Northern India 2012 travel blog






















Nothing stops in New Delhi.

Home to 16.5 million people (that's 8.25 Lakh, a new term for us), it's not the city the never sleeps. It's the city that never stops. Stop signs mean nothing. In all of our time in India we never saw one single vehicle of any sort obey one. Red lights mean to slow, but not necessarily to stop. Nothing stops. Delhi just goes, and goes and goes.

The pushing started in Newark. As I was about to board Continental flight 83 for New Delhi there was an announcement that all passengers should have their travel documents re-checked before boarding. I joined the crush of mostly Indian nationals for the third examination of my visa and passport of the day. You don't stop with Indians. It's get in line, hold your place and go, or be left behind.

After flying for almost 15 hours and over the north pole (apparently this is the shortest route) I found myself looking through a haze for Amanda and the driver from our hotel. Then the going started. Delhi is a smoky, smelly haze. A crush of people crouched around fires of cardboard scraps and cow dung. On the night of my arrival you couldn't see 30 feet ahead of you through the haze.

Driving in Delhi is another world. Bigger vehicles have right of way. Every possible space on the road is taken up by bicycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, scooters, motorbikes, huge trucks with "please blow horn" and "use dipper at night" emblazoned on the backs. Cows wander freely through the streets and have ultimate right of way. Water buffalo are yoked to giant carts.

Everything moves. People ride motorcycles with unimaginable amounts of good strapped to them. We saw a man pushing a bike with what looked like a half ton (truly) of potatoes. What can't be carried on vehicles is carried on peoples heads. Whole families ride on motorcycles. Men are mostly drivers. Women ride sidesaddle with Sari's flapping in the breeze. There are special racks for this made of chrome and on the opposite side from the muffler.

Young children ride on laps and infants on gas tanks. We saw families of four and five on a single Enflied.

Our hotel is very nice, but surrounded by the industrial neighborhood of Karol Bagh (where India's famous Royal Enfields are made). Even inside our room the acrid smell of fires in the street creeps inside. We fall asleep to the sound of a puppy being badly beaten.

In the morning we march past the 108 foot tall statue of Hanuman, the monkey god and into the New Delhi metro station for our first adventure in public transportation. We buy our tokens for the 5 rupee ride (about 10 cents) to the railway station. We are then crushed, backpacks and all into a metro car with an unimaginable number of people. One man who squeezes in just as the doors close scolds Amanda for her backpack and five other people pounce upon him in rapid fire Hindi. We can only reckon that they were telling him to leave her alone. A short ride later we find ourselves in the station too early for our train and surrounded by whole families who live there. It is dark, smoky, reeks of urine and there are beggars (many who are lepers) everywhere. We retreat to a nearby restaurant to wait it out.

As crazy as India can be, train travel is amazingly organized and relatively easy. We bought tickets online and were assigned a car and seat number. A lovely computerized woman's voice announces the approach of the train by number, name and platform. You look for your car and pasted to the door is a manifest with a list of passengers. Your name, age and gender are printed right there for all to see. On each occasion we boarded fellow passengers called us by name; "are you Scott and Amanda", come here... these are your seats...." We shared our first train car with the Chandigarh youth badminton team. Girls in school uniforms rested their chins on the backs of their seats to peer down and grill us with questions "where are your from", "who is your favorite Bollywood actor"..... I have my guitar along and play a few songs. At the end of "I've been working on the railroad" the whole car erupts in applause.

We meet my friend Lucky's sister and cousin at the station and they take us back to their lovely family home. We go for dinner and her Auntie insists on paying. We are given a bedroom of our own with an attached bath. Everyone else (Lucky's mother, sister, cousin and auntie) share a room and we fall asleep to their laughter. The women have a slumber party until early morning.

In the morning "Auntie" teaches me to make paranthas (flat breads stuffed with vegetables). Indians use outrageous amounts of butter on everything. If they don't add butter to something then they add ghee (clarified butter).

Lucky's sister Gagen has a little purple car and we all pile in for a day of sightseeing. We go to the town lake on a Saturday and peddle swan boats around.

We snack on curried corn and fried dhal (mung beans) served with fresh chili, lime juice and cilantro and presented in a cone of newspaper. Amanda shares a camel ride with a girl named "Precious T".

Then a trip to Wonderland.

In 1957 an eccentric government official named Nek Chandh secretly started to build a clandestine (and illegal) sculpture garden out of discarded scrap materials. He successfully hid this place for 15 years. When it was found the government wanted to knock it down, but public opinion prevailed and a society was created to protect the space. Today the garden is a huge tourist attraction that covers more than 40 acres. It houses thousands of sculptures and mosaics made from broken pots, plates, power outlets, bottles and scraps that defy classification. You pay 15 rupees (30 cents) at a tiny window that you have to crouch down to see and then step through the looking glass. The place is a maze of walkways and arches. Many typical Americans would have a hard time squeezing through some of the spaces. The entire place has a simple, innocent and carnival like atmosphere. We walk through a bona fide, old fashioned "house of mirrors" and laugh as the bent glass morphs our images. Old men in turbans wiggle and dance in front of them and then move on to swing on giant schoolyard type swings made for adults. Daredevil teens swing in huge arcs. Everywhere you go in India you will see men holding hands, walking arm and arm and openly fondling each other. To the uninitiated it looks as if every man in India is gay. At the same time, open affection between males and females is culturally taboo. But all bets are off in this hidden wonderland. Men with topknots and women in colorful sari's whoop and swing and get in touch with their inner child. It's infectious and delightful and we don't want to leave.

