Friday, February 12, 2016 journal : delhi..

It was almost 15 years ago when Rich told me that if I could survive a trip to the Boundary Waters, I could survive a trip to India. I was a little wary of his comment, but also thought confidently to myself, "I got this. I'll show him my 'roughing it' skills."

The trip came and went, and back-country camping chewed me up and spit me out. It was a memorable trip, for many reasons, but my 'roughing it' skills were not what I anticipated. I suppose it could have been the fact that I took it upon myself to lighten our load by finishing the box of wine we had decided to bring, resulting in the nastiest hangover of my life. Seriously? Trying to warm your freezing body on a dark rock in the sun while your head is pounding is NOT fun. Maybe it was the incessant rain that made it impossible to dry anything out. Or perhaps, perhaps, it was the moment that I fell backwards onto the muddy trail with a huge dry pack on, and found myself stuck up-ended like a turtle who's been overturned onto its shell. Yes, a memorable trip, with no shortage of laughter at my expense.

Fast forward to today. We finally took that trip to India.

We covered immense territory on this trip, and we traveled with a large group of family and friends. The whole reason we decided to take the trip was because Rich's cousin was getting married in Kerala, which is in the southernmost state of India. With Rich's school schedule giving him a generous winter break, and children at ages that are still young enough to miss school without lagging too far behind, we decided to extend the trip so that we could see more of India than just Kerala. After all, most of Rich's mother's family is still living in India. After 12 years of marriage, I suppose it's time to meet her side of the family.

We mapped out our trip such that we started in Delhi (it's cheapest to fly into Delhi or Mumbai), made our way to the wedding, and then finished up where family live in Andhra Pradesh/Telangana. Two and a half weeks we traveled a good chunk of India, with our neighbors and Rich's brother's family, and Rich's cousin's family (15 of us, total -- 8 adults and 7 kids, aged 2-16).

How did it go, you ask? Let's start in the north...

We arrived in Delhi in the middle of the night. We were pretty wide-eyed, as the time difference had our bodies feeling like it was lunchtime.  It was difficult to see anything, but we definitely felt as though we were in a well populated city, and at the time I couldn't tell if it was just really foggy, or if the pollution was that bad.

We took the first day to simply acclimate to the time and enjoy catching up with family. The kids played together wonderfully, and it had been awhile since we had all seen each other, so taking it easy was exactly what we needed. The hotel was very westernized, so meals could be Indian if you chose, but there were also 'Asian' options and 'Western' options. It was all set out buffet style, so each palate was more than satisfied. If you had a hankering for beef, however, you had to settle for water buffalo.

The second day we were there we took a driving tour of Delhi. We had compiled a list of places we wanted to see, and hired a bus to take us around the city. I am so grateful for that bus.

There is not a rat's chance in hell that I could ever drive in India...or hail an auto rickshaw for that matter. The congestion was at a  level that I have never before experienced. New York and L.A. are tame compared to India. And realistically, the rules of the road are simply that larger vehicles have the right of way. And the honking--so much honking. The honk is meant simply as a 'hey, I'm coming up on ya.' Just a 'toot-toot' get out of my way type thing, but a constant sound nonetheless. I took comfort in the fact that we only drove between 25 and 40 mph, although travel times were painstakingly slow at that speed with the congestion.

Now let's say that you do acclimate to the haphazard driving. Once you are able to open your eyes, unclench your fists and catch your breath, then you will notice the sheer amount of 'stuff' that lines the streets of Delhi. There are few open spaces, and it can very well make you feel claustrophobic. What exists in these spaces? Anything you can imagine. There are homes, food carts, litter, people, vendors, parked cars, bikes, hanging laundry...and the list goes on. Even amid traffic, young girls would perform acrobatics on the street (between cars!) with the hope of being given a few rupees.

The conditions that some of the people live in are so foreign to what we know and understand. I will say that, as a society, they are incredibly resourceful. One can instantly feel bad for what some have to endure, yet more often than not I saw smiling faces and lively conversational exchanges, especially among the children. It doesn't appear to be a country that feels sorry for itself, but rather, a country that is enterprising and making the most of what they have available to them.

As for the pollution, it was that bad. There was a constant brown haze in the sky. You didn't realize how bad it was until you came home at night and found yourself in coughing fits. And while the air pollution took a toll on our lungs, there was also your standard run-of-the-mill litter, and the unexpected human/animal waste. It's not often you see a billboard encouraging the use of toilets. We definitely watched where we were walking.

As I said, we took great care before a plane even took off to have a rough itinerary of what we wanted to see in Delhi. On the docket were Qutub Minar, the Lotus temple, Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium, and the Dilli Haat bazaar. It was a long day, but gave us a nice introduction to the country.

Qutub Minar is the tallest brick minaret in the world, constructed of sandstone and marble. Built in 1200 AD, it is surrounded by other monuments, both finished and unfinished, significant in both the Islam and Hindu faiths. We did have a guide who gave us a proper tour, but I was more entranced with the details of the buildings, some of the wildlife, and making sure that there were no stragglers. It's hard to believe that some of these treasures are over 800 years old.

Our next stop was the Lotus temple. The Lotus temple is a house of worship for members of the Bahai religion, but welcome any denomination to worship there as well. It was built in the 1980's, and is relatively new compared to the Qutub complex. In order to enter the temple, you must take off your shoes and leave them outside. We opted to skip the indoor tour and stayed outside where we could rest assured that our shoes would remain our own. That, and kids were starting to show signs of needing to eat.

Have I ever mentioned that our last name is the result of an immigration misunderstanding? 'Tis true. My father-in-law was quite the field hockey player when he was a young man living in India, and was given the nickname Dhyan Chand. When he was filling out his immigration paperwork to enter the US, he mistook "Last Name" to mean "Nickname," and our family name of Dhyanchand was born. Naturally, the Dhyanchands in our group wanted to do a quick drive by of Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium. Nothing more was needed or required.

The last stop on our Delhi tour (after lunch, of course) was the Dilli Haat bazaar. It is a state run bazaar that requires a modest entrance fee so you can peruse the booths without being bothered by any number of distractions that exist on the regular city street. Most kids opted to stay on the bus for this, which allowed those who needed to take a nap the space to do so.

The bazaar was a tremendous treat for the crafter in me. There were textiles, wood, and paper crafts galore, with such beautiful colors and techniques displayed. While I was taken with how many different handicrafts were available, I hesitated to buy anything because that would have required me to haggle. I don't mind an occasional flea market haggle (of which I am sure I do not drive a hard bargain), but to be thrown into negotiating on the second day of being in a country that pushed my senses in every way conceivable was not something that I was remotely interested in.

A purchase was made, however, and it still puts a smile on my face. For a mere 200 rupees (about $3), Craig bought 'Isaac Newton's Delhi Christmas Extravaganza' CD. It was the most appropriate souvenir, I think, because it was Isaac Newton's. In an odd way, it represents the perfect duality that exists in India -- that of a culture rich in artistic endeavors, and more recently, a culture placing increased importance on the fields of science and mathematics. A Delhi Christmas Extravaganza, indeed. I have yet to hear that CD, but I'm certain when I finally do, I will be transported back to this day -- the day I first ventured out onto the streets of India.