Last Wednesday I met my Buddhist friends to have dinner and watch a video. I was almost sure that they’d like to get Thai takeaway as usual but surprisingly, a couple of people suggested getting Indian from the restaurant across the road (Delhi’O’Delhi). I gotta warn you: this is not a proper restaurant review because a) I didn’t have my camera with me and b) I hijacked the topic to write about my memories of India before they fade out completely.
Two friends and I shared three mains, plus two servings of Zafrani Pilaf (basmati rice flavored with cumin & saffron) and one roti bread. The mains were Duck Karuval (twice cooked duck firstly saute with dry coconut and fresh ground pepper and finished in rich coconut sauce), Rogan Josh (lamb cubes cooked in aromatic sauce infused with saffron, black cumin seeds, black pepper, nutmeg powder and mace) and Subz Porial (seasonal fresh vegetables tossed with red onions, cumin, crushed black pepper and freshly grated coconut). The food was good (I’ve eaten there before and there are tastier dishes in the menu), but it’s not the best Indian restaurant in Sydney. Or the cheapest. But it’s alright and conveniently located for us. I liked the two first dishes, the meat was tender, both sauces were rich, tasty and not too hot. The rice was alright but I prefer Indian breads. I didn’t like the veggies. I mean, the veggies were ok (cooked green beans, peas, cauliflower) but I found that the grated coconut gave the dish a really weird taste.
We talked a bit about our experiences in India while eating, and that’s when I decided to write about my trip before it’s too late. Some years ago I was working in a software development company in Peru. We made mainly software for shipping companies and agencies, so some of us were sent overseas to our clients’ offices. The first trip was good, second trip good, third trip good. When my boss told me I had to go to India I thought “cool”, even when I had a brand new boyfriend (we had been together only for one month the day I departed).
The trip was long but I already had the experience from Hong Kong so it’s wasn’t bad at all. I even got to stay one night in Amsterdam, so I left my stuff in the hotel and took the train to the city centre to walk around and have some drinks. I flew KLM from Amsterdam to Delhi and I can’t complain at all, I got roti with the meal (can’t remember what it was), a couple of Heinekens and Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Things changed when the plane hit the ground. I was back in the Third World, and this part of it was dirtier and messier than mine.
The airport of Delhi looked like airports in small towns in my country. I looked around and found my taxi driver, who had a sign with my name. We got in the car and it took us at least 40 minutes to get out of the airport, due to a long queue of cars waiting to get in the road. The friendly driver started talking to me and I asked if he spoke English. He told me he was speaking English and I not only felt embarrassed but also very worried about how I would communicate during my stay (luckily, I got used to the accent fairly quickly).
The clients had booked a suite in the Intercontinental New Delhi, the only 5-star hotel I’ve been so far. The room was huge and fancy, and everyday I found complimentary bottled water and three apples on the coffee table. I even got a complimentary 20-minute massage.
The arrangement between the company I worked for and its clients was that they would pay for accommodation, transport to and from the office, plus a per diem amount for general expenses (US $25 or US $35, depending on the country). My company paid for some expenses (laundry, if memory serves) and I paid for everything else. So my strategy was always to save on food (buying in supermarkets or taking advantage of freebies, like the apples) and spend that money in tours and souvenirs.
I think I arrived on a Sunday, the next day I woke up, worked out in the gym (which was bigger and had better equipment than my gym back home), took a shower, had an amazing breakfast (international buffet with the most delicious vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavoured milks I have ever drank) and went to the office.
They had hired a taxi for me, so I didn’t have any problems getting there. On the way I remember the sky turned completely dark and it started to rain. Once in the office I was introduced to the staff I had to liaise with (accounting and IT people) and started working. At lunch time, food was brought in. I don’t remember what it was the first time but I remember we had Subway and Pizza Hut (or was it Domino’s?), and that all sandwiches and pizzas had super hot chilies in it. I also remember that one of the pizzas had corn as a topping and I found it really strange. There were two guys in the office whose sole responsibility was to ask people if they wanted tea or coffee, they also fed us sweet biscuits several times a day and samosas in the evening. Work days were long (which I totally hated because I’m an eight-hour-work-day person) and many, meaning that most of us worked on Saturdays and Sundays too. I got to the hotel that first day of work, ate one or two apples and went to bed.
Luckily, I had internet connection in the room so Alvaro and I stayed connected via Messenger. We even spent our first Valentine’s Day in a virtual date. This and working out in the gym was pretty much what I did in the few free hours I had. A Chilean guy (who worked for the company that owns the agency in Delhi) arrived a few days after me and we had a drink in a hotel’s bar one day.
In my second day of work I was told that they would pay for all my expenses, including food, and that I had to give my expenses money back. Of course I was upset (I had already changed all the money, so I would lose some dollars in changing it back, plus I wouldn’t have extra money for me), but the customer is always right. I let them feed me and drive me, and even when I wasn’t that hungry in the evening, I ordered room service a couple of times. I remember a big meal of delicious Himalayan trout with steamed spinach and mashed potatoes, followed by the biggest and most perfect crème brulée I have ever tasted.