In the evening we go to a Sikh temple with Gagen and her cousins. The temple is grand, with a lovely dome.

We are first instructed to remove our shoes and leave them on some steps nearby. We then wash our feet and cover our heads. A man holding a large spear doesn't approve of Amanda's cap and motions for her to cover her head with a more appropriate cloth. My knitted cap passes muster. The drill is then that you walk around the temple and bow in each direction. We then sit and listen to lovely chanting, tabla (drums) and harmonium for a bit. Sikhs pride themselves on treating everyone equally. The caste system is set aside in the temple. People of all castes come and complete the same ritual we did. On the way out an offering of a sweet made of butter and flour is given to us. We then dine in the communal kitchen with 50 or so others. We sit on the floor with metal plates as barefoot men serve us spicy dahl (like stew) from a bucket as they walk by.

Children hand us chapati (flat breads) and we eat until we are full.

The next day we wait about for medication to be delivered from the pharmacy that we will bring back to Flagstaff for Lucky's Dad. Lucky moved to the States to attend school and met a southern Indian man named Vivek. Her parents were not pleased with this and so her Dad has come to the states to keep an eye on things. With no health insurance and meds being expensive in the States, we repay their kindness by packing four months of meds back with me. Originally, the family was going to take us to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, but the funeral of a cousin's mother-in-law precludes this. We catch a bus in the afternoon. Gifts are showered upon us. We are given a "tiffen" or Indian lunchbox with food for the train. Amanda is given a box of glass bangles that her wrists are simply to big to fit through. Finally a metal bangle is squeezed over her over-sized American hand. Pictures are taken and goodbyes said.

There are several classes of buses in India and we opt for a "Volvo" that has assigned reclining seats. The benefit of paying more for this bus is that they only seat to capacity. Other buses just pack people in until they are bursting. Volvos are the kings of the road in India. They yield only to cows and to tractors that ride straight up the middle of the roads packed with tons of sugar cane and taking up all lanes.

There are several levels of honking and the driver plays a full on symphony of horns. The first level is a "beep" of the sort you would expect from a compact car or scooter. Next is a "honk", followed by a cucaracha like horn that plays a tune, trumped finally by a full on blasting three part harmony of sound that screams "get the fuck out of the way, NOW!" The bus overtakes everyone, all the time, with the cane tractors as the only inexplicable exception. I later hear from someone that the reason the tractors ride in the middle is that roads used to be sloped to promote water shedding and that tractors would topple over if they pulled to the side, but this is now simply custom and no longer necessary. About half way to Amritsar a battle ensues between our Volvo and a public bus. While overtaking the lower caste bus our bus collides with something (we'll never know what)" and our driver pulls over and blocks the other's progress. Our bus attendant then gets out and begins to argue with the driver of the other bus. He is shamelessly aggressive and obviously a bully. Two turbaned seiks with handlebar moustaches lay gentle hands upon our bus-wallha's chest to calm him, but he breaks free, grabs a bat from our bus and proceeds to beat the other driver. Rival crowds emerge from the two buses in a riot. We sit calmly observing all the commotion about two feet below. Just when things seem to calm our man erupts again. There is no exchange of insurance information. As soon as every one's egos are satisfied both buses go on our merry ways.

In Amristar the touts at the bus station can smell us coming. They see our white faces through the window and push and scramble to try to sell us on using their cousin's rickshaw or their brother's hotel, or their uncle's carpet store. They won't hear no and follow us in a commotion. We try to maintain calm and after a few blocks of walking they give up to look for greener pastures. We have experienced this before and have come to the realization that there are few of us and many of them. We never book a cab or rickshaw within three blocks of a bus or train station. We are polite and calmly say no to all first offers. We are often followed and found a few blocks later where we are offered a ride at half the original price or less. When first in a new place it is sometimes difficult to remain calm, but this tactic works every time.

We finally find a bicycle rickshaw at a fair price and he takes us to the Golden Temple.

As the "Mount Sinai" of the Sikh faith, the temple sometimes sees more than a hundred thousand visitors in a day. There is no leaving of shoes by a stairway here. We are directed to a shoe-check stand and given a chip for our shoes and then to a separate bag check where our things will be secure. We then walk barefoot through a massive foot bath and into the marble complex. Instead of walking about a modest temple, here we circumambulate around a massive golden (it's literally a giant gilt building) temple that is surrounded by a lake. It's kite festival time and the sun sets with the silhouettes of hundreds of kites in the air above the complex. The place is magical and peaceful and we feel welcome and happy for the experience. We opt out of Langar (communal dinner) at the Golden Temple since we had the experience the night before in more intimate surroundings.

After our visit we retreat to a restaurant described as "very sanitary" by our bus-mate and confirmed to be good by the bag porters at the temple. It proves to be that and fantastically delicious. We meet a nice Indian family from abroad who speak excellent English (the first people we've been able to talk to all day). They offer to share their dinner with us and chat happily about Grand Canyon.

Our first overnight train trip and we are a bit concerned about who we might share our sleeper car with. A young Indian couple come in with a gaggle of cousins showing them off. As soon as their entourage leave they greet us warmly and explain that they were sooooo verrry nervous about who they would share their sleeper with. They met in the States and live in San Francisco and were afraid they would be stuck with traditional Indians. Would we like some whiskey and mind if they smoked? Why no........would you like to stay up all night playing games, drinking and singing at the tops of our lungs as we barrel across the Indian countryside in our private car? And no, we understand that it is very cold in here and won't tell anyone that you slept in the same birth together (scandalous!).

In the morning we leave the train in Haridwar and begin to search for our Couch Surfing hosts there.......... End of Part One....

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