As I sit on my second flight from Shanghai to Delhi, the woman beside me strikes up a conversation. She is from Delhi. She tells me, “Delhi is crowded, dirty…but so it is. The people are great and you`ll love it! Great words of encouragement, as I get ready to embark on a 3 week trip exploring India. I arrive at 1:30 am, so I have a pre-arranged airport pickup..which is always a great idea when arriving in a foreign land late at night.. I will begin with a 10 day tour with Intrepid, starting tomorrow. My initial reaction upon leaving the airport is– good god it’s hot. Instant sweat! The roads are fairly quiet at this time, and the driver takes all these back roads and alleys to get to the hotel (or that’s what it seems but I think it’s just how the roads are.)
Pulling up to Hotel Perfect, I can’t help but think it is anything but! Looking from the outside, it has a small entryway and everything looks deserted. But once I get into the hotel, and eventually to my room, it’s actually a really nice place.
After around 5 hours of sleep, I venture down to the buffet breakfast for my first Indian meal. It consists of toast; some kind of bread which I think may be chapatti. Also chickpeas in mildly spicy gravy, and porridge. Not bad. It’s very easy to be vegetarian here, so that takes care of my fear of eating meat in foreign lands (this stems from an experience in Beijing, which is another story).
As I was eating my breakfast, one of the guys from the hotel introduced me to Cassie, who is a cute bubbly blonde from Australia. She is to be my roommate for the duration of the tour. After settling her into our room, we get a call from Chandra, our tour leader. We are feeling like we want to explore! He arranges a driver to take us around to a few sites, and we are joined by a few others from the tour. Josh and Sarah, a couple who met teaching abroad in Asia. He is American, she is British. Sophie and Ethienne, a couple from Quebec, and John, a solo traveler who is the oldest of the group at 68.
As soon as we step outside the hotel, we are bombarded by the bustle that is the streets of Delhi-honking horns, cars and tuk tuks, motorbikes, pedestrians, bicycles, dogs– and somehow it all works like a well oiled machine. I was told that Delhi would have a certain stench, but I haven’t really noticed yet. You can definitely tell the air is polluted and the forecast commonly says “Smoke”or “Haze”. We hop into our lovely air conditioned van, and get our first taste of Delhi traffic. SO MUCH HONKING. But you quickly realize, if it weren’t for the horns, there would be so many more accidents. And even more chaos. The current population of Delhi is 18.6 MILLION. In ONE CITY.
First stop is India Gate, which is a war memorial to 82,000 soldiers from the undivided Indian Army who died in World War I. It looks like the Arc de Triomphe. The names of the soldiers are inscribed on the gate. I get my first experience of ridiculously aggressive hawkers, trying to sell me souvenirs and I learn it usually takes saying NO close to 10 times before they leave you alone. There is a long road extending from India Gate that leads to Rashtrapati bhavan, where the president of India resides. We drive up to have look, but we can’t get too close as its behind tall iron gates.
The next stop is Humayan`s tomb, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Humayan was a Mughal emperor. The tomb is known to be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal, and it is a stunning piece of Persian and Mughal architecture.
The hexagonal shape found on many Hindu temples is a mandala symbol and it resembles the star of David. It represents creation, union between male and female. On the grounds of the tomb, there are ruins of many other tombs, mosques, and gardens. Seeing this building was definitely a highlight for me, since I am a bit of a UNESCO site nerd. Back into the van and crazy Delhi traffic to visit a Hindu temple called Laxminarayan Temple.
The temple is yellow and brown in color, and decorated with carvings depicting the scenes from golden yuga of the present universe cycle.
Designs include the swastika, which actually originated in India and symbolizes peace and continuity. I take a wander around the grounds that have many gardens, fountains and statues. Then it`s on to my first lunch in India; a busy restaurant packed with locals and tourists, so we figure it must be good. I have a mushroom curry with naan bread. Really, you can`t go wrong with naan. It comes plain, buttered, or with garlic.
Arriving back at the hotel, it is time to meet the rest of the group with whom I will be braving northern India with. Tessa and Teresa, friends traveling together from Australia. Teresa is rockin’ some cool lavender and white wool dreads. Luke and Sarah, a couple from New Zealand. Alex from USA and Bec from Australia, who met on a prior trip and are taking another adventure together. Liv’a, a sweet girl from Switzerland. Patrick, from the USA and has full sleeves and leg tattoos, which has already been getting him a ton of attention over here. Finally, Arnaud, a funny guy from Belgium. Our first dinner as a group is at a bit of a higher end restaurant, and I figure it will be safe to try the meat. Butter chicken! But I have to ask for boneless chicken and it isn`t all white meat. It is yummy, but a bit of a hit and a miss. And wash that down with a Kingfisher, India`s most popular beer, to toast to the beginning of this adventure!