About Susanna Wang

Susanna Wang is a writer/photographer/teacher from Scotland, whose impulsive decisions led her across Eastern Europe, India, Australia and – most spontaneously – Inner Mongolia. She now lives and works in this region of northern China, eats far too many noodles, and occasionally goes to the Gobi Desert to see the camels. http://theinnermongolian.wordpress.com

Chandni Chowk to China (via Scotland)

That’s it. I’ve finally become Indian.

I’m sure you’ll know this by now, but I’ll tell you again anyway: I’ve left India, and returned to Scotland.

(Cue violins.)

It’s only been a few weeks, but it already seems like a lifetime ago that I was snivelling over my last ever Chicken McSpicy in IGI Airport; getting strange looks from a sunburnt Israeli backpacker, who had opted for a Subway sandwich. My Paharganj-quality suitcase was wrapped in industrial-strength cling-film, and, as usual, I held up the queue at Immigration while the officer, oblivious to the line behind me, chatted away in Hindi. “You should continue to live here in India,” he said, when he learned I’d been studying Hindi, “You are most welcome to stay for as long as you like.” But before I could make a half-joking comment about him giving me a green card, he picked up his stamp, and with a flourish marked my passport: Departed, 7th April 2012.

And, later, as the always-apathetic Jet Airways staff poured cups of weak, lukewarm coffee at 30,000 feet, I watched Rang De Basanti and snivelled some more.

I had a great last week in Delhi, though. My landlord had made me move out of my flat early, which meant for six days I was crashing on beds and floors and charpais all over the city, including New Ashok Nagar with Udita and Safdarjung Enclave with Maegan. We spent hours making food and chai, chatting, reminiscing, being nostalgic. We indulged in a bit of weird beauty therapy, some fancy mehndi and a couple too many gulab jamuns. I even squeezed in a final cinema visit – it was the perfect way to say goodbye to my adopted city.

Fancy hands! (And yes, Maegan is wearing pyjamas)

So what’s next? Again, you’ll probably know this, but I’m off to China in August to teach English for a year. It’s funny – I actually applied for the job kind of as a joke. One morning in January, Maegan and I were sipping carrot juice (I’m not sure why)  in our favourite cafe in Majnu ka Tila and I was online, scouring the English teaching vacancy websites looking for a possible Plan B (Plan A involved earning enough money to be able to stay in Delhi, and, as you can see, it didn’t quite happen). “English teacher wanted in Inner Mongolia”, I read off the screen. I don’t think I could have pointed out Inner Mongolia on a map at that stage, but it sounded weird and fabulously obscure. I immediately announced to Maegan, “I’m going to apply.”

When, a few days later, the school replied (mentioning that Inner Mongolia was, in fact, an autonomous region of China and quite different from ‘Outer’ Mongolia (which is basically an informal name for Mongolia, the country. Don’t worry, I learned all this on Wikipedia, too)) and said they had “great interest” in my CV, I began to think more seriously about the job. Anyway to cut a very long story short, I’m going there in August!

Baotou, the small city where I’ll be living, couldn’t be more different to Delhi. It’s in the middle of nowhere, for one thing. Somewhere between the ‘famous’ Grasslands and the edge of the Gobi desert. It’ll be cold there, and people won’t speak much English. But, as well as the opportunity to experience a new culture and way of life, I will also have the major advantage of a WASHING MACHINE IN MY FLAT. And I’m not going to lie; that’s basically what swung it for me. I’m so excited I can hardly contain myself!

Anyway, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’m still at home for the next few months, so stay tuned for Scottish updates. And I’ll leave you today with a cliffhanger: I’m not the only Cheesecake girl who’s left Delhi…

The Cheesecake Girls: Delhi’s best blogging trio?

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Fishy business (but good for the sole)

It’s not easy, being a girl. Especially a great, big, pink, sweaty, foreign girl, who has to live every day amongst thousands of beautiful (and petite) Indian women. The kinds of women who do that irritating ‘effortless chic’ thing with their glossy black hair, never-smudged eyeliner, glowing skin and expertly shaped eyebrows. The kinds of women who wear jeans in 40 degree heat without expelling a single drop of perspiration. I’m sure you’ll understand when I say this really doesn’t do much for my self-esteem.

