Too soon

Most trips to any number of locales will have unintended or unforeseen complications. In our two month journey through India we experienced several hiccups. Perhaps some could have been anticipated, and I will readily admit that Chelle was prepared in ways that I was not. She did significantly more advanced prep work in the weeks leading up to our departure. My “fly by the seat of the pants” style of travel caused a few issues, which ultimately led to more expensive transportation issues than was necessary. Conversely, it was impossible to predict the currency demonetization that hampered our travels considerably.

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Indians demonstrated a generosity of spirit that I have witnessed in prior trips to developing nations. To be on the receiving end of such kindness from some who have so little material wealth is epically humbling. The level of gratitude for just taking a moment to say hello, to smile, to buy a trinket or some chaat was a testimony to the enduring human spirit. The concern that regular Indians demonstrated to us by making sure we reached the right train station or bus stop. The time I needed to get a bus ticket and the entire busload of passengers glued to the window…wanting to make sure I was in the correct wicket. A family sharing samosa on the train, the young university student who explained the different train classes, the stranger who followed me for 6 blocks to give me a wad of rupees that I dropped. The co-owner of our hotel in Darjeeling that personally made us dinner when we were under the weather.

I have posted previously of the wealth of Indian being it’s people. It is with a heavy heart that we were in our last thirty-six hours of our trip. The room service at our guesthouse in Delhi was wonderful, but it was time for me to experiment. Up to this point I had been fairly rigid about the type of food I consumed – primarily sticking to food prepared at time of service. Now back in Delhi it was time to check out the street food. I was not disappointed.

I watched a young kid near me who had a wee round table with a heat source and potatoes stacked in a circular fashion. The corner that he was working seemed slow. So, he pulled the three legs of his table together and carried the whole kit and kaboodle to a busier block. It was so simple…steaming hot with a few dashes of spice. Wow, spectacular yummy goodness.

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At Raj Ghat Memorial, Chelle wanted to hang out and grab a bite while I went in to wander around the grounds and view the black marble and flame honoring Ghandi. I enjoyed the opportunity to view the King’s Bank. When I returned she had a newspaper type plate piled high with a savory mix of ingredients the name of which was unknown to me. I quickly learned that simply referring to street food as “chaat” was like describing western fare as snacks. It was all simply delicious and I am truly happy that I went outside of my comfort zone and sample a small section of street food. We checked out the central market and started to consider souvenirs for friends and family.

 

We headed back to our guesthouse Su Shree after a long day. The staff was helpful and the day was all about food and we enjoyed another room service offering. Anticipating our last day to come Chelle and I decided to get a start on packing so we could get the most out of the last day of sightseeing. We turned in about 10pm or so. At one point Chelle got out of bed and started to pace which I don’t ever recall her doing. I waited for a few moments and asked her what was going on. “Freaking out” she replied. I sat in bed and waited a few minutes more. “If you say that you’re freaking out I really need to know why you feel that way”. Chelle sat back on the bed, looked over at me. “Our flight doesn’t leave tomorrow like we thought, it leaves tonight and we need to be at the airport in an hour”. Time stood still for a moment. “That, is worth a freak out” I responded. Another heartbeat…we both jumped out of bed. Our flight departed for Beijing at 3am and we needed to be there by midnight.

We took about five minutes to assess our options. Getting on that flight priority one. We broke down what needed to happen. I called the front desk to report our problem. “Get my bill ready, I’m coming down to pay our outstanding balance and I need a car right away.” Chelle looks at me and asks if she has time for a shower? Nope, said kindly. We were rewarded for the pre-packing done a few hours earlier. From the time Chelle identified the problem to standing in the lobby was approximately 20 minutes. I had also just enough cash to pay our tab and pay for the car which had not yet arrived…tick tock, tick tock.

