Monday, January 4, 2010

Beautiful Bombay

As the plane approaches the runway to land we can see miles and miles of shanty towns flowing in waves right up to the runway. That seems like a security hazard to us.
We’ve arrived after dark, but agree Mumbai (formerly called Bombay) seems much cleaner than Delhi.

The city is very metropolitan. No cows. No auto rickshaws. Women are much more scantily clad here than in Delhi. It’s very much like New York, with an Indian spice for flavor.
Our hotel is posh and the most ‘real’ hotel of our trip. A glass elevator looks down on an interior atrium and the sixth floor holds a pool with a glass bottom; which looks down on the lobby.

It’s a sharp contrast to the poverty that makes up the majority of Mumbai.

We take a cab to Chowpatty Beach. Hundreds of people are milling about, sitting on mats eating, children running around. It’s a carnival stuck in time. There are children's rides operated by hands. A small ferris wheel is turned by two men; one standing on the middle bar and turning from the top while a second man turns from the bottom. A small Viking boat swings back and forth, gaining it’s momentum by a stout man with think forearms. Games are set up in the beach. Melissa steps up to the ring toss but isn't good enough to win one of the prizes: a bar of soap. (Irony is sorely lacking in India)

The real draw here are the food stalls. We stroll through them slowly while men badger us from all sides to have a seat on their mat. We spot two other white people and sidle up to see what they’re eating. I ask the guy what they’ve ordered; he has no idea but says it’s good. We take a chance and aren’t disappointed. We find out that it’s called dola puri and seems to be hardened puffed bread with a hallow inside stuffed with chutney, yogurt, and … ummm… well, we’re not really sure what else. Maybe beans. Maybe some mint. But there is no denying that it’s delicious. Next we try bheri pori, which has potatoes and some of the same ingredients. On the surface it looks the same but as is often the case in India, a little tweaking goes a long way and it ends up tasting very different. We wander over to another stall and order a dosa. These are thin breads spread over a griddle and cooked, much like a crepe, then stuffed with veggies. Yummy!

The next morning we peel back the curtains to see a view of the beach only to be meet with a wall of smog. Not surprising in a country so dirty but disappointing since it promised to be a stunning panorama.

We lost an entire day of sightseeing yesterday due to a 7 hour flight delay into Mumbai. Our plane was originating in Delhi which was literally shut down because of heavy fog. We spent two hours trying to get a straight answer from airport officials, a hard task in any airport in the world but an impossibility in India. Eventually we checked into an airport hotel. Cost: $20. At home that would buy you a crack den room with stained sheets. Here it buys you a hot shower with good water pressure and a pool. We eventually make our flight despite three different people confirming three different departure times.

The lost day has created a packed day of sightseeing which might prove to be a challenge in the moist heat of the day. We tackle Elephanta Caves first since they will take the most time.

These Hindu carvings are located on an island about one hour off shore. Getting on the boat is a bit precarious and involves a walk down slippery stone steps, a lot of pushing and shoving by local school kids and at least a dozen women in burkas. Melissa and I spend a lot of time in low conversation wondering how they can wear such a heavy black cloak over their body and face in such heat. I’ve already sweated through my shirt and the day has barely begun. Our guide is an elderly woman who we have to help onto the boat. She starts talking about how Muslims are infecting the world. And even though the women covered head to toe in black clearly don’t speak English, we find the guide's obvious prejudice a bit unsettling. It’s hard to tell if they are her real convictions or if she’s saying it for our benefit given the attacks here a year ago.

We arrive at the island to discover we have a 120-step climb to reach the temples; always a delight when you’re already sweating! In typical Indian fashion the steps are lined with makeshift stands selling all manner of trinkets. We eyeball a few for consideration on the way back.

