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July 8, 2008 / calebdresser

Independance Day

I see by the weekend’s dip in hits that people unplugged for once and enjoyed the Fourth of July – excellent! I can only imaging that booze and low-yield explosives continue to be a winning combination…

I woke up – alone – in a luxurious double bed on the third floor of a hotel on a narrow street in Karol Bagh, New Delhi. The battered IRRI phone read July 4th, five-thirty am, but within the hour I was standing on the platform at the train station with Rajan, the driver from the IRRI office. They sure are helpful there, especially when it involves transport at ungodly but oh-so-necessary times.

The ride from Delhi to Meerut was a surprisingly good experience; even with all the recommendations, its hard to believe how good the trains are here until you ride them. I enjoyed a cup of tea while fields of sugarcane and gritty railroad towns slid past, and then all too soon I was waiting for my pickup on the platform at Meerut City – the train was roughly 90seconds late by my watch, and being a flexible guy I figured that probably wouldn’t ruin my day.

The real fun started when I got back to the office in Modipuram, dumped my pack on the floor, and found out that Dr. Gathala was going to visit “local” farmers. Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to see some rice science in action, I grabbed my sunglasses and jumped in the back of the truck, expecting a quick local tour before lunch. I was not to return for another nine hours…

We drove south through Meerut, a city of over a million with nary a building more than four stories in height. The tallest structures I have seen are the tower of the temple to Shiv and the guard posts in the army cantonment. After an driving experience roughly equivalent to the racing scenes in Star Wars, we arrived at a tiny English-medium Catholic school surrounded by rustling rice and sugarcane. A little dirt track for bicycles led past the school and into the fields. I was ready to walk, but, perhaps feeling some hubris after surviving the road trip, Dr. Gathala punched in the 4WD and we bounced off. I rapidly realized that the “plains” in this region were on a different plane, or rather several. Negotiating turns in the road past parked bicycles and brick boundary-walls, we veered within inches of the edge of the track, and I got a very good look at the sucking muck three feet below. I think in retrospect the bus ride out of Denali was more intense – those of you who have been know what I’m talking about – but nonetheless I was pleased when we arrived in the dusty center of a little island of trees and solid ground.

The farmer was a fat man with smiling eyes and a soft voice, his companion tanned and bearded and quiet. They offered us cool, bubbly Limca and sugary biscuits, and we (read Dr. G & the farmer) talked for a few minutes. The culture in meetings here is quite convenient for the linguistically impaired (read deaf and mute), though once I’m functional in Hindi I think it may start to grate. Leaders talk to leaders, and the entourage is expected to politely listen to the voices of authority. I can thus squeak by with a few pleasantries and some halting answers to inquiries about America and my business here in India. Still, it can be a little surprising how things work at times. On another excursion I saw scientists visiting a farmer sit down to tea with him and then talk amongst themselves, and while found it highly awkward, everyone seemed content. The farmer fulfilled his social obligations by entertaining his guests with chai, and before they left he received some herbicides for a weedy field we had toured. Beyond that, he seemed content to sit and sip tea while waiting for today’s apparitions to wander back to their labs and offices.

In any event, command finally decided that it was time to visit the next farmer, so we retraced our perilous route to the main road. By this time it was early afternoon, and I realized in a moment of peace while waiting for a train to pass that I had so far consumed only a cup of tea, a soda, and two biscuits. The food issue didn’t bother me – I can fast when necessary, and heat seems to suppress my hunger – but the lack of water was another matter. Silently cursing myself for refusing the bottle of water I was offered on the train from Delhi (only later did I realize that its price was included in my rail fare), I fell into an uncomfortable dehydrated sleep, for the road was strangely free of the soda and drink stands that sit like blobs of cholesterol on the arteries of India.

When I awoke, it was in a sweat with a sense of sudden panic brought on my the realization that a small face was pressed against the other side of the glass against which I was resting my head. The highway-road had mysteriously vanished, replaced by a bumpy bricked street full of curious children and errant livestock. On our left, an arched bridge crossed a canal, the water black and bubbling with foul odors. Beyond, a gate beckoned us in to a hamlet of low buildings and sorry-looking mango trees next to faded blue-washed walls.

