Thursday, March 3: I wake up in Delhi to a steady drizzle and a chill that cuts right into the center of my heart. Even inside the Chhoti Haveli, the air is cool, and I regret now leaving my EPIK sweatshirt in the bathroom stall at Incheon Airport. I’m thankful I can have a lazy morning, as Jayne’s flight doesn’t arrive until 11:45 a.m. After a leisurely Western breakfast with coffee, my last in the guest house, I sit at the computer and check emails. And wait until our driver, arranged by our tour guide, Umer Ullah of Discent Travel, arrives to pick me up and take me to the airport.
I’m impatient and while waiting I alternate between reading the book I brought along, Brick Lane by Monica Ali, checking Facebook and emails and looking at my India blog, which doesn’t have any real entries yet. Just a pretty pink background and a picture of Indian women wearing colorful saris. I’m gearing up in my mind for the true adventure to begin. I realize that my first two days have been a slow skimming of the surface of Delhi, the polished version on the fringes. I’m wondering what to expect when I dive in full force. As I read my book, I feel a little annoyed with myself because inadvertently I’ve brought along a book about Bangladeshis living in London. Not quite the Indian experience I was hoping to read as I traveled. I have trouble concentrating because I’m excited for Jayne to arrive and for our journey to begin.
Our driver, K. Lal, arrives in a small white sedan and we head to the airport. He tells me we have a lot of time to wait until Jayne arrives, picks up her baggage and goes through immigration and customs. I don’t believe him because when I arrived at 1:30 a.m. two days ago, it hardly took any time at all. He insists on stopping at a little chai stand on the 3rd level of the parking deck, out in the damp air, and sitting at a plastic table with other drivers to drink his chai. I want to go down to the Arrivals Gate, but he is taking his time. So I order a chai and have a seat as well.
Finally we go down and surprisingly, we aren’t allowed into the airport for security reasons. As a matter of fact, no one is allowed into any of India’s airports unless they show their passport and their airplane ticket. So we are left to stand outdoors on the pavement for another hour because, alas, K. Lal was right. It takes quite a long time for Jayne to collect her bags and clear immigration. When finally she arrives, I’m so excited! I take pictures of her, we give each other big hugs, and hop into K. Lal’s car, where he drives us to our hotel, Hotel Singh Sons (www.hotelsinghsons.com), a three star hotel that should be a two star. Or lower. It’s a big step down anyway from the Chhoti Haveli. We drop our bags and head out to see our first sights in Delhi.
In order to get to Delhi’s largest mosque, K. Lal hires a cycle-rickshaw for Jayne and me, and he gets into another rickshaw that follows behind us. The two rickshaw drivers are filthy but happy-go-lucky fellas who smile, give peace signs and the thumbs up, and cycle happily along through the rain and mud and slosh. Delhi is a mess in all its wetness, so I can imagine how it is during monsoon season. The streets are teeming with auto-rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, cows, garbage, extremely poor people living right on the streets, dogs, more garbage, cow shit ~ basically total and utter chaos and frenzy. Around us, in our faces, are motorcycles, ox carts, bicycles pulling carts loaded down with huge bundles of stuff. Tents fashioned out of blue tarpaulin sheets line the streets. Trash and debris are built into the landscape, a permanent marring of the scenery.
Our first stop is Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque. It can apparently hold 25,000 people. The “Friday mosque” was built by Shah Jahan, the same person who built the Taj Mahal, between 1644 and 1658.
Below the mosque, which looms over Old Delhi, is a market selling cheap goods and fruits and vegetables and fruit juices, which of course we’ve been warned not to drink for fear of contracting Delhi Belly. Muslim men wearing kurtas and salwar kameez and stretch kufis on their heads barbecue unknown skewered meat on open grills. The market is filthy and in the rain, I wonder what kind of raw sewage is splashing over my feet.
We make our way through the market and up the steps to the mosque, where we are told to remove our shoes. They also tell us we have to wear these sheet-like pieces of cloth with pink backgrounds and huge white flowers. Frankly they look like something a clown would wear and we don’t understand why we have to wear them as we both have on long sleeves. It’s not like they require us to put the fabric over our heads. We walk around posing in silly stances and taking pictures and then we pose with a gatekeeper wearing a turban. He of course wants money for the privilege of taking our picture with him.
I’m happy to leave the mosque as it’s absolutely filthy and the market below is even worse. So far, our first stop in Delhi and I’m not impressed. One truly irritating thing is that we’re forced to pay the shoe-minder for minding our shoes. Another guy also tries to get us to pay for the cloth covering they forced us to wear, even though we didn’t need to. We refuse to pay him because we didn’t want the damn things anyway, and this was nothing we agreed to beforehand. This kind of thing becomes a constant irritation on this trip. Everywhere, we are forced to pay for stupid things we don’t even want to do. I don’t need anyone to “mind my shoes!!” I could have cared less if anyone took them!! I also don’t feel we should have to pay for having to wear a cloth covering, after the fact, no less (!), that we don’t even need!!
We ride our cycle-rickshaws back to K. Lal’s car, which, aha, happens to be parked right next to an emporium which he’d like us to take a look in. We do so and even buy a couple of things. Jayne buys a funny turban for her son and scarf gifts for all her friends. I don’t buy any gifts, just a few things for myself! I’m so selfish. 🙂
We go next by car to the Red Fort. It dates from the peak of the Mughal dynasty. Again, this is another of Shah Jahan’s construction projects; he built it between 1638 and 1648. However, he never fully moved the capital from Agra to here because his son Aurangzeb deposed and imprisoned him at Agra Fort. Mughal rule here was brief and Aurangzeb was the first and last great Mughal ruler to reign from here. No one maintained it and it fell into disrepair by the 19th century.
We go through the Lahore Gate, so named because it faces toward Lahore, now in Pakistan. We then walk through a vaulted arcade called Chatta Chowk, a tourist trap bazaar where we each buy a scarf for 100 rupees, around $2.20.
The British used the Red Fort as a military camp until India won its independence in 1947. Now it serves as a symbol of India’s sovereignty; the Prime Minister raises the Indian flag on the ramparts of the Lahore Gate every Independence Day. In 2007, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We wander around the Red Fort. The grounds are nicely manicured and I love the architectural style, which is a synthesis of Persian, European and Indian art elements. We see the Diwan-i-Aam, the large pavilion for public imperial audiences, with an ornate throne-balcony (jharokha) for the emperor. We also wander through the Diwan-i-Khas , a pavilion clad completely in marble, the pillars decorated with floral carvings and inlay work with semi-precious stones.
Later, K. Lal takes us to yet another emporium. We are already getting irritated by his insistence on us stopping at these places, and it’s only the first day! We ask him if he can drop us somewhere for dinner, and he surprisingly drops us at a very cool and modern restaurant at Connaught Place called Lido. Cool music is blaring loudly through the restaurant, and it has more the ambiance of a bar than a restaurant. I order a red wine and Jayne orders a super large Kingfisher beer (they only seem to come in super large sizes in India). We share delicious prawns curry, Parmesan and rosemary naan and a delicious vegetable jhalfrezi. Jhalfrezi is the Indian version of Chinese stir-fry made with curry spices: turmeric, cayenne powder, cumin, coriander, dry mango powder, cinnamon and cloves. These spices are mixed with bell peppers, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, cauliflower, and string beans. A delicious dinner and ending to a crazy first day in Delhi.