Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dizzy in Delhi

Anne goes Hindu down at the local temple
Some people say that the acronym India stands for “I’ll never do it again.”  And we can understand why they might feel this way.  India is messy – crowded, dirty, and frenetic.  But it is also vibrant, colorful, and so different from anywhere we have ever been.  On the one hand, India is a modern society, but on the other, it seems as if things haven’t changed much in hundreds of years.  In India, so many people still wear traditional clothes (all the time) and continue to follow ancient traditions.  It’s like we are in some kind of a time warp, and we are loving it – it’s even wilder and more unexpected than we thought.
First things first.  Our neighbor Joan Sayer was kind enough to take us over to Lehigh Valley International (LVI) Airport in Allentown, where we began our trip.  We had an uneventful ride on the Continental bus from LVI to Newark (much better than driving ourselves) and then a direct flight to Delhi.  We had our favorite seats in the last row of the Boeing 777, where no one was behind us to kick our seats, and where for some reason, only two seats share a space normally given to three.  It’s almost roomy!  And, it’s just a quick hop to the bathroom right around the corner.
For this trip, we are using a Travel Company called “Legends and Palaces”.  We will have a private tour with drivers and tour guides arranged by the owner, Mr. Singh.  Mr. Singh had his contact waiting for us at the Delhi Airport after our 13 hour flight from Newark; Delhi airport is quite new and modern.  Actually, we had three people waiting for us when we arrived: the spotter inside the airport, the assistant who met us as soon as we stepped outside, and our driver.  Seems like a lot of individuals for two little travelers, but this is how they do it (everybody has his rice bowl, I guess).  At least, we are being well-looked after by Mr. Singh.
We are staying at a lovely hotel in a very quiet residential neighborhood called “Amarya Haveli”.  The place has French owners (Anne was smitten immediately), and it has exceptional amenities.  We have a large room on a quiet side of the building, an outside patio with table and chairs, simple but great food (including made to order omelets and crepes for breakfast!), and a staff that goes out of their way to be friendly and helpful.
Temple ruins at Hauz Khas Village in Delhi
We arrived late on the evening of the 21st in Delhi, the capital city of India, so we took it easy the next day to recover from the long flight.  At least that was our plan.  An artsy shopping village near some ancient temples was only a 20 minute walk away so we decided to stroll over.  Who would ever guess how challenging a “short walk” could be.  We walked along a main road that ran near our hotel; it was congested beyond belief with vehicles such as: cars, busses, 3-wheeled motorcycle-like devices (like the tuk-tuks of Thailand), tricycles, and bicycles -- all of them jammed together and not a single one of them in their own lane.  Sometimes, It was hard to decipher what was going on; and then to confuse the eye even further, Indians drive (are supposed to drive) on the left side of the road.  It was total chaos out there.
A haircut out on the streets Delhi-style
We were also accosted by beggars everywhere; a little beggar girl walked up to us and motioned that she needed food, and then looked at us pathetically, as she rubbed her stomach in gestures of small circular motions, as tho she were starving; we watched some young entrepreneurs operate their clothes ironing business right there along the street under a tent-like covering supported by makeshift bamboo poles, and cracked up to see a barber set up under a tree with a single chair on a median strip – cutting hair as traffic whizzed blindly by.  Talk about low overhead.  All his “barber shop” had out there on that dirt patch alongside the busy highway was a stool, a mirror on a small table, a pair of scissors, a towel conveniently draped over the low-slung electrical wire hanging above his head, and a queue of customers standing around waiting their turn. 
Our goal, the Hauz Khas Village, was worth the trouble, and actually our little jaunt was a great introduction to India.  The walk itself was the best part, but the temples (and the locals hanging out there) were fascinating, and Anne got a taste of the fantastic shopping in store for her.
A cobra on every corner
That night, Mr. Singh took us out to dinner where we got into some amazing discussions.  We talked about the history of India, and the politics here, but we were most interested to learn more about the religions of India, and his religion as a Sikh.  Since religion integrates itself so deeply into the Indian life and economy, we thought it important to understand some of the raw basics.  
Mr. Singh wears an immaculately folded pink turban over his head at all times in public, and with his bearded face, he can be instantly spotted from a long distance away.  Later, we found out that many of these turbans are merely glorified hats, and can be slipped on already pre-folded.  Sikhs are immediately recognizable because all the men wear the recognizable large turban.  The Sikhs are an offshoot of the Hindus, and were originally formed as a group of warriors to fight the Muslims.  Today, they are a totally separate religion with a more open outlook than the Hindus.
Traffic in Delhi - and it isn't even rush hour!
A couple other interesting tidbits:  Hinduism is one religion that you cannot convert to – you must be born a Hindu or have a family history of having been Hindu at one time.  Well you can imagine Frank’s disappointment when his dream of becoming a Brahmin priest was shattered!  The caste system and dowries are now illegal in India although both continue in some forms.  He told us that marrying outside your caste is possible but hardly ever done.  In theory, the Untouchables (the lowest caste) have the same opportunities as anyone else, but the economic reality is that a higher caste child is much more likely to get a good education, and have the career he chooses, rather than the one he would be forced to otherwise accept.
Typical overhead rat's nest of electrical wiring
found on every street here in Delhi.
The following day, Mr. Singh along with our driver Anil took us out to see the sights of Delhi.  We began our tour in Old Delhi on the main shopping street called “Chandni Chowk”.  Now this was the India we had come to see.  We took a rickshaw ride and our heads were spinning around trying to take in all the frenetic and strange new sights.  The street was a menagerie of small ramshackle shops, most with goods or deliveries heaped out on the sidewalks: nuts, spices, material to sew saris, posters of Hindu gods, woks with strange foods a-cooking, etc.  Overhead electrical wiring was a rats-nest of code violations, and tracing any one wire to its source or destination would be a magic trick for Houdini.
Carrying 50 plus boxes of shoes
 can give you a real migraine
The sidewalks were teeming with shoppers (Hindu women in flashy- colored saris), carpenters and painters (squatting on the corner waiting for work), deliveries arriving via bicycle (we saw one cyclist carrying 2 huge Sanyo 50-inch (?) TV boxes, some crates stacked quite high in carts pulled by oxen, plus several delivery men carrying about over 50 boxes of shoes on their heads!  (You can’t make this stuff up.)  And all this activity was whirling around a street clogged with more people and vehicles of all types than you can possibly imagine.  We were worn out just trying to take it all in (as you are probably exhausted just reading about it LOL)
Other highlights included:  New Delhi which has a totally different feel and look to it; that’s because this is British Delhi with the President’s Palace, government buildings (where monkeys break in and destroy documents – no kidding, this is a serious problem), and the India Gate – a huge structure (like an oversized Arc de Triomphe) which was built to impress the Indians with the might of the British Empire. 
Anne and Mr. Singh get that oldtime religion
down at the Sikh Mosque.
And a visit to a Sikh Temple – we had to enter barefooted, and Anne had to cover her head with a scarf, but other than that, we could wander all around and take pictures anywhere we liked.  This was quite an unusual experience surrounded by men wearing turbans accompanied by the strangest guttural-sounding hymns played to a bongo beat.  And yet, it still had a mystical feeling to it.

