chandigarh >> to delhi (???) >> to rishikesh….14 grueling hours

Tuesday, March 8: Our day begins with a sprinkle of promise.  The sun is shining, the buffet breakfast is palatable, and here, in the hotel lobby, is my friend Neeraj’s brother, Rajesh, who has come to say hi before we leave Chandigarh.  Neeraj has told me he really wants pictures of me with his brother, so Jayne takes a bunch of photos in the hotel lobby and out front.  Rajesh tells me he’s Neeraj’s elder brother and that he has two young daughters.  He is quiet and shy and doesn’t say much.  He’s probably wondering why on earth his brother has sent him to meet this perfect stranger who just happened to alight briefly in his hometown.  But, he’s a good sport, and as we have to leave early for our “5-hour” drive to Rishikesh, he takes off and we load our stuff in the car and take off.  It’s 8 a.m.

Neeraj's brother Rajesh meets us in Chandigarh

Neeraj’s brother Rajesh meets us in Chandigarh

It’s a beautiful day and we are cruising along in the back seat with the windows open and dust flying into our faces.  The air-conditioner in Singh’s car has two speeds, either full-blast freezing or off.  We alternate between the two.  Singh seems like a decent driver, unlike Ajay in Varanasi.  Plus, he is a happy-go-lucky fellow and easy to get along with.  We think that if we’re going to be with anyone for 7 days, he is a good one.  At least this is what we think as we set out this fine, sunny morning.

Me with Rajesh

Me with Rajesh

We have a copy of today’s Times of India and I’m reading the headline story: Aruna Lives, But Others Can Die with Dignity: SC (Supreme Court) Legalizes Passive Euthanasia.  I read the entire story of how one comatose woman has been cared for by a hospital staff who loves her and doesn’t want her to die.  Their lives revolve around caring for Aruna, who does respond in some ways so does not seem to be officially “brain-dead.”  Interesting that India has made this choice to legalize passive euthanasia, while the U.S. is still in the dark ages on this issue.  I wonder if it’s because of their population of one billion people that they’re more amenable to letting someone go.

Along the road to Rishikesh.... every kind of imaginable vehicle :-)

Along the road to Rishikesh…. every kind of imaginable vehicle 🙂

Reading the paper gives me insight into the Indian psyche.  There is an advertisement for Lavana Tailam: For controlling excess body size and bellyfat.  Who should use? ~ People who are obese and have lost their body shape. ~People who [has] flabby thighs which rub together while walking. (I find this hilarious!)

Then, in a plug for Indian-style yoga, there is an article: U.S. Turns to Yoga to Make Troops Fitter. An editorial criticizes the Supreme Court: Attempt to suicide must be decriminalized: “A person attempts to suicide in a depression, and hence he needs help, rather than punishment.”

tractors along the road

tractors along the road

And then I come across a funny editorial: An Outlaw Hero: It’s Time to Bring Billy the Kid in from the Cold.  The writer argues that Billy the Kid should be posthumously pardoned.  He says that “Tricky Dick” was pardoned, he “who besides waging an illegal war against North Vietnam, bombing and killing millions, also brought disgrace to the presidency by lying, cheating, and abusing the vast powers vested in his high office.”  The writer goes on to say: “But former New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson, announced not too long ago that there would be no posthumous pardon for famous outlaw Billy the Kid who was shot down by gunmen 129 years back….Having investigated this case from the time he took office (this means American governors [has] less work than Indian ones), Richardson said people should not neglect the historical record.”

All of this I find highly amusing, one, because of the way the article is written, but also because I think it funny that an Indian newspaper should have an editorial on this subject to begin with!

rickshaws....

rickshaws….

About 95 km outside of Chandigarh, suddenly the engine of our Maruti Suzuki Esteem LX starts hissing and spitting out steam. Singh pulls the car over and opens the hood, or the “bonnet,” as Jayne, who is British, calls it.  Apparently, there’s a problem with the radiator.  We sit alongside the two-lane road as trucks, tractors, donkey carts, auto-rickshaws, cars, bicycles, and motorbikes whiz by tossing dust in our eyes.  I get out of the car to take some pictures as Singh pokes curiously into the engine trying to figure out the problem.   He takes our water bottles and empties them into the radiator.

Singh and the our broken down car

Singh and the our broken down car

Two filthy boys sharing one bicycle ride up, and Singh gives them our now-empty water bottles to take somewhere to fill up.  They zip off and return back quickly, although it seems we are out in the middle of nowhere, and I give them a 100 rupee note for their troubles.

these two boys help us by riding ahead and filling up water bottles for our radiator...

these two boys help us by riding ahead and filling up water bottles for our radiator…

An auto-rickshaw driver pulls over to offer his help.  There is apparently nothing to be done with the car on the side of this far-flung road, so the driver pulls out a frayed rope and he and Singh tie the bumpers of the two vehicles together.  Jayne and I are both incredulous that an auto-rickshaw could possibly pull an auto.  They instruct Jayne and I to get in the auto-rickshaw, and Singh gets into his car.

hooking up the car to the auto-rickshaw

hooking up the car to the auto-rickshaw

We start down the road only to have the rope come untied after a short distance.  They re-tie the rope and we’re off again.  Finally, after what seems like 10 miles but is probably less than 5, we stop at a filthy auto repair shop in some small town.   The auto-repair guys bring Jayne and me two plastic chairs and we sit out on the red dirt floor and wait for them to resolve the problem.