A few days after I arrived, the office moved to a new location. The last day in the old place we went for lunch to a restaurant in a shopping centre nearby. They ordered dishes and bread to share, I remember it was good, but my stomach was already complaining about the spices overload. At the end of the meal, the waiter brought a small bowl with aniseeds. In Peru, we have them in teabags and drink it as an infusion. In India, they just chew them to aid digestion.
After moving to the new location, they told me they had booked another hotel for me, presumably closer to the office. They told me it was a 5-star hotel as well. The neighbourhood was not pretty. I didn’t think the rest of the city was pretty either, but it didn’t seem like a very safe suburb. The hotel was definitely not a 5-star one, if it could be allowed to have stars at all. Seriously. It looked cheap and filthy. Oh, and there was a guy from the office (he was from a different city and was in town for some days) trying to hit on me. He brought pistachios to my room, and then ordered food and beer. I tried to call my boss but there was no access to international calls from the hotel, so I called him from outside and asked him to please negotiate my return to the other hotel. I had taken photos just in case he didn’t believe how bad the place was. He spoke to the clients and the next day I was back with the rich and famous.
Each morning the taxi ride from the hotel to the office made me realise that there are countries with more chaotic traffic than mine.
I’ve mentioned I spent most mornings in the hotel’s gym. I really liked almost everything about it, except for the music. Yes, they played the usual gym tunes, but once in a while there was Latin American music coming out of the speakers and making my ears bleed. If I found Latin American food in the buffet I would be happy and proud, but listening to Elvis Crespo and Celia Cruz just made me miserable.
I’m convinced that nobody has the moral authority to make an affirmative statement about something without first-hand experience. For example, saying that Indians are IT geniuses. I’ve been there and I know for sure it isn’t true. I’m not a genius and I had to stay one day until midnight teaching the support guys how to do their job.
Once there I also understood why they don’t eat beef. How can anybody want to eat flesh from that poor dirty and ultra thin animals that wander around? Cows are sacred but are not treated as such. They’re just forsaken on the dusty streets. In the new office, they ordered more traditional food for me to sample. Typically, there were curries, sometimes rice and always bread. There was also raw onions, which they assured me helped with digestion. I followed their advice but the truth is that my stomach was more upset day after day. One day, we had a red curry with boiled eggs that I really liked. But shortly after lunch I had to run to the toilet and puke. Another day they brought in Southern food. It had loads of coconut and rice, at that time I still hated coconut but I had to eat some just to be polite and avoid starvation.
The tea guys, who also served lunch when it arrived, handed me cutlery for lunch. But the other guys just ate the Indian way: with their right hand, the same hand that had dirt underneath the fingernails and that they didn’t wash after lunch and before using their computer keyboards. Enough said.
I stayed there for 21 days and took only one Saturday and one Sunday off. It was alright because at the time I was paid extra hours, but it didn’t make sense to go that far and don’t see anything besides the hotel and the office. My first tour was to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. We went on a minibus, stopping at other impressive places to hear some history and take some photos.
We finally arrived to the Taj Mahal, there were lots of tourists, we all took our shoes off as soon as the marble starts and contemplated the beauty of the monument. I was told that is best to go at night, when you can see the light though the translucent marble, but I didn’t have a full weekend to spend there.
Then we went to the Agra fort, another stunning building.
We stopped for lunch at the Sheraton Hotel, I don’t remember if it was before or after the Taj, and I certainly don’t remember what was in the buffet.
The next day I hired a city tour. It was only me and the guide, he took me to interesting places within the city and explained me a bit about the country’s history, focusing in the religious conflicts.
We visited the usual landmarks, including a Hindu temple where I was shocked by the fact that people don’t steal all the gold that is in the statues and altars just because of their belief in (or fear of) karma. Most of Latin Americans are Catholics, so they just steal stuff and go to church the next Sunday to confess.
Next to the Hindu temple there was a (much smaller) Buddhist temple where I took some pics for Alvaro.
We also went to the Lotus Temple and spent some time inside.
I was hoping to buy souvenirs but the market was closed. I had lunch during the tour. The guide dropped me off in a restaurant and waited for me in the car. I asked the waiter for a recommendation and he suggested me to try the butter chicken. I really liked and it’s still one of my favourite Indian dishes. Before finishing the tour, I had a ride in a “bike taxi” through the narrow and chaotic streets of Delhi.
When I arrived to the hotel I had a message. A guy from the office had called me in the morning to check if I could go to work. I didn’t feel guilty at all.
I still had some time left that day so I hailed one of those motorbike taxis (we call them mototaxis in Peru) and headed to the closest shopping centre. Once there I learned that it’s not very pleasant for your nostrils to be in a enclosed space where many people congregate. I didn’t buy anything and got back to the hotel. I realised that was my last chance to buy souvenirs so I spent a few hundred dollars in the shops within the hotel. I bought two silver rings and a bracelet for me, a wooden Buddha for Alvaro, another one for Alfonso, and an elephant for my mum (she collects them).
I spent one more week there, working long hours and hoping not to get stomach ulcers or something like that. It was an interesting trip after all but I would definitely enjoyed more if I hadn’t worked that hard or at least if I had been Buddhist at that time. Even when I had to wait four years to be brave enough to try Indian food again.
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