Off Season Tourist - India Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta
Two weeks in India, 2003 Notes from the Off Season Tourist
Drivers, Guides and ancient temples
Day two: Shopping, a new drink and the Qutab Minar

Julie at the Qutab Minar
Julie at the Qtab Minar
Now that we have a driver, our original itinerary has changed and we have no concerns about getting around Delhi. This may not be as adventurous as the visitors who negotiate prices for rickshaws or work out the bus system but at least we know that, when we need to get somewhere it will be done swiftly. There is also the added benefit that with a driver and an unofficial guide, we will be taken to places that we might not normally find.

Lunch for instance. We have been shopping for clothes for a few hours in the Cottage Industries Emporium and have just paid to have clothes made for us, clothes that we think are high quality, but will fall apart within less than a week. Upon our return to Delhi we will learn the art of negotiating a full refund. But that's a later story... For now, we ask the salesman for a recommendation for lunch and our driver knows it well. We are instantly off in our tiny car, rolling through unpaved roads with a look of a permanent construction site, onto larger carriageways that have two lanes on either side of a grassy median. A sudden turn off takes us into a sheltered mall of 12 shops with a covered walkway for protection from sun and rain; it even has its own parking lot. Although we see the restaurant recommended by the salesman, our guide ushers us into another on the corner, telling us that this one is better; he and the driver go off to the one whose name we were originally given. This is the beginning of our observations of the difference between what we want to do/see and what the guide & driver think we want to do/see. They think we want fancy restaurants with forks, napkins and Coca-Cola. What we want is good, cheap, local food. At this point we didn't know Raju and Sanju well enough to argue with them, so we went to the "better" restaurant.

It is here that we are introduced to a fabulous Indian drink; one that can be ordered throughout the country. It's called Fresh Lime Soda sweetened with sugar water or served salty (or sweet and salty if you so desire). One third of the glass is filled with freshly squeezed lime juice and then soda water is poured over the top. The salt or sugar is added before the soda is poured. The salt helps replenish some of the minerals we are losing from our prolific sweating, but Julie likes it because it tastes like a margarita without the tequila! We also try another drink that will never again be ordered. It's called Jal Jeera, and would be better served in a mug so that we cannot see the colour of a green sludge topped with little yellow balls of some kind of carbohydrate. We can taste cumin, lemon juice, and garlic. All good when used to flavor hummous, but not something that our tastebuds are used to encountering in a drink.

The flavour, while not exactly vile has a tainted quality to it; only after drinking half of the glass does it register that the water may have been poured from a tap - less than 48 hours in the country and the one rule about not drinking tap water may have been violated ... when our driver comes to collect us he confirms that mineral water was used to make the drink, but this confirmation does not encourage us to pour the rest of the sludge down our throats.

As we walk from the restaurant towards the car a snake charmer spots us. We give him and his cobra a wide berth as he scrambles to start his flute and open his snake basket; the cobra rises slightly and then does a great job of trying to get quickly away from the wicker basket. The snake charmer uses his flute to hook around the snake's body and drags it back to the basket. Realising that we are unimpressed by this spectacle he removes his precariously perched turban while our guide reassures us that the city requires all such snakes to be defanged.

Marcus at a HUGE doorway on the site of the Qutab Minar
Marcus at a HUGE doorway on the site of the Qutab Minar
It is time for sight seeing and Raju suggests the Qutab Minar since it is relatively close to the restaurant. We have no idea what to expect since this will be our first foray into an Indian tourist spot. As Sanju pulls into the parking lot, Raju turns to us and makes the statement that we should not talk to anyone but him; we follow him diligently to the ticket counter where he not only does all the talking, but then passes money from us to the ticket counter. Our only purpose for being close to the transaction is to provide the money. There are groups of people selling postcards and nondescript items that look like trinkets you can buy in the U.S. due to India's large Export business. The hawkers are relentless...Remember, it's OS - Off Season - and tourists are few and far between. As they flock towards us, with calls for us to promise to remember them when we come out, Raju keeps them back and we leave them all behind by walking though the huge sandstone doorway into the grounds of Qutab Minar. Instantly we are struck by the quiet. The sounds of people on the street trying to attract our attention are no longer surrounding us and there is open space with grass instead of the closely contained streets covered in sand. We can walk quietly together, but not holding hands; of all the cultural adjustments we've made in India, for us, the need to refrain from showing public affection for each other is the hardest of all.

