Sunday, August 2, 2020

Farewell Delhi!

After 3 years in New Delhi, India, it's time to reflect on my time here and look back at the expectations I wrote in my first Delhi-cate News post to see how many of them came true.

David & Erica enjoying Diwali celebrations

Expectation #1:  I will experience some ill effects from Delhi's horrendous air pollution, but hopefully won't get too sick.

Reality:  I'll admit that the pollution was one of my top concerns before arriving.  I had never lived anywhere known for bad pollution and had no idea what to expect.  Also, air pollution is one of those things that affects individuals differently.  Luckily, my expectation was spot on!  On the worst days, I could see the pollution as "fog" in the air, with visibility reduced to less than 50 meters/yards. Sometimes it would even smell like smoke.  Physically, I never got more sick than a mild sore throat or a dry cough.  I learned to monitor the pollution levels during the "bad" months of October-January and adjust my outdoor exercise plans or activities if pollution was high.  Because in my first year, I didn't pay enough attention to the pollution levels, and definitely noticed a decrease in my cardiovascular endurance and increase in coughing when I spent time outside on bad pollution days.

Expectation #2:  My stomach of steel will allow me to enjoy lots of wonderful Indian food while my spice tolerance increases and I avoid severe cases of Delhi Belly.

Reality:  Another accurate expectation!  As reported in my recent post about Indian food, I sampled lots of new food and identified some new favorites.  While a native Indian will never believe that a foreigner has adequate spice tolerance, I never shied away from spicy food and managed most of it without too many tears or coughing fits.  I was also spared from Delhi Belly, even after eating lots of salads and occasional street food.  Sure, I had occasional queasy-stomach days where I limited my intake to water and plain rice, but I never had to stay home or take medicine to ease my stomach. 

Chilies, chutneys & pickles at the Leela Hotel Gurgaon buffet

Expectation #3:  I will visit the Taj Mahal at least 4 times.

Reality:  FALSE!  I am probably one of the few Delhi expats who got away with once and done at the Taj!  Don't get me wrong.  The Taj is beautiful, I enjoyed my visit immensely, and am grateful I had the opportunity to see one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.  But it's a 3-hour drive from Delhi, the best time to see it is in the early morning, and a leisurely visit only lasts 2 hours.  So, the logistics of the trip make it unappealing to repeat, so once in 3 years was sufficient for me!  

Erica at the Taj with Tariq, April, and Jodi

Expectation #4:  Adjusting to the massive amounts of people in Delhi will require some time.

Reality:  The multitude of people in Delhi is a continual adjustment for me.  It's almost impossible to go anywhere outside of my house or my office and experience the tranquility of solitude.  Early morning is the exception, since Delhi doesn't really wake up until 9-10 am.  Otherwise Delhi is a constant hive of people and activity.  As long as I reminded myself of that regularly, and practiced patience in crowded, chaotic situations, I managed and sometimes even enjoyed the masses.

Ready, Set, Go ... everyone, all at once, from all directions!

Expectation #5: I will buy at least 3 saris.

Reality:  Exactly correct!  I am now the owner of 3 saris.  Every purchase was for a performance with the Capital City Minstrels choir.  The first time I ever wore a sari, an Indian woman came up to me and said "You carry the sari so well."  I thanked her but had no idea what she meant.  Someone kindly enlightened me later that means that I wore and walked in the sari easily, without looking like I was about to trip over the cloth or my own feet.  No small feat!  I will admit, though, that I have not emerged as a lover of sari-wearing.  I find them bulky and awkward, even though I managed to wear them gracefully. 

Jasmita and Erica carrying our saris in style!

Expectation #6:  Delhi has an actual winter season, so I will still make use of my winter clothes.

Reality:  Winter in Delhi meant temperatures as low as 10C/50F, which is not warm, but is considered springtime in my native Pennsylvania.  It was nice to have those few months to wear jeans, boots, and a spring jacket.  But my winter clothes really came in handy when I visited Leh in northern India. I don't remember the numeric temperatures.  All I know is that it was COLD!  I wore long-johns, wool sweaters, and a heavy winter coat throughout my visit.  My only failing was that I should have brought my ski gloves to keep my fingers warm.    