a goddess watches over us in the auto-rickshaw

a goddess watches over us in the auto-rickshaw

jayne in the back of the auto-rickshaw with Singh and the car being pulled behind

jayne in the back of the auto-rickshaw with Singh and the car being pulled behind

After about 1 1/2 hours, after one of the mechanics vanishes and finally returns with the necessary part from some other place, the car is finally fixed and we are on our way.  We settle in, pretty annoyed at this point from the hold-up.  Singh has been making excuses that this is not his car, that he borrowed this car from someone else, that his own car is currently in the shop for some kind of maintenance.  We don’t really want to hear his excuses, but he is making them anyway and we are captive.

at the shop

at the shop

We are finally cruising along again, if you can call driving in India cruising.  The potholed and decrepit roads in India are choked with every kind of vehicle and animal imaginable.  On this particular route, there are all two-lane roads, and since a myriad of  slower vehicles are always blocking the road, constant passing is required.  It’s so funny, as I’ve gotten older I have come to fear fewer and fewer things.  Years ago, I would have been terrified by this road trip.  Since every minute we are passing someone, and hurling head-on toward other vehicles, I would have probably had a heart attack within hours.  But “nowadays” (an English word Koreans love and use constantly), I seem to have become a little fearless.  It helps that the guru in Varanasi told me I would live till 87 or 88 and die a quiet death in my bed.  I keep reminding myself of this as we travel on this long day.   Strangely, even though I’m of course skeptical of the guru’s predictions, his words soothe my fears on this torturous day.

jayne waits.....

jayne waits…..

Jayne and I are just sitting quietly in the back seat, trying to get comfortable, and watching all the crazy people on the road.  Soon, we enter a road that is blocked off by gates.  We seem to have no trouble getting through the gate, but a little way down the road, a guy alongside the road waves us down.  He doesn’t look like anyone official, just some random-looking guy.  But Singh pulls over, pulls some papers out of his glove compartment, and gets out of the car to talk to the guy.  This takes quite some time, so we are getting irritated and wondering what the hold-up is.  Finally, after about a half-hour, Singh comes back and tells us that we cannot take this road because he doesn’t have the proper permit.  We have to turn around and take an alternate route to Rishikesh.  Again, he starts making all kinds of excuses about how this isn’t his car, how his car has all the proper permits, how it’s not his fault that this car is not properly documented!  Here, an argument ensues where we, especially me, start griping and complaining that he should have known what permits are required for this road, and he should have checked this car before he brought it from Delhi.  He is unabashedly unapologetic, and just keeps making excuses as we turn around and get on another overcrowded road going in some other unknown direction.

i wait.....

i wait…..

At this point in the trip, we are still able to be a little giddy because we are clueless about what is happening.  We are under the impression that we are taking some parallel road toward Rishikesh, and we think it may take at most 4 more hours.  We keep trying to get comfortable in the car and we both stick our legs straight up, propping our calves on the tops of the front seats.  My feet are right over Singh’s head.  We look like two check marks in the back seat.  We start giggling about this and Singh asks us what’s so funny.  We say, nothing, just the way we are sitting.  He is relieved, maybe, that we are at least laughing through this situation.

After quite a long time, I pull out my India map and I ask Singh what town we are in.  He tells me we’re in Karnal.  I say, What??? You’ve got to be kidding!  We’re heading toward Delhi! Why are we heading toward Delhi??  He goes on to explain that we are heading to Panipat, another 34 miles south, where some people will bring his car and we will exchange vehicles.  What???  Another big argument ensues where we are yelling at him that we can’t believe we are heading back toward Delhi!!  He continues to make excuses and to say, again, it’s not his fault because this isn’t his car and he didn’t know it didn’t have the proper permits.  We make our way slowly to Panipat, which takes over an hour to travel the 34 miles.  Every distance in India takes double the time it would take to travel in the U.S. or other civilized countries.  Sometimes it takes triple the time!

on the road again....

on the road again….

As we finally get to Panipat, which is 85 miles north of Delhi, Singh tells us that he thinks it is better for us to go all the way to Delhi to meet his friends with the car because if we stop in Panipat, we’ll have to wait 2 hours for them to meet us!!  Again, another argument ensues, where we are reaming him out for this disaster of a day.  Again he keeps saying it’s not his fault, it’s not his car, and when he gets his car it will all be okay.  I’m thinking, didn’t he say his car was in the shop? What if we get his car and we have more problems because it’s not in good shape??

By this time I am so furious that I want to jump over the front seat and strangle him.  But what can be done?  We plod along another 3 hours or so to go the 85 miles to Delhi.  My blood is boiling, but there is no solution to the problem other than to sit and take it.  We are hot and uncomfortable in this small car.  Our legs are cramped, our backs are hurting.  There is nowhere to stretch out.  Pure misery.

typical brightly-painted Indian trucks

typical brightly-painted Indian trucks

Finally, in Delhi, Singh’s friends come with his car and we move all our luggage and ourselves to Singh’s car.  It turns out that his car only has one seat belt in the backseat.  So Jayne and I will have to alternate wearing this seat belt and just hope we can reduce our odds of getting killed in a head-on collision.  We get on the road toward Rishikesh, which means we head southeast (we’re supposed to be going north!) to Ghaziabad, then we head north to Meerut.  Once we are northbound at least I begin to feel some relief that we are finally heading in the right direction.