The temple is stupendous. The caves are actually man-made, the rock scooped out by hand and primitive tools. It's hard to imagine given how cavernous it is inside and the intricate detail given to the statues and pillars. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva, and his form is carved out in several different poses and scenes. It all has a very ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ feel to it, although the entire sight is almost trumped by the platoon of monkeys that live on the island. There are at least a dozens, including some babies, scampering outside the entrance, and they are funny to watch. (Hey, what can I say. City girl + wild life = huge smile)

Back in the city proper we retreat to the famous Taj hotel to escape the heat. Security is tight and we are surprised they even allow tourists inside. If this were New York it would be closed to everybody but guests, probably forever. But here in India the Taj is considered a second home to the citizens of Mumbai; to close it is unthinkable.

Other than the security and a simple memorial there are no signs of the attack a year ago. We wander around the marble lobby and peek out at the pool surrounded by palm trees and patches of grass where people have spread blankets.

We meet a new guide after lunch for a city tour. She's younger than the one from this morning, but no less prejudice. She makes random comments about Muslims. Incidentally, we met a man in the elevator of our hotel who also made a comment about black people. I can't say the prejudice surprises me as much as the willingness to offer it up to strangers.

Our city tour is by car. Not usually my preference but it’s so hot outside that I am grateful for inventions such as air conditioned vehicles. Mumbai has a strange but beautiful mix of British Victorian and Art Deco architecture. The soaring Victoria Train Station is topped with a massive dome and spreads out like a government building with various wings and arches and turrets. From the waterline we view a mosque that sits on a little island. It’s linked to the shore by a narrow sliver of land that is covered during high tide.

Then the driver pulls up to a curb crowded with people and smoke and hawkers. Over a low wall we see a jumble of buildings and worry the guide is taking us to see a slum. Tours of the slums are available in Mumbai but we decided to pass; this country is so poor that we didn’t feel the need to see more of it when it’s out in front of our face every day.

But it wasn’t a slum.

It was the city’s laundromat. Huge stone tubs filled with water spread out below us. Ten thousand men work in this enterprise, slapping clothes against the stone. Brilliant white shirts hang on one line, while across the way dozens of jeans flap in the breeze. There’s an area for sheets, another for saris, one more for socks. Smoke from burning coal is billowing out of one corner, making us wonder how the clothes remain clean. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve seen and looks completely chaotic. Our guide tells us that everyone in the city -- rich, middle and lower class -- sends their wash to this place. She insists that your clothes are returned sparkling clean and they are never ruined from the constant smacking against stone. Check out the video below -- seeing is believing.

Our last stop is a synagogue. There are about 4,000 Jews living in Mumbai. The man collecting entry fees is about 80 and tells us he’s from Syria. He says most of the Jews that worship here are from Iraq and other Middle East countries. The interior is lovely and cool and painted an eggshell blue. Windows are open to let in the afternoon breeze. The front of the temple is set with a kaleidoscope of stained glass.

Back at the hotel we debate where to eat dinner. There are too many tasty choices to try in our short time here. We decide on Trishna which we’re told is the mecca of seafood in Mumbai.

And we’re not disappointed: The butter garlic crab melts in our mouth and a fish called pomfret that’s been steamed in a banana leaf is light and flaky.

The next day is our last in Mumbai.

We spend our last few hours having high tea at the Taj. As a former British colony this event is no small matter. Melissa chooses masala chai from a thick tea menu; a white Darjeerlang tea for me. Delicious chicken and cucumber salad sandwiches with the crust cut off, mini quiche, tiny samosas and of course an assortment of miniature desserts.

Afterwards we take some final pictures in front of India Gate. A young shoe shine boy tries to drum up some business until he realizes we’re wearing sandals. He has a beautiful face and such a cheerful, sincere smile. And it’s not long before teenage boys start asking for pictures. Melissa agrees… for 50 Rupees. They are shocked at the asking price and try to haggle her down! It’s a delightful reversal of tourist vs. local. The shoe shine boy is her champion and agrees she shouldn’t take less than 30 Rupees. In the end, she takes one for free with the boys that find her so exotic.

I don’t now how we’ll survive at home without such an avid fan club!


Sunday, January 3, 2010

Floating on the Back Waters

We boarded our house boat today. The outside looks like a thatched hut although we’re happy to see the inside structure is made of more solid materials. Our room is much nicer than we expect with a big bed, hard food floors and a sizable bathroom (at least for a boat.)

