May 4, 2011

Usually first on traveler’s agendas, Delhi fell near the end of mine which meant that I was not privy to the culture shock that usually hits many as they arrive, bleary-eyed and befuddled, at the main bazaar in Pharganj en-route to a hotel.

But I can’t start there just yet, because there is one even that took place on the 20 hour train ride from Bombay that was pretty special to me: my first rain in five months. Just sit back and think of five whole months without a single drop of rain. I was like a child who made a new discovery for the first time; the smell of the rain, the unnaturally cool breeze, and the dark, warm, eerie quality of light on the land. It was beautiful.

But yes, not needing to spend time walking around in a confused daze, I was able to jump right in and get into the city. I was especially excited to see the city from an architectural perspective – particularly the difference between Old and New Delhi. And let me say, it is quite a difference.

Old Delhi, the seventh of Delhi’s eight historical cities, is just insane. The fabric is an organic maze of streets and alleys, overgrown with shops, shacks, and power lines. It is beyond crowded, polluted, teeming with life, and completely extreme. But like all of India, it somehow works – surprisingly well. My first order of business was to get lost, which I didn’t even have to try to do. I spent the next few hours loving and soaking in the insanity around me in Old Delhi before walking down two flights of stairs and 100 years into the future.

Thats right, it only takes 26 steps (I counted) to travel in time – no need for a flux capacitor or 1.21 gigawatts. Delhi’s brand new metro system is nothing like the streets where I came from only seconds before. It is right up there with the best of them – squeaky clean, super efficient, and quite comprehensive – and ten rupees and five minutes later, I was again transported in time. When I walked back up those 26 steps, I emerged into a city built by the British in the early 1900s in preparation for the shift of its capitol from Calcutta to Delhi. New Delhi is in every way Old Delhi’s alter-ego. Its streets are long, planned boulevards with massive swaths of green lining either side, and white governmental mansions set gracefully behind in the trees. There is almost no traffic, and whenever some crops up, you can count on an officer of the law to be there to save the day. But once this initial glow started to wear off, I began to wonder where everyone was. As curiosity inevitably got the better of me and I started exploring a bit, I found that there were plenty of people in cars and in their offices, working away for various governmental branches and embassies, and even some at home further south, their Mercs parked in the driveway and the TV on. But no one on the streets, talking, laughing, buying, selling; no one living the so quintessential Indian life that I have come to love. And it was here that I got a bit scared because I thought I had missed my stop on the metro and instead got off somewhere in suburban America. This unease did not wear off until I got back to my hotel in Old Delhi and fell asleep to the chorus of insanity that I had been missing.

The next day I had to get my act together if I was to see the countless sights of Delhi, so I started off with the breakfast of champions, a masala dosa, found myself a rickshaw driver, Amin, and set off to take Delhi by storm. First the Red Fort, then the stunning Jama Masjid, then the Gandhi Museum which was a beautiful collection of photos and text about the live of the Mahatma, after the massive and impressive National Museum, and then the Gandhi Smriti, which is where Gandhi was killed in 1948, and finally the Crafts Museum. I was exhausted by then end, which was good, as I had a night train to Uttarakhand that evening…

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