They say that nothing can prepare you for the onslaught of intensity that meets the individual upon arriving in India. Well, they're wrong.
The internet is here, and for travel information on various personal, corporate and governement web sites, as well as usenet travel, there is no better place to prepare a traveller for an exotic journey to an unfamiliar land.
Over the past year, I've downloaded probably several hundred pages of information on travel to India, from slick corporate travel agency web pages, to personal travelogues, and ad hoc information on all sorts of travel issues. This is in addition to the standard Lonely Planet and Rough Guide.
The travelogues, and conversing with some of the travelogers, provided me with the best information. So while in flight, I browsed the available information, which I also have online on my laptop.
My first impression of Delhi, looking out of the airplane was...pollution. That wasn't evening fog I was seeing - Delhi ranks as one of the 5 most polluted cities in the world, basically due to the fact that it has more motor vehicles than any other India city by far. And just about every vehicle pelts out gray or black exhaust, it awful, and apparently equivalent to smoking two packs a day.
Getting off the plane, I had my first direct experience of the Indian way of doing things - going through customs was a time consuming process, as each customs agent meticulously goes through each person's papers and stamps them with official government stamps several hundred times, it seemed. My first lesson in going with the Indian flow, though the concern of someone taking off with my bags did come up during that half-hour wait on line.
Getting the bags was easy, but my second wonderful experience was exchanging money, dollars for rupees, at the State Bank of India. More tedium, tellers yelling at some of the European. If you exchange a large amount of money, which I did, (hoping to minimize my banking experience), the money is given to in a big wad, stapled together, which seems like utter disrepect for the almight rupee. What's more, the money is utterly filthy, and like Italian lire, one note doesn't mean that much.
Finally making it out of the banking queue, I took a deep breath and headed out of the airport, awaiting first encounter with touts, evil cab drivers, and whatever notorious people hanging out at the airport at 1:30AM. It was a helluva chaotic scene, with young mem getting in my face trying to get me to take their cab.
But in the din, there was my name being held up by a fellow named Mohit, who runs a travel agency here in Delhi - I bought an itinerary from an American woman Barbara Sansone, of Spirit of India, who works in association with Mohit and Co. Mohit had his friend with him, which I thought was weird, who promptly fell asleep as soon as we started driving.
And Mohit's driving style was just as the it was told to me - wild, no regard for lanes, heavy on the horn, swerving in and out, playing chicken with buses and trucks. Didn't faze me one bit - hey, people tell me I'm a shitty driver also.
You see, the one thing that I've got going for me is that I was born and raised in and near New Yawk City. If you can handle Manhattan rush-hour grid lock and the cab driver demolition derby, everthing else is small change. So the whole drive was a bit laughable in its stereotypicalness. Fortunately NY City prepares you for the various rings of hell. On the way, I got my first glimpse of the squalid squatters camps, heaps of debris, roving cows and general range of wicked smells, a delicate bouquet of car exhaust and sewage.
My plan is to stay in a nice hotel for the first few days in Delhi, to make the adjustment easier, which was as good an idea as breaking up the trip - being already in "American in a foreign land" psyche, it wasn't as nearly a shock to me as if I came straight from America to Delhi.
The Connaught Hotel is a 4 star hotel near Connaught circle, which is a well design city area planned by the British years ago. It really is was an island amidst the ugliness of Delhi, and it even has it's own security guard, probably to keep out the beggars and such.
Settling in my room, I saw that it was a well served place, with some very worn edges, which apparently is signature to everything in India. The bed has a foam cushion rather than a mattress, and is larger than a king size, sort of the thing fit for James Bond or Hugh Hefner. Not knowing the security scene, I pulled out everything I needed from my bags than kept them locked, in case of any late night visits. (In hindsight this is a bit of overkill, as I kept a few things laying about in the morning to test if room service would steal them, which they didn't).
I fell asleep to the sounds of distant exposions, not knowing until this morning that they were the random fireworks of the just completed Dawali festival, or festival of lights (my hotel has white christmas lights all over it). If it was gunfire, then that would be more of a NY City sound effect.
Laying down to sleep, I felt a sudden ache to see Annie, as if my emotional body could sense the physical distance from her, and wondered how she was doing in Boston, having a very, very long day in contrast to my very short day.
