(Not) So Close To Home

31 Oct 2007, by Brian in Culture, Locale

We felt a great sense of relief as we were dropped off at Tribhuvan “International” airport by our Nepali guide and were back on our own and on our way to Delhi. I put international in quotes because this airport isn’t a hub that is ever really used on the way to other international destinations, it’s a destination point only, and it looks a lot like a bus station and runs a little chaotically. After paying our airport tax and waiting for one airline to be done with the check-in booth so ours could begin checking us in we made our way to the departure lounge for some more “hurry up and wait” that we’d gotten used to in Nepal.

The flight was uneventful, the food was pretty good for airplane food (rice, chicken and spinach and some kind of aloo, potatoes and vegies, followed by a sweet donut like dessert). A speedy, cheap pre-paid taxi ride to our hotel later and we quickly found ourselves meeting another group of travelers from around the world in our new G.A.P. group already discussing the details of our journey. There seemed to be some confusion at first as the guide was explaining that most of the activities are optional and people were complaining that they seemed implied as included… but the style of this tour is a bit different, something they’re calling “ROAM” (fitting for the site, but coincidental) which is more like what Kim and I had originally thought of for this group travel… they get you there but what you do is up to you. So I wasn’t surprised at all by the description, and this tour, our longest, is by far the cheapest as there aren’t activities included, private jeeps to hire, Chinese officials to bribe for train tickets, etc… Everybody seems nice for the most part and we are the only Americans in this group, with everybody else hailing from Canada (Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal again), Malaysia, Australia, UK, Germany, Ukraine (via UK) and Hungary (via Canada).

Our first impression of Delhi is that it’s another big, dirty city. Traffic chokes the roadway and pollution chokes your lungs. The buses and auto-rickshaws run on Compressed Natural Gas in an attempt to reduce pollution, but it doesn’t seem to be working. It’s also a little chaotic as things are closed in different cities on different days (businesses and tourist sites). In Delhi it’s Mondays, the day we arrived of course… so finding a bank or ATM was a challenge. Fortunately we arrived in the evening and didn’t really have any plan to see sites. Also fortunately I had changed Nepalese Rupees for Indian Rupees at the airport in Kathmandu and we had enough for dinner.

The next morning we sorted out our financial needs (regardless of the fact that half the ATMs don’t seem to actually carry cash) and picked up a cheap breakfast (4 bananas = 10 rupees… roughly 25 cents). Food is amazingly cheap here, even in touristy areas, unlike Nepal and Tibet where a soda still fetched a pretty high price… here a bottle of Coke or Fanta is maybe 15 Rupees. I’m slowly becoming addicted to Fanta.

We first visited the Jama Masjid, largest mosque in India, which can house I think they said 2,500 people for prayer. It was built by Shah Jahan who also built the Red Fort (which we visited later that day) and more well known, the Taj Mahal in Agra. After removing our shoes and entering the square center of the mosque you quickly realize there isn’t a whole lot to see. I think we would have been more impressed if the domes weren’t scaffold covered and there weren’t what looked like clotheslines covering half the square… the trappings of 21st century repair remove some of the majesty from the experience, but the mosque itself is beautiful if you can look past that. The domes and towers rise high above and it is very peaceful and quite inside. It’s a place to get away from the city and many people were napping in the shade provided by the archways surrounding the square. We did have to just sit and rest for a while as we both felt a little ill… either from the cab ride or the filthy air, but we weren’t really sick and the feeling passed. The view from the top of the hill would also be more amazing if it weren’t for the haze which clouds the view of the city beyond (and the Red Fort only a short distance away). The peace was disrupted by this little kid who had a toy machine gun that rattled, and we thought it a little strange, removing our shoes so as not to defile the place, but watching this kid run around like a picture of jihad that could easily be misused on the evening news… when I can get the pictures up you will see and laugh with us at the irony. The kid also took a little pee off the wall onto the ground outside the mosque as his mom stood behind him to shelter it all from view… again, comical and ironic.

We left the mosque and walked through Old Delhi, fighting off rickshaw drivers and shop sellers hawking their wares. There are fireworks stands everywhere as Diwali is coming up in a few days, and I’m hoping to be able to buy some minor explosives and celebrate with the locals on this festival, as it’s been years since I’ve been able to get proper fireworks and blow things up on the 4th of July back home. Our guide took us to a Sikh temple where after removing our shoes again, and covering our heads, we watched some chanting and veneration and reflected on how much a part of every day life religion has been among everybody everywhere we have been on this trip. It doesn’t feel like the on your sleeve born again religiosity we are confronted with at home (if infrequently while living in Seattle), but more authentic and personal, less demanding or judgemental… still kind of alien though.

The rest of the group headed back to the hotel while Kim and I grabbed some lunch (supposedly “not spicy”, still set our mouths ablaze) and wandered the local markets (mostly cell phones and dvd players, with cables everywhere, in the stands and in a tangle above our heads). We made our way to the Red Fort which was also a nice peaceful place away from the city. The architecture is beautiful but the grounds kind of reminded us of a university campus. I could easily place the HUB, quad, and Red Square from the UW campus just around the corner from anywhere we sat.

Finding an auto-rickshaw driver to take us back to our hotel (which, with no street signs, even the cab drivers have to stop and ask directions to find) was challenging, and convincing him to take us straight there without stopping to buy stuff from his friends was also “fun”, but we did fight through traffic and eventually get back to the hotel without getting ripped off, only to get into another cab to the train station for an hour long trudge through traffic.

Boarding the overnight train to Jaisalmer, we left Delhi feeling glad to be here and having seen some interesting things, but overall a little unimpressed and still struggling to breathe.

This morning we woke up to see the desert outside the foggy train window. A few hours of cards later and we pulled up to Jaisalmer station. It is at this point that we are either the closest or furthest point from home, depending on which direction you count from. We’ll be heading back east again instead of west after we leave Jaisalmer until we finally loop around and return to Delhi before flying home. The auto-rickshaw ride to our hotel was crazy as we fit 4 people inside each, and I shared the front seat with the driver, hanging half out of the buggy whizzing past holy cows up into the fort. Our hotel is in an old part of the castle inside the fort and it’s really beautiful. The scenery is stunning, old world, and reminds us a lot of Morocco. Everything here is a little bit more laid back and finally the air is fresh and we really feel like we’ve arrived in India.

I’m going to head off for dinner now, and with the slow internet connections again (2.5k) We’re going to have to get the photos up next time, but we’ll try again soon so you can see some of what we’re experiencing. Tomorrow we head off into the desert for a camel ride to a desert camp ground somewhere between here and the Pakistani border.

Until then, Namaste!


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