Arriving solo to a city that everyone (including your own government) has warned you is “unsafe for female travellers” and dirty, ugly, crowded, polluted, etc. is daunting. Arriving solo to a city like Delhi could have gone one of two ways: I could have locked myself in my hotel room for 4 days and survived on the piss-poor WiFi in the room and modestly above average fare at the hotel’s restaurant. OR, I could have embraced the challenge, gone exploring and seen what Delhi had to offer. Even as solo travel anxiety built, I opted for door #2.
My excitement to explore increased with the warmer temps and bright sunshine cutting through Delhi’s smoggy haze. And so, I decided that my first day of complete freedom in India could not be complete without a metro ride. Men can be pigs here and that is only partially-offset by the ladies-only train car. What a great concept, and a safe and comfortable way to take a daunting first subway ride in a completely new city whose sometimes-cryptic maps are written in Hindi and sporadic English. The Indian girls chatter away, taking selfies and revel in the safety of this space. I invited a co-conspirator for the adventure, a lone Australian woman staying at my hotel. Only later I realised that she was a timid and tentative traveller who, having only arrived the night before, was feeling her Aussie version of Delhi shell-shock. She was not amused by my carefree attitude and comfort in this sensory explosion of a city.
First stop: Swaminarayan Akshardham.
If this promo video seems over the top, I assure you it is… but it barely does justice to the over-the-topness of this place. I liken the Swaminarayan Akshardham to Hindu Disneyland. The temple is the largest Hindu temple on the planet; the complex covers 100 acres. While It’s a Small World was not piped-in, I somehow expected an Alice in Wonderland-esque rendition of Hindu chanting to begin at any moment.
After one walks through the security gates, checks one’s bag (cameras and cell phones are not allowed) and proceeds to the entrance, one expects to be greeted by a smiling monk with expert dance moves. While that didn’t happen, there was this pervasive feeling of nouveau-spiritualism as we walked along the grand pathways and in/around the ridiculously ornate yet beautiful reproduction temple buildings. Throughout the park, one has the opportunity to purchase Swaminarayan merch: the books, videos, CDs and photos (theoretically blessed by the swami himself). There is a food court which was teeming with school kids by the busload (lunch was cheap, authentic and surprisingly good!). And as you exit through the gift shop, you can pick up the 120 rupee picture you had taken early-on in your adventure, next to the moat and in front of the grand mandir (main temple). The experience would not have been complete without a blessing from the Swami himself (via recorded message) and a sales pitch on local Swaminarayan temples we could visit back home. Spirituality 2.0. The Aussie’s comment, “I like Americans. They’ll do anything.”
The rest of the trip could only be deemed a misadventure. I got us lost, a mere kilometer from the hotel. My intrepid navigational skills pointed us in the opposite direction and we had to back-track to find the hotel, taking the main road, which necessitated dodging sleeping homeless, food vendors, tuk tuks, pedi cabs and dogs (and their landmines) along the way. Suffice to say, the Aussie was Not Amused. By this juncture, Verging on Horrified might have been the better explanation. We arrived back at the hotel in the nick of time, as I saw in her eyes that “real India” was a lot to experience on one’s first day in country.