Day One in New Delhi

India 2013

The flight goes on and on. And on. I set my watch 6 hours ahead on the way to Brussels, then another 4½ on this second leg to New Delhi. February 11 disappears in the blink of an eye into the nether world of time zone changes (what a concept, Mr. Einstein). I watch one very forgettable Indian movie and then a really excellent Italian one called “Mio Fratello é un Figlio Unico,” (My Brother is an Only Child) about Facists and Communists in 1960’s Italy. Who knew? Director is Daniele Luchetti. 2007. I highly recommend.

Tue, Feb 12. Closeup of the wall o' mudras at the Indira Ghandi Airport. Eight hours in the air, 3 hours on the ground, then eight more hours in the air and here we are in New Delhi at 10:30 p.m.

By 1:00 a.m. on the 13th (see how time flies?) we’re all in our respective rooms in Scholars House, a hostel/dorm of sorts within Jamia Hamdard University. Our fearless leader, the Traveling Guru, a.k.a. Darrol Bryant (just put either name in the You Tube search bar. For example, check out http://youtu.be/M2ODHV0CXcI), assigns us a roommate so there’s no pick me! pick me! awkwardness. I’m happy that on this first night, I’m the odd man out. A room of my own.

I can’t say enough about Darrol (see Intro page). Briefly, he’s an old friend from my university days, husband of one of my very good friends from my home town, mench of all menches, 22-time traveller to India, the absolutely prefect person for me to travel with on this, my first trip to this land so daunting in so many ways.

Anyhoo, my own room. Ahhhh. Enough group interactions for one day, already. Time for a BIG SLEEP. But all is not necessarily perfect. For starters, the bed consists of a 1¼-inch mattress on a plywood box. Secondly, I can’t help but notice that my room has stains on the walls and ceiling, and that they are illuminated by only the cold glare of a single fluorescent tube. Fear for my scritchy back mounts as I settle in for some much needed shuteye. Oy. The journey begins. If I wanted the comforts of home, I could have stayed home.

The view above my bed-box.

Not the smelly kind of mold, but mold nonetheless.

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Wed, 13 Feb.

Rise and shine. The bed was no problem, amazingly enough. Maybe 4 hours sleep. That’s a total of 6½ since leaving Toronto many hours ago. I say ‘many hours’ because trying to calculate the hours through the web of time zones is something I’m just not up for right now. Sleep-deprived brain. Wild guess, it should have been 16 hours instead of 6½.

But I’m up at 5:30, chipper as a little yellow school bus. A few yoga stretches and some grasshopper-minded meditation, and I’m out for a walk before anyone else is even awake. I stroll through the lovely treed campus.

Soundscape: birds singing, sneakers scuffling and tinny treble leaking from the headphones of the odd jogger, backgrounded by a faint din of early morning traffic. As I approach the street, the din slowly takes over. Background becoming foreground. As I exit the high brick campus walls, the din becomes an assault, and I freeze – standing still and stunned on the street corner, gaping in wonder. Wondering if it is possible to ever cross this street.

I stand there for – honest to god – a good ten minutes, craning left and right. Traffic is coming from at least 7 directions, in seemingly no sequence or order. Logs in a river more than vehicles on a street. My eyes follow brave pedestrians as they somehow find a way across these rapids. Zen-like, landing on one safe stone after another; half way across the first lane, pause, leaping to the safety of the median, stepping down again into the stream-street, waiting for a van, a bicycle, then 3 more strides to the middle of the next lane, the far curb is only a few steps away now, extending a firm palm to halt an oncoming auto rickshaw… pedestrian after courageous pedestrian successfully makes it to the far shore-curb. And this is all on a green light! Seeing no deaths, no run-over toes, surprisingly not even hearing a brake screech (mind you, those may have been masked by the incessant honking), I summon my own courage and eventually glom on behind a man about to cross, like a Formula One Indy racer slipstreaming in the wake of the car in front, and follow him safely across, practically spooning him as we go. Then, Woo hoo! Safe landing on the far curb. The journey continues.

I walk for a good hour, sidestepping my first of many cowpie obstacle courses, passing by water buffalo, roosters and goats, keeping an eye on many a mischievous monkey overhead in a tree or on a high wall. Keep in mind this is a city street, folks.

All in all it is a beautiful morning and I’m overjoyed to be finding Delhi exciting, fascinating and challenging, instead of frightening, depressive and oppressive as part of me had feared.

8:30, breakfast with my 9 travel mates. Hard boiled eggs, barely warm toast with rock-hard butter, and a choice of Nescafé or chai somehow seem delish. Must be really famished. The nine are, Darrol (Elmira, ON), Ben (Darrol’s eldest son, Virginia), Tamara, Pam, & Dennis (Elmira area) Shea & Bill (Rochester, NY), Mat , Heather and me (Toronto). All Canadians, with the exception of Shea & Bill. Mind you, Ben lives near D.C. and Darrol & I are both U.S. born.

