I Heart India (part 1)

December 31, 2007

Today was our foray into Old Delhi. We started by taking a taxi to the Red Fort. I thought we should hire a taxi for the day because I was worried it would be too manic, but I deferred to Jean who thought that the sites we wanted to see were in walking distance of each other and easily navigable. The Red Fort was massive, far exceeding any sites we had seen so far . The Red Fort was constructed by the Emporer Shah Jahan in 1639 and is a mile and a half long filled with palaces, government offices, and ornately carved columns and structures. After 1857 it was the headquarters of the British Indian army and is amazingly expansive and beautiful. It struck me to see 17th century scales of justice carved into the walls--a tribute to the sophistication of the Mughal legal system. Of course, young Indian men and couples kept asking to take pictures with us. Apparently, it's fairly common for young men to show off their "good friends" and "girlfriends" from America.

We walked through the marketplaces of Old Delhi barraged by sights and sounds heading to an establishment called Kareem's for lunch. The sheer human traffic was so dense that my senses were assailed just trying to navigate without falling. People approached hawking their wares insistently, others stared at us standing out so starkly in the ocean of brown bodies. All this while dodging motorcycles, auto rickshaws, cow dung, and other dogs, cows, and monkeys careening through the streets.

Karim's restaurant dates back to 1913 when it was opened by a chef who reputedly hailed from a family of royal cooks that served the Mughal emporor Akbar. Well known for its amazing food among locals and tourists alike, the place itself is a delightful little hole in the wall -- dirty and crowded with a variety of colliding smells. We ordered mutton qorma, chicken biryani, seekh kabob, and aloo palak with butter and plain nan. It was all delicious, but the standout was the seekh kabob, served tender and dripping with spices. Indian men sat all around us eating together, not speaking, dipping their nan into their mutton curries contentedly.

After, we walked across the street to Jama Masdid, one of the largest mosques in the world built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1656 capable of housing 10,000 worshippers. E.M. Forster called the mosque one of the most noble structures in all of India. After removing our shoes, Jean and I went in separately, there being some confusion about whether we were allowed to go in with cameras. Children played cricket outside, bouncing the ball against the walls giant mosque as Muslims prayed inside among the lovely stone structures. One of the amazing sounds of Delhi is the call to prayer that echos through the streets during the day. I walked along the high walls appreciating the detailed stone carvings and the penitence of its many worshipers.

I prepared to climb one of the minaret towers for the better view of the city when a German girl approached.

"Excuse me, but are you going up in the tower?"

"Yes, I thought I would."

"Would you mind escorting me? They don't allow women up there."

"Really? Well allow me."

I gave her my arm in mock graciousness and she smiled broadly as we ascended the tower. Inga was a lovely German girl who had moved to Delhi a few months ago (and then a small city north) to perform sustainable economic development here. She seemed amazingly carefree, especially amidst the stark poverty of Delhi, but I found myself only half listening to her as the dark stairs spiraled up narrowly over five stories so tightly that people coming down could barely squeeze past. I could only imagine the secret thrills people must have brushing past Inga as I felt limbs and bodies smashed into my own. Fighting claustrophobia and trying to make pleasant conversation, we finally emerged at the top, the view being compltely worth the panic I had staved off.

At the top of the tower were the most exquisite views of Old Delhi and the Red Fort. I could see the dark dirty houses smashed on top of one another and the black sooty streets filled with people exploding with color. It was truly breathtaking and as I clung to the seemingly frail stone railing with one hand attempting not to plunge back down the stairs or down the tower, Inga nonchalantly asked me to take some pictures of her with her camera, promising to send me all the pictures since I didn't have my camera. Clinging awkwardly to the railing I hurriedly snapped photos of Inga and the surroudings. A group of Indian men staring seriously at the tall blonde German reminded me why women were not allowed to ascend the tower alone.

As we exited the tower and some more pleasant conversation, it was decided that Inga would accompany us through Old Delhi. I went to locate Jean and Inga went to locate her shoes. I felt a little awkward telling Jean we had a new travelling companion (just another day of picking up hot German girls at the local mosque), but she seemed to entranced by the young men playing cricket to care too much. We decided to walk Chandni Chowk, a street market which hosts a spice market filled with every exotic Eastern spice imaginable. The smell alone is reported to make passeersby woozy. Luckily, Inga had a car which alleviated the burden of navigating the crowds. Relieved, we climbed into her car and plunged through the crowds of Old Delhi honking and weaving.

