October 19-22: New and Old Delhi 

Time Warp

The bad news about touring a country half-way around the world is, of course, the long flight: 5 hours across part of the U.S., a 4-hour layover in Chicago, followed by 14 hours to Delhi, the capital of India.  A rambunctious two-year-old in the seat behind me keeps kicking the back of my seat, so even with a sleeping pill, I cannot sleep until he tires out.  The good news is that the 12-hour time difference between San Diego and Delhi allows Günter and me to arrive early in the evening, stay up for a few hours, and then fall into the deep sleep of exhaustion for the entire night.

We are clearly in a time warp; it seems strange to have “breakfast” on the plane prior to landing, and then to be driven through the city streets in twilight that appears to us as dawn’s first light! We are not hungry for dinner, so we head down from our room at The Claridges Hotel to its Aura Vodka Bar for a drink. The ultra-modern, humongous bar has 47 stools, 50 varieties of vodka, and dimmed-and-dancing, diffused green lights that slowly shift from green to blue and purple. The bar’s space-age ambience adds to my sense of disorientation. Who knows? I could have been beamed up to this surreal starship!

Gunter and Lois with doorman at The Claridges, Delhi

Günter and I slump into a cozy corner settee that faces a flat-panel TV set to the Fashion Channel.  I am more intrigued by the group of businessmen at the table in the opposite corner. While I pretend to watch a Milan fashion show, I eavesdrop on their conversation. The group includes a short-sleeved American who brags about Great Lakes steamers, another casually-dressed businessman with an Australian accent, a European who is probably a Swiss banker, and two Indians with white, long-sleeved shirts and conservative ties, obviously the hosts. Potash is hot, I learn. Over their first vodka, the men hurl the familiar business lingo: strategy, phasing, roll-out, and partnering, playing up what a “good marriage” it can be. By the end of their second round of drinks, names of commodity companies, such as Rio Tinto, come out of those loosened lips, but not enough for me to put it all together.  While Günter drinks his beer, I sip on my raspberry-infused vodka cocktail that also contains cranberry, lime juice and sugar—an innocent drink that I’m certain will take its toll later.

Culture Shock

The breakfast buffet here at The Claridges is average—not like the blow-out buffets we enjoyed a few years ago in Southeast Asia and China. The spread is an easy introduction to Indian food, along with European alternatives. Little do we realize that we should appreciate the blandness, because the spreads will not stay this way throughout our three-week adventure!

We pick up the Hindustan Daily, the Times of India, and read those along with the Wall St. Journal we brought with us on the flight. WSJ contains an editorial summarizing the first polls of the Occupy Wall St. movement. Back in our room, we flip through the TV channels, settling on RT (Russia Today). The “talking heads” are criticizing the Americans as if we are still in the Cold War. They say that the “Arab Spring” movements will not turn out well: a new Western colonialism is brewing; Gaddafi has been taken out and Look! Obama already has boots on the ground in Uganda! They laud the Occupy protests and say this is what a capitalist society deserves. (Never mind Russia’s own crony capitalism.)

Ah! What I love about travel is that is pushes you out of your comfort zone. Travel forces you to listen to new ideas, to look at other ways of living on this planet. Even before we go out to sight-see, strange and different TV programs and newspapers pry open our pores so that we can absorb new insights and understand a culture vastly different from ours. The daily drone of schedules and TO DO lists are far away—out of sight and out of mind.

At 1100, our Enchanting-India trip coordinator, Bhawna Sharma, promptly appears in the lobby as scheduled. The Enchanting-Travel group of companies specializes in tailor-made travel experiences using local guides—just what we want. “By perfecting your arrangements from our first interaction until your flight home, you’ll see India through your own lens and digest all the sights and sounds that make India, India,” says the brochure. Bhawna assures us that she will be the master coordinator of our guides and drivers at each of our six destinations. She hands us each a small 4×5” personalized booklet that contains a summary of our itinerary along with a two-page overview of our hotel and proposed activities at each stop. Then she introduces our driver and guide for the two days we will tour Delhi.

Our first task is to get a new SIM card for Günter’s old cell phone, so that he can eliminate roaming charges on his Smart Phone.  We drive through New Delhi traffic for hours, or so it seems. To get a SIM card here requires a copy of his passport (which fortunately he has), and a passport photo (which he doesn’t have). We stop in a small off–the-highway shop with concrete floors and slapped-together, unpainted wooden shelves.

Here?  All of this technology will magically happen here? Apparently so.

The proprietress wears a purple print sari and her shiny black hair pulled back into a bun. She digs behind the counter to locate a small point-and-shoot camera. She snaps the photo, prints it out, and attaches it to a form that she asks Günter to fill out. Mission accomplished!

Our skilled driver winds through snarled traffic and impossible roundabouts that put Boston to shame. Finally, we reach our first sightseeing destination: the Qutab Minar, a structure that dominates Delhi. The largest free-standing tower in the world, it surpasses the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This UNESCO World Heritage Site also has the distinction of being the tallest brick minaret in the world, at 238 feet (72m). Made from bricks of red sandstone, the entire Qutab Minar is covered in various inscriptions from the Qur’an. Although the minaret was previously open to the public, it is now closed off.  In the 1980s, a number of people were killed when an electrical failure within the minaret sparked a stampede. There are 378 steps leading to the top of the Qutab Minar, and before its closing it was a very popular site, and not only for tourists, but for those wanted to commit suicide by jumping.

