Friday, September 17, 2010

I'm back in Delhi!

I
arrived into Delhi last night. Smooth flight. Luckily, the screaming twins who were seated behind me quieted down once sleep time rolled around. I've never heard two children scream as much as these two!

As I disembarked the plane, I found myself entering into a spanking new airport terminal. My Indian friends had told me about the new airport which was just opened a few months back. It's as beautiful as any other modern city airport.....a very dramatic change from the airport terminal that I walked through just three years ago.

The artwork inside the airport is wonderful.  These oversized metallic sculptures of mudrās were above the wall where the immigration officers sit.  Nice to have something to interesting to look at while you're standing in line.

Clearing immigration and customs was a breeze. I had arranged for transport to the hotel and my driver was waiting for me as I exited customs.

As we drove in towards the city, I could see a lot of construction - new rail roads, new rail line, new buildings - going on. The entire city was getting a facelift as it is playing host to the XIX Commonwealth Games which will begin in just a little over two weeks.

By the time I got checked into my room, it was barely 10pm and I was wide awake. I decided to keep busy for a couple of hours - try to get my body adjusted to the time change. Delhi is about 9 1/2 hours ahead of DC time.

Clean after a nice, cold shower, I clamored into bed and fell into a deep sleep.

The alarm woke me up at 9am and I headed down to the restaurant for breakfast. This is India so breakfast was a typical Indian one, in this case, South Indian style. I tried a bit of everything - some tasty, some not so much. All downed with a small cup of sweetened black tea.

I finished up just in time to meet my guide, Ruby, in the lobby of the hotel. I had signed up for a half day tour of Old Delhi. I had been to Old Delhi before but just to see Jama Masjid. This time around, I wanted to see a lot more.
  
Connaught Place.
There would be two others joining us on our half day tour and the first item on our agenda was to go and meet up with them at Connaught Place.

My hotel is located just a short walk from the Karol Bagh metro station and from there it was a short two stop ride to the Rajiv Chowk station which is the stop for Connaught Place. As we exited the metro station, I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. The last time I was here, the white facades of the buildings that ring Connaught Place were all sooty. Everything was now a sparkling shade of bright white - it looked like all the buildings had been given a new paint job.

Tuk-tuks waiting at the ready for passengers.
The other two were arriving into Connaught Place by car and for whatever reason, their driver had a difficult time finding the spot that Ruby and I were standing at waiting for them. Ruby and tried standing in different locations to see if we would stand out more but even that didn't help. Minutes went by and it was nearly an hour before the driver and his two passengers showed up.

We all introduced ourselves before heading back down into the metro station. Heather and Peter, both from Philadelphia, PA were my tour mates. Inside the station, Ruby did the needful and got our tickets. We then went through the security checks which apparently have been put in place for the upcoming games. This being India, women pass through one security iine and men through another. First time I've ever been patted down inside a subway station.

Back down into the bowels of the station, we waited for the train to arrive. By now I knew what the routine was. The moment the doors open, you shove your way forward into the train car, joining all the other passengers who have already sardined themselves in. It is really a very, very, very tight squeeze into the train car. Ruby had warned all of us ahead of time that there is no concept of personal space in India and there most certainiy isn't. Luckily, there is the concept of deodorant here so no bad BO to choke your breath on :-)

It was a short two stop ride to Chandni Chowk station. We followed Ruby as she wound her way out of the station up to the street level.

And then, there we were. Standing in the heart of Old Delhi.

Old Delhi is not for the faint of heart. It's crowded, congested and yes, I am no ashamed to say that at times, I find it very intimidating. It's utter madness here.

First off, there are THE wires. I've never seen anything like them anywhere else in the world. Line upon cable line upon phone line upon electrical line upon God only knows what other kind of line, all twisted around each other, are strung from wooden poles that look like they will collapse any minute from the sheer weight of the lines. What a mess! Wonder what happens to the lines during windy monsoon season?


Then there are the dilapidated buildings and sidewalks typical of many cities I've seen in developing countries. Coming from a place where many of these structures would be declared unfit for human occupation, the buildings here are teeming with people going about their daily lives

Old Delhi is noisy and congested but it is vibrant. People rushing too and fro on two legs, on two wheels, on four wheels, on whatever form of transport is available. There's a lot of screaming and shouting going on. HIgh level of chaotic activity that is par for the course for places like Old Delhi. !n fact, it would be hard to imagine a place like this wihout all the bustle - it's what makes the place so interesting to be in.