At the Qtub Tower
On our last day in Delhi, we visited Qtub Minar, home of the first mosque erected in India and an incredibly beautiful 12th c. tower 73 m. high  -- another attempt to impress the subjugated, this time built by the conquering Muslims.  The tower’s 5 babel-like stories soar into the sky decorated in graceful Persian writings and encircled by several almost frilly balconies.  The site also holds a strange iron pillar that is even older than the tower and has scientists baffled as to how ancient technology could have produced iron so pure that it has never rusted in over 2,000 years.  The technology to prevent rusting did not exist 2000 years ago; or did it?
Hindu women examine the mysterious 
2,000-year old rust-free Iron Pillar
This stop also gave us a chance to observe a number of Muslims, men starkly identifiable by white tunics, pants and skull caps, and the women they accompanied, always wearing full-length black burkas.  Who knows how these women can stand to be totally shrouded in black garb which would only serve to amplify the heat by nature of its heat-absorbing color.  Here in India, you can sure tell a lot about a person just by their clothing.

Gandhi's last walk; he was assasinated
 at the end of this path.

Our next stop was one of our favorites: Gandhi Smriti (the Ghandi memorial).  This site includes a museum filled with photos, descriptions of Gandhi’s life, and many profound quotes from this amazing man.  He lived here during the last 144 days of his life, and his room is just as he left it: sparsely furnished with a mattress on the floor, a small table, and his spinning machine.  His walking stick leans against the wall with two pairs of sandals.  A glass display case shows his meager possessions at the time of his death: eyeglasses, a watch, and a few pieces of silverware.  Outside, a monument commemorates his last steps on a pathway with raised footprints that leads to the place where he was murdered.  The site is a fitting tribute -- simple but powerfully moving.

Porter carrying our baggage - aprox. 70 lbs.

We left Delhi on an overnight train to Varanasi, and we will cover that part of the trip in our Varanasi report.  But, we want to leave you with this incredible event at the New Delhi Train station.  Our driver pulled into the parking lot, and a man in a red shirt ran over to get our bags.  He placed a coiled rope-like cloth on his head which seemed odd to us, but what happened next defies description.  He grabbed Anne’s 30 lb. L.L. Bean bag and flipped it up on his head.  Then with an assist from our tour guide Dilip, the porter added Frank’s 38 lb. L.L. Bean on top of Anne’s bag!  Yes, with almost 70 pounds of unbalanced baggage on his head, this “porter” scooted across the parking lot so quickly towards the train station that Frank and Anne had to chase after him, just to keep up with his pace. He walked up (and down) 2 stories of steps, and delivered our bags to the inside of our sleeping car without ever dropping a single bag. We were stunned, to say the least.  Frank kept saying, “This is impossible.”  Dilip just smiled and said, “In India, all things are possible!”

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