Delving Deeper Into Dehli

December 30, 2007

We're staying in a posh part of Dehli in some houses by the lovely Lodi Gardens called Lutyen's Bungalows (Edwin Lutyen's was one of the two main architects responsible for the layout of New Dehli). By Western standards the accommodations are more youth hostel than three star hotel, but by Indian standards are fairly decent (how easily we adjust our perceptions). It has a hot water tank that lasts for a solid 12 minutes or so, toilets in the rooms with decent plumbing, and free wi-fi meaning I can roll over and check my e-mail or the temperature outside in bed with my iPhone. The houses are funky, but completely homey and I can think of no where I would rather base this trip. It gives off a family-run feel with lush gardens and trees in the back, hot water bottles in the bed, and chilled bottled water and Kingfishers at a reasonable rate. They also serve breakfast including great paratha and masala tea and eggs.

We began our second day in Delhi by walking to the Lodhi Gardens for a stroll. The Gardens include beautiful hills of green grass, trees, and lakes interspersed with Lodhi tombs from the Pashtun Muslim dynasty which ruled in the 16th century. This was one of the most peaceful places we had been in Delhi so far and the weather was cool and sunny with gorgeously clear skies. The Lodhi Gardens reminded me of a destination for frisky teenagers to skip school or young couples to wile away the day having a picnic. We wandered amongst the tombs scrawled with graffiti inside and watched school children playing manically over the vast lawns. They stopped to wave and say hello at every opportunity.

We then walked over to Khan market which had been recommended more than once to me, but which resembled a rather uninteresting row of stores with a few winding back alleys with specialty shops. Apparently, the lure of Khan market is the wide availability of upscale goods -- everything from car parts to stereos to home furnishings tailoring to electronics -- almost nothing that we needed. We had one o'clock reservations for Bukhara in the five-star Sheraton hotel and we took our first auto-rickshaw over -- a deliriously wild ride.

Bukhara is a tandoori restaurant of note because of how much Bill Clinton raved about it on his visit. We knew it would be a little expensive (actually turned out to be a LOT expensive even by New York standards) and their specialty was a black lentil dal simmered for 24 hours with a variety of spices. The food was served without silverware and was absolutely exquisite. I ordered the Murgh Tandoori which was a whole chicken marinated in a mixture of yoghurt, malt vinegar, ginger-garlic paste, lemon juice, red chillies, yellow chillies, turmeric, and garam masala. We also had butter and garlic nan (again puffy and delicious) with the dal bukhara consisting of black lentils, tomatoes, ginger, and garlic simmered overnight on a slow charcoal fire and finished with cream and a dollop of unsalted butter. The dal tasted like thick, creamy chili, though lighter and less acidic with complex spices. I couldn't get enough of it -- by far the best dal I've ever had.

We took an auto-rickshaw back to Central Park in the middle of Connaught Place, Delhi's largest financial, commercial, and business center. Here we got taken for our first, pardon the pun, ride. The driver insisted we go check out the shopping district just north of Connaught Place assuming that being Americans we only wanted to shop. We thought he had dropped us off within walking distance, but as it turned out he was only trying to get us to go to his friend's store (a common scam I had read about) and we were quite a ways away. We were completely marked in that part of town and besieged by rickshaw drivers trying to take us to various parts of the city. We finally hooked up with a guy that earned our trust by pointing out all of the rickshaw drivers following us and dropping us off in an area where we would be less likely to be solicited. We walked through crowded streets where sellers hawked their wares feeling increasingly more vulnerable. The park at Connaught Place turned out to be scrubby and awful where shady characters studied us carefully. Jean and I decided to split up and she walked down to the National Gallery while I headed over to Jantar Mantar nearby.

Jantar Mantar is an astronomical observatory built in 1710 to measure the positions of stars, their altitude and azimuth, and to calculate eclipses. It looks like modern sculpture with an incredibly futuristic feel and measuring dials carved in stone over the enormous structure. With it's curved lines and sloping walls, in America, it would be a skateboarders' paradise.

I then walked down about twenty minutes to India Gate racing across congested roads and dodging cars, bicycles, and auto-rickshaws. As I walked through the streets alone, I began congratulating myself at how well I was dealing with the harshness of Delhi life. For all of its blasting noise, heady traffic, impoverished women and children squatting curbside begging for rupees, and limbless beggars lining the sidewalk, I thought I was steadfastly keeping my emotional composure. And then I saw a little girl, not more than two, completely naked covered in filth standing in the gutter of a busy intersection taking a shit on the street. I realized I was not handling this well at all and that I was foolish for thinking I could knowing full well that part of the reason I came was to know this kind of humanity. How people lived outside of the insular New York life I'd carved for myself. I couldn't shake that little girl. I still can't shake her. I continued toward India Gate stumbling over cracked sidewalks lost beyond thought.

