Delhi, our gateway to India

We can’t claim to have had the most typical introduction to India, as we were not only fortunate enough to have friends with a flat in New Delhi, but that flat happened to be inside the walls of the British High Commission. Or, as more commonly referred to, the British Embassy.

I know that sounds rather highfalutin’, but Richard and Kirsty work for the British government and are on a temporary posting in India; and thus, they live in an apartment building (one of several), within the grounds of the BHC. Rob met Richard through a collaborative writing project a few years back. Since then, we’ve been able to meet up a few times here in the states when Rick’s been over for conventions. When we started planning our trip to India, he generously offered us accommodation with him and his family for the Delhi leg of the trip.

I’ve heard arrival into India can be overwhelming, with the crush of people waiting for others, holding signs, trying to help you with your bags, or get you into their cab. Thankfully, Rick spotted us right away (the two tall blond people looking stunned) and led us to his car. The first thing we noticed upon leaving the airport was the haze; day or night Delhi did seem to have a constant haze and closeness about the air.

After a late night of catching up (our plane landed at 11PM or so, and I think we were up until about 1AM talking), we fell gratefully into bed. We had stayed a night in London on the way, so we did not experience any significant jet lag, and so were up on Friday at a reasonably normal hour. 

That first full day, our host took us around the city by car for a bit to see some of the grander sights: the India Gate, where we experienced our first taste of “fame” when some older Indian ladies asked to take a picture with us (this happened quite often, and we never really got used to it); the President’s palace; and, my favorite that day, the Lodi Gardens, a spectacular green space with tombs of Lodi rulers going back to the 15th century. Peaceful and beautiful, these gardens must be a haven for any resident looking to escape the honking bustle of the city, not to mention the prying eyes of strict Indian families…we caught a few young couples holding hands and stealing a kiss in the shade of a tree.

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That evening, we went to dinner to a place that is apparently rather famous, Bukhara, which we wrote about in this post. Located in a posh hotel in the Chanakyapuri district, we saw a whole other side of Indian society. Women dressed to the nines in both saris and western attire, men with polished shoes and smartly cut suits…clearly this was a dining destination. Beyond that, though, everything was really delicious, and we had a fantastic time with Rick and Kirsty.

For our second day, Rick helped arrange a cycle rickshaw tour of Old Delhi with someone who was recommended by a colleague. We very much wanted to see the Chandni Chowk area, and particularly the spice market. The cycle rickshaw worked out very well – we felt right in the thick of things but did not have to worry about getting lost as our driver took us down narrow streets and alleys to things we never would have known were there. He gave us a very good tour of the spice market, too, leading us up into warehouses to see where massive sacks of chilies were stored, and onto the dilapidated roof of one building that overlooked the whole area. We watched a man rolling out pappadums and drying them on bamboo racks.

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The one small negative of this day was that we had not known to instruct the driver “no shops”; apparently a common way for guides and drivers to make extra money is to lead you into shops from which they’ll get a kickback on whatever you buy. Before we knew what was happening, our guide brought us to a textile shop, and the man behind the counter was well into a sales pitch before we could convince him we really, really were not going to buy the pashminas he kept unfurling before us.

After the Old Delhi tour, we were met by Rick’s personal driver, Ashish (it is common and inexpensive for expats in India to employ a driver, and after experiencing Indian traffic and lack of rules, I totally see why). Ashish was great, driving us to two sights in Delhi we were keen not to miss: Jantar Mantar, and Humayun’s Tomb

Jantar Mantar is one of a set of five sites built by Jai Singh II in the 18th century containing large scale, architectural astronomical instruments, and it is really fascinating to walk around and, in some cases, on and inside them. The site is open to the public for a small fee (extremely small for Indian citizens) and is another example of a peaceful retreat from the city. We saw couples picnicking there, as well as a few people copping a nap in the shade of an instrument.

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As we were not planning to go to Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) on this visit, Rick recommended we visit Humayun’s Tomb. It’s strikingly similar in style and proportion to the Taj Mahal, though smaller, and much less crowded. Other tombs and mosques on the grounds were smaller still but no less impressive.

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On our third and final full day in Delhi, Rick accompanied us to Qutub Minar, a minaret constructed from the 12th to 14th centuries. At 73 meters it’s the tallest minaret in India. It’s surrounded by other ancient ruins, and is a large and interesting complex to walk around.

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There were a couple of things we’d had on our list that just didn’t make it into the schedule–Jama Masjid, the Red Fort–but that’s to be expected. If there’s one thing we learned from our travels in India & Nepal, it’s that everything takes longer than you think, and you just have to go with the flow.

We were certainly very happy with all we were able to see and do in just three full days. But one of the most delightful things about our time in Delhi was spending time with our hosts. We hadn’t met Kirsty or Eva before arriving in India, but they were so welcoming, and we felt very lucky to have had such a lovely, stress-free introduction to India.

Of course, we knew that “stress-free” part was bound to change at some point.

Next up: Jaipur, by train…

***

A couple of our “papparazzi” moments. This group of school children visiting Humayun’s Tomb was actually pretty cute. They surrounded us and literally each one wanted to shake our hand (girls for me; boys for Rob), after taking a number of group pictures with their flip phones.

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