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Indian Souvenirs in Delhi…with as little hassle as possible.

2 Oct

A legacy post, which I found in my draftbox, and duly finished up:

Delhi can be an intimidating city for a newcomer.  Its rickety apartments offer little shelter from the elements (suffocating heat or jacket-penetrating cold…there are only 3 weeks of good weather per year). The stench of humans, waste, or burning leaves mixes with the noise pollution of millions of cars gridlocked on the road and honking.  The expat becomes used to these things, but there is one thing which never goes away and is always annoying:  the haggling.

Oh, the brazenness of rickshaw drivers and merchants!   I was once told candidly that my English constituted a 10 rupee surcharge, despite having a meter inside the rickshaw.  During a shopping trip for mosquito nets, armed with the knowledge of mosquito net prices, I told vendors, in Hindi, that I lived in Delhi and had friends who had bought from them at the fair price.  I was still quoted the normal 200% markup.  My Indian friends had to argue with the shopkeepers, yelling, for 30 minutes for me to obtain the fair price.

Unless you’re a superhuman, superawesome bargainer, it is almost impossible to obtain a local price.  It is often impossible for locals to obtain a local price.  Sometimes bargaining takes knowing key words, such as “junk jewelry”–which signifies that you’re not looking for real silver/expensive stuff, but normal jewelry.  My advice would be to avoid bargaining, save your efforts, and shop at fixed price places (because it is difficult to bargain for much less than what you’ll get at a fixed price shop.  You may have knocked 70% off the original offer, but that is still 30% above fair price.)

Here’re my favourite places to shop + things to buy:


  • Tribes India:   Best shopping experience in India, bar none.  There are quite a few scattered across India. Government-owned, this shop offers fixed, fair prices (much better than FabIndia, another great, though pricey store).  Best of all, your purchase is supporting the various craftsman and tribes of India.  Great selection including scarves, sculptures, stationary, jewelry, organic products, bags and even more products out of the normal touristy fare.  For example, I bought some lovely wild silk ties (made from wild silk worms) for $4 each, an awesome metal-cast pig for 50 cents, neem soap, handmade recycled paper, and a tapestry.  Wonderful staff. At the end of purchase, you’re given a 10% discount card for the next purchase and all of my items were gift-wrapped, complementary service.
  • Tatsat (Hauz Khas market): One of the few fair-trade places I can find in Delhi.  Boasts jewelry, elephant and camel poo paper, bags, paper-mache Kashmiri boxes (the cheapest I’ve seen anywhere), clothes, etc.  Cutely, your purchase is bundled in shopping bag made of recycled newspaper.
  • Lajpat Nagar market:  One of the best markets to shop at for kurthas, clothes, those sparkly shoes, scarves, and everything which a normal Indian would buy.
  • Surreal (Vasant Kunj DLF Promenade mall, bottom floor, right of Zara on first floor):  You’ll notice that foreign brands in India are super-expensive, even more so than in the U.S.  This is because of recently raised import duties.  A local brand, Surreal offers stylish Western clothes, with a touch of Indian craftsmanship and instinct for patterns.  It’s mostly geared for men, with a diverse button-down collection featuring divine textures, but the small women’s section is nothing short of amazing.
  • Van Heusen:  It can be hard to find stylish clothes without plunging necklines in the States.  A conservative country, India solves this problem for you and even makes the Chinese collar look sexy, placing it on flirty blouses.  Although its business clothes are nothing to write home about, Van Heusen’s party line is absolutely fantastic.
  • Da Milano: Don’t let the name fool you.  Though it sounds like an Italian knockoff, this locally made Indian brand of bagwear (they claim that they learned the trade in Italy) is the real deal.
  • Kurthas/Saris/Cotton pants/Custom tailored dresses: You’ll need the sari for the inevitable Indian wedding.  The cotton pants are the most comfortable item in the heat (and Rs.80!).  If you can find a good tailor, they can make a satin cocktail dress for pennies.
  • Scarves/Stoles: Look for exotic weaves, such as angora (super-warm and light).
  • Kashmiri trick boxes and paper mache boxes: Believe it or not, there is a season for souvenirs, esp. those from Kashmir.  These lovable wooden boxes with a trap latch are available from Jan-May.  The paper-mache boxes are available all year long.
  • Art: I deeply regret not purchasing any art from India.  What can I hang on my walls?  There’s some nice watercolors and blue ink drawings at Dilli Haat, tourist trap.

