Lacy: Finishing up this post to publish I am keenly aware of how long it is even though it only covers our first two days in India. We went in head first and with all five senses as we began to acclimate ourselves to this country. Currently we are out of Delhi, in Shimla, and I am recovering from a bout of food sickness that was the worst I have ever experienced. I have no idea which delicious bite was the one of poison or in what city I had it, but I know I’m digging back into this country’s food scene as soon as my stomach is on the mend. I hope you enjoy reading about our initial impressions of India. We had a lot to say and still didn’t quite get everything written down. Namaste.
Lacy: Breakfast on the beach in Indonesia, lunch in the air over Malaysia & dinner in the wild and crazy streets of Delhi, India. That was Friday, May 10th as we made the day’s journey and 2 flights to reach our next destination. We were both more anxious to arrive in India than we had been any other country we have previously traveled together. Was it all the hype in everything we read about how overwhelming Delhi can be with the millions of people, traffic jetting around in all directions, pollution, scams and fear of Delhi Belly? Somewhat, yeah, it was. As we hit our bumpy landing we could already tell that the sky looked hazy and polluted. We we were both nervous, excited and braced for impact. I was fully prepared to have to deal with a million cab drivers approaching us trying to shuttle us off into their unregulated rides, deter scams and make our way to a prepaid taxi which I had read was the best option to pay a fair price to get to our hotel, but was surprised when only a handful asked us. Having researched what the rate should be we walked straight past them to a taxi stand and agreed on the $10 fare for the 45 minute ride. It was 8pm and already dark as we drove off to Pharganj, a known backpacker area. Staring out the window the entire ride we began to make some assumptions. It wasn’t difficult to tell that the traffic is bonkers here. More than anywhere else we have seen. Motorized tuk tuks, cars, motorcycles, scooters carrying families of four, pedestrians on highways, bicycles, makeshift vehicles selling food and more all pushing through each other to get to their destination. Horns blaring and dust flying in the wind. It took under three minutes for me to decide their was no way I would be getting on a motorcycle here in Delhi. Not that we planned to get a bike here as our explicit intention is to take a train Monday morning to Chandigarh and pick one up, but nonetheless, the decision was cemented in my brain. This was similar to how I felt in Kathmandu. No bikes for me. Pulling up into the bustling street scene of Pharganj just before 9pm we checked into our second floor room that somewhat isolated us from the sounds of honking below us before entering the evening street scene to have our first Indian meal.
Exiting our hotel to Main Bazaar street we were in the thick of it. Immediately to our right were two lassi stands and that was our first stop. I love lassis and mangos are in season so two mango lassis were ordered on the street to begin our Indian culinary adventure. How do I even explain how unique these are? Sitting on top of the lassis cart, out in the wide open, is a stainless steel bowl two feet across filled with yogurt. No cover. No ice. An old school metal scale is used to measure out the right amount of yogurt to add to the oldest blender I have ever laid eyes on. Sugar and freshly cut mango are then ground by hand and along with ice from a nearby cooler are added. Rob and I looked on in amazement. The lassis were poured into tin cups, topped with the skin of the yogurt from the open dish, and handed our way. We enjoyed them near the stand while watching the person at the teeny tiny restaurant next to us make fresh naan bread in a blazing hot tandoori oven. After returning our tin cups we took a step inside the restaurant and enjoyed our first meal of stuffed naans & dal curry. That was all we needed before returning to our room and sleeping hard after a day of travel.
