In the weeks before leaving for India, I was filled with anxiety. Anxiety about whether I would pack the wrong things, if I forgot something, if my visa was incorrect, if I would get sick from accidentally drinking the tap water…you name it. Once I was in the air, equipped with 12 prescriptions (which in the end were very fortunately left untouched), my anxiety went away. I was ready for Arabian nights filled with masala chai.
That’s when the horns started beeping.
Delhi is a loud city. Really loud. As we weaved through the traffic, rickshaws and motos and cars filled the path, quickly explaining why Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Fresh off the plane, our first stop was the hotel, very quickly followed by the India Gate, essentially the Arc de Triomphe of India. There, it wasn’t the monument that I found most captivating: it was the people clustered around it, both Indian and foreign, and the people following them selling bangles and coconuts and henna. It was truly heartbreaking to say no to the little (seriously — little!) girls who had learned just enough English to try to sell you a bangle and negotiate the price. The same guilt would follow us throughout our travels.
Our next stop was lunch, which couldn’t come soon enough after the red eye over. We were in heaven as the dishes were brought to us and served family style: butter chicken, spinach with paneer, vegetable curry, daal, and naan. We were warned to start slow so we could adjust to the food, but it was all so enticing that none of us could stop ourselves from taking just one more piece of naan and ok, why not some more butter chicken to go with it?
After lunch, our India-lite tour ended and we hit the streets — almost. A crew of bicycle rickshaws (or tuk-tuks) awaited, ready to take us through Old Delhi and to its spice market, then up to Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India. Once we had finished perusing through piles of turmeric and cardamom, a Hindu street festival came down the middle of the street in Old Delhi, with dancers and drummers and cows and statues of Hindu gods. Before we knew it, our foreheads too were covered in the same turmeric paste that marked the celebrants as they danced in front of us, smiling and waving to the cameras (you can see some of it here). Once the parade had passed, we got back on our rickshaws.
At Jama Masjid, foreign women are made to wear a special smock, evidently retribution for disrespectful tourists a few years ago. We all looked very fashionable — mine was floor length, red and white polka dotted — and quickly found ourselves surrounded by children inside the mosque. They all wanted pictures with us or for us to take pictures of them. As I walked around the mosque, families continued to stop me and ask me to take their picture, forever becoming a memory in my visit to the mosque. Some asked to take my picture alone (which, as my professor pointed out, probably wouldn’t have happened as frequently had my hair been covered), while others wanted selfies with me. It was an odd feeling, to be an outsider yet at the same time to be the one on display (as a brunette, this rarely happens in Europe). I honestly remember the crowds at Jama Masjid better than I remember the actual mosque, but that’s so much better — you can’t Google that.
Our rickshaws were ready for us once more, and (bumpily) we ventured past more spice shops, stores to get wedding saris presenting the most beautiful fabrics and scarves, and street food being fried and skewered. We had the unfortunate timing of riding past a goat being slaughtered in front of his still-living goat friend, who we hoped lacked the memory or intelligence to figure out what was happening. Thousands of wires crossed over our heads, with monkeys swinging from line to line.
It was a whole new world, where cows and monkeys roamed freely and frequently.
Our last stop of the incredibly exhausting first day was Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, the Sikh temple in Delhi — an absolutely beautiful white marble building. We walked through the kitchen to see them making the dinner they share with the community, where people gather and talk and eat delicious looking naan. We got there right at sunset of our 30th hour without sleeping (but who’s counting), and despite our fatigue were mesmerized by the beautiful tiles and architecture. Plus, it was another opportunity for people to ask me to take pictures of them, which of course, I obliged.
Fast forward ten days to our return to Delhi, where we needed to catch our flight back to Paris. We were exhausted from the overnight train ride (coming soon; thank god for Advil PM) and from non-stop traveling for such a long time. But on our last day, we took a City Walk with Salaam Baalak Trust, a very cool organization designed to help get children off the streets in Delhi. Our guide had been found by a social worker living in the Delhi train station after running away from home, yet now aspires to be a sports coach and improve his English. We met some children who live in one of the shelters, who were so excited to meet us and wanted to play games and learn our names and take pictures. I would definitely recommend looking more into the organization if you are interested — I could’ve stayed with the kids for hours, talking and playing with them. At such a young age, they are already so resilient yet convey so much joy, despite how they ended up at the shelter.
That’s one theme that will recur as I post about our travels through India: joy. Everyone we encountered in India just gave off such radiance that it was infective, despite poverty or living conditions. It reminded me of what my Sunday school teacher taught us in high school, that joy is a permanent state inside of you that can’t be shaken by outside factors. While we complained that our wi-fi connection wasn’t working, the people we met shared such a passion for simply being alive that hopefully returned to Paris with us. ♦
Up next: Agra, India