Another view of Qutab Minar
Another view of Qutab Minar
The first thing that struck us was that we were the only western travelers in the entire complex and that many of the other visitors walking around the complex were outright staring at us. Over the next three months, we would have to adjust to being stared at - not in a bad or threatening way - simply out of curiosity. Minar is the Hindi word for "tower" and the Qutab Minar has an impressive height of detailed engravings that rises high above the ruins. The sheer size of the minar and the doorways of its surrounding buildings are impressive; humans are tiny in comparison to these massive edifices that are adorned with Sanskrit. Fortunately every major tourist site has a massive stone or marble block that has the history of the site carved into it. However, at times it is hard to know which history is correct. The guidebooks may have different versions from these tablets and our guide and driver also have different histories to tell. Even the government-registered guides that are paid to tell about a place may simply tell interesting stories that can be recounted to friends when we get home, but which may be entirely fabricated. The one thing about the Qutab Minar that they all agree on is that it was built by Qutb-al-din-Aibak, the Turk commander who ascended to the throne of Delhi in 1206. However, he died before construction could be completed. His successor, Iltutmish, completed the construction.

Details of new and old columns
Details of new and old columns
Many of the tourist sites, such as Purana Quila or the Humayan tomb are all undergoing renovation. What the visitor sees are not the actual buildings as they have become over the years, but rather a recreation of how they would originally have looked. As we made our way towards the gate a call came from behind us asking where we were from; since this was not the voice of someone selling anything we turned to see a man with his son. He, like so many people we would meet, was simply interested to know from where the only two western tourists had traveled. Happy with the answer he turned away with a traditional namaste, the first namaste given to us on our trip.

As we left the site Sanju was quick to spot us and served as an instant intermediary in our purchase of some postcards of Delhi for less than a dollar. These postcards were printed in 1964 in a badly offset printer. The booklet of cards had obviously been stepped on once or twice by tourists who had them forced into their hand and could think of nothing more as a response than dropping the cards and walking away. Again, we bought them because Raju and Sanju thought we wanted them and we weren't sure how to say no. We would eventually learn this lesson, and get quite proficient at saying no.

The day was coming to a close for sight seeing and we decided that this was the time to buy a rug; the one luxury item we would buy in India. The fabulous three-hour experience in a rug shop requires its own section in the OST ramble on rug buying, so please check it out.

The sky was getting darker as we left the happy rug salesman and Raju suggested a trip to a temple where he exhibited his preferred way of dealing with queues, by pretending they do not even exist. As we were walking down the street Marcus had to maneuver around a swiftly moving cyclist and in doing so stood on Raju's heel, tearing the entire sole away from the leather boot that appeared to not have left Raju's feet since the day he started earning a living. Walking in such a way as to minimise the discomfort we were fortunate that one of the many shoe wallahs was so close by. Within a few minutes the wallah had mashed about six nails through Sanju's sole using a metal tool that was more like a pestle than a hammer. This was obviously a process that Raju had repeated with this pair of shoes over the years and he knew the value of the work. Refusing the asked-for 10 rupees, Raju haggled the wallah down to 5 for the few minutes of work and we were on our way to the temple.

As non-Hindus (which is a nice way of saying tourists) we were instantly ushered into a locked side room where we were told we would have to leave any cameras behind. Lying that we had no camera with us, we opened our bags but not our pockets to make our case more believable. We have no problem refraining from taking photographs in a holy site, but find it hard to trust that our camera would still be in the unlocked wooden cupboard inset to the wall of the non-Hindu side room.

The one striking element of the tour was the prolific swastika use. Although we have known that the Swastika is the Hindu symbol for peace we have only ever seen it on all things Nazi or on TV shows about ancient Eastern temples. This was a modern everyday use of the swastika and it felt awkward to know that the Western reaction to the sign was not only inappropriate, but also simply non-existent here. Raju's tour of the temple can be found in more detail in the ramble section of the Off Season Traveler.

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