I think my desire to visit India was cemented the first time I tried Indian food. Ever since then it has been high on my list. As an American, one hears so much about the “dangers” of visiting India that in truth, I was a little nervous. That all melted away within hours of arriving in Delhi. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been here, but amidst the crush of people and the chaos of the traffic, there is also a wonderful sense of peace and beauty here in India.
Okay, let’s start at the beginning. Our flight landed early in the morning, and we knew we needed to take a taxi to our host. We even knew what it should cost thanks to our couch surfing host. As we walked out of the terminal, someone immediately tried to steer us away from the taxi stand to the prepaid taxis. Now I know what you’re thinking, but it turned out to be quite a bargain, and took us directly where we were headed… once our driver asked directions a few times.
After an anti-jetlag nap, we were off to our first site in Delhi – the Qutub Minar. This is a giant complex featuring the tallest minaret in India, made of red sandstone and white marble. There are also ornately carved gates, tombs and ruins dating back to the 1100s. We had walked to the complex, experiencing for the first time the chaos of constant horns blaring and scary traffic that seemed about to run us over at every turn. This made the peacefulness and beauty of the Qutub complex especially nice. And once I had finished gawking at the minar, two other things happened which kept distracting me from my surroundings.
The first thing was the saris. I honestly didn’t realize that so many Indian women would be traditionally dressed. (I later found out it was because many of them were tourists themselves, coming from more rural areas of the country where it is common to wear saris every day.) There was so much color everywhere, and each woman accessorizes her sari with earrings and bangles and jingly anklets and often a nose ring. It’s like walking through a country full of princesses. I am trying to convince Stephanie to let me buy her a sari, but no luck so far. Maybe if I continue interrupting every conversation to point the saris out to her, she’ll change her mind.
The second big distraction of the day was… us. American tourists are the exotic ones here, and we found ourselves being asked to pose for photos with the locals constantly. Sometimes they wouldn’t speak a word of English and they’d just thrust their kid next to us, and then take a quick snapshot. Other times groups would take turns posing in every combination with us for half a dozen cameras. It made me feel like a celebrity of sorts, even though in many cases, Stephanie was the real prize for them. I guess a twinkly-eyed American girl with light hair and a big smile is too good to pass up. Later that night, our host told us this was just the beginning, and we should be ready for the paparazzi.
After the Qutub complex, we hopped into an auto rickshaw (known in other countries as a tuk tuk), and went to check out the Chhattarpur Temple on the advice of our host. Oh wow, I was not prepared for this! The whole place was lovely and felt very spiritual and peaceful. This complex is the second largest temple in India, and includes over 20 small and large temples. It was not very crowded, and as visitors we felt very welcome. We were asked to remove our shoes before entering the actual temples containing images of the Hindu gods and their avatars. In the first one we entered, there was a monk in saffron robes who offered us a blessing. This consisted of saying something in Hindi I (obviously) couldn’t understand while tying a red string around each of our wrists. He also gave us each a sweet-smelling rose, and applied a red dot to each of our foreheads with a pinch of deep red powder. This dot, called a bindi, is placed over one of the chakra points of the body, and represents the inner eye and the state of enlightenment which comes from seeing with it. I wondered what the locals would think of us foreigners sporting a bindi, but mostly, I was excited to feel like a part of the culture. Later, in another temple, we were given some coconut and sugar to eat. We were blown away by the generosity we found. After sightseeing, the generosity continued as we were given yet another treat – our host cooked for us. Real, home-cooked Indian food! I was in heaven. Already on our very first day, we had some great feelings and experiences tied to India.
The next day we went to see Delhi’s Red Fort. We took the metro to the closest stop, and once again dodged the auto and bicycle rickshaw drivers so that we could just walk. Traffic in India is something that just needs to be seen and heard to be appreciated. The horns never stop blaring. As far as I can tell the lines in the road are purely aesthetic. There are cars and small trucks and auto rickshaws and motorcycles and bicycles many with sari-clad women sitting side-saddle on the back, much to my amusement. It seems to be every man for himself. Everyone jockey’s for space, and there is no such thing as stopping for a pedestrian or merging traffic. If you want in, you force your way in. It’s easy – just step out in front of oncoming traffic and if they get too close, hold up your hand and pray they stop. Once or twice I would jump out of the way when a car looked like they weren’t going to stop, and had Stephanie chide me for it. I had to remind her that it’s not that easy to *not* jump out of the way when a car is bearing down on you. It doesn’t help that the local drivers like to play a game where they drive right up to the thing in front of them, as close as they can get to it, even if it’s a person.
The Red Fort, so named for the red sandstone of which is made, was a palace for India’s emperors. One of the more interesting features is the Nahr-i-Behisht, or “Stream of Paradise”, that runs through several of the residences and pavilions inside the walled fort. Water from the nearby river flowed through this canal functioning as a sort of air conditioner in addition to being aesthetically pleasing. As with the Qutub Minar, people started appearing out of the woodwork to take pictures with us. At one point, people were practically queuing up to have their photo taken with us. We pretended not to notice, and moved on as soon as the first group was finished with us; otherwise we might have been stuck there all day.
From the Red Fort, we walked to the Jama Masjid – the Grand Mosque. Between the street food vendors, the auto rickshaw drivers, and the market we happened to be walking through, we were caught up in another sea of humanity where everyone tried to get us to part with our rupees. At the mosque, they wanted to charge each of us more than we wanted to pay to enter the complex. Stephanie checked our India travel guide, and found that you only have to pay if you have a camera. I took our camera, and we only had to pay for one ticket. We had to take off our shoes to even get through the gate, and then we found we still weren’t modest enough. Stephanie was in pants and a short sleeved top, but they bound her up in a giant muumuu that was way too big for her. I guess my shorts didn’t cut it either, because I got what looked like a checkered tablecloth tied around my waist like a skirt.
Inside the complex, we ooh-ed and ah-ed over the architecture and took the requisite pictures. The only problem was that the mosque seemed to be outside. It was covered, but there were rows and rows of prayer rugs with random people praying on them. It was only after we were long gone and far from the mosque that we found out you CAN get inside what is supposed to be a gorgeous marble mosque. Oh well. We did go to the top of the minaret – or at least I did. My paid ticket got me up, but with Stephanie’s free admission, they wanted her to pay extra to climb the tower. She sent me up to scout it out. I scouted, I came back, I showed Stephanie the photos.
That evening, our host took us to a restaurant where we feasted on vegetarian curry dishes which even Stephanie liked. I had been looking forward to chana masala (chick pea curry), so I knew I would like everything, but to have Stephanie like the food too was quite a feat! She has been proclaiming a strong dislike for Indian food for several years back home and has been thrilled to find so many dishes she does not hate here in India. Stephanie liking the food is almost as surprising as me being satisfied with a strictly vegetarian diet; both of which are indicative of how well I think we will adapt to the rest of our time here in India.