But I think I’ve finally come to terms with being comically tall and constantly sweaty, and have faced the fact that wearing eye makeup (or any kind of makeup, for that matter) just isn’t an option in Delhi post-February.

What I can’t deal with, though, is having disgusting feet.

Living in a big, polluted city with a climate that makes wearing any footwear other than flip flops out of the question, it’s not surprising to get home after a long day and realise your feet are coated in a thick layer of dust, dirt and god-knows-what-else.

The thing is, I’m so lazy that during all these months of trudging along Delhi’s streets, and thus making my poor tootsies increasingly worn and disgusting, I haven’t been for a single pedicure treatment. And I’ve now reached the stage where I just can’t cope with the idea of expecting another human being to restore my feet to their former – softer and cleaner – condition. No person should ever have to perform a task that horrific.

A fish, on the other hand…

Well, that was my logic. Although I have been told by several reliable sources (including Maegan’s boyfriend) that most of these ‘fish pedicure’ places have been closed down because of hygiene reasons or, possibly, because animal rights activists thought it was cruel to make poor, defenseless creatures nibble the dead skin off the general public’s feet. Which, I suppose, is fair enough.

So it made perfect sense, then, to give this fishy foot fiesta a try before it was made illegal in Delhi too. And since it was Maegan’s birthday last month (and I hadn’t got her anything…), I thought it would be nice to drag her along with me and treat her to her very own aquatic ordeal.

We went to ‘Happy Feet’, a stall with a slightly misleading name in Select Citywalk, and plunged our feet into a glass tank full of small, innocent-looking brown fish, which quickly swarmed around our toes in exactly the same way that groups of students flocked round the aloo tikki stand after classes at DU.

It tickled. A lot. And then it started to hurt, which was unexpected. Nobody had told me there would be pain involved!

The small, innocent-looking fish were frantically chewing at my living flesh. They were basically mini pirhanas; the presence of my big, pink, foreign feet sending them into an ecstatic feeding frenzy. The whole concept, I suddenly realised, was horrible. Why was I doing this?

Ezgi, our Turkish friend from college, and who I’d also lured into this pirhana preschool, was watching her feet with great interest. ‘In Turkey they have spas where you sit up to your neck in water like this. With fish.’

Maegan and I grimaced.

But, fifteen minutes later, our feet emerged from the tank and – if you ignored the bite marks – did look a bit nicer. We were then treated to a bit of industrial foot-scraping, followed by some nice moisturiser and a relaxing massage. And, until I went outside and walked about in the dust, my feet did look incredibly well looked-after. It’s just a shame that the effects only lasted a few minutes.

I suppose these fish pedicures are more of a gimmick than anything. I don’t imagine I’ll be going back for another one, so I’m sure I’ll be able to cope if (or when) they get banned everywhere. As an experience, though, it was probably one of the only things that’s been ticklish, hilarious, painful, ethically-questionable and nausea-inducing at the same time, so it’s got to get some points for that. But I do feel a bit sorry for the fish.

Do not disturb the ducks

The Deer Park in Hauz Khas is really nice. It’s just a pity that until last week I had never visited it.

I really don’t know why I’d never bothered to take the small detour by the entrance of Hauz Khas Village (actually I do – it’s because I was usually on an urgent mission to find biscuits at Kunzum or crepes at Flipside), so I’m quite ashamed at my laziness and at how clearly unwilling I am to alter my (albeit deliciously biscuit-y and crepe-y) routines.

Anyway, it all changed the other week because my brother had come on a visit from Scotland, and I thought, as a supplement to our extensive tour of Delhi’s best dessert-serving establishments, I’d show him some of the city’s greenery. And Maegan, who’s lucky enough to live within walking distance of the Deer Park, came with us.

