Burning desires to buy a camera, to experience India’s public transportation, and to see the Taj Mahal prompted a somewhat spontaneous trip to Delhi and Agra, two beautifully chaotic, history-rich cities that are a world away (in many ways) from quiet, rural Jamkhed. It was quite an experience, and I feel like I have seen a completely different side of India. I will reflect on these more personal experiences in another post; here are some of the adventures that went down on the journey to India’s capital..
Day 1: Jamkhed to Pune
After a delicious fried egg and toast breakfast, we were off to Pune, a city about halfway between Mumbai and Jamkhed. It is the closest airport to CRHP, and my flight to Delhi was scheduled for the next morning at 7am. I travelled with Shobha, one of CRHP’s directors, and Martin, an Elon professor on sabbatical in Jamkhed with the mission to set up a Science Center, and our first stop was the camera store. I purchased a fabulous Nikon D3200, and I am already in love with it. We then met up with Irene, one of the interns at CRHP who had been in Pune for the week for Ganpati, the 10-day Hindu festival that celebrates the rebirth of the Lord Ganesha. Irene’s couchsurfing host family extended their hospitality my way, and I was grateful for a warm bed, advice about Delhi, and intriguing conversation.
Day 2: Pune to Delhi
A taxi driver picked me up at 5am and drove me to the airport, which was absolutely empty, and by 7am our plane was boarded and ready for liftoff. When the drink cart came by, I requested tea, not realizing I would be charged Rs. 50. My shock was a conversation starter with the man sitting next to me, who, as it turns out, was from Westchester County, New York. One of the only people I met on this trip who was genuinely kind-hearted, he ended up helping me navigate my way on the Delhi metro, where I was planned to meet up with Rohan, a Fellow at CRHP and my travel companion for the week. The Delhi metro turned out to be one of my favorite things about the city. After finding Rohan and settling into our hotel, we were off to explore. But first, lunch. A cycle rickshaw guide took us to Paranthe wali Gali (literally “the bylane of fried bread”), a very narrow street in the Chaudi Chowk area that is famous for its paratha: cheese/veggie-stuffed roti that is then fried. [Sidenote: I ate more fried, blatantly-unhealthy food during this trip than I have in my entire life.]
Feeling extremely satiated, we continued our tour: exploring spice markets and mosques, and enduring the winding, bumpy, crowded, deafening alleys and streets. We enjoyed a snack of fresh coconut outside the Lal Quila, the Red Fort, and then had our first monkey sighting just down the street from the India Gate.
in front of Lal Quila – Delhi
whoops; the one that got away – India Gate, Delhi
Day 3: Delhi
The next day, Rohan and I had a meeting scheduled with a representative from World Health Partners, an NGO based in Delhi that utilizes telemedicine to provide health services to poor, rural populations, predominantly in the state of Bihar. It was an awesome exposure visit; we learned a lot about their organization’s history and mission, approach to healthcare, fundraising initiatives, and current projects. We were even able to sit in on an actual telemedicine session – a patient in Bihar skyping with a doctor in an office in Delhi, explaining their health issue., a hurt wrist. They are an impressive organization, and Rohan and I were lucky to talk with their representative!
After this meeting, we headed to the Palika Bazaar – an incredibly overwhelming, easy to get lost in, network of underground markets. It was insane. The bargaining, however, was a lot of fun: although some items are “fixed price” aka non-negotiable, a lot of vendors are willing to compromise (many of them have to in order to make enough money to pay the daily rent for their shop). I inquired about the price of a necklace – Rs. 250. Nope, way too much. The man said, okay, 200. Under his breath, Rohan said, “Nope.” “No,” I said. This continued until we were at Rs. 120; Rohan still thought it was too much and so we began to walk away. “Just wait,” Rohan said. Sure enough, the little boy working the stand ran after us, the necklace in a brown bag, and said, “Okay, Rs. 100.” Deal.
For dinner both last night and this night, we went to a restaurant called Haldirams, a chain of sweet shop/restaurants that have all types of Indian foods. Definitely not as authentic as the restaurant from 1875, but the food was still quite delicious and cheap! Rohan was in charge of ordering (although I did make a good call on the veg seekh kebabs) and every meal was a lesson in Indian cuisine: pani puri, bhatura, dosa masala, kulfi..
Day 4: Delhi
The next day I put my metro knowledge to the test and set out to explore Delhi while Rohan attended a conference. The Lotus Temple and Lodi Gardens were on my to-see list; I was feeling very claustrophobic spending the past two days in the heart of bustling Delhi, and I wanted some fresh(er) air. The Lotus Temple, technically called the Bahá’í House of Worship, is a place of worship for people of all religions; the Bahá’í Faith is a world religion whose purpose is to unite all races and peoples in one universal cause and one common faith. Bahá’is are the followers of Bahá’u’lláh, who they believe is the Promised One of all Ages. Its architectural design is that of a lotus flower, which is symbolic in Indian art and culture as being the fairest flower. After a walk down a long, flower-lined path to the temple, everyone was instructed to remove their shoes and turn off their cameras before entering for prayer. The Temple was beautiful, and it was nice to sit in peace and reflect on a myriad of things.