There are three crew members on board: Georgie, Gobi and another man whose name we can’t understand. They alternate between driving the boat and cooking. Georgie is the only one who speaks any semblance of English. He asks us where we’re from three separate times which suggests he speaks English better than he understands. We discuss the possible problems of riding on a boat in the middle of nowhere with three men who speak no English, but decide like most things in India, it will work out.

And it does.

The food is amazing: spicy eggplant in some kind of sauce, naan that we watched them bang out 30 minutes earlier and spicy fried fish.

The scenery is stunning: green rice paddies stretch to the horizon like a florescent green shaggy carpet while palm trees sway on thin stretches of land that separate some of the canals. And there are people living out here in small, brightly colored houses, walking along paths that run close to the water and waving as we ride past. Even though there are dozens of other house boats in the water we still feel like we are alone. It’s amazing to me that people live this way, so simply. They do have electricity but I’m guessing no running water. We pass a school with a gaggle of kids outside making their way home. Some start along the path while others are being picked up in long, narrow boats.

We eventually dock, which really involves just pulling up alongside land and trying up to some trees. Again, we think about how easy it would be for someone to just climb on board in the middle of the night. But out here, that just doesn’t seem to be what people are about. Besides, our room locks from the inside. The sun is a blazing orange-red as it sets behind the palm trees and darkness slowly creeps into the backwaters. The sounds of nature start to come alive with chirping and squawking.

Despite my natural inclination to get sea sick I wear my wristbands the entire time and do ok on the boat. The calm waters also help. Bedtime become quite comical when we turn the AC on and convince ourselves the room smells like fuel. We finally decide that we’ll leave the AC on, turn on the fan, open the window and sleep with the mosquito net down. Yes, we’re wasting energy. But better than gassing ourselves in the middle of the night. I drop off without notice and wake up to a still dark morning.

We get dressed and walk onto the deck to watch the day come alive. The moon is still out and reflects off the water, while the sun also spreads light across the top of palm trees. People are washing clothes along the river edge, which involves a dunk and then repeated slapping of said article of clothing against rock. It has become a familiar sound. People are also bathing and brushing their teeth in water that would certainly give me a unhappy stomach.

Despite all the activity it’s still quiet and peaceful and a small slice of life so different from our own.

Another Day in Paradise

We’re at the Pummunda Resort. It’s located about 2 hours south of Cochin in an area of Kerela state called the backwaters. That makes it sound like a sewer but it’s actually breathtakingly beautiful. The lake is a perfect still mirror reflecting all the palm trees. Canals run throughout the property, creating the need for graceful, arched bridges.

Our villa is designed as a traditional house with a very high door which requires us to take a big step into the room. The bathroom is outdoors. Toilet. Shower. Sink. All outdoors. A bit freaky at first but we quickly warm to the idea.

We spend the entire next day lolling about at the pool which we take frequent advantage of due to the boiling hot temperature.

There is an ayurvada spa here. These are typical medical spas that people come to for a week or more to deal with a variety of problems. They usually offer all sorts of odd procedures, such as pouring warm coconut oil on your forehead for 45 minutes. For the purposes of this resort, they have a much more simple menu. We opt for the general massage which lasts one hour and costs about $20 US.

Now, if you know Melissa and I, you know we both adore cheap massages. The $3 one I had in Vietnam remains the best to this day. I step into a room with a short Indian women who speaks practically no English. She motions for me to get undressed. I’m not modest, but a little privacy please! But it was not to be. She unsnapped my bra from behind! I think “OK. Just go with it. She sees hundreds of naked white girls a day.” She has me sit on a stool and starts pouring this foul smelling oil over my head. It smells like beef stock and I’m trying really hard not to inhale through my noise. She starts giving me a nice head massage, although it’s hard for me to relax completely since I’m sitting in front of her buck naked. After a few minutes she has me move to the table. More beef stock. Then a rapid rub down. It actually feels good, although I prefer the more traditional type where they rub out knots in your neck. Finally, she has me roll over. The massage continues and honestly, I am not sure how I am not suppose to burst out laughing when she starts rubbing my chest. I mean, seriously? I spend most of the massage biting my lip to keep from cracking up, which of course is not the ideal mind set for relaxation. The massage ends with her pouring warm water and washing the beef stock off me like a baby.

