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Where's rrix Been: India

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I just got back from three weeks in India with my friends Nik and Kim. I worked with Nik on Uber's privacy engineering team and as my time there was winding down, Nik invited me to attend some weddings his family would be celebrating. What else did I have going on, we said, and I bought tickets.

Fast forward to November and I'm in Vancouver waiting for our 14 hour flight, just realizing that I left my glasses in Seattle. Good way to start a trip. But we made it to Delhi, and in to a car towards Nik's home in Faridabad. We did some tourism the first few days while we shook off the jet lag. Dilli Haat and India Gate. I learned quickly that I couldn't be left alone in dealing with shops because I've never had to haggle before.

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A few days in, we drove up to Chandigarh for the first wedding. Driving in India is wild, to put it in a word. Chaotic, unsafe, requiring a level of attention that was exhausting. I wasn't even driving, just riding shotgun most of the time, and it was a really great experience, frankly.

Oh and they have deco trucks.

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Good Luck

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Nik's family, the people hosting us for most of our trip, were some of the kindest most honest people I've spent time with in quite some years. I had such an enriching experience sharing coffee and simple pastries and learning about our cultures and values. Great stuff.

The wedding was ostentatiously beautiful. Before I left, most responses to my telling people I was going to India was "wow! I hear Indian weddings are incredible!" and indeed I'd heard the same in passing over the years. Being a guest of the groom's family was a great honor, I got to participate in a lot of the ceremonies over the course of those two days.

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After the wedding, we hired a cab to drive just the three of us to a small mountain village north of Chandigarh called Mashobra, in the very foothills of the Himalayan mountains. It was a ridiculously beautiful place, and the drive was another enjoyable, if exhausting experience.

Mashobra was very peaceful. Small place, but really beautiful. We stayed in an AirBNB rental with a stunning view east, towards the white mountains of the Himalayas. I couldn't really do it proper justice, waking up to the sounds of pigeons and monkeys running across the tin roof, breaking fast with Nik and Kim, and then spending an hour or two just … doing nothing. Meditating, reading, yoga, with nothing but a valley and impassable mountains in our view.

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Good morning good morning

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Visiting Shimla was enjoyable. The street markets there are energetic and have damn near everything someone living in the area around Shimla could need. Shimla itself is built on top of and around a mountainous region, and the mall road is built in to it. Narrow shopping streets and small corridors leading in to the homes above and around the market make up a fairly large part of the town, and it was great to occasionally find a cut between some shops or buildings and see the grandeur of the area it was built around. At times it felt it Mediterranean, these little towns built on to the sides of hills like this.

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Mall Road

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Sunset in Shimla

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This place is just stunning.

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Nik had some family who lives in Shimla, and we visited a shop owned by own of his uncles. Little electric supply shop maybe 100 square feet, we sat in his shop with him, talked and ate samosas while we watched him work, and watched people go by on their daily shopping.

Oh and I bought this scarf which I am in love with. It's made of wool and one side was woven with "golden" thread, giving it this really neat iridescence, contrasting the gold and blue. I saw it and was immediately mesmerized, and was glad to get it for a decent price. I think I've worn it most every day since I got back.

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We visited a resort called Wildflower Hall for high tea. It's a beautiful place and a place I could never justify staying at, but taking my first high tea was enjoyable especially at such a place as this.

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Babys first high tea. Not the most I've spent on tea, but close 😂

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They offered four high tea options, Indian and English, with vegetarian and non-vegetarian options for each. We did an Indian vegetarian and English non-vegetarian option for this meal, and I opted for a nice green tea to go along with it. I'm still thinking about those Scotch eggs and pakora.

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We took the tourist train from Shimla back to Chandigarh – well, Kalka, and then to Chandigarh – and then hired a car from Chandigarh back to Faridabad for a few days. It was around this time that I got sick for the first time on street food, probably pani puri from the local market. Took about two weeks to put my stomach back in order, and though the pani puri was probably my least favorite food I ate there (before I got sick, mind). Of all the things I ate, eating a wet pastry filled with tamarind flavored water wasn't at all my thing. And they just hand them to you so quickly.

