Today was really a wonderful day. Up until now, it’s taken all my energy just to get a few basic things done, but today was really productive and wonderful on many fronts.
Today was the day we had to appear for registration at the Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO). Basically, most people who come to India for extended stays have to register with the FRRO within fourteen days of their arrival if they plan to stay more than 180 days.
I had heard a lot of crazy stories about this process — people having to go back four or five times with different documents, that getting rejected a few times was normal, etc. I had even read a book about living in India which listed tips for this registration process including, “Bring a snack” and “Get to the office at least two hours before it opens”. So needless to say, I was really dreading it.
When I got to the reception counter, they asked me for the regular documents – passport, visa, etc., and then they asked if I had a “bona fide”. After a bit of misunderstanding, I finally realized that they meant that I needed the original copy of a letter I had received from the University of Delhi certifying that I had joined (there is nothing like indian paperwork — everything requires some kind of ink stamp, signing of every page of a document, and originals are a big deal. And even to sneeze requires three passport sized photos.) I don’t know why I didn’t think to bring the original – I only had a copy. They sent me home, but the guy I talked to was super nice and said he would give me a number even though I had to go and come back.
It all worked out perfectly, because by the time I got back, my number was up. I went straight from reception to one of the counters. The guy looked over my documents, and I was really trying not to say anything weird, or look at him the wrong way for fear it would mean ten more trips to the FRRO.
While he sufficiently berated me for being Indian and not speaking to him in Hindi, asked me about five times if I was aware of the Fourth of July (?), and also was super excited to tell me his predictions for the downfall of the US, he did approve my registration in ten minutes flat.
By the time I was done at the FRRO, Nick, another Fulbrighter who is also my housemate, and Rohit, our facilitator, had already left, and were eating lunch at a street stall nearby. I have to admit, I’ve been pretty conservative on the food side so far — I kind of live in daily fear of getting sick from eating something. Nick, who has lived in India before for an extended period of time, thinks I’m a wuss. I absolutely am. But to celebrate our victory at the FRRO, I decided it was time to try street food.
The rule with street food is, if it’s cooked and still hot, you’re usually ok. The other day, the people at the photocopy shop in Lajpat Nagar offered us chai, and I hesitantly tried it. It was absolutely delicious. It is the kind of chai that makes you feel blasphemous for having to say the word “chai” at starbucks.
In any case, the chai went well, so today I had some daal and a bean and potato dish with fresh, hot chapatis that a boy kept bringing out straight from the stove. Everything was so delicious. I wish I could post a taste on this blog… words cannot suffice. There is no taste like the taste of indian street food. Even the food at the Taj paled in comparison. The flavors are rich and present, the ingredients are fresh, and there is so much depth to the taste of the food. And this is all for basically less than a dollar.
So I am a little more brazen now. We’ll see — I’m sure some sort of stomach bug will eventually come my way, but I’m willing to risk it for something that tasty.
Yesterday, I visited my teacher, Gaurav, for the first time this trip. I will write a longer post on my lessons with Gaurav later. In any case, he mentioned that I should come back today as he was going to be interviewed by an Indian news channel (I have to figure out which one it is – will post more info on this later) and wanted me to be part of it. The interview was done in part to publicize a concert he will be giving in Delhi this coming week.
The whole thing was kind of a surreal but really fun experience. I showed up at Gaurav’s apartment and there were three tech guys and an interviewer ready to go – lighting, mics, the whole thing. I was still sufficiently sweaty from my trip to the FRRO, but we sat down, and I began to sing the tarana he taught me yesterday. (I thought to myself later: this is a technique I should use to get my students to practice – give them a piece to learn, and tell them they have to play it on public television the next day. The progress would be instantaneous…)
After we sang, they interviewed me separately, asked me about my background, my work with Gaurav and my Fulbright project. The interviewer asked me if I could speak in Hindi. I wish I could have said yes, but after some of the things I have been saying that have been eliciting quizzical looks from our maid, I vetoed that immediately. My Hindi improves daily, but I’m going to need many more days before I can do a TV interview in Hindi.
Also, since they had to turn the fans off while they were shooting, they would ask me a question and when I had half answered it, they would stop the cameras and ask me to wipe the sweat off of my face and neck, and then resume. This seriously happened every five minutes, to give you an idea of how humid it is here.
Anyway, it was really exciting to get a chance to talk about my work to an Indian audience, and I’m excited to see the segment when it airs next week.
Later in the afternoon, Nick and I met Rohit at the mall. Rohit is our facilitator, which means he makes sure we are taken care of in all practical matters here in Delhi. He is really helpful, and also just fun to hang out with, so we all decided to see a movie at the mall today.
The mall in Delhi is a crazy experience. It is way less in the way of teenage girls, and more in the way of upper-middle class indian couples and families. So, it looks like a very chic mall in the US (think of the Short Hills mall in Jersey, or the Beverly Center in LA) except way bigger. Also, it has every store known to man, and even some that are unknown to man. Every single designer brand has a store there, and there are even stores like L’Occitane, The Body Shop, an Apple Store and Pylones. And the best part: There is a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf!!! Yes, the same one from LA! They don’t even have one in New York, but they have one in Delhi! I cannot tell you how tickled I was about this.
The movie theaters are also huge – I have never been to a theater this big in the US. There are assigned seats, and the seats recline when you sit down. Indians take their movies very seriously. There is a security checkpoint to get into the movie, and they made me take the battery out of my digital camera and check it at the front of the theater. Also, for some reason they could not believe I only wanted to buy one ticket. They kept asking, “Only one? You only want one?” and looking at each other, completely confused.
So after all that, we saw Rise of Planet of the Apes, which I enjoyed. Obviously, Bollywood movies don’t have subtitles here, and I was kind of relieved to hear a few hours of English after haggling with rickshaw-wallas all day. But I’m sure it won’t be too long before I see a Bollywood movie here.
We also went to the food court. I wish I could remember some of the stalls, but I do remember there was a Subway Sandwiches with a Chicken Tikka Sub and an Aloo Tikki Sub (in addition to the typical american subs) and there was also a Persian restaurant called Zaitoon, which is my grandmother’s name. Again, it is a really trippy experience to see these words and names that were familiar to me in my home growing up, that are now names of stores and places and people I know here.
(Also, earlier in the week, I ate at a McDonald’s here, at which I ordered a McSpicy Paneer. Yes. I am not making this up. There is a picture of me eating it somewhere that I will find and post.)
We ultimately ate at Haldiram’s, which Indian people will know from the snacks they sell at Indian grocery stores all over the world. It’s kind of Indian fast food and was really fun to try.
The Lack of Pictures
I’m sure people are wondering where my pictures are. The answer is, I honestly haven’t taken many. There are so many times I want to take pictures, but I’ve always felt awkward pulling out my camera on a moving rickshaw or in public places. It pegs me as a foreigner, and for right now, I’m just trying to blend in as much as possible. But once I sort of get into the swing of things, there will definitely be more pictures. And hopefully videos, too.
I have been seeing so many interesting and strange things around Delhi that I kind of wish I could photograph – I’ll leave you with one: I passed by what looked like a small private park. It was completely empty except for about six huge cows, just grazing freely. When the rickshaw turned the corner, I saw the entrance to the park, which said, “Senior Citizen’s Recreation Center”. You tell me.