Zen found, I navigated my way back to the metro line and set a new destination: the Lodi Gardens, 90+ acres of green field sprinkled with small lakes, park benches and ancient tombs. It was a trek to get there, and upon asking 10+ people for directions, I was told “just straight ahead” over and over again – where the heck was it!? Shouldn’t a park be relatively easy to find in a concrete jungle? I was finally pointed to a small gate, and, feeling like I was in a movie and peeking at something forbidden, pulled back some tree branches to reveal the long sought-after park. I explored a bit and found a nice spot in the grass, laid out my scarf as a blanket, and laid down to eat lunch and read the afternoon away.
Rohan came to the park after his conference – a HUGE success, by the way – and we walked around discussing the themes and ideas brought up at it, and how they can be helpful for CRHP. This conversation continued over dinner, which we had at a small Tibetan restaurant in the Tibetan refuge section of Delhi (picture little Italy of NY, but little Tibet of Delhi). Our brains were like a honeycomb, buzzing buzzing buzzing, wheels turning and ideas churning.
Day 5: Delhi to Agra
We caught our 7:10am train at 7:05, just in time to put our bags in the overhead compartment and recline our chairs. I passed out. Awoken by men walking up and down the aisle selling chai, tomato soup, and tin-foiled breakfasts, I sat in my seat and excitedly thought about today’s agenda: the Taj Mahal.
Agra is an assaulting city. I don’t konw if it was me, an Indian-dressed white girl, or Rohan, clean-cut and armed with a large, expensive-looking camera bag, but we were heckled like no other. Taxi drivers, rickshaw drivers, fruit and food vendors, men to claimed to be tour guides, small children selling souvenirs – all were inches from our faces, persistently trying to convince us we ‘needed’ their service or product. I imagine that is how celebrities might feel with paparazzi getting all up in their business.
We made it to Agra Fort jussst in time for the rain to begin: 10 minutes on, 20 minutes off, 10 minutes on again. Rohan and I hopped around the fort taking pictures of this red walled city, which was built by Mughal royalty in the 1600s. From a balcony of the fort, I had caught my first glimpse of the Taj. Cue ‘Castle on a Cloud’ from Les Mis..
Fort conquered, we had an excellent lunch of roti, yellow daal, and a dish I think was called bahar bajar – tomatoes and carrots and peas in a spinach sauce with bananas on top. Think what you will, but I’m telling you it was fabulous! Feeling recharged, we told our driver, off to the Taj!
The Taj Mahal, “crown of palaces”, is magnificent. Rohan and I hired a tourguide, who turned out to be a really nice guy who was obsessed with taking pictures for us, of us. In addition to being a great photographer, he also told us a lot of fun facts about the Taj. A white marble mausoleum, it was built by built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during the birth of their 14th child. Construction began in 1632 and continued for 22 years! The emperor and his wife are buried there, though the tomb is not open to the public to see.
Flower or symbol of ‘om’? One of the secrets of the Taj’s design – Taj Mahal, Agra
We walked in and around the Taj for a good hour and a half. Many people were skeptical about my going to Delhi and Agra with the main intent to see the Taj – the cities are dirty, crowded, expensive, and you spend an hour staring at the Taj – although the first part is more than true, it was completely worth it, in my humble opinion, to be awed by the Taj. I think it was the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen, and for the time we were there, I felt like I was in a pocket of peace, inspiration and grandeur.
Day 6: Agra to Jamkhed (with some hurdles along the way)
Our original plan was to take a train from Delhi to a station close to Jamkhed, and have a CRHP driver pick us up from there. When we realized, at 2am, that we booked our 3:10am train for the day before, our plans were thrown to the heavens. I panicked – how were we going to get back? Were we going to get kicked out of the first class waiting room into the station – hot and dirty and home to the homeless? I was useless in helping figure things out. We had Rs. 800 (not enough) to buy different tickets. My credit card was not working at the ATM. As they said in Jamkhed, “what to do, what to do?!”
A collaborative effort saved the day – money was wired to us and we got help figuring out how we could get back to Jamkhed, and we bought tickets for an 8am train at 7:30 (we like to cut it close). Sitting in first-class AC, we were served breakfast, soup, and lunch, along the 7 hour train ride to Bhopal, Rohan’s hometown. From Bhopal, we would rest at Rohan’s house for a bit before boarding a 14 hour bus from Bhopal to Ahmednagar. This was not just an ordinary bus – it was a sleeper bus, and instead of chairs the aisles were lined with bunk bed compartments. I loved it. In my little cave, I finished my book (Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower, if you are interested!) and had a great night sleep. We arrived in Nager the next morning, were greeted by Sudhir, one of CRHP’s drivers, and were finally, safely, off on our last leg in the journey back to Jamkhed.
All in all, it was a great trip. Rohan and I now laugh about the Agra Train Disaster of ’13, and I feel like my scope of India has widened. Traveling in the big cities has rekindled my love for the humble, rural life – the quiet mornings, the bullock-carts in the streets, the people who know and accept me, who are genuine and kind and generous.
Though my ‘burning desires’ have all been met, I am itching to adventure again.