The next farm was a spectacle to behold, the largest by far that I have seen in this country. We approached on a track that wound through rice paddies, zigzagging back and forth to provide access to several tubewells from which gushed what I presume was cool, sweet water. I’ve drunk from tubewells here before, albeit in small quantities, but I never got the chance because almost as soon as we stopped to look at a field, two Sikhs pulled up on a motorcycle and struck up a conversation. By the time they left they knew my lineage out to three degrees and my business better than I did, or so it felt. I was left with the vague sense that they were at least tangentially involved in farming – but I could be wrong. While this was going on Dr. Gathala apparently saw as much as he needed of the field, and I had to scramble to get back in the already-moving truck. We arrived with speed and precision at the house of the farm’s owner, and proceeded to loll in the shade while awaiting his arrival.

The magnificent bearded agrarian was preceded by a servant who carried large chairs to us despite the fact that his left arm was almost completely encased in a bulky white cast. The uncomplaining, resigned tenacity of the working people here never fails to make an impression on me – nor do the strict class lines. As with every other socio-business situation, there was a precise order to seating and to serving. The farmer and Dr. Gathala took the large wicker chairs and sat next to each other so they could talk, while myself and the other IRRI man, a technician, sat on smaller chairs made of an indeterminate reddish hardwood. However, when lichi juice was served, the first glass was passed to me, as I was a visitor and wore the crisp collared shirt of the educated classes. Dr. Gathala took the next cup, leaving a dilemma on the table: the injured servant had brought three glasses for four people. The farmer was distracted in conversation, and I could see the technician looking from him to the glass of cool juice and back, clearly thirsty and perhaps trying to determine if it was worse to drink before a superior or to seem to refuse hospitality. Eventually the farmer turned and said with a smile that he was having tea. Our technician drank thankfully.

Several villages and many winding roads later, we emerged in early evening on a main road and found a place to eat. I was certainly ready by now, having had no food beside the biscuits in nearly twenty-four hours. It was delicious, chapatis so hot my fingers tingled and curry and dhal awash in warm oil and fragrances. There were cooling curds with something resembling chickpeas in them, and a dish of soft cheese (or tofu, I couldn’t tell, and the answers were unintelligible) doused in a spicy orange-colored sauce. Waiters constantly refilled our dishes and brought all manner of spiced breads and roti. I finished with bottled water and a small dish of ice cream, a rare luxury for roadside restaurants here in the countryside. The whole extravaganza cost $2.20 US.

There was plenty more after that in other fields and on motorbikes and in roadside tea shops, but its late and I’m tired…



Leave a Comment
  1. Margaret McCandless / Jul 8 2008 12:19 pm

    Wow! Makes me thirsty just to read it! Amazing what good manners sometimes call for.
    Was the child laughing while pressing against your car window, face to face?
    There is so much more I wish to read here, what your work was in Delhi, what you saw there, what Dr. Gathala seemed to be learning on the farm visits, what your usual daily food is like, and more.
    Thank you for writing even this much!

  2. Becky / Jul 8 2008 3:10 pm

    2.20!!! That is less than the typical American ice cream cone.

    Caleb, I’m glad you didn’t collapse form dehydration. Or wilt. PLEASE don’t go that long without drinking. I fully expect you to return to Cornell, hydrated, alive, and ready to consume the un-rare luxury of Cornell Dairy Bar.

  3. Margaret McCandless / Jul 8 2008 7:41 pm

    Thank you, Becky! Caleb knows what his mom is thinking, but it’s really good to have additional sensible people add weight to the Hydrate mantra.

    BTW, packages mailed to Caleb on June 28, June 30, and July 3 all arrived on July 7. If anyone else can’t resist piling up more possessions on Caleb, that is a nice, quick shipping time. I ponder sending a water bottle.

  4. Joel / Jul 8 2008 10:49 pm

    You seem to have little reluctance or caution about eating or drinking local food and drink. I have been cautioned about that in other less impoverished areas of the world, and I have found out why the hard way a couple times. Do you have to be at all careful in India?

  5. calebdresser / Jul 9 2008 6:13 am

    I’ll drink my water and eat my veggies, dontcha worry…

    You definitely have to be extremely cautious about food and drink here. I avoid the street food except for bottles or packages with unbroken seals and thick-skinned fruits. In restaurants you can generally get an idea of the quality by seeing who else is eating there and how many flies are around. I haven’t (yet) gotten even the least bit sick, but no doubt it will happen eventually.

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