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Su Shree Continental

Luckily for us getting to the airport in Delhi at eleven thirty at night is considerably more easy than at just about any other time. I did not intend to rely on that though. The cost of the car to the airport was about Rs300, and when the driver arrived I told him that if he got us there by midnight I would give him a sizable tip. All I can say is be careful what you wish for. Traffic was “light” by Delhi standards but there was still a decent amount of vehicles coming and going. It was clear that we got lucky again by getting a great driver who handled his car well, hanging on for dear life was a personal decision. The airport was about twelve miles from the hotel and Ajit pulled up to the terminal exactly on time. We poured out, grabbed our bags and with a smile told him he did an awesome job and that he drives like my wife and happily handed him my last bit of cash…Rs500.

We hustled into the terminal and headed to the ticket agent. Sigh, really, really big sigh. Our flight was delayed three hours…in the initial situational assessment did either of us consider checking our flight status – no time for that I suppose. The airline gave us an upgrade and a food voucher for the inconvenience and so we waited.

The unfortunate part of this particular experience was that Chelle missed out on visiting the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets. It was something that she had been looking forward to the entire trip.  After Gandhi, Dr. Pathak is one of the few men who have championed sanitation and uplifting of the untouchables as a mission of their life. Chelle, an early adopter of a vegetarian lifestyle and an environmental steward for most of her life, this museum was important and I was saddened that it didn’t happen.

 

 

Full Circle

We flew into Delhi on October 31st by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. Our Air China flight landed in the wee hours of the morning and although eerily quiet by Indian standards the pre-paid taxi stand was an assault on my senses. Our hotel was “close” to the airport but secluded enough to cause a great deal of difficulty for our driver. At two in the morning there isn’t the typical community assistance available. Unbeknownst to us at the time we would repeat this very scenario in Cochin several weeks later. Knocked for a loop by jet lag we emerged for the first time almost 36 hours later. The air quality of Delhi at that time caused us to skip our initial sightseeing plans and head to Agra.

Nearly two full months later we had returned. The smog had lifted and we were now seasoned travelers determined to see all that the Indian capital had to offer. Picking up souvenirs and trinkets for friends and family would also begin in earnest. Plenty of things to do and see and running out of precious time.

Our hotel was close to the rail station but it was dark and had another lengthy trip behind us. We made our way to the pre-paid stand only to discover that we couldn’t purchase a ride…we were too close and the attendants told us to walk. We were hounded by many drivers who wanted ridiculous prices. To the point of Chelle losing her cool and swearing like a sailor. It cleared the crowd though. So we hiked up our packs and started the slow road to our guesthouse. We took a circuitous route and got twisted up and momentarily lost. Our India phone came in handy again. We found an open lobby of a guesthouse not our own, and one of the lads on staff led us to our spot. I gladly thanked him and practiced my palming technique.

Chelle arranged for a tour of some Delhi landmarks. Primarily on this India adventure we were self guided. It is great if you enjoy independence and ample time to wander about but it is challenging and tiring as well. What I had found on one other smaller tour we had taken was the feeling of being rushed. I didn’t like the timetable aspect, a small time here or a short time there wasn’t appealing. We had so much to see and dwindling time that being on a firm schedule was a good plan.

One stop on the tour was the Bahá’í Lotus Temple. The building is composed of 27 free-standing marble-clad “petals” arranged in clusters of three to form nine sides with nine doors opening onto a central hall and a capacity of 2500. Built in 1986, it is one of the most popular tourist sights in Delhi.

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Lotus Temple
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Interior

Having been continuously inhabited since the 6th century through most of its history, Delhi has served as a capital of various kingdoms and empires. It has been captured, ransacked and rebuilt several times, particularly during the medieval period, and modern Delhi is a cluster of a number of cities spread across the metropolitan region. Now with a size of 530 square miles and a population of 25 million.

Shortly after our arrival I found a wonderful book by Shashi Tharoor that I read throughout our trip. It covered the whole history of India through 2004. My optics on this adventure were enhanced by reading “India: From Midnight to the New Millennium and Beyond”. To be immersed in the culture all the while guided in the history by such great writing was a real treat. Understanding India in a way that I never have before. I had bits and pieces but now a much richer and fuller picture. Visiting all these historical sites were great history lessons. Every rail or sleeper bus trip I pulled out my book and devoured the next chapter. Learning about the first Mughal emperor Babur (a descendant of Genghis Khan), Humayun to Akbar.