How to Survive Food Poisoning

9 May

The best tactic would be to avoid food-poisoning, but this is not possible in India.  You can get food-poisoned in expensive restaurants and be perfectly safe on the streets.  After eating street chaat for months, I finally succumbed to a bowl of Tom Yum at the Tasty Tangles restaurant in DLF Mall and a bowl of miso ramen soup at the restaurant in the Metropolitan hotel.  (Don’t eat east asian soup in India!  It’s never fresh.)  Those experiences were worse than the time that I ate 3-wk old chicken soup.

The effects of diarrhea will not be immediate.   The next day will be deceivingly good.  But if in the off-chance that you know you have gotten food-poisoned, take activated charcoal tablets.  These things absorb anything you’ve eaten recently out of your system.  If you can’t find activated charcoal tablets at the store, then you can make some by burning toast and scraping off that black gold.

The first sign of things gone wrong will be fever and pain that will have you in a fetal position.  Sleep through this.  In fact, treat this condition like the flu: sleep and drink liquids as much as you can.  Then you can start yourself on the BRAT diet.  Bananas, Rice, Applesauce and Toast.  Also eat yogurt.  I scoffed in everybody’s face when they suggested the yogurt, because you’re not supposed to consume dairy products, but somehow this is the lone exception.  Yogurt is okay.  And even good, because it contains the probiotics.  Drink Gatorade for the electrolytes.  But do not make the mistake I did and fast.  For a couple of days, I drank only Gatorade and ate glucose biscuits because I felt too sick to eat.  This created worse-looking bile (green liquid!) and introduced acid reflux to my ear, resulting in a weird ear sore.  Not quite an infection, but it felt like one.  After putting everything under the sun into my ear to make it go away, I finally realized that it was part of a stuffed up sinus and would go away naturally when the sinuses did.

Getting food-poisoned in India is worse, because there are no bland foods to eat.  Everything, include the salad, is drenched in masala spice.  The rice is even oiled up.  I think this is why it took me so long to recover and why I lost so much weight.  There will not be a day when your stool is suddenly normal.  For me, I didn’t have to poo for a couple of days and was quite worried about what was going on inside my stomach and if I would suddenly explode when the time came.  You will have to make the decision that you are well and then start living life.  Stay strong!  And don’t take Immodium!  Cipro is a nuclear bomb for your stomach and should be avoided unless you have chronic diarrhea.

Guide of Foods Okay to Eat (Not Scientific at all!)

  • chicken (preferably without skin, but don’t sweat a broiled chicken.  Lightly fried is okay too, but try to avoid it.)
  • any kind of soup
  • pasta, without sauce
  • rice cooked in water
  • boiled eggs
  • I’ve heard that you’re supposed to avoid raw fruit.  (But bananas are apparently okay.  There’s exceptions to everything!)

My near-rape experience in Delhi

21 Apr

The statistics caught up to me.  I suppose, after writing and talking offhandly about the higher chances of being raped in Delhi—warning others, but not taking the warning seriously myself–it was karma.  But the irony of my near-rape experience was how ordinary it was.  The setting was normal, the man involved quite amateur and non-malicious.  Perhaps he didn’t even intend rape.  I was both lucky and unlucky.

Here is the incident:  At sunset, I took an auto-rickshaw with an Indian male friend, who got out early to his destination. I then broke the driver-rider silence to direct the rickshaw driver to a shortcut.  This is where trouble started.  He was confused about the shortcut.  He started speaking Hindi to me, more and more, though it was obvious that I didn’t understand, and I laughingly spoke back to him in English.  It got completely dark (7:45 p.m., well ahead of 8:30 curfew) and we came upon a lampless backroad illuminated only by passing cars that I described in an earlier blog entry.  Still speaking Hindi animatedly and laughing, he hesitated on the road and then got out to pee.  I called a friend at that point, potentially saving myself.  For the rest of the 1-km path, he went slowly, hesitating more and more, speaking Hindi loudly and then stopped completely in the road, a lonely road with dark office buildings on the side and bushes on the other.   He then tried undoing the rope that held the curtains up on the autorickshaw, ignoring my pleas to go straight, and asking me for help, which I confusingly tried to acquiesce with.  The rope wouldn’t come undone.  He wouldn’t drive the auto. I moved to leave the rickshaw.  He started the motor again but stopped two seconds later.  It was a strange game we were playing.  He was still grinning.  Then he reached his hand toward mine, grabbing my arm and my thighs.  At that point I jumped out (thank goodness for cheap, no-door rickshaws) and started running.  I ran the rest of way home.

This story happened to a friend of mine, though in daylight and under more polite circumstances.  The rickshaw driver asked for her hand.  I am sure both of our drivers were trying to push their luck, probably gropists but not serial-killer rapists.  He could’ve chased after me.  The incident wasn’t scarring and I still want to obliterate the hostel’s 8:30 curfew (that did nothing to prevent this incident!), though I now give some credence to not trusting rickshaw drivers at night.  The truth is that in Delhi, as in anywhere, you can be raped in daylight.