Enjoying some snow flurries in Leh

Expectation #7:  While I expect to feel compassion in the face of India's poverty, I don't expect to feel overwhelmed or despondent.

Reality:  Despite India's rise on the world economy, many Indians still live in poverty.  It's not uncommon to see beggars, often children, at road intersections approaching car windows for handouts.  It is a sad reality of life in Delhi.  It is uplifting to hear of the many organizations and individuals doing what they can to offer assistance and solace.  In the Sikh religion, their temples have a community kitchen where anyone can volunteer to work and anyone can come eat for free.  It is an amazing display of daily kindness, service, hospitality, and community.
Community kitchen at Delhi's Gurudwara Bangla Sahib

Expectation #8:  There are so many activities in Delhi, I couldn't possibly get bored!

Reality:  My personal calendar has never been as wonderfully packed as it's been here in Delhi.  I continued some of my existing activities - choir, Ultimate frisbee, regular exercise.  I also added some new ones - darts, obstacle course races, and Bollywood dancing.  On top of that, I traveled around India, attended an amazing variety of social events, and checked out many of Delhi's prime bars, clubs, and restaurants.  By my side through most of this were my circle of close friends, my Delhi family.  On top of busy work demands, we somehow made time for all of the above as well as celebrating and grieving through birthdays, death, birth, divorce, and life's ups and downs.

La Familia: Troy, Yanira, Karime, David, Maribel, Erica, Dorian
MIA: Will and Abe

Expectation #9:  While I'm excited to visit Hindu temples, after 3 years, I will have had my fill of them.

Reality:  I've certainly seen enough Hindu temples to satisfy my curiosity.  My absolute favorite was Swaminarayan Akshardham.  This place is the Disneyland of Hindu temples.  There's a huge temple with intricate carvings throughout.  There's a movie about the namesake guru.  There's a series of animatronic displays on Hindu culture.  There's a boat ride through Indian history.  And the finale is a sunset sound-light-water show about the struggle of good vs. evil.  You can experience it all in a 3-hour visit 45 minutes from New Delhi!

Souvenir photo from my visit to Swaminarayan Akshardham

Expectation #10:  I hope to develop friendships outside the expat community.

Reality:  My time in Delhi has been greatly enriched by the many friends I made among diplomats, expats, and Indians - at work, at choir, playing sports, over drinks, or through other friends.  My experience here has really been about the personal connections I've made in Delhi - some fleeting, some likely to fade once I leave, and others hopefully to persevere into the next phase of my life.  Thank you Delhi and Delhiites (native, transplants, and temporary) for an unforgettable adventure!

International Women's Day cocktails

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Holy Cow!

Most of us have heard that cows roam freely in India.  As an outsider, this was hard to picture.  How could there be livestock milling about throughout the country?!  Turns out the answer is: very easily.

Cows are a constant feature on the busy street just one block from my house.  Often they are chilling in the median, as pictured above.  Sometimes they are ambling along next to the cars.  There is almost always a small herd gathered at the main intersection into my neighborhood, kind of like a group of teenage boys standing outside the corner store.  Occasionally, cows are sitting right in the road.  I chuckle when some drivers honk their horns, as if the cows know that means to move out of the way, but most cars simply move quietly around them.

There is a particular route between the embassy and my house that we call Cow Alley.  It involves wending through narrow roads and maneuvering tight turns around people, vendors, other vehicles, and cows.  It's an amazing introduction to the bustle of Delhi for a new arrival.  I tried to get a picture of it, but my attempts always resulted in a blurred kaleidoscope of color outside the passenger window.  Instead, while walking in the vicinity of Cow Alley one day, I got the above pic of a Welcome Mat Cow!  

I regularly see cows in my neighborhood market.  In the above picture, a white cow was standing still in the middle of the parking area, with the customers and neon lights of the market around her.  I wondered if she was asleep because she remained perfectly still the whole time.    

Dumpsters are another common haunt of cows.  We all gotta eat.  And even though Hindus believe cows are sacred, most of the cows on Delhi's streets are essentially strays who survive on scraps.  