Old Delhi can be pretty stinky smelly at times but it can also wonderfully scented.  There are places like Paratha Alley which is well known for a small group of shops specializing in this tasty food. These shops go back generations and it's no wonder they are so popular. The smells that waft up into the air are ever so enticing. Parathas being fried in small woks filled with hot oil. Containers of spicy curries and chutneys and pickled vegetables, all lined up, waiting to be dolloped on to metal serving dishes.


If the scent of food is not enough to tickle your nose, every now and again, you catch a whiff of incense as you walk pass by an altar that some person has put up.

Old Delhi is filled with very narrow alleyways some of which are flanked by very old colonial Indian style homes. We briefly entered into one just to have a peek. Small by American standards, the homes are typically shared by several, related familiies.


Old Delhi is first and foremost all about shopping. Its most famous commercial area is Chandni ("Chan-di-ni") Chowk ("Chawk") which like many markets is divided into specialty areas. Ruby pointed out the *motor repair* section as we passed it, the *wedding cards* section as we passed it and the gold jewelry section as we passed that.


According to Ruby, Delhites ordinarily go to Chandni Chowk when they need to buy goods in bulk.....like when they're planning their wedding otherwise, they can't be bothered to endure the chaos of the place either. Moreover, I can't imagine how you would navigate a vehicle through the congested, narrow streets to carry all your bulk goods home in!
Old Delhi is also home to a number of temples. Of course, the most famous is Jama Masjid which is not  temple but a mosque. Unfortunately for Peter and Heather, today is Friday which means the mosque is closed to visitors and so they didn't get to see much of the place except the outside. I've been before so I was fine w/not seeing the place.

We wandered through the bazaar that is located adjacent to Jama Masjid.....

....and then we made our way to a large Seikh Gurudwara - Sis Ganj Sahib. Before entering in, we had to all cover our heads and wash our feet. I wonder about that whole feet washing thing because by the time I trekked up the dirty steps to the temple itself, I was pretty certain that whatever grime I had washed off had made it back!

Inside, people were already praying. There were some men up on a podium speaking and musicians playing. I have no idea if a prayer service was going on or not but it was fascinating to watch.

We followed Ruby as she walked around the perimeter of the room. At one point, we got to a showcase type room that was located under the podium. People were parading slowly by the glass front, bowing their heads and kissing the marble window ledge. I couldn't make out the contents of the room but I'm guessing whatever it was, it's something very special to these Seikhs.

Ruby then led us to the eating hall of the temple. Every Seikh temple offers food for free to anyone,rich or poor, who wants to eat. On the way to the hall, we passed by the kitchen. Turns out Peter is a personal chef so he was as interested as I was to see the inner workings of the kitchen. The first thing I saw when I entered in was a very large, Seikh man stirring a very large cauldron of what turned out to be dal. He pointed out a couple of smaller pots of dal to me and then something that looked like sambar.

Seated on the floor nearby to him were two groups of women - one making chapati and the other poori. The smell of the bread cooking on the griddles was intoxicating. I was starting to realize I was getting hungry. Had it been just Ruby and I, I would have suggested having a nibble in the eating hall but Heather and Peter just didn't look like the type of people who would partake of a meal, eaten with hands while sitting cross legged on the floor, so I decided not to bring up the idea. I will get my opportunity to eat in a gurudwara eating hall when I go to Amritsar.

We exited the eating hall and headed back to the main prayer room. There, we followed the crowd to exit. On the way out, there was a Siekh man handing out semolina halwa. I wasn't in the mood for anything sweet so I stepped out of line and quickly darted out the front door. With our shoes back on, Ruby suggested we head to a Jain temple which was a short rickshaw ride away.

I've ridden my share of rickshaws but I have to admit, none on streets as chaotic as those in Old Delhi. Talk about taking one's life into one's own hands. I found myself occasionally clutching to the side of the seat for support as our driver wove in and out of pedestrians and traffic to get us to our destination. Along the way, he had to avoid pedestrians, other rickshaw drivers and of course, much larger vehicles. He had to cross lanes of traffic and whenever he did, I just hoped and prayed that he and rickshaw would not get hit because there is not a whole of steel to a rickshaw to protect you against injury should you be involved in any sort of a vehicular accident. But ironically, taking a rickshaw actually makes sense here. The streets are simply too congested for a car to be driven down in any short amount of time and walking can be dangerous so rickshaw is the way to go!


We arrived at the Jain temple but it was closed as well so we had no choice but to move on. Next stop. A temple dedicated to the Lord Shiva. It too was closed so we didn't get to see much of anything but I'm sorry to say that what we did see was really neither remarkable or truly memorable. Oh well.