Honestly, it wasn’t so bad. Just not my cup of tea.

Melissa’s take? She fell asleep!

New Year’s Eve day we spend being utterly useless. Across from the pool hotel workers are buzzing about getting ready for the festivities. Apparently it’s going to be a big deal. Later we put on some mascara and bug spray and take a giant step out of our door to walk over to the party. We’re seated at a romantic table, lake-side, white table cloth and candle. Too bad we don’t love each other THAT much! A temporary fountain has been built near the shore and lights are strung throughout the trees. Soon a woman takes the makeshift stage that’s been erected. She bubbly and squeaky and happy. And completely annoying. We watch a traditional dance performance. And then another. And then one more. And still it’s not time to eat. It’s time for games! Oh yes, games. Like a bridal shower. We try not to make eye contact with her, hoping she won’t choose us. But this only lasts for so long and eventually we find ourselves on stage with some women from Sweden, and Indian guy and some Australians. We’re playing a kind of musical chairs, except instead of sitting we have to jump onto a piece of cloth. The music stops and all 10 of us jump on, I’m clutching onto Melissa from behind, she’s shoved up against the Swedish lady and the Indian and Australian guy are way too close for comfort. We’re all hysterical. Later, Melissa wins us a giant Cadbury chocolate bar for being the only person to correctly guess the date for Chinese New Year’s. (That’s our trip to Vietnam paying off!)

Finally it’s time to eat. There are at least 30 silver turins filled with every type of Indian food imaginable. There’s also pasta. Seven different salads. A “Live Salad” table, which means they mix up your veggies of choice. One man is grilling fresh shrimp, another is making naan and roti on the spot. The food is all yummy. My favorite is the chocolate ice cream. I don’t know if they make it here or it’s shipped in from another country. But it’s the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot.

As the eating winds down, the cheerful MC tries to get people on the dance floor. The problem is they are only playing Euro trash house music. Even the French people aren’t into it. I ask if they have Michael Jackson? No. Madonna? No. Sigh. It’s going to be a long 30 minutes until the clock strikes 12.

It eventually does, bringing with it fireworks. And while they're no Macy’s Fourth of July, they are more impressive than we expect. Locals have gathered in several boats off our shore to watch the show. Soon it’s all over. And Melissa and I return to our little wood villa to eat the yummy plum cake the hotel gave all the guests for New Year’s while we watch the ‘Sex in the City’ movie. Happy New Year’s!

The Jews of India

The humidity hits us like a wall as we exit the airport in Cochin, a town in southern India. It had recently rained -- a lot -- and there are huge puddles everywhere. The warmth is a welcome relief after the chill of northern India.

The city is having a strike the day we arrive and we’re told all the shops will be closed and we'll have to walk because no cars are allowed until after 6pm. That’s ok with us; we’re tired of being driven everyplace. We tell our guide that we’re New Yorkers -- we like to walk!

The morning starts off just mildly steamy. We have breakfast at the hotel along the water. It reminds me a bit of Bangkok; with small boats ferrying goods back and forth along a liquid highway. Then it’s time to head out. We’re drenched in sweat in 10 minutes -- now we know why the guide looked a bit concerned.

Still, we solider on because we’ve been looking forward to visiting Cochin’s neighborhood called Jew Town. There are about 20 “white” Jews still living here and another 20 “black” Jews living in another neighborhood of Cochin. Our first stop is the synagogue. We have to remove our shoes, not for religious reasons, but to preserve the blue and white tile floor. Hundreds of tiles were shipped from China and no two designs are alike. Pictures are forbidden, but in typical fashion, Melissa and I take a few without flash. There are dozens of glass globe lights hanging from the ceiling and an upper balcony where women sit during service. There’s an eternal light near the front; unfortunately the Torah isn’t available for viewing.

It’s different from any temple I’ve ever seen.

