|Our ride for the day|
If there is one thing I am finally coming to terms with on this trip, it is that Anna and I should stop trying to plan things, because nothing ever plays out the way we expected, and it always ends up being so much better than we had planned.
Today was our designated day to tour New Delhi. Again, thanks to the valuable advice of our friend/travel planner extraordinaire Rahul, we had a list of sites to visit. Our plan was to take the metro and walk to the first site, at which time we could find the hop-on/hop-off tourist bus (HoHo as they call it in India) for a tour of the rest of the sites and city.
Did it work out that way? Not even close.
We started our morning braving the metro, which actually was a fairly seamless process and found our way to the proper exit for India Gate. India Gate is a large stone monument that resembles the Arc de Triomphe and is a tribute to fallen Indian servicemembers.
When we walked out of the metro, several taxi and tuk-tuk drivers (basically a semi-enclosed three-wheeled scooter) yelled at us to get our attention and solicit our business, which we declined. We walked away pretending to know where we were going...when clearly we had absolutely no idea.
As we stood the side of a road trying to get our bearings, another tuk-tuk driver pulled over to offer assistance. But instead of offering to drive us around, he simply offered directions and pointed us to the monument we were seeking. Liking his friendly and non-aggressive demeanor, we agreed to a 30 rupee tuk-tuk ride to our destination - the equivalent to 50 cents.
As our driver, Ajit, dropped us off at India Gate, he gave us his card and told us that he would be happy to give us a tour if the bus didn’t work out. He would only charge 50 rupees for an hour.
We said our goodbyes and began our morning of sightseeing. Much to our surprise, we ended up being the tourist attraction. After only a few minutes at India Gate, a small group of teenage Indian boys approached and asked, “One picture?” We said “No, thank you” and continued to walk away, assuming they were trying to sell us something. Wrong.
The persisted and indicated with their hands that they wanted a picture with their own camera of Anna and I with one of the boys. We awkwardly agreed, and clutching out purses tightly to avoid possible pick-pockets, smiled for the camera alongside a very happy teen boy.
Suddenly, several other groups of young boys starting running over. I’m not talking about a slightly quickened pace. I mean a full run. They were basically lining up to take pictures with us. When they sensed we were ready to leave, the remaining boys all stood together for a group photo with us. Anna and I wanted to tell them that we are not celebrities, but they seemed to already know this and still want a photo with white, western women anyway.
As odd as this seemed, it would not be out last experience like it of the day.
|Anna and me at India Gate. The guy who took this photo who re-enter our lives in a few hours...|
|Standing guard with two of the tallest people I have seen in a month (I'm amongst my people!)|
After India Gate (which we joked took on a new meaning after the photo incident), we walked through the surrounding park in search of the HoHo bus. After an hour of searching and wandering, we gave up. We pulled out Ajit’s card and phone phone number and asked some local securities officers for the Ministry of External Affairs if they would assist us and call him to pick us up. They were kind enough to oblige. Can you imagine the Secret Service doing that?
We decided that the bus cost 600 rupees each, and our new friend was willing to drive us around for far less. Plus, the bus was nowhere to be found and no one seemed to know where to find it or when it would arrive, and Ajit was only a phone call away.
What a great decision! Ajit was a lovely, kind man who has been a driver for over 20 years and knows all about the city. Not only did he tell us about various landmarks that we passed, but he also accompanied us inside several of the sites we visited to act as our guide, share the histories and backgrounds, and be our buffer for the many other drivers and salesman vying for our attention and/or money.
We started our tuk-tuk tour at a large Hindu temple, in which we were obviously the only tourists. Ajit parked the tuk-tuk and accompanied us inside to tell us about the respectful practices, like removing our shoes.
|Outside of the Hindu temple. Photos are not permitted anywhere inside the gates|
We then carried on our way and visited a huge Sikh temple, our first since our journey began last month. Ajit is Sikh, and he was obviously happy to show us around and teach us about the customs. We again removed our shoes and were guided around the temple. We walked through a water basin, intended to clean the feet, and were shown into the main temple, where a prayer book is read aloud by holy men 24 hours a day.
|Outside of the Sikh temple. Photos are not permitted within the main temple structure.|
|Everyone is asked to cover their head as a sign of respect. Anna wore her scarf. I was generously offer this lovely orange wrap.|
|A Sikh holy bathing pond|
|Our friend and driver, Ajit, in front of his temple|
We were then taken to the temple's community dining room, which hosts meals for 10,000 to 15,000 people a day. People of all religions and castes visit here each day and sit together to take a meal. It is an equalizer - everyone sitting and eating together regardless of religion, sex, caste, etc. Ajit then instructed us to follow him through a door marked “Do Not Enter” and led us into the kitchen, where the enormous meals were in constant production. No one looked twice at us, so I assume the “Do Not Enter” was more of a guideline than a rule. It was very impressive to see the size of this kitchen and that so much of the food was prepared by hand instead of machines.
|People of all religions gather in the community kitchen for lunch|
|The busy kitchen in the Sikh temple|
As usual, we were two of the only tourists at the temple. I actually like being the only tourist because it makes the experience more authentic. The only tourist we really encountered was a fellow from Massachusetts right as we were leaving. He asked where we were from, and then asked if he could take our picture. Why? He said, “I wish they all could be California girls!” Clearly India is rubbing off on him.