Breakfast at Scholars House.
L to R: Tamara, Dennis, Shea, Darrol, Heather, Mat, Bill, Pat, Ben, and my hat and knapsack

We all walk to Alaknanda Market to buy some Indian clothing. Just like in the Traveling Guru video, (http://travelingguru.org/Traveling_Guru_Darrol_Bryant_Home.html) the women go off to fend for themselves, and the men head to a tailor with Darrol to get kurtas (simple collarless cotton shirts) and pajamas (lightweight drawstring pants) hand-made. We describe to the tailor the style we’re looking for, he tells us how much cloth we’ll need, and we head to the shop next door to pick out the fabric from high stacks of bolts filling every available cranny in the tiny shop. It can’t be more than 5 feet wide by maybe 12. Dennis gets green, Bill blue, and I go for gold. The two shops have obviously cooperated on hundreds of orders, so many small details are handled between the owners in Hindi. They’re so friendly and confident, there’s no question of their honesty or skill. We’re told to come back Saturday for pick-up, but that’s a little too close to our departure on Monday for Darrol (they’re closed Sundays), so he asks politely for Friday, but no luck.Tailor:“Too fast. Very beezy.” So Darrol insists. Nope. “Not posseeble.” Insists again. “Sorry, sir.” Darrol shakes his head, insists one more time, and the tailor finally agrees to late Friday. “Close at six,” he warns.Darrol is a total sweetheart of a man, but is an experienced India negotiator, and so knows when to push for what he needs.

My tailor-made gold kurta.

At Alaknanda, we also pick up the first of dozens of bottles of water we will consume for the next 3 weeks, a bar of blue laundry soap for washing stuff in the room, a box of McVitties Digestive biscuits, and I head to a little cell shop to see about getting a SIM card for my freshly unlocked Canadian super hi-tek Motorola flip phone, circa 2006. I have to provide a new passport photo and photocopies of my passport and travel visa. What!?! Am I buying property here? Sheesh. AND, I have to wait two days for it to be processed. I still haven’t had a chance to contact Sharon to let her know I’ve arrived safely, so I sure hope it will come through. I have my doubts.

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The Scholars House kitchen redeems itself at lunchtime. After a fabulous curry, we head off to Tughlaqabad Fort. Say that ten times fast. Even spell it once, slowly.T-U-G-H-L-A-Q-A-B-A-D. What’s a Q doing there with no U after it? Was there a shortage of K’s that day? And why is the H there after the G? Is ugly spelled U-G-H-L-Y? Is bug, B-U-G-H? Anyways, I find out that the ‘-abad’ suffix means city. So, Tughlaqabad = Tughlaq’s City. Allahabad = Allah’s City, Islamabad … you get it. Tughlaqabad is the 3rd incarnation of the city of Delhi. King Tughluq built it in the early 14th century as his capital. It is currently a restoration project of the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) and offers amazing views of the rest of the city and of the huge fort itself from atop the tower in the citadel. Its octagonal perimeter is 6½ km. Huge! (or is that hughe?) It’s a bit like walking around Pompeii. Some walls are intact at their original 30 – 50 foot (10 to 15 m) height, while others, outlining the blueprint of a personal residence or shop, are mere stubbles one could trip over. Go to http://www.wmf.org/sites/default/files/wmf_publication/Tughlaqabad.pdf if you want to learn more.

Darrol leads the way into Tughluq's city. The fortress walls go on forever to the east.

...and to the west.

A view down to some of Tughlaqabad's ruined interior walls, with modern-day Delhi on the horizon.

It’s a perfect place for monkeys to hang out. They’re all over the tops of the walls. A few chipmunks and big bright green parrots, too.

Monkey silhouettes go about their monkey business.

Our people seen through passageway at Tughluq's fort. Tamara, Ben, Bill & Shea.

Asses thru a portal.

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Across the road from the fort is Tuglaq’s Mausoleum where he, his wife, son and his favourite pooch,Qaghaqagh (just qiddhing) are interred. Truth be told, there actually is a dog’s tomb, but his name never made it into the annals of Indian history.

The dome of Tugluq's mausoleum seen over the fortress walls.

Inside the tomb.

There is a supremely friendly little man who, without our asking, shows us around. Pam says she recognizes him from her visit here in 2009. A limp in his leg, and a limp in his English are so endearing, we become friends and so invite him into our group photos. He’s very knowledgeable but doesn’t ask for a single rupee. He must do it simply for the camaraderie, love of history, and/or just the fun of it.

An exhausted Shea, husband Bill, and our new friend.

An auto rickshaw ride home, a great Scholars House dinner together, a shared crossword, and it’s off to bed for hopefully a Big Sleep.

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Next:Day 2 in New Delhi: a Disney-like experience at Akshardham Temple,
and grinding through traffic to Gobind Sadan: “God’s house without walls.”

Happy reading.

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