First of all, India is too big to see in one trip unless that trip is somewhere in the neighborhood of a month or more. You just can’t do it. There is too much to see and getting around is not easy at all (more on this later). Our trip was primarily located in Rajasthan which is in the north of India and borders Pakistan. This would actually be relevant to us because the heightened security in Rajasthan was pretty intense. Our bags were checked as we entered airports and then screened again through normal security, and then hand checked one more time before boarding the plan. Each of these checks was handled not by your standard TSA type of security personell, but instead by an automatic rifle wielding member of the Indian military. Another surprise note: the military has a very strong presence in India and upon learning more about India’s history, it became obvious that the military and fighting have actually been an important part of Indian culture for many centuries.
We had dinner with some friends before we left and during that conversation it was hard for the individual describing India (who had been there traveling for at least a month) to really convey what it was going to be like. I think we would have the same challenges. India is vibrant, poor, dynamic, stuck in time, dirty, opulent, difficult, passive, militaristic, spicy, and a myriad of other adjectives. But they all combine into one primary thing: India is VERY interesting.
India was such an intense experience…a total assault on the senses. One of the main reasons that India made it on our trip agenda was that Celia’s Dad was going to be there for work and we had played with the idea of traveling together to a few places he had always wanted to visit. Most notably Jaiselmere which is an old fortified city in the desert. Before we got to India we realized that the timing for Jaiselmere wouldn’t work out but we decided we were still curious about what India would be like and Rudy would still be there.
The place where we stayed in Delhi was recommended by a co-worker of Celia’s dad which we would definitely recommend to anyone heading there. We stayed in a Guesthouse in an old historically protected neighborhood in “New Delhi”. The house was in a nice tree lined neighborhood, and enclosed behind high walls. It had a great garden in back where you could sit on the patio and watch the parrots and birds playing in the trees.
There were about 30 parrots! We loved staying here and it kind of reminded Celia of her backyard in Dhaka when she was a child, which was the first time on the trip she had any kind of association with the memories from her childhood, so that was neat. Delhi itself is a city of about 13 million people…so it’s a pretty wild place as far as traffic, infrastructure, etc goes!
A MAJOR highlight from Delhi was the restaurant Pindi. Which is located in a strip mall but served the best Indian food we had ever tasted, and the best we had in our trip. Sadly we took no food pics there , what were we thinking! But if anyone ever goes to Delhi you have to go there…it is absolutely worth the trip.
To see Delhi we hired a driver who spent the day with us waiting while we saw the sites. Driver in Delhi for the day: $10. We headed for Old Delhi to see what it was all about. The highlight was hiring a rickshaw driver to take us through the narrow streets of Old Delhi and through all the various markets there – cloth, electronics, spices etc. The streets were SO narrow with pedestrians everywhere and traffic flowing both ways. It was incredible. There were so many wires hanging down that we could practically reach up and grab them. While there we also checked out the Jama Masjid mosque which has a total capacity of 25,000 people. Also of note, the Jama Masjid was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan who also commissioned the Taj Mahal. More on the Taj Mahal later.
Like Vietnam…more wires hanging from above:
As a side note, but certainly a quality one, the description of the rickshaw driver should be left to the experts. See: Adiga, Aravind; “The White Tiger.” The book itself was a winner of the Mann Booker Prize for 2008 and for anyone interested first in a good read, and second in a book that gives a very accurate view into an interesting slice of India…pick up this book. Adiga’s description of the rickshaw driver (who is the main character’s father):
“A rich man’s body is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank.Ours are different. My father’s spine was a knotted rope, the kind that women use in villages to pull water from wells; the clavicle curved around his neck in high relief, like a dog’s collar; cuts and nicks and scars, like little whip marks in his flesh, ran down his chest and waist, reaching down below his hip bones into his buttocks. The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.”
Here is our rickshaw driver:
The commotion and general sense of “business” on the streets is exacerbated by the fact that people are going in every direction and the streets, like the rest of India, are totally packed. So for our driver to energetically, enthusiastically, and most importantly…successfully, pull this off was pretty amazing: he hopped out at one street and got us a Samosa for $.15 which came wrapped in newspaper and was the tastiest thing ever!