I’ll preface this next part about our first day in Delhi by saying it was one crazy insane day where we saw just how wild Delhi is and we LOVED it. It’s as if all of our travels together had prepared us to appreciate this city without being overwhelmed, intimidated or turned off by many aspects that many may view as unseemly. We met many locals who told us they thought their own city is crazy and naturally we agreed. There is no denying it. With over 20 million people in Delhi and traffic, livestock, noise, trash, and vendors to match there is never a dull moment. This could easily be a lot to handle for many first time travelers, but we are not. Nepal seems to be the place that Delhi reminds us of most, except that this is Kathmandu on steroids. I wondered if I would suffer hearing loss from the sheer decibel of ceaseless traffic noise. My throat was already hurting me a bit as we sat in the Airtel office first thing to get new Indian SIM cards for our phones. I was prepared for this as I know the pollution affects me this way in Kathmandu. I grabbed a cough drop I had prepared in our backpack, soothed my throat, and knew I would be fine. The air is hazy here and clearly not the cleanest, but how could it be with so many diesel vehicles zipping around endlessly nearly missing one accident after another. We arrived in Delhi with an overall outline for our time for India, but virtually no detailed plan for our stay in this country. We have a hotel booked for our first three nights before taking a train to Chandigarh and a general timeframe in which to pick up our Royal Enfield motorcycle rental. Other than that we are making all arrangements as needed, letting the wind (or dust as it may be) blow us where it may as we interact with people we meet and get boots on the ground ideas of what to do next. Living in the moment has served us well on all of our travels. Our first day was no different and a testament to how well having no plan can be.
Pappu. Oh, Pappu. This is the name of our beloved motorized rickshaw driver who we became friends with and who opened our eyes and hearts to Delhi, made us laugh and kept us safe on the roads (I can’t emphasize enough what a task that seems to be). After finishing a couple coffees at the hotel Rob and I were wandering down our street looking at the shops before enlisting the help of a rickshaw to take us from Pharganj to the Red Fort. Pappu pulled up at that time and told us our idea was flawed when we mentioned where we wanted to go. “Too hot in the middle of the day for the fort, but how about the Laksmi Temple?” Sure. It had not been since Cambodia last year that we had been shuttled around in a rickshaw and we had ear to ear grins on our faces. We absolutely adore these little vehicles. It is just enough shade to keep us cool on what was becoming a warm day. As he began to drive we passed a temple with locals pouring out. He quickly pulled over, grabbed some free food that was festively being dispensed and told us that today was celebrating Lord Hanuman. The food exchange took maybe ten seconds. Rob and I looked at each other and smiled. We were in for a good time today. A real local day.
The first stop on the Pappuji (there are several similarities between Indian and Nepalese language, of which I know a bit. Adding “ji” to the end of a name is a more respectful way to address someone) tour was the Laksmi temple. We removed our shoes, locked away our phones and entered the large Hindu temple where devotees come to receive blessings of good fortune, luck and karma. There are seven Hindi gods which are each related to the seven days of the week. It’s true that we have visited many different temples from many different faiths over last few years’ travels in Asia, but we both commented that we could instantly feel the energy in this temple. It was strong as we watched the faithful receive their blessings and tikkas at various areas of the temple. To enter the temple, and our stay in India, we also received a blessing. Pappuji explained to us that the red tikkas, placed on your forehead between your eyes, are only given at the Laksmi temple and represent good luck, fortune and karma. Laksmi means money in Hindi. As we continued our tour throughout the day I definitely noticed locals checking out the tikkas on our white faces. Pappuji laid out a suggested plan on where he wanted to take us for the day and after agreeing on a price we were thrilled to be in his company whipping through the wild streets of Delhi on a three wheeled rickshaw. He had a plan, we did not, the universe put us together and we had the best day we could have imagined while experiencing the explosive city of Delhi in a way we had not even conceived of.
From the temple we went to the Presidential Palace and India Gate which is a memorial for all the soldiers that served and died in the armys of the Commonwealth prior to the country’s independence in 1947. They are commemorated by an eternal flame and their names etched into the gate that resides down the street from the palace. We were a bit surprised when we had to show our passports to enter the palace area due to the ever present security from the ongoing conflict with Pakistan, but thankful we had them with us. It was getting late in the day & we asked Pappuji if could he stop somewhere for lunch where we could grab some more street food. He took us to what he called “Indian McDonalds.” It was a metal kiosk that fit four vendors side by side in the same building on the side of the highway. All four probably reside in the size of a small shipping container with a slot the size of drive thru window where the owner/operator was on the other side. In half of them this guy was sitting in the window, bare feet hanging out and waiting for the next customer. This is India, my friends. We ordered quick and easy bites of samosas and other stuffed Indian pastries along with a thimble sized cup of chai (tea) each for a grand total of $1.20.
