December 09, 2007

Welcome to Delhi

I had been dreading my arrival in Delhi. Everyone I spoke to had warned of the severe shock that India deals to the traveler, no matter how seasoned he may be. I was bracing myself for the worst and thus set myself up for a very soft landing. Sure, Delhi airport is an antiquated, inefficient and dilapidated dump, but it was far nicer than, say, Kathmandu International Airport, or Pnomn Penh's tin shack. Yes, there were some unsavory characters driving cabs, trying to overcharge us and take us to the wrong hotel, but we arrived at 3am so what should one expect? And true, the streets of Delhi are filthy, poverty-ridden, and chaotic, but they are no worse than the streets of Cairo, Nairobi, or Ho Chi Minh City.

And so, I am thoroughly enjoying myself. My fears were unfounded. Delhi is no worse (or better) than any other 3rd world developing metropolis. It is choked with traffic, pollution, and people. It is unfailingly democratic, as the newly (but carelessly) paved streets are navigated by suicidal rickshaw drivers, horse-pulled carts, brand-new, already dinged mercedes, and the inevitable sacred cow. And it has a wealth of historic monuments and delicious restaurants to explore and discover.

We arrived in Delhi after 27 hours of travel. Suffice to say, we were exhausted when we landed, and frustrated that our bags were the last to come out. However, that's so much better than having no bags at all! I was not surprised when the "deluxe airport pickup" my hotel had promised me was not there, and resigned myself to a pre-paid taxi ride. Our taxi (it was more of a tiny van) was commandeered by the maniacal Rajeev, who did not speak much english. Luckily, he had brought along his sidekick, Mujeet, who claimed to own 3 cabs and wanted to build a taxicab empire.

"Mister Ace," he began after establishing my name, "is this your wife, or your...?" he asked with a mischievious grin, staring at Z.
"My wife," I answered. Mujeet then proceeded to ignore Z for the next 40 minutes.
"Mister Ace," he continued after a short pause, "I have a girlfriend, but sadly, she is Muslim, while I am Hindu. Life is very caamplicated in Delhi for me."

And so it went that as Rajeev drove around in circles, looking for our hotel, that Mujeet practiced his english, tried to get to me commit to a driver for the next day (at twice the going rate), and told me of how difficult life is, while one tries to build an empire.

Yesterday, our first day in Delhi, was a busy one. Our driver, Ishor, was short, mustachioed man of few words. This, despite the fact we were promised a "fully fluent guiding driver." However, he was a very capable driver, with one hand on the horn, the other hand on the wheel, navigating the tight, fluid chaos of Delhi's rush-hour. We started at the Bahai interfaith temple, a beautiful lotus-shaped oasis of calm. Then, we proceeded to the Qutb Minar, a 73m high minaret that was built almost 900 years ago and is still standing. It must have been Field Trip Day, since the place was overrun with uniformed children from the provinces, all of whom stared slack-jawed at us. They could tell we are Indian, but couldn't figure out why we were dressed the way we were.

And then, we visited the sublime Humayan's Tomb. This monument to love was built by Humayan's widow. It preceded the more famous Taj Mahal and in fact many of the architectural innovations were duplicated in the Taj Mahal.

We met up with the Impeccably Dressed Indian (who, as you may remember, I had also met in China) at India Gate, a monument to India's victories. This Arc de Triomphe had a full 25 piece band playing patriotic sounds, much to a large crowd's delight.

To escape the noise, smells, and commotion, I took my Dear Uncle D's advice and headed for the Taj Palace Hotel. There, we enjoyed a lovely Kingfisher beer (Z had masala chai) in a calm oasis of opulence. The service was outstanding, especially in the bathroom, where two obsequious gentlemen jostled to open the door, turn on the faucet to the perfect temperature, squirt soap into my hands, and hand me thick towels, all while murmuring "sir please" under their breath. The next stop was the legendary Bukhara restaurant, where we feasted on lamb, tandoori chicken, and roasted black daal. Delicous!

And so, our first 15 hours in Delhi were wonderful and nothing like the shock I had expected. Z and I are safe, well-fed, and quite happy.


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