Update:  In an earlier post, Living in 3 Slums, I mentioned that I live in one of the most dangerous areas of Delhi, formerly known as Murder Kunj.  I suppose that nickname still holds true, as a few days ago, a 20-year old student was stabbed to death a few blocks from my dormitory.  It was probably a targeted killing, as the victim’s belongings were left untouched, but most troubling was the incompetency of the guard on duty and the lack of police patrol on the street, which contributes to Vasant Kunj being so dangerous.  In fact, the day before the murder, there was a shootout in Vasant Kunj between a criminal hailing from another district and police who were tailing him.  Vasant Kunj, being so isolated, is now the place for people to commit crimes and get away with it.

I wish that TERI University would follow Yale’s cue and offer dogs for rent.  Except I need one not to prevent depression, but to prevent rapes.

How Dangerous is Delhi?

29 Mar

For an instant yesterday, the most read article on New York Times online was one on Delhi’s rape situation and reputation as the most dangerous city in India for women, even more so than Mumbai, India’s largest and most dense, population-wise, city.  This article scared the daylights out of my Dutch-Afghani hostelmate who came to India recently and left me wondering again how this should affect my social life.  We had both read the brutal rape and murder cases lining the local newspapers every day.  Brutal, because the rape cases were usually gang-rapes and the details (this link is a bit old, but still representative of today) were too lurid to occur on a regular basis.  The majority of rapes in the United States are perpetrated by people who know the victim–a less random event.  Nevertheless, I considered the focus on rape & murder cases as part of the sensationalist journalism prevalent in Delhi, which also dedicate front-page headlines to Bollywood gossip and spend little time on actual news, such as the Libyan revolt.  (If you are in Delhi, the Times of India is the lone exception.)

To promote security, my dormitory (called hostel in Indian-English), like most in India, has strict rules.  You must be back before 8:30 p.m. and if you will stay out past then, then stay the entire night out.  The hostel doesn’t trust rickshaws or any form of transportation in the night.  Both the parents and the girls in my hostel, including my Dutch-Afghani hostelmate, appreciate these rules and “security” is the top reason they have chosen to live at the hostel.  My female classmates, who live with their parents outside the hostel, make sure to get home before sundown, cutting short any hang-out time.  Indian females generally prefer to travel with a male companion for safety, which explains why the compartment cars of the Metro are jam-packed with men, noses pressed against the windows, and the women-only cars are practically empty.  Only the wealthier can afford to stay out late, because they have drivers or own a car.

During the Indian festival of Holi, my hostel banned venturing outside in daylight.  Holi, the festival of color, is supposed to be Carnaval-like, a merry splattering of people in organic paint that takes months to scrub off your skin and takes never to be scrubbed off your clothes. But it can turn ugly in Delhi.  Sometimes, people throw rotten eggs & nasty waste instead of color; people drink; there are increased gropings.  My friend met a person headed to the Netherlands for an eye operation because she was hit by a sharp object during Holi.  It’s hard for me to judge how serious the damage can be on Holi.  The first list is typical of any public celebration.  The second one is a bit extreme, and also an isolated case.  My hostelmates, all of them, confirmed the wiseness of staying indoors during Holi, citing cases of how sometimes, people pretended to be drunk just so they can cause extra mischief.   There were no reports of murder or rape in the next day’s papers.*  I suspect that Holi is probably just as safe as Carnaval in Bolivia or Halloween in NYC:  do venture outside, but take some caution.

I also suspect that Indians take a little more caution than perhaps Westerners do.   Often, my classmates prefer to stay indoors or try to prevent me from venturing out at certain times and places, saying that it’s dangerous, but unable to qualify the danger.  (Often, I do it anyways, and everything is okay, as it should be.)  They seem to hear a few stories and structure their fear around those sometimes isolated events. I can understand. In a conservative society, preserving virginity is important.  My Dutch-Afghani friend, a Muslim self-described as “very Asian”, tells me she would rather be murdered than raped.  While my Spanish friend and I shrugged off quick gropes at crowded tourist sites (and temples!), she was furious for us, saying that she would yell at anybody who tried to touch us or her.  Girls at school don’t hesitate to call our administrator to report “ragging” (verbal harassment) by drunks they encounter while walking to school.

