First Day in New Delhi

Wednesday, 9 December 2015
New Delhi - what an interesting place! We arrived last night around 10:30 p.m. and went from the airport through a flurry of heavy traffic to the Taj hotel. Before we were even able to pull into the complex, three guards came out to search the trunk of our car, under the hood, and also used a mirror under the car. I wasn’t too surprised about that but as we pulled up to the front of the hotel we noticed that everyone entering the hotel had to pass through a metal detector and have their bags scanned. That was certainly a new experience for me but apparently the terrorist threats from Pakistan and elsewhere are quite bad and they must take all precautions.

The Taj Hotel is very safe and I felt just fine going down for dinner at the Chinese restaurant without James. He wanted to relax in bed and had already eaten a full meal on the plane before we disembarked (I slept through the last few hours of our 14 hour flight). At House of Ming I enjoyed three lovely courses with impeccable service and did not feel out of place in the least bit. I admired the live flower arrangements in the lobby that included ruby red orchids, and large white mum blooms arranged on little platforms resting on tall sticks. This was all complemented with full limbs of natural red berries. I adore checking out flower arrangements while on travels because talent and creativity is manifested in many ways throughout different cultures.

Our first foray into the outside world came today at 1:30 p.m. when the two of us met with the other members of our Natural Habitat group in the lobby for an afternoon tour. We went to “Old Delhi” or “The Walled City” which was constructed in the 1600s for the elite population in the area. It was built for approximately 2,000 residents but today more than a million people live within the walls. It is expensive real estate and many business people have huge sales on items such as spices, chilies, dates, shoes, saris, etc.

We first went to the largest mosque (Jama Masjid) in Delhi. The courtyard can hold up to 25,000 worshippers. Women have to don a large cotton robe that is light weight but long-sleeved and flows to the ground. Men and women have to remove their shoes and photography is permitted by paying a fee but you are asked not to take pictures of people praying. After we entered the gates, literally within 5 minutes of our guide starting to discuss elements of the space, a group of two young male locals and five young women locals approached me and wanted to have their picture taken with me. I didn’t even understand the request. They quickly gathered around and took photos standing next to me using their smart phones. My heart started pounding and I didn’t know whether I should smile and go along with it or say “No thank you.” Turns out – it doesn’t matter if you acknowledge people or not. Many came over to take photos of me just walking or taking my own photos. It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever experienced. 

One occurrence was especially strange. I was standing with James in the open courtyard of the mosque and three young men approached us. None of them looked at me. One of them introduced himself to James and shook his hand twice. He peered at James with what I interpreted as admiration. (??) I was not acknowledged. Then he asked if he could have his picture taken with us. He stood by me and his buddies took the picture and then they switched to do the same thing. After shaking James’ hand again - they left. I felt like property for sure and James was also left a bit speechless.

After the mosque visit, we took rickshaws (man powered bicycles with a cart for two people) around the shopping area of Old Delhi. It was more chaotic than I could ever imagine. Our “driver” was an older man wearing a tattered sweater with kind eyes and a great sense of humor. He pointed out the messy and archaic electrical wire system over our heads in the streets and would periodically ask, “Madam, sir, good?” I would sometimes answer from behind a bandana held to my mouth and nose because the pollution is very thick. By the end of the tour my throat hurt and both James’ and my eyes were burning.

In this part of Delhi there seems to be dozens of ways to get from one place to another. I witnessed people walking, riding bikes, motorcycles, cars, buses, electric rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, battery operated scooters, men pushing wooden carts, even a horse and cart (!!) People are either transporting goods or people - or just walking to get someplace fast. Here's a quick clip of what it is like to ride on a rickshaw through the crowd:

Walking is likely faster in this part of the city because the traffic is so dense and on the surface there doesn’t seem to be much cohesion to the madness of forward progress. Just observing for a while will teach you otherwise. Everyone relies heavily on a horn or his voice to keep the flow going. (I am using the male pronoun here because there are few to none women drivers in Old Delhi.) The horn is meant to warn others that you’re there and plan to move forward. If you’re on a bicycle rickshaw, the “driver” just shouts his way through the crowd.

The variety of goods for sale was impressive but I only went into one spice shop to pick up the pre-mixed spices for Butter Chicken and Korma Marsala. I was incredibly intimidated by the process because everything moves at a fast pace, you are supposed to haggle, and all of the shop owners and shoppers were male. Never was anyone impolite to me, I just wasn’t quite up to speed on how things work and felt a bit timid. I reminded myself while leaving to stand up straight and feign confidence as necessary. 

While walking in the area with the other group members and two guides, one young, very short man stepped in front of me and said “Hello!” like it was a dare from his friends. I returned the greeting and continued on. Another time as I was walking a young, tall man coming toward me sort of stepped in front of me and waited a beat before moving on, allowing his right elbow to graze the front of my shirt. I’m not certain that it was intentional but my first instinct was to recoil a bit. Also while riding the rickshaw a young girl of about 10 years old was walking along side us and reached up with her right forearm to barely touch my left leg. She never made eye contact and the touch was as light as a butterfly.

While slightly stressful because of the crowded spaces and fast pace, today was a thrilling day! This was certainly an environment that isn't experienced elsewhere. The only thing that U.S. citizens would perhaps have to compare it with is walking in Times Square on a Saturday afternoon in peak tourist season. Tomorrow we leave for the jungles of India. We hope to escape some of the pollution and traffic and begin our search for the Bengal Tiger.

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