Saturday, October 23, 2010

Delhi: The India International Center, Sikkim and Asbestos Poisoning

When I stay in Delhi I stay at the India International Center. Sheila and her daughter, Deepa, are members. I stay on because I'm a Guest.

The Center is one of India's pre-eminent gathering points for intellectuals, scholars, and creatives. It was founded in 1958 and inaugurated in 1962 by the great Nehru himself. The architecture style is aggressively 1960's, all cement, terraces, and reflecting pools in extremely random places. I have a weird affection for aggressive 1960's architecture, possibly because I have a weird affection for the 1960's themselves. When I stay at the center, I always get a feeling that I have regressed in time, that I am in the midst of an earlier and more confusing era. 1960's India: The Green Revolution. Indira Ghandi and Nehru in the top seat. The Non-Aligned movement. Mass exodus of Western kids with too much free time to Ganges holy cities. Yes, those was the days. The Center remembers them. Possibly still is livin them. (However, the place, to its credit, does offer free wifi).

The Center mostly holds events. Carnatic music events. Poetry readings. Political forums and discussions on issues like Kashmir, global warming, and nuclear proliferation. Famous writers and thinkers. Food events showcasing regional cuisine. There's always the vague strain of sitar music or independent Icelandic film coming from the auditorium. Ex-pats like the place too.

The Center has a nice library that is usually full of elderly people researching great and important things. Checking Facebook on the free computers in there feels perverse. Using the Facebook Thingiemub in a room full of people checking the backstory of the Ayodah verdict, or researching Tamil art, or developing green-develoment policy. Me concerned about what my friend drank last night at her house party. I'm often a bit ashamed at the Center. There's always cars with police escorts pulling, disgorging people that are extremely important. I never know who they are. I'm not sure if I should ask. The Center always has some kind of Event going on. I like these Events because they usually involve free and fairly elaborate spreads of food. I can slip in, smile and nod and evade pointed questions, and slip out with a free cup of tea and a samosa. (Benefitting off the largesse of Indian political leaders I can't be bothered to know about. Ah, youth).

The Center is staffed, used, and patronized by almost exclusively people over 60. This is always a bit awkward for me. I try not to play my music too loud in my room at night. There's an elderly Sikh couple next door who seem to be in town for some sort of conference. They leave their shoes outside the room. I think they subsist entirely on room service. God knows what would happen if I disturb them. They're probably working on a plan for the Economic Salvation of India, or something. And here I am sitting in my hotel room with no pants on at night, reading web comics. The first time I stayed here I was 19 and was desperate to enjoy Delhi's nightlife, or what there is of it. I snuck out of the Center at night a couple times. Not really snuck out - no one stopped me - but the gate was closed, and the guards gave me looks of subcontinental disapproval as I walked out with handbag and heels. Scandalous.

The on-site restaurant is also old-fashioned, like everything here. It's in a big, airy atrium sort of room, and has a simple menu. Indian and Western food. Cheap prices, since elderly people enjoy nothing more then complaining about how expensive everything is getting. (A surreal experience for a Westerner: listening to an Indian person of a certain age complain about how outrageously expensive India has become. You look down at your two dollar feast of a dinner and think, Huh.) I like to order aloo gobi and chicken tikka and watch the people around me. Something about highly educated Indian women in highly elaborate saris - they strike me as perhaps the most fearsome group among the intellectuals here. A highly educated Indian woman? Not to be trifled with. The onsite bar is where the old intellectuals go to discuss geopolitics over glasses of Scotch whiskey on the rocks. The Indian upper-class really, really love whiskey. I do, too. Maybe one day I will join their geriatric and intellectually earnest ranks. Debating the trajectory of history until I die of a liver ailment. There's worse ways of going.

The Center abuts Lodhi Gardens, which is by far my favorite place in Delhi. It's a large and well maintained park, set apart by the ruins of the forcibly ejected Lodhi Dynasty in the center of them. The ruins are beautiful and the park is large - there's even a jogging trail, a rare commodity indeed in India. Not that anyone can run very far on a hot Delhi day. You'll lose half your body weight in sweat. I tried it - I know. I apologize to any innocent old people that were offended by the wave of stink that accompanied me when I came back to the Center. Just as an aside.

Anyhow. I left the International Center that morning and headed out, out into the muggy vastness of Delhi. Delhi is large, terrifically large, and it's hard to get a sense of that unless you go out of the central area. The Center is in the area near Lodhi Gardens, the diplomat's domain. It's green and grassy, and there isn't much traffic. There's embassies everywhere, and plenty of foreigners ambling around the nearby Khan Market shopping area, buying Pop-Tarts and Honey Bunches of Oats at inflated prices. It's not really Delhi up here. Maybe not really India. I saw a blonde girl in a mini-skirt and a tank top walking her golden retriever on the sidewalk near Lodhi Gardens one day. That sort of thing might cause a civil riot in other parts of Delhi. Here? Well, eh. (I envied her. I miss wearing my regular, slatternly clothes so very much when I'm in India).

