I live about 18 miles east of Delhi in the city of Noida which is in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). From the border of Delhi, UP extends east where it eventually borders the country of Nepal.
Almost daily I make the hour long commute to New Delhi where I spend the afternoon working on projects with my friends, Joshi and Nandeeta, in their shop, Vedanta Cottage Exposition, located directly behind one of the finest five star hotels in the world, the Imperial Hotel. For the experience, I once spent a night in the hotel; it was a wonderful self indulgence that I highly recommend.
I visit the Imperial daily for two reasons; to use their clean, western bathrooms and to purchase some of their wonderful pastries in the shop near the gentlemen’s bathroom. There is a public bathroom about a block away behind the shop; as one might expect, in a public bathroom in a third world country, the conditions are quite unsavory.
I make the walk to the Imperial at 7 p.m. because that is when the pastries are sold for half the price charged before 7 p.m.
I leave the shop and walk about thirty feet to a gate manned by snappily dressed security guards. When the guards see me, they smile and say, “Namaste, good day sir!” I reply in kind; we are all smiling.
Once past the gate, it is about a 70 meter walk to the front of the hotel. Clustered in the porte-cochére are more guards and an exotically dressed and mustachioed greeter with a turban. In order to enter the hotel, each person, including guests, goes through a metal detector and a guard runs a metal detector wand over each person as a second measure of security. Yesterday, the security guard waved me through without wanding me.
From the security checkpoint, I approach two sets of double glass doors. A female guard, also well dressed in a similar black and white uniform as the guards in the alley, opens the door and bids me hello.
I walk into the Imperial’s lavish lobby and stride past the concierge desk, check in desk, reading lounge and a number of shops, finally ending my journey at the men’s room. Usually when I enter the bathroom, nobody else is there. But when I leave the latrines and head for the sink, a uniformed man is always there to give me liquid soap from the dispenser and hand me a towel. How does he know? In the few times I’ve been in such bathrooms in the U.S., a tip is expected even though I find the man’s presence somewhat disconcerting and unwanted. But in the Imperial, the man will not expect a tip. The exchange is brief and friendly.
Exit the bathroom and enter the pastry shop. Displays of eclairs, Danish pastries, fruit and cheese covered croissants, muffins, cheese, veg and chicken filled patties, quiches, chocolate mouse tortes and more adorn the countertops. Usually 110 – 140 rupees ($1.60 – $2.00) most of the pastries are now available for eighty – ninety cents (the chocolate mouse tortes run about a dollar each after 7 pm). I usually buy three or four pieces; they are packed one or two to a bag; those bags are packed inside a sturdy Imperial Hotel carry bag that probably cost more than the pastries themselves. With my bounty in hand, I exit the hotel, repeating the smiling exchanges with all the staff, and return to the shop ready to begin the commute home where I will enjoy the pastries with dinner.
As I write these words, I am now reflecting on the cultural and sociological elements that inform this daily walk. As a white foreigner, I stand out. As a male white foreigner, I am something of a target for some; people assume that I have lots of money. Prices quoted to me will be double, triple, or even higher, than for a native Indian. If that Indian is seen with me and then comes back alone, he will be charged more just because he was seen with me.