by Ré Phillips
It was my first day in India, and I was just itching to use the internet to email my family and friends and let them know I had arrived safely to New Delhi, India, my new home for the next year I knew mom and dad would worry if I didn’t, so I fought off the jet lag and woke up bright and early the morning after arriving to find internet.
I moseyed on out of my new room at Vishwa Yuvak Kendra and in broken English asked the receptionist where I could find wifi.
“Wifi…? Email checking? Here?”
“Nehi, nehi,” she said shaking her head. “Outside.”
“Oh, ok. Where?” I asked.
“You go outside. At circle make left, look for small shop,” she said quickly and hurried back to shuffling the papers in her reach.
“Oh, ok. Thanks so much,” I said smiling. I thought to myself, This will be easy. I’ll just go, find the place, email mom & dad, and get back.
I headed out into the bright and sunny morning, happy to be in New Delhi and anxious to virtually reconnect with a piece of home for a little while.
I walked to the main road, made a left at the turnabout, and looked for small shops, but, sadly, did not find any. After wandering aimlessly for about 45 minutes, I recalled the advice my roommate’s boyfriend had given about where to find an internet connection: “Just tell any autorickshaw driver that you want to go to CP,” he said. “When you get there look for a place called Cafe Coffee Day, and you’re set.”
What is an autorickshaw and how to I find one, I thought silently and continued to walk along the main road.
I looked at the street and saw green and yellow flights of color whisking by.
Bingo. I think I’ve found myself an autorickshaw. Now how can I flag one down?
Maybe it was the bit of New York still left in me from orientation or maybe it was an instinctive, default measure for procuring a taxi-like motor vehicle like the ones whizzing by, but in that moment I proceeded to walk down the road, arm fully extended, thumb jutting out and swaying in true hitch hiker fashion.
The first auto driver that approached my way came to a screeching hault.
“Kidhar hai?” he said.
“Um, hello. Yes, I would like to go to CP, thank you. Do you know where CP is, sir?” I asked, as politely as I could muster.
“Connaught Place?” he asked.
“Well, I don’t know, I just know that the place I need to go to is called CP. Is there a place called Cafe Coffee Day over there?”
He responded with a “theek hai” and a slight head bobble. I was not sure if that meant he knew where this CP place was or didn’t know where it was at all. What if he doesn’t know and just drops me anywhere? I worried.
“How much?” I asked, rubbing my fingers together to gesture money.
“150,” he replied.
“Ok,” I said sliding into the autorickshaw, fingers crossed and all.
We drove for some time in the auto, for what seemed like hours on end. With each kilometer we drove, my heart grew more anxious with fear. I was alone in a foreign country, Hindiless, theoretically heading to an place ambiguously known to me as “CP”, and I didn’t even have the address of the place where I was staying to get back. To top it off, just as we arrived at CP and he dropped me off with another theek hai, it started pouring. Great, I thought. Just my luck.
Getting to CP was one adventure, but I could see that finding this Cafe Coffee Day would be another challenge. Looking for this establishment, I scoured both the inner and outer rings of CP, snaked all through the metro, asked local shopkeepers, but none of this seemed to help. No one seemed to know where it was. Finally, I saw a young couple, about my age, walking by and decided to ask if they knew of any place around here called Cafe Coffee Day.
“We can show you,” the girl said. “No problem. Just follow us. We are going to have coffee there right now.”
“Oh, you guys are angels, thank you so much!” I said happily.
The guy and girl led me to an ambiguous, unmarked entrance and told me that upstairs I would find Cafe Coffee Day.
This does not look like the entrance fit for a cafe, I thought to myself.
I walked upstairs to find a fairly happening & hip place. There were lots of young people scattered throughout the establishment, and the air was ripe with the smell of coffee. Slowly, I made my way to the cashier counter.
“Hello– uh.. Namaste— I’d like to use the internet, please.”
“ M’am. I am sorry. Internet connection is down today. The rains are bad for internet connection. No internet today.”
Are you kidding me? Is this some kind of sick joke? Where are the cameras, because I know I must be on some reality show being made fun of big time right about now, I thought.
“Ok, is there another internet cafe around here I can go to?” I asked.
“M’am, it is Sunday. All other cafes will be closed today.”
Walking back to the main road, my eyes scoured the terrain for another autorickshaw to ride back home in. I was ready to throw in the towel. So far, the whole adventure had strung me all around Delhi, and I still had not been able to use the internet. If I went back now, at least I could still make it back in time to get a few more hours of sleep in for my poor, jet-lagged body.