When we leave we covertly check out the girl taking tickets. She’s clearly Jewish and looks like she’s from Bay Ridge. But she doesn’t look like she wants to talk so we don’t approach her. I suspect Jews approach her all the time asking the same questions over and over.

We wander around the narrow lanes of Jew Town, snapping pictures of signs in Hebrew, plaques saying Shalom, street signs. There are shops selling matzoh covers and yarmulkes. One shop is run by a old woman. Sarah Cohen. She looks like she’s from Borough Park. We ask her where she’s from originally. She says Cochin. Even though her English is accented she has the mannerisms of any Jewish person from New York. It’s odd to think that’s she was born here, grew up in India and is Jewish. We never get a chance to ask, but I think they must have to travel to Israel or another country in order to find a Jewish husband or wife since the Jewish population is so small, and they clearly aren’t having interracial marriages.

I’m impressed and a little proud of them, just like I was of the Jews in Cuba. It takes a lot of nerve to carry on in what you believe in when the surrounding community is largely something else. There is a huge population of Muslims in southern India. But strangely we don’t see very many Mosques. What we do see are hundreds of churches. Cochin and Goa (a city to the north) were founded in large part by the Portuguese. As such there is a large Christian population in Cochin and around every corner there’s a church or mini alter to Jesus. It’s a strange sight after seeing so many Hindu temples.

But there is a Hindu temple next to the Synagogue that's preparing for a festival where two elephants are being honored. One of the Hindu gods, Ginesh, has the head of an elephant on a human body and elephants are revered in this country. There are dozens of locals milling about, taking pictures with the elephants.

We take an auto rickshaw back past our hotel to the other side of town. There fishermen catch their daily load with gigantic nets strung up between several wood poles. The entire contraption looks like a huge spider on a web. They are lowered into the water and pulled up when they are full of fish. Fish of all sizes are spread out on tables as people mill about deciding what to buy. Men yell out to us saying we can choose a fish and they will cook them on the spot for us. I’m not that brave, but the idea is intriguing.

Cochin was once a major stop along the spice route to Asia and spices are sold everywhere out of large buckets. The city strike has shut down the wholesalers which is a shame because I imagine that would be exciting to see. But the spice retailers are open and one woman with a beautiful face lets us sniff different kinds of powders and nuggets. In an open courtyard, ginger is being dried out in the open.

It's not just the hot weather that makes southern India so different from the north. They have a 98% literacy rate here, which probably accounts for less people begging on the streets. We do run across young budding entrepreneurs who have set up a Santa Claus and are charging for pictures. Their smiles are captivating and well worth the few rupees we give them. Another boy rides by on a bike and stops to say hello and ask for a pen. We don't have one to give him so we offer a piece of gum. Then he lets Melissa ride his bike while taking pictures of her with my camera. Another moment in travel where laughter breaks through any language barriers.

Men also dress in traditional outfits called lungis, which look like beach sarongs. They wear them long and short. When they're short they look like mini skirts and it's a funny sight that never fails to make us snicker.

We only have a few more hours in Cochin before we have to leave, but it’s midday and the heat is taking it’s toll. We decide to break for lunch at this place that serves chocolate samosas. I am much more excited by the idea of this than Melissa. Southern India is also know for it’s spectacular seafood; I get a mixture of different seafoods while Melissa gets stuffed peppers. Both are delicious. But it’s the dessert I’m here for and I tell the waiter I already know what I want before he brings the dessert menu. The look like little fried ravioli, floating in a mango sauce. I’m a bit disappointed to discover it’s more like chocolate sauce than fudge. But they’re still yummy and the mango sauce is tangy and offsets the sweetness of the chocolate.

Now it’s off to our three days of rest and relaxation!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Random Thoughts From India

1. Why does the official working the information desk at the airport need to know where we arrived from when we ask if there’s a day room in the terminal? And after inquiring about what time our flight leaves why does he ask us why we arrived here so early? What does it matter!!

2. Why does the woman checking in our bags at a glacier speed then tell me to hurry up?

3. Why did our driver’s car catch fire in the trunk after we got out?

4. Why are the 2 domestic terminals, which exist in the same building, not connected? (Thus making it impossible for us to use the day room???)

