Republic Day

Trip Start Jan 22, 2010
Trip End Feb 14, 2010

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My first full day in India falls on Republic Day, India's national holiday. My first autorickshaw drive, to the core of the city to watch the parade down the Rajpath, is a relatively quiet affair since the driver fails to toot his horn once. This can only be explained, says Emma, because it doesn't work. Looking at the condition of the rickshaw, this is not surprising. It also seems to lack a back handbrake. Without the horn, the driver tacks less aggressively than all the other rickshaws, which buzz around us like mad green and yellow hornets.

There's a general mass of movement in the same direction we're going, but nothing like the traffic of last night. Quite quickly we pass a checkpoint where larger vehicles are stopped, and traffic simplifies to rickshaws, walkers, bicycles and whole families on motorcycles. I gawk at a family of four, but it's nothing compared to Emma and Mariah's record sighting for their trip: 7 people.

Finally even the rickshaw is turned away. As we pay the driver, he says to Mariah. "You are Indian, sister?" Mariah has been getting variations on this the whole trip. Once, someone insisted he see her passport, as he couldn't believe she wasn't Indian. Last year in Spain, everyone thought she was from there as well. She's quite the chameleon.

We join the foot traffic marching into the mist. For the next 15 minutes, we're walking around the network of roads that fork out from the hub of the India Gate monument. We can hear the parade, but any time we attempt to walk towards the sound, a guard gestures us to the side road. As a result, we're mimicking the path a moth takes around a lightbulb, constantly circling our aural navigational aide, wondering why it never gets closer.

We're not alone in this. Thousands of Indians and foreigners alike wander in the mist like lost souls. Finally some tourists bring rumours of a checkpoint ahead, but they also report no one is allowed through with a bag or camera. No one is really keen on travelling the 45 minutes back to the hotel to drop off our things, so we attempt transferring everything in our bags to our pockets, and wrapping our bags around our waists. This is all carried out in view of some bemused guards, and when we finally approach the checkpoint with bulging shirts and pockets, the result is easily predictable.

We join a multiplicity of nations' tourists, all caught outside the security checkpoint because of their point and shoot cameras, while Indians pass through carrying bags, backpacks and lunch buckets. We find out later that India has gone on high alert for terrorist incidents during the parade, but why they should consider tourists a greater threat than any number of dissatisfied factions in the country, I can't say. In the end, everyone hands their bags to an American named Peter who volunteers to be the first guard to watch everyone's bags while the rest go in.
Indian security points are a real headscratcher. There's a metal detector set up beside another entry way without a metal detector, which I assume is the exit. But lots of people are also streaming in through this exit. The detector of the official entrance goes off for almost every person. Yet no one is stopped. We are frisked down two separate times as we walk (the girls get taken aside to an enclosed women's area), but I've had more thorough searches at Disneyland. No one finds my moneybelt, though it's bulging with Emma's change purse. No one asks me to take the ipod or my fat notebook out of my pants to see what they are. No one confiscates our cellphone.

When we finally reach it, the parade is screened by a vast horde of Indians. The girls refuse the offer to walk through the men up to the front ("I'm not going into that gropefest"), so someone begins ordering people aside so that a sightline opens up to the parade.

After watching grandly uniformed soldiers, and camel-mounted legions march past (the outlandish hats are my favourite touch), I decide to go and take a turn watching bags. When I get back to relieve Peter, he's surrounded by a growing number of police and military-garbed dudes, all of whom are unhappy he's sitting here with all these bags. They're looking at his passport, want to know where he's staying, pointing at various bags and searching them, etc. Peter is a little freaked out by this.

I tell him to go and look at the parade himself for a few minutes --at least to tell the girls I'm waiting outside for them --and when he's gone I ignore the police and start reading a book. Apparently this is a good way to deal with Indian police. One asks politley if he may look at my passport, I hand it to him and ask "So, do you think the fog will lift so I can see some of the parade from here?" He laughs. Apparently talking about the weather is also a good way to act with Indian police. I tell him that he and his colleagues are welcome to look at the bags, but perhaps they could do it one bag at a time, as I have responsibility for others' articles. He nods, waves away a few guys digging through backpacks, and they all saunter away to observe me from 20 paces.

Peter returns a while later, and the girls aren't far behind. They report that spectacular floats are going by. Peter likens it to the Rose Day parade. As we gather things together, it turns out that 2000 rupess have disappeared from Mariah's bag during the police search. I debate going over and talking to the guy in charge about this, but it's seems to be asking for trouble.
We're wondering how we're going to get all these other bags to the other tourists, who've disappeared in the parade crowds, when the security forces suddenly remove all the barriers. Peter and I simply walk down the street right up to the parade. We're feet away from the action. A Bollywood float goes by with what I guess are stars waving at the crowd, but no one seems that crazed, so they must be minor celebs. We're debating bringing the girls and the bags up so we can all watch and wait, when the military set up the barriers again. Perhaps this is some weird strategy of unpredictability to foil well-timed plots....

Eventually, with a flyby from the airforce, the parade officially wraps up. Marching bands disappear down side streets, and the crowds stream around India Gate as the sun finally burns off the worst of the fog. In the bright light, Emma and Mariah begin a favourite pasttime of theirs, Spot the Sweater Vest.

Indian men wear the most groovy, kitschy sweaters and sweater vests. The patterns and colours can only be imagined. I'm too culturally ignorant to want to start an international incident by taking photographs, but I'm deeply appreciative of the wool and acrylic items on display. The sweaters eventually lead us to the India Gate monument itself, which commemorates the contributions of the country to the defence of European allies during the first world war. Flowers are laid at its feet, and many people quietly observe the lit torches. It's a sobering moment to a fairly silly morning.


Being in Delhi on Republic Day seemed like a great idea but once the translucent parade wraps up the reality is that EVERYTHING is closed. Museums, monuments, temples, shopping districts, are all sealed up tight. We finally find (or should I say our rickshaw driver earns a cut at) an open store in Connaught place where we get set-price tea and Mariah orders a beautiful sari.At lunch Mariah begins eating with her left hand. "It doesn't matter!" she jokes. I feel slightly responsible for this development, but I also realize in the 36 hours we spend together that Mariah is an unstoppable force, who can verbally duke it out with whatever a trip serves up. I'm glad Emma's had such a fun, irreverent companion.

We hop the clean, modern subway to Old Delhi. When we exit the station, I realize why Emma was saying that New Delhi wasn't very Indian. The chaos, fumes, smells, beggars and garbage assault me. Monkeys climb powerlines and chatter threateningly from rooftops.

We stop outside the closed gates of the vast Red Fort, but being a stationary tourist attracts a press of touts. Mariah makes the mistake of joking a price to a guy selling fake beards and we spend the next 10 minutes in a funny but slightly disturbing game of cat and mouse with the guy, who doggedly shadows us, wearing the fake beard the whole time. Eventually Mariah buys three just to get him off our backs.

Our slightly odd day gets a slightly odd ending. I convince everyone that we can walk to the restaurant at the corner of the Defence Colony. But we get turned around somehow and trapped on the wrong side of a very busy major roadway. Only an idiot (I see a few) would attempt running across 10 lanes of streaming traffic, much of it stealthily speeding through the night with no headlights. Eventually a rickshaw driver comes to our rescue. He doesn't understand our map or destination, but once he finds the nearby hospital, we get our bearings and chow down at a very nice Italian restaurant. I meekly agree to take a rickshaw back to the hotel.
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