At 6:00, we stop at a roadside cafeteria that is a kind of all-purpose place: it has a coffee shop, a “party lawn,” a swimming pool, and bathrooms.  I order some vegetable samosas with a chick pea sauce, and Jayne orders a chicken tikka that is so soggy that it sticks to the roof of her mouth. This is the first proper meal we eat the entire day, as we had only stopped for some chips and drinks around Panipat.

We poke along the long route, passing through Muzaffarnagar, Roorkee, Hadiwar, then to Rishikesh.  This trip from Delhi to Rishikesh takes another 5 hours.  When we arrive at 10 p.m. in Rishikesh, to the Divine Hotel, the place seems truly divine to us despite its notably un-divine appearance.  We are irritated beyond what any words can describe because we have just spent 14 hours in a cramped car traveling a route that would have taken no more than 3 hours in the U.S.!!  Our relationship with Singh has started out very badly and we have 6 more days to spend with him!  And Jayne’s and my friendship is being pushed to its limits.  The tension between all of us is thick and sticky and uncomfortable.  It’s as if we’re all stuck in a huge spider web made of taut metal threads.  I think we all want to kill each other.   I know I want to strangle Singh, and I feel frustrated because there is tension even between Jayne and me.  I fear this may not bode well for the rest of the trip.  I wonder how long it will last.  All I can hope is that the trauma of this day will dissipate with each passing day.

Finally.. a taste of the "divine" at the Divine Hotel in Rishikesh... the end of 14 grueling hours!

Finally.. a taste of the “divine” at the Divine Hotel in Rishikesh… the end of 14 grueling hours!

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more delhi: gandhi’s footsteps, tombs & temples, tailors & black ghosts, & indian hospitality

Friday, March 4:  Today we head right off for Gandhi Smriti, the Mahatma Gandhi memorial.  We tell our driver K. Lal we only need 45 minutes, because there is no parking here and we have no phone to reach him.  We soon regret our self-imposed time limit as the museum is fascinating, filled as it is with photographs of Gandhi and his words of wisdom, dioramas of his life, and the footsteps that show the walk he took prior to his assassination on January 30, 1948.

Gandhi Smitri ~ Mahatma Gandhi memorial in Delhi

Gandhi Smitri ~ Mahatma Gandhi memorial in Delhi

After assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns to alleviate poverty, expand women’s rights, build religious and ethnic harmony, end untouchability, and increase economic self-reliance.  He played a pivotal role in India’s quest for independence and used civil disobedience to bring about change.  He insisted on non-violence to achieve his ends.  He is truly my hero!

pointing to the U.S. flag on the World Peace gong

pointing to the U.S. flag on the World Peace gong

I am deeply moved by Gandhi’s words, posted beneath photographs of him on the walls of the museum.  I’ve read his philosophy before in different places, and his biography as well.  One quote that I find particularly inspiring is this:  “I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country, in whose making they have an effective voice, an India in which there shall be no high class and low class of people; an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony.  There can be no room in such an India for the curse of untouchability, or the curse of intoxicating drinks and drugs.  Women will enjoy the same rights as men.  We shall be at peace with all the rest of the world. This is the India of my dreams.”  M. K. Gandhi

the museum of the Gandhi Memorial

the museum of the Gandhi Memorial

diorama of gandhi's assassination

diorama of gandhi’s assassination

another diorama of Gandhi's life

another diorama of Gandhi’s life

My thought is that, in just the three days I’ve been in Delhi, it’s evident that Gandhi’s dream is far from being realized.  As I travel throughout northern India, this thought is reinforced and amplified time and time again.  I feel sad that Gandhi’s vision, even under a “democratic” government in India, and despite India’s growth in the world economy, is so far from coming to fruition.  My experiences in India will be revealed bit by bit over the course of this blog.  But suffice it to say, the country is not taking care of its own.  India does not have the infrastructure, neither does it seem to have the political will, to take care of its vast population of 1 billion people.  This fact is thrust in my face throughout my 21 days in India and it becomes increasingly sad and unbearable with each passing day.  More on this to come.

the simple room where gandhi spent his last 144 days

the simple room where gandhi spent his last 144 days

Another of Gandhi’s quotes involves religion and faith.  He says:  “All Faiths Are Equal.  I believe in fundamental truth of all great religions of the world. I believe they are all god-given and I believe that they were necessary for the people to whom these religions were revealed and I believe that, if only we could all read the scriptures of the different faiths from the standpoint of followers of those faiths, we should find that they were at bottom all One and were all helpful to one another.” M.K. Gandhi

gandhi's final footsteps

gandhi’s final footsteps

This I agree with wholeheartedly!  I have a real problem when people profess their own faith to be the only legitimate way to God.  I believe there are many ways to God.  Like Gandhi, I subscribe to the belief that all faiths are equal.

the final footsteps to the martyr's column

the final footsteps to the martyr’s column

a mural of Gandhi's life at the Gandhi Memorial

a mural of Gandhi’s life at the Gandhi Memorial

In the garden at the Gandhi Memorial

In the garden at the Gandhi Memorial

We walk through the beautifully manicured grounds of the museum, alongside the path where actual concrete footsteps are attached to the sidewalk showing Gandhi’s final steps before he was killed by a fanatic Hindu assassin.  The spot where he died is marked by a small pavilion known as the Martyr’s Column.   Gandhi had been staying at this house as a guest for 144 days, and we can see the room where he slept on a mattress on the floor, along with his few meager possessions: a walking stick, spinning wheel, sandals and spectacles.  I love the peaceful beauty of this place, especially situated as it is in the center of chaotic Delhi.