5. Why in a country full of help-desks can I not find anyone to explain why the free wi-fi isn’t working?

6. Why do men (and not women) dye their hair with henna, turning it the most ridiculous cherry-apple color of red?

7. Why do street beggers have cell phones… but there is not a garbage collection system in the entire country?

The Taj Mahal

It looks fake.

We’re on a large bus with 13 other people from the wedding, including the bride and groom. I hate bus travel and tours, but this is a special occasion. The traffic to Agra is horrific. Worse than Delhi. Worse than that time I sat with family for one and a half hours at a standstill outside the Lincoln Tunnel on the Friday before Easter AND Passover. THE. WORST. Our four hour drive has taken seven. We’re giddy and tired and stiff and sick of snacking on junk food.

Our bus slowly turns the corner of a narrow street like the Queen Mary II trying to dock. And suddenly I spot it. In the distance. I shout “There it is” and everyone scrambles to the left side of the bus for their first sight of the thing we’ve suffered in traffic to reach.

Your first sight of it is through a gate, although ‘gate’ suggests a white picket fence that your swing open, when in fact this gate is four stories high and decked out with marble and semi-precious stones laid out in flower and plant designs.

Through the archway of the gate the Taj is perfectly framed. Like a mini picture you would see on a coaster or calendar or another of the dozens of items you’ve already seen this famous monument on. Its perfect white dome and four minerates all in perfect symmetry. There are easily two thousand people (at least that we can see) pushing and crowding to get the perfect photograph.

But of course that’s impossible. Because no picture we take captures even half of the soaring structure or the excitement in the air. We pass through the gate and step up to a long pool that reflects the Taj. Another try at a perfect picture. It’s about an hour to sunset and from this distance the snowy white dome looks soft and fuzzy and honestly, like a backdrop that you would stand in front of in Las Vegas.

We snap and snap and snap away. From low vantage points, self-portraits, group shots, from the right, dead-center.

Then the guide tells us we aren’t able to go inside because it’s closing soon and the line is too long.

Sorry? What was that?

I am mad, until I look at Melissa and realize she’s not mad at all. Now, the Taj has been her reason for India. Her crowning moment of the trip (at least until she bought the travel chess set)

“Why aren’t you mad?” I asked. “Just follow me,” she says. Which Amy and I do, only to find ourselves cutting the line and suddenly inside the outer area of the tomb. Now, you must understand that rules are a suggestion in India and everybody is cutting the line. Still, 90% of the tourists are Indian and three very pale white women stand out. Still, we manage to get on the second line to enter the tomb, this one wrapping around the entire building. And we do get inside. But because it’s lit with natural light, and it’s about 10 minutes to sunset, it’s almost pitch black inside. It’s also jammed with people. We link hands and walk around the tomb, which we’ve read is covered in semi-precious stones.

Still, we consider it a victory. Eight-thousand miles to India and NOT enter the Taj Mahel? I don’t think so.

Up close, the outside of the Taj is … well, there really isn’t a word to describe it. The sun is setting on one side, creating an orange-red glow behind mosque that stands to one side. And on the opposite side, the moon is rising in between one of the minerats and another building built to mirror the mosque. (It serves no purpose and was only built to create visual symmetry.) We continue to take pictures that will never measure up to the reality. Close-ups of the carvings that run along the wall, of the soaring double arches, of the masses of people below that didn’t make it inside.

We ask a guy about our age to take a picture of us. He does. And then asks if he can have a picture with us. Before we know it, Indian people are coming at us from all sides, politely requesting photographs with us. It’s strange and funny at the same time. Young girls, mothers with babies, groups of teenage boys snapping pictures with their cell phones. We pose with at least 30 different people before we are able to get away. One group of girls tells us we’re beautiful. Anyone that has seen my air hair-dry knows this is not possible.

We have no idea why they find us interesting enough to take a picture, why we are so popular, why most of them are too shy to ask until they see one brave person take a chance and then they all want to do the same.

This must be what it’s like to be a celebrity; hounded for your picture by people that don’t really know anything about you but think you’re pretty and fantastic. Damn. We should have charged 50 Rupees per photo.