You follow the path that’s on your right as you approach the Village. First you’ll see some grass and trees and a few overexcited children, and then there’s a big enclosure full of deer. Actual deer! Most of them are quite timid, but some brave ones will come right up to the fence if you bribe them with a handful of fresh grass and some Haldiram’s snacks. There are peacocks too, that strut around with their fancy feathers on public display, and, according to a sign, the enclosure is also home to rabbits, though we didn’t see any. At this stage I didn’t realise I had my camera with me, so I don’t have any photos of the animals. But I’m sure you can imagine what it was like…

Then there’s a couple of dome-shaped tomb-type-things, beside which a group of awfully cool teenagers were playing volleyball. Surprisingly, we weren’t feeling sporty enough to join in, although we did try a few of the exercises along the jogging track.

What we were most excited about, though, was the duck pond. We’d been following signs to it for ages, our hearts filling with expectation at the aquatic-avian delight we were about to discover. We imagined lush greenery, crystal clear water and birds bathing blissfully. Perhaps we’d buy some bread to feed them, and then sit back and listen to them quack-quack-quack with happiness.

But then we reached the pond and were a bit disappointed.

Come to think of it, we mused, had we ever actually seen a duck in India? Maegan remembered that she had, once, but in Kerala. We’d obviously got our hopes too high. Not to mention, made the terrible mistake of believing what was written on a sign in India.

But never mind. It was time to leave the Deer Park anyway, and carry on with some much more important cultural activities, namely my chhota bhai’s first meal in India. Which, of course, was schnitzel and carrot cake at Flipside.

A lot can happen in Cafe Coffee Day

Mr Ramakrishnan, the President of CCD!

So, as we all know, 2012 is the year in which the world will end, and a clear sign of this impending apocalypse is Starbucks, which will be subjecting India to its undercaffeinated beverages and irritating jazz music before the year is out.

I’m particularly devastated about this because we already have a couple of our own perfectly good coffeeshop chains: Barista, and the cheaper (and perhaps more cheerful?) Cafe Coffee Day. The latter, with its iconic red sofas and Bollywood background music, has become something of an Indian institution – no mall or market is complete without the CCD red inverted comma.

But it’s all change at our favourite cafe chain. No longer must we rely on the sloth-like waiters, as we now place orders at the counter. The menu has also changed to incorporate some slightly fancier sandwiches (although, tragically, Maegan’s favorite lemon tea has been axed). Oh, and they’ve just opened a brand-new ‘Lounge’ branch by the Saket PVR.

So while everyone is busy raving about St*****ks, we have decided instead to celebrate CCD, by compiling this list. Enjoy.

Relaxed: The MIT CCD at Manipal (by Udita)

The CCD that has only ever housed students, almost always those that pretend to be studying heavy engineering books, is located in the heart of the University town that I lived in, Manipal. This CCD is witness to ‘filmy’ drama everyday, in the form of hook-ups, passionate making-out sessions, impromptu break-ups, and groups so large that all 9-10 of the tables must be joined. The conversations range from new crushes to the last exam to the latest bike in town. Often, there are local gigs (pioneered in my times by Anamol’s band) and one can listen to Floyd and Dylan while sipping not-so-well-made coffees. But when the music and the ambience is so laid back and ‘Hard Rock Cafe’ types, what more can one ask for?

Chilled out in Chennai: Adyar CCD, Indira Nagar (by Maegan)

Prominently located in one of south Chennai’s most amiable suburbs is another CCD that scores highly in the rankings. With an abundance of wicker chairs and sofas tucked under the shade of a leafy green canopy, its outside area may well be CCD’s most picturesque. Notable for its sizzling chocolate brownies (which are always proudly served with a suitable amount of drama and gusto) and unpredictable opening hours (I’ve known it to be open past midnight when busy but closed at nine on quiet nights), what really sets it apart are the staff. Willing to let you use their toilet when you’re passing by & just can’t make it home, they also came to the rescue by providing a small cup of (free!) milk when I ran out while baking a birthday cake for a friend late at night. Now that’s what I call service …

India’s best CCD?: Amber Fort, near Jaipur, Rajasthan (by Susanna)

When my parents were visiting, my dad developed a sudden and intense fondness for Cafe Coffee Day (the same way he did for ‘Ducky Duck’ in Japan). After a heavy thali, what could be better than a coffee in CCD? After being harassed by hawkers in Connaught Place, only CCD would provide some much-needed tranquility. And after traipsing around the Amber Fort for hours in the midday sun, when we spotted that little red inverted comma, and drank cappuccinos while looking out over the fort’s golden stone walls, we probably were the happiest tourists in all of India.

