Summer Experiences in India (Part 1 of 2)

Initially intended to be a weekly journal documenting my first time in India, I soon came to realise that the very predicament of being in this country means that that won’t be possible. How ironic, that the very internship that brought me here made me realise this – India has one of the world’s slowest Internet speeds. If this post is even to be published, know that it took the entire strength of Indian Internet to accomplish this amazing feat.

Traveling to India
I arrived in Mussoorie, India on Sunday, 10 June 2018. The entire journey took over 27 hours. I had left my accommodations on Saturday, at 2.30PM BST, and reached past 10PM IST, i.e. 5.30PM BST the next day. Needless to say, I was exhausted. My tailbone was entirely obliterated. At this point, I might be suffering from chronic coccydynia.

First, the flight at Edinburgh was delayed. Usually, flight delays don’t really bother me – I am ordinarily well-equipped for long journeys: books, sketch pads, lyrics journal, etc. It’s the reflection of the sad reality of in-flight entertainment failing to entertain me. However, the problem on that day was that I had to catch a connecting flight. That caused some sense of anxiety, especially since the gate announcement was pushed back 5 times. Really now, the plane is coming from Birmingham, how on earth was it delayed that many times? Sure, the weather was pretty trash, but my point still stands.

Birmingham Airport was actually pretty amazing. In retrospect, it gained even more favour with me since I heard that the Heathrow Airport, currently under construction, has absolutely nothing worth visiting. Honestly though, all I need is a cafe and some iced coffee, and, of course, Internet and charging points.

Then, it came the Birmingham to Delhi flight. At this point, most would expect a complaint about the distance of the flight. Well, you would be completely ignoring the fact that my home is in Singapore and this is a relatively short flight. The first time I travelled to Edinburgh, the transfer was in Istanbul and that took 11 hours. The second time, the transfer was in Paris, and that took a whooping 13 hours. Needless to say, then, that 8 hours is child’s play.

The in-flight entertainment wasn’t working – just my luck – so I entertained myself the entire time, part of which involved multiple shots of the view outside the window.

I arrived in the Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi, at about 10.30AM IST or 6AM BST. Again, it was a much shorter flight than the one I would be tortured by should I be flying home. Still, this was only 50% of the journey done.

The drive from the Airport to the guest house, where I am currently staying at for the internship, was about 1.5 hours long. Needless to say, I was exhausted, especially since I got absolutely no sleep on the flight – I was, unfortunately, sat next to an infant who did not cease his wailing the entire time. Still, this is my first time in India and I was fascinated by everything.

The ‘Culture Shock’
You see, I came to India with the expectation of witnessing a similar situation as China. I am very fortunate to have grown up in Singapore, and while I’ve always been interested in reading about issues outside of my country, it is an entirely different experience to witness it first-hand. I am used to leading a rather pampered life, and it wasn’t until I came to India that I realised that many of the most normal things I have, e.g. a good flow of water in the shower, I have taken for granted. Even for the most prosperous of families, water can still be an issue because of the system in place. Furthermore, my experiences in China was the most I’ve ever seen of poverty. It is not to say that Singapore does not have poor people – the country is just very good at ‘hiding’ them. In the same way, I’ve never seen the poor in the main streets of China. They are very much kept out-of-sight and ‘out-of-mind’. In India, however, the contrast is almost heartbreaking.

For example, I would be in the most luxurious mall in Delhi. Here, I see brands that grace every high-end shopping district. Here, I see the rich that walk through these extravagant shops, dressed in their wealth. In Singapore, there will be no hint of poverty in sight. In China, the slightly dirty exterior of the building, and the sound of traffic outside, may hint to some underlying problem hiding behind the veil of prosperity drawn over our eyes by such malls. Here, in India, it was like walking into an entirely different world.

The moment you step out from the mall, not far away, there are slums rife with poverty-stricken folks. It was like a blindfold being ripped from my eyes. This was a country where the poor very much lived among the rich. Perhaps, it speaks to their human rights – at least they have not been forcefully displaced from the city. Yet, I felt so shaken on the inside, when I find that I myself have grown used to it. I, along with others, walk past and turn a blind eye to these folks, who are begging for food, money, water, anything. Whereas in China, I knew which areas to stick to to avoid such happenings, it seems that in India, that is impossible. At once, I felt guilt – the survivor’s guilt – and I felt cruel, helpless. I also felt naive. Having grown up in a country where absolute poverty was no more than a legend, the most I’ve personally witnessed were friends whose family went through a few tough spots. When faced with true poverty, where people have to beg for a living, have no house or shelter to live in, etc., while living among those who were beyond rich, I did not know how to react appropriately.

Traveling to Mussoorie
After I was brought to the guest house, I was served lunch. Now, even though there were servants and my needs were very much tended to, they couldn’t speak English and I was extremely confused – about everything. I didn’t even really know what to do with the food: What are these dishes? How are they meant to be eaten? Am I supposed to finish everything?20180610_132800.jpg

I found everything to be quite delicious, but now, 3 weeks in, I must say, the cuisine might end up killing me. It was vegetarian and extremely low on proteins, while being much higher in carbohydrates. I am putting on weight at the speed of light, much to my chagrin. I cannot even remedy it with exercise since I cannot go out regularly like I am used to. India has recently been acknowledged by the United Nations as the country most unsafe for women – it was more likely for a woman to be raped than to see a stray dog, and there are many stray dogs here. That, is another discussion in itself.

