Monday, July 21, 2008

journal entry: june 3, 2008

For dinner last night, our first formal meeting as a study abroad class, we went to eat and tour the Imperial Hotel in Delhi.  The height and grand tribute to colonial India.  Every space on the walls was lined with portraits of various raj tyrants and colonial rulers.  I'm sort of having a difficult time processing this.  Like most of my experiences in India so far, it was sensory overload.  I felt oddly more comfortable in that space than I had anywhere else in Delhi, but at the same time still profoundly awkward.  I'd never be able to afford to stay at a five star hotel such as the Imperial in the US.  I felt the other guests (all rather Western in appearance or style) knew we were out of place and were continually glaring at us.  We were foreigners who were alien in a constructed Western oasis.  I felt like an intruder.  I felt dirty.  I was acutely aware of the class differences and constantly thought about the disparity that lay right outside the hotel's walls.  

As we perused the various pieces of art, I noticed one photograph tucked up into a corner at the end of a hallway.  It was highly out of place in terms of the theme of the rest of the hotel.  It was a black and white photograph of an elephant walking into a temple or building and a man in traditional homespun cloth curled up asleep on the steps.  It was the most beautiful and authentic piece in the entire place.  It was completely different than the portraits of distinguished men that occupied the rest of the wall spaces, yet this made it stand out even more to me.  I felt that real India had somehow managed to find its way in past the guards.  It gave me hope that perhaps the culture wouldn't be completely obliterated by Western homogeneity.  

The architecture of the hotel was in Greco-Roman inspired columns and beautiful marble floors.  Imported from Italy of course.  Making no sense since beautiful marble is readily available in parts of Northern India.  In fact the Taj Mahal is built out of such marble.  Still... Italian marble, far superior in the eyes of Imperial British I'm sure.  Reinforcing the British lack of understanding and acceptance of Indian culture or heritage.  The design of the restaurant, The Spice Route, was simply breath taking.  It had been designed to resemble a temple, and pieces of old temples from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, India, Tibet, and Myamar had been used to depict the journey of life through the several stages.  It was designed to be like a boat, and set up according to very specific prescriptions.  I recognized all the various deities and the stories depicted in every nook and cranny.  The meal was amazing, and I had a lovely time getting to know several people.  Yet through it all, the thought of the Delhi outside the walls lingered in my mind.  I couldn't escape the thoughts of what lie just beyond the crisp marble.  It was as if a small part of me could not be distracted to simply enjoy the moment  (I don't want to give the impression that I didn't love almost every moment in India, these entries are simply my thoughts and processing of events).


Today is the day we do our touristy thing.  We're going to see all the sites of Delhi in typical tourist fashion.  Perhaps we'll fit in well in this role.

We just left Gandhi's tomb.  I was left in awe at the extravagance of his grave.  Columbia asked me why I was so shocked; Gandhi is seen as the father of  independent India.  His image is on every rupee.  He's everywhere.  It was more the plush green turf grass lawn, well paved and manicured that bothered me.  So unsustainable.  Especially for a city that has such water scarcity problems.  I wouldn't see Gandhi approving of it.  I'd think he'd want something more Indian, like fields growing native varieties of rice or millet.  In my opinion, turf grass lawns are colonial western.  Perhaps I'm mistaken.  I'm no turf grass expert.  I wonder how Gandhi would view his own grave and treatment as a deity?


As we toured through Old Delhi, I couldn't help but feel the absolute crush of the endless masses and streams of people.  What would appear to us to be a poor market, is actually the hustling and bustling prosperous business market.  Anything you could possibly want, you could buy along one of the narrow streets or lanes.  We climbed out of the tour bus and were swarmed by peddlers peddling their trinkets.  I felt completely overwhelmed by the condition of the street urchins.  The children buzzing, begging.  I need to get used to this.  I need to figure out a way not to get so bothered!  I seem to manage externally to ignore and push on, but internally I'm dying.  It's killing me to see people like this.  

Kite and I discussed how we felt about taking pictures of people and the setting of Old Delhi.  On one hand, its important to capture and document where we've been and what we've seen, but also strange since we felt like we're oggling people like they are something on display.  Perhaps more on this later.  

There are so many new boundaries to navigate and relationships to negotiate.  I don't always know the right way to carry myself or carry out an interaction in a respectable, culturally aware manner.  I want to be friendly, not too friendly, while not compromising my own beliefs about social interactions, hierarchies, and gender dynamics.  How can I do this in this new space?  I've accepted that I must make compromises, but can I continue to retain my identity?  Who am I in this context?  Can I continue to have my identity and safely experience the encounters with the new people I'm meeting?  Where does one stop being themselves for the sake of cultural sensitivity?  This gray area is confusing.  Can I coexist in this context?  Perhaps I should discuss this with people over dinner tonight.

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