Two years ago today, I set off on the trip that would become the one to which I compare most others. After a whirlwind stopover in London, I was officially en route to Delhi, which was start and end to an almost 3-week adventure in Rajasthan.
I didn’t climb K2 or bathe in the Ganges; nor did I do yoga or a meditative retreat in an ashram in Rishikesh. Instead, I did sun salutations on the marble floor of a renovated haveli in Jodhpur on Christmas morning, to the sounds of a goat bleating to be let into the hotel’s lobby. I drank hand-brewed chai from a terra cotta cup on a dirt road in a dusty village market in Jojawar. I drank Kingfishers and danced to Bollywood music wearing a kurta (and a bindi) on New Year’s Eve in Jaipur. I walked the market streets of Pushkar before the bustling day began, to be blessed by a Brahmin priest by the magical Pushkar Lake. I got lost coming home from a mind-bending trip the Swaminarayan Akshardam in Delhi. I rode a camel; haggled for deals in markets; visited forts built in the middle ages; saw new puppies and starving dogs; smiled and shared tea with strangers; travelled on an overnight train; inhaled the aromas of amazing street food as well as those of the human condition; saw Delhi’s famed smog as well as its blue skies; tasted the best jalebi and samosas and aubergine curry and lassi and dosas I’ve ever had…and, yes, I saw the Taj Mahal. The toilet story was the best of that day, tho.
India was an experience for every physical sense, plus some senses I didn’t know how to tap into until I came home and began reflecting.
As I think about the coming year and begin to plan the shells of future wanders and adventures I wanted to share India Day 1, my first blog post and in it, the words that fail to adequately depict the shell shock that is one’s first contact with the entity that is India. [I hope you enjoy reading that post as much as I did writing it.]
I have learned that Indian people have hearts as big as their smiles. Yes, there is greed and unrest and poverty and inequality and laziness (maybe all just components of human nature?) everywhere. And among the throngs and the close-quartered humanity there are amazing souls to encounter here, where so many believe that now is good and the practice of bramacharya (restraint, limits, and the knowledge that there is such a thing as too much) actually is a way of life.
On this, my last day of freedom and my last day in Delhi, I spent the day with the uncle of an old friend. This is a man I had never met. He is as old as my father might have been, with a family and responsibilities of his own. Yet he cleared his slate to play tour guide to an energetic American girl hell-bent on breathing in this city and seeing it through a local’s eyes.
He opened up his heart to me and told me stories about his experiences in India, about his family and about his personal philosophies… all this while he brought me on a sightseeing journey throughout the enormous and mesmerising city. I am eternally grateful.
The day’s adventures included tourist spots Jantar Mantar, which is this larger-than-life astrological park and sundial that looks like a comic book skate park. I think one needs a helicopter or hot air balloon to properly absorb the site. We wandered through Qutab Minar, a 12th/13th century mosque and religious site with a 73 metre high minaret and some truly impressive old stonework. There was the requisite pass by India Gate, Parliament, all the embassies… And because I was curious as to the difference between saag and palak, my gracious host took me to lunch at Cosy Restaurant in Hauz Khas, explained the seasonal differences and how saag is prepared this time of year, and we ate a simple, yet excellent, meal of Saag Mukhan Wala (looks like a pile of creamed spinach, but tastes like ginger-cardamom-garlic heaven!) and butter rotis. There is nothing in this world like freshly-made Indian bread. After lunch, we made a quick stop to gawk at the outside of the outlandish Baha’i Lotus Temple, which looks like a cross between a spaceship and a sex toy springing from the ground to escape (or perhaps devour) the throngs of tourists and devotees alike.
The last stop of the day was my favorite: tea and sweets in a bustling cafe in the Bengali market. The sweet shop/cafe reminded me of a cross between a chinatown dim sum place and a coffee shop in the North End or Little Italy. Here we had chai, an Indian ice cream called kulfi, and I had my first taste of
jalebi, cooked in a giant wok-like fryer. It’s the Indian version of fried dough, only 4000% more spectacular. Made well, it is hot and crispy on the outside, sweet and oozy on the inside (the perfect street food…I am unquestionably hooked!). The racket was as warm as the tea, and we talked and laughed about the Indian chatter.
