Gunter and I embrace the concept of “slow travel.” Our preference for this method of land travel is probably a byproduct of our slow sail around the world (it took us eight years). We like to decide on a destination, dream, research and read about it, plan an itinerary with plenty of spare time built in, and then go. And when we’re there, we like to take our time, surround ourselves with the power of place, understand the culture, and break bread with the locals if we can. Walking a Village is part and parcel of this experience.

On the way to Mt. Popa and Table Mountain in Myanmar (Burma), a popular tourist site southeast of Bagan, our guide parked his car and led us into a small village where we walked among thatched huts, met villagers, and visited a school. We also walked a village outside of Varanasi, India.

During our recent trip to Uzbekistan, we drove off the beaten path into Nurata, located in the foothills of Nuratau Mountains which stretch out hundreds of kilometers from Barren Steppe to Navoi and Kyzylkum Desert. This village is almost 200 kilometers from Samarkand. It was founded as ancient Nur in 327 BC by Alexander the Great, and the remains of his military fortress can be seen on a high hill to the south of town. The fortress was a strategic center for gathering an army before attacking neighboring lands.

Nurata is known for its famous mineral springs.

Nurata is known for its famous mineral springs.

The elaborate water system Alexander had installed is partially used today. But the locals don’t care about which western conquerors were here; instead, they host Eastern visitors who come as Muslim pilgrims to visit the holy places and mosques. A settlement called Nur—at the foot of the mountain—contains the graves of many “who have seen” the Prophet Mohammed. This site was chosen as a settlement for its mineral spring, known as Chasma, which always stays at 19.5°C. According to legend, a fire rock (probably a meteor) fell from the sky and a spring of healing water rose where it hit the ground. Now, thousands of believers—most from neighboring towns—come to visit every year to view the strange radiance that sometimes appears over the spring. The complex contains a Friday mosque, qubba (Arabic for shrine or tomb) and a bathhouse.

A group of tourists in Nurata.

A group of tourists in Nurata.

Far from industrial and tourist centers, this town of 25,000 leads an unhurried, idyllic life. The innocence and genuine hospitality of the residents is a primary reason that pilgrims and tourists like to visit Nurata. While our driver parked the car on the outskirts, our guide Fakhriddin, Gunter and I walked into town.

Eager to witness this hospitality for ourselves, we were not disappointed. We felt as if the town had been swept clean for guests: bushes and flowers had been carefully manicured, there was no trash on or along sidewalks, and smiling faces greeted us everywhere. While Fak tried to explain the inner workings of the unique system of underground pipe channels running from the spring, onlookers kept asking questions about us. We were their newest attraction!

“Why are you here? Where are you from? Do you like Uzbekistan? Why? What do you like best?” Of course, we couldn’t understand a word of Tajik or Russian, so Fak was bombarded with questions. He turned to us, “Are they bothering you?”

“Quite the opposite,” Gunter explained. “We want to talk with them. You can fill us in on the history later.”

“America! California!” a student from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, yelled to his friends. Soon his friends surrounded us and the questioning resumed.

An English teacher from Tashkent visits Nurata.

An English teacher from Tashkent visits Nurata.

A teacher approached to ask Fak whether her International Language university students could come over to interview us. They were taking a cultural field trip. “How fortunate for us to find American English speakers,” she said. “That is unusual; few Europeans come here and almost no Americans.” We sat on a bench while a parade of students passed by. “Only one question each,” she instructed.

As we walk along the town’s main plaza, a withered man approached with a young boy, about 5 or 6 years old. “Photo of my grandson with you?” he asked.

“Okay,” Gunter said. “Come and stand here in front.” The grandfather releases the shy boy’s hand and gently pushes him forward. After he snapped his photo, his gnarled face broke into a wide grin. “My grandson will remember this photo for the rest of his life.”

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The center of attention all afternoon, we continued to walk and talk around the village. Those inquisitive-but-friendly people of Nurata will always hold a special place in my heart.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.

Lois Joy Hofmann updating her travel journal.

Lois Joy Hofmann updating her travel journal.

 

 

On the way to Mt. Popa and Table Mountain, a popular tourist site southeast of Bagan, Burma, our guide parked alongside the road and led us into a small village. It’s one of the many memories of our recent trip to Myanmar that I’ll never forget. Back in 2011, I enjoyed Walking a Village outside of Varanasi, India on the way to Sarnath to visit Buddhist sites. After that experience, I vowed that I would continue to use this method of “slow travel” during future trips. I was not disappointed.

As we entered the village, we were enthusiastically greeted by small children. Some were shy, but most warmed up to me after I crouched to their level.

