I've been moving from place to place in Delhi, staying at a couple different guest houses (basically hostels but with private rooms). On my first day in Delhi I talked to the manager of the Ajanta Guest House, named Manoj Dewan. He was extremely friendly and showed me around the city in his own car. Before meeting him I was quite nervous, worried that I'd get ripped off or robbed or that I would simply not know what to do in this enormous city. But he made me feel much more comfortable. Because of his own business as a travel agent, the first place I toured was the Taj Hotel, a 5-star joint that made my hostel seem like one of the ratty tents that line the sides of many streets.
With Manoj I had my first chai and learned how to eat Indian-style, using a piece of roti (रोटी, pronounced with your tongue curled back to make a hard 't' sound) in your right hand to scoop up the vegatables (सब्ज़ी, subzee) or meat. It seems most Indians would prefer roti or nan as a base instead of rice. All the food here is basically what you'd find at any Indian restaurant, but saltier, with more spices, and tastier, and costing one fifth the price.
On each of my three nights at Ajanta, Manoj invited me down to eat and drink with himself and his staff. Some could speak better English than others, and others spoke Hindi that was easier for me to understand. Basically no one except the super-educated speaks English that is easily understood, and the people upon whom you rely for basic services — rickshaw drivers, waiters, hotel attendants, dhobis (laundrymen) — speak very little English at all. Most of the time, they speak about as much English as I do Hindi. Nathan and I have found it easiest to attempt to speak in Hindi and ask for responses in English. This limits the range of possible expressions but ensures that both sides of the conversation are understood. We have become well practiced in expressing wants and needs, asking for directions, and explaining that we are American students going to study Hindi in Nainital. I haven't yet tried to find the words to explain "forest ecology and sustainable development", but most people seem to understand "computer science".
On the third day we took a tour of Delhi to see a bunch of old mosques and monuments. Qutb Minar was by far the most extravagant — a tower 65 meters high built in the 17th century. We took a bicycle-powered rickshaw on a tour through Old Delhi (पुरानी दिल्ली, purānī dillī), which was basically a roller coaster ride through streets so narrow and crowded it's a wonder we didn't crush any pedestrian's toes. Above each street was a massive tangle of electrical wiring.
On the fourth day we hired a car to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It was a long trip (the whole day) but absolutely amazing. The Taj is everything it's chocked up to be.
That night we moved to the YWCA guest house in the center of the city, near the largest shopping/business district. The staff here is friendly (but not like Manoj). The city center is lined with shops, so-called tourist agencies (usually nothing more than scam operations), theaters, restaurants, and bars. It is also lined with poor, abandoned and unwanted people who shit on the street and each try to sell you the same wooden chess set or package of handkerchiefs. The only thing to do is to ignore them — especially the hawkers, for whom the slightest acknowledgment or eye contact is an invitation to follow you down the street. I'm not sure how to feel about the situation of the poor people here, except to recognize the problem and that I can't do anything about it.
I think speaking even a little Hindi has made the trip much more enjoyable so far. I don't think that Manoj would have been as friendly, nor the taxi drivers or numerous other people who heard that I was trying to learn Hindi and suddenly opened up, striking Hindi conversations and trying to teach me new words and give me practice. I haven't bought anything yet (except a long-sleeved shirt in a non-touristy market for 35 rupees, about $0.80), but I noticed that although shopkeepers normally raise their prices for westerners, after speaking to them in Hindi suddenly their prices go down by 50%!
Delhi would be a horrible place to live -- hot, muggy, dirty, poverty all around, and polution so bad that although the sun sets at about 6:30, by 5:00 it's already hidden behind a haze so that you can look directly at it without any problem. I have yet to see any blue sky in Delhi. The first time I saw the sky was in Agra, where no industry and only battery powered vehicles are allowed within several kilometers of the Taj Mahal. Thus there were several kilometers of open sky, completely surrounded by haze, smog, and clouds.
I have taken some good photos of monuments and stuff but at first I was too nervous to bring my camera out and about in the city. I think I'm more comfortable now, though. I'm really looking forward to getting out of the pollution and heat, into the mountains, about 4 days from now. I've done and seen all that Delhi has to offer.
Internet access has been available in all the guest houses but it's been difficult to find an up-to-date computer (they run Windows 98, with no USB port to transfer photos) or to find time enough to do more than check my email. We got word from our program leader that there will be access in our living quarters for the rest of the program, so I will publish more updates whenever I can.
I miss you all, and thanks for the support and good wishes you've offered in email. For those who asked for my postal address, I don't have one yet, nor do I know whether the postal system can be relied upon (there is no standard addressing system in place for any city).
If you've read this far, I apologize for making this so long. My time in Delhi has been such a whirlwind of places, people, and sights that there's simply no way to summarize it all. Today the rest of the program's students are arriving and Nathan and I are moving to a new guest house where we'll all stay together until we depart for Nainital.
Stay in touch,