If we’re a bit full of ourselves when we return, you’ll know why.

I'm... Too Sexy for This Sari



Lubna and Pravez are the most wonderful hosts. We spent one hour talking with Pravez about religion of all things. He is a joke teller. What he calls non-vegetarian jokes. And with all people whose first language is NOT English, there is an odd mish-mash of phrases that are funny to hear.
“One should like to investigate the mind and expand a horizon” or “You should put on a very sad and forlorn face like you are lost in the woods and someone is certainly sure to assist you” (Picture it with an Indian accent)

We talk about how a smile is the same in any language, the great equalizer. He offers us both financial advise and why he thinks it’s important to seize the day. We discuss how families in western countries no longer eat meals together or travel together like Indian families do. And then he announces that ’Sex in the City’ is his favorite show and wants to know if that’s really what life is like for the single girl.

We spend the day lounging about the B&B ahead of our pre-wedding party. Lubna and Pravez invite us to join them for lunch. Pravez’s mother (who lives with them) is also there. The food is some of the best we’ve had in India; I fear Indian food is ruined for me back home. We have a dish that looks like a bowl of Thousand Island dressing but the neon orange sauce is savory and cheesy. They make us fresh roti and a curry vegetable dish. Yum!

Lubna helped us into our saris for the party the night before the wedding. Mine is turquoise with fushia, trimmed in glittery sequins; Melissa’s is black and red with silver flowers and trim. We’re thankful for her help, because it involves a lot of wrapping and pleating and tucking. We felt like girls being helped by our mom for our first prom. Once we were properly sari-ed, she determined we didn’t have enough bling and insisted on loaning us her expensive costume jewelry.

The party was at Surbhai’s uncle’s house, which is about a one-hour drive outside of Delhi. It’s an interesting contrast; we turn off the highway onto dirt roads, dirty barefoot kids running around, cows roaming the street. And the house is at the end of the block, red lights strung down the entire front of the house to indicate a marriage in the family. In a park next door an enormous pink tent has been erected. It all has a very Arabian nights feeling. Inside the tent, there are boys doing henna on ladies hands and arms and a traditional Rahjistani band is playing. Guests are removing their shoes and sitting on the cushioned floor to listen to the singers and talk. There are so many different color of dress; orange trimmed in gold sequins, a red and brown quilted design, sheer saris and those made of silk, vibrant pinks and muted greens. I would say it’s like a rainbow but that doesn’t do it justice.

Our palms, wrists and fingers are covered in intricate henna designs. I’m amazed at the boys doing the work; how do they keep so many different designs and patterns in their heads? They do dozens of them, all different from the next, and at lightening speed.

Afterwards we sit waiting for it dry with our hands up in the air to prevent our bangles from sliding down and ruining the henna. It’s unseasonably cold in Delhi and we can see our breath in white puff and our toes are freezing, not to mention our exposed mid-drift which our saris have left open to the elements.

But soon our henna is dry and just in time because the buffet is finally open. It’s set up like Indian street food, serving all the favorites that are sold in markets across India, but at a higher quality level. And it’s all so delicious! The chat is mind-numbingly scrumptious, a scientific blend of a crunchy fried bread thing, spiced yogurt, mint chutney and a mix of foreign spices. It can be made with any number of ingredients, but this is certainly the best I’ve ever had. Dozens of men are standing behind large, metal pan that look like giant woks mixing each order on command.

I try something that looks like a little roll, except it’s fried to be hard and hallow inside and filled with what looks like green pea soup. Actually, it looks gross. But I take a chance and am glad I did because it tastes nothing like it looks. It’s spicy and strangely has a meaty flavor. We eat delicately spiced veggies and fire-hot dosa, which are bread stuffed with all sorts of mouth-watering items.

Next, we have some fried bits of dough filled with potato and veggies and spice. We expect a samosa flavor but it tastes nothing like that.

Enough appetizers. We move to the main course table. Mini naans and roti; dal made of lentils, some kind of cheese cube in a tomato gravy-type sauce.