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As we walked among the thatch-roof huts, we introduced ourselves to a family sow and her brood who scurried away to hide underneath a nearby yam patch.

The family pig

The family pig

The brood of piglets

The brood of piglets

I was impressed with the use of solar panels in the village. One panel could power a small 6-inch TV. One home owner proudly showed how he could charge batteries to power a radio or a smart phone. He showed us his living space. I noticed that his motorcycle was kept inside, under the thatched roof.

Cycle in a village home

Cycle in a village home

This solar panel can power a small radio

This solar panel can power a small radio

Large solar panel on thatched roof

Large solar panel on thatched roof

A group of villagers were busy harvesting peanuts. They smiled as we passed by.

Villagers harvesting peanuts

Villagers harvesting peanuts

We didn’t meet many older children because they were in school. So we stopped on by to take a look at the classrooms before we returned to our vehicle.

Village school

Village school

 

On the way to Sarnath to see the Buddhist sites in India, we asked our driver to stop outside a village and let us walk through on our own, to interact with the locals. This is who we met.

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Varanasi, October 22-25

 “Varanasi will blow your mind, but you must see it for yourself to form your own impressions.” That’s what Günter told me when he promised to take me around the world.  One cannot sail to Varanasi, so it’s taken him twenty years to make this particular promise come true.  It is good that we did not delete this destination from our bucket list! This city of a little more than a million people is chaotic, colorful, and totally insane. As the Lonely Planet, India says, “Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all.” It was certainly my most memorable stop in India.

Dating back to around 1200 B.C., Varanasi is also known as Kashi (City of Life) or Benares. It is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. It is also one of the holiest sites in India, the “in” place for washing away one’s sins in the holy waters of the Ganges or cremating one’s loved ones. The city is an auspicious place to die, since dying here gives one moksha (liberation from life and death). The soul goes straight to heaven, thus ensuring that it will not be reborn into the next life as a rat—or as a politician!

New Delhi was benign compared to this place. I cannot imagine flying from any western country straight into in Varanasi! It’s raw, it’s real and it’s here and now. The sights, sounds, and smells assault my senses and really do blow my mind.

Our Delhi driver takes us to the airport, where we end up at the gate, waiting for our plane. There is scant seating along the wall. We stand in line for 1 ½ hours. All the while, the news travels from one passenger to another, like a game of “gossip:” The flight is delayed but is “scheduled” for the next hour! I sit in place, leaning against my daypack. “Only five minutes,” says an Indian guide for a tour group of Brits and Aussies. The next pronouncement is “only ten minutes,” and the one after that, “only 20 minutes.” Then the word comes back to the guide that it will be another hour. The entire tour group leaves to go to the upstairs restaurant. I grab a vacant seat while Günter roams the airport. After ten minutes, our plane is called—no warning, no explanation. I motion to Günter; we are loaded into a bus to board the plane. (This airport does have passenger loading bridges, but they are not used.) The 25-person tour group is still at the restaurant, so we wait until they are herded on. Welcome to travel in India!

An Enchanting-India representative takes us to the Gateway Hotel, clearly a grand opulent hotel of time gone by, ‘50s grandeur trying to regain its previous five-star status. Many of the pools have been drained and the fountains are still, but the flower gardens have been tilled and rosebushes have been planted in one of them. “I never promised you a rose garden,” hums Günter as we walk past. We have arrival teas in the reception, decorated in shades of pale green and chartreuse, with contrasting maroon pillows. Gold trim has been inlaid into the marble floors; leaf patterns have been etched into the tall, arched windows and the crystal chandelier. All this would be quite expensive to duplicate at today’s costs!

My most memorable impression of Varanasi is the Ganga Aarti, the evening prayer ceremony on the bank of the Ganges River. Our driver takes us as far as he can, then we walk with Beni, our guide, through the throngs of pilgrims, tourists, and touts to the ghats, long stretches of steps leading down to the water on the western bank. About 80 ghats border the river, but this ceremony always takes place at the Dasaswamedh, the liveliest and most colorful. The name indicates that Brahma sacrificed (medh) 10 (das) horses (aswa) here. Beni walks ahead of us and hires a boat and two boatmen; Günter and I follow her down the steps crowded with pilgrims, touts and begging children. One girl with black, pleading eyes wants to sell us lamps to put into the river. Beni tries to shake her off, telling her, “No, we’ll buy them down at the boat.” The girl follows us down to the boat.

The girl who sold us river offerings

“I want to buy them from her,” I tell Beni. We climb into the small rowboat. The two expert boatmen maneuver past the dozens of boats lined there, about six rows deep, while the girl runs along the dock.  When we reach the end of the dock, we purchase 5 lamps from her, each made with a floating base, a small tea candle, and six orange marigolds. After being underway for awhile, we light them, make a wish, and then float them on the fast-moving Ganges. We continue to watch and wish as the lights become smaller and smaller and finally disappear.

