Molt Be Blog

Saturday, July 22, 2006

India (expanded) - Part I

Note: I've been working on this post since we got back... that doesn't mean it's going to be perfect!
I thought I might as well take the next few days to try to blog our entire trip to India. As I'm paranoid about the internet and the terrible people that use it, I won't be including any pictures that have me in them... so pardon the fact that some of the pictures on the right will just look like postcards.

After leaving H and R Block with the knowledge of what our tax return would be, Rose and I went to an Indian restaurant on 17th and L in Washington, DC to have lunch. The place used to be called the Ascot Lounge, but recently changed their name to the Indian Experience. We'd gotten pretty good news at the tax place: This being our first year owning a home in DC, we were eligible for a first-time home-buyer's tax credit.

Halfway through dinner, one of us (R insists it was her) mentioned that India would be an interesting place to go, especially given that we both loved the food so much. Lo and behold, we were on our way to STA travel in Georgetown a few weekends later to make the arrangements. We'd looked around online, but had used STA when we went to our friends' wedding in Poland two years earlier and found it was just as cheap and avoided the hassles that come along with Travelocity, Orbitz and the rest.

The flight we purchased on Alitalia would take us out on July 1st at 4:30pm and fly us into Milan where we would wait for three hours before continuing onto Delhi, arriving there at 10:20pm on July 2nd. Delhi is nine and a half hours ahead of DC, so the trip would really be only about twenty-one hours door-to-door. Given that neither of us is too rich in vacation time, we decided to limit our trip to only ten days total, and would return on July 9th with a day off once we were back to rest up for work.

R is a planning and packing fanatic and had everything prepared far in advance. This included ponchos, 99.8% Deet bug spray, a mixed ziploc of Immodium and Advil, Neosporin, Band-aids, and everything else we could possibly need. Additionally, R used some of our condo contacts to get in touch with a travel agency in Delhi to get us train tickets to Agra and Shimla as well as a hotel reservation for a night in Shimla all to be waiting for us at our hotel in Delhi when we arrived.

I, on the other hand, focused my efforts on packing various gadgets and the wires associated with them (ipod, camera, chargers, blackberries, blackberry-charger, various adaptors, etc.) While I had alerted management that I would be going on vacation more than four months in advance, my boss decided to take it as a total surprise when I reminded him of the trip the Monday before I was suppose to leave. Never mind that I'd been talking about it steadily for months or that it had been blocked out in the team calendar since the day we bought the tickets. He immediately began trying to make sure that everything I was working on would be finished by the time I left. This meant putting in about 65 hours over the next five days. Thank goodness that R had so much of our stuff packed. By the time I got home late on the last day of June, I was in no mood to search for my poncho.

Before catching our plane on Saturday evening, we had to take the cat up to Bethesda to stay with R's parents for the week that we'd be gone. R's dad was nice enough to pick us up and we took the cat and our suitcases Northward.

Humayun's Tomb

While we eating lunch and starting to think about leaving for the airport, we got a call from STA regarding our flights. Apparently, Alitalia had canceled the second leg of the trip from Milan to Delhi. STA explained that they had tried to arrange something else over the phone, but that the airline had kept insisting that we'd have to solve the problem after we go to Milan. They did suggest, however, that we get to the airport a little earlier and see if we could arrange something there.

Once at the airport, R and I did a good job of playing good cop/bad cop (wherein R shows a lot of emotion and frustration with the people at the Alitalia desk and I come off as being understanding of their position but unwilling to accept what they're telling me). This behaior of ours seems to happen naturally almost every time we get into a situation like this. In the end, we were moved to a flight on KLM that would take us through Amsterdam and then to Delhi and get us in only 20 minutes later than our original itinerary. Even better, the second leg of the flight was full and we would have to be bumped up to business class. The Horror!
I had never ridden in anything but coach until this trip and have decided that I will not enjoy flying very much ever again if I'm stuck back there with the proles. Here are just some of the reasons I discovered for business class to cost more money:
(1) The food is far better
(2) There is much more leg room
(3) There are no screaming babies (I can only assume this is because families have better things to spend their money on than renting a big lounge chair 33,000 feet in the air for 6 hours)
(4) Better service
(5) Only three seats across at its maximum
(6) Better smelling passengers (partly due to the babies, but definitely apparent amongst other flyers as well)

Enough about getting there. We did actually get there and weren't pestered for more than two seconds at customs. Upon exiting the gate we were met by a sea of taxi drivers holding different signs. After running the gauntlet once and not seeing the sign for our hotel, I went back and found one with R's name on it, spelled incorrectly.

