During our orientation week, Himashi – our Hindi teacher and volunteer coordinator – took us to some of the most important places in New and Old Delhi.
Under the intense sun and thick pollution layer that hugged the city, we saw Qutb Minar – the second tallest tower in India, Humayun’s Tomb that served as inspiration for the Taj Mahal, a temple in the form of a lotus flower that’s part of the Bahai religion who welcomes people of all faiths, nations and races to come together and meditate in this serene place, the India Gate monument that pays tribute to Indians who lost their lives fighting wars, Gandhi’s cremation site called Raj Ghat, the famous ancient Red Fort and a very cool Sikh temple that goes under the name of Bangla Sahib Gurdwara with prayers in session for our full experience – including a backstage visit to the kitchen where some men and women make chapati (bread), daal (lentils) and rice for the hungry temple goers.
By visiting these important sites as well as staying with Sarita’s family, we were lucky to have the full Delhi experience, both touristic and local.
Delhi is hard to explain with words. I’m convinced one needs to live it first hand to really understand what it’s all about.
For me it was the most raw demonstration of one of the aspects of the human experience – trying to live day by day and without a lot of resources. The constant traffic that never goes away including persistent honking, little children playing on the side of the road among the trash, motorcycles transporting whole families – sometimes even five people in one and without wearing a helmet, women caring baskets on their heads for long distances and men trying to do business with whatever is available to them.
It also seems like everything requires additional effort than normal:
Do you want a glass of water? Make sure it’s drinkable! But not from the tap! Bottled. But make sure it’s sealed before you buy! And I’m really hoping someone is recycling all that plastic.
Do you want to get from point A to B? Local buses are a big no no if you want to stay safe. Ride the metro or take an Uber! Option #1 is reliable but there are no “express lines” so you need to allow for additional time since it stops at every station. If Uber is the choice, great! But get ready to join the street madness and never ending traffic. How do services get to the city? (mail, gas, food) That’s a question that’s been on our heads for days.
Do you want to use a restroom? Fantastic! Go find yourself some toilet paper, then you can figure out how to go on the hole that’s on the ground without getting your clothes wet from the – let’s just say – unidentified liquids on the floor.
Everything you do takes a lot of extra work – even covering the basic needs. There is definitely nothing like Delhi that I’ve seen in all of my travels.
The absolute highlight of the week was our one-day trip to the city of Agra to be in the presence of one of the most magnificent pieces of architecture and a wonder of the world: the Taj Mahal.
After an almost four hour drive, dodging cars, cows, people, fruit stands, trucks, motorcycles, tractors and street dogs we arrived at around 10am to a restaurant where we had some coffee, chai, omelettes, toast and mango preserves. The place was basic and covered by a blue light emanating from Star of David lamps. It was kind of bizarre.
We were done with breakfast and started walking towards the entrance, where our guide had us wait while he got the tickets. There were so many people getting ready to get in! I cannot tell you how many – but it was very crowded and hectic. We were there, trying not to melt from the heat.
Tickets in hand and after passing through the security checkpoint, we arrived to the gate. There, on the other side, the Taj Mahal revealed itself as in a dream.
I immediately felt the goosebumps. As I was crossing the gate following all the people, I felt like rising above the clouds, where there was this gorgeous white marble mausoleum extracted from the most beautiful fairytale, floating and inviting us all to this magical world where everything was possible.
I was impressed by the scale. In my mind it was smaller, but in reality it’s enormous and majestic. Here is a photo where you can see the scale against people:
After a lot of photos, walking around and pinching ourselves we got closer. We removed our shoes and went up to the main structure – as you cannot wear any footwear to preserve the marble. Inside there’s nothing other than some tombs – at least that’s what’s available to the public. But still, being inside the Taj is being inside the Taj – a once in a lifetime experience.
There are two identical building on each side of the main structure. These are called “guest houses”. Funny enough, they are also empty, but the purpose is to add symmetry. Shah Jahan- the Mughal emperor who commissioned the entire construction – had some serious cash I guess! All those buildings almost empty and just to bury her favorite wife! Is that love? Or just show off? Well, this place is so pretty I’m going to go with the love option.
More lessons learned:
– Himashi also took us to the movies to see the latest Bollywood hit called “Secret Superstar”. Before the movie begins, the Indian national anthem plays and everyone stands up to sing it. Fascinating!
– Another trivia fact about the movies, as it was such a unique experience: People are allowed to talk over their cellphones as the movie is playing. It is the most normal thing. No one complains or acts uncomfortable. I was in shock!
– The red dot commonly worn by women is called “Bindi” and it symbolizes the point where creation begins and may become unity (unmanifested state).