What We Are Listening To
For your listening enjoyment. On our first night in Delhi, we wandered to a small restaurant across from our hostel that had a total of four tables in it and ordered dinner (this was to be one of our best meals in India). As the server/cook went back into the kitchen to make our meals, he put some music on – it turns out it was a station of American 90’s music and when this song came on, we all looked at each other and sort of laughed/cried. There couldn’t be a more appropriate song for how we were feeling.
India, How Do You Do?
We got off to a rough start in India. After an overnight flight from Istanbul with a short layover in Abu Dhabi, it took us three hours to get through immigration – mostly due to the fact that there were only two officers ever working at one time and because it took us so long, the driver that our hostel sent, left us. We were given EXPLICIT orders to not wander out of the airport alone (this, in and of itself, was unsettling) and so we had to wait for over an hour for him to come back to pick us up again (and pay for two trips).
And then we were dropped off in the most god forsaken part of the planet I have ever experienced in my life. We were driven down a muddy road filled with trash, sleeping bodies (I think they were sleeping…), cows, piles of human excrement, rats the size of cats and open doorways that served as urinals. This was not an abandoned alley. It was not a back road. This was the market. It also held stall after stall of people selling street food, clothing, shoes, statues of gods and goddesses and anything else you could possibly imagine.
I think it is important to note here that Delhi has just surpassed Beijing for being the most polluted city in the world. The air has 22 times the highest amount of particulates recommended in the air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organization. You could literally stare right at the sun through the ever present haze and we all developed smoker’s hack that lasted until we left India.
When we finally got checked in, we slept for six hours and woke up a little shell-shocked and Lily burst into tears. (I promise that by Thailand, she is a much happier traveler). Our first order of business was to get train tickets out. As quickly as possible.
We found out early in India that not everyone who tries to help you is trying to help you and you can never EVER let your guard completely down. The train station was pure chaos, we couldn’t get inside the building because every time we went to a door, there was someone there telling us we needed to go somewhere else and every offer of help contradicted the one before it. Which sums up our entire experience in India pretty well – a series of contradictions.
We finally gave up.
It became clear to us that we could not do India the way we had done Turkey.
In Turkey, we had traveled on a backpacker budget, staying in hostels and pensions along the way, often in family rooms that had one double bed and two single beds so we could all be together. I booked all of the transportation myself, as we went along, in order to give us flexibility. India did not offer us these options. A big part of this is because we were traveling during Diwali – the festival of lights and the second largest festival of the year. This affected our ability to book trains. Having four people increased the difficulty here because we all wanted to be in the same berth. Also, India does not have family rooms and the hostel option is far grittier than the hostel option in Turkey.
For all of these reasons and also because of sheer overwhelm, we made a decision that changed the entire trajectory of our trip. We got help. We went to a travel agency that we vetted and was backed by the government and we let them schedule our two weeks in India as a private tour. They booked our hotels (two separate rooms), our trains when they were available, private drivers when they were not and gave us guides in some places. They arranged drivers to pick us up from and return us to the train stations. Essentially they created a tourist bubble for us. This is not generally the way we like to travel. We like to be on our own, setting our own itineraries and doing our own thing. We don’t like to be protected by the tourist bubble, but we had very little choice here and I still think it was the right thing to do. It ended up being over three times the amount we had budgeted for India, however, and so significantly shortened the total length of our trip.
Lest you think that Delhi was all misery, let me share this with you. We had a day to kill in Delhi before our driver took us to Jaipur so we hired a driver for the day through our hostel to take us around to some sights. He was a really sweet man and we liked him a lot. We didn’t get to see everything on our list because we like to take our time and explore places at our own pace, but we did have a really nice day.