Walking out of the airport with the driver was the first moment that either of us really experienced Delhi and lends truth to the idea that you can't count a place on your list of visited places if you've only been to its airports. Trying to recall if it was the heat or the smell that hit me first, I can only assume it was the smell. Heat takes a little while to hit as it has to push all the cool air out of my clothes before enveloping me, but the smell was right there from the moment the doors opened until the moment I was asked to stow my tray table on the flight back home. We would later learn that a lot of the poorer residents of Delhi still use cow dung to heat their stoves and that this is what was giving their city that distinctly sour, musty smell stinging the back of my throat and thick enough that you thought you could wave it away (alas).

New Delhi rom a rooftop

Stupid me had forgotten that Indians drive on the left side of the road. This was another first for me, as I've never been to Japan, Australia or England (except its airports), but I thought I got used to it pretty quickly. While they may drive on the same side of the road as Britons, I can only assume that the driving style of Indians is vastly different. There is very little stopping at any time during a drive. If the brake is depressed, the horn is usually depressed as well. This also holds true for the gas. In fact, from my experience, there are few times when the horn isn't being honked or about to be honked in an Indian vehicle (particularly a Tata).

Per the suggestion of my Grandpa, I took along a little notebook for the trip. Here are the notes I made on our first drive in India while we were going from the airport to the hotel (mind you, midway through this drive R reached out and grabbed me hand, in that "what have we done?" sort of way... the feeling was mutual):

Any street downtown

(1) Ladies ride sidesaddle on the backs of mopeds.
(2) Air quality: questionable.
(3) Our driver has no mirrors on his car.
(4) We're on the wrong side of the road over here.
(5) There is a water buffalo in the highway.

As the driver took us deeper and deeper into Delhi, we started to wonder where exactly our hotel was located. We were staying at the hotel Ajanta near the center of Delhi and it had only cost us $178 for the week that we would be there. The hotel was located between old and new Delhi, North of Connaught Place and the New Delhi train station (not to be confused with the Nizammudin train station, much further to the South).

While the streets around and in front of the hotel were filled with not-so-welcoming faces, the lobby and its employees seemed great. After arriving in the lobby, we were taken into a small office off to the side to show our passports and reservation receipt. The first room they took us to was a complete wreck and we were about to unload our things when the phone rang and the bellman was instructed to take us to a different room - one that more closely matched what we'd seen in pictures online. We didn't even have to complain! Later we would notice loads of other people also carrying "STA" hotel reservation receipts.

While the bellman was doing the whole "show-you-obvious-things-in-the-room-while-you-rustle-for-my-tip" thing, he showed R the bathroom. Upon noticing a large bucket and smaller pouring vessel in the tub, R asked, "What's that?"
To which the bellman replied, "bucket."

The lobby of the hotel Ajanta

I chose to use the shower head rather than the bucket for the duration of the trip and now feel that I may have cheated myself slightly.

At this point R and I were pretty beat and called it a night - finally turning in around 12pm Delhi time. Before we went to bed, however, we both took a melatonin pill. Having heard of this drug's great ability to help one get back on their circadian rhythms when traveling, I thought it was worth a shot. I'll tell you this: it works. Maybe it's just a placebo, but if that's the case it's my new favorite placebo. Bless that stuff. I woke up the next day at 8am feeling refreshed and ready to do some touristing.

The morning of July 3rd, R and I went downstairs to change some money at the front desk. We inquired there about the best way to get around the city and were informed that the hotel had a taxi stand that would give us a driver for the day for 800 Rupees. At 44 Rupees to the dollar, that's under 20 bucks. While we were at the front desk, we also picked up our various train tickets and hotel vouchers for the rest of our trip that had been mailed there by Parul Tours & Travels a great travel agency recommended by our neighbor who was based in New Delhi for the US State Dept.

After paying for a cab for the day, R and I set foot out of our hotel and witnessed India from the ground during daylight hours for the first time.

The view across from our hotel in New Delhi (the hotel Ajanta)
"Culture Shock" doesn't really describe the feeling we both had on seeing the area surrounding our hotel. All of India was in the street walking by: cows, stray dogs, three-wheeled tuk-tuks, cars, rickshaws, bicycles, smog, dirt, dust, heat, humidity, men, women (not many) and children. That unforgettable smell was still in the air, but now the heat had been turned up to about 110(F).

Our cab driver was a Nepalese man named Durga, and would end up taking us around each day that we did sight-seeing in New Delhi. A few blocks after we'd left the hotel, Durga stopped and picked up his (much) younger brother. Durga explained that his brother was learning to drive by touring around with him during the day. While listening to him speak over the next week, I realized that Durga had two types of English that he employed, the kind he used when he was driving and the kind that he used when he wasn't. Durga's driving English was entirely made up of short statements like, "Ok, my big boss", "You like India, fifty-fifty?", "Hello police officer", and "where we're going next?" Once the car was stopped, Durga's English improved dramatically and he would talk to us about some of the sites we were seeing and answer all of our dumb cultural questions. I'm dead sure that the only reason he spoke differently when driving is that driving in India is so brain intensive that if he tried to speak in fuller sentences, his truck would be wrapped around a tree. Further proof of how difficult it is to drive there can be found in Durga's brother having to do so many ride-alongs before attempting it himself.

