Monday, June 4, 2007

"This is India" EDIT: Now with pictures!

About a day after we arrived in Dehli, Sarah pointed out to me that "This is India" is basically the unofficial national slogan. We hear it used more any pretty much any other phrase.

Our tuk-tuk driver: "The traffic here is crazy ...this is India."

Or: "The airport says they will drop you baggage off here at 11am. So, it will probably be here about 4pm ... this is India."

As you can tell by the last quote, our baggage got lost on the flight from Hanoi to Dehli. The woman who checked us in to our flight from Hanoi to Bangkok assured us that our baggage would automatically be sent on from Bangkok to Dehli. But, what she didn't say was that she was sending it on a different flight from the one we'd be taking from Bangkok to Dehli. This, of course, freaked out the people in Bangkok and not only did our baggage not get sent on, but for a bit there, it looked like we might be stranded in Bangkok too.

Eventually, we did make it to Dehli, but when we arrived no one seemed to know where or baggage was. And, let me tell you folks, there's nothing quite like watching several airlines, in three different airports (Hanoi, Bangkok and Dehli or all places) try to figure out where our bags were.

So, while the airlines tried to get that sorted out, Sarah and I met a driver from our hotel who took us and our bags to where we'd be staying in Dehli. At least for the first night.

A quick note on the cows: While travelling, Sarah and I have been to several countries (Bolivia, Vietnam, etc) where its no uncommon to see cows, waterbuffalos, sheep or other livestock wandering across a rural road. So, we were fairly certain that the famous Hindu cows wouldn't shock us. Still, there is something entirely different between seeing a cow crossing a rural road. And suddenly coming across a herd of cows in a crowded downtown Dehli street. And every street in Dehli is crowded.

That quick generic travel observation aside, Sarah and I awoke the next day, and prepared to wander the streets a bit while we waited for our luggage to arrive. But, no sooner had we walked out of the alley that our hotel was in, than we were approached by a Sikh tuk-tuk driver.

"Excuse me, what are you doing today?"
"Well, we were just going to wander around a bit. Get our bearing."
"The shops do not open until 11. If you like, I can take you to a Sikh temple. It is very interesting, and we can be back in time for the shops to open."

So, Sarah and I shrugged in agreement. I mean, how often do you get to see a Sikh temple?

And, the temple was interesting. Our guide took us around, showing us the main temple, the area where they give free food and tea to anyone who would like it, and giving us some brochures of the "what is Sikhism?" variety.

Then, over a free cup of tea (cups of tea would become a reoccuring theme over the next couple days), he offered to take us on a tour of the city. And, since he seemed like a decent fellow, and we had planned on hiring someone to take us around anyhow, we agreed.

The first stop, of course, turned out to be a tourist agency. At first Sarah and I were rolling our eyes, but after talking to one of the travel agents (Raj) for a bit, Sarah and I decided to let them handle our transportation and lodging for this leg of the trip. Since about halfway through Vietnam, Sarah and I have been battling a bit of travel burn out. We've been enjoying the sightseeing aspects, but getting tired of arranging buses, trains and hotel rooms every other day. So, we figured by letting a travel agent take care of it for the India leg, we could take a break and just enjoy the parts of travelling we like for a bit.

Unfortunately, when we went to the bank to get money to pay the travel agent, it turned out that Washington Mutual's fraud department had closed our account again. And that they couldn't be reopened for about 24 hours. So, now Sarah and I were stuck in Dehli for 24 hours with nothing except the cash in our money belts, and the items in our tiny carry on backpacks.

So, while we waited for that situation to resolve itself, we continued our tour with our tuk-tuk driver. Unfortunately, for every location of note he brought us to (the old fort, the President's house, the India Gate), he'd take us by one shop where we'd be stuck having people try to hard sell us Inidan handcrafts for 15 minutes. When we complained about the shops, he'd plead back to us: "But they give me gas vouchers. Please, do it for me."

At the end of the first day, he offered to take us to his house for dinner. Again, Sarah and mine's reaction was "why not? I mean, how often do you get invited to a Sikh's house for dinner in Dehli." After we agreed, he then took us to two more shops, before driving us to his house on the outskirts of town.

What iniitally seemed like a nice offer quickly turned awkward though, as our driver threw back glass after glass of whiskey while his wife got increasingly frustrated with the situation. After an odd hour of yogurt dishes, broken glasses and stilted conversation, our driver had his son give us a ride home. So, Sarah, myself, our driver (who came along to give his son directions to the new hotel the travel agency was setting us up in), his son and a nephew (who they were giving a ride to the bus station all piled into a compact car together) and away we went into the Indian twilight.