Jayne and I at the gate to the Presidential Palace

Jayne and I at the gate to the Presidential Palace

one of the government buildings in Delhi

one of the government buildings in Delhi

After holding up poor K. Lal for a half-hour more than the 45 minutes we estimated for the Gandhi memorial (which causes him to drive around in circles while waiting for us), we drive up Rajpath, or Kingsway, the approach to New Delhi.   There is no parking, so we can only do a drive-by of the North and South Secretariat (or Parliament) Buildings, two domed mirror-image buildings that hold over 1,000 rooms between them.  At the west end is Rashtrapati Bhavan, or the President’s House, built in 1929.  K. Lal throws us out of the car to take pictures while he drives around in more circles. At the eastern end is the India Gate, a tribute to 90,000 Indian army soldiers who died in World War I.  We drive past the India Gate several times today, each time trying to get pictures of it out of our car window.

Umer, our travel agent in india

Umer, our travel agent in india

It is now time to pay our dues, so we go to our travel agent Umer Ullah’s office to pay the balance due on our tour of India.  We had given Umer a 1/3 deposit, so we needed to pay him the remainder.  Near Connaught Place, on a potholed dirt road being ripped apart by construction, we find the decrepit office of Discent Travel, which says on the front: Instant Booking & Tourist Information Centre.  Nowhere on the facade does it say “Discent Travel.”

the Discent Travel office

the Discent Travel office

Umer has been recommended by a friend who used him for her trip to India last summer, otherwise I’d be worried as The Lonely Planet warns against travel agents who tout themselves as official “Tourist Information Centers.”   The place is a dive, which makes me a little uncomfortable, but as we go along in India, we find most places are dives (except the tourist spots!).  Umer, sweet and thorough, gives us our plane and train tickets, vouchers for hotels and sightseeing tours.  It is all quite well-organized.  We’re happy for his services as we didn’t want to plan this complicated trip ourselves.  Surprisingly, Umer invites Jayne and I to have dinner at his home this evening.  We’re thrilled to be invited to an Indian’s home for dinner!!

Next stop, Humayun’s Tomb, built in the mid-16th century by Haji Begum, the Persian-born senior wife of the second Mughal emperor Humayun.  The style is Persian, but the two-tone combination of red sandstone and white marble shows a merging of Indian and Persian cultures.  The grounds are lovely and  I love the architecture in India left behind by the Mughal rulers!  The highlight of our time at Humayun’s Tomb is being accosted by uniformed schoolboys and schoolgirls who beg us to take pictures with them.  It’s so funny and cute really; everywhere we go, they all want pictures with us!  It’s like being in Korea again!

the entrance to humayun's tomb

the entrance to humayun’s tomb

Humayun's Tomb

Humayun’s Tomb

Entering Humayan's Tomb

Entering Humayan’s Tomb

on the grounds of Humayan's Tomb

on the grounds of Humayan’s Tomb

Inside Humayan's Tomb

Inside Humayan’s Tomb

Potters at Humayan's Tomb

Potters at Humayan’s Tomb

Inside the tomb

Inside the tomb

schoolboys at Humayan's Tomb

schoolboys at Humayan’s Tomb

at Humayan's Tomb

at Humayan’s Tomb

people lounging at Humayan's Tomb

people lounging at Humayan’s Tomb

one of many photos with schoolboys at humayun's tomb

one of many photos with schoolboys at humayun’s tomb

K. Lal wants to drop us at a nice restaurant for lunch, but we ask for fast food as we don’t want to waste a long time in a restaurant in the middle of the day.  Besides, we don’t want to eat much as Umer has invited us to dinner.  So we stop at Nirula’s, India’s oldest fast-food restaurant chain,  where we get Vegetable Deluxe Thali, a combination platter of Dal Makhani (boiled lentils), Paneer Makhani (Indian cottage cheese in rich tomato gravy), Mixed Vegetable Raita (cucumber, tomato, and onions with grated coconut, green chilies and mustard seeds), Zeera Rice, Pudina Parantha (a kind of bread), Moti Choor Laddu (a kind of sweet), Papad- Roasted, Sirka Onion, and mixed pickle.  It’s delicious and cheap and quite a feast!  Perfect lunch!

