After 18 years we’re back in India. Mark & I – along with Mark’s dad – were in India back in 1999. I had been invited to participate in a Ford Foundation conference in Goa so we decided to make a vacation out of it, working our way down the southwestern coast. Simply put, we loved India. The intensity, the flavors, the utter uniqueness of everything enchanted us. To be clear, India is not an easy place to travel; the poverty and crowds and touts and, well, everything. But for us at least, enchanting.
So we finally made it back, with our first stop in New Delhi. And to be honest I’m not quite sure what to make of it. While neighboring Delhi is an ancient city – it has been occupied continuously since the sixth century BC – New Delhi was built by the British in the 20th century as a symbol of their imperial aspirations and inaugurated as the capital of India in 1931. And so while Delhi – or Old Delhi, as it is sometimes referred to – is an almost unimaginable warren of tiny streets clogged with every form of life you can imagine, New Delhi is all wide thoroughfares and open spaces.
That doesn’t mean, however, that New Delhi is somehow calm. Though we were staying in New Delhi, much of what we wanted to see was in Old Delhi. On our first morning we headed out to walk into the old town. Now, walking is apparently not something one does in New Delhi, at least by choice. But we find it the best way to get a real feel for a place and figure out how it all fits together. And first impressions were that this is one intense city; just the traffic and the horns and every tuktuk driver you see stopping to ask if we want a ride. After all, no one would walk just because they want to.
An odd aspect of our walk was that not too long after we set out we noticed a lot of armed guards along the side of the road. Then one of them motioned that we had to get off the sidewalk. Strange, but there was a parallel side street so we started walking down that. Then another armed guard started signaling to us that we had to get off that, too. He motioned us onto a small cross street that led to a police station, which seemed weird. There were a couple other people there, though, and one of them explained. The Prime Minister was coming by, you see. And for whatever reason pedestrians are not allowed on the street when he passes by. (It’s not just us; auto traffic, too, is stopped.) The problem, our new friend explained, is that sometimes they think he’s coming but then he gets delayed, and then you just have to sit and wait … and wait … and wait. In this case the motorcade raced by just a few minutes after we were stopped, so we were soon back on our way.
Our goal that morning was Delhi’s Red Fort, for 200 years the residence of the Mughal emperors who ruled northern India and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This was a case where for us the journey really was the experience. First along the wide but congested boulevards of New Delhi and then through the narrow and equally congested winding streets of Old Delhi our walk took some three hours; by the time we got to the Fort we were too tired and hungry to take it on. Instead it was off to lunch and then back to the hotel. We did eventually make it back to the Red Fort, though, and it was worth knocking around in for a while.
Another highlight was Humayun’s Tomb, built for one of the Mughal emperors in the mid-16th century and another World Heritage Site. At the time it was a major shift in Mughal architecture and ultimately was a model for the Taj Mahal, built by Humayun’s great-grandson Shah Jahan. As you tour both the Tomb and the Red Fort the remains today are stunning; you get a real sense of the incredible power and wealth of the empire some five hundred years ago.
For all the interest in that Mughal history, though, the real highlight of Delhi is just the city itself and the chaos and bustle in it. And I don’t say that all in a good way; I’m not sure I’m going to like India as much this time as I did 18 years ago when every step you take is accompanied by someone in your ear trying to get you to go over here or buy this or ride in that tuktuk or … something. And when every breath you take in is more polluted than anything you’ve ever experienced. I just keep coming back to the word “intense.” Even the food isn’t as good as we’d hoped or expected. It’s as though there are only two types of restaurants: crazy expensive international hotel type and scary local type.
All of which is to say maybe I’ve gotten too old and fancy to enjoy India as much as I did when I was in my mid-forties. We have another six weeks in India, most of it in the state of Rajasthan, so we’ll have time to figure that out. Next stop, though, is Agra and the Taj Mahal.