Our next stop was lunch, where we coincidentally ran into an American guy from Seattle, Brian, who had kindly agreed to take our photo hours earlier at India Gate (picture above). We sat together and enjoyed some curry before hopping back in our tuk-tuk to continue our random tour.
One of the few places we really wanted to see in Delhi was the Lotus Temple, so that is where Ajit took us next. From the outside, the Lotus Temple looks like a giant lotus flower. It also looks a bit like the Sydney Opera House… It really is impressive.
Anna and I had been told by our lunch friend Brian that, while still quite beautiful, the inside was less noteworthy than the outside. This worked out to our advantage, because when we arrived, there was a line several people deep that stretched as far as the eye could see. The line literally would have taken hours, so we enjoyed the view from the outside and continued on our way.
It was at this point that we most appreciated Ajit. Had we been on the tour bus, we would have hopped off in the bus area, not knowing about the crazy line. We then would have been stuck for a good hour, waiting for the next bus and standing in the sun on a crowded street. Instead, Ajit was there and ready to go, so we got to see the temple and still maximize our time.
Our last major tourist site of the day was Humayun Tomb, a series of beautiful tombs for an emperor and other important people. Remember the random teen boys wanting to take photos with us at India gate? And the guy from Massachusetts at the Sikh temple? It happened again. But this time it was a mother out for the afternoon with her son (who looked no older than 10)! She first asked if we would take a picture with him, and then told him to switch so she could be in the picture! I had come to expect teen boys, but the well-dressed Indian mother came as a surprise. Of course, as with India Gate, several teen boys ran over and attempted a group shot with us before we said our goodbyes.
|Someone else's tomb (my attention at this point was diminished - I can only absorb so much info in one sightseeing excursion. But it is still very pretty)|
|...and again, this time with us in front of Humayan's Tomb|
|Anna covered in a pile of pashminas|
In between our sightseeing excursions, Ajit would occasionally stop at little bazaars and markets so that we could browse for nicknacks or souvenirs. Unlike the crowded, colorful streets I was envisioning, many of the bazaars are actually air conditioned, indoors, and look more like showrooms than chaotic street fairs.
As Delhi is not safe at night, Ajit repeatedly asked us to be back in the tuk-tuk by 6 p.m., for our sakes. We were back by 5:30 p.m. and headed to the hotel for the evening.
In the end, we had an excellent day. We saw so much more of the local culture than we may not have seen on the bus and had an attentive, informative driver with us the whole time. He also dropped us off directly at our hotel, which is in the same neighborhood as his home, so we didn’t have to take the metro at dusk. We paid Ajit almost double what he was owed - 600 rupees (or less than $10 for the day!) and still paid only half the cost of the bus.
|One of many city parks|
One of the many things that surprised me today about Delhi was that it is filled with beautiful parks and gardens. I was expecting a dirty, crowded city, which we did see in some areas, but we also saw a great deal of greenery. The city is actually quite beautiful.
The other thing that surprised me is how much cleaner Delhi is that Kathmandu. I feel like we have heard and been told several times that India is louder, dirtier, and crazier than Nepal. That is nonsense. Granted, I haven’t traveled extensively in India, but Delhi is a big city. Kathmandu, while filled with very nice people, is the noisiest, craziest, dirtiest place I have ever been.
|A little bit of tuk-tuk traffic|
As you’ve read on my blog by now, Kathmandu is plagued by constant honking, barking, piles of trash in the street, and cars driving in both directions on both sides of the road, causing terrible traffic. In Delhi, there seems to be an effort to keep trash on the street to a minimum. There is traffic, but the traffic generally stays on the correct side of the road and adheres to traffic lights. There are far less wild dogs than in Nepal, and they bark far less. And the honking in Delhi, while there is a bit, is almost non-existent compared to Kathmandu. Again, I realize Delhi is not representative of the entire country, but so far in my experience, India is way easier to navigate than Nepal.
Tomorrow we are off for another adventure - a trip to the Taj Mahal! Check back soon for photos and stories.