Journey to the North: Delhi

On the final day of January, Philippa and I slung our backpacks over our shoulders and headed up the road to Wadi, to the ATM, where we took out giant chunks of cash and then directed a rickshaw to the Pune Airport. We bought some pizza and an enormous Cadbury chocolate bar and settled in to wait for our flight to Delhi. We were off to see a whole new part of the country–Delhi, which, like Washington D.C., does not belong to any individual state, and Agra, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Philippa had been before, on her last visit to India, but I had never left Maharashtra, and I was very excited to see another region of this enormous, incredibly diverse country.

At a certain point we saw tons of people lining up to board a flight, but since ours wasn’t flashing on the board, we paid them no mind. About twenty minutes later, a young girl went running pellmell down that same corridor towards the same flight. At which point we noticed our flight was on the board, so we meandered in the direction of the gate, and realized we, too, were on that flight. We proceeded to be the very last ones on the plane–as well as the only foreigners–trooping down the aisle red-faced to find our seats. It was hilarious. As soon as we had sat down the flight began to pull away from the terminal, and we were up in the air in minutes. I was asleep immediately, and two hours after that we had landed in–Delhi. It was midnight and it was freezing cold.

We made our way to our hotel, which was located not far from the airport in a ragtag alleyway crowded with dozens of hotels and tarps covering the lanes so that even the next morning, at first light, the street was pitch-black. We had a first-floor room with a flat-screen television, a very fancy bathroom with a glass sink, and bed that could easily have fit five people, but only two very thin blankets. We froze all night long. The next morning, though, we had breakfast on the rooftop, dressed in sweatshirts and long sleeves and leggings, and began to excitedly plan our day. We had from nine o’clock in the morning until our train to Agra at five o’clock, and we had a lot to do!

We started with the subway. Delhi is such a different city than Pune. For starters, it’s the capital of India, and it’s full of people from all over the country, there to work or to live or to seek refuge from somewhere else. Its streets are filthy compared to Pune’s, and the layout of the city is more confusing–the separate neighborhoods do not have the same sharp characteristics as those in Pune, so it is harder to tell what kind of area you are in, and where people live, and what they do there. There are highways and bridges stretching across the city that reminded me of the Long Island Expressway–the same views from the road of yet more road going another way. There is also an amazing subway system, impeccably clean, incredibly easy to understand, and equipped with women’s-only cars at the front of every train. Pink signs hanging overhead and pasted on the floor indicate where the women’s car will stop, and after watching one packed-to-the-brim-like-sardines-but-worse rush hour train speed by, with men crammed against the doors in ways I have never seen even in New York, Philippa and I decided to get on the next train in the women’s car.

It was similarly packed, with one woman breathing down my neck and another squished against my backpack and another right in front of me, but it was so peaceful, and so quiet. There was, honest-to-God, the faint scent of perfume, and all the women were quietly adjusting socks or retying hair or just hanging on quietly, on their way to work. I have never in my whole life been in such a peaceful subway car. And the weirdest bit was that the cars in Delhi are not separated by doors or walls; there’s a squishy bit, like you see on New York buses, to aid the train in making turns, but otherwise the next car is just right there, no divider, nothing blocking the men in the next car over from striding over. Except they don’t. They just stare. And stare. Later that day, when we rode the subway after rush hour, there was room to sit and spread out, and I spotted young men in the neighboring cars watching intently as young women brushed their hair or giggled with their friends or tended to children. It was a bit strange, and I wondered about the principles guiding the system of a women’s only car. One thing I noticed right away about the subway system as a whole was the proportion of men to women: it was easily a seventy-thirty divide, and I could understand why women felt safer and more comfortable riding in their own space. On the other hand, I could see how the divide perpetuated the staring and the curiosity of the men, and I wonder if the segregation creates some of the behavior and attitudes that require a women’s only car in the first place. A vicious cycle!

In any case, we hopped off the subway eventually, and went to see the Lotus Temple, which is one of only seven Bahá’í Houses of Worship around the world. The Bahá’í faith emphasizes openness and tolerance and non-denominatal worship of God, and welcomes people of all religions to pray with them. It is hard to imagine a building that lives up to these lofty ideals, but the Lotus Temple in Delhi truly does. Gleaming, immaculately white; modeled after the national flower of India, which also represents purity; set atop a pool of cerulean blue water; and surrounded by beautiful gardens and a park, the Lotus Temple is a sight to behold, especially at early morning. Philippa and I arrived at the same time as a group of eager, red-and-white uniformed schoolchildren, who giggled, pushed, shoved and were generally mischievous as they waited in line to enter the Temple, but as soon as they stepped foot inside, they hushed. It was absolutely gorgeous, with pew after pew and a ceiling that simply soared. The light was marvelous. Silence inside was required, so people could pray, and Philippa and I sat down and stared up for a long time, quietly, which is when I realized that there was nothing in the Temple to stare at–no altar, no bimah, no images or texts, nothing. Only a podium made of translucent glass, with a little microphone on it, in front of all the pews, where it blended into the enormous windows. It was truly a nondenominational center of worship. I find that idea really cool and really confusing at the same time, but maybe that’s because even though I don’t really pray, I can’t imagine not having something to pray to. It was interesting.

After sitting outside by the beautiful pools of water for a while, Philippa and I headed off to the Qutab Minar, the tallest stone tower in the world. We attempted to take a rickshaw, to travel across town, which the subway does not do, but got stuck in traffic for almost an hour, and ended up climbing out of the rickshaw and riding the subway all the way back up and then down the next line, which took no time at all, naturally. After chiding ourselves for underestimating the marvelous Delhi subway system, Philippa and I finally reached the Qutab Minar, which features lovely ruins and a mosque along with the tower/minaret. At the entrance we bumped into the same schoolchildren from the Lotus Temple! Good to know we were participating in an appropriately educational tour of Delhi. The site was beautiful, and we took lots of pictures, before realizing we were starving, and heading to Dilli Haat for lunch.

Dilli Haat is a cultural shopping center, and reminds me a bit of Disneyland India. It has booths from all the different regions of India, and is set up as this long outdoor market decorated with streamers and twinkle lights. All of the booths and stalls sell handicrafts and tchotckes and knickknacks and fabric and clocks and beautiful end tables and so on and so forth, and and in the center is a food court with stands selling food from all over the country, all adorably named. (MomoMia, anyone?) Luckily for us, most of the stalls were closed for something to do with it being the first day of a first week of a new month or something along those lines, so Philippa and I weren’t sucked into shopping all day! We did each buy something lovely, though–I got a blue shoulder bag to replace the yellow one I bought in Bath, England (which was probably from India in the first place!).

Our next stop was the Lal Quila, or Red Fort, built by Shah Jahan, the same man responsible for the Taj Mahal. We caught a cycle rickshaw from the subway to the entrance of the Fort, and wandered around inside the enormous complex for quite some time. Forts, and palaces, which the Lal Quila was, really fascinate me–something about the openness of these structures behind the immense walls, and the ease with which you can conjure up the people who once lived within them. There was the huge, bejeweled throne on which Shah Jahan sat and received tribute and heard his people’s troubles; there was the mosque in which he and his family prayed, lovingly decorated in the same inlaid marble Philippa promised me I would see at the Taj. There were the sprawling green lawns, where old-fashioned ladies in seventeenth-century saris must have wandered. And there, at the back, the “Tea House,” used as a home for the princes until the British took over, and then converted to a lounge and tea room for the best and brightest of the British Raj. That sign was sad to read, and even sadder to see that it is now a tiny cafe and gift shop. Philippa and I did not go in.

We emerged from the Red Fort suddenly conscious that our train was in a half hour’s time. We asked our cycle rickshaw driver to take us to the train station, but five minutes later turned up in front of the Jama Masjid, the mosque that matches the Lal Quila. It looked very beautiful, but we were very angry and had no time to see it; we argued with and then paid the cycle rickshaw driver, and then hopped into an autorickshaw, and found ourselves arguing with that driver, too, when he dropped us a block from the station and demanded a ridiculous fee.  We had to pay it, though, and run like maniacs, because we had literally three minutes until our train. As we clambered onto the platform and found our seats (and people in them, including this strange Russian tourist girl), the train chugged off. I suppose we could still have caught it if we had been a little bit later, since it’s standard in India to leap onto rolling trains without care, but I had a really big backpack, and could easily imagine myself waving Philippa goodbye from the station platform after tumbling off the train steps….

In any case, that did not happen, and we made it onto the train. Our day in Delhi was done, and ridiculously well-spent and well-timed, when you consider how little time we had and how much we wanted to see! And overall I enjoyed Delhi. It was the right city to visit, after Pune and Mumbai–the right city to show me a slice of contemporary Indian life, a city with less character but more opportunities than Pune. I’ve only been to Washington D.C. once, but it reminded me of D.C.–important for being important, but full of interesting people. I am glad I went.