Indian fast food at Nirula's

Indian fast food at Nirula’s

selling flowers outside of Nirula's

selling flowers outside of Nirula’s

We tell K. Lal we want to go to a tailor shop to have salwar kameez made, so he drops us near the Lotus Temple at Delhi Haat, a “craft cottage industries.”   Basically salwar kameez is a unisex dress worn in South and Central Asia similar to the shirt and pants worn by westerners.  We have a blast here!  A guy named Shiva takes over as our all-around man; he’s quite funny and is also taken by Jayne!! He can’t keep his eyes off of her!

fun times at the delhi haat tailor shop

fun times at the delhi haat tailor shop

Jayne has brought me some linen pants I ordered and had sent to her house in California; these need hemming, so the tailors take care of that.  They offer us large Kingfisher beers, and we have a grand time picking out fabrics, getting measured, buying scarves, and just general high jinx!  This turns out to be one of the most fun times we have in India!  It’s so crazy.  We give the tailors the name of our hotel, and later that evening, we each have two new salwar kameez delivered and ready to wear on our trip through India.

Jayne hasn’t seen the Lotus Temple, so we walk around here and even go inside to sit silently for some meditative moments.  The temple is shaped like the sacred lotus flower, with 27 white-marble petals.  It was designed by an Iranian-Canadian architect in 1986.  As I mentioned in my previous entry, the Bahai faith espouses universal peace and the elimination of prejudice; believers of all faiths are welcome to pray or meditate here according to their own religion.

the Lotus Temple ~ a rerun for me

the Lotus Temple ~ a rerun for me

me in front of the Lotus Temple

me in front of the Lotus Temple

Indian ladies with their children at the Lotus Temple

Indian ladies with their children at the Lotus Temple

Driving around Delhi is an assault on the senses.  The roads in Delhi go around grassy circles in which poor men and women sleep or eat or play cards.  Filthy children run around with no pants on so they can poop or pee anywhere the urge hits them.  Thousands of people live on the sides of the road either in the open air or under blue tarp tents, people with emaciated bodies, filthy faces and clothes.  They live in animal-like ways under bridges and overpasses, making fires, and washing clothes and picking lice out of each others hair.  Men chew paan, betel leaf filled with powdered tobacco with spices (although there are other variations without tobacco), and spit the red juices all over the place. Men everywhere piss shamelessly against walls or trees or into bushes.

a random street scene in delhi

a random street scene in delhi

When caught in traffic in Delhi, people approach our car trying to sell magazines or long chains with colorful elephants on them, or any sort of thing you can imagine.  Then there are the people who I call the “black ghosts.”  These are the really dark Indians who silently appear at your car window, right in your face, pressing their foreheads against the windows.  Most often, these are women in saris with rings in their noses, holding a baby and making gestures of feeding the baby.  Begging for money to feed their child.  Sometimes the “black ghost” is a young boy who has smeared his own spit under his eyes to look like he’s crying, holding his empty fingers to his mouth, as if putting food in his mouth, but his fingers are empty.  This occurs so many times throughout India that if I were to give $1 to every person who asked for money, I would need hundreds of dollars.  It’s incredibly sad and disturbing.

delhi streets

delhi streets

The Laxminarayan Temple, also called the Birla Temple,  is our next stop.  It’s a Hindu temple built in 1938 and dedicated to Vishnu, the second of the Hindu Trinity of creator-preserver-destroyer, and his consort Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. It was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi on the express condition that people of all castes and especially untouchables would be allowed in. The exterior is faced with the white marble and red sandstone typical of Delhi’s Mughal architecture.  We try to go in, but when they tell us we can’t take our cameras in, we opt not to pay to enter.  We can take pictures from outside the gate.  Besides, we’re tired by this point.  On the street a guy is selling books of Indian stamps.  I’ve always been fascinated by colorful exotic stamps so I buy a small book for 300 rupees (about $7).

the birla temple

the birla temple

K. Lal takes us to yet another emporium where I buy an enamel bracelet and some silver earrings in the shape of a fan, along with a punjabi top.  We spend a lot of time here actually browsing through their salwar kameez collection.

By now, it’s late, and we head to Umer’s house for dinner.  We’re ushered into his home, which consists of three narrow unfurnished rooms one right after the other.  The floors are covered in Persian or Indian carpets and the walls are marked with pencil scribbles and blotches of dirt and other scars.  I could swear red paan juices color the bottom half of the walls.  We spend a long time sitting on the floor talking about Kashmir, where Umer is from.  He shows us numerous photos of Kashmir on his cell phone.  Then he goes off to take an interminable phone call, leaving us waiting.  And wondering.

jayne and umer at umer's house for dinner

jayne and umer at umer’s house for dinner

We are wondering if we are really going to have dinner, as it’s very late by now and we’re starving.  No mention is made of dinner and there seem to be no preparations.  Finally, his mother brings in a meal of chicken with vegetables, rice, and roasted cauliflower, which Umer and his sister eat with their fingers.  Umer gives us utensils to use.

cathy & jayne have dinner with umer

cathy & jayne have dinner with umer

After dinner, Umer’s friend brings in oversize suitcases full of Pashmina shawls and scarves made in Kashmir, none of which entice us in the least.  The colors are dull and many are an ugly plaid pattern.  He continues to bring them out of the suitcase, like a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat, and despite us telling him we don’t care for them, he continues to pull them out one by one.  I never see one in the hundreds he brings out that I remotely like.  Curious, we ask him the prices.  He says they run between 15,000-50,00o rupees!!  This is $340-$1,100!!! Oh my god! This is crazy, especially considering that none of them are remotely attractive!

the India Gate

the India Gate

Hmmm… Not quite the idea we had in our minds when we were originally invited for dinner at an Indian’s home!

the India Gate in Delhi

the India Gate in Delhi


the real adventure begins ~ jayne arrives in delhi:-)

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.

jayne arrives in delhi

jayne arrives in delhi

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.

me in the cycle rickshaw

me in the cycle rickshaw

jayne and i in the cycle-rickshaw heading to jama masjid

jayne and i in the cycle-rickshaw heading to jama masjid

our gregarious rickshaw driver

our gregarious rickshaw driver

K. Lal in his cycle rickshaw follows behind us

K. Lal in his cycle rickshaw follows behind us

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.

the market in front of Jama Masjid

the market in front of Jama Masjid

drink stand in front of the mosque

drink stand in front of the mosque

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.

