My flight to Dubai was delayed for about 1 ½ hours as we circled a fogged in airport. When I finally got off the plane, it was a race to catch my connecting flight to New Delhi. Fortunately, they held the plane as a number of people on connecting flights were also delayed because of the fog. When we left Dubai, the pilot (who announced he was from Canada) circled Dubai so I got a magnificent view of the city.
The rest of the flight was uneventful and we landed in New Delhi only about 40 minutes late. My driver, Prem, was waiting in the arrivals hall to meet me for the short (relatively speaking) ride to the fabulous Sauhbag Bed & Breakfast run by the amazing Meera Daas. The drive was rather memorable to say the least. Delhi had just hosted the Commonwealth Games so the New Delhi streets were quite clean, but oh my the traffic! New Delhi drivers follow the “no lane” policy while driving and in a vein similar to Cairo drivers, weave in and out at will without using signals. In addition, India traffic follows the British system and so they drive on the opposite side of the road from North America. To sit back and watch the traffic in front of you is an experience you will never forget. Horns honk, cars move within inches of each other and inches of pedestrians and yet it all somehow works. (God know how many people are killed in this congestion, though, and I was afraid to ask.)
As we drove, I noticed a rather odd phenomenon (to put it politely) that I had not witnessed anywhere else in my travels to date. Men who hear the call to nature just stand on the side of the road and uh … let it flow. I watched in amazement as we passed more men than I could count on my drive to Sauhbag Bed & Breakfast using the roadside as their own porta potty. Anyway, I arrived at the B&B without incident and was greeted by the wonderful Meera. Now about Meera. She is a spitfire, and I had the good fortune to arrive when her aunt and mother were visiting. It was very apparent that Meera’s spunk runs in the family. This whirlwind lady was throwing out directions left and right to the houseboy, John, who had my luggage up to my room and tea made before I knew it. It was a very reassuring start to my stay.
I told Meera about the theft, and that I needed to find an American Express office in order to have the new travelers checks issued to me. She told me not to worry and that she would take care of it in the morning. After some tea and a bit of a rest, Meera had the cook whip me up a fabulous meal of curry with boiled eggs (absolutely fantastic), roti (a form of bread), lentils, a yogurt mixture and some veggies. It was some of THE best food I had on my entire trip.
I got settled into bed and sleep came pretty quickly. It had been a stressful couple of days, and I just needed to relax and catch up on my sleep. I had a wonderful sleep and got up at 8:00 to breakfast in the family room downstairs. I had the pleasure of meeting Meera’s mom and aunt and the two are quite a pair. They call it as they see it and have very strong opinions. (My kind of ladies.) I was charmed by both of them immediately. After a wonderful breakfast, Prem and my guide, Karan, arrived for may tour of Delhi.
Meera had provided me with the address of the American Express office in Connaught Place (which was nearby) so my guide suggested we go over there after a brief stop at the Birla Temple which was on the way to Connaught Place. There is nothing particularly historically significant about this temple, however, my guide suggested we visit because the temple has numerous shrines and writings that provides a good basis for understanding the Hindu religion. My guide was correct, it was a very educational visit, but unfortunately, my attention was focused on resolving my American Express issue.
We headed towards Connaught Place around 10:30 a.m. Connaught Place is a series of colonial buildings (remnants from the British reign of India) that snake off a circular traffic area. Each building is numbered (A, B, C etc.). We were heading to building A. We arrived and walked around the entire building before we saw the correct building number. Unfortunately, the address was labeled Standard Bank not American Express. We went inside, and I explained that I had a claim for stolen American Express travelers checks and had been told to go to a Delhi American Express office to have the checks reissued. The lady told me she could not do that at this office and put me on the telephone to someone at American Express in India. As I was explaining the issue, the woman on the other end of the line hung up on me. This was getting frustrating. I looked at the Standard Bank woman who appeared indifferent to my problem. I turned to her colleagues and asked if there was anyone in the bank who could help me. A nice fellow came over, I explained the problem, and he promptly got on the telephone to American Express. I was put on the line and was told that I would need to go to the Thomas Cook office and they would reissue the travelers checks. We were given a name, number and address. Fortunately, the address was another Connaught Place address (G block) so we decided to just walk the ½ km over to the office. We dodged traffic (which is no small mean feat in Delhi .. more about that later) and after asking 2 or 3 folks, finally located the address. (For some reason the offices on each block are not in numerical sequence so you just have to wander around and ask people until you find the correct address.)