Lois makes a wish and drops the tea light into the Ganges

We are rowed past Manikarnika Ghat, where the cremations are done. No photos are allowed. We stop and drift while we watch silently. About eight fires are burning. That means that eight bodies are being cremated. The corpse is dunked in the Ganges prior to burning. Beni points out the huge piles of firewood stacked along the top of the ghat. “Every log is weighed on giant scales up there,” Beni points.  “Sandalwood is the most expensive, bought only by the rich. The wood is expensive because it has to be brought there through narrow streets. I’ll show you those tomorrow. The price of the cremation is calculated in advance. The family buys just enough wood to incinerate the body, but no more. Then it is slid back into the river. Sometimes the wood isn’t enough, and the body floats while before it sinks.”

The boat turns and we head back for the Ganga Aarti. The ghat steps have filled to capacity. A group of musicians file toward a platform high over the river bank. I am transfixed. I feel as if I am watching the opening act of a life-and-death play from the buffer of the river, yet I am surrounded by boats painted in hues of the Caribbean. Surreal! The smoke from the burning ghats forms a smoky mist that rises from the Ganges. Although there is no dramatic sunset, the haze gradually turns to dark. Yellow street lamps beam onto steps filled with brilliant saris and light a stage with seated, white-robed figures. As the haunting sounds of the sitar begin, a hush falls over the crowd. After that, a choir performs a ritual chant that sounds medieval to me. A warm chill—is that even possible?—runs up my spine as life and death ramp to maximum intensity against a backdrop of molding mansions and decaying temples. The pageantry continues with bells, drums, incense, candles and song. Günter and I cannot understand the words, so we meditate and pray to our God. A spirit of prayer envelops the entire setting, interrupted occasionally by a light splash of oars.

We didn’t record this night service, but you can view videos by others at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQSA2jltbXA

The night is short because we have a 0500 pick-up to be back at the ghat before dawn. Sunrise on the Ganges is not to be missed, warn the guide books. The rising sun promises to bathe the temples and ghats lining the western bank in a heavenly golden light. I rouse myself, still wearing last night’s make-up, and strap on my cameras to photograph the scene. Beni hires two boatmen and we board the boat in the dark. The sky gradually lightens, but there is no golden globe this day. I’m not surprised, because so far, I have not seen a bright sunrise in India. “There it is—the sun!” Beni calls. We look toward the eastern bank to see a pale white ball that looks more like a moon surrounded by misty haze.  As we near the western bank, I notice more cremation fires burning. No wonder a “mist” hangs over this river!

Hazy sunrise over the river Ganges

By now, I know that we cannot photograph the burning ghats, so I ask if we can go closer at the bathing ghats. These provide world-class people watching. I find that people come to the ghats not only for bathing, but also to wash clothes, perform yoga, offer blessings, get massages, wash their buffalos, beg or give to beggars to improve their karma. As the sun rises, it burns off some of the smoke, and the buildings do take on a mellow glow.

Our boatsmen on the sunrise cruise along the ghats

Beni has the boat drop us off at a burning ghat so that we can walk the narrow back streets and watch a cremation from the shore—not that we asked her for this. I surmise that it comes with the tour. Huge stacks of firewood are stacked along the top ridge of the ghat. We climb the steps to visit The Scales, where the wood is weighed and a price is negotiated. The dead bodies are carried through the alleyways of the old city on bamboo stretchers swathed in cloth. The bodies used to be carried only by the “Untouchables” caste. Here, I must divert from my story to explain how the caste system works:

In Delhi, we watched a segment of a LaMonde TV special series on India about a man who is a cremator. An uneducated man, he makes four times that of an educated office worker. The TV crew follows him home after his work. He stops stops at a small neighborhood restaurant.

“What does he do?” the narrator asks a customer seated nearby.

“I think he works in an office near here.”

No one will admit that he has such a job. The man procures the wood for the cremation, the lighter fluid and butter to make the body burn, and the platform that slides the body into the Ganges. Then he lights the corpse, which burns for many hours.

The Indian constitution does not recognize the caste systems, but caste still wields considerable influence, especially in rural India. The caste one is born into determines the social standing within the community and influences one’s vocational and marriage prospects. Castes are further divided into thousands of jati, groups of “families” or social communities, sometimes—but not always—linked to occupation. Conservative Hindus not only marry someone of the same caste, but of the same jati.