India Gate is a large arch directly in line with the Parliament building built by Edwin Lutyens to memorialize the Indian solders that died during World War II. A political party was having a concert there that included an official brass band and a pop group singing Hindi songs as little children danced excitedly. It's surprising that at almost every place I went I was the only white person. Occasionally, I would pass a couple of tourists standing out as obviously as I no doubt was, but for the most part I was alone among Indians who looked at me curiously sometimes asking to take pictures (here I was THEIR tourist attraction). Walking down Janpath, I passed a black man and white woman couple and realized that was the first black person I'd seen in days.

I met up with Jean after at Spice Route, a thoughtfully designed bar in the Imperial Hotel. As the name implies, the Imperial seems like a holdover from the British Raj. Built in 1931 with a Victornia/Old Colonial and Art Deco style, it is a white refuge from the solicitations of the Dehli market place and traffic that extremely upper-class Indians participate in. We saw beautiful Indian women in saris wearing enormous jewels that seemed worth millions and suddenly we both felt self conscious in our respective hiking boots and tennis shoes, covered with the soot of the city seeing how the other other half lived. Tail between our legs and pride propping up our chins, we sauntered out of the Imperial Hotel and took a taxi back to Lutyen's Bungalow, back to the cool night of the garden and relative calm and quiet.

Down the Black Rabbit Hole of Calcutta

December 29, 2007

New York prepared me for Delhi in ways I didn't expect. Although the scale differed, I wasn't shocked at the thick layers of traffic racing wildly through the city, autorickshaws constantly honking and swerving to avoid collisions, the dirt and grime permanently cloaking the city. Like New York (or most large cities), people ask for money and people piss unabashedly out in the open. But obviously the scale makes these scenes much more intense and unfamiliar. There is so much dust. Much more than any developing countries I've visited such as Mexico, the Dominican Republic, or Peru. Dust permeates everything covering street, building, human being. Dust hangs in the air creating rivulets of sunlight that stream through the trees saturating the landscape with a drowsy aura of light. Dust rolls through the mouth, coating the teeth and nostrils tasting like diesel. The sheer number of humans are also, of course, mind numbing. Impossible to think that everyone has a separate story that you know nothing about except what you can glean for a couple seconds in a passing taxicab. And those stories themselves so insular and so beyond the scope of anything that glance could ever really know.

My friend Jean had arrived safely before me and the next day we set out to explore the south of the city. We hired a car and first went to Humanyun's tomb. Humanyun was the second Mughal emporer who united parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India in the 1500s, as had his father Babur before him. In 1556, as Humayun was descending the stairs to his library, his arms full of books, he heard the call to prayer and attempted to kneel, thus slipping and breaking his neck effectively ending his reign. His wife, Hamida, built an elaborate tomb in his honor that is maintained on beautiful lush grounds with running fountains. It is one of the earliest examples of Mughal architecture that emphasizes harmonious symmetry throughout the structure. Staring into the water rippling out from the fountains is intoxicating, creating elaborate vibrating strands of golden electricity.

We next drove to Qutub Minar, an Islamic tower that is the tallest brick minaret in the world. It's built of fluted red sandstone and covered with carved verses from the Qur'an. While amongst the surrounding ruins, a class of Indian children ran up asking if we would take pictures with them. We put our arms around them all smiling broadly as they asked us questions and their instructor took photos. It was a lovely moment and a reminder of how rare white people can be in India, even among the tourist attractions.

We grabbed lunch at a delicious Pakistani kabob house called Park Balluchi in the Kauz Haus Deer Park, a refuge for deer, peacocks, rabbits, and guinea pigs. We had tandoori style lamb kabobs and mewa paneer tukra which is soft cheese stuffed with nuts, currants, and mushrooms, then marinated in cream and grilled. Couple that with a couple of Kingfishers and the best garlic and butter nan I've ever had and we were extremely happy. After walking around the park, we drove to Dilli Haat, a crafts bazaar with beautiful wares from neighboring states.

I felt like I was dealing with the poverty okay. I still regretted not giving the small three year old girl dressed as a clown doing backflips outside the car any money because I couldn't perform the conversion rate in time. But on the whole I didn't feel as shocked as I'd prepared myself for. But after getting home, the emotional toll hit us (possibly with some residual jet lag) and we both fell deeply asleep too tired to go out or even eat dinner.

Hotel Gulag

December 28, 2007

Aeroflot airlines exceeded my expectations in some ways and fell far short in others. It did indeed have the hammer and sickle on the side of the plane (though more subtle than I assumed). But the plane itself was modern enough other than the contrast-challenged television or exploding overhead bin raining down luggage on unsuspecting passengers. The meals were mediocre to bad (standard Russian airline food being some kind of boiled chicken with rice), although they surprised me with a breakfast burrito, a rarity even in New York.

