old delhi, india: day one {the beauty + the unheimlich}

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A man at the mosque told me I was beautiful, but there was something about the way he said it that made me feel anything but, a sweet blonde tells me. In India, we’re reminded that we are women. We’re reminded of our skin, pale pieces of parchment, and about our limbs, which we unconsciously keep covering. A few of us talk about the airport in Dubai where men don’t see who you are, rather they see parts of you — a stack of limbs, a face that elicits desire. We speak softly as we weave through alleyways in Old Delhi about how that experience unnerved us — so much so that we paid for the privilege of sitting in a lounge, of closing our eyes to quiet. On the plane ride to Delhi I watched a man kiss his two wives and it made me shudder, but I turned away because this was not my country. This was not my way.

In all fairness, we don’t feel this sense of unheimlich in Old Delhi, but we do recognize that we are foreign. We see it in the clothes that we wear and even how we walk. Women here {the few that we saw in Old Delhi, which seemed mostly occupied by male proprietors and male shoppers} shop in pairs, and the small percentage of women who wear the full chador are lead around by their husbands — they are lead by the arm, not by the hand. Funny what a difference in perception of a few inches above the wrist bone makes.

At a mosque, two small boys with Samsung phones ask if they can take my picture. I acquiesce, although I’m curious. I ask why they’re so interested in a photo of a sweaty tourist? They laugh and tell me that it’s a thing to meet tourists; my photo is souvenier that they’ll share with their family and friends. I think that this isn’t too strange considering here I am photographing rickshaws and storefronts — places that are common to those who live here. But I digress.

After, seven of us {6 of whom are women} take to the winding streets and men gawk, and this puts me to thinking about the time when I was in the bathhouses in Taiwan, and a cadre of old women approached me and started touching my hair. I was startled until my friend explained that they’d never seen curly hair before. Where would they? How could they? These are people who would never leave Taiwan, never know a world where women have textured hair such as mine. For them my hair is beauty, a sight to see. I think about this as men in Old Delhi stare. I smile, but many don’t smile back. I ask a few of the women about this and they nod and say they feel the same way too. My very kind tour guide parrots back a version of what my friend in Taiwan told me all those years ago, but I don’t know. I don’t know. Everyone I meet is incredibly kind and helpful, but there’s this remove I can’t describe. I’m trying to unravel this even now, even as I type this from my hotel room watching fog and thunder sweep past my window.

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When I initially told people I was traveling to India, the first thing every single person said was: OH MY GOD. YOU’RE NOT TRAVELING ALONE, ARE YOU? DID YOU READ ABOUT ALL THE RAPES IN DELHI? As if I’m 5 rather than 38. As if I’m a woman who doesn’t read the paper or listen to the news. As if I lead a myopic life. After they’re somewhat assuaged by the fact that I’ll be in a tour group, I reminded them that how could one judge a country of 1.2 billion based on a slew of truly horrific acts, which have been brought to light simply for the ease in which we now have access to information. I may not agree with, or respect how, many cultures view women, but that won’t stop me from visiting places that give me a slight feeling of discomfort. I refuse to close my eyes even if there are things I sometimes don’t want to see.

There is real beauty in Delhi. Look at these pictures, really look at them. Notice the cacophony that is the thoroughfare. It’s nothing short of an overture watching everyone maneuver their battery-operated rickshaws {80K rupees}, old-school rickshaws, motorbikes, cars, carts — all the while passersby expertly weave through the crowds as if they’re thread. The food is exceptional: from grilled pineapples roasted in the spiciest herbs {hot!} to fried cheese, and cottage cheese fried and cooked with vegetables to the chicken biryani, which I’m about to eat when I finish this post, Indians take such care in the preparation and presentation of food that one can’t help but be in awe of it. I purchased chai from an old man in an alleyway who took time to prepare my brew, and I procured packages of mixed spices {It’s easier for the women now! They don’t have to worry about all the mixing of spices! The convenience!} for cooking at home. The food in Delhi is spicy, hot and utterly delicious.

CONTINUE TO BRING A WOMAN ALL OF THE NAAN.

We spent the rest of the day touring mosques, Gandhi’s burial site, the Imperial City, and oceans of architectural landmarks {separate post to come on all the jazz before I head to Agra tomorrow}, and I came back to my hotel and settled into bed.

I’m also strangely reminded of my privilege. The fact that my lovely hotel is in the middle of nowhere and is surrounded by armed guards and metal detectors doesn’t escape me. I’ve been thinking a lot about awareness and abundance lately — taking inventory of all the non-material greatness in my life, and realizing that material pursuits only serve to be a constant interruption of being present. The fact that I wasn’t staring at my iPhone for ten hours and instead really looked at people, really spoke to them, really was acutely aware of every movement made by myself and others around me, and I’m wondering how I can bottle some of this when I return home.