Jayne on the steps of Jama Masjid

Jayne on the steps of Jama Masjid

Jama Masjid

Jama Masjid

in prayerful stance in front of jama masjid

in prayerful stance in front of jama masjid

the two clowns with turban-guy

the two clowns with turban-guy

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!!

this picture cracks me up every time i look at it :-)

this picture cracks me up every time i look at it 🙂

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. 🙂

on the streets of Delhi

on the streets of Delhi

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.

The Red Fort

The Red Fort

arches in The Red Fort

arches in The Red Fort

the grounds of the Red Fort

the grounds of the Red Fort

Another pavilion at the Red Fort

Another pavilion at the Red Fort

beautiful arches

beautiful arches

arches

arches

on the grounds of the Red Fort

on the grounds of the Red Fort

in the rain at the red fort

in the rain at the red fort

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.

the grounds of the red fort

the grounds of the red fort

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.

the marble pavilions in the red fort

the marble pavilions in the red fort

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.

in our room at Hotel Singh Sons

in our room at Hotel Singh Sons

delhi day 2: a local market vs. dilli haat & tanu weds manu

Wednesday, March 2:  Tao and I have agreed to meet this morning but, ridiculously, we didn’t set up a time, leaving it the night before that he would call me in the morning.  I get up and eat my cauliflower pancakes and papaya & bananas with yogurt in the dining room, then take my coffee to the computer, where I catch up on emails and Facebook.  I’m unable to call Tao because somehow my U.S. based BlackBerry is not getting through on any network in India.  I’m in no rush because once Jayne arrives tomorrow, we have a full city tour planned and I will be burned out on Delhi if I do too much.  But neither do I want to sit around all day.

me with some random Indian boys in Delhi

me with some random Indian boys in Delhi

the cool dudes

the cool dudes

Finally, around 10:30 a.m. I’m about to give up and I head out to explore Delhi on my own.  Surinder gives me the idea to go to her favorite market, Dilli Haat, on Aurobindo Marg, and later to the market at Connaught Place.  I walk through the gate of the “gated community” onto Vasant Kunj Road when I suddenly get a call from Tao.  He says he will be here in a half hour, so I walk back inside to relax and wait.

About 10 minutes before his said arrival time, I walk out again to the main road, where I’m accosted by a group of teenage boys who ask if they can take pictures with me.  We sit at a little decrepit bus stop and take photos, a garbage strewn field in the background.  It’s quite cute; they’re all pulling out their mobiles and taking pictures, each posing with me in turn.  Then I have one of them take a picture with my camera, with all of them around me.

Tao finally shows up in an auto-rickshaw and he takes me to a local market, the name of which eludes me.  It’s a ratty market, with dirt streets and big holes in the ground and garbage strewn everywhere.  This market sells cheap goods, of seemingly poor quality, and doesn’t entice me at all.  We wander through, where the best things are the vegetable and flower markets on the fringes.

the vegetable market on the fringes of the local market

the vegetable market on the fringes of the local market

veggies at the local market

veggies at the local market

flowers for sale at the local market

flowers for sale at the local market

goods for sale at the local market

goods for sale at the local market

me at the local market

me at the local market

We catch another auto-rickshaw to Dilli Haat, a clean more upscale outdoor market which has the upscale prices to match.  The haat, or market, is spread over an area of approximately 6 acres and has a typical traditional Indian village look to it, with a plaza paved with stone and brickwork and sprinkled with grass, flowering shrubs, and eucalyptus trees. It’s clean and has an airy feel to it. I’m enticed by an exotic variety of handicrafts ranging from intricate woodcarvings to embellished camel-hide footwear, to sophisticated textiles including bedding, wall hangings, pashmina shawls and scarves, to gems and beads to metal crafts.

Dilli Haat market, much cleaner and nicer than the local market

Dilli Haat market, much cleaner and nicer than the local market

I find a scarf I love that the vendor offers to sell me for 1,800 rupees, or a little over $40!  Tao is tough; even though I know it’s too much, he insists on walking away because it’s too expensive.