Engrossed: CCD Counter at STMicroelectronics, India (by Udita)

I consider myself fortunate to have a CCD counter at my workplace, where… wait, hold your breath… prices are half of what they are outside! Yes! It’s almost half the reason why I get myself to work everyday and since I am a very regular customer, I get goody-bags, free coffees etc. every once in a while. One can usually overhear people having intense discussions about the leakage graphs of a device or the capacitance of a BJT. The coffee is good and even lemon tea is still served here. The best part, they still makes ‘Coffee Toffee’ for people who request it; it used to be on the menu a long time ago.What can I say, I feel blessed…

India’s worst CCD?: Rajiv Chowk metro station, Delhi (by Susanna)

It would only be fair, while describing the best, to also include the polar opposite, which can be found in the sweaty, stale-smelling interchange metro station underneath Connaught Place. This CCD is always packed, but even if you can find a table you’ll immediately want to die because there’s no airconditioning. Once, I went in here to be told there was no milk. ‘Um, so what can I have?’ I asked the waitress. She heaved a sigh and eventually found the strength to reply, ‘only black coffee, madam.’

Tested  & Infested: Noida Sector 18 CCD, UP (by Maegan)

Susanna may have already taken the title of ‘India’s worst’ for Rajiv Chowk’s undeniably unimpressive branch, but in Noida’s sector 18 I think we have a contender. Tucked away not far from the metro station up an insalubrious looking staircase, its ambiance leaves much to be desired. Best-known for its acute cockroach problem and long-term out of use toilet (‘currently being fixed, madam’) the massive amount of time that I spent there is perhaps the most damning indictment of my Noida PG. Either that, or I kept going back because of the lovely waiter who enjoyed helping me with my Hindi homework.  As they say, you win some, you lose some …

(Photo of Mr R borrowed from here)

Tea, coffee, travel culture, and a bowl of coconut soup

While we’ve mentioned once or twice that Hauz Khas Village might be becoming a tad too ‘bohemian’ (read: pretentious) for its own good, there are a few places in the tangle of leafy, winding lanes that are well worth checking out.

The other day, after a long and questionably useful Hindi class at DU (Did you know that the poet Kabir was abandoned at the side of a pond by his mother when he was a baby? Well, you do now.), Maegan and I headed to South Delhi’s artsy urban village for an evening of socialising at Kunzum Travel Cafe.

Started back in 2007, Kunzum – named after the ultra altitudinous mountain pass in Himachal Pradesh – is a space for swapping travel tales with newly made friends; for reading travelogues and guidebooks stacked on library shelves; for daydreaming about exotic and distant lands (owner Ajay Jain’s photography all over the walls helps with this!); for penning/blogging your own holiday memoirs… Oh, and even for just sipping tea or coffee, which, believe it or not, you can pay whatever you like for!

And the best part – my lovely friend Brandi now works there. Lucky b*tch.

Look how smug she is!

We shuffled out of the bone-chilling January fog and into the cosy cafe. I swear it was the first time I’d felt warm in days; I even had to take off my shawl. Brandi and some other friends were lounging on floor cushions, discussing film nights, book launches, workshops and several million other exciting things which would be happening at Kunzum soon. We had masala tea in Fabindia cups and rectangular peanut cookies. We chatted about a new collaborative e-zine called Outside In. We toyed with the idea of turning chai drinking into a sport, envisaging headlines like ‘Team Chai completes race across Delhi, discovers chaiwallah with best recipe’.

Creative ideas in a creative space: Kunzum is just like that.