Cows are not limited to Delhi.  I've seen them in most of the cities I've visited, including in the cold, snowy, northern city of Leh in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Favorite Indian Foods...Besides Butter Chicken

I now know that, before arriving in India, my experience with Indian food was one-dimensional.  Like many Americans, I would say "Sure, let's go out for Indian!," eagerly chow down on butter chicken, naan, aloo gobi, and gulab jamun, and feel satisfied with my appreciation of Indian cuisine.

But India is a big country, like America is.  Its cuisine has a lot more variety than what's on the standard menu at most Indian restaurants in America.  Living in India for a few years has given me the opportunity to sample many other dishes and gain a better understanding of the wider range of Indian food.  I've shared below some of my favorites that I'd never even heard of before arriving.

Enjoying jalebi at Holi

Probably my favorite Indian treat is jalebi.  The easiest way to describe jalebi is to say it's a bite-sized funnel cake covered in honey instead of powdered sugar.  The best part about jalebi is the size.  I often hesitate to buy funnel cake in America because it's an investment of an entire plate of fried dough and refined sugar.  But one jalebi is only the size of my palm.  So I can eat just one . . and another . . and another . . and it doesn't SEEM the same as eating an entire funnel cake.  Even though, let's face it, by the end of "just one more jalebi," it probably is!

Chole butura...and more jalebi!

Another dish I enjoy is chole butura.  Chole is chickpea curry and butura is dough, fried into a golden-brown puff ball.  The authentic way to eat this dish is to break open the butura and then use it as a scoop to gobble up the chole.  It's a popular breakfast food and street food snack.  The picture above is actually from a breakfast street food tour I took in Old Delhi - a fabulous experience with a ridiculous amount of food!  You'll also notice that I ate this chole butura with a side of jalebi!!

A beautiful dosa with a trio of dipping chutneys

Jumping to southern India, I discovered the dosa.  A dosa is essentially an Indian crepe.  The most common dosa is a masala dosa, which is filled with seasoned potatoes.  But dosas come in a wide variety of styles and ingredients.  There's actually a dosa restaurant walking distance from me, with a multi-page menu of different dosas to choose from.  Shout-out to my choir director Sharmila for taking me to the restaurant and helping me navigate the dosa menu.

Hmm, what's on the buffet today?

Finally, I must pay homage to the Indian buffet.  Now, I know some expats leave India and say they never want to eat at a buffet again.  Because buffets are EVERYWHERE...every hotel meal on every weekend trip, every diplomatic reception, every holiday gathering with Indian friends.  Honestly, I'm mildly thankful coronavirus has saved me from the battle against the buffet.  BUT the buffet has been a marvelous way for me to sample so many Indian dishes.  I know there is so much I didn't get a chance to taste, but I sure tried my level best!

Monday, May 25, 2020

Art in the Time of Corona

I've lived in the Defence Colony neighborhood of New Delhi for over 2 1/2 years.  But it was only last month that I discovered a hidden feature of my neighborhood.  

I was standing on the traffic circle - a key landmark of Defense Colony - waiting for a shuttle bus to go into the office.  Because I don't have a car and all public transportation was stopped due to the COVID lockdown, the shuttle bus was my only available mode of transport.  I suppose I could have tried walking the 4.5 miles, but most Delhi streets had barricades where I would have been stopped and questioned, whereas the shuttle had sanctioned permission to transport limited staff.

So, I was standing there waiting and noticed something in a nearby tree.  I walked closer and realized it was a cartoon face on the tree trunk!  I chuckled and took a photo.  Several weeks later, I was walking back from the shuttle bus and noticed a different tree with a different face!

With the lockdown eased as of May 18, I took a walk this weekend to check out this hidden-in-plain-sight public art in more detail.  Within the traffic circle is a lovely park with trees and grass and playground equipment.  And around the perimeter of the park are over a dozen of these trees with funny faces or animals perched within the branches.  

So much art and culture has been shut-down by COVID, but this is certainly a case of COVID revealing art to me!

