Sitting in serene, peaceful Alaska it is difficult to re-immerse my senses into my recent trip to Delhi, India in June. I would not describe India as serene and peaceful. India was a staggering experience for the senses - all five of them! I knew the country demanded alertness, but my Dory-like focus made it a bit challenging.
The sounds: I’ve driven in many countries, but was told by some, and I agree, that driving in India is best left to the Indians. In Delhi rickshaws and tuktuks share the road in an haphazard fashion with cars and trucks, bikes, and people. Each vehicle produced its own horn sound - constantly! I tried to find a rhythm in the sound, but that focus was interrupted by a horn from a vehicle almost running me over. I wanted to put my headphones on and queue up a peaceful meditation playlist, but didn’t want to insult the culture. There was NEVER a quiet moment! If there was a saving grace, it was the breeze, even if it was 107 degree breeze! We were lucky to have a park next to our apartment with bat filled trees and peacocks on our deck railing in the morning.
The smells and tastes: With 107 degrees, 33 million people in Delhi metro area, and inadequate waste management programs, well, you can imagine the smells. Yet, the scent of the warm Indian spices waffling out of open air restaurants drew us in as our tongues wanted to sample the local cuisine during our “street food” walking tour of the city. Now you might think we were crazy for eating street food, but our guide assured us that his tour company had only one tourist get sick and that was because this guy challenged a vendor to make it as spicy as they could. We learned there were four levels of spice - mild, medium, spicy and Indian spicy. I was proud of myself to try medium and soon realized that Indian spices are warm to the mouth, not firepower hot like Thai or Korean. We did ended up with “Delhi belly”, but we think from the fresh lettuce we bought at the grocery store during my momentary lapse in judgment about eating fresh produce in poorer countries. The first salad was fine, but we shouldn’t have had the second one a few days later. Anyway, I loved the masala chai, aloo chana chaat, jhalmuri, samosa, rabdi sweet porridge type desert, syrup soaked jalebi (pic above). We also had a lovely cooking class in Nidhi and Roopak’s home enjoying their hospitality.
You can find them on Airbnb experiences.Yet even though we enjoyed Indian cuisine, our bellies were not used to it all the time, so one night we walked to a restaurant that offered breakfast items for dinner and ordered blueberry pancakes, and Chinese spring rolls. Weird combo, but sounded good to us and tasted so good we ordered a second helping of pancakes.
The sites: Seeing the Taj Mahal had been on my bucket list forever and its inlaid gemstones creating flowery designs did not disappoint. I did enjoy the Indian culture love of color - the sarees worn by some women, the painted walls in tunnels, the colorfully decorated transport trucks, and the temples and floating flowers of the Aarti ceremony in Haridwar on the Ganges River. (Video below)
The Lotus Temple was also beautiful and we were lucky to hear chants like singing when inside the amazing structure. The site that surprised us the most was us - we were constantly being asked by Indians to take selfies with us. Discovering that we were as much of a site to them as their places were to us was disconcerting. While we felt honored, and maybe famous, at first, the incessant asking became annoying. June is not high tourist season because of the hot temps, but it is when Indian families travel because of the school break so for many people from rural areas non brown skinned people are an anomaly to them. I kept thinking do I look more like Kate Winslet, Meryl Steep, or Wilma Flintstones to them?
The site of trash everywhere on this trip was tough to see and even more difficult to understand even after talking with locals. Certainly rapid urbanization, economic growth allowing for more urban consumption, lack of segregation of waste, and cultural habits all contribute. I’m not trying to judge, as we have resource consumption and waste management issues in the U.S. too. I’m just saying if you want to go to India, seeing trash everywhere is part of it.
The Touches: We enjoyed the hugs from new Indian friends, and from each other when challenges arose. Touches from thorny plants near “oh naturaaal” pee places, not so much - one had me screaming from the rash burn only to look across the street to find a rare sighting in India - a public bathroom. While technically speaking, stand up "pee in the hole" toilets are more sanitary than sitting your backside on a communal seat, they can be a squatting challenge without touching other surfaces. If I do go back to India, my female urinal is going with me!
The second week we hired a driver to take us up north to the Uttarakhand region so we could see the Himalayas. It was a welcome change from hot Delhi. Come to find out we were the only two “white women” Bharat had driven this far north in his twenty years of driving as most of his guests were Indian. After a week with him I told him he should become a professional race driver since passing on a mountain blind corner was common. Even on the straight roads passing was not dependent upon a dashed yellow middle line, but only by using your horn to say, “Im coming around”, yikes! As we got close to our destination we discovered that the tram we were supposed to take to Auli was not running so Bharat drove us to a chairlift and we rode it in the rain to our lodge. India demands flexibility, but I’ll admit I freaked out a bit on the way down the steep hill on the lift the next morning with my overnight bag in my lap. We were rewarded with views of Nanda Devi at 25,643 feet. Depending on which country you think owes K2, Nanda Devi is the 2nd or 3rd highest in India. On a fairly clear day recently having just seen Denali, the tallest mountain in North America at 20,310, I’ll let you be the judge of which is more beautiful. Keep in mind we were closer to the mountain in India which is the first pic.
The people in India are very welcoming, generous, and warm. I’ll never forget the doctor who gave me his card even if we just needed some tummy meds after a long train ride where his 7 year old son chatted my ear off with his “facts about the United States”. Our driver Bharat was a sweet, gentle soul. I think I’d come back to smaller cities or the coast again to experience other regions of India since it is so diverse; I know I just touched the surface of this country. Note to self - don’t go in June next time! For now the mountains and coasts of unpopulated, quiet, clean, and quirky Alaska calm my soul.