The holiday season and our current locations are cause for a little reflection, as we find ourselves living outside our own country and in a place that doesn’t – for obvious reasons – always celebrate the same holidays that we grew up with. Thanksgiving is of course a truly American holiday celebrating the kindness that the people who already inhabited the land shared with a group of strangers that washed up on their shores. A few hundred and some years have gone by and we (the strangers) are still there, and even more refugees have come out of fear or faith, conflict or concern, so that many of us, Allison included, have living relatives who have come from abroad and made a new life for themselves in America.
These ideas were all around us this year as one of us was feasting in comfort on classic turkey and stuffing with family in the US while the other was spending Thanksgiving traveling to a new land and being welcomed by Indians…in New Delhi. India has been on our list of places to visit for a long time for so many reasons, the top of which include the incredible authentic food, and the impossible idea that 1,289,989, 258 people, or 17.5% of the world, is Indian.
On arrival, Delhi can be an overwhelming assault to the senses. One of the first things you notice upon exiting the expensive, modern airport is all the men standing on the roofs of their small vans, stacking families’ suitcases up to the sky like a good Jenga game. The next thing you notice is the air. At first it’s confusing because it’s so thick that it seems like the fog you experience on a typical cool morning when a cloud settles over the city. But then you realize that it’s brown and choking and it doesn’t dissipate over time. (In fact, the WHO has ranked Delhi’s air quality as the worst in the world, to which the government has responded by implementing a law beginning January 1, 2016 to only allow the 8.5 million personal vehicles that usually crowd the streets every day to be driven every other day.) And then there is the fact that even though it’s 4am in the morning, there is still a mass of cars, auto-rickshaws, trucks, bicycles, motorbikes, people, and the occasional horse all using the highway at the same time, and amidst the chaos of swerving and honking, there are roadside egg markets going in full swing and auto-rickshaw driver camps on the corners, where the men are cooking over a small campfires on the sidewalk.
I decided to tour the sites of Delhi and then attempt a trip to Agra to see the majestic Taj Mahal. Traveling alone as an obviously foreign woman without a phone in a big city like Delhi takes a bit of planning and a lot of caution, but everyone I encountered was extremely nice and helpful. I hired a black and yellow standard taxi driver for the day ($20 for 8 hours) and made sure to follow all the safety tips: let someone know where I am going, very noticeably take and pretend to send a picture of the plate and cab number, and set a price in advance.
We toured around some of the big Delhi sites like the India Gate, Humayan’s Tomb, and the Lotus Temple. My last stop was Dili Haat – a recommended marketplace. However, my driver took me instead to a tourist trap: a big, strange building labeled Dili Haat, and inside was some very expensive, not particularly plentiful or nice crafts, scarves, and clothes. A quick google later revealed that I had let my guard down from being on permanent on alert for scams – generally if something seems strange, it is. Maybe next time I’ll see the real Dili Haat.
The next stop was for food. My driver took me to a strip of 4 or 5 restaurants, where I had the best butter chicken of my entire life. It was incredible. Later, I met up with a friend who was in town as well and coincidentally he took me back to the same strip of restaurants, which are apparently some of the best in Delhi. He took me there specifically so that I could try a local specialty – a kebob made of very finely ground lamb mixed with papaya and then grilled. Delicious! We also grabbed a small clay pot of ice cream from the ice cream stand next door, which turned out to be frozen sweetened condensed milk mixed with pistachios and saffron. It had a bizarre, grainy, but very appealing, texture and was also amazing.
We visited a few more local hotspots, including the Hauz Khas Village, an offbeat eclectic maze of stone streets, cafes and galleries, and the Delhi Gymkhana Club, where my friend’s family are all members and they serve cheap drinks and bland food. It’s one of the oldest Clubs in India, dating back to1913 when it used to be called the “Imperial Delhi Gymkhana Club”. When India gained Independence in 1947, the word “Imperial” was dropped and it was simply known as “Delhi Gymkhana Club”.
Even in my short time in India, it was glaringly apparent to me that members of the “elite” consider themselves very separate from the rest of society. I suppose this has a lot to do with the caste system, a social structure that divides different groups into ranked categories. Members of “higher” castes have a greater social status than individuals of a “lower” caste. Indian law prohibits discrimination by caste, but from what I’ve seen and heard, caste identities still have great significance at the local level.