We spent a few days back in Faridabad, sort of just lounging, relaxing, spending time talking and doing some light tourism while I tried to reassemble my insides. While we were in Shimla and Chandigarh, New Delhi recorded some of the worst air quality days in its history, apparently. The Air Quality Index sites I found online had them somewhere in the range of 500 – the worst I'd dealt with was the 350 or so we got during some of the California wildfires when I lived there. And those were not kind to me. I had a PM2.5 mask packed with me which should have taken care of most of the worst, thankfully by the time we got back to Faridabad, the AQI was in the 200s. The drive there was pretty gnarly, though my camera didn't do it much justice.

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😷😷😷

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We went back to Chandigarh for the second wedding, another great time. There was a lot of good food, I spent a bit more time sitting with Nik's family than the first wedding, where I spent a lot of time just taking in the spectacle of it all. From there, we drove from Chandigarh to the airport in Delhi and flew back home.

I don't know that I would have gone to India if I hadn't been invited, and had a sort of "curated" experience in this way. I'm not a Tourism Tourist, mostly. We went to Dilli Haat and it was probably the place where I saw the most foreigners the entire time I was in India. Otherwise, I was the only white person most of the time I was there, and it sort of showed. I was stared at a fair bit while I was in India, even at the airport in Vancouver, which I thought was interesting if not entertaining. At the weddings the family and caterers would ask me where I was from, but not Nik's wife, who lives a mile or so from me but is from South Korea and not white. And so for a while, I was the center of attention in a way I haven't ever been. When I was in Japan, I was clearly a minoring foreigner and when Jane and I were in Kyoto we didn't really have to deal with the attention, let alone staring, because Japanese just aren't like that in the same way.

People in India though are friendly and engaged with each other in a way folks aren't in the US, and that was refreshing in its own way. Being able to just converse across class boundaries, and largely treat people with respect is nice. I saw some … more questionable behavior at times of course, their caste system is by no means something I support or agree with. Simple things like speaking harshly to the caterer, but more sticky things, some of which made me feel things I'm still thinking about how to express.

Some of the cultural differences between India and the US stuck out to me while I was there. The aforementioned convivality is sort of baked deeply in to the fabric of society there. On the national highway between New Delhi and Chandigarh was fascinating because on the same highway you would see horse carts, motorcycles, autocabs, hauler trucks, bicycles, and farm equipment. Hauler trucks with folks on top of bags of grain, taking a ride with the goods. Tractors with loads three times as wide and four times as tall as the trailer it was on. You've gotta learn to live with folks of every cut there, the geographical organization of the castes there doesn't allow for it like it does in the US. Even middle class families grow up around housemaids and cleaners and street vendors because their labor is available so cheaply, and their mobility is so limited. and so this culture self-perpetuates itself, and while it's unquestionable that the middle and upper castes in India are doing phenomenally better in the last few generations than their ancestors could have dreamed of, I wish I could have learned what things are like for others in that system. Some of Nik's family had a girl of maybe 13 helping them with their toddlers. I don't know her name, she sort of faded in to the background over the course of my time with them. We didn't share a language anyways.

The sticking point for me could be described most succinctly as a lack of attention to detail. Paint running over the edges of the wall it was supposed to cover, loose bathroom fixtures, the TV in the hotel room hung crooked. If you ask for a bowl for a side, you also have to ask for a spoon. Spending time with Nik's family, in comparison to spending time outside and with service is sort of fascinating in that regard, because with family this is certainly not the case. If you're paying someone, they will do exactly what you asked them to do, rarely more, rarely less. It's not fundamentally different than western cultures, it's certainly not "worse", it's just much more open about its cynicism than in the US. Same with the intermingling of the castes in India, it's not like "oh we will make living in this neighborhood so expensive that Service Workers have to commute two hours every day" like you see at its worse in places like San Francisco.

The rules of the road are sort of guidelines. People at red lights sort of just space-fill as much as they can, lanes be damned. A lot of the haulers had "I stop for ambulances!" bumper notes, because that's still something that folks are trying to nail down on the Indian roads. Apparently they only recently started enforcing those rules in Delhi. I saw in my three weeks in India more broke down cars, both abandoned and in the process of being repaired, than I have in probably a year in Seattle. I'm really really glad I wasn't asked to drive while I was there.

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Thattll buff out

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India is a big beautiful complicated place, and I'm glad I got to go and experience some of the intimacy of family life there.

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Ryan Rix is a privacy rights advocate and net-art wannabe. Reach them on the Fediverse as @rrix@cybre.space, twitter as @rrrrrrrix, via email to ryan@whatthefuck.computer or on Facebook or on Matrix as @rrix:whatthefuck.computer.