The commonness of groping, ragging and general harassment of women in Delhi speaks to the repression of Indian men in society.  Gender lines are severely drawn.  In classrooms, men and women sit on different sides.  No touching between men and women, which is quite ordinary in most societies, but strange given how touchy-feely Indians are (anybody seeing men hold hands here knows what I’m talking about.)  Most of the girls I know have never dated a boy, though they are given complete freedom by their parents, and choose an arranged marriage over a love marriage.  They are confused and curious on notions of love, but shy to experience it for themselves.  An Australian-educated Indian once said, laughing but serious, “Indian men are sleazy because they are repressed!”

One day, as I forgot and wore shorts in a Muslim district, I caught boys staring at my legs, not sleazily but in curiousity, and other older men took pictures, perhaps in a sleazy way.  My first reaction was to cover my legs, but then I thought defiantly, let them!  Perhaps by making it more common, women’s legs can be liberated, men can be less repressed, and ragging will decrease.

Living Next to 3 Slums

19 Mar

TERI University’s brochure boasts that TERI, where I live at the campus dorm, is located in one of Delhi’s most prestigious and posh districts: Vasant Kunj.  It is a fifteen minute walk from Dior and Armani shops at DLF Mall (a consortium of 3 malls) and the Grand Hotel, a five-star luxury hotel where Bollywood celebrities and Nelson Mandela’s grandson have stayed.  BMWs regularly pass by while dropping off students at the private Delhi Public School.  Monthly rental rates for a room range from Rs.12,000 – 25,000/mo, about 4x higher than rental rates in other large Indian cities such as Bangalore, Kolkata (Calcutta), and Chennai, and is comparable to Mumbai (Bombay.)

Vasant Kunj is also a land of juxtapositions. The fifteen-minute walk to the Grand Hotel is along a urine-soaked isolated road in disrepair with rickshaw drivers parked on the side for restroom stops.  The sidewalk is covered with an overgrowth of weeds and prickly bushes so that pedestrians (the brave ones) are forced to walk on the road with cars speeding by so close that the exhaust scorches your legs and the extended honking scorches your ears. The road becomes miraculously manicured within a few feet of the hotel.  Some BMWs drive home to darkly gray cemented apartments which resemble the cookie cutter ones of communist China.  There are no street lamps in the one-mile radius of TERI University.  In fact, Vasant Kunj used to be known as “Murder Kunj” for the high number of murders and rapes which have occured.  My dorm raised its curfew to 7:30 p.m. after a dead body was found in the vicinity last year.  Just recently have lights been installed on the highway the DLF Mall is located on, because two women were murdered, but not raped, on the road.

Along that road and nestled in Vasant Kunj are a number of slums.  This is unsurprising because in cities with high land values, many poor citizens have no choice but to illegally squat.  Eighty-million people, about 8% of India, live in slums.  In Delhi, 52% of the population lives in slums.  This number will likely increase steadily as the Indian government continues its plan to convert a larger percentage of its population to city-dwellers.  Delhi’s government walks a wobbily tightrope between not recognizing these illegal settlements and catering to their demands, as slum-dwellers are a large and important voting block.  It is hard to push them off the land.  During the Commonwealth games and Obama’s visit in late 2010, city officials, unable to evacuate the slums, simply covered the one next to the DLF mall in Vasant Kunj with a white cloth.  I used to do the same with the clutter in my room when my mom inspected it. Because of the slums’ illegality, the government (or any non-profit/organization) cannot construct proper infrastructure such as water pipes and taps, but they do deliver tankers of free water to each slum everyday.

Daily water tanker from the government delivers to a slum in a wealthy neighborhood, East Kailash

I can work at the computer lab while watching the daily life of squatters outside

I visited the DEK slum, a settlement of 1,000 households about a kilometer from the university, as part of a class project.  Initially, my groupmates tried to prevent me from entering with them, insisting on a nebulous danger inside a family community in broad daylight.  But as I joined my other groupmates, already inside the slum, slum-dwellers were friendly, offering chai, and eager to talk about their problems.  One woman, barefooted and wearing gold jewelry, shared her story that she had moved to the slum only because her children were going to school nearby.  She had the cell-phone numbers of politicans in Delhi whom she called when the water tankers weren’t arriving on time.  She mentioned that a few slum residents had enough money to construct additional housing, but weren’t allowed to.  This was a little confusing, as it seemed that the housing already there was illegal as well.

It’s obvious that best solution for slums lies with the government.  Give them property rights.  Build low-cost housing.  But this is easier said than done in a country where so many of its problems (and assets) lies with the sheer size of its population.

Rolling your Poo (There’s no “In” in this sentence)

15 Feb

This is a supercool, not to mention super-practical, idea.  How cute that you can cart your own poo!

XRunner Model....a BladeRunner for Toilets.