Anyway, we walked up the stairs to the office only to discover it was under construction. We were told by the construction crew to head over to building C, which was where the office was presently located. Good grief Charlie Brown! Anyway, we trudged off in the hot morning sun and actually located the Thomas Cook office. When we got there, we were told we were at the wrong address and had to go to building B. For the love of God! We got to building B, found the Thomas Cook office and walked upstairs. We found the foreign exchange desk, explained to a lovely young woman that we had been sent by American Express, asked for the man identified by American Express and yep you guessed it … he was at another office one Metro stop away. By now I was beginning to feel like I was on a merry-go-round and could not get off. The woman assured us he was at the office and would be able to help me.
We trudged back to building A, where the car was located, and ten minutes later we were sitting in the Thomas Cook office. We explained the problem to a woman, who relayed to the gentleman we were supposed to speak to and he proceeded to ignore us. We sat there for 10 minutes (as I was beginning to lose my patience) before a young woman came over and asked me to fill out a number of forms. I calmly explained to her that I had already completed the paperwork over the telephone, had a claim number and was told by American Express that I only needed to provide the claim number to have the checks reissued…. Sorry…. Thanks for playing…. That’s not going to work.The lady said I needed to fill out the lengthy paperwork, which I had already spent almost two hours on the telephone completing. At this point, I was worn down. I just wanted my checks so I could see Delhi. I went ahead and filled out the forms, provided my passport for copying, answered the same questions I had answered before and … waited and waited and waited and waited.
By now it was approaching 1 p.m., and I began to fear I would see nothing of Delhi. I calmly got up and walked over to where the woman allegedly working on my claim was sitting. Then I said in a very quiet voice … “Uh hi. I’m only in Delhi for a couple days and I am really getting concerned that I will not get to see your lovely city. Is there anything you can do to help me out?” I looked at the woman with a long stare, pleading with my eyes to help me out. She smile, nodded and said she would get on the phone to American Express to find out what the hold up was. (Huh? My original checks were already canceled. I had the claim number and American Express had already approved the reissue.) Rather than argue, I nodded.I waited another 15 minutes until the woman came over and said it would be another ½ hour or so. I suddenly burst into tears (I have no idea why) and just started babbling about how my trip to India was being ruined. Within seconds I was surrounded by 5 people all telling me not to cry, and that they would get the checks reissued. By 1:30 p.m. I had my checks and was out the door. (Damn! If I had known all it took was some tears, I would have tried to cry at the first office 3 hours ago.)
So with my reissued checks in hand, we headed out for what I came to Delhi for – sightseeing. First stop was the Rajpath. This is the area that houses the India “Whitehouse”, House of Parliament and numerous government offices. The India Whitehouse or Rashtrapati Bhavan as it is actually known is spectacular. It has 340 rooms amazing gardens, including the Mughal Gardens covering over 130 hectares (and open only once a year to the public) and immaculate grounds (including elephant topiary). We walked around for a bit and I saw the four pillars that were given to India by Canada, Australia, South Africa, and one other Commonwealth country (the name of which escapes me) when India gained independence from Britain. Really gorgeous area.
Next stop was India Gate, which is the 42 meter high stone arch erected by India in memory of the 90,000 Indian men and women who lost their lives during WW I. The monument is beautiful and is styled in the design of the Arc de Triomph in Paris. The names of each and every citizen killed is etched in the monument. In addition, there is an eternal flame at the base of the monument. It was a beautiful memorial. As we were heading back to the car, my guide wanted to know if I wanted my picture taken with a snake charmer … uh no thank you, I am terrified of snakes (and crocs as you all know by now). Somehow (and I still have no idea how) I ended up seated with the snake charmer and watched as he opened the basket and a very small cobra started to raise itself out of the basket. I was scared to death. I was handed the basket and I think the picture says it all. I couldn’t hand the basket back fast enough and get the hell out of there. I told my guide in no uncertain terms, no more snakes. (He got the message.)
We then moved on to Old Delhi to see the Jama Masjid and the Chandni Chowk. (Originally, I was also going to see the Red Fort, which is across from the Jama Masjid, but my guide advised that the Agra Fort is much better to see so I opted out of the Red Fort and added Agra Fort to my trip to Agra. I have no idea if he was right or not, but quite frankly given that I lost 3 hours, I didn’t have time to see the Red Fort anyway.) Now the difference between New Delhi and Old Delhi is about a century or two. Oh my God! As we left modern, clean wide roads behind we entered a labyrinth of narrow, dirty streets filled with people, bicycle powered carts and a lot of cows. (I had always heard horror stories about the traffic in Delhi and while bad, was nothing compared to this. While New Delhi cars follow the driving with no lanes theory, driving in New Delhi was a cup of tea compared to the chaos and noise that we drove into. I snapped a lot of pictures, but NONE of them can do the frenetic scene justice.