Sunday, April 26, 2020

India on COVID Lockdown

Like everyone else around the world, I've become a home-body.  India instituted a nation-wide one-day curfew on March 22.  The following day, Delhi imposed a lockdown on the capital city through March 31.  Then the Government of India followed suit with a nation-wide lockdown through April 14, which is currently extended through May 3.  What does lockdown mean in India?  Officially, it means that only establishments providing essential services are open and people should only leave their homes for procurement of said essential services.  Unofficially, here's what lockdown means for me:

Prepared with my very own PPE

On April 3, the CDC recommended that everyone wear face coverings in public.  My local grocery also put up a sign saying that face masks were required for entry.  So I set about making a DIY face mask.  I took some fabric remnants I had from various Indian outfits and made my own colorful and stylish face mask.  Sadly, it doesn't meet CDC guidelines.  So while it was a fun prop for the above prepper photo op, I wear a boring Vogmask anytime I leave the house, and leave the rubber gloves and bleach spray under the kitchen sink.

Cajun-style red beans

With more time at home and no more eating out, I've been experimenting with cooking new recipes. Specifically I bought a lot of dried beans before the lockdown commenced and have been trying to figure out what to do with them.  I had NEVER cooked with dried beans before because it was always easy enough to get the canned ones in U.S. grocery stores.  I had wonderful success making falafel from chick peas thanks to a recipe from my "Aunt" Su.  I was also quite pleased with the results of the above vegetarian red beans.  True Southerners may howl at the lack of meat, but andouille sausage isn't an "essential" in most Indian markets, so I made do with easily-procured ingredients.

Cow eating outside the local burger joint

If you've never been to India, it's hard to comprehend how busy it is.  Busy with people, noises, smells, and perpetual activity.  Now, on lockdown, we have to adjust to the stillness.  Not hearing the constant honking of passing cars.  Not seeing streets packed with cars, bicycles, rickshaws, and pedestrians.  Not wading through crowds at the market.  The market near me had 35 eateries.  Now only 8 are open.  The market is eerily empty, with most businesses shuttered.  Including the above burger restaurant, where I passed a cow eating on the front stoop.  Don't worry, the restaurant doesn't serve beef, so there are no mad cow worries, but it was still ironic nonetheless!

On top of the cows, I now have monkeys in my neighborhood.  I first saw them in February and also had them visit my balcony in March.  We stared each other through what felt like a very thin pane of window glass.  I didn't see them for a while and thought maybe they had moved elsewhere.  But the monkeys showed up again this month.  I had a great view of them climbing around on my neighbors' roofs across the street.  Of course, the neighbors weren't as enthused and armed themselves with sticks to try to scare the monkeys away.  Haven't seen any monkeys now for a few days, but I expect them to pop up again.

In addition to the monkeys, I'm learning other things about my neighborhood.  The middle-aged man across the street likes to come out on his balcony without a shirt on and air out his hairy upper body. A group of young girls, probably sisters, comes out every day around 5pm to play badminton on their roof.  And the garbage truck announces its arrival each morning with an annoyingly loud, repetitive song.  I've learned to jump out of my desk chair at the first strains so that I can grab my trash bag from the kitchen and get down the three flights of stairs before it drives off down the street!

When the lockdown lifts, I'll miss the badminton, and the beans, and the stillness.  But I'll be glad to bid farewell to masks, pesky monkeys, and hairy backs!

Sunday, March 15, 2020


Like many an average American, I was completely ignorant of Holi before arriving in India.  One could explain it simply as a North Indian festival of spring.  But I'll provide a bit more background.

Holi 2018: Erica and Clover covered in colors!

Holi is also considered a triumph of good over evil.  Hindu legend says that a prince worshipped the god Vishnu, in defiance of his arrogant father who demanded that everyone worship him as a god. Tired of the prince's defiance of his father, his aunt tricked him into sitting in a bonfire with her.  (I have no idea how she managed to persuade him to do that!)  She was wearing a fire-resistant cape, which the god Vishnu pulled from her and put over the prince as the fire burned.  The evil aunt died and the good prince lived.  Many Holi celebrations now begin with a bonfire.

Holi 2018: A cloud of color over the group Holi participants

Another legend says that the blue-skinned god Krishna worried that his crush Radha wouldn't love him.  Krishna's mother suggested he go to Radha and put any color on her face that she desired. Radha agreed (really??) and fell in love with Krishna.  Now Holi is celebrated with people smearing colored powder on each other.

Holi 2019: Erica, Jodi, and April before the colors

Holi 2019: Erica, April and Jodi after the colors

I've celebrated Holi each year I've been in India.  In 2018, I went on a group trip to the nearby Neemrana Fort for an overnight of colors, food, and relaxation.

