What a crazy day – arrived in the airport early, early, early this morning (3am) after having slept less than 2 hours in the previous 24. As we landed the flight attendant came on over the intercom and said, in a thick German accent, that we would be delayed by around 10 minutes because “all the immigrations officials’ computers have broken and there are roughly 600 people waiting in line”. The 20-something Indian man next to me grinned and said, “Welcome to India”, a phrase repeated throughout the day whenever our naive American promptness was undermined by electrical shortages (at one point 4 times in the same hour), lateness on anyone’s part, etc.
Welcome to India is right, as soon as I took a step off the plane into the main hall we saw a huge wall of Indian military, dressed in khaki and loaded up with AK-47’s, staring you down as you walked towards immigration. When I thought about it later, obviously our police have weapons too, they’re just slightly more hidden from view. It was just weirdly disconcerting to see them with such enormous weapons that I associate with a major war, not everyday life.
I finally met up with some people from my program, who, it turned out, had been on my flight all along and we went to the airport lobby to wait for 2 and a half hours for the other people in our program to show up from the group flight out of San Fran. Nearly everyone here speaks English, but the accents are pretty difficult to understand unless you can also read lips. However, everyone we met was extraordinarily nice – an Indian college student who we exchanged email addresses with who wanted to take us all out for coffee, as well as a super nice woman from Bombay who now lives in Chicago and was back in India for holiday. The friendliness and warmth was just SO appreciated in such new surroundings.
The rest of the day also went beautifully, we got back to the apartment (horrifically disgusting bathrooms that I will never post pictures of, for fear of scarring you for life, awful florescent lighting and grungy floors, but it’s super spacious and I really like the other 3 people who are living in it) after enduring an hour long ride down one of India’s huge highways. At first, I thought people had exaggerated about Indian driving and how terrifying it is. Then, our 50-passenger bus decided to pass another enormous bus at 60kph, virtually running a motorcyclist (who seemed totally unperturbed by the whole thing) off the 2-lane-until-you-decide-it’s-3 road. We passed by everything – slums, enormous apartment buildings, temples, gardens and my personal favorite, trucks with so much hay strapped to them that they were 15 ft tall and 3 times the width of the truck bed itself, and looked, from behind, like elephant-like Dr. Seuss characters. All the while, in the front of the bus, there was a print of Jesus, the frame strung with rosary beads and made of neon lights that blinked like a pinball machine. Somehow, I did not find it consoling.
Later we met up with Jacob, USAC’s program director, and his assistant and a few Indian buddies whose names unfortunately slipped my mind as soon as I heard them. They took us to get our photos taken for our residency permits and then we all went to a mall for lunch – a meal that, even with 3 separate orders, cost only the equivalent of $2. Somehow, I made a mistake ordering black tea and ended up eating a strange dessert consisting of a fruit sauce, almond slivers, chunks of mango ice cream and…noodles.
I am thrilled to find out that when Indians sell coffee or tea, they sell it “plain”, exactly the way I like it – decked out with tons of milk and sugar. AND IT’S SO CHEAP. Under $1 for a “plain” and $1.50 for espresso/mocha/frappe style drinks.
For dinner, our “buddies” took us to a crazy Punjabi restaurant that I certainly will not be able to describe accurately – but just for a mental picture: concrete floors, menus printed on silk and stretched taut in cross-stitch hoops, long tables decked out with bright cloth, palm leaf ceilings, holes in the concrete walls for tastefully placed (outrageously hipster?) bare lightbulbs and Bollywood memorabilia everywhere. So delicious though and quite the experience.