Anyway, after passing by cycle rickshaws, tuk tuks (curious three wheeled vehicles that look like a box was placed over a motor scooter with a seat added to the back to transport people all over the place), bicyclists, people on foot, hawkers, vendors, pull carts and more cows, goats and dogs than I could count, we finally reached the Jama Masjid. The Jama Masjid is the largest mosque in India and the site where the tourists were killed a couple weeks ago at the main entry point, Gate No. 3 The mosque was completed in 1658 and was constructed of sandstone and marble. The mosque has two minarets and four towers and a massive courtyard.When we arrived, we entered through Gate No. 3, where we removed our shoes, and I was clothed in a sari like covering to enter. We wandered around the massive courtyard, which can hold 25,000 people and took in the views toward the Red Fort from the backside of the courtyard. We had arrived just after the conclusion of Friday prayer and the place was still packed with worshipers. We wandered around, walked up the steps to the entrance of the mosque and inside to take in the the interior. While the mosque was beautiful, I must say that it did not come close to the beauty of the mosques I had seen in Istanbul.
Next stop was the Chandwi Chawk and the market area of Old Delhi. My guide suggested we take a cycle rickshaw through the narrow alleys, and I readily agreed. I climbed on the rickshaw and a young man of no more than 16 jumped on and began to pedal. For the next 40 minutes, we weaved through the narrow alleys draped in flowers and electrical wiring (yeh you read that right), past the vendors selling street food and trinkets and down wedding alley where vendors sell everything a bride in India needs for a wedding including saris, jewelry, henna, flowers, invitations and caterers. (Weddings are a BIG deal in India. My guide told me that they can last days and his featured over 800 guests.)
We road past jewelry alley where every kind of gold jewelry is sold, by fruit and vegetable stands and through the chicken markets, past the stationary and paper goods suppliers (no idea why the chickens were so close to the paper goods) and finally past the auto parts shops where auto parts that have been stolen from cars in New Delhi are sold (seriously). As we road along past the sites, we were surrounded on all sides by other cycle rickshaws, men carrying every possible combination of products on their heads (including building supplies, baskets of food, bags of cement, cages with birds and on and on), motorcyclists pushing their way past everyone and people on foot. We even passed monkeys climbing on the side of buildings. And the noise. Oh my God the noise! Horns honking, people shouting (and screaming), dogs barking, people yelling at me to buy things, and did I mention the horns honking. It was a mind blowing, exhausting experience.
I was very happy to jump off the cycle rickshaw and escape to the relative peace of the car. (Oh sure I could still hear the noise, but it was at least slightly muffled.) We headed back out of Old Delhi and onward to New Delhi, but made a final stop in Old Delhi at the Raj Ghat, the site of the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 following his assassination. The site features a very simple black marble square platform surrounded by lovely gardens. We wandered around for a bit enjoying the relative peace. As we left the site, we paused to have some ice cream from a local vendor, I had a particularly tasty orange frozen custard based concoction. Very refreshing and delicious.
The final stop of the day was the Akshardham Temple completed in 2005 and housing almost 20,000 carved gods. The Hindu temple was constructed by the Swaminarayan Group who have built some of the world’s largest Hindu temples. The temple includes multiple structures, is made of pink sandstone and white marble and features ornate domes and pillars. Exquisite does not begin to describe this magnificent temple. The security at this place is astronomical and I had to pass through two different sets of metal detectors and be patted down. No cameras, cell phones or bags of any kind are permitted in the building so I left all my belongings in the car with Prem.
As we entered the courtyard, I noticed that it was beginning to cloud over. And these were very dark, thunderstorm clouds. Where the heck did this come from? We walked into the first building and I received a brief education on the history and construction of the temple. As we walked outside to the main temple and the shrine inside, the winds had picked up and I could hear thunder in the distance. I told my guide that it looked like a thunderstorm was headed our way and he assured me the rainy season had passed. (Dude I don’t care if the rainy season has passed or not. I know a thunderstorm when I see one.) Anyway, by the time we left our shoes with the shoe guards (that are present at every temple as shoes are not permitted inside temples) the thunder was now booming, the lightning was all around us and the rains had started. (I resisted the temptation to say anything to my guide.) By the time we got inside the temple, a full blown storm was in progress. Winds were blowing trees sideways, the rain was coming down in torrents and the thunder and lightning was a show unto itself.