When my newly-adopted uncle dropped me at my hotel, we were talk- and walk-weary. It had been a long day. What strikes me still to this day is the sense of inclusion one feels in India. On a continuous basis in this country, I have been invited to enjoy local custom, to ask questions, to learn about what makes this place tick. Strangers and merchants alike have shared food and tea and toothless smiles and namastes that warm me and make me feel like part of this great machine that churns and vibrates and belches and screams and whines and beeps and sings and shines brightly…
I’ve heard India described as “everything coming at you at once.” This is pretty close to the truth. The chaos has its own rhythm and creates this meditative background noise that I’m sure I will miss when I’m home in the quiet. Again, I become part of this ridiculously enchanting synchronised chaos.
The city of Delhi, simultaneously gritty, foreboding, noisy, hectic, crowded, ancient and in renewal has this heartbeat that is musical and pulsating with an energy unlike anything I’ve felt. It is compelling and intriguing and happy and heartbreaking. The smiles belie the poverty and the grit. The warm hearts soften the warnings I’ve heeded (and not needed). This is not the romantic city of Udaipur, but from the moment I acclimated to the pace and atmosphere here in India (I’m not sure whether that was 5 minutes or 3 days after I arrived), I’ve felt this magnetic attraction to the underlying energies that make this place just work.
Today I visited Humayun’s Tomb, which is a fantastic oasis in middle of this great whirlwind. Humayun was the second Mughal emperor, and the tomb was built in the 16th century by his senior wife. I dare not sidetrack on the contradictions inherent in this faith nor on the role of women in their society. At the time (Hindu or Muslim), the foremost role of the king’s wife was to bear a son. Multiple wives/concubines I guess simply increased the odds. Humayun’s senior wife was Persian, and with her heritage brought Persian style to Delhi. To me it seemed a hybrid of Hindu and Muslim architecture, the ornate marble/sandstone tomb (that looks like a red-and-white pre-Taj Mahal) and distinctly Mughal gardens.
With scores of eagles and migratory Mongolian cranes circling above, I wandered the restored monuments in awe. The birds in this city are a marvel… if one pauses momentarily and looks up (also down, as the stonework is truly impressive in many places), one notices the scores of parakeets, eagles, hoopoes (this fascinating Asian woodpecker-looking thing), starlings and even pigeons by the thousands and tens of thousands – in the sky, trees and perched on the buildings.
Back in Humayun’s place, Isa Khan’s tomb is an intricately-carved, grand and well-preserved/restored example of what I learned is Lodi architecture. It is a strong yet feminine building, with precious detail along the top. A grand walled garden makes this part of the complex its own mini fortress and for me really stole the show at this site. A side-highlight for me here was a litter of perhaps 2-week old puppies that I stopped to take as many photos of as I did the tomb.
After consulting Lonely Planet, the next stop was Hauz Khas village, an artsy shopping district beside a 13th-century reservoir with wonderfully-intact (and semi-restored) tombs, domed buildings and an old school. The gardens and structures were teeming with Indian students – all seemingly late teens or college-aged, hand-in-hand or giggling and chattering and selfie-ing in small groups of friends. The chatter and the laughter pervades the archways, steep staircases and 600 year-old facades. I think I have become enamored with the medieval architecture here.
My driver and I press on to the site that truly takes my breath away. We brave the traffic and fly (and alternately crawl) past the dozens of temples and parks and attractions that one could understandably miss if they only saw Delhi on a foggy cold day in December. The Laxmi Narayan Temple looks outlandish at first, with a “kiddie temple” off the car park, and its bright terra cotta and yellow exterior.
I did not do my homework, nor was I prepared for this temple. As I removed my shoes and walked into the entry parlour, I felt the energy of this place. I think people must feel this way when they enter their favorite church. It was a breath of fresh air and felt like coming home. I was the only Caucasian there. After wandering the exterior, I braved to step inside and see the puja stations. There were pujas for Lakshmi (Laxmi) in different poses, with other deities as necessary. I felt pulled to one of the pujas and watched for a few minutes as the guru there had offerings blessed (coconut, flowers, sweets, and a cloth – I’m not sure what it all represents, but I was mesmerized with the ritual of it). We began chatting and he blessed me, gave me a wreath of flowers and a dot on my 3rd eye, then returned with some sweets as prasad (as are the flowers, sweets are offered to the deity, blessed, and distributed to worshippers to share in the offering). I felt chills. Afterwards, as I wandered through the rest of the temple, I came across a room with excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita engraved in Sanskrit on the walls. The Lakshmi puja at the end of this room had the other deities (Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha) sitting at her feet… it was nothing less than a magical experience. I reveled in the sunshine as I exited the temple, with Indians in sarees and kurtas bestowing upon me confounded looks, stares and half-smiles.