I needed to pay a visit to the Sikkimese mission in Delhi, mostly. I was going to Sikkim. There's a swell website called It specializes in traveler tips about India, and also hosts an extremely popular online forum. I put up a message on the Seeking Traveling Partners bit, and got a reply from one Kiran. (Shockingly enough, he's Indian!) He wanted to go to Sikkim. I had no real idea where or what Sikkim was, but the fact that it was obscure immediately attracted me. Some Google work indicated that Sikkim was a once-independent kingdom in the Himalayas, in between Nepal and Bhutan. It joined India as a semi-autonomous region in the 1970's - by demand of its own people - and now functions as a scenic, natural, and relatively little visited Shangri-La substitute. Most pleasingly - unlike Nepal - Sikkim hasn't experienced much in the way of sectarian violence in recent memory.

It sounded good to me. I sent him a message and told him I'd go. We set about working out logistics. Of course, traveling (as a single female) with some random guy I met on the Internet is, technically, a lousy idea. But I'm a child of the Internet. All my friends were online during a brief and intensely embarrassing period of my teenage years. I met quite a few of them in real life, and none of them had murdered me, dismembered me, and dressed my mutilated body up in a fluorescent pink fursuit. I figured that odds were good that Kiran would also be a relatively normal specimen. Anyway, dude had a blog dealing (among other things) in the philosophical ramifications of the Internet, a Facebook page with lots of pretty pictures of hiking in the Swiss mountains, and was going for a PHD at a top French university. I figured: if he was sociopath, at least the conversation would be interesting. Kiran turned out to be the best traveling partner this pain-in-the-ass geek could have asked for. The Internet, as is usual, came through.

To enter Sikkim, you need to get a pass first, or what they call an Inner Line Permit. This is because Sikkim just so happen to share a border with Chinese-controlled Tibet, and India and China have got issues with one another, just some little tiny ones not super worthy of notice here. Foreigners aren't allowed anywhere near the border with China in Sikkim, and you're not likely to score a pass if you blithely amble up and start talking about your journalism career. (The place is also crawling with Tibetan refugees, which always makes China a little antsy). Thankfully, getting an Inner Line Permit is quite easy, and pleasingly, free. If you've planned far enough in advance, you can get one stamped in your passport when you get your Indian visa. If not, you can either get one at the border in Sikkim, or, conversely, visit the Sikkimese consulate in Delhi.

The Sikkimese consulate was located conveniently near to the US embassy. It's always good to know where that is, in case your vacation turns into a hellish orgy of violence and horror and maybe you need to decamp in a black helicopter peppered with gunshot. Just in case. (I watched the Killing Fields one time too many this summer). The US embassy is a massive building - I think. You can't see it at all because of all the barbed wire. Somehow I'm not surprised.

The Sikkimese building, in stark opposition to the American monolith, looked small and twee from the outside. Just like the country itself, as I'd soon find out. I went inside and was confronted with a massive, bright white puff of what appeared to be asbestos dust. There was no one around. I finally accosted a guy in a tie from around the corner. "Is this thing open?" I said.
"Construction going on. But, open." he said. "You come to get visa? Go upstairs."

I went upstairs. Three flights of stairs. The asbestos smoke got thicker and thicker. I could hear drilling coming from somewhere, but couldn't determine the source. My eyes were watering. "Upstairs," I realized, had been an extremely vague term, and the smoke was now so thick that I couldn't see anything more then a foot or two in front of me. I wondered if I was going to have to stumble blindly downstairs again. Maybe I would be wandering the goddamned Sikkimese consulate building until I died. Which would come relatively quickly, what with the asbestos. Suddenly, a scrawny boy holding a tea jug emerged out of the mist, looking as surprised to see me as I was to see him. "Visa?" I asked.
"Okay okay!" he said. "Up stairs!" He pointed to a small flight of stairs. I went up. Sure enough, there was the visa office. It was thankfully plated in glass and had only a little asbestos smoke in there. I walked in and asked for a Sikkimese entry pass. The process took roughly five minutes and was free. I even got travel brouchures and free tea. Of course, the issue remained of getting back *down* the goddamned stairs. I headed out to the porch for a moment or two to get some air. And took a couple of photos. You can't really see it here, but Delhi's downtown skyscrapers are delightfully post-apocalyptic and decaying. Oh, Delhi.

So. I was going to Sikkim. Had my Inner-Line Permit. We had intentions of going trekking, one way or another of course, and I was going to have to buy some outdoors equipment- but pretty much game-set-match, off we went to the Roof of the World. Or at least spitting distance. I may suffer asbestos poisoning symptoms later in life, but, hey, I had my damn permit.

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