“M’am, hello!” An autorickshaw finally responded to my hitch hiking thumbs up signal and stopped at my side. “You need go somewhere?”
Wow, he speaks English. Lucky me! I thought.
“Hi sir, I want to go back to my hostel. It’s at Vishwa Yuvak Kendra.”
“Ok, no problem,” he said. In a second, we were off.
“Geez, there sure is a lot of traffic this time of day,” I observed, wind blowing gently on my face. Cars were everywhere. We were moving at a slow pace. It seemed like at this rate, it would take us hours just to reach the hostel.
“Today is Eid, the end of Ramadan. There are many parades today to celebrate the Muslim holiday. That is why traffic jam is so bad,” he said.
“ M’am, I will take you to market, you look around five minutes. Theek hai?”
“No, that’s ok. I want to go back to the place I am staying.”
“M’am, I will show you a good market, very nice things.”
“No, really, that’s okay, I just want to go home and sleep. It’s been a long day–”
“M’am, you go to market, you look around five minutes, they give me gas voucher– 50 rupee gas voucher.”
“Well…I need to get home, though,” I said with hesitance.
“50 rupee gas voucher– I need. My family needs. Please?” he coerced.
I sighed heavily. “Ok, I guess if you need it, we can stop– but only for five minutes.”
“Yes, m’am, just five minutes,” he said, eyes glued on the road.
“Welcome to Kareem’s Kashmiri Cashmere & Carpet Shop,” a small man said, voice booming.
“Hi,” I responded. I just wanted to get in and out. Look around for five minutes, buy nothing, get the gas voucher, and bounce. Simple as that.
I followed a group of Americans into a smaller room off to the right hand side. Oh, I see. This must be a gimmick they pull on all the tourists. Very funny, I thought sarcastically. The room was brightly lit. Glancing at the ceiling, I could see spotlights slanted in all directions: some pointed at rustic mirrors, refracting light and rebounding the color of the rest of the merchandise in the room, while others were pointed on what I presumed to be the feature item of the room: the carpet. The carpets were breathtaking. Pinks, blues, reds, greens– every color family was well represented. And the patterns– oh, the patterns were to die for! Stunning and breathtaking to say the least. I was immediately drawn to a warm, multicolored carpet. It was small, but powerful. It felt as if I could see past the carpet at my fingertips and into the ages. It took me to a different time and place. I felt–
“See something you like?” someone said, interrupting my thoughts. I could feel a tall man hovering over my shoulder. “All my carpets are hand-knotted by Kashmiri women and made of the finest silk.”
I turned around to discover a large Pakistani man dressed in pristine white garb. He was smiling, and he looked like he was more than ready to sell me a carpet– any carpet. There was no way I would let that happen. My only goal: to get the 50 rupee gas voucher.
“No, I am just looking,” I said, continuing to wander and browse around the shop.
“I will give you a special price?” he petitioned.
“No, really, I am just looking,” I responded.
“Well, can I at least give you a cup of Kashmiri tea while you look around? My mother swears by it. She always used to say that just two cups of this Kashmiri tea a day will bring out an individual’s inner glow, radiance, and youth. Please,” he said motioning for me to come to the couch, “have a seat.”
“Kashmiri tea? Ok, I guess, but I really have to go in a few minutes. Seriously,” I said. I would stand my ground. Five minutes in this shop, and I would be gone. But tea in the meantime wouldn’t hurt.
The tea was simply delicious– perhaps the best tea I’d tasted in some time. Before I knew it, I’d taken three cups of tea and there was an arrangement of exquisite Kashmiri carpets that lay spread out before me.
“M’am, may I show you our one of a kind carpet?
“Ok, I guess so… Sure, why not?”
The carpet he lay before me was absolutely stunning. I loved it. It was a colorful arrangement of different embroidered patterns– of arches and circles, symbols and heritage. It looked quintessentially Kashmiri.
“This,” he proclaimed, “is a work of art, madam. Each and every stitch contributes to a larger symbol and a larger concept related to Kashmiri culture– everything you see here has a deeper meaning. It is in the tradition of our people to make such fine works of art,” he said. “Art, my friend, deserves a fair price– it is something you will own forever and ever– for generations to come.”
Let’s just say, that at that moment, when he equated the carpet to a work of art, he had me.
I left the store lugging a heavy carpet over my shoulder, and within a few minutes was confronted with the autorickshaw driver.
“M’am, you bought something? You didn’t have to. I still got the gas voucher, see?” he said, waving a thin, flapping paper before my eyes.
“I know, I know. Can we just go home now?”