Intriguing India: First Impressions

December 17, 2010

After a non-eventful 14 hour direct flight (over Greenland, Norway, Russia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), we arrived at the spanking new Indira Gandhi Airport in New Delhi Wednesday night. As we write this update, it's Friday afternoon and while our official tour doesn't start until tomorrow, we have plenty of initial impressions.  First, our driver had not been behind the wheel more than 30 seconds when he told us the three most important guidelines for driving in Delhi-- (1) a good horn, (2) good brakes, and (3) good luck.  And he wasn't kidding!  Even at , the drive was harrowing at best. They drive on the left so that was disorienting (but we'll give them that), lane markings were just a suggestion, typically disregarded.  There appears to be a law that you must stay within 12" of the car in front of you.  We've been driven in Rome, Hanoi, Boston, and beyond... believe us this is much worse!  (We'll be excited to be on the bus tomorrow!).

Other first impressions. We were led to believe that monkeys would be running amok, the smells would be overpowering, the poverty and begging ubiquitous, and upset stomachs instantaneous.  Well, so far, we haven't experienced any of the above (though we did have one band of monkey sighting near the Government Centre.)  Now, our trip is young and we are sure we will see and experience all of those things.  But, Delhi is different.  It's the financial and government centre of India; it is in the throes of a major rebuilding effort; and we have been somewhat sheltered in a five star hotel. Yet, we have been driven about and while we have seen some homeless people and beggars, it has not been overwhelming to date.  Other impressions.  The multiculturalism is so obvious.  One of our first stops was a Sikh temple (Bangla Sahib Gurdwara Temple), our driver was a Hindu, we passed refugees from Bangladesh who were Muslim and we visited a Muslim tomb (Humayun's Tomb--a World Heritage Site built by and for the grandfather of the builder of the Taj Mahal). There is a high level of security everywhere--whether that is because the hotel hosts many diplomats or not, we cannot be sure. Hordes of adorable school children are everywhere you look--all uniformed--and to a one, anxious to please and get into our photos.

Here are some additional perspectives on what we've seen and experienced so far.  We've visited two temples--the 18th century Sikh temple above and the sprawling five-year old Hindu Akshardham Temple on the banks of the Yamuna River. 

You enter these temples barefoot--preferably without socks because the marble floors are slippery.  For the Sikh temple, our heads needed to be covered.  Wayne was quite stylish in a bright orange scarf (his Cubs cap did not make the cut).  Of course, always prepared from a fashion perspective, I had an appropriate scarf--easily adaptable as head wear--in the backpack. 

The level of security at the Akshardham Temple was unbelievable--no cameras, no phones, and pat downs to get in (plus, they took away my gum). The Temple was more of a cultural complex than a temple per se--in which 11,000 volunteers were engaged with the hand-carvings, etc. over a 6year period.  There is a Disney-like feel to this--so pristine, the dioramas, sound and light show, etc., and very impressive- the sandstone elephant carvings ran circles around the relief elephant carvings in Siem Reap. We've also been to the National Museum (interesting archaeology exhibits) and seen the Government Centre and India Gate (a memorial to WWI soldiers).

But, everyone knows that no W&W trip update would be complete without a mouth-watering recap of almost every item of food imbibed.  OK, we'll spare you the Indian cuisine on the airplane (though it was pretty good). The food has been good and plentiful--highlighted by a 3 hour cooking class/demo at The Oberoi (our hotel) last night.  We were greeted with aprons and chef hats and walked through a description of the spices (btw, we weren't aware that the addition of chilis, garlic, and tomatoes to the Indian diet is fairly recent).  We started with a refreshing buttermilk/mint/coriander chase.  Then the chef proceeded to prepare (and then serve us) the following:  pappadam with various chutneys, dal makhani (yellow and red lentils in amazing sauce), meem moiley (pomfret--a mild sole-like fish sauteed then embraced by a delicate coconut milk sauce with tomatoes, onions and ginger... it was lovely), zeera aloo (fingerling potatoes sauteed with cumin, coriander, turmeric, chili powder), and tandoori chicken. 

We learned from our chefs that they don't use ghee as a matter of course any more--vegetable oils are more prevalent.  With full, happy stomachs, great recipes, a box full of spices, and a new cookbook, we tried to sleep off our jet lag.  This morning, Wendy continued the Indian meal thing with rava inglis, steamed semolina cakes served with lentil stew and various chutneys. (Wayne enjoyed his usual vacation a.m. repast--croissants and raisins.) We eat at Bukhara (Bill Clinton's favorite Delhi restaurant--but we had our reservations before we knew about Bill-) tonight.

Coming attractions.  Tomorrow, we meet our group for a tour of New Delhi, followed by a tour of Old Delhi on Sunday.  Monday, we're off to Varanasi and head to Agra on Wednesday.

The 8 Cities of Delhi

December 19, 2010

Since our last note, we've been on the run discovering more of Delhi and building on our overall impressions of this intriguing country.