We are getting some attention from what I can only assume are single boys at the party. They cluster in a large group of about 10 and stare and whisper about us, making no attempt to pretend they are doing otherwise. Nobody else seems to notice they are doing it and like much in India we just take it in stride as they aren’t doing it in a way that is rude or makes us uncomfortable. It’s actually quite funny to be honest.

A DJ has started to play loud dance music, a mix of Indian and Bollywood and Euro trash. We decide to dance with the other girls and young boys despite the stares from our growing fan club.

One of Surbhai’s aunts comes over to tell us how nice we look in our saris and tells Melissa she wears her sari well. It’s a quirky phrase and we love it.

Breakfast the next morning at Lubna and Pravez’s B&B is a full house; an older Israeli man has checked in, as has a Canadian couple. Conversation is flying around the table, vying for space amongst Pravez’s jokes about Hindus, Jews and Muslims.

We take an auto rickshaw into the city to meet Amy for a day of shopping ahead of the wedding later tonight. We had ridden one through the old city, but this was on the highway and quite the adventure. Picture ridding an open cart on the FDR. It was a bit cold. At a traffic light on the entrance ramp we are accosted by young boys selling magazines; Marie Claire, India Today, Fortune. Their arms are stretching into the rickshaw as they babble at us “50 rupee” “you buy?” “what you like madam” before we speed off.

The shopping was great in Delhi. We focus on Connaught Place, which is a giant outer circle in north Delhi surrounding an inner circle, both of which are clogged with traffic. Streets spike out from the circles and we wander on the main one as shop keepers try to lure us inside. We look at scarves and before we know it, we are inside, sitting with cups of tea, haggling with the tall, handsome shop owner who is originally from Kasmir. We don’t leave empty-handed.

Much to our delight (more mine that Melissa’s, who is growing weary of my shopping disease) we happen upon the equivalent of a New York City street fair. Soon we’re weighed down with earrings and glass hanging lights, $2 shirts and elaborately painted metal dishes. The haggling is great fun and we’re getting very good at it. The key it to walk away like you mean it. One man insisted on 500 Rupees for one shirt (which is about $10), I countered with 100 ($2.) He said 400, I said 100. And on it went until I walked away and he ran after me, agreeing to 100 Rupees.

But the coup of the day was Melissa’s travel chess set. The previous day a boy had tried to sell her one outsideof the Red Fort. She doesn’t really play chess. But she likes how compact and convenient it was, the cleverness of the idea. So when a boy offered one up in the market for 650 Rupees, it was game-on. He followed us for half the market but he never stood a chance. Melissa was soon the proud owner of a smart, handmade wood box concealing a travel chess set for 100 rupees!

Afterwards we stumbled onto the food section. First we tried some dumplings from a little cart called Momo’s. Veggies and paneer (cheese) -- both were full of flavor, with a dipping sauce that set my lips on fire and turned them a rosy red. As we were gulping an orange Fanta soda in a vain attempt to cut some of the spiciness we spied two girls eating a large fried ball of something. We held up a finger to order one and paid the equivalent of 50 cents before tearing it apart with our fingers. This definitely makes it into Top Ten Things We Ate in India; fried hard on the outside, doughy on the inside, and filled with a mix of potatoes and spices and veggies. I know, I know -- all the food seems to contain the same ingredients. So, how can it all taste SO different?

One of the mysteries of this strange, dirty country.

Later, as we’re getting ready for the wedding, there’s a knock on the door. It’s Lubna offering to help us with our saris once again. And she’s not empty handed; she has bought us gifts, a set each of the colorful handmade tea cups in her house that we’ve complimented her on. It’s a sweet gesture and another of the long list of reasons why we have warmed to her so much.

Today, I’m swathed in a royal blue sari dotted with silver studs, a flower and bird design laid out on the end part that hangs down my back. Melissa’s sari is Caribbean-sea blue, a mosaic of gold, brown and black flowers running along the bottom and down the back. They are actually quite comfortable, once you get past the fear that they are sure to unravel, leaving you naked in the middle of India.

We feel elegant and exotic and as we pack both saris away that night we vow to have a sari night out when we return to New York.