I have only been in India for a handful of days – but they have been full! I arrived in Delhi on a relatively short 4 and a half hour flight from Bangkok with a lot of excited apprehension. A nice man from Ireland had told me the day before that India can be described as “challenging” and rattled off a list of precautions that should be taken during my stay.
Like many of you I suspect, my actual expectations of India have been taken primarily from the silver screen and novels. Slumdog Millionaire, Eat, Pray, Love, and Ghandi being the most profound of stories used to shape my minds picture of India. So when I arrived into a modern and clean airport in Delhi I was a little taken aback. Wait a minute…this airport is nicer than most of the airports I have encountered in many modern cities…better keep my guard up just in case. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop and find out I was going to be asked for a bribe at customs or have to pay to have someone carry my luggage 12 feet. Instead I breezed through customs, grabbed my luggage and found a smiling man holding a sign with my name on it waiting to drive me to the hotel. Hmm…where is all of this craziness called India hiding?
He let me know that he needed to grab a couple other passengers from the domestic terminal. Mere minutes later I met the first two other members of my tour group for the India leg of my trip. Jac (short for Jacqueline) & Chris had just flown in from Mumbai and we had a nice chat as we walked out to the curb to catch our ride to the hotel. They were a dynamic mother & daughter duo from New Zealand and I knew they would be a fun addition to the tour.
It was then that the quirky petticoat of India first peeked out. Three of us stood there, but they told us we would be taking separate cars. I hopped in mine first, and when he was told where I was going he seemed a bit confused, but took off swiftly anyway.
Wow…have you ever been on “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disneyland? Its about seven minutes of crazy stopping-starting-jumping-thrusting-dodging. That amusement park ride is significantly easier to handle than this introductory ride to get from the airport to my hotel. On our way we passed cows, large carts being pulled by small men on bikes, begging children, and had many close calls to hitting people, animals, and stone walls. It was madness and it did not have the invisible rhythm of agreement between drivers that many other bustling cities seem to possess. People were constantly jockeying for position, passing using a few inches as a buffer and using their horn for warning.
I was happy to get to the hotel and took some time to relax before walking around the market for a few minutes. After only a few minutes on the street you can feel the eyes on you. People, mostly men, stare in India. Some of it is just a curious – “Hey look, westerners!” type of staring, but other staring bordered on leering. After what should have been a very short and easy walk through the market I was exhausted from having my guard up and started to question whether I should have come to India. I think the contrast of having spent the last week relaxing at a beach resort to plunging into the heart of one of the largest cities in India was a lot to handle.
My first group meeting wasn’t until the following night so I spoke with Jac & Chris and we decided to go sight seeing around the city the next morning. We asked the hotelier downstairs to arrange a ride to see a few sights and he was happy to help. We were in a taxi a few minutes later and our whirlwind “tour” of the city began. Our primary goal was to get to Lodhi gardens but we quickly drove past a few other sights. Our driver was really friendly and kept making mention of our last stop, but I could not quite catch the name of it in his heavily accented english. Chris was the brains behind the tour, so I was fine just going with the flow.
Our last stop, was a stop by his “uncle’s” rug store. Abby and Tracy will remember this pitch from Morocco, but we were brought into a large back room of the store, served tea, and had the rug making process described to us in painful detail. This description, while interesting, was merely done in order to justify the rug prices when they switched to the hard sell. Since I don’t have a house right now I had an easy excuse. I do have to admit that they were reasonably priced and some of the silk rugs were gorgeous. Chris bought a small rug and I escaped with only a nice pashmina.
We went back to the hotel and met up with the rest of our group. The group totals seven – my two new Kiwi friends, a nice girl from England named Suzy, a father & daughter duo from Canada named Caitlin and John, and our leader from India, Mohsin. Mohsin gave us the run down about the trip including a short lecture about not having expectations for the trip and how things may go wrong or run late, people get sick, and accommodations are rough, etc. Yikes! I was starting to get reinforcements for the small infantry of doubts forming in my head. Like my Dad always told me, “The difference between an adventure and an ordeal is attitude!”, so I decided to put on my good adventurous attitude to quiet the doubts.
We started our sight seeing as a group the next morning with a short metro ride (where they are nice enough to have women only cars to avoid “groping”) followed by a walking tour of Old Delhi. As soon as you step off the remarkable modern metro you see telephone poles with a crazy amount of wires woven around them alongside the dirty and dusty streets. We were there early in the morning, so many of the shops were still closed. We walked over to a Muslim Mosque and walked around for a bit taking pictures.
After about 30 minutes we continued our walk through the shops until we came to a traditional Paratha vendor. Parathas are a traditional Indian snack that consists of whole grain dough filled with a thin layer of various items and dipped in spicy curries. I ordered the paneer (a common Indian cheese similar to cottage cheese) paratha. It was delicious! Afterward the cooks were nice enough to let me film them for a few minutes.
The heat started to get strong and we were relieved to go back to the hotel and relax during the peak heat of the day. We all got back together for an early dinner and Mohsin let us know we needed to be in the lobby of the hotel the next morning to catch a train to Agra at 5:15 AM. Ugh..early!
