Monday, January 23, 2006

Delhi: first steps in India

Ever since my arrival in India (about 3 months ago), I have never ceased to be mesmerized by this country; the people, the culture, the spirituality, the food…
My first impressions of India were based on my experience in Delhi. I stayed there a few days, waiting to find a cheap flight to Cochin. Right away I experienced the amazing hospitality of the people here, which I continue to be spoiled with these days. During the flight from Hong Kong to Delhi, I started speaking with my neighbor, a businessman from Delhi, hopping from one place to the next, barely having the time to take a breath between two business conferences. As I was planning to spend the night in the domestic airport to catch an early flight the next morning to Cochin, he kindly offered that his driver drop me off there. On the way, we stopped at the businessman’s home, where I was kindly invited in for tchai (this delicious sweet milk-tea that you can find at every street corner throughout India), - at 11pm!!! Knowing that I would spend the night at the airport, the businessman’s wife insisted that I stay at their house for the night… that’s when I started realizing that traveling alone as a woman may be difficult and dangerous at times, but in the end there is always someone who offers you hospitality- or maybe, it is just how it is here, offering hospitality to a traveler.

The next morning, as I traveled to Paharganj, a bazaar close to Old Delhi, I was able to notice the craze of the city, the few tourists strolling around, the busy merchants carrying heavy loads of rice or wheat on their heads, and the cycle rikshaw feverishly ringing their horn as they pass by almost bumping into me. Here it's not like in the US where the cars somewhat respectfully yield to the passers-by, but it seems that the cars, or the rikshaws almost want to hit the people on purpose- it takes some serious skill to cross the road. It's the same in China, actually.... and one of my first thoughts as I was leaving the airport was that there isn't a lot of difference between the driving in China and the driving here in India, even though people are supposed to drive on different sides, in the end, everyone ends up in the middle of the road!

Busy Chandni Chowk in Delhi

A first walk in the streets of a city like Delhi (or any big city in India as I found out later on) is quite the experience. In addition to the beeping cycle and auto rikshaws, I was amused by the cows silently chewing on some plastic bag, I was overwhelmed by all the smells- the burnt oil odor of fried samosas, the cardamom of warm badam milk, as well as the toilet odor due to all the urinating in the streets... and the beautiful sarees of the women with their shining bangles and golden nose rings really dazzled me. And in the midst of all of this, I always had to fend off some persistent guy asking: "Rikshaw, madam?" Delhi is filled with bazaars such as the Chandni Chowk bazaar where shops of cloths line the streets, Dilli Haat, or Sarojini nagar. There's also a ton of monuments left by the British or by the Mughals...

Humayun's Tomb

On the steps outside the mosque- Jama Masjid

Rashtrapati Bhavan built under the British

China: the end and thoughts

I left Xishuangbanna just before the Chinese National Day on October 1st. This time of year is supposed to be hell for any travels within the country and so I decided not to go to Beijing, some 5,000km from where I was, as I had originally planned. I went back to Kunming, bid farewell to the people who had helped me get all the contacts for geranium, citronella and eucalyptus oil and hopped on another 26hour train journey to Guangzhou. In Kunming, I did take the time to explore the surrounding hills, but everywhere was packed with tourists coming from other parts of China. In the hostel, I celebrated the Jewish New Year with the many Israelis that were in Kunming for the 3rd of October. Eventhough I am not Jewish, a few of them insisted that I celebrate the dinner of Rosh Hashannah with them and be “Jewish for a day”. And so, in a relaxed, friendly and spiritual atmosphere, I learned about the symbolism of the pomegrenate, the apple with honey, the sweet bread, the dates…

Rosh Hashannah celebrated in the hostel in Kunming.

And then, I was back in Hong Kong, this city that I thought was daunting and overwhelming two months earlier now revealed its secrets and I very much enjoyed the week I spent there while waiting for my Indian visa to be issued. I explored the more laid-back atmosphere of the New Territories, the cafes filled with expats working in business, finance or consulting in Central, the magic of the lanterns in Kowloon Park while taking a dive at the public pool…

A Buddhist temple in the New Territories.

And to anyone going to Hong Kong, I highly recommend spending a few hours at the Hong Kong Museum of History, which presents a complete history of the area, from the evolution of the geological features, the invasion of the British, the culture of the indigeneous fishermen, to the handing-over back to China and the completion of the new airport in Chep Lak Kok a few years ago.

So now is the time to share my impressions on China. Earlier, I described Hong Kong as a city of contrasts- the meeting point of two cultures. Well, I think this description can be extended to the whole of China (well to the small glimpse I had of the country, in the three provinces of Guangdong, Guanxi and Yunnan). The difference is maybe that in Hong Kong the westerners who have lived there for many generations are “sinofied”, where as in mainland China, the Chinese are westernized and long for this Western culture. All the cities, big and small, Zhuhai, Guilin, Kunming, Jinghong, look like any newly-built western city. Unfortunately in cities like Kunming, the charming old houses have been replaced by square, impersonal, concrete buildings. And then, in the countryside, while the teenagers in the city look for the new Nokia model, the laborers in the rice field still plow the land with their cows. Throughout my stay, I was always feeling that the society is trying to catch up with the very rapid economic boost. In the villages, the people have ditched thair traditional clothing for the western-style clothing- such a shame!! they take out their traditional dresses only to please the tourists- it used to annoy me so much! But then, completely out of the blue, I would run into a few retired men and women, who, to spend their time on sundays would meet in the neighborhood's park and put on a Chinese opera show. The following picture was taken in a small park in Kunming- a few people gathered and spend one hour putting their make up on before starting to perform!!!

Chinese Opera in a park in Kunming

This first trip to China left me with a mixed impression. The country houses some of the most beautiful landscapes I have seen in my life, but unfortunately, it still bears the marks of the Cultural Revolution as many heritage sites have been destroyed. Sometimes I felt that the people also beared these marks as they are trying to escape from their culture by adopting more of the Western culture. I may be wrong, though, because in fact it was quite difficult to really interact with the local population- language being the biggest barrier! One thing is sure, I will definitely go back to explore the more autonomous provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang.