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.

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