Can there be anywhere else in the world that is such an assault on the senses? Those who know the country of old just go about their business. But nothing can prepare the uninitiated for this riot of noise and colour. The the heat, the emotion, the perpetual teeming crowds… Initially you’re overwhelmed, but gradually you realize it’s like a wave. Resist, and you’ll be knocked over. Dive into it, and you’ll swim out the other side. This is a new and different world. The challenge is to cope with it. And not just cope, but thrive.” —Evelyn Greenslade, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Most Indians look at us gringos as if we are aliens. But it goes both ways. To me, New Delhi, home to 12 million people, is another planet. I was mesmerized by the chaos that somehow still permits people to get anything done. New York’s craze has rhyme and reason, New Delhi makes a fool of it. Space in Delhi is as as rare as potable water. Take the streets for example. All are welcome. They are for walkers, bikers, tiny green and yellow 3-wheeled cars called autos, kids, cows, camels, elephants, dogs, donkeys, beggars, buses, mopeds carrying four people (a man, a woman riding side-saddle holding a baby, and another kid in front), rickshaws, wheelbarrows, horse-drawn quasi-carriages, bright-colored trucks, and public transportation buses. Unaccompanied little children cross these roads like geese and their ducklings, taking their time, ignoring the disorderly masses.
A huge barrel of grain fell off a truck, spilling everywhere, so a few cattle headed to the center of the highway for a free lunch. Drivers continue on their routes, unfazed by what would be reason to shut down the road anywhere else. We saw a man, rolling about either paralyzed or half-dead lying in the street as everyone maneuvered around him.
There are lane lines painted on major roads, which only after India’s rampant political corruption are the greatest waste of government funds. They exist solely to torment we Westerners that take that little white stripe very seriously. Even if they don’t intend to change lanes, cars (or whatever animate object of your fancy) straddle a lane for no reason, swaying about the road as they please. Honking one’s horn nine times does not mean “get the hell out of my way”, rather “I am two centimeters behind you so just be careful while I make a hard left turn from 3 lanes over.” A message painted on the back of many trucks encourage drivers to “Please Honk” so they know someone is there. It’s a manners thing.
Since the cars are so close, passengers get good looks at each other. A 5-year-old boy in the back seat of a car did a double take when he saw my family. His eyes got huge. He alerted his parents and pointed at us as if he had just spotted Santa Claus.
Before the trip, Elizabeth Thalanany told Morgan and I that everyone stares at her in Delhi because even though she is Indian she is also obviously American, so she couldn’t imagine what it would be like if we went with her family to India.
I thought she was full of it. Just a few weeks ago in Chicago, I had an Indian cashier at 7-Eleven (shallow racial stereotype completely unintended) as I was purchasing slushies with Kevin and my friend Molly. I have a loud voice to begin with, but had been laughing at my inability to work the Slushie machine.
At the checkout the man asked Kevin, “You know these girls?”
“Uhhh, yes?” Kevin responded as if it were a trick question.
The man pointed at us, and in his best Indian girly voice he let out a sissy-sounding impersonation of me:
“Ha ha ha, BLAH BLAH BLAH, ha ha ha BLAH BLAH BLAH”
“Am I being mocked?” I asked Kevin. He ignored me and instead became BF’s with the 7-Eleven man.
“I know, right!” Kevin said to his new friend. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head in agreement with the man. “Wish me luck,” he said, after exchanging this sort of bro expression with the cashier.
“Wait, Are you taking his side?” I yelled at Kevn as I stormed out of that establishment with my XL Cherry Coke Slushie. If this was how I am going to be treated in India you can count me out.
But Elizabeth was right, we were hot commodities in Delhi. So if you are lazy like me and need a quick morale booster without actually improving your image, go to India. You will instantly feel beautiful, exotic and wanted despite the sweat dripping down your thighs and your frizz of your hair, compliments of the unforgiving humidity. While I still think of New Delhi as a tourist hub, we encountered surprisingly small number of foreigners. So while I never thought of caucasians as a novelty, we were certainly in short supply for the Indian paparazzi. I now can relate to celebrities everywhere. In fact I empathize with every celebrity I ever hated–except maybe Jay Cutler (I still hate you, Jay). After being in Delhi for less than an hour walking around the crowded India Gate, I could feel the stares even behind me like daggers in my back.
EEEEEEEEEEK! A driver slammed on his questionably sounding brakes in a parking lot so he and his passengers could get a good look at the Anderson clan as we walked in the other direction. But that didn’t stop him. He put the car in reverse and slowly followed us until he almost hit another car.
Some admire us from a distance, but others get very close. A girl in a crowd grabbed my hand and started to squeeze this gooey brown gel on the back my hand.
“It’s no problem madam, it’s no problem!” The girl yelled at me as I tried to break my arm free. She kept following me until I started running to catch up with the group.
Well actually, it is a problem. I wiped the goop off on my jeans, much to my mother’s disgust. I later realized the girl was trying to give me a Henna tattoo for money.
I don’t think it would be a stretch to say most residents of Delhi have not been out of the country, so I cut them some slack.
“I haven’t seen you around before, do you live here?” a little girl selling coconuts on the street asked Rosemary in Hindi.
“No, I live in a place very far away,” Rosemary told her.