Agra, wow, where to even begin. Agra is home to the most photographed structure in India (and possibly the world) – the Taj Mahal. After our four hour train ride and a quick taxi ride to the hotel we turned right back around to go sight seeing. The Taj Mahal gets crowded and we wanted to see it during sunset, so we started our sight seeing with the Agra Fort. We were there for about 2 and a half hours, but still only saw about 50% of it. It is huge!!
We rested a bit after lunch while it was still very hot and then we went over to the Taj Mahal. As you round the corner to see the structure in person it takes your breath away. I don’t know if it is the symmetry, the story, or just the way the light falls on this magnificent creation, but it’s beauty truly is unmatched when compared to other man made structures. We stayed there for another few hours with the rest of the crowds and watched as the sun went down and the light changed the colors of the dome. It houses the tombs of the builder and his wife that he made the structure for, but doesn’t hold a candle to the outside when it comes to beauty.
We boarded another early train the next day to get out of the touristy area and head to a small village called Chanderi. I was very happy to get out of the bustle of the cities as I usually am. The sound of a small village was very appealling. The train ride was about 5 hours and we were told when we arrived at the train station we would be taking Jeeps to the village.
When we arrived we were brought over to two of the most compact of compact cars. Think Geo Metro. We crammed ourselves into the car and I was lucky enough to get the front seat. What was funny, and I never did get an explanation for this, was the fact that “Police” was printed in large letters at the top of the windshield. After a very rough ride on some really bad rural roads for about an hour or so we arrived at our accommodation. Shortly after we arrived the second car arrived with a tale of getting a flat tire. So if they got a flat tire and caught up to us, they must have had a REALLY wild ride! Ha!
What was very apparent quickly was that westerners are not common here. We were told that there is virtually no tourist activity in the area because of it’s remote location. Intrepid Travel (my tour company) is the only company that comes to Chanderi. So what that means is that we felt like celebrities everywhere we went. Children would run up to us in groups just trying to get us to take their picture or wanting to say “Namaste!” and run away. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming! I was expecting a nice “slice of life” tour of a small city and it’s surrounding villages but it turned out to be so much more!
We were introduced to our host in the town named Kalle Bhai. All you have to do to start to really like him is have a few minute conversation with him. He is full of life, warmth, and stories about the city he so obviously loves. He is effectively the ambassador, historian, and tourism host for the city of Chanderi and I felt blessed to have met him. He invited all of us over to his house for dinner that night. As he escorted us to his house people would run up to him and greet him warmly and with great respect. We walked behind him like baby ducklings as he pointed out the sights all around us.
The first we came to was a tall set of gates at sunset where he explained that the entire old part of the city was unique in that it had been designated a UNESCO site of historical importance. As recently as 2008 discoveries have been made and dug out. I felt very lucky to be seeing a part of history that was so rarely viewed by other tourists.
We headed over to his house where he lives with his brothers and their families. It was a large set of buildings with a common courtyard. His two sons and niece introduced themselves and welcomed us to their home. I immediately felt welcome and we were brought up to a large open area on the roof of the buildings for dinner. I had the best Indian meal of my life on that roof. Kalle Bhai’s wife cooked the meal for us right next to the table over an open fire. We had Cashew Curry, Pakoras, and so much more. He offered to email us the recipes if we left him our email addresses, which I gladly did! We will have to have Indian night when I get home!
After dinner he told us about his extensive coin collection dating to thousands of years ago. He then told us his daughter is very famous in the community for her henna hand painting. He offered to have her paint our hands in traditional Indian style and we all jumped at the chance. What a talented woman! We all walked away with the most beautiful and unique designs painted on our hands in Henna. It would leave brown staining that lasts a few weeks. With a skip in our step and full bellies we went back to our hotel to rest up for a day of sightseeing the next day.
The next day was one of my favorites on this trip so far. It was filled with lovely people, beautiful sights and a wonderful guide. We saw palaces, temples, crocodiles, and so much more! I think it is easier for me to explain through pictures than it would be to tell you about each and every sight we saw.
What was so special about Chanderi is the atmosphere of being welcomed and not being viewed as a walking wallet like many of the other towns we visited. The things that were absent had just as big of an influence as the beauty of the people and the monuments.
The absent (but mot missed) parts of Chanderi were the people trying to drag you into their shops, children soliciting candy or money, people demanding you take their picture and then asking for payment, and most of all, other tourists. Tourists can quickly ruin a rural community by doing what they perceive to be charitable and innocent.
By giving sweets, stickers, and money to children or beggars it encourages that behavior and soon they will be begging rather than working. By buying items from children it encourages parents to take their kids out of school and start selling things on the street. I know they are cute – but they should be learning and not selling bracelets or postcards to tourists! Having now seen the contrast of a community with healthy and conscientious tourism, I will never participate in that behavior again. I would encourage you to refrain as well no matter where you are. Just because it’s already spoiled doesn’t mean you should contribute to the problem! The world will be better for it. If you want to be charitable, there are many organizations that work to help people in rural communities gain access to education and fresh water that would LOVE your donations!
I am continuing down my path here in India and have been nothing short of amazed by the things I have seen and heard so far. I wish I could try to paint a true picture of India in a short blog post but I don’t think it is possible!
I hope you all had a great St. Patricks day – I think about all of you often!!