Holi 2019: Jodi and Erica drenched in colors!

In 2019, I was lucky to celebrate Holi with two friends visiting me from Baku!  We were initially very worried about the staying power of the color on our hair and finger nails, but luckily it eventually faded away.

Holi 2020: All clean before the colors

Holi 2020: No longer clean after the colors

In 2020, I wasn't able to get out of town for Holi.  But those of us who hung around Delhi had our own celebration with colored powders and colored water.  It seemed warm out but man, that water was chilly!

Holi 2020: Jeff and Erica loving Holi!

A cultural aspect of Holi is that it's a festival of renewal, of forgiveness, of new beginnings.  But despite these religious and spiritual foundations, I think Holi is really just an opportunity for adults to act like kids for a day - to get dirty, to get others dirty, to spray each other with water guns, to muss up someone's hair with bright pink powder, and to have fun with it all.  Happy Holi!

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Wild East of Nagaland

I was delighted to receive an invitation to attend the wedding of two lovely people I play sports with in Delhi - Peter and Zhovi.  An added adventure to the wedding was that it would take place in Zhovi's hometown of Kohima in the state of Nagaland, described in Lonely Planet as "the uncontested wild east of India."  Not sure what that would mean, but eager to support Peter and Zhovi, I confirmed my attendance and booked my flights.

The hills and houses of Kohima

The journey to Kohima quickly answered some of my questions.  After a 4-hour plane ride, we settled in for a 2-hour car ride.  I had been warned that the journey induced car sickness, so my stomach was nervous about what was ahead.  We quickly learned that pretty much the entire road to Kohima was under construction, unpaved, with two-way traffic fighting for space on what would be a one-lane road in the United States.  I'm happy to report my stomach contents stayed down, but the ride was still a jarring whole-body experience.

Arriving in Kohima, we encountered the steepest, narrowest, windiest roads I've ever seen, clogged with traffic.  We all felt that the drivers we had throughout the trip deserved medals for their ability to navigate manual-transmission sedans through mind-bogglingly narrow, steep, curvy, unpaved lanes. We occasionally got wide-eyed at the running starts needed to make it up steep portions or the centimeters of clearance with neighboring cars, but all vehicles and passengers emerged unscathed.

Road construction - mind the gaping trenches!

Reaching our lodging, we learned that there was no heat and very little hot water.  I know many of my American followers think that all of India is hot year-round.  But the temperatures that weekend in Kohima ranged from the high 40s at night to the low 60s during the day.  Not terribly cold by northern U.S. standards, but definitely chilly when you have no heat source.  One benefit of the cool weather was the lack of sweat, so I decided to forgo showering during the trip and wrapped myself in an extra blanket to stay warm through the night.

Zhovi and Peter at the Cathedral

Nagaland is majority Christian, which was quickly evident in the number of churches we saw all around us.  The bride and groom are also Christian, so the wedding did not mirror the Hindu festivities of Bollywood.  They had a simple one-hour ceremony with the hymns, readings, and exchanging of vows and rings typical of a Christian wedding.

Zhovi and Peter surrounded by Peter's family and friends

We then headed to the reception with speeches, cake-cutting, Indian buffet, and LOTS of photographs.  At Indian weddings, the bride and groom sit on a stage, for hours, as the guests come up to congratulate them and take photos.  Afterwards the friends of the bride and groom went to a relaxed afterparty with more food and karaoke.

Traditional building of the Angami tribe

On our final day in Kohima, we finally had time for sightseeing.  The prime sight in the Kohima region is a Heritage Village of replica buildings from Nagaland's various tribes.  In addition to admiring the variety and design of the buildings, we learned why the rest of India considers Nagaland the Wild East.  Nagaland's tribes (numbering over a dozen) have a history as fierce warriors who headhunted as a display of power.  Although this practice ended over 50 years ago, we saw bodiless heads depicted in some of the decorations, along with many symbols of war.

Erica at the Heritage Village

The next morning, we departed early for the bumpy journey back to the airport and reflected on our trip.  We were all pleased with the adventure we had experienced.  And I would recommend it to others who are willing to eschew luxury for a view days to enjoy the beautiful mountain vistas, interesting culture, and warm hospitality of Nagaland.