After much debate with my friend and his mother about how I could safely and affordably travel to Agra (traveling alone with a driver was not an option to them), I was able to book a trip through my hotel that turned out to be a private car, driver, and tour guide for the 4 hour ride each way, and a full day in the city for only $50! I was excited to see some of the country on the drive there, but the fog was so dense on the highway that you could barely see a few feet in front of the car on the highway. Driving in, it is evident that Agra is a very poor city, and you would hardly guess it is home to the most famous building in India.
The Taj Mahal is spectacular though. It really is just as breathtaking as you would imagine, inside and out.It was commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favorite wife – what a way to show your love! The structure is immense, and incredibly, perfectly symmetrical from all angles, and the details of the stone inlays spelling out verses from the Quran and creating a beautiful floral design throughout the entire structure are painstakingly intricate. The Taj Mahal has understandably now been voted one of the new wonders of the world. The marble changes color with the sunrise and sunset, but it was too smoggy to see this phenomena right now. My guide made me take all the cheesy pictures – he even stole a random woman’s sunglasses for me to get the “classic” picture below!
As we drove around the city afterwards, we were constantly dodging cows, the sacred animal of India. My guide told me that once they grow up, nobody wants to feed them so they turn them loose on the streets and they become street cows. Lo and behold, there were cows in every dumpster, every trash pile, and anywhere they thought they could grab a bite. The water buffalo are valuable though, so they have an owner who herds them along the street and makes sure they’re taken care of.
My overwhelming sense as I was waiting for my flight home was that despite the smog and overwhelming poverty, everywhere you look India is buzzing with vibrant color and life. It is all at once heartbreaking, tantalizing, awe-inspiring, and mesmerizing, and it will make you want to go back for more.
This same feeling has struck us before when we traveled to Ethiopia and Tanzania in 2011. Confronted with immense poverty, there is that overwhelming feeling that somehow, I can fix this through some immense effort…along with a deep and uncomfortable realization that we are all born into a relatively random set of circumstances that are generally beyond our control.
We are limited by the situation that we’re born into: by the physical location, the politics, the culture, and the economic situation. That sort of pre-destiny is 100% obvious in places like India or Ethiopia. I remember in Ethiopia when I met a group of what looked to be young kids, that turned out to actually be adults my age suffering the effects of malnutrition. It was obvious that in every other way there was no difference between me and them, just that we had been born on opposite sides of the world in different places with different conditions that allowed me to go to college and required them to stay close to home to help out with the farming just to stay alive. Every time we’re in places like these, I get a humbling taste of just how fortunate we are. Mostly by chance, opportunities and access have never been better for us.
Our senses are heightened to this right now as the world deals with the horror of the thousands upon thousands of immigrants fleeing for their lives. To many, these are just strangers in a far off land dealing with a situation we cannot fathom, and it is therefore easy to ignore or pretend it has nothing to do with us. All too often it’s easy for us to take life for granted, but the reality is that we got lucky and though we have a tendency to credit our fortune to hard work and living out the American Dream, it could just as easily be any of us forced to leave our homes behind.
We should be constantly reminding ourselves of how privileged we are to be able to take a glimpse of millions of people’s real everyday struggles in Delhi, and yet find ourselves 10 hours later on the edge of a pristine French lake in Annecy, bookended by white mountains, watching swans swim about in the fresh crisp air. In this life, everyone sips mulled wine while wandering through Christmas markets, and their biggest concern is seemingly whether to purchase a vegetable peeler or new pair of leather shoes. This could very well be a distant dream for most of the world.
So then how do we reconcile both the fortunate circumstances we are currently living in, and simultaneously be cognizant of the injustice of those that aren’t as lucky? For now, our solution is to really drink in the beauty of life when it is offered to us, the flavor heightened by the harsh realities that we’ve seen along the way. But also, to make sure we use our good fortune to try and make a difference whenever we can. And let’s remember, in the true spirit of Thanksgiving, that if given the chance, we should always extend that same kindness to those who might be in need of such a gesture now.