Tuesday, July 9, 2013

New Delhi

Our next port of call was New Delhi. We knew our friend, Abhi, was in the vicinity, and we hoped to connect with him if possible, and the chance was much greater the farther north we went. Unfortunately, the timing of that didn't really work out, but that is likely for the best, because I was ill. Again.

I don't want to jump ahead too much, so I will begin this story in Aurangabad. As Jon has alluded in his blogpost, everyone in Aurangabad was apparently headed in the same direction, but we were able to grab the last two seats on a sleeper train leaving from Jalagon—a city approximately three hours' bus trip to the north (winning!)

To make sure we boarded our noon train on time, we were on the first bus headed out of Aurangabad to Jalagon, which left at 7 am and should ensure a 10:30 arrival. Unfortunately, our bus broke down halfway there. Fortunately, a very sweet teenager stood out in the rain to flag down the next bus to Jalagon, and made sure we were on it. Unfortunately, this led to a 4.5 hour trip. Fortunately, we still had plenty of time due to a train delay, and it meant we weren't in Jalagon very long.

And so it goes in India; the hand of fate changes swiftly and often without notice, but it will certainly reverse direction, so it's best to simply sit back and enjoy the ride. (In regards to Jalagon, I have nothing nice to say about this city. When our bus did arrive, we were greeted by an act of public urination. A woman approximately my own age, who did not appear to be disabled or impaired in any way, simply hoiked up her sari right next to the bus. Not even bothering to duck behind a nearby tree. Seriously????)

When we got on our sleeper train, we found some used bedding, and 7 people in our 4 person compartment. Jon was kind and accommodating, but I was deeply annoyed. I think my lack of graciousness was somewhat obvious, because three of the people left the compartment shortly thereafter, leaving 2 adults and 2 rather bratty children. Partway through the trip, these individuals left, and two men with big bellies—fuel tanks for their snoring machines—took their places. If it sounds like I was feeling a wee bit grouchy, I was. By this age, I should handle fatigue a bit better, but I simply don't. Stay out of tired Monique's way!

So after an epic 25 hours, we arrived in New Delhi, a city that—admittedly—deeply intimidated us. We had not heard the best things—sexual harassment, safety concerns, general hassles, and cleanliness issues—so we emerged from the bus anticipating difficulties getting to our hotel. And to our surprise and delight, there were none! Kind and helpful people at the bus station directed us to the appropriate bus that was idling at the station, the driver let us know where to disembark, the streets were free of rubbish, and there were actually sidewalks! Sure, we did pass a man crouched on the sidewalk intently tapping on an amber syringe of liquid, which I could only infer was heroin. But the sidewalk was there, and it was clean!

After a brief wander around the Paharganj area, and an overpriced rickshaw ride later, we found ourselves staying on the 6th floor of a hotel in the heart of the backpacker district, which is right off the main bazaar. An area full of character, but decidedly less clean than the aforementioned avenues. After we checked in, I have absolutely no idea what we did, so I'm guessing it wasn't very memorable? (For some reason, we both have little recollection of that day.) I can tell you we booked a city tour in two day's time, and had dinner at a nearby restaurant.

The following morning, we decided to check out various shops around Connaught Place, and Jantar Mantar, an ancient observatory of sorts. (They tried to sell us 'gently used' tickets here—ones that had already been torn, so they could just pocket the money, but we weren't having it.) I was decidedly impressed the Raj was so preoccupied with the movement of celestial bodies—enough to build several spectacular astronomical devices in the early 1700s. However, I later discovered the motivation behind this was to correctly assess auspicious dates. So maybe not the most scientifically minded regent (as I had originally hoped), but impressive nevertheless. Anyhow, we had a great deal of fun checking out the crazy looking instruments before heading to the main bazaar for a bit of a browse. 


Since it was a terribly hot day, we rationalized stopping in at a Costa Coffee to soak up the AC and have a drink. I suppose this set us off on a “Westernized” bender, because I ate some Mexican food for dinner, which was only distinguishable as such by the title of the dish. (Not to say it was bad, it was simply very different from what I'm used to in Texas.)

For us, the highlight of the day was witnessing several long and intense battles playing out over the rooftops of the city. There was blood, sweat, tears, and...colorful squares of paper flying high in sky. Yes, we're talking about kite-flying; not the stuff of the saccharine Mary Poppins' melodies, but the fighting kind! We watched intently as the kid on the neighboring roof cut down two of his rival's kites before losing two of his own (and a bit of his pride). So after a quick dash out, we found a kite shop and stocked up on several kites for him. It was partly selfish because we were eager to see the battles continue! 