Hindus are born into one of four castes: Brahmin (priests and scholars), Kshatriya (soldiers), Vaishya (merchants), and Shudra (laborers). They believe that the Brahmins emerged from the mouth of Lord Brahma at the moment of creation; Kshatriyas came from his arms, Vaishyas from his thighs, and Shudras from his feet.

Beneath these four main castes are the Dalits (formerly known as the Untouchables) who hold menial jobs such as sweepers and latrine cleaners. The word “pariah” comes from the name of a Tamil Dalit group, the Paraiyars. But there is another layer: beneath the social heap are the Denotified Tribes (known as the Criminal Tribes until 1952 when a reform law recognized 198 tribes and castes). Many of these nomadic tribes are forced to eke out a living on the fringes of society. To improve the Dalit’s position, the Indian government sets aside public sector jobs, parliamentary seats, university spots. Today, these quotas encompass 25% of student positions and government jobs.

When Beni, who is a Brahmin educated as a chemist, tells us that these cremators are Untouchables, we know better, but don’t challenge her. Next, she takes us to a building at the top of the burning ghat to watch a cremation. Before I look down, the stench overwhelms me. I wish we had masks. I try not to open my mouth. My eyes smart. I can’t wait to leave.

We are asked for a donation and then we follow Beni through dark, narrow alleys that are actually the main streets of the old city. Cows wander through; we have to be careful not to step on cow pies and other filth. Babies play in the street. Günter stops to take a photo of a man plastered with white dust sitting in a doorway in a lotus position. He must be a “tourist guru” because he asks for a donation.

Guru in the doorway of a back street

Beni points us to the Vishwanath Temple, the most popular temple in Varanasi, dedicated to Shiva as lord of the universe. The current temple was built in 1776, with the 800 kg of gold plating on the tower and dome supplied by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore 50 years later. The security is extreme, with soldiers all over the place. Bags, cameras, cell phones, have to be deposited. After we get through all of this, we find that we can only see the temple through a rope gate because we are not Hindu.

Why bother, then, with all the security rigmarole?

When we come out of the hubbub and return to our driver and car, I am quite ready to leave the old city.  Beni directs the driver to the Benares Hindu University where she obtained her degree. What a difference! The wide tree-lined streets and parks of the five-square-kilometer campus seem a world away.

Varanasi is famous for silk brocades and the gorgeous Banarasi saris worn by Indian women on important occasions such as attending a wedding. Beni takes us to The Mehta International, a silk weaving center where we admire tapestries, table runners, and saris woven with bright colors interlaced with gold thread. We watch the weavers at work at old silk handlooms. It can take two months for a weaver to make one sari. We learned that the complex device above some of the weavers uses punched cards to store the intricate instructions—forerunners of the punched card used in computer rooms until the 1960s.

So it follows that the artisans who were adapt at creating these decorative patterns were  equivalent to our modern day computer programmers. Amazing!

Beni also takes us to Vibgyor, a manufacturer and exporter of all types of glass beads, jewelry, wall hangings, and other handicrafts where we buy gifts to take back with us.

On our final full day in Varanasi, we take a day trip to Sarnath. Underway, we ask our driver to stop on the outskirts of a small town while we “walk a village.” We leave our bags in the car, parked alongside fields of grain and produce, carrying only the small Nikon digital and some change.  This is the best way, we’ve found, to interact with locals. We walk down the dusty main street, talking to locals using simple English words and hand signs. Soon I have a troupe of children following me, pointing and giggling with their hands over their mouths. I take photos of thatched huts, the convenient water wells and  hand pumps put alongside the road by the government, the family water buffalo or goat, and the family themselves when they permit me to do so. When I crouch down to take a photo of the stacks of cow pies heaped alongside a home (they use them as fuel for cooking) or slapped on a wall to dry, the children burst into laughter.

Sarnath, rediscovered by British archeologists in 1835, is known as one of the four important sites on the Buddhist circuit (the other three are located in Nepal). It’s a peaceful, laid-back town. In 640 A.D., Sarnath had a 100-meter high stupa and 1500 monks living in large monasteries but soon after, Buddhism went into decline and when Muslim invaders destroyed the city’s buildings, Sarnath disappeared. We visit the Chaukhandi Stupa, a large ruined stupa that dates back to the 5th century, the spot where Buddha met his first disciples. At the modern temple of Mulgandha Kuti, we walk around a bodhi tree supposedly transplanted from the holy tree in Sri Lanka, which in turn is said to be the offspring of the original tree in Bodhgaya under which Buddha attained enlightenment.

The site where Buddha preached to his first disciples, Sarnath

Next stop: Khajuraho, a world heritage site famous for its erotic carvings.

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.