Although it took me a while to get here, I’m finally glad I’ve arrived. While there are parts of India that unsettle me, there are a great many beautiful things worth making the trek for.

NOTE: I’ll be taking a great deal of pictures while I’m in India. While I realize that posting all of them here will give your computer a coronary page, you can follow my visual exploits on Pinterest.

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13 thoughts on “old delhi, india: day one {the beauty + the unheimlich}

  1. *and the crowd goes wild* Your photos are INSANE. Them + your writing = I feel like I’m there with you fleeing those lecherous stares. Particularly because I went to China a few times and I know what those uncomfortable gazes feel like.

    Quick q: I just checked out your FAQ page and do you still use your 50mm/1.4 lens for your travel photos? I only have a macro lens for my DSLR which doesn’t work very well when photographing people or scenery…curious to know if you have any recs for a more all-purpose lens. Also, if you have any tips for traveling with a camera, I would love to hear them–I’m off to London and Paris next week and I’d love to take my camera but I’m terrified of it getting stolen or broken.

    Again, seriously gorgeous photos! (By the way, speaking of gorgeous photography, I was just reading Hortus Cuisine and My Blue and White Kitchen this morning and just wanted to mention that they are beautiful blogs to check out if you haven’t already! Very different style from yours, but I think you might like ‘em…)

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    1. Erika – Thank you SO much for your lovely words. I’m having an extraordinary time here in Delhi, even if some parts of my experience are more spectacular than others.

      In terms of a lens — I actually rented the 50mm 1.2F lens (the link to which is in the post right below this one). To be candid, I’ve only used a prime or macro lens because I predominately shoot food, but this lens (although it’s insanely expensive, and I’m SURE there are other great lenses in the $500 range) does both quite well and does really love in low light.

      I wish I knew enough about all-purpose lenses to make a cogent recommendation. I actually visited my local camera shop (Adorama here in NY) and they were really honest about what I could use for price-point, and they let me try out the lens if I brought my body into the store.

      Cheers, Felicia

      On Thu, May 8, 2014 at 10:05 AM, love.life.e

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      1. BTW, regarding lenses. I learned photography with an old Minolta SrT 101 and a Canon F-1 and my standard lens was a 50mm 1.4. I’ve been trying to approximate that focal length since switching to digital and I’ve been more than pleased with Canon’s 28mm F 1.8 which I got for $450. Another good choice is Canon’s 35mm F 2.0 ($550).

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  2. Great thoughtful post. Good insights.

    P.S. In case you didn’t know, gatster is AKA Keith Hood although you may have recognized the image from Facebook.

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  3. Such stunning photos, I was mesmerized by the colours and the busy-ness. I can’t get over all the tangles of wires overhead in some of them. I especially liked the juxtaposition of one photo advertising traditional saris followed by a man selling bright pop-culture-esque t-shirts.

    I would love to go to India one day; right now I’m living vicariously through you!

    (Also amen on the judgement of one large country based on the actions of a few. Yes those rapes were horrific, God yes. But people are raped in every city in every country. People have been raped in my city. I didn’t pack up and move. We still need to live and see the things we need to see.)

    Eagerly awaiting the next post!

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    1. Sherry,

      The wires are so wild, right!? They’re only in Old Delhi, apparently, as New Delhi and the Imperial City all have underground wiring. I’m finding a lot of fascinating juxtapositions here, as well as the affection for labels (e.g. Nike, Coca Cola, etc}. I’m sort of stunned by the landscape, and I’m still trying to make sense of it all.

      Warmly, f.

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  4. I think it’s fantastic that you chose to travel to a destination that puts you a bit out of your comfort zone. It’s an eye-opening experience, one that I think all Americans should endure because we seem, too often, to practice a narrow-minded view of things because we are so privileged here.
    As for the reaction that you received of traveling there (re: haven’t you heard about the rapes, etc.) I think it’s astonishing. As you said, there are 1.2 billion people! It’s such a funny thing because when someone from another country has a view on Americans, we tend to lash back and accuse outsiders of their shortsightedness.
    Anyway, I’ve only been out of the US once, during a travel abroad, and admittedly it was only to England (with a short jaunt to Paris) so I can’t claim much knowledge surrounding yourself with other cultures.

    I enjoyed your observations on treatment/attitudes toward women. Just a couple of days ago my husband and I noticed a husband/wife in our apartment complex and she was wearing a full burkha. I can’t say I’ve ever seen that in St. Louis. It was eye-opening and I immediately wondered how others will react.

    And I agree with Erika- your photos and writing are so vibrant that I too feel like I”m there with you. Can’t wait for more!

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  5. Were they selling sweatshirts that say Funky Fresh on them?!

    Really enjoying your words (as usual) and your photos. So insightful.

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