We landed in Moscow and after much confusion a small group of Indians and myself were led to a processing area. We waited for about an hour as the pale, unsmiling Russians decided how best to transport us. They loaded us into a bus for a short drive to the hotel passing oil refineries, boxy Soviet-era cars, many security guards, construction sites, piles of black snow, and chain link fences with barbed wire all dusted with a film of brown exhaust.

They bunked the Indians two to a room while I remained solo in a double room (the privilege of an American passport?). The room was comfortable enough without any frills. The landscape outside the window was industrial waste and desolation. There was a small Nokia television in the corner missing a back button that broadcast mostly French and Russian stations, though it did have BBC news and CNN. They brought me food almost immediately (chicken and rice!) and I soon succumbed to jet lag. I awoke to someone coming into my room rather than knocking.

"Uh... hello?"

"Hi mate. I'm your new roommate. Speak English?"

Dean was an Aussie from Perth that had missed his connecting flight to Prague after sitting on the tarmac for 45 minutes. The Russians had put him up the hotel last minute and had neglected to tell me he'd be sharing my room. Bastards! I thought to myself, but Dean was a nice enough guy and we talked about his travels. He was a junior high school math teacher on paid vacation and had been dating a Czech girl for about a year in Australia until her visa ran out. He was now moving to a small town north of Prague to live with her there. He was roughly my age or older, a good looking well-traveled and well-read liberal guy who took a modest interest in history and politics, "Russian babes" and Czech women. Needless to say we got along swimmingly.

After another meal (he of chicken croquettes and me of beef tips?) we ventured out of the room to find the hotel bar. We were immediately met by a security guard inquiring why we were leaving the room.

"Hey, we're just going down to the bar to have a couple drinks and try you wi-fi".

"You no leave room. You stay."

"Well, we're not leaving the hotel, we're just getting drinks."

"No visa, no leave room," he snarled in his thick Russian accent. Dean and I looked at each other hopelessly and the Indians came out into the hallway looking wide-eyed.

"We're trapped here," they said. "They only have wine on the room service menu."

We all slunk back to our rooms to try to pass the night as best as possible. Dean and I talked Russian women, American politics, the environment, European history, and travel. He was a great guy and I offered to put him up in New York should he ever visit. He left me with his e-mail labeled "Dean from Gulag".

Dean left and I was awoken by room service and escorted down to a holding area for breakfast with the other prison... er, Indians. Packed tightly in an elevator the Indians looked nervous while the Russian security looked dour, his doughy pimply face still unsmiling. Each floor revealed another strange, unsmiling Russian face staring straight through us, unhappily trapped as we were in this hotel. As with all our Russian food, breakfast was meager, but it bonded me to the Indians so that we became friends and they gave me advice on navigating India. They even helped me through customs and finding my bag at the airport. A nice 22 year old kid, Abhishek, whom I'd snagged a couple beers before the flight at the airport gave me his mother's number in Delhi in case I ran into trouble. And, of course, he asked me if I was on Facebook.

I arrived in Delhi to the sad news that Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. I stood in customs staring at the screen trying to understand what had happened while Russians pushed past me roughly, still unsmiling.

A Journey to India

December 25, 2007

Preparing for India is long and involved. It included three weeks of inoculations for hepatitis A and B, typhoid, polio (booster), tetanus, and malaria pills which I take for the duration of the trip. I've had to buy sunscreen, mosquito repellant, a sheet sleeping bag, a flashlight, padlock, sarong (thanks Sarah!) and a host of other supplies I'm not exactly sure when or how will come in handy. But I'm taking it on faith from more experienced travelers than I that they are all necessary.

My itinerary is New York to Moscow, spend 24 hours in Moscow, then fly to New Delhi. Meet up with my friend Jean who is flying in from Singapore where she's working. We'll stay in Delhi for about four days, then take the train to Agra. We'll spend New Year's Eve and Day in Agra before taking the train to Jaipur. We'll hang out in Jaipur for a few days, make it up to Udaipur and parts of Rajasthan. Then Jean will have to fly back and I'll take a plane to Goa where I'll hang out for about five days exploring the coastline before returning to Delhi and then home.

I'm flying into Moscow on a reputedly sketchy Russian airlines called Aeroflot that still brandishes the hammer and sickle on the tail. As I'm flying out on Christmas Day, I expect the flight to be relatively empty and I look forward to trying to bribe my way into business class. I'm a bit nervous about the Muscovite hotel. Because of an intinerary snafu, I've gotten the airline to promise to put me up overnight in Moscow, but have received no written confirmation. They keep telling me in their slightly evil slightly sexy Russian accents that I should just go to the counter and ask them to put me up and it will magically happen. I have my doubts and half expect to spend the next 24 hours sleeping on the floor of the Russian airport. I also don't have a visa which I was told wouldn't be a problem to get to the hotel, but completely expect that it will be.