Tuesday Oct 21.
The night befoe Mohit told me that Delhi was going to be a helluva lot noisier in the day than it was now, but upon waking, it was noisy but not unbearably so - I've stayed in hotels in mid-Manhattan during the week and that can be a lot noisier.
After a great complementary breakfast, a huge buffet of all sorts of stuff, (especially yoghurt, which a friend of mine told me was a good way to get the intestine synched up with the local bacteria), topped of with a Bisleri bottle mineral water, I prepared myself for my first day in Delhi, which would be a half-day guided tour of the sites of New Delhi, followed the next day by a half-day tour of Old Delhi, which apparently is even more dirty.
Lakshmi Narayan Mandir
Meeting my guide, Mr. Lohali, and driver we set out on an itinerary - I told Mr Lohali that I was interested in temples, so for the first stop we went to the Lakshmi Narayan Temple, which was built with the offerings of a wealthy family in 1938, and apparently was regularly frequented by Mahatma Gandhi.
It is a most incredible structure of red sandtone and marble dedicated to Lakshmi the goddess of wealth. Upon entering the temple, I receive countless questioning stares from the natives, as if to say, "who's da white guy with the shaved head and what's he doing in our temple?". But other than that, it was fine. I took of my shoes and socks in an ante-room, washed my hands and my guide and me went to the first temple deity, a sealed off chamber of statues of Krishna and Lakshi. The chamber is off limits to visitors and is well served by the local priests/pujarists. I knew this right off as I stood there meditating on the statues, as there was a wave of shakti energy coming from the little room - I was surprised and it made me very happy, that I didn't have to go very far to find shakti energy alive and well in one of India's countless temples.
We went on to an another small chamber/room dedicated to the meditating Shiva, and this was equally potent for me - I spent a few minutes here with my guide getting a bit edgy next to me. We went into a larger inner room with statues of Krishna and Radha - but these set of statues one could go right up to and this seemed to be not nearly as potent as the other sites. But it was wonderful nonetheless to sit and meditate for awhile. I think my guide was a bit surprised that I knew the score, how to bow, give offerings etc. Later on in my tour he would say, "you know Hindu gods, let me show you this." I couldn't photograph the inside courtyards which was a loss, but I did get some good photos of the complex from the outside, and it's a complex complex.
India Gate/Presidential Palace
The tour went a little downhill from there, since for me what archaelogical digs could compare the the joy of the shakti? We saw the presidential palace, and India Gate, a hugh Arch de'Triumph like monument that has the names of numerous Indian soldiers killed in various wars. And at every stop, I was accosted by someone trying to sell me something. But I did stop to photograph some monkeys for a 5 rupee coin ( around 12 cents) and a boy doing the snake charmer thing. The cobra look a little bored and the boy had to tease it a bit to get it to show its full hood, but it did eventually. That was kinda neat.
My guide worked in twosome with our driver, who was on the horn every two seconds and was a very skilled Indian driver, which means pushing the envelope in traffic at every chance and hot hitting anyone. It's really hard to describe the chaotic flow of trucks, buses, cars of every size, 3-wheeled auto rickshaws, motorscooters, and bicycles doing this crazy dance of darting for the next open area agressively by not so much as to crash, which also means going over the dividing line into oncoming traffic, which is quite a show if you're in the backseat - somehow I knew that it would work out. Add to the equation numerous rotaries/roundabout, and you have a recipe for ordered chaos.- there has got to be some God in the India pantheon of Gods who rules over the motor traffic scene.
Meanwhile south Delhi (the nice, clean part compared to Old Delhi of the north, which my guide said repeatedly) reminds me of... let's say, take the South Bronx, clean it up just a pinch, add a enormous amount of people including squatters in tents, don't pick up the piles of debris, and add a lot of car exhaust, and there you have it. And this is the nice part (the government area was somewhat nicer, but it is all relative).
The various shopping areas and market areas reminded me of your everyday flea market with a lot more color and chaos and garbage thrown in. You have to know that Delhi has tripled in size in the last decade to appreciate the enormity of it all. Basically, though, New Delhi is not cramped, it is very large, but still just overcrowded.