First, there are actually 8 cities of Delhi. Over several thousand years, succeeding conquerors, kings, sultans, and cultures have each added their own city. But unlike other old metropolitan areas of the world, the new cities were always added to the old. There were no mass destructions or building on top of previous civilizations. So Delhi today is an amalgam of these various cultures and influences.

The tour officially began Saturday morning. Over these two days we have visited the Qutb (or Qutub) Minar - the world's tallest brick minaret (237.8 ft), which was built in 1193 to celebrate the victory of Mohammed Ghori, the invader from Afghanistan, over the Rajputs.

The Mahatma Gandhi Museum, which includes the house where he lived his final days and the courtyard where he was assassinated on January 30, 1948 (the tragedy and exhibit were eerily similar to Dr. King's as memorialized at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis). We also went to Raj Ghatt, the site where Gandhi was cremated (in front of the entire population of Delhi - 2 million at the time) where there is now a permanent black granite plinth and eternal flame. Next was the Red Fort - a 17th century fort and emperor's living area constructed by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (yes, the same guy who built the Taj Mahal) in the walled city of Old Delhi.  It served as the capital of the Mughals until 1857, when the last Mughal emperor was exiled by the British.

The best part of the Delhi tour was what we did off-tour--when we visited Old Delhi.  This area of town is "off limits" to our tour company as it is very congested, not "freshly scrubbed," the laws of physics would not permit a tour bus to navigate, and there have been some "issues."  (Those who read our blog last year know that we did a private tour of the favellas in Rio; this was comparable.)   Anyway, Wendy was not going to leave town without doing this, so we did.  It was amazing. 

As it was Sunday, the markets were doing a brisk business. The streets were teeming with humanity, tuk tuks, bicycle-rickshaws, cars and taxis, and we even saw some goats running around! No cows however, as our guide told us that the law was changed a few years ago prohibiting cows from running loose in Delhi.  While tooling around, we heard the call to worship from Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque(with capacity for 20,000 worshipers). 

Wayne stepped out of the car to take a picture but we did not go in.  In this part of the city, the population is 80% Muslims. To this point, we had noticed a distinct bias against the Muslims in comments made by our local tour guide and driver (both Hindus). And, indeed, we have been interpreting "it's not safe" as code for "there are too many Muslims there."  We pressed the concierge on this as it was disconcerting at best.  She (who is is also Hindu) said that the Muslims are an integral part of Indian society and culture. With obvious pain she said that her country and the world is being held hostage by a few people. "Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims" is how she put it. Whether or not this is actually true is besides the point, we were thrilled to see Old Delhi, get a glimpse of the mosque, and get a feel for the community.

By coincidence, there is a story in today's Times of India about Delhi, as it prepares to celebrate 100 years as the nation's capital.

Of course, we're also learning about the food.  Here are two d'ohs... First, when you ask the waiter if a particular dish is spicy, they will always say "No, it is not spicy at all"; and they are telling the truth. It is Not spicy to THEM! Foreigner beware!  When you think of Indian food you are most likely to think first of curry. Well, there is no such thing as "Indian" food and no such thing as "curry"!  The food of this land (which is not even called "India" by its inhabitants, but "Parat"), varies widely by region. The food predominant in Delhi is actually of Afghan origin.  A "curry" is actually a sauce. Though they do occasionally use curry leaves for seasoning, what we would call curry is actually a combination of 5 or more spices including cardamom, coriander, chiles, etc.

And, speaking of food... did you think we forgot to eat over the last few days? Ha!!!  Friday night's meal at Bukhara was memorable. 
The restaurant features tandoori foods (which means they're cooked on a spit over charcoal in a clay oven). We started of course with pappadams, red onions, and green chutney. The menu has two sides - vegetarian and non-vegetarian - with only about 6 choices for each. Wayne had Kastoori Kabob - big chunks of chicken with peppercorn and ginger in an egg batter. Wendy created a vegetarian sampler including dal Bukhara (black lentils and tomatoes), tandooraloo (potatoes stuffed with potatoes, raisins, and cashews), tandoori simla mirch (capsicum with beans, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, cashews, sultanas and chiles), and tandoori phool (fried and grilled cauliflower). We also had the most amazing onion nan. Wendy went totally native and ate with her hands! For dessert, India's answer to Dunkin Donuts munchkins, served with rosewater.  Very delicious (and quite unnecessary).

Saturday night was the group welcome dinner. We were served a choice of chicken soup (which was RED - and tres spicy) or almond saffron soup, prawns with spices, chicken, lamb, mushrooms, vegetables, and of course rice and yogurt  (to counteract the heat of the spices). There has been way too much eating so today we opted to skip dinner and had Italian food for lunch!  Time for a quick break from dal.

Tomorrow we have an early departure for Varanasi. We are scheduled for a river cruise but our tour guide tells us that the boat workers went on strike today! Stay tuned to see what happens.