Therefore, because I couldn’t just walk out of the house on a little stroll, I spent my time repacking for the next journey. At this point, my brain was in a shutdown mode and I desperately just wanted to reach the final destination.

I was dropped off at the Airport again, but much to my horror, at the wrong terminal. At this point, I was a 22-year-old woman alone in India, who cannot speak a word of Hindi and whose phone couldn’t be used for communication. In other words, I was quite fucked. Now, in Singapore, if you were dropped off at the wrong terminal, that doesn’t seem like a problem at all. We’ll just hop on the Skytrain and be at the correct terminal in a minute or two. That was not the case here. The correct terminal was 10 minutes away by car.

While my expression was one of calm and composure – a panicking woman who could not speak the native language was sure to become an easy target – I was dying on the inside. Now, the logical thing was to enter the airport and ask an authority for help. Except for some reason, Delhi airport functioned in a manner such that if you didn’t have a ticket for a particular terminal, you could not even enter it. At this point, I simple stopped a guy and asked him for directions. He pointed me to a taxi and told me that I could take it. Didn’t sound suspicious, until I noted how broken-down the taxi seemed and how the guy who I asked for help was following me. With one luggage on one hand, laptop bag tearing down at my shoulder and my backpack weighing me further down, I was tempted to just hop into the car. Still, if two strange guys asked me to get into a shady car, and I did, I would be an idiot. If I was kidnapped, raped, killed, or a combination of the three, it would be no one’s fault but mine for not listening to the almost-deafening alarm bells in my head.

Being the secret snake I was, I quickly formulated a plan in my head. I did have a friend’s number with me (who I am staying with in India), but no way to contact her. If I asked them to call while standing in the isolated place I was, and they refused, I could escalate their hostility and increase the danger I was in. So, glancing around in panic, I blurted out how I left a luggage somewhere and needed to go get it, asking if they could follow me. Sure enough, they did. The entire time we were walking, they were trying to get more personal information out of me. I stopped near a security guard and asked if they could lend me a phone to call my friend. They did, and I got my friend to give the phone to her dad. In 20 minutes, I was safely at the correct terminal.

The flight to Dehradun was short – just 30 minutes – but there was a 3-4 hour car ride coming up from Dehradun to Mussoorie. I met with my friend’s aunt and uncle. I was too tired at that point to comprehend much, but I faintly suspected that the aunt was the particular one that I’ve heard about – the one my friend disliked. Sure enough, I was right.

When I finally arrived at my friend’s house at 10.30PM IST, I was completely drained. I enjoyed dinner with the family, which I couldn’t even remember much of due to how tired I was, and collapsed after a shower.

Mussoorie
Mussoorie was beautiful. Located thousands of metres above sea level and away from major cities, the temperature was low, and the air was fresh and cool. Having flown in from Edinburgh, it was still a little too hot, but in the few hours spent in Delhi, I knew that this was considered a blessing. Delhi is a constant 40-50 degrees celsius while Mussoorie was comfortably around 25-30.

This was the most tourist-y part of my time in India as it was essentially the break between 2nd Year coming to an end and the start of a 6-week long summer internship of 9.30AM to 4.30AM work days. I even had tourist-y photos to show for it, despite my absolute disdain for taking photographs of myself. Which was why I often just passed my phone to my friend and told her to do whatever she wanted with it.

It was weird, being among the clouds, but what was weirder, really, was seeing stray cows. Now, we all knew the stereotype about India and cows, but I had no idea that stray cows were a thing. Up in Mussoorie, they seemed as common as stray dogs. Although, unlike stray dogs, they were treated with much more respect – the kind of treatment I’ve seen for dogs here is infuriating.

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I also went on a little hike, which felt like a regular walk to me, but I did enjoy it too. It wasn’t like one of those I used to take part in in Singapore schools – those were tropical forest hikes. This hike brought us through mountain towns while walking alongside vehicles. Needless to say, the “I’m now a car” joke was used way too many times that day. There was a church near the peak, and really, that is some journey to make on a regular basis.

I also spent a day playing with horses. I must say, while my love for these herbivores was nowhere near my love for cats, dogs, wolves, and the like, the affinity animals have for me was still there. At one point, the horse nuzzled my hand itself, something that the handler said was extremely unusual – these horses were for racing and never really bonded with their trainers. Who knows, maybe I have Dohvakiin powers and the Animal Allegiance shout. Raan Mir Tah. Ah, I love making nerd Elder Scrolls/Skyrim references.

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Back to Delhi
Time in Mussoorie was sadly shortlived, and right now, very much missed. There was a full gym right next to the house, a swimming pool, tennis courts, a badminton court, a table tennis table and even a basketball court. In Delhi, however, days are spent coming to work, trying desperately to go for a jog and then recuperating for the next day. Furthermore, the Internet, besides the one at work, is almost always dysfunctional and infuriatingly bad.

There’s not much I can say about work, since I had signed a contract of confidentiality. I am working at NITI Aayog, Government of India, after all.

I enjoy it, however, and I don’t mind the hard work, since I’m given quite a lot of liberty on how I want to carry out my projects. Workplace drama is, for the first week, unavoidable, since I was working on a team, but that too, has disappeared after I began working individually. Now, I usually don’t mind working with others, if they are working at the same level, i.e. pulling their weight and making good conversation. Instead, I was subjected to rather misogynistic comments, which had nothing to do with the project, while some members tried to usurp my work.

Mobility is a serious issue here, but that will be covered nearing the end of my time here.

For now, I’m just glad that I can post anything at all.

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