. Somebody emerged and got into the cab. I wasn't feeling menaced, I was exhausted, there was a neon snow globe featuring Ganesha on the dash, I didn't have any other option at the moment, and I thought maybe he was along as a translator, so I didn't protest.

Indeed, the second Indian's English was much better than the first's; it was so good that halfway to the hotel he was offering to secure some "special cigarettes" (wink, wink, slimy smile) for me. Thanks, but no thanks. They didn't know exactly where my hotel was, so we stopped at the tourist information office in the area. There, the agent called my hotel only to find that it was full. I was rerouted to another one, and the agent told me to come back the next day for information. He said there was free transport from all hotels to the tourist info office.

Finally at the hotel, my driver and his friend waited while I approved my room, and then waited while I carried my bag up, and then crowded me and peered over my shoulder as I filled out the forms, and then lingered around waiting for who knows what: maybe a tip, maybe a drug transaction?

a bill; whoever deciphers this correctly first gets a postcard

They got neither, and this was the first time I had a thought which has become thematic: "What do these people want from me?" India has a population of over one billion and a lot of this population seems to be standing around waiting to sell something or provide a service. Since everyone (male) is standing around, there aren't many people to use their services. This leaves a lot of time for staring and lurking; and I have come down with agoraphobia. In each hotel I've stayed there has been someone following me immediately, or a few seconds after, I manage to lock my room. If I'm carrying my bag, that person insists on taking it, and sometimes sulks around waiting for a tip for their unsolicited service. I walk past reception, where there are likely three men leaning on the desk, all eyes. I step into the street where there are tuk-tuks, hawkers, gawkers, cars, cows, and a merciless sun. "Madame, Madame, excuse me Madame, excuse me. Just you come look, no buy look only. Madame, excuse me. Where you from? Excuse me. Honk, honk, honk, honk. Excuse me, excuse me." And on and on it goes. I enter a restaurant; again, there are at least four unoccupied people ready to watch me eat.

The stare of the Indian man is like nothing I've ever experienced. They look directly at you, at once devouring you and behaving as if you, that is the human, rather than animal you, did not exist at all.

"Anantas Play School;" Do these children look like they're having fun?

My first morning in Dehli, the hotel clerk called someone, and someone else picked me up and whisked me to the Amazing India office. There, I hired a driver for the day. On my agenda; a hospital, and a few sights. Tariq, the driver, and I went to the hospital first. That being complicated and crowded, he took me to his doctor. His doctor being unavailable, we made an appointment for 10 am the next day and went to see Qutub Minar, a complex centered around the world's tallest brick minaret. Finished in 1368, it took 175 years to complete, and from the complexity of the carvings, I can imagine why.

detail from the complex

the minaret

For 13$ a day, in a city unbelievably crowded, chaotic, and complex, when you have to negotiate a hospital, it's nice to have a driver, but when I pay someone to do something, I expect them to respect the service-provider/ service receiver-relationship. What I mean is, I'm in a car with you because I need to go somewhere, not because we're friends. We may become friends, but don't assume the liberties of that relationship. I know, it sounds colonial, but I've recently lost the warm, fuzzy, let's share our culture sensibilities I once had.

Delhi suburb

My forecast about the driver, a man with an India father and an Iranian mother, named Tariq was, tolerable with a chance of interesting. When we met, I saw his eyes go instinctively to my breasts, but he ripped them away with an obvious effort of will. As the day went on, we talked about his life, lived in Germany for a few years, Iran for a while, and finally India, where he came to care for his grandfather who died 3 years ago at 125. I, in turn, told him something about my family, my life, and my way of thinking about it all.

Delhi suburb

Our initial conversation was interesting, but when we got to Qutub Minar, he did not leave my side. Next, we went to a garden, where he also followed me, now more closely than before. Apparently I'd hired a walker, talker, and driver. I began to think, "What does this person want from me?" To make things worse, his staring restraint had worn off, and I constantly felt his avaricious eyes on me. I was dressed very modestly, and I began to wonder if this was making the situation worse; maybe if he could get a better idea of what was there, his curiousity would be sated. But I doubt it.

We went for dinner around 8 pm, and while I was eating some deliciously tender lamb, he stared at me. To make it worse, his fingers and mouth were now smeared with meat juices, and I began to be physically repulsed by this little demon, eating lamb flesh with his mouth, and mine with his eyes. I tried several tactics. I tried looking away, which only meant he let his gaze have even more free rein. I tried staring at him; this, only caused deep eye gazing, which by that point made me naseous.

By the time he dropped me off at my hotel I was boiling mad, and the next morning, I was even angrier, but Tariq was my ride to the doctor, and I was planning to leave Dehli later that day. I was so ready to get out of Dehli. So I got in his car, again, and soon after we began, he asked me if I was upset about something. I said no and continued to look out the window, and he continued to press it. This is where I felt the greatest violation of the economic relationship; "I am paying you to drive. I do not want to talk to you, so drop it and drive." But I didn't actually say this, I just side stepped the issue. We went to the doctor, and I got a typhoid and an hepatitus A vaccination for about 50$.

Next, we went to the tourist office, where I spent hours arranging my onward journey. Much of that time was spent waiting and napping, as I was feeling tired and befuddled from the shots. When I finally signed my documents and paid my bill, Tariq and the agent hovered over me. I finally snapped and shouted, "Why are you both staring at me? You're making me very uncomfortable!" That seemed to work, but then I left moments after, so who knows if it would have held.

Another driver picked me up and I am currently with him on a 20 day circuit of Rajasthan, the land of kings. When they took me to meet my driver, I was ready to demand another one on the basis of the tone of the first glance he gave me, but this driver is, blessedly, a non-starer. Nonetheless, things got worse, or better, depending on your cosmology.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be continued?? Sounds pretty insane! Of course can you imagine how refreshingly beautiful you must look to all these men hanging around with nothing to do - incredible! The joys of a single woman traveling by herself - tell me more!

4:06 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I nominate Desiree Byker for "blog-of-the-year"

What a magically vivid entry

2:12 PM GMT-5  

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