By now, I think all of us had had enough of Old Delhi. I had long reached sensory overload and I was getting tired. We decided to call it a day. We first headed back to Connaught Place where we parted ways with Peter and Heather. Ruby and I then made our way back to my hotel where we had a few minutes to rest up before meeting another couple for dinner. In lieu of eating at a restaurant for dinner, I signed up for a home stay meal which means going to the house of a local family for dinner.

We had barely a few minutes rest when Don and Stephanie, another American couple but from San Diego, CA, showed up at the hotel. Another round of introductions and we once again back out on the street heading towards the Karol Bagh metro station. Along the way, I had Ruby stop at a fruit stand so I could pick up a small bag of fruit to present to our hosts. I just can never show up at someones house for dinner empty handed.

This time, the subway ride took a bit longer as we were headed to a far eastern suburb of Delhi called Rohini. It took us 3 different trains and about an hour to get there from Karol Bagh. In the first two trains, we were once again packed in like sardines. It was Don and Stephanie's first time at it, so they found it amusing. Ruby and I were too worn out from the day to enjoy being crammed in. Luckily, by the time we got to the 3rd train, which was also the longest ride, the crowd had thinned out to the point where we could actually sit down and sit I did. I could also feel the air conditioning for the first time....a very welcomed bit of relief!

When we exited the station, our host, Mr. Rakesh Wadhwa was waiting for us. A very friendly gentleman, Rakesh welcomed us and waved us towards his car. Can you believe it? This guy had come to the train station to pick us up. How kind is that?

Though Rakesh said it was only 1.6 km to his mile, it sure seemed like a longer drive. Compared to Delhi, Rohini is far less congested and much quieter though the traffic rules, or lack thereof, seemed to be the same. Of course, Rajesh is used to the way they drive here, so he expertly navigated the car back to his home which is on the 2nd floor of an apartment building.

His wife, Anu, greeted us at the door and welcomed us into her home. An extremely modest home by US standards, the two bedroom apartment with its small living and dining rooms and kitchen is where Mr. and Mrs. Wadhwa and their two children live.

According to Rakesh, Indian custom is to treat guests like "Gods" so we were spoiled from the moment we entered. Both husband and wife were extremely soft spoken. You could tell they are the type of folks who have kind hearts. I liked them both from the moment we shook hands and looked into each others eyes.

We all settled into the living room and started chatting.....the usual questions and answers between strangers. Where are you from? What do for a living? Is this your first time in India?

When Anu got up to go to the kitchen, I followed her. I was guessing she was about to prepare something and I wanted to offer her help if she needed it.

Turns out Stephanie loves to cook so I stepped aside and let her help out. Besides, I was already going to be doing an Indian cooking class the next day so I would have my chance at making Indian food another time.




With Stephanie serving as *sous chef*, Anu prepared some vegetable pokaras and chai for us to snack on.....appetizers if you will. As I Stephanie and Anu putting together the pokaras, I couldn't help but be amazed at the size of the teeny, weeny kitchen that Anu cooks in everyday. My kitchen is probably 4 times the size of Anu's and I only cook for me on a daily basis!





We enjoyed the piping hot pokaras with cups of freshly made masala chai. Ordinarily, I'm not a masala chai fan but I have to say that I found Anu's spice blend to be particularly tasty and so I downed my entire cup of tea.

We were all curious how the Wadhwas had been hosting these sorts of dinners and how they got into doing it. Apparently, a friend of theirs suggested the idea about 6 years ago and they absolutely love doing it. According to Rajesh, over the years, they've hosted people from more than 50 countries around the world and on a monthly basis, they average about 2-3 dinners a month and they've had anywhere from 1 person to 15 people for dinner.



That night, we enjoyed a very simply cooked vegetarian meal with home made chapati that Stephanie also helped make and cook. Dessert was semolina halwa. It was nothing fancy but it was really nice to enjoy a home cooked meal and to be in the company of the Wadhwas. They are simply two of the nicest, most hospitable people I've ever met on any of my trips.



Just before we left, we all signed their Guest Book. We thanked Anu for her hospitality. She said it was not much effort to play host but I think it still is effort.....cooked food does not make it on the table without someone doing the work.

We each Anu a hug goodbye and then Rajesh drove us back to the metro station. Once there, we did a final round of "thank you's" to him and went on our way. We backtracked to my hotel where a car and driver were already waiting there to take Don and Stephanie back to their hotel.

Although it was barely 10pm, it had been a really, really long day and by the time I got back to my room, all I wanted to do was take a shower and go to bed. What a memorable first day back in Delhi!