And then it was closing time. And we decided to go in search of soup. The quest took us along the Village’s narrow gullies, round dark corners and up crumbling staircases – via detours at Flipside and Elma’s – until we reached Lah! – an almost brand-new Southeast Asian eatery with bright pink walls and a slightly out-of-place Christmas tree. Studying the menu that promised tasty-but-perhaps-not-100%-authentic dishes from the likes of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, Maegan and I ordered a gigantic bowl of ‘Laksa Lemak’ to share. A spicy coconut soup full of noodles, veg and beansprouts, it was the perfect meal for a cold winter night. We were very happy indeed.

So while I didn’t move to India to sit drinking coffee and using free wifi, or to eat Thai soup beside an elegant vase of bamboo, there is definitely room in my life for the odd night in Hauz Khas Village. And with Brandi filling me in on the events at Kunzum (she does excellent Facebook updates), I expect my visits will soon become more than occasional.

Painful purchasing in Primark versus sublime spending in splendiferous Sarojini Nagar

This Festive Season (notice how politically correct I’m being!) sees two thirds of the Cheesecake trio temporarily back in their British homelands. I had an uneventful journey from Delhi to Heathrow, during which I realised with some embarrassment that I’d already seen ALL of the Hindi films offered as in-flight entertainment, and then took a sleeper train up to Edinburgh. Yes, a sleeper. A British train with beds. But no, there were sadly no samosas and tragically nobody was screeching ‘chaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiii!’ at all hours of the night.

I’m now home safe and sound and there have been no major developments in my fair Scottish city. Oh, except one – we now have a Primark. Slap-bang in the city centre, Edinburgh residents now have access to four floors of morally questionable – but super cheap! – clothes, shoes and accessories. Hurrah. The thing is, though, I haven’t been able to inspect much of this because the shop’s so busy it makes me want to die.

‘But wait!’ you cry. ‘Aren’t you used to shopping in Delhi? To squeezing through the Old City’s bazaars like vacuum-packed sardines, with all those beggars and angry aunties and men with groping hands?’ The answer is yes, of course. But the truth is, shopping in Scotland annoys me much more than shopping in India.

Why? Well, there’s the incessant queuing, for a start. Nothing is more frustrating than standing in a line for hours – often while being simultaneously aurally assualted by pre-recorded blastings of ‘cashier number six please!’ – when all you’re buying is a pair of socks. Then there’s the customers with children. Either they run around demolishing everything, or they sit screaming in gigantic pushchairs (or ‘travel systems’ as I believe they are now amusingly called) which take up entire aisles. Staff are trained to be sickeningly friendly, even though the falseness is almost always obvious, and shops are now getting so big that you’re not just confused anymore; you’re actually lost.

Shopping in Delhi’s markets is less mechanical and much more human. One of my absolute favourite places in the city is Sarojini Nagar market, where factory rejects (of well-known Western brands; even Primark, actually) end up in great, crumpled heaps, waiting to be discovered – and ironed – by bargain-loving, but fashion-conscious, Delhiwallahs like yours truly. Sure, it’s busy, and yes, there are plenty of screaming children and a few lurking gropers, but the atmosphere is fun and the stallholders are enthusiastic and – mostly – genuinely friendly; powered by paan and regular refils of garma garam chai.

‘Woh wala dikhaana’ – ‘show me that one,’ is the line to use. The stallholder will then take a comically long metal pole to lift the garment at which you’re pointing (on its coathanger) and hand it to you for inspection. He will use encouraging English phrases like ‘size good, madam’ and ‘very nice quality’ and then inform you that the price is 250 rupees. You will scoff in mock disgust and, with a pained expression, tell that stallholder that you’ll offer him a hunded bucks, and not a rupee more. Then, after a minute of two of dramatised arguing, you’ll most probably receive a hefty discount and be handed your purchase in a small  polythene bag. Then you’ll move on to the next stall and repeat the script.

