India. A place I’ve dreamed about since I was 11 years old, repeatedly checking out “Bride and Prejudice” (Hollywood’s Bollywood twist on “Pride and Prejudice”) from the library and imagining a life filled with beautiful colors and loud music. My travel bucket list is too long for one person to ever complete but when I knew my winter break would be five weeks long I set out to cross the number one destination off the list.
I left Shanghai in the middle of the night, landing in Colombo, Sri Lanka for a three-hour layover around five in the morning. With sleepy eyes I surveyed my food options in the airport, Burger King and a sit down Thai restaurant and opted for the former. I inwardly grumbled as I forked over $16 for a burger and fries (breakfast of champions, am I right?). A traditional Sri Lankan band provided the soundtrack to my overpriced meal, providing an unexpected juxtaposition of cultures.
Six hours later I finally arrived at my final destination: New Delhi, India. Energetic, crowded, dusty developing, overpopulated, cacophonous and chaotic New Delhi. As a break from my city of 24 million souls I had chosen a slight downgrade to 22 million. The irony of this was not lost on me as I quickly realized just from my taxi ride how densely crowded Delhi was compared the relatively spread out population of Shanghai. My taxi ride from the airport to my hostel took at least an hour amidst the never-ending sea of taxis, cars and tuk-tuks (smaller, semi-open air taxis that resemble motorcycles with a bench attached to the back).
As the taxi approached my hostel I seriously questioned my decision to travel India alone. The driver was wary of the location of my hostel and said something about it being a “bad neighborhood”. I don’t know what constitutes a bad neighborhood by Indian standards but by my own I would have had to agree with him. The hostel, Stops Hostel, was located on a dusty, busy street close to the oldest part of the city. The hostel itself was very nice and I loved my four-person all-female dorm with big security lockers to give me peace of mind about leaving my things with strangers. But the hostel itself wasn’t what made me question being alone on this excursion. It was the fact that on my quest to find food I was the only woman on the entire street I walked down, and this was not an empty street by any means. While strange, normally this would not be a problem but for someone from America, India is anything but normal. In China it is not uncommon to be stared at for just being foreign but the stares are inquisitive in nature, their eyes never straying far from my face. The looks I received from most people in this neighborhood did not give me an inquisitive feeling but instead I felt leered at. As I obviously cannot read minds, this is an assumption, but it certainly didn’t give me a feeling of safety. During my research on traveling solo as a female in India I found that this was something to be expected, but to experience it was different. All of the foreign girls that I met traveling in India had the same feeling of discomfort under the eyes of many men, some with stories worse than looks. I will address this more in depth in a separate blog post. I would like to note here though that I met many kind Indian men and that I am in no way trying to make a strict generalization.
Additionally, I have traveled in impoverished neighborhoods in the countries I have been to but I have never seen poverty like I saw in Delhi. Homeless men and women crowded the street around my hostel, vying for a spot to sleep for the night and keeping their dogs close for warmth. Old men, women, families with young children gathered around open garbage cans filled with fire, trying to stave off the North Indian winter cold. No matter how much I wanted to give them money when they asked I knew it would not turn into a good situation based on the sheer volume of the population of homeless just on my street alone.
This eye opening trek was not without a goal, as it led me to my first true Indian meal. I am obsessed with Indian food and getting some authentic Delhi cuisine was the number one thing on my to-do list. I sat alone in a large hotel restaurant, the walls were Pepto-Bismol pink and a mangy stray kitten eyed me through the door as I struggled to choose from a plethora of mouth-watering options. I settled on tandoori chicken with naan and rice. The waiter seemed skeptical that I would be able to finish so much food but he vastly underestimated my appetite. It was one of those meals that you remember forever, and my momentary discomfort from the walk was forgotten.
The next day I woke up bright and early, determined to make the most of my three days in Delhi. I made my way to the closest destination to my hotel: The Red Fort. Built in 1639 by the fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, it stayed in use for over two hundred years, up until 1857. Inside are royal apartments, gardens, mosques, courtyards and palaces. I spent around two hours at this mammoth site filled with small museums and beautiful architecture.
Following this, I stayed true to my plan and headed across the street to Old Delhi, searching for the metro. I was accosted by what felt like 50 tuk-tuks and rickshaws, all determined to provide their services to the confused looking foreigner. I quickly learned that all prices I was given were marked up three or four times what the price should be and I shelved my anxiety and bargained my way down to an acceptable price. For less than $1 I convinced one rickshaw driver to take me to the metro station I had my eye on and he promised he would take me straight there – no shopping. Many of these drivers take commission from providing stores with foreign tourists. I hopped on the back of the bicycle and off we went through the crowded streets of Old Delhi.
