Monday, June 04, 2012

Day 1 - First time in Delhi

Always Late

I didn’t go the normal route of flying straight to my program site in Delhi, since most of my family lived in Hyderabad and it was my favorite cousin’s birthday the day before my Orientation week started, I flew to Hyderabad first. After awesome birthday celebrations with my cousins and aunts and uncles, I flew to New Delhi early Monday morning. I had slept only a few hours before my aunt was waking me up to go to the airport. My sleep deprived, jet-lagged brain took it’s own time coming into consciousness and we ended up speeding to the airport and running to the gate. But I still made my SpiceJet flight and managed to nap on the plane, heck yea!

This was it, my first time in India SOLO. I had always been surrounded by my immediate and extended family whenever I visited India and this time I was in a completely new city, where I didn’t know the language (I speak Telugu, most of north India speaks Hindi and I could only understand a few phrases), and the only person I knew was the Program Director, Anantha Kumar, I had emailed back and forth with a few times. I had emailed them all my flight details and a driver was supposed to pick me up. As per the email I was supposed to walk out into the Arrivals pick-up area and I would see a guy holding up a sign with my name on it. There were guys and there were signs, but none of them happened to mine. Using my highly refined travel survival instincts I pulled out the local phone I had purchased the day before and the piece of paper with Ananta’s phone number, and dialed. A man picked up and identified himself as Ananta, thank god, and I introduced myself and told him of my predicament. He told me to sit tight while he called the driver. This was easier said than done, I was outside an airport terminal with luggage, in a completely new place, and for some reason, the only female around.

An hour later, I was finally riding in the back of a white Honda staring out onto the Delhi freeway. First, the driver had been stuck in traffic. Then, he went to the international terminal where most of the volunteers land. After a few more phone calls between Ananta, the driver, and myself, he made it over to the domestic terminal and found me. We were driving to Gurgaon, a “suburb” right outside of Delhi, to Ananta’s home/headquarters. Anantha handled all the IVHQ placements in Delhi and Dharamsala and the majority new volunteers went through an Orientation session at his place. I had signed up for the weeklong Orientation which included Delhi sightseeing, Hindi classes, and evenings off to roam around. We pulled into a large apartment complex with each building at least 15 stories tall, and went up to Ananta’s apartment. I knocked on the door and was let in by a sweet looking woman who introduced herself as Ananta’s wife. As I stepped inside a table full of strangers, around my age, greeted me. These were my fellow Orientation week volunteers.

The apartment was set up “hostel-style”. The volunteers stayed in 2 bedrooms with attached bathrooms, and were provided with 3 meals a day. We had to wash our own laundry, by hand, and our own dishes, also by hand. There was air conditioning in the bedrooms but it was only to be used at night and all the other rooms had ceiling fans. It was almost lunchtime when I arrived so I dropped my stuff off next to one of the empty beds and washed up for lunch. At the dining table, everyone was getting to know each other. They had all arrived earlier that morning or the day before. Most of them were American, with a Canadian or two thrown in. They were from all over the country and either in undergrad or graduate school. Some were here to get some exposure to medicine in developing countries, so they were in the medical shadowing program, while others simply wanted to serve, and where part of the orphanage and teaching programs. Lunch was roti (type of Indian flatbread, I'm pretty sure each and every country has some form of flatbread), rice, lentil soup, and potato + cauliflower curry. Being Indian I was somewhat familiar with this food but it was pretty new to me too since it was all North Indian delicacies. I thought everything tasted good but a little bland to the types of curry I was used to; most everyone else disagreed with me and thought the curries were either perfectly spiced or too spicy. Many of them were surprised by the food, as it was very different to the Indian food they had tried in restaurants back home. Since Ananta and his family are Hindu, they did not eat meat and all our meals would be vegetarian, a dramatic difference for what some of the other volunteers were used to but not an unwelcome one.

Me with Ananta's family cook, her name was Beauty
We had our “Intro to India” talk after lunch. Ananta had been away visiting a volunteer site and he came back for our lessons after lunch. We were told about a brief history of the country, cultural overview, and summary of the different demographics we would be working with. I was familiar with a lot of the information but it was still very interesting hearing it as someone from a Western society. I may be Indian but I had only peeked into modern day Indian society and culture with my visits to Hyderabad, I was still an outsider. The most important thing I picked up from that lesson was that we were all to dress modestly and to get used to the heat. Monsoon season and the cool rains weren't for another month, it was still full-blown summer. Next was our first Hindi lesson. It was basic hello, goodbye, greetings, common phrases which we all practiced pronouncing and saying to each other. Everyone was given a notebook to take notes in and I am so glad I did because those notes, saved my butt later in the trip.

The entire time we had been in Ananta’s apartment, the temperature was rising outside. I think that first day in Delhi, the high was 105 degrees Fahrenheit. In the apartment we were all wearing shorts and it wasn’t too bad, but we were going to venture outside that evening. A lot of us needed phones to use in the country and others just wanted to check out Gurgaon. We stepped outside and it was hot. Not totally, unbearably, sweat-through-my clothes-instantly hot, but it was very hot. Ananta’s wife had given us directions to a nearby shopping center and all 7 of us were walking over together. It was an interesting group, Caucasians, an Asian, and an Indian. Sure we got the odd stare or two or eight but you have to understand, a group such as ours was not a common site in the streets of Gurgaon.

The shopping complex was called The Galleria, I couldn’t get over the name for the whole week I was in Gurgaon. SLU students will appreciate the humor in this situation as we have our very own St Louis Galleria mall a few miles from campus. We walked around and explored the complex, there were electronics stores, bakeries, banks, coffee shops, pharmacies, and a grocery store. There were fountains and places to sit and it was overall a very cute area. It was around the time people were getting home form work/school so there were a lot of sharply dressed men and women mixed in with the groups of teenagers standard in any mall on earth. It wasn’t difficult communicating with the electronics guys since they all knew English but it was a little bit of a challenge trying to communicate with the drug store and bakery owners. In the end, simple English, my broken Hindi, and some miming got us through it and everyone was able to make their own purchases.

Dinner was uneventful, we had roti and rice with some different curries and were excitedly chatting about our day, the sightseeing the next day, and the heat. After dinner, everyone did their own various activities, watching TV, reading, going on the Internet, etc and went to bed. I was still pretty jet-lagged so I went to bed early. It was a good first day; I met some interesting people, learned some interesting things, and saw some interesting places.


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