Our kite-flying friend concentrating on the battle

Kite-flying action shot (including one hungry child inexplicably eating his kite in the background)
The next day, we went on the city tour, which was a bit of a farce. It started an hour late, nobody was on time, the tour guide exhibited lackadaisical attitude about timings, we only saw about 50% of the itinerary, had insufficient time at several of the places we did stop, and far too much time at shop selling tourist tat thanks to our guide's eagerness to collect a commission. In addition, apparently all the tour buses like to travel in convey, so it means hundreds of people at each site at a given time. This was particularly problematic at the Lotus Temple, where we were told 20 minutes, then 30, then “only 15 for photo” but some people went in instead and spent 1.5 hours there, while all of us waited on the sweltering bus. (No apologies from those individuals, no comment from the tour guide, so it was no wonder people were chronically late.)

However, the tour wasn't all bad, because we made a few new friends (two sweet Iraqi brothers who were studying in Aurangabad and an English guy who we hung out with for the next few days), and got to see several amazing places, which included a massive Hindu Temple, Biria Mandir.

We then stopped briefly to see Parliament and the Prime Minister's house, with a longer stop at the Indira Gandhi museum. (I honestly know little about her, aside from the fact that her treatment of several ethnic groups was...controversial..shall we say? But after seeing the museum, I am interested to find out more about her, and her son, who was also assassinated.) While the aforementioned places were interesting, hands down, our favorite stop of the day was the Qutb Minar, a tower built in 1192 and a designated UNESCO world heritage site. Both the tower and the complex are absolutely stunning, a real work of art and architecture. Jon and I had skipped lunch to get a bit more time there—which we definitely needed—and we were both completely smitten. The rich mosaic of colored sandstone is really unique and the overall effect is simply breathtaking.

We saw the outside (but not inside...grrrr) of the fantastic Lotus Temple.

The final stop of the day was at Gandhi's cremation site, which was situated in a lovely green space, full of squirrels and birds. It all felt very peaceful on the way in. Unfortunately, there were some people loudly hawking photographs for 100 Rupees immediately in front of the pyre, which felt rather wrong and disrespectful. I was also disappointed to see people spitting on the ground immediately around the pyre. Sigh.

That evening we had dinner with our new friend Mike, who takes beautiful photographs (these will definitely make you want to travel India) and also lived in Birmingham prior to his travels. Yes, it is a very small world. All in all, it was a really nice evening and a lovely dinner. So all was well until 1 in the morning when I regurgitated said dinner due to food poisoning. (Sad face.)

While I rested up the following morning, Jon headed back to the Lotus Temple to see it 'innards,' which are apparently as lovely as its exterior. He summed it up as, “one of the most calm and pleasant places of worship [he] has ever been to.” Ever the renegade, he trespassed on some government property to see the India Gate which led down to the capital building, where he snapped the following photograph before he was shooed away by police officers toting machine guns. 

 After bringing me gifts of Gatorade and shortbread cookies, Jon headed out for a few beers with Mike and a couple other guys. Meaning I got lots of time to Skype with my Mom, because that is what one does when one is ill, and yes, my mommy did make me feel lots better thankyouverymuch for asking.

The following day, Mike, Jon and I hopped on the lovely clean air-conditioned subway to check out Humayun's Tomb, which—according to the Lonely Planet—is a “beautiful example of early Mughal architecture built in the 16th century, featuring a two-tone combination of red sandstone and white marble.” On the walk to the site, we stopped in a corner store that—randomly—stocked a million different British goods, prompting much excitement from the boys and the purchase of....two Indian beverages. After a slightly protracted walk, we arrived at the site; however, it was really really hot and none of us had the foresight to purchase water before entering. Ooops. Although we really enjoyed it, we left a bit earlier than we may have otherwise to glug down a few liters of that lovely H20. 


Our next stop was Gandi Smriti, which is a memorial on the site where Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu extremist in 1948. The memorial consists of raised concrete footsteps to space on the lawn where he died. The house nearby has been converted into a museum, with the upper half featuring a series of somewhat unusual interactive exhibits and the lower half featuring a bit more historical information and several of his personal artifacts (i.e. walking stick, glasses, and sandals.)

After the museum, we headed back to the hotel, arriving with sufficient time for Mike to dash off to for his train, and for Jon and I to book our train tickets since we had finally decided on our next port of call, Amiritsar. Since we were able to leave in here were a few things we wanted to do before we left, namely visit the Red Fort and check out a Jain Temple that featured—what I'm guessing is—one of the world's only bird hospitals.

While the Jain temple was really pretty and featured an art deco style, the standout was definitely the bird hospital. I was completely and utterly charmed by it. Some of the little birds looked kind of sad, but I had complete faith in their doctor, who told me they “admitted approximately 30 to 35 patients each day” and had a strict rehabilitation program to get these birdies back on their feet and into the sky. His operating room was immaculate...the hospitals in Hyderabad could have learned a few lessons here.  (In keeping with their religious beliefs, only vegetarian birds are admitted as inpatients; non-veggie birds are treated as outpatients.)

After attending the light and sound show at the Red Fort—which gave us the opportunity to see a bit of the fort in cooler temperatures and an interesting (though somewhat protracted) history lesson to boot—we headed back to the guesthouse via McDonalds, where we picked up some McMasala Veggie Burgers.

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