The story of India is written everywhere you look. You can’t miss the absolute poverty and if you look hard enough, you can see serious wealth. But the truth comes out in the details and if you find them on your ride to the restaurant where your destination may exist in a strip mall that lies in a residential neighborhood, or your 6 hour car ride to another city passing towns where wealth is measured by whether or not you own a camel, or if you look close enough at a group of children and notice that the luckiest of them may have 2 shirts…you see the truth of India. India’s grit is far different than that of Vietnam. India’s grit elicits a sense of sadness. A voyeuristic perspective that makes you feel guilty looking but at the same time is quite possibly the reason you are there. Begging is a profession and subsistence seemed to be a step up for many people and places we saw. But that grit again significantly contributed to the experience of traveling in India. It wasn’t about feeling great about where you came from or bad for what you were observing. It was about seeing the reality of the place and there is very little hiding the truth of that reality in India. Adiga is, again, a far better source for conveying the detail:
“I am proud to inform you that Laxmangarh is your typical Indian village paradise, adequately supplied with electricity, running water, and working telephones; and that the children of my village, raised on a nutritious diet of meat, eggs, vegetables, and lentils, will be found, when examined with tape measure and scales, to match up to the minimum height and weight standards set by the United Nations and other organizations whose treaties our prime minister has signed and whose forums he so regularly and pompously attends.
Electricity poles — defunct.
Water tap — broken.
Children — too lean and short for their age, and with oversized heads from which vivid eyes shine, like the guilty conscience of the government of India.”
Of course this description of India does not apply to ALL of India, and in its literary context was intended to elicit an image and sense of a village that was the backdrop for a rather poor and depressing childhood. Is all of India this way? Of course not. But this India most certainly exists today and in far greater abundance than the PR that we all consume about the growth and economy of India would lead one to believe. A country of 1.2 billion people is going to have its challenges and infrastructure may be India’s greatest. The village described by Adiga certainly exists and its existence is more than obvious once your travels take you outside the primary cites. Some would say that the delta between rich and poor is exactly India’s future. And while that may be entirely true, the current reality reflects far more poverty than it does explosive growth.
Interesting notes about India:
Everything takes twice as long to get to as anyone tells you because the traffic everywhere is so bad
You can be driving 50 MPH down a 2 lane highway and suddenly find there is a tractor coming directly at you heading the wrong way
You can be driving 50 MPH down a two lane highway and have to pass; oxcarts, donkeycarts, busses with people piled on the roof, cows in the middle of the road, and last but not last…stopped vehicles
Men in India will pee anywhere and everywhere, so you get used to seeing someone peeing off the side of the road or on the sidewalk about once every two minutes
James Bond Interlude: this is the palace (in Udaipur) where James Bond jumped his car out of in Octopussy. Pretty sweet…
And then…you go to the Taj Mahal.
Of important note, I know we both agree: The Taj Mahal was likely the 2nd most amazing thing we saw on our trip.
The Taj Mahal was the most magical experience we had in India, and aside from the Himilayas, probably the most magical experience of the whole trip. No matter how many pictures you have seen of it, nothing compares to the feeling we had when we saw it in person. It is truly perfection and the most beautiful man made creation we have ever seen.
We were at the entrance to the Taj by 6:30 in the morning, in hopes of avoiding the crowds. This turned out to be a great decision, because it was nice and quiet, and although there were definitely lots of other early risers it wasn’t packed. There was great early morning light, and the rest of India seems to be kept away when you visit the Taj Mahal.
You have to walk through the exterior courtyard, and then walk through the main gate and look ahead to see the reflecting pools and the Taj directly in front of you. We probably spent 10 minutes at that spot just taking it all in. You did not want to move away and when we finally did, we spent about 3 hours at the Taj, just walking around and taking it all in. There are lots of benches and spots to sit and enjoy the view. The Taj Mahal is “can’t miss” and we mistakenly approached it as “the thing to see in India while you are there.” Almost as if our expectation was to be underwhelmed. It’s not…it’s a “thing to see no matter where else you go in the world.” In other words, if your sole reason for going to India is to see the Taj Mahal…it would be worth it.
Our time in India was cut shorter than we had originally intended because we realized that we needed more than the 2 weeks we had left to see what we would really want to see. We had been told that India was a “second trip” and that was pretty obvious at this point. So we left the Taj Mahal, took the 6.5 hour car ride back to Delhi, stopped at a “mall” as we had 5 hours to kill (thinking it would be one of those crazy modern new malls in Delhi and it wasn’t…it was a very low grade version of one) in Delhi, had Chinese food in a nice restaurant, headed to the airport, and realized before we got on the plane that we both had food poisoning. That was not awesome…but we were off to Hanoi (again, yes we loved it that much!) for a final farewell for 5 days which was totally awesome!