Of course, he offered to take me a textile shop and as I am weak and obsessed with Indian colors and fabrics I relented from my request to go straight to the metro and allowed him to take me to a shop full of saris, salwar kameez, scarves, pashminas and jewelry. Planning on buying one thing, I, of course, walked out with two tunics, one sari, a necklace and a pair of earrings. While I waited for my tunics to be altered by an impossibly old man hunched over an impossibly old sewing machine, I had chai and chatted with an intense uni-browed Kashmiri salesman. We talked about his home and he explained to me his perspective on the contested border of Kashmir between India and Pakistan. When India gained independence from the United Kingdom it was decided that they would split India into two countries, Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Religious violence ensued and in the region of Kashmir on the border of India and Pakistan the tensions continue to this day. I talked with the salesman about his thoughts on the religious tension in Kashmir and the rest of the world and he said: “There is one god, doesn’t matter if he’s Muslim or Christian or Hindu. We are cousins. We are human”. It was the kind of cross cultural exchange that I cherish and ponder for days.
I left the shop and my driver took me to the metro. I have been spoiled by the beautiful thing that is the Shanghai Metro and I expected something similar in New Delhi. Boy, was I wrong. There were no automated electronic ticket machines and line to buy a ticket was at least fifteen people deep. Trash lined the corners of the room and, in the interest of saving time, I quickly made the decision to exit the metro and pay the extra money to take a taxi to my next destination. Semi-lost and after having just emerged from the most astoundingly filthy toilet in an adjacent mosque, I finally found a tuk-tuk that was willing to drive me to The Lotus Temple. An hour later we arrived to find the line to enter the temple was over 2 km long and, tired and frustrated, I asked the driver to just take me back to my hostel.
As a solo female traveler, I had made it a point to not be out alone after dark, so I went to have dinner and was again not disappointed at all. I ordered a South Indian thali, or a plate full of small portions of different foods from the region.
This was my best day in Delhi. I got up with the sun and got to experience Humayun’s Tomb in the early morning hours. The site was largely absent of tourists due to the time and I felt as if I had a private pass to the park. Humayun’s Tomb was constructed in 1569 for the Mughal Emperor Humayun. The tomb and the surrounding structures were designed by Persian architects brought to India by the Empress Bega Bagum after Humayun’s death. The massive structure that is Humayun’s Tomb is, in my opinion, as equally stunning as the Taj Mahal if not more so.
After about two hours I headed to find a tuk tuk to my next destination. Not yet skilled in the art of ignoring solicitors I was stopped by a tall Sikh man in a bright orange turban.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
I pulled out my phone reluctantly and showed him the itinerary I had planned for myself.
“Easy,” he said. “1000 rupees I will drive you all day in my taxi.”
For $15 USD this did not sound like a bad deal. I glanced at the taxi and it looked legitimate enough so I hopped in and we were on our way.
The driver, Narinder Singh, was very chatty and we would end up becoming fast friends. He answered all my questions about Indian and Sikh culture and provided unprompted Indian history lessons which I was extremely grateful for.
My first stop was Lodi Gardens, a large park that includes tombs from the 15th century rulers – even older than the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb! I had a quick walk around and was surprised by the number of seemingly unmarried couples holding hands and whispering to each other in secret in the middle of the day on a Monday. This is basically the premise for most Bollywood films and books set in India that I’ve read so my mind spun hypothetical tales.
Next was another excellent meal and then on to Qutb Minar, a large minaret built in 1192. Muezzins would have held the call to prayer from this minaret. It is a staggering 240 feet tall and is situated within the grounds of many ancient mosques and Hindu temples. Following that was a visit to some shops and, finally, another of my favorite Indian experiences.
Narinder took me to Gurudwara Bangla Sahib. It is an especially beautiful and impressive Sikh temple, where he offered to take me around. As we walked he explained the details of the things I was seeing, such as who was a “pure” Sikh and who was an average follower, like himself. “Pure” Sikhs never cut their hair, are never fully unclothed, they often wear a special type of turban, and always wear a silver bracelet and carry a small dagger. I am not sure of the significance of these things. After the prayer hall he took me to the kitchen where they make food for hundreds of people every day – all free and everyone sits in the same vast open room no matter what your status, gender, caste or even religion. We sat and ate the free lentils and rice and drank the chai. As we left I thanked him for going out of his way to explain and he said “No, thank you for bringing me to the house of my God.” I thought this was a nice sentiment.
I was dropped at my hostel and I said goodbye to Narinder and New Delhi, as tomorrow would be a journey to my next destination – Agra and the Taj Mahal.