Qutab Minar,The tallest tower in the world

Our next stop was to be the Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. We discover that the site is basically a black marble platform that marks the spot of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation, left open to the sky while a flame burns at one end; we decide that getting there is not worth fighting traffic and jet-lag in the heat of the day.

This is the advantage of independent travel! The plan is ours to make or break.

We return to our room. Günter turns up the air conditioner. We slide under the cool, white sheets, soon dead to the world. Later, we head for the pool, and after an invigorating swim, we fall asleep again in our poolside chairs.

The next morning, we are seated at the Pickwick Restaurant as soon as they open at 0630. The sun rises like a faded yellow ball through the haze outside our window table. This haze does not lift until noon.

“It’s not pollution,” says our guide. “That has been cleaned up significantly in Delhi. It is a condition that is typical during the change from the rainy season that ends in September to the dry season that runs from October through April.”

Whatever. It does not make for clear photos!

Our first stop this day is the Jama Masjid, also called The Friday mosque. Towering over Old Delhi, the structure can hold a mind-blowing 25,000 worshipers.  We are there well before the 1100 Friday prayers, in time to watch the men laying out hundreds of carpets, each one in the same neutrals of brick red and gold that blend with the colors used in the mosque. We walk the entire length of the huge plaza. This is India’s largest mosque, Shah Jahan’s final architectural opus, built from 1644-1658. It has three gates, four towers, and two minarets, each 40 meters high—all in red sandstone and white marble. Inside, the mosque is mostly bare. The speaker’s seat is simple, covered with smaller rugsnot artistically arranged.

Arabic verses on the minaret

Our second stop is the Red Fort, a massive empty shell of a place. The numerous moats and fountains are not filled. The greens are kept mowed and the many sidewalks are clean, but this attraction could be made into a great park rather than merely collecting fees as a museum.

Our rickshaw approaches the Red Fort on a hazy day in Delhi

Imagine the former splendor of this Mughal city—it was a time of unparalled pomp, proud eunuchs, ceremonial elephants, and grandiose buildings lined with precious stones! Imagine how the drawbridges creaked as they were lowered over the moats!

This fort was to be part of the new capital of Shahjahanabad. Shah Johan never moved here from Agra because he was imprisoned by his own son, who was the last emperor to rule here. Following the 1857 War of Independence (Indian uprising) the Brits cleared all but the best buildings to make way for barracks and army offices. So the moat has been dry since 1857 and the drawbridges have been replaced with bridges of stone. Every Independence Day, the prime minister addresses all of India from here.

We find the site filled with Indian soldiers, especially at Lahore Gate, a structure that faces the city of Lahore, now part of Pakistan.

Günter turns to our guide. “Why all the soldiers?”

“Terrorist threat.”

Next, our guide puts us on a rickshaw at the east end of the Chandini Chowk, the spine of Old Delhi, near the Red Fort. It is a wide street crazy with pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, cows, vendors and touts. Tiny lanes crammed with bazaars fan off the main artery like ribs. In the time of the Shah Jahan, a canal, reflecting the moon, ran down the street’s center, hence the name Chandini Chowk, “moonlit place.” I’m in photographer-heaven! I snap dozens of photos through telephoto lens; most are blurred by the bumpy ride and throngs of shoulder-to-shoulder humanity. One favorite (shown here) is a vendor selling sticks cut from piles of dead branches. Locals chew on them to clean their teeth.

Vendor in Chandini Chowk sells wood sticks used for brushing teeth

High above, a maze of electrical wires provides an evening lifeline to the shops; monkeys jump from one set of poles and girders to another.

Monkeys climb on electrical rigging in the Chowk

Old Deli is a crazy hubbub that bombards the senses, quite a different world from the rest of the city. The vast contrast between rich and poor becomes apparent as our driver takes us through Connaught Place, New Delhi’s core, past gated and lushly landscaped embassies from every country, to the government areas around Raj path (Kingsway) to the south. I am amazed at the size and opulence of this approach to New Delhi. Raj-appointed English architect Edwin Lutyens planned and constructed this area between 1914 and 1931, when the British moved their capital here from Calcutta. This site was to spell out the might of the British Empire, but a mere 16 years later, the Brits were out and the Indians took over.

The streets of Old Delhi from our rickshaw

After being checked through the gate, we drive by the President’s House, built in 1929. The equivalent to the U.S. White House in function, it surpasses it in scale, with 340 rooms. At the time of Mountbatten, India’s last viceroy, the Rashtrapati Bhavan employed a staggering number of servants, including 418 gardeners! The Mughal gardens nearby occupy 130 hectares. The matching north and south Secretariat buildings that house the government ministries have 1000 rooms between them. As we leave, we drive through the massive India Gate, a 42-meter stone arch, inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, that pays tribute to the 90,000 Indians that died during WW1.

As we leave Delhi the next day for our flight to Varanasi, I realize that nothing could have prepared me for India. Already, this subcontinent has inspired, thrilled, and frustrated me. I look forward to the mind-bending experiences to come.

At the airport, I review the statistics listed in the Lonely Planet:

  • India is only 1/3 the size of mainland U.S.
  • India has over three times the population of the U.S.

No wonder this subcontinent, although it appears to be so vast on the globe, seems so crowded!

Population of India in 2008 1,147,995,904 (1.14 billion)
Population of China in 2008 1,330,044,605 (1.3 billion)

With more than 50% its population below the age of 25 and about 65% below 35, the average age of an Indian after 10 years is likely to be 29 years, whereas the average age of a Chinese will be 37. According to estimated figures, the population of India will be largest in the world in the year 2030. What does this all mean?  I hope to find out.

Indian tourists want their photos taken with us.

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