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Qutub Minar

In the Southest district of Delhi lies the neighborhood of Mehrauli which has an array of monuments and buildings at Qutub complex. It is home to the tallest free standing brick minaret. The adjoining area spread over with a host of old monuments, including Balban’s Tomb.

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Humayun’s Tomb, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is the first of the grand dynastic mausoleums that were to become synonyms of Mughal architecture with the architectural style reaching its zenith 80 years later at the later Taj Mahal. Humayun’s Tomb was built in the 1560’s, with the patronage of Humayun’s son, the great Emperor Akbar. Persian and Indian craftsmen worked together to build the garden-tomb, far grander than any tomb built before in the Islamic world. Humayun’s garden-tomb is also called the ‘dormitory of the Mughals’ as in the cells are buried over 150 Mughal family members.

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Humayan’s Tomb

Sri Digamir Jain Lal Mandir is the oldest Jain temple in the capital, originally built in 1658. An impressive red sandstone temple today (the temple has undergone many alterations and additions in the past and was enlarged in the early 19th century), Shri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir is popularly known as Lal Mandir “Red Temple”. Also home to the famous bird sanctuary. The Birds Hospital, calls itself the only institution of its kind in the world, treats about 15,000 birds a year has been run for 60 years.

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Digambar Temple
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Birds Hospital

After a day of touring we wandered around Connaught Circus and dining at Lord of the Drinks, a Game of Thrones styled, and rather upscale restaurant. We were the oldest patrons and the food was too western for our taste. Although we liked the wall constructed from wine bottles. Next we meandered along Janpath Road and through the Tibetan Market discovering a shop overflowing with brass door knockers, locks, icons, candle holders and everything Tibetan. Luckily for the shop owner they accepted electronic payment and we fell in love with nearly everything we saw.

 

Honk Off

We checked out of our hotel in Delhi and grabbed a cab for the train station. Reading about the mayhem that is driving and experiencing it first hand are two very different ideas. The free-for-all that was the boarding process in Beijing is mirrored on the streets, not so much driving laws as driving suggestions. The message is clear: one foot on the gas and one hand on the horn. Strangely I was at peace with the process given how bad a back seat driver I am at home. It was a good initiation since the taxi in Agra only had three seat belts (with four of us in the cab) the driver put his on midway through the ride and I felt a twinge of nerves. In a couple of jangly bits he took us up some streets against the flow of traffic.

Locating the station was Chelle’s first chance to try out some Hindi and it aided in our arrival. Our time in the international tourist bureau getting rail tickets was similar to any government office anywhere in the world I’d expect. Long lines and frustrated travelers. The train ride was lovely with an opportunity to sample some samosas and more delicious chai. Unfortunately the acrid air of Delhi extended it’s long reach to Agra. It feels as if I swallowed a combination of sawdust, dirt and sulphur granules.

Moving through the exit we were instantly corralled by a group of car hops or guides trying to usher us to their waiting taxis. Pre-paid is the way to go and we were sheparded by an old Indian man who called himself Ali Baba but also Raj later in the day. A hotel mix up had us see the Agra Fort ahead of schedule. We worked out a deal for him to ferry us around the city for two days. Surprising to me that we left our bags in his trunk while touring the fort. We both decided that if they left there would be less to carry around the rest of the trip.

We even crossed the street on foot to the fort a small distance. I nearly ended up as a hood ornament of a rickshaw on the walk back to the car. Getting to our hotel followed another adventure through the streets.The honking happens constantly, which I think is a high pitched “eff you” while Chelle believes it’s a “hey I’m right here” but probably bits of both. Whichever it may be, one aspect remains. It takes nerves of steel to be behind the wheel, and ice water in your veins to be the passenger.