Paintings for sale at Dilli Haat

Paintings for sale at Dilli Haat

We eat lunch at the outdoor food plaza; we find cuisines from North Indian to South Indian to Rajasthani.  We settle on Rajasthani restaurant but I now can’t remember what I ate.  After lunch, as we are walking past the stall selling the 1,800 rupee scarf, I say to Tao, I wonder if that guy will take 700 rupees (~$16).  It’s such a low-ball price from his high asking price, that I know he’ll never accept it.  However, we stop by and I offer him 700.  He says, what’s your best price?  Give me your best price.  I say 700.  He refuses, we walk away, and surprise (!), he calls me back and takes my 700 rupees.  Though I’m shocked he takes this, I think about how in Cambodia scarves sold anywhere from $3-6.  I probably still pay too much.

at Dilli Haat with the ubiquitous cow

at Dilli Haat with the ubiquitous cow

After the markets, Tao wants to go back to the City Walk Mall where he’d like to watch a Bollywood movie with me, Tanu Weds Manu.  It’s in Hindi of course with no English subtitles, but he insists he’ll translate as we are watching.  I can see this will be a problem as I often have trouble understanding Tao’s English!!  Nonetheless, we go there and while waiting for the movie to start, we wander around the mall, where he is determined to buy a shirt.  He tries a number of nice button-up shirts on and models them for me, asking my opinion.  Finally we go into the Levi’s store, where I buy a shirt and he finds one he likes, and voila, we’re both happy.

We watch the movie, a convoluted story about a doctor from London, Manu, who comes back to India to find a wife. A meeting is set up with the beautiful but feisty Tanu.  At the meeting time, her parents claim that she is ill, and has taken tablets which have made her drowsy. While Manu talks to her, he finds out that she is asleep and doesn’t hear a word he says.  Despite this, he falls in love with her on sight, and says to his parents that he is willing to get married to her.  While on a trip with both families, where exuberant Bollywood songs and dances break out on the train, Tanu takes him aside, and says that she intentionally took five tablets to fall asleep, therefore trying to get rejected by him. She tells him in vulgar language that she loves someone else, and shows Manu her boyfriend’s name tattooed on her breasts.  She demands that Manu reject her. Though he has fallen in love with her, Manu asks his father to announce that he cannot marry her.

The story goes on, in typical Bollywood fashion, for 2 hours, and though I can’t understand the dialog despite Tao’s attempts to translate, I can get the general gist of things.  It’s fun to see a Bollywood movie in India.

In an upscale mall restaurant, we then have a snack of delicious shrimp with several dipping sauces and I have two glasses of wine.  While at the restaurant, I meet a couple from Kabul who invite me to come and visit them in their home one day.  We exchange emails.  They are in India because the wife is having some kind of medical procedure done there.

A fun day in Delhi with my friend Tao.  Tomorrow, Jayne arrives, and I have told Tao our schedule is packed and I won’t be able to see him again.  It’s sad because he is a great friend and I enjoy his company very much.  But it’s unlikely I will ever live in India, especially after my experiences on this trip, the stories of which will follow in due time!

arrival in delhi: extremes of poverty mingle with a taste of america

Tuesday. March 1: My arrival in New Delhi at 1:30 a.m. is strange and surreal.  A driver picks me up at the airport and drives 20 minutes to my bed and breakfast, through smoke, smog, cement dust, piles of stones and garbage along the streets.  I’m staying at the Chhoti Haveli, in a gated community next to a reserved green forest.  Haveli is a Persian word that means “enclosed place” and in India and Pakistan, it usually refers to a private mansion.  This haveli is not a mansion; it’s just a duplex apartment, but it has the ambiance of a haveli. It’s tastefully furnished with period handcrafted furniture from Rajasthan. Homey and cozy, it’s one of the nicest places I end up staying in India.  The actual setting for the place is not what you would expect for a “gated community.”  I find it is best in India to always revise my expectations downward.

The Chhoti Haveli is in this building in south Delhi

The Chhoti Haveli is in this building in south Delhi

It’s dark and quiet and a little eerie when we arrive.  I settle comfortably in my room which I have reserved for a half-night, and sleep soundly until morning.  At that time I have an Indian breakfast of cauliflower pancakes and coffee and papaya and meet the innkeeper, Surinder Maini, a kind and genteel lady who used to live in the U.S. for a while.  We have the common ground of both having lived in Richmond, Virginia, where she used to work for DuPont.

my room at the chhoti haveli

my room at the chhoti haveli

In the morning I am to meet an Indian friend from Bangalore who I met on Facebook in November.  Actually, I first met him on Badoo, where we started chatting and then he added me on Facebook, along with his 1100+ other friends.  His name is Tao and he’s 25 years old.  Why he is coming 30 hours by train from Bangalore to meet me I don’t know.  We have been chatting online for months now and though he speaks English, I often have trouble understanding his pronunciation.  He also looks more Cambodian than Indian to me.  And when I ask him numerous times why he is talking to me when I am so much older than him, he tells me time and again that he “feels good” when he talks to me.  Of course, I am suspicious, because I figure everyone wants something.  And what could he want from me, a woman who is over twice his age?