Our driver (center, after a couple of whiskeys), his 22-year old son (left), and wife (smiling for the camera).

With music playing over the radio that would make the crowds at I Heart Shiva envious, the five of us wound our way back into downtown, down streets lit by strings of light, and through intersections seemingly gripped perpetual gridlock. During the ride, I remember seeing what will probably be one of the enuring images of India for me; a young woman in traditional dress sitting side-saddle on a motorcycle, her arms around the helmeted drivers waist as the roared down a highway past a park enshrouded the smoke of trashfires. Then, as we neared the hotel we even pasted a giant, 3-storey tall, statue/shire to Hanuman. Despite the various frustrations and annoyances of our first full day in Dehli, I found myself having a personal "this is India" momment.

The next day, as our travel agents continued to try to track down our luggage, our tuk-tuk driver took us out for another round of sightseeing. This day, we hit a number of impressive sites. First up was Humayun's Tomb. Made by rulers of the Mughal Empire, this tomb looks like a minature Taj Mahal, except in reds and peaches instead of white.

Humayan's tomb.

After that, it was on to the "Lotus Temple," one of the main temples of the Baha'i faith. Like Sikhims, Baha'is are another faith that you don't encounter much in the States. So, in addition to being impressed by their temple, it was interesting to learn about another unfamilar religion.

The Lotus Temple. About 100 yards from the temple, they made us take our shoes off... which was fine, except the pavement was HOT.

Then, it was on to Qutb Minar. Site of the earliest mosque in Dehli. And, even more impressively the massive Minar itself. The tower, which was stated in 1193, is nearly 73 meters high. Standing next to it, you feel dwarfed.

Entertainingly, Sarah and I proved to be an interesting attraction to the Indian tourists at the Qutb Minar. At first, we were getting the usual stares one encounteres when you are a foreign tourist. But then, one teenage girl got up the courage to ask: "Can we take a picture with you?"

Sarah getting her picture taken with Indian tourists.

This opened the floodgates. Next thing Sarah and I knew, we were being swarmed by Indian tourists who all wanted their picture with us. Bizarre, yet soft of flattering, Sarah and I made our way across the complex stopping to have our picture taken every couple of meters.

While waiting to have our picture taken again, I secretly snapped this photo of the crowd that had generated around us. Whenever Sarah and I would stop to look at something or just take a breather, a similar crowd would form.

When it came time to leave, we saw groups of teenagers and children waving to us, as we made our way to the gate. Our Rockstar Moment™ was over, for the time being.

We ended the day at the Lodi Garden. A small, peaceful garden, with a temple in its center.

Throughout the day, our guide continued to try to take us to shops. And, when he asked for money for gas, he faced near mutiny by us ("Wait a second! You said the shops gave you gas vouchers!"). It was only through quick verbal backpedalling that we didn't switch drivers.

Arriving back at the travel agency, we were pleased to see our bag waiting for us. We're not entirely sure what they did to get them tracked down... but we were complaining.

We ended our day eating dinner in a nice, quiet restaurant. Then retired to our hotel room.


divya said...

By the way (in my experience) they don't call them "tuk-tuk's" in india, they are "auto-rickshaws" I've been to india about 10 times, and hadn't heard of a tuk-tuk until I went to thailand last year! Anyway, I'm loving you guys' blog and living vicariously!

The General said...

Good point!

Sorry, the first time I encountered "tuk tuks" was in Thailand, so I always call them that. But, Im sure I'd get some weird looks if I tried using that name to an auto rickshaw driver here.

Good to hear from you and glad you are enjoying the blog, Divya! Hope all is well for you and Gautem.

Vocal Minority said...

I'm getting flashbacks reading this.

Especially the photos thing.

Rick said...

Well as they say a picture is worth a thousand words, not that your writings haven't been great becuase they have! But...correct me if I am wrong aren't those Mickey Mouse curtains hanging behind your driver and his family? And he looks how I feel after too many whiskeys.

The General said...

Yeah, those were indeed Micket Mouse curtains. Good eyes.

Speaking of eyes, yeah, I agree that the drivers eyes tell the story btter than I could.

John said...

Wow.. Sikhs in India are a real mess right now. You know, Sikhs are not supposed to drink at all. Sikhs in India are becoming pretty far from their original path. You should check out a real, initiated Sikhs home and see the difference in the peace and calm, the aura.. it is very amazing. The real Sikhs are a gem.. but these alcoholic Sikhs give the rest a real bad image.