Oct. 22-24–Wait, We Said Delhi…What’s Diwali?!!

My guess is there is probably nothing in this world that can prepare someone for arriving in Delhi…especially after nearly 24 hours of travel…especially when he or she just discovered that he or she had arrived during the week of the largest Hindu Festival of the year!  We thought we had done our research, but somehow Diwali–which is basically like the Hindu Christmas, but with fireworks–slipped through the cracks.  While we were excited to see this part of Indian culture, it also made for a very challenging introduction to travel in India.

After taking a shuttle to our hotel, a budget choice that was just clean enough to make you feel hygienic if you wore your shower shoes in the bathroom at all times, we were immediately ripped off royally by the desk clerks who sold us two bottles of water; you would think that they would not be able to look you in the eye for the rest of your stay, but they seemed to have no problem doing so over the next 36  hours.

We chose our hotel because it was along the Main Bazaar, and we thought it would be reasonably close to the attractions (not really) and very close to the train station (we never rode a train).  What we did get was a seriously crazy introduction to India!  It should be noted that at no time did we feel unsafe in Delhi, and the people in India as a whole have been very nice, but our first walk along the main bazaar left us wondering what it was that we had just done to ourselves!

Both Sarah and I had heard stories about the traffic, the pollution, and the apparent lack of systematic rules from a Westerner’s viewpoint, but the reality is that nothing can prepare you for the main bazaar in Delhi!  The salespeople are very high pressure–they will follow you down the street even if you have shown them no interest whatsoever in their wares.  Couple this with the fact that a 10 ft. wide street is crammed with a jumbled mix of people, rickshaws (motor scooters with a covered back seat attached), motorcycles, bicycles, cars, and of course, cows, and Sarah and I felt like heading right back to the room…or maybe the airport!

My favorite part was the guy who offered me a free map in his “tourism info” shop, asked me why Americans like us are so unfriendly when I refused to sit down and hear his pitch, never actually gave me the free map despite continuing to try to get me to listen to his “informational speech,” and then gave me a sincere and friendly warning that there might be some disreputable people out there that would offer someone a free map, but they were really just trying to rip you off.  Are you kidding me?

As I said earlier, we had already heard that Dewali was going on this week, and that trains would be really packed because so many Indian people would be traveling to see their families, and most things would be closed during the main two days.  We were still excited to see all of the lights and the fireworks, however, and we woke up on Monday morning raring to go.

Things seemed a little more quiet along the main bazaar in the morning, so we thought we might walk to the first attraction, Humayon’s Tomb.  Because it was Monday, the two main things we wanted to see–The Red Fort and the National Museum–were both closed, so we decided to start with the tomb.  We got as far as the intersection where the market ends before abandoning the plan to walk, considering that there were no less than 5 cars per every 5 feet that somehow all managed to move 45 mph while being simultaneously stopped at the exact same time!  Confused by that sentence?  Try figuring it out at the corner of a busy intersection in Delhi while the horns from 6 different modes of vehicle…and, of course, cows… roar all around you!  Next stop:  auto rickshaw!


The first driver we approached wanted way too much and the second guy wanted suspiciously too little–who can you trust?  In almost every country, you read about tourist scams involving drivers who double as touts that get commission, but the problem is that the tourism office warns you not to trust hotel managers while hotel managers warn you not to trust tourism offices, and the guidebooks warn you that any attempt to speak with another human being will result in the immediate theft of your left kidney.  This makes choosing a cab exceedingly difficult on the corner of the main bazaar…and, of course, the cows seemed to be eyeing us with some sort of strange gleam in their eyes.

Anyway, we took the cheap ride, and the young driver seemed to be pretty nice. but we kept our guard up because he immediately warned us that most things would be closing over the next couple of days because of Diwali and also that it would be difficult to get out of Delhi in the next few days.  This sounded a bit too much like the tout business, but it also fit with what we had already heard and read about Diwali, and the streets were indeed packed with people preparing for the several days of festivities, so we accepted his offer to take us to the government tourism office…again, with significant doubt.

Along the way, we experienced our first rickshaw ride, joining the honking, chaotic mix of cars, rickshaws, carts, motorcyles, and, of course cows, that clearly do not belong on the same road.  The rules of driving here literally blur the lines on the road–cars are almost always centered on the lane barriers instead of using the lanes themselves, and you will often see 3 cars or rickshaws (or some combination of the two) sharing one lane. To top it off, our driver kept turning completely around to talk to us during the ride!

Once at the tourist office, we watched to see whether the driver would take us inside (a sign that he worked for commission from them), but he just drove off.  We talked to the guy for a few minutes, and he wasn’t pushy at all.  I flat out asked him what the deal with his job was, and he explained that they were a government-run tourist office (I checked out of curiousity later, and like everything else concerning tourists in Delhi, it’s blurry–India’s government has a corporate tourist branch, which is where we were).  It became clear that he was not offering free information, but we needed some help getting train tickets so we decided to see what the prices looked like here.