Surinder, the innkeeper at Chhoti Haveli

Surinder, the innkeeper at Chhoti Haveli

I ask Surinder for a place to shop where I can scope out salwar kameez.  The salwar (as pronounced in India) is a loosely-fit pajama-like pant. The legs are often wide at the top, and narrow at the ankle. The kameez is a long shirt of tunic length which hits at the middle of the thigh, but traditionally, it comes down to the top of the knee. Jayne is to arrive in two more days and she asked me to try to find a place where we can buy some Indian clothes.  So Surinder tells me to check out a store called Fab India at a nearby mall called dlf Promenade.  She explains to me how to get there by auto-rickshaw, but then she ends up offering to drop me there.  In the meantime, Tao has called, and we arrange to meet at the mall.

me in front of dlf Promenade

me in front of dlf Promenade

my friend Tao at dlf Promenade Mall

my friend Tao at dlf Promenade Mall

The mall is a slice of Americana in the unlikeliest of places. It’s ultra-modern and sleek and unlike anything else in Delhi.  I meet Tao in front, our first meeting.  He is tiny, shorter and slighter than me, so I feel like an Amazon woman.  At first it’s a little awkward.  I tell him I want to look for salwar kameez at Fab India.  We wander around the mall and I find a shop called Biba, where I try on several outfits.  I find one I like and Tao insists on buying it for me.  I feel uncomfortable accepting his gift, but he insists and as I know my funds will be tight on this trip, I accept.  I buy a cream kameez with navy and silver beading that I end up wearing the Taj Mahal later.  The salwar (pants) are navy blue knit.  A cream chiffon scarf bordered in silver accompanies the kameez.

We look in Fab India as well, but there is too much to choose from and I decide I will wait till Jayne arrives to check it out in detail.  Tao and I wander around the mall a bit more, then I tell him I’d like to see the Lotus Temple.  It’s the Bahá’í House of Worship but is called the Lotus Temple because of its flower shape.  We take an auto-rickshaw there.  It’s funny, when the rickshaw drivers see me, a foreigner, they want to charge me an exorbitant price, but Tao tells them how much we will pay.  If they don’t agree, he walks away until the driver comes after us agreeing to take us for our stated price.  I’m so happy to have Tao with me, as he knows the ropes and what we should be paying.

at the Lotus Temple

at the Lotus Temple

Tao at the Lotus Temple

Tao at the Lotus Temple

Indian ladies at the Lotus Temple in colorful saris and salwar kameez

Indian ladies at the Lotus Temple in colorful saris and salwar kameez

in front of the Lotus Temple

in front of the Lotus Temple

the Lotus Temple

the Lotus Temple

me on the grounds of the Lotus Temple

me on the grounds of the Lotus Temple

The Bahá’í laws emphasize that the House of Worship should be a gathering place where people of all religions may worship God without denominational restrictions.  The leaflet they give us explains that it is a “new, independent world religion whose purpose is to unite all the races and peoples of the world in one universal Cause and in one common Faith.”

The Lotus Temple and grounds

The Lotus Temple and grounds

The grounds of the Lotus Temple are serene and manicured, with gardens and emerald-green grass and flowers.  We drop our shoes at an underground shoe-keeping operation, and walk around the temple and its surrounding pools of water.  It’s quite lovely.

Tao at the Lotus Temple

Tao at the Lotus Temple

When we leave the Lotus Temple, Tao tells a rickshaw driver we’d like to go to City Walk Mall.  The driver agrees to take us there if we will stop at an Emporium first.  I’m surprised that Tao agrees to this, but we do it.  We do our perfunctory walk-through in the Emporium, but I have no desire to buy anything.  We get back in the rickshaw.  After a short distance, the driver stops, gets out of his rickshaw, goes to the rear, and comes back with his finger covered in black oil.  He tells us he can take us no further because something is wrong with his vehicle.  This is a scam I’ve read about, where drivers take you to some shop where they get a commission and if you don’t buy anything they leave you stranded.  I don’t know what Tao ends up paying him, but it’s some lesser amount that what he agreed to.

one of many slums along the streets of Delhi

one of many slums along the streets of Delhi

Tao wants to go then to the City Walk Mall, where there is a multiplex cinema.  I would love to see a Bollywood movie, but since there are no English subtitles, I won’t understand a word.  It happens that True Grit is playing.  Since I haven’t seen many new American movies in my last year in Korea, we go together to see True Grit.  It’s as modern a theater as anything we have in America. Because of the constant Pakistan-India tensions, I find everywhere in India there are tight security measures.  Here at the movie theater, I must leave my bag, including my camera, passport, everything (!) with an attendant.  This makes me very nervous and I find it hard to relax knowing all my essential belongings are with some stranger, and not even under lock and key!  All I have is a little slip of paper that serves as my bag claim ticket.

The City Walk Mall is highly modern.  After the movie, we walk around window shopping.  It’s funny, despite my reservations about Tao, I find his company comfortable and enjoyable.  I’m really happy that he came up from Bangalore to spend these two days with me.

Later, we have dinner at an Indian restaurant where I have palak paneer, an Indian dish of spinach and paneer cheese (like cottage cheese) in a curry sauce.  I want a glass of wine, but as most vegetarian restaurants don’t serve alcohol, I have a mango lassi instead.  I feel a little queasy after.

After dinner, Tao accompanies me back to Chhoti Haveli by auto-rickshaw.  It’s a good thing he comes along because I cannot find it and we end up having to call Surinder to have her give directions to the rickshaw driver.  It turns out Surinder and her husband are worried about me since I have been gone all day long.  Tao drops me off and takes the auto-rickshaw back to his hotel.  We plan to meet the next morning.  I get comfortable in my nice room at Chhoti Haveli and sleep soundly.

the common room of the chhoti haveli

the common room of the chhoti haveli

Please visit the Chhoti Haveli website of if you are thinking of visiting Delhi. 🙂

blossoms on the porch of Chhoti Haveli

blossoms on the porch of Chhoti Haveli