“Oh, so you need to take a rickshaw to get here,” she replied.
At first we were all taken back by the stares we got from every Indian. In our culture we look away when someone catches you sizing them up. Not in India. But if you learn to play the game, it can be enjoyable for all parties. Aside from Morgan’s blonde hair and Kevin and Tim being taller than most around us, we didn’t have too much going for ourselves. We were filthy, sunburnt and may or may not have had terrible diarrhea. We girls of the group were dressed in long skirts and unassuming tops, resembling a bunch of Whole Foods granola loving hipsters trying to grow dreds with our greasy hair. But this didn’t stop us nor did it assuage the Indian stalkers. At the Red Fort, our 9-person tour group ballooned into 25 when a huge crowd of Indians decided to join. No matter that the tour was in English. Imagine the attention we could draw if we actually looked presentable.
Elizabeth was taking a picture of Morgan, Deirdre and me at Qutub Minar. A guy went up to her and motioned for what we thought was the universal signal for “Want me to take one with all of you?”
Finally, a gentleman in this place! I thought.
Apparently we missed something, because he before Elizabeth could even give him her camera, he walks to get in a picture with us.
“Wait, what?” Elizabeth remarked. “Oh, nevermind, we don’t want a picture with you.”
While it is mostly young and middle-aged men that want pictures of or with us, rarer occurrences included:
- Little kids. One little girl, no older than 7, and her mother came up to us and asked to take a picture with my sister and then one with me. She waved at us and said “Goodbye!” in her best English. Then she ran back to her mom and said something along the lines of “I just got TWO pictures white people!” Our guide told us they bring the pictures to school for show and tell. Another younger girl invited Elizabeth home with her and her mother for dinner that night. It was cute.
- Security guards. Yes, security guards! AK-47 in one hand, camera phone in the other. And these are the people that are supposed to protect me?
- Women. You can see one or two in this fabulous video which is not mine . Look very closely and you may notice an inconspicuous structure behind them. Amazingly, Indians opt to take a picture of the white people. If you listen at the end, a man instructs his subjects to “come closer”, something we also often were encouraged to do.
We retaliated by letting our stalkers know that we saw them pretending to take a picture of a brick wall. We’d raise our eyebrows to say “really? you think we don’t see you?” or start laughing uncontrollably. Other times we would take pictures of them taking pictures of us. Morgan, who received more attention than anyone, sometimes got violent, banging her chest like a pro wrestler and saying “You want a piece of me?”
I only partially blame the heat for her insanity.
Aside from the little kids, what I am dying to know is what they do with the pictures of us. Frame them in the homes? Put them on Facebook with the caption “Look what I saw out in the field today!”? Show their wives? (Insert other inappropriate comment here)?
It wasn’t until the end of the trip that we wised up and decided we needed to start charging to take pictures with these dudes. After one picture, I stuck my hand in one guy’s face and demanded 20 rupees, and 50 more for our prized blonde maiden, pointing at Morgan. And just like that, I became Morgan’s pimp. The man laughed and looked at all the other guys that had crowded behind him, pretending he didn’t know what I was saying.
“Okay, then,” I shrugged them off “No rupees no picture.” Our group walked away. Then we decided that if we weren’t going to make any money we needed to start making funny faces in their pictures.
Every time this happened we laughed loudly, which probably made us seem even more flirtatious.
“It’s all fun and games until you realize these men are all picturing you naked,” Rosemary burst my bubble. Being the naive one, I didn’t believe this until one guy took one look at us, smirked and unzipped his fly as he walked past us.
My newfound pimp status worked well with my already-embraced slutty side: A bunch of Indian boys, probably around 11 years old, in bright blue school uniforms were wandering around as we were touring the Lodhi gardens, clearly ditching school. They started to follow our group and curiously watched us take pictures of flowers and fascinated by the ancient ruins they walk past every day.
One boy, skinny and shorter than most of the 12 person group, was the ringleader. He had no qualms about using his elementary English on us, even though none of them really got it when Rosemary told the boys that Tim was Justin Bieber, Kevin was Michael Jordan and my dad was Tom Cruise. Or maybe they just weren’t impressed.
“And I’m Gwyneth Paltrow!” My mom chimed in. Actually she didn’t say that. (That was the first lie I’ve told in the FF Blog and I’m owning up to it.)
“What is your city?” the little boy asked us.
“Chicago,” a bunch of us replied in unison. The group inched closer and closer to our group with each exchange.
“Chicago? Oh my Lord!” he exclaimed. Our two groups were nearly colliding now, Jets and Sharks style.
“What school do you go to?” Rosemary switched back to Hindi. He was smart not to say because Rosemary probably would’ve personally escorted them back. Most of the other boys limited themselves to laughing and smirking behind the ringleader, waiting to hear what he would say next.
Then, the inevitable:
“Can we take a picture with you?”
We took a picture with them, and I got the ringleader right next me. After taking several shots (one is neither enough for the Indians nor Paul Anderson) we said goodbye and went our separate ways. But the ringleader had one more mission.
He went in to hug me, and I willingly returned the embrace. It was a full-fledged hug. He gave me a huge smile, skipped off and then high-fived his friends. I believe that by Indian standards I just went to 3rd base (or wicket?) with this kid. Go ahead, call me a skank. But I’m also a celebrity.