We figured we would deal with the storm after a tour of the temple, so we walked around and admired the numerous guilded shrines to the gods Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, Hanuman, Saraswati, Lakshmi and others, but those are the only ones I remember. At the center of the temple was a murti or statute to Swaminarayan which is 11-foot (3.4 m) high and covered in semi-precious stones. The statute and surrounding shrines were gorgeous.After wandering around for 20 minutes or so, it was apparent that we weren’t going anywhere in the short term. The storm was still rocking and rolling outside and the nobody was venturing out of the building. We sat and watched the storm with everyone else and eventually the rains stopped, the wind died down and the thunder and lightening moved on. We retrieved our shoes and wandered around the exterior of the temple (this place is mammoth and you could easily spend and entire morning or afternoon here) before heading back to the car. I was done for the day and just wanted to head back to Meera’s for some good food and relaxation.
About an hour later, I was safely ensconced back at Sauhbag B&B. I had a lovely pot of tea, put my feet up and before I knew it, another lovely dinner featuring an array of Indian foods (roti, soy curry, cauliflower, yoghurt and beans) was at the table in front of me. It was a wonderful way to end a very long day.
The next morning I was packed and ready to go for my trip to Agra. Prem was going to take me to a couple sites before we left Delhi. After a quick trip to the ATM and goodbyes to Meera and her family, Prem and I headed off for our first stop of the morning: Ghandi Smirti, which is the site of Mahatma Ghandi’s assassination. The site has been turned into a lovely park and cement footprints mark the final steps of Ghandi. A simple pagoda and platform, known as the Martyr’s column, mark the spot where Ghandi was assissinated by a Hindu zealot. It was a very moving and touching tribute to a peace loving man.After visiting the Ghandi Smirti, it was on to the Qutb Minar (meaning Qutb tower), which is a complex of Islamic buildings featuring the 73 meter high tower that was built as a symbol of the Islamic defeat of the last Hindu kingdom. The complex was constructed on the grounds of a former Hindu temple and the remnants of the temple were incorporated into the various Islamic buildings. As a result, the complex is a very unique combination of Islamic and Hindu architecture.
Construction of the centerpiece of the complex, the Qutb Minar, began in 1193 under General Qutb-ud-din, who had captured Delhi, but it took three successors to finish the tower. The tower has five different levels each surrounded by a small balcony. (You cannot climb the tower because of an incident in the 1990s involving the death of a school child from one of the upper levels.) The first three levels are built of red sandstone and feature intricate carvings. The 4th and 5th levels are made of marble and sandstone. The tower was absolutely gorgeous and one of the highlights of my visit to Delhi.We wandered around the complex and visited the Alai Minar, which was to be a tower even more glorious than the Qutb Minar, but the untimely death of its designer, Ala-ud-din, left the tower at a measly 27 meters high. We then moved on to the first mosque ever constructed in India, the Quwwat-ul-Islam Masjid. The mosque is the primary example of the mixture of Islamic and Hindu architecture with intricate carvings and lovely arches. Gorgeous!
We moved on to the Iron Pillar, which dates to sometime between AD 375 and AD 410 and was originally thought to have been erected outside a another Hindu temple. What is interesting about the pillar is that it is over 2,000 years old, has never rusted and no one can figure out how it was constructed using the technology of the time. It was really quite something to see.
We then visited the tomb of Altamish, another of the many people who added building to the Qutb Minar complex. This dude definitely wanted to make sure he was remembered. His tomb and the surrounding building was spectacular to say the least carved with very intricate latice work and stone. It was lovely.
After spending about an hour and a half at the complex (I could have spent a lot more time, but I was getting inundated by school children saying hello and wanting their picture taken with me… again with the blue eyes and white skin thing… and it was also time to get a move on to Agra.) We jumped back in the car and Prem suggested we make one more stop at the Lotus Temple. The Bahai House of Worship (aka Lotus Temple) is shaped like an unfurling white lotus. The building was completed in 1986 and is dedicated to the philosophy of universal peace and elimination of
prejudice … worthy philosophies in my book.
We walked up the stairs in our bare feet (as I said before, all temples in India require that you remove your shoes before entering) and walked into the enormous single room building. Peoples of all faith are encouraged to visit and to sit and pray or mediate in silence. It was one of the most peaceful places I have visited. There was no sound at all in the building as everyone adhered to the request for silence. It was a lovely way to end my trip to Delhi… and an appropriate way to begin my journey to Agra as every one of my senses would be tested on the looooooong drive to Agra and the mighty Taj Mahal.