Our first stop on our first day of touring about was Raj Ghat, which marks the spot of Mahatma Gandhi's cremation on 31 January 1948.

Raj Ghat
This was this first place where we were required to remove our shoes. We left them with a guy at the same type of counter they have at the bowling alley while we were inside looking at the eternal flame that burns in Gandhi's memory. At first I didn't mind taking my shoes off to see a monument. Later in the trip, however, I would step in a puddle with a socked foot and realize that walking around outside with no shoes on is not the way to take in national monuments. Stepping in water with a sock on is up there on my list of pet peeves right next to poorly stacked cooking pans.

It was incredibly hot by the time we left Raj Ghat and were taken by Durga to see Humayun's Tomb. In the same gardens that house Humayun's tomb, is another tomb for nobleman Ali Isa Khan Niazi. We toured the tomb of Ali Isa Khan Niazi first and were immediately approached by a man who offered to show us around, saying, "I'm not a guide. I work here." This seemed like a fair enough explanation, so we let him walk around with us and point things out a bit.
A view from out of the Mosque next to Ali Isa Khan Niazi's tomb
Ali Isa Khan Niazi
After tipping our "non-guide" at the nobleman's tomb, we headed towards the larger Taj-Mahal-style tomb of Humayun who was the second Mughal Emperor of India. By this point, we were so thirsty and hot from being out in the sun that seeing the massive distance between a shaded archway and the actual edifice we decided that seeing was believing and it would be best to take a picture, find some shade and find some water.

Finding water is relatively easy in Delhi. Most everyone in the city appears to drink bottled water, so it's avaiable just about everywhere. R and I had heard enough stories about the water before leaving that we were strict to the point of brushing our teeth with bottled water during our stay. I even avoided coffee to a large extent, as one never knew how well the water had been heated. After informing Durga of our dehydrated state, his brother jumped out and came back with two bottles of water. I was surprised to find the bottles were Aquafina, a brand bottled by Pepsi. This would be one of many times that I would notice the complete and total infiltration of Frito-Lay on India. Half of the shops and houses on the side of the road that we would take a few days later from Kalka to Shimla were painted with "Lay's" or "Pepsi" logos. Aquafina was everywhere. I can only wonder what kind of financial interest Frito-Lay has in the water quality in Delhi staying horrible.

I digress. R and I were completely revitalized after each draining a liter of water. Our next stop was the tomb of Safdajung which looked enough like Humayun's tomb that we weren't even slightly dissappointed at having withered in the heat earlier in the day. Up in the tomb area we were once again approached by a man with the same "I'm not a guide, I work here." line. Given the familiarity of this statment and the man's lack of shoes or socks, we both realized that we'd been taken for a ride earlier. The man then asked us if we could exchange one American dollar for Rupees. Now even more assured as to his not being an employee, R and I immediately adopted British accents and left down a staircase.

Safdarjun's Tomb

We had had plans to have suits made while we where there given that it costs so much less to do so in India. With this in mind, we had Durga take us to Khan Market, which had been recommended to us by our neighbor who used to live in Delhi. Billed in Wikipedia as "one of the more upscale and expensive places to shop in New Delhi" we were a little surprised at what we found. We weren't looking for upscale, anyway, so we weren't dissappointed.

Behind Khan Market
Alas, we were unable to find the tailor or clothing stores that had been recommended for us. We did, however, manage to buy a bunch more water and some shoes for R.

Plenty tired and hungry, Durga suggested a spot for lunch where we had our first authentic Indian meal. The restaurant was a bit touristy, but there were locals present as well. The food was delicious and suprisingly similar to the Indian food that one would find in the states. Throughout the trip, I found that most of the food that we ate on the trip, whether served in hotels or on the train, was very similar to what can be found here in the states. Of course, there's a little less meat in the food in India, but otherwise it's pretty close.

After lunch, Durga took us back to the hotel where we both passed out from 3pm to 6pm. After waking up from this "nap", we went up on the roof and sat around watching the hundreds of kites being flown from rooftops and being watched ourselves by various people on their rooftops. We also noticed a large monkey across the street on some water tanks, which enouraged us to abandon the roof and see about having a walk around.

Monkey on a Roof
We ended up in the hotel restaurant where I was dissappointed to find out that there was no beer on the menu. After a very cheap not-so-delicious bite to eat we both got sleepy again and decided to turn in, especially given that we would have to wake up early the next day to catch a train to Agra.

Whew! That's the end of Part 1. I'll start typing part II later today and will upload eventually. There's a lot more to go!

1 comment:

Arnyeth said...

Anxiously awaiting part deuce...