Two journeys, two meals

About one year ago, I had the incredible fortune of attending the World Association Public Opinion Research (WAPOR) conference in Nice, France to present data on Egypt. Rather shamelessly, I took the opportunity to use personal time for a three-day jaunt to Marseille, where I stayed at a youth hostel and went sightseeing in this Mediterranean hodgepodge of French, Arab, and west African culture.

On the second day of my visit, I took a long bus ride out to Massif des Callanques, turquoise-shaded inlets cut into the breathtaking cliffs of the Mediterranean. Arriving at the pools at the base of Les Calanques requires a one-hour hike over rocky and sometimes steeply sloped terrain. As I stepped off the bus and began this hike, I noticed two fellow travelers about to embark on the same journey. We introduced ourselves and quickly became companions. One was Swagat, from Seattle, and the other Vinay, from Delhi, and they were two friends backpacking across Europe together. Our discussion spanned many topics: their work (Swagat works for Skype, Vinay for Expedia), my research, their travel stories, recent developments in American politics and Indian politics (this was a few months after the BJP’s crushing win in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and a few months before the Republicans’ equally crushing win in the midterm elections), and the caste reservation system that is so deeply meshed into India’s political and social fabric. The conversation was so sweeping and engaging that the hike seemed to slip by without notice, and before we knew it we were swimming in the chilling waters at the basin of Les Callanques.

After an exhausting uphill hike and a long bus ride that returned us to Marseille well after sunset, we gorged on a sumptuous dinner of pasta and seafood, continuing our discourse as we socked away one bottle of wine after another. Two bottles in, I shared with Swagat and Vinay that I was presently applying for a research grant to study the sampling methods of Indian public opinion researchers, and that were I to receive the grant, I would spend nine months living in Delhi. “Let me know if you make it,” Vinay said. He would almost certainly be living and working in Delhi in a year’s time.

*****

This morning, I swayed anxiously during an hour-long Metro ride to Gurgaon, which is nearly at the southern end of the Yellow Line. Technically in the state of Haryana but part of what is known as the National Capital Region (NCR) surrounding Delhi, Gurgaon is a tech hub that announces itself grandly with gleaming chrome skyscrapers after a passage through dense forest on the edge of South Delhi. Staring out the window at a neatly arrayed web of towering office buildings, shops, and American-style restaurants, I was reminded of the view from the break room in my former office in Tysons Corner, Virginia.

After a transfer to the Rapid Metro Gurgaon, a train service so immaculate that it announces the number of seconds remaining until the next departure, I stepped off at the IndusInd Bank Cyber City station. Exiting right towards Cyber Hub, I wandered up and down a long row of restaurants, some Indian, some foreign. Puzzled, I returned to the map at Cyber Hub’s entrance and re-oriented myself using the restaurants around me. SodaBottleOpenerWala, yes, there it was, right beyond the Starbucks and the Punjabi restaurant. I walked back along the row of restaurants and entered the Parsi restaurant. From a table near the back, Vinay waved at me. Smiling, I sat down beside him.

Much had changed in a year, and yet not much had changed. Vinay still lived in Gurgaon and worked for Expedia, but was recently engaged and expecting to marry within the next year. He explained the process of going through an arranged marriage. I told him about my move to Delhi and my research, not so different from the work I had been doing one year ago. He walked me through the history of the Parsi (Zoroastrian) community in Mumbai, whose cuisine we were enjoying: vada pavs (bread rolls with spicy fried potatoes in between), breach candy awesome okra (okra over masala), and tamota papeta par eeda (Parsi style baked eggs on spicy tomatoes and potatoes). I ordered a raspberry soda, which he found to be too sweet, and he ordered a masala Pepsi, which I found to be bizarre. We discussed contemporary developments in Indian and American politics: the Patel riots over caste reservations in Gujarat, and the rancorous but ultimately futile opposition to the Iran nuclear deal in Congress. I told him about my own backpacking trip across Europe only two months prior, and we compared experiences.

Before I knew it, two hours had passed. I had to start heading back to South Delhi. As I stepped out of an Uber ride to Sikanderpur Metro station, we shook hands and made plans to meet again soon. “This conversation is to be continued,” Vinay said.

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