After enjoying our lunch on a bench by the road we set off for the Birla House and Museum where Gandhi spent his last 144 days. We easily spent the most time here of anywhere we visited all day. Reading about the life of Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, his message, impact and lasting legacy is something that was very hard to step away from. We were deep into his his story and hadn’t even made it half way through the museum before we realized we had been in there an hour and a half and should probably meet Pappuji outside. This is one place in Delhi we vowed to return to. I want to read and learn so much more.
It was a big day and it wasn’t over yet. Next stop – the Red Fort. A huge red sandstone fort that has passed many hands. Rob and I couldn’t help but laugh as some of the younger Indian guys asked to take a photo with me at the fort. By this time in the day I was hot, sweaty and smelly. While I declined the photo ops I told Rob I was the “Madonna of Delhi.” We got a good laugh out of that. Honestly, it could have simply been that I was a white girl with a red tikka.
Our final sightseeing destination of the day was the Jama Masjid Mosque. We arrived just as the call to prayer was being broadcast for the Ramadan evening. We have heard this call many times before in Indonesia, but until today had never visited a mosque. We paid a fee to enter as tourists, removed our shoes and put on the appropriate clothing they had available for tourists at then entrance. Once inside we watched the crowds of mostly men and boys washing their feet and preparing to pray. As it was prayer time we couldn’t enter the mosque itself and instead enjoyed the architecture of the building. Well, it was a massively full day. We loved it all and upon returning back to the rickshaw asked Pappuji to stop somewhere we could grab a beer and drop us off at our place. A little surprised, we learned that due to the beginning of election week the following day today and tomorrow were deemed dry days. Officially NO liquor for sale. No worries, though. We were in good hands. Our good friend knew how to purchase some underground beers and tucked them in his pants before discreetly handing them off to us down the road. Did we say how great this guy has been?! We enjoyed our beers in our room as Rob rested “clubby” and recounted what an utterly superb first day in India we had. We can definitely handle Delhi.
Day two was spent in the capable hands of Pappuji again. We just had such a good time with him and knew another day together would be just as good so why fight it. We began with the Lotus Temple built by the Bahá’í faith which focuses on the oneness of mankind irrespective of religion or mankind. The gorgeous lotus shaped structure was built by the donations of followers from all over the world and welcomed us both into a deep meditative state to begin our day.
Since many places were closed for Election Day and the Celebration of Hanuman we went to visit the tomb complex surrounding Humayun’s tomb in South Delhi. Neither of us had seen this kind of architecture in person before and even though it was really hot in the middle of the day (hence the photos of me covering my face and head with the new beautiful silk scarf I bought during my first 2 days in India) we thoroughly enjoyed seeing the craftsmanship and grandeur that was displayed.
There was only one natural choice after sweating through the afternoon and that was high tea at the Taj Hotel. Having never experienced high tea before we decided to start big at one of the finest hotels in town. Leaving the Taj we made a quick stop by the train station for tickets the following morning to Chandigarh and by that time the clock had struck 6. The dry day was officially over and you could buy booze again! Pappuji took us by a local liquor store and we witnessed a site we will never forget. We arrived at only 10 minutes after 6 there was already a MAD dash of men and boys running into the store, buying booze and pounding beers on the sidewalk in front. It was a frenzy. You would have thought that the country had been dry for 2 weeks rather than 2 days. Another local we spoke with that evening while out shopping on Main Bazaar told us that he only goes into liquor stores with the money he needs and nothing else. No wallet. No phone. Saying it used to be safe, he warned that now it’s a hotspot for pickpocketing. The guy certainly sounded like he longed for safer days. And honestly, so do we. We are constantly being warned to be on guard for theft here. It’s very different than Indonesia where we felt pretty safe and comfortable with just a normal level of awareness of our surroundings. Nonetheless, we are having a great time here in India and eager to travel to the Himalayas!