Of course, for some people, this kind of shopping will sound terribly time- and energy-consuming, but I suppose it depends on what you’re used to. I admit that Delhi markets not only terrified me in the beginning, but they completely boggled my mind – there was so much language and acting required for each transaction that shopping was quite an ordeal.  But now the impromptu conversations are a fun part of the experience, and as well as the bags of bargains, you come home with a satisfying sense of achievement too.

So I’m glad I did my Christmas shopping in Delhi because there’s no way I’ll be braving the high street in this city! And by the time the January sales are underway I’ll be safely back on Indian soil. Yay.

PS Merry Christmas, lovely readers!

(Photo borrowed from Toastwife, via Flickr)

God bless you, beta

One of the things that’s either really interesting, or really annoying (depending on your attitude) about living in India is that very strange things happen here almost every day. In fact, just by leaving the house I can pretty much guarantee that I will witness something – or someone – odd.

Such was the case last week when I was trying to take an auto from Saket to Green Park.

In front of the Saket PVR there’s always a row of autorickshaws, but, as usual, most of the drivers were asleep (in various contorted positions) on their back seats. The one driver who was fully conscious refused to take me to Green Park for less than a hundred rupees; a ridiculous price for a fifteen minute journey. I began to argue, but stopped suddenly when I heard a voice behind me.

‘Excuse me, my child,’ the voice said. I turned around and found myself standing face to face with none other than Jeff Goldblum.

Okay, it wasn’t actually Jeff Goldblum, rather an Indian guy with strange glasses and an uncanny similarity to the American actor of Jurassic Park fame. But at least now you’ll be able to picture him in your head. He continued. ‘Beta. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe you think that this driver is trying to overchange you.’

‘Yes!’ I cried. ‘He’s charging a hundred rupees to go to Green Park!’

Jeff placed his hand on the top of my head in sympathetic blessing. ‘Which country do you belong to, child?’

‘Scotland,’ I replied. The bemused auto driver twiddled the corner of his moustache.

‘Ahh. The United Kingdom,’ said Jeff in a mist of nostalgia. ‘London. A magnificent city. I lived there once.’

The auto driver and I glanced at each other. Jeff continued. ‘I have lived in many places. Paris, New York, Louisiana, Washington, Barcelona, Amsterdam. And of course your city, beta – London. But anyway. Back to the matter at hand. One hundred rupees. Do you really believe the driver is trying to cheat you? What do you think the correct price should be?’

‘He should use the meter!’ I said, raising my eyebrows at the driver. By now a few passers by had stopped to listen to the conversation, and the man who makes paranthas had left his stall and wandered over.

‘God bless you, my child,’ said Jeff, placing his hand on my head again. ‘This is India. This driver man has very little money; perhaps he has a family to care for. One hundred rupees is a very small sum, really.’

‘But-‘ I protested, ‘but, I know a hundred is too much! He’s cheating me because I’m foreign!’

‘Oh, my child. You are new in this country and you have much to learn. Indian cities are very different to your London. It is not common to use the meter, for example.’

Exasperated, I had no choice but to stir things up. ‘In Mumbai they use the meter!’ I wailed. The crowd around me uttered a small cheer. The auto driver started laughing. Only Jeff Goldblum remained serious.

‘Listen, beta. I will now speak to this driver in Hindi. You will not be able to understand.’ Jeff then switched to Hindi, and politely requested the driver to use the meter, promising that I’d pay twenty rupees extra. The driver seemed satisfied with the offer.

‘Twenty rupees extra?’ I shrieked in Hindi. ‘That’s like foreigner tax!’

Completely unshocked at my change of language, Jeff only shrugged. By this stage I was really quite late, so finally I convinced the driver to take me to Green Park for sixty rupees and sat down in the rickshaw. Jeff sighed and adjusted his glasses.

‘Remember, child, this is India. Not London!’ said Jeff. Slightly confused, I nodded solemnly and told the driver to get moving. He started the engine.

‘God bless you, beta,’ Jeff raised his hand in a limp wave. The crowd (now taking up most of the pavement) grinned and waved enthusiastically as we drove off. A minute or so later, the auto driver caught my eye in the mirror. He looked just as baffled as me.