The last stop of the day was for fun. There is a 108-foot Hanuman statue and temple sitting beside a busy traffic roundabout by the Jhanderwalan metro station. To me, this is a great example of this culture not taking itself too seriously…the symphonic cacophany of traffic noise and trains and tuk tuk horns and stuff wallahs is epic and also perfect in its absurdity underneath this troublemaking god’s purvue.
I learned today that the gods each have their day…. Like the Norse gods for whom some of our days of the week are named, India has puja days for each important deity. Sunday is Surya, the sun god. Monday is Shiva and/or Brahma depending on who you ask (surprising to hear it’s not also Chandra’s day). Tuesday is Hanuman and/or Ganesha’s day. Wednesday is Vithal: Mercury (there is a loose connection between Odin [Woden], for whom the Norse named the day, and Mercury). Thursday is Vishnu and/or Ganesha again, also depending on who you ask. Friday is Durga, the Goddess, and Saturday is Shani and general astrology (Shani means Saturn, which is also the name of the day in other mythology, including Norse!).
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.
This day starts with a walk in the streets of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Chaos wakes up early, as street sleepers and tuk tuks, taxis, cycle rickshaws, cows, dogs and all others who share the roads begin their frenzy. “Chai omelet chai omelet” yell the markets’ breakfast wallahs. Misplaced punctuation makes a traveller curious.
Sobering is the number of kids on the street in the cities here. In a population of 1 billion, there are a million kids living on the streets in India. A million runaways, cast-offs, lost, forgotten, displaced and simply abandoned or not-forgotten children who could be potential game-changers for the next generation. We connect with a NGO called Salaam Baalak Trust, working to help these boys and girls get off the streets and rise to their dharma. According to their website, Salaam Baalak Trust translates literally to “salute the child,” and they do this by providing a safe haven for such a slim fraction of these kids.
So after a walk in the gnarly, dirty, busy, noisy, somewhat smelly but not as bad as I expected streets, we met some of the new arrivals at the Salaam Baalak Trust boys’ shelter in Paharganj. Here, they dance, they sing, they learn, they look for their families…many of whom don’t want them back. My heart nearly exploded when a very small boy, maybe 7 or 8, took my hands in his little warm mitts, stared directly into my eyes and asked me, “what are your dreams?” He wants to be a footballer.
I keep coming back to the tuk tuks because they are literally everywhere! And so, this day, I survive my first-ever tuk tuk ride… I have determined that a tuk tuk ride through the streets of Delhi is as good an adrenaline rush as a roller coaster. This one had a big Om on the back window. Regardless of the implied security (doors, what doors?), we nearly lost our lives… 6 times minimum.
Even with millions of homeless in India, it is said that one cannot go hungry. If there is a Gurudwara (Sikh temple) nearby, regardless of caste or heritage you are invited in for a free meal. As seva, we hand-rolled chapati alongside the automatic chapati machine issuing forth dozens to our single-digit creations. Being part of the well-oiled machine that feeds thousands each day felt like the right thing to do.
Here, it seems everything is either for sale, negotiable or remedied with rupees. Case in point, muslim custom dictates that women should cover up in a mosque and that photos are not allowed. In Jama Masjid, one can pay a camera fee to bring in a camera (I am soon to find out that this is common at most tourist attractions – I’ve never seen that before!) and one can opt to a) walk past the guy asking you to cover up with a borrowed robe or b) use said borrowed robe to cover up and pay $10 rupees for the privilege. I was shuttled towards the guy by the queue, so had little choice in the matter.
The day continues with another couple of tuk tuk rides: from Connaught Place to India Gate, a blur of fog, color, hawkers, visitors (99.9% Desi – Indian) and preparations for an upcoming event…then back to our hotel to get ready for the next leg of the adventure: an overnight train to Jodhpur. I feel like I’m on the Amazing Race, and they’ve forgiven my not quite first class map-reading skills.