Sunday, January 08, 2017

Day 1 & 2 - Delhi

Hi everyone,

Sorry about the protracted silence...

Tonia and I arrived safely in Delhi after a whopping 16.5 hour direct flight from SFO—fortunately in business class, so we got some sleep and arrived in fairly good shape. The flight path took us easterly over the North Pole, crossing over Norway, Finland, Russia, the 'Stans, and then entering Indian airspace over Amritsar. Getting through Delhi's modern airport was a breeze and quicker than expected.
From the moment we touched down here we've been among family. My undergraduate student Nikunj from Berkeley met us at the airport and drove us to his grandfather's house, where he's been spending some time during winter break.
I should explain that Indian families tend to live together—two or three generations in a single house, or sometimes in adjacent or nearby ones—so Indian homes are large, with 6 bedrooms not uncommon. Nikunj's parents are separated and his dad lives in Chennai, but when he comes home he also spends time at the home where is grandfather, uncle, and nephew/niece live, and he had invited us to stay there, in a luxurious guest bedroom. The evening of our arrival we had a splendid home-cooked Indian dinner. Nikunj and his family are followers of the Jain religion, whose distinguishing precept is "harm no living thing"; strict Jains do not even eat root vegetables, though milk is OK if it's from a happy cow. Confusingly, eggs are not OK, despite the fact that unfertilized eggs don't represent any loss of life. At any rate, everything we've eaten in the country so far (I write this 72 hours in) has been vegetarian, which is just fine.
We had a great conversation with his illustrious grandfather, Vijay Kumar ("VK") Jain, who has a remarkable life story: he came out of poverty with nothing, doing menial work and day labor to work his way up, and determined to learn to grow his own food so that he'd never starve. He ultimately became a successful charter accountant (think CPA) and is now retired and quite well-to-do, but never forgot the value of work and passed it on to his family. He's widely traveled, speaks great English, and can hold forth on a variety of topics—a very interesting guy to be with.

[photos coming soon]

After a great night of Benadryl-induced sleep to try to adjust to local time, the next day we had the morning available since our flight to Jodhpur wasn't until 1:30pm, so Nikunj and his grandfather took us for a walk in Lodi Gardens, a lovely public park adjacent to the residences of federal government mucky-mucks (Delhi is the capital, after all), and we ran into the Attorney General for India, who (along with many other government higher-ups) is apparently a good buddy of VK.
The Lodi Gardens, like many public parks in Rajasthan (as we would soon learn), included temples and ruins dating back hundreds of years; and on this smoggy Saturday morning people were out walking, doing yoga (yes!), and so on. (Not walking dogs; most dogs we saw were strays.) When I say "smoggy", the air quality index was about 175 ("unhealthy") and the visibility less than 1/4 mile—like Beijing on a pretty bad day. People take it in stride, but it does make you appreciate the air quality of most US cities, something we usually take for granted.
As you may know, in November the Indian government invalidated 500- and 1000-rupee notes—nominally to clamp down on fraud and black market activities, though surely any sophisticated black marketeer wouldn't just keep a shoebox full of notes under the bed, so this move mostly hurt middle-class people. (Only 4% of Indians pay income tax; over 87% of wage transactions in the country's economy are off-the-books; under-invoicing and over-receipting are so widespread as to be universal.) The result is that no US foreign exchanges have rupees at all (most of them wrote off their entire inventory of rupees as a loss), ATMs in India have hour-long queues and run out of cash early in the day, and many ATMs don't even work because the new 1000- and 2000-rupee notes are a different size than the old ones so the machines must be modified. In all, the "demonetization" has been a major bungle, and although major tourist destinations accept credit cards, day-to-day business in India is overwhelmingly a cash economy, and people are pissed. Anyway, VK was kind enough to loan us enough cash to get us through any trip expenses that weren't prepaid and for which we couldn't use credit cards—the idea was I'd repay Nikunj in US dollars back in Berkeley, since he needed spending money and it was easier to do this than to have US dollars obtained in India.
We made our flight to Jodhpur relatively easily.  That's where we are now, and that'll be the subject of the next post.  We'll add some photos here too, or on Facebook under Tonia's account.

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