We started the morning off at the Red Fort. The Fort was commissioned in 1638 by the Mughal emperor of India, Shah Jahan. This is also the same dude who commissioned the Taj Mahal which we will discuss later. He wanted to move his capital from Agra (which also has a Red Fort) to Delhi and the red sandstone and white marble buildings reflect his favorite colors. The Red Fort is also the location of the famed Peacock Throne – Shah Jahan’s throne featured emerald columns ringed with pearls and large peacocks encrusted with sapphires, rubies and emeralds. It was taken in war in 1739 by the Persian King and disappeared (likely taken apart and plundered to pay for said war).
The Red Fort was the beginning of the phenomenon of the Indians’ fascination with taking pictures with the white chicks from Iowa. Lily and I had several men approach us and ask if the women with them could have their pictures taken with us. We always said yes, but it was very uncomfortable. Added to this are the people who would just snap pictures of us without asking or, worse, stand there with their mouths hanging open staring or schoolgirls pointing and giggling. I don’t care how self-possessed and confident you are, this will eventually take its toll on you. Especially if you are a 16 year old girl. By the time we left India, Lily was a ball of fury about people (men particularly) staring at her.
We asked our tour guide in Jaipur what it was all about and he said it was a prestige thing. It was considered impressive to know people from abroad so, apparently, our pictures are now floating around Facebook in India and we are the “American friends” of a great many Indians. As a side note here, this whole picture taking thing is a HUGE ethical grey area for me and I will discuss it in depth when I get to our travels in Thailand. Suffice it to say for now, that we continued to say yes to having our pictures taken because, at the time, it felt like we were keeping the picture taking energy in balance with all of the pictures we were taking.
After the Red Fort, we went to Birla House, Gandhi’s home, where he spent his last months, and the location of his assassination in 1948. We could have spent hours here. There were two videos chronicling his life work, every hallway had information displayed regarding his teachings on everything from equality for women to elevation of the peasant lifestyle to prayer and activism, there were even multimedia art installations depicting his contributions to the world and a room full of dioramas of his important life events.
I have some mixed feelings about Gandhi. Some of his later shenanigans are suspect and unforgiveable to me. But he was human. Capable of bad judgement and harm just like the rest of us. For me, (and I respect if you disagree) this does not diminish my passion for his unfaltering work and undeniable progress he made in India and Africa toward peace and equality and I deeply respect his commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience. I was pretty moved by the information on display here.
After a stop for lunch, we went to the Lotus Temple. The temple is the center of worship for the Baha’i faith in India. I do not know much about this religion except that it started in Persia and they believe deeply in Unity and inclusion. To this end, the temple is open to people of all faiths to come inside and for silent meditation. The grounds were spotless, the pools of water lovely, and the reprieve from the din of the streets outside was blissful. This was Lily’s favorite thing we did in Delhi.
We finished our day with sunset Humayun’s Tomb. Humayun was also a Mughal emperor. So, just as a side note and because India’s history is long and intense and convoluted, here’s a little bit about the Mughals in India. They were the descendants of the Mongol, Genghis Khan and started their rule when Babur made his conquering way through Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass and took over Northern India in 1526. They ruled until the British ousted them in 1857. Humayun was driven out of India for 15 years, but made his way back before his death, retook the throne and the Mughals continued their rule.
Anywho – Humayun’s Tomb was constructed in 1570 and, LO AND BEHOLD, it looks nearly identical to the Taj Mahal, which would be built by one of his ancestors nearly 100 years later. The complex actually holds many tombs and I found some of the others to be more beautiful and interesting. We were there right at dusk and we rushed through more quickly than we would have liked due to closing, but I hold that dusk is a pretty fantastic time to be beholding some freaking fantastic grave sites.
Our two days in Delhi were an extremely difficult time and we had more struggles to come throughout India, but this day was a pretty darn good one. Yes, every time the car stopped, someone knocked on the window trying to sell us something or beg for money. Yes, at one point a group of cross dressed prostitutes sauntered up to the car to proposition Mason. Yes, our driver hit someone with his car because there are too damn many people in this city to be able to move from place to place without endangering someone. But still. In India, what defines a good travel day is just a little bit more bizarre.