Bad news–there were no trains available for anywhere we wanted to go for the next 5 days.  He showed us the various wait-listed trains on the computer screen as we went through different scenarios.  We were basically stuck unless we wanted to rent a car with a driver.  Eventually, we decided that it was probably the best we could do, and the price was actually pretty reasonable.   So, despite it being extremely outside of our personalities, Sarah and I had ourselves our own personal driver in India.

Part of the deal was a sight-seeing tour for the day, and so we met the driver, Surender, who would be taking us on to the other cities we were going to visit.  He seemed like a pretty nice guy, and it was clear that he wanted to give us a good tour of Delhi.  It would be nice to see something other than a hotel, office, or main bazaar!

Despite its closure, we really wanted to see the Red Fort, so we did some drive-by tourism.  This impressive red sandstone fort, built in the mid-1600’s for the first Mughal emperor took 10 years to build and spans the length of several city blocks.  It was marred by the pollution that obscured it within a short distance, but I can imagine it would be a fun place to visit.

Our next stop was the Raj Ghat–a ghat being a set of steps that leads to water–apparently the Yamuna River used to run through the area, although now the Raj Ghat is surrounded by roads.  The cool thing about this monument is that Ghandi was cremated here (this confused me, but most things in Delhi do), and there is a memorial in the center of a very nice garden setting here today.  After taking off our shoes out of respect, we visited the memorial and watched as people paid tribute to him.

After a break for lunch, we visited Humayon’s Tomb.  He was the second Moghul emperor, and the father of Akbar.  His wife had this gigantic sandstone building with its marble dome erected to house his tomb after his death.  The building’s exterior was fairly impressive, and so were the surrounding gardens (one nice surprise about Delhi is that it has more green areas than we thought we would see), but the inside was surprisingly bare–just one small tomb in a room darkened by windows with metal screens.  Interestingly, Humayon’s barber also has a tomb in the garden outside Humayon’s Tomb; he would have been considered a very honorable man to have been trusted to hold a razor to the emperor’s throat.  Mostly, Sarah and I enjoyed having a quiet walk together around the garden area.  It had been a long couple of days, and this was a pleasant setting (for a graveyard).

We were going to visit the Qutb Minar Complex, which has a giant minaret, but when we got there–you guessed it–it was closed.  It was going to open in another half-hour, but it was getting late, and some serious jet lag was setting in, so we bailed rather than spending more money on something that we probably would not enjoy at that time.  Instead, we asked Surender to take us back to the hotel.

Along the way, he stopped to let us take in the India Gate, a pretty striking war memorial that is brightly lit at night.  It was probably my favorite part of our tour of Delhi.  There really is something about seeing a giant glowing monument in a new city that captures a certain charm, even on a trying day.

The main bazaar was, you guessed it, closed…at least to traffic…so we had to park some ways away and walk to the hotel.  Actually, though, it was really cool to walk among the locals and tourists alike underneath the colorful festival lights while thundering blasts of fireworks that have been illegal in the States since the years following the Gold Rush fill the air with thundering blasts.  I have to say, these guys sure do know how to celebrate!

I guess that the best word to describe our first two days in India would be “confusing” or “shell-shocked”.  We were left wondering what the next two weeks could possibly have in store for us, whether we had made a wise choice in hiring a driver, and whether or not we were crazy for coming here…but that’s what travel is about, right, embracing what appears to be the craziness of a place that you don’t understand?

We got up the next morning, and Surender was right on time to take us to Pushkar.  As we walked out of the hotel to leave Delhi, there sat, of course, the cows.

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9 Responses to Oct. 22-24–Wait, We Said Delhi…What’s Diwali?!!

  1. Jason says:

    Wow…sounds like you got a great introduction to India right from the start. Honestly, visiting India is not for everyone but I’m sure once you get out of the big cities you’ll see what makes it such a lovely and charming country (albeit a bit maddening at times)…Enjoy!! Hang in there, it’s really worth it!!

  2. Jola says:

    Ahhh… the joys of traveling in India and how I don’t miss it 🙂 Have fun… it’s a very unique country with an incredible history. To enjoy India, you must go with the flow and have a very loose itinerary. Don’t stress over the little things… like constantly getting ripped off or being lied to. The most important thing is be safe and to enjoy the amazing sights. The Taj Mahal is breathtaking… make sure not to miss it.

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks for the encouragement guys! The Taj Mahal was breathtaking and made all the craziness worth it! We are now in the small town of Khajuraho to see some temples. It is very quiet and the people are so friendly. It will be a great spot to spend a few days. