Saturday, February 6, 2010

India Gate

India, October 17th 2009 Morning

I don’t know which was worse: the traffic congestion on the streets of Delhi during the evening rush, or the rush of congestion that left me with three to four hours of sleep last night. The sheer adrenaline of travel is keeping me upright and cheerful however.

India Gate
Think of a simpler Arc de Triomphe – a giant white marble arch with INDIA GATE etched in large letters at the top. This is the first landmark I remember seeing in Delhi. It’s a war memorial commemorating 90,000 soldiers who fought for the British Empire in World War 1 and the Afghan wars. It is also the first place our large air-conditioned tour bus stopped to let us off for picture taking.

The monument was across the 4 lane street from us, in the middle of a grassy park. To get up close required a game of dodge the speeding Indian cars, running from one side to the center divider, and then running again to the sidewalk of the park. Stragglers faced death. Well, ok, not certain death, but no one dared to test the theory by walking slowly either.

Surrounding the monument were petite, dark, smiling men selling toys. Now, let me backtrack a little…

At UCLA, my Alma Mater, we had Bruin Walk: a path that lead from the dorm side of campus to the class side of campus. Lining and frequently blocking this path were people selling things, handing out coupons, advertisements, and manifestos, asking “excuse me, do you have a minute?” I hated this from the first second and vowed – yes, vowed – to never take a flyer. Ever. It requires discipline to not reach out and take something if it is thrust at you. This might seem silly, but training myself to ignore people who tried to pull my attention and sympathies was vital for India. Thank you LA, you have prepared me to fight off street vendors and beggars in third world countries.

Some of the other women on the trip were softer touches. It was not good. Here’s what happened:

We walked in a group to India Gate, taking pictures, being tourists. The toy salesmen (for lack of a better word – if anyone knows a better word for pesky street salesmen, please tell me because they’ll come up a lot in these posts) – anyways, the toy salesmen came at us like so many seagulls around a beach picnic. Middle aged tourists were their chapatis and ghee (read: bread and butter). Don’t make eye contact, utter quiet “no”s followed by louder, more assertive ones if necessary, they all know enough English to understand “no” and “how much,” though they only pay attention to the latter. They give up on me quickly, but as soon as one woman stops to look at their wares – and then buys a few small cheap plastic toys for the young children in her family, that’s when all the circling seagulls descend.

I’ll map the action in terms of distance from India Gate. Under the gate, the dozen men were displaying their toys, explaining how they worked, offering prices. Each man picked out a target and stuck to her. Twenty feet away from the gate, prices started fluctuating drastically. The women who bought toys under the gate suddenly found they paid three times as much as the current price. We thought the men would give up at the sidewalk of the street, but they braved the traffic to chase us all the way back to the bus, waving toys and tapping at the windows.

It’s one of those stories that you laugh at a few months after it happens, but in the moment, I was out of patience with my bewildered companions. “Ignore pretty much everyone” was ingrained in me from working in L.A. for two years—it’s the only thing you can do to protect yourself. But, treating people (even rude people) as if they don’t exist leaves me with a nasty feeling in the middle of my chest, like a piece of moldy bread is lodged under my sternum. It’s a necessary skill, but I wish it wasn’t.

Once in the bus, Beth and our guide for the day repeated their warnings not to interact with the street salesmen, this time to a group who paid rapt attention and affirmed the wisdom with nods of experience.

 I didn't get pictures of the men - they probably would have tried to charge me for them, but I did get these pictures of a family in the park and a woman employed in raking leaves.

No comments: