Old Delhi, a Spicy McChicken and Le French

One of my worst travel nightmares came true in Delhi.  No matter how much research, planning and preparation I do for our trips, it seems unavoidable.  After visiting the Red Fort, a market and a mosque, we soon found ourselves walking around Old Delhi with no destination.  It’s one of things I hate most about our vacations trips, because it always happens and we never learn our lesson.  Part of it stems from the fact that we get up so early that we run out of things to do, which happens most often in Asia and South America.   In Europe we can walk ourselves silly through every park, war monument and art gallery within a 50 mile radius. Elsewhere, there is no Rick Steves laundry list of Top 200 “must-see” sites. It’s more about taking it all in and experiencing the difference.  That should put tourists at ease schedulewise, but if your party does not shop or eat one is not left with too much to do.

Dad led the way through the Delhi road insanity and turned the corner onto another unmarked street.  There is nothing my dad loves more than sampling the local flavor, even if it means walking through madness.  No one was talking because our group was stretched over the span of an entire block. We had to walk single file because the road was narrow and crowded.  I felt like I was at the bar, but with my family (a nightmare in itself), where you have to push and shove your way through as you hold your friend’s hand behind you so as not to lose them. Also it’s so loud you can’t hear anything.  Our group kept getting split up.  Every 2 minutes we had to stop to make sure everyone was still somewhat close behind.  Only in Delhi, instead of risking running into some sleeveless-shirted guido frat boy and spilling his beer , we were about to get hit by a car.  If someone in the group took a wrong turn we wouldn’t see them again.  It’s one thing if I get taken hostage.  That’d be cool, but Bill Clinton isn’t going to come and negotiate my rescue if I’m just lost.

It would be safe to say the non-Andersons of the group were growing uneasy with each step we took.  I had to take action before Mrs. Thalanany, Elizabeth or Deirdre asked the inevitable question: “Where are we going?”

I had “taken in” enough. “Dad wait up!” I yelled ahead for him to stop. Kevin, Tim, Rosemary and my mom are way behind us.   “Dad, let’s regroup.  So like, where exactly are we going?” It’s amazing that 30 minutes have gone by without anyone asking this question.

“I’m just checking things out,” my Dad said, as if I were asking a stupid question.

Checking things out?  We are risking our lives to just “check things out”?  He acts like he knows where he’s going when I know he has no plan. He may have been fooling some of the the group, but this is not my first rodeo.

There were few tourists in Delhi to begin with, and in Old Delhi I would dare to say we were the only foreigners that went to this part of town the entire month (Fine, at least the week). Even Rosemary had never been where where we were walking. But she came up with a plan that made everyone happy, or that at least got everyone to shut up.  She negotiated with three rickshaw guys to take us to “check things out” around Old Delhi.  If we weren’t allowed to stop/eat/go back to the hotel, at least we didn’t have to walk any longer.  Thank god for Rosemary.   Luckily, Paul was still happy, as evidenced by this picture, which I feel sums up the entire trip.

Paul in his element

The rickshaw guys took us around and we got off for a bit to walk through a spice market that dates back to the 17th century, where everyone sneezed and coughed their way through the narrow passageway.

“Let’s get out of here,” Morgan said, her eyes teary from all the spices.

“What’s the matter guys, this is kind of cool?!” I said.  (I lost most of my sense of smell in high school and therefore didn’t suffer nearly as badly as everyone else. This is also my favorite fun fact about myself).

The rickshaw guys took us to some pashmina scarf place where they get commission if they bring white people to buy things.  This happens often in Asia.  One time in Bangkok we hired rickshaws to take us to a market 10 minutes away. We got there 2 hours later, having stopped at four, count em, four jewelry stores so our rickshaw drivers could collect.  We don’t have to buy anything, but the store owners give the drivers something like 5 bucks if we stay for 20 minutes.  What are you going to say to these guys, “No I’m a big jerk and don’t want you to get some extra money for your family”? So we kept saying yes, thinking that each jewelry store would be the last one.  It wasn’t.  In Bangkok it pissed us off, but now we look at stopping just once as a major victory.  We weren’t left with  much of a choice anyway, it’s the pashmina store or walk and risk death, so we took our chances.

At the store, my mom grabs a couple things, Deirdre and I pick out a scarf, and Tim picked out a tie.  Tim is a man of the finer things in life, and can be very established if he feels like it.

Then Morgan mentioned some pangs in her stomach.

“Wait, you guys are hungry?” Elizabeth asked us.

“Of course, we’re hungry, we haven’t eaten since 7:30!” I chimed in.It’s 5:00 p.m.

“I know I know, but you guys weren’t saying anything so I thought I was the only one.”

“That’s just because we’re used to this crap,” Morgan said.

“I just don’t understand how you guys do this,” Elizabeth said with a sigh.

Even just a few years ago, I thought everyone traveled like my family. I was ignorant.  It wasn’t until my sister and I visited my Uncle Joe, Aunt Lorain and cousins in Sydney that I realized we were legit insane.  I had traveled without my family a few times before, but Sydney yielded scientific proof that my family is bananas.  With Uncle Joe and Aunt Lorain, we still saw all the big things, the Opera House, the Rocks, Taronga Zoo, but at a different pace. It is more balanced, more sane, more enjoyable. You see, Uncle Joe is my dad’s brother.  They shared a bedroom growing up, which makes me inconclusive about what my nana and papa did to young Paul that made him the way he is.  Traveling with Uncle Joe was life-changing.  Every 5 minutes he’d ask Morgan and I, “You girls want hot chocolate? How about a donut? Should we go to the beach later and get ice cream?” Morgan and I didn’t know what to do with ourselves.  We kept saying “Yes” to every hot chocolate, donut and ice cream because we couldn’t overcome our ingrained mindset that “you’d better eat something now because we’re not going to stop again.” Uncle Joe often accompanies my Dad on business trips, and it was in Sydney that he confessed to Morgan and I that he usually sneaks a few packs of nuts and crackers to get through a travel day with my dad. Brilliant.

A similar principle holds for bathroom breaks, especially on road trips:  “Go now because we’re not stopping again until we cross the Nebraska border.”  When I was younger but well past an appropriate age to have accidents, I wet my pants when we were walking around somewhere in Canada.  Not because we were in the car, but while we were just walking around god-knows-where Montreal.  As a quasi-adult, I now solve this problem by attempting to go twice at every rest stop.  Luckily I did not have this problem in Delhi.  I easily drank 6 liters of water and juice in one day and didn’t have to go because I sweat it all out.  It was amazing.

But the best anecdote about my deprivation in life takes place at the middle school lunch table.  Remember when your friend would throw a bag of Doritos in the middle of the table and say, “I’m full. Anyone want these?”  Morgan and I reminisce about how quickly we both would snatch those Doritos up before anyone else could move.  “Whoaaa, someone’s hungry!” The rest of the table would say.  To this day, no bag of Doritos has entered our house.  My parents always told us we’ll thank them later, but I feel like we should have figured out why by now.

Nevertheless, we devise a plan at the pashmina store to see if we can talk my parents into letting us go to McDonalds.  There is only one way to do this: Make Tim ask. As a posterchild youngest child, Tim has never been told “No” in his life.  Last year my mom once made me go to Walgreens at 1 o’clock in the morning just to buy Tim Mountain Dew. On a school night.  To give you some context, the first three Andersons were barely allowed to even drink pop, and now my mom picks up a few 24 packs a week for Tim, who stocks them in his personal mini-fridge in the basement man cave,.

Morgan and I know better than to attempt such a caloric request and if Kevin asks, my Mom will know that Morgan and I put him up to it, as Kevin usually indifferent about such things but always willing to help out.

Everyone except me forgets that we are not alone in the store.  Shortly after we walked in, some other commision-seeking rickshaw dudes brought in a family of four.  They were so French that I could profile them before they could say Bonjour.  The shoes, the tight pants, the haircut.  The older of the two boys had an Olympique Lyonnais shirt on.  French people aren’t big on sports shirts, so this was an actual curveball.  The mother carrying a Lonely Planet “L’Inde du Nord” confirmed my suspicion.

Just minutes after they walked in, Tim brought up the golden arches to my mother.

“What? You want to go to McDonalds?” my mom asks loudly.  My mom is the worst person to say anything to if you are trying to be discreet.

Like a rabbit hearing a threat from faraway, Olympique Lyonnais boy perks up.  His head quickly turns to look at our group, and a smirk spreads across his face soon after.  Then he silently but blatantly motions to his dad to listen in on our group, too.

I don’t remember the exact exchange that followed but I know the word “McDonalds” was said at least five additional times. To Olympic Lyonnais, it sounded like this:

vmncvmxmncvzzz All I want is McDonaldslkdklasdlklfh McDonalds adkfjdafkl Rosemary is there a McDonalds around afjkhdaf I’m not sure what I’d get at McDonalds iokadkjjh were so hungry McDonalds McDonalds MCDONALDS!!!!!!

Olympique Lyonnais was no older than 14, and to see him profile us at such a young age just goes to show how ingrained the American stereotype is.  My mind raced to plot how I could remedy this terrible situation by speaking to them in French, but said  nothing.  I froze as if I forgot my lines at the school play.

Long after I missed my window to speak to the French family before things got awkward, Morgan blurts out, “ask them where they’re from Amanda!”

Rule #18 of foreign travel: When about to say something stupid, reconsider and assume everyone speaks English.

Now it’s even more awkward, because the dad and Olympique Lyonnais start having a conversation in English, pretty much to signal that they know what we’re saying without actually saying anything to us.

I was so mortified.  As a self-appointed cultural ambassador to France, I feel that I have built many bridges among my French family I was an au pair for as well as the French friends I still keep in touch with.  My speaking of French would have dumbfounded the family of four.  After saying the most basic thing to a hostess at a hotel in Paris,  I think it was something as stupid as, “I like to ride my bike” this little old lady pinched my cheeks and said “Oh mademoiselle! I joost love Anglophones speaking French! I joost love eet!”

To make up for my inaction, I am going to write what I wanted to say to get it off my chest.  I translated it in my head over and over the rest of the day.  Why couldn’t I at least say hello and ask where they are from?

Mes Amis Francais —

Bonjour.  Je suis très desolée que vous avez entendu ca. Bien que vous croyez que vous avez bien nous classé comme les americains qui sont ignorants, paresseux, et grosse.  En fait, vous êtes irréfléchis.  On est beacoup plus mal que tu pense.  Parce qu’on est bien voyagé à France beaucoup de fois, et souvent mangé le cuisine Francais, on encore mange McDonalds.  T’y croit toi?

My French Friends—

Hello. I am very sorry that you had to hear that. You see, while you may think you just successfully stereotyped my family as ignorant, lazy and fat Americans, you are in fact short-sighted.  We are so much worse.  Because we’ve been to France plenty of times and have eaten your food, and guess what? We still eat McDonalds.

Since I am all about stereotypes on the FF Blog, I do not have to be impressed that a French family traveling in India speaks English. But a fat american talking about McDonalds that speaks French? That would have stunned them. Or at least made them think we were Canadian. Besides, does the French family speak Hindi? Does the Indian scarf merchant speak French? No, guess what language they use? English.  It was the same at our hotel: Italians, Dutch, Fins you name it. The Germans ordered their kaffees and omeletts to the waiters in English without hesitation.

As I previously mentioned, McDonalds is something the Andersons struggle with. On one hand, patronizing it disregards another country’s culture.  On the other, it is a local success story. As Paul Anderson often points out, look what you can do if you found your company in Des Plaines, Illinois.

I realize I am 50 years late on my fascination with the corporate success of McDonalds, but its strategy to maintain its brand while adapting to local flavors is something the Andersons try to emulate.  Do we go out and pretend we’re Indian? Please, Tim had a Ted Nugent shirt on at the Taj Mahal.  The Anderson motto is based on that of McDonalds : hey, we’re blatantly American. We may come off as imposing, but we’re really good if you just give us a chance.

So Tim worked his sweet magic. After the pashmina store we were McDonalds-bound.  Amazingly, our driver was still waiting for us in the Red Fort parking lot where we left him 8 hours ago.  It’s not like they had anywhere else to be.  All the drivers just seem to be perfectly happy socializing with whoever is around–other drivers, street vendors, homeless people.  Kevin and Tim even watched a movie with our driver in the van when my Mom Dad and Morgan picked Deirdre and me up from the airport.

When we got out of the van and started to McDonalds, my Mom runs into a someone she knows.  “There’s my friend!” She tells Rosemary.

“Wait, you made Indian friends already?” I asked, not getting an answer.

“Remember Rosemary? That’s the little girl I bought all those necklaces from last week.”

“Hello Madam!”  The raggedly but adorable little girl, no older than 8 years old, did not hold back. This girl was forward and confident in her English, but I really feel that I need to alert someone to update their English textbooks about the whole madam thing. If anyone but a cute little girl selling necklaces on the street called me madam I’d be annoyed.

“Hi! How funny that I am seeing you again?!” My mom said to the little girl.

“I know I know! How bout some necklaces for you madam?” The little girl was only sentimental for 1.5 seconds, then got right down to business.  She had long necklaces strung with colorful beads dangling from her skimpy arm. They weren’t strung with any pattern or colorscheme, but were beautiful nonetheless.

“Well, I could buy some for my two girls here.” She points at Morgan and me. The rest of the group heads inside to start their order.  “How much are they again? How about 10?”

“Ohhhh nooo madam,” she said scoldingly “you need at least 20 for 300 ruppees.”

“But all I have is either a 100 rupee bill or a 1000 rupee bill.”

“Oohh do not worry madam I have change!” In addition to being a hustler she was also quick with her money.  “Here, how about 30 necklaces for 500 rupees? You need some too!” She points at my mom’s bare neck.

“Oh but honey, remember I bought some already from you last week?”

“It’s no problem at all!” She didn’t back down. “Look I’ll even give you four more, no charge.”

Of course we bought 34 necklaces.  How could you say no to this girl?

“Thank you so much, sweetie, I am so glad I ran into you again!” We took a picture with our friend and we headed to the entrance of the Golden Arches.  But the little girl didn’t stop at the necklaces.

“Just two burgers Madam, just two burgers!” The little girl chased my mom , Morgan and me to McDonalds but stopped dead in her tracks at the door.  There were security guards lurking around and she knew they would snatch her if she followed tourists inside a restaurant.

Deidre and I shared a McPaneer, which is a  Paneer cheese and vegetables fried into a burger. It wasn’t bad.  My dad seemed please with his Maharaja Mac Meal as well, which is like a double chicken sandwich that’s spicy.  Another favorite was a McFlurry with Coco Crisps and chocolate syrup chunks.   We ordered larges because we couldn’t accept how small a small is outside of America.

Despite all the fun we’d been having , my mom and dad were still kind of ticked we were at McDonald’s.

“So I guess this is dinner?” My mom asked, chiding us for our abhorrent gastronomic selection.

“Uhh, no.” Tim said in his “duhhhhhhh” voice. “Maybe we like, haven’t eaten all day, so we want a snack.” Tim said this even though he knows there  is no such thing as snacking on an Anderson vacation. If we are ever going to stop, it has to count as a meal, otherwise you still have to stop at least 2 more times for actual meals. .

“Well, you guys better eat everything on your plates if we go to dinner.” My dad warned us, as if he were talking to a bunch of 6 year old kids not eating their vegetables.  We made it just in time to hear Tim order his McFloat (Coca-Cola +Ice Cream, also available with Fanta) and Big Mac in Hindi with the help of Rosemary.  Like I said, Tim will surprise you when he feels like it.

But we couldn’t stop thinking about the little girl outside.  She girl broke my heart. I’ve seen a lot of poverty before, but when you have a connection with someone beyond just seeing them in from inside your air conditioned taxi, you feel all the more accountable.  For the record, UNICEF’s official policy on poor children is that tourists should not give them money, as it teaches them a life of dependency. But we justified our acts because she was selling something she made, which seemed more productive. We took it a step further and hacked on two Spicy McChickens and a large fry to our already ridiculous bill.  Morgan and my mom went back outside to give it to the girl and her friends to share.  Besides, as Rosemary pointed out, you know that money from the necklaces is going to some pimp and not actually her.

So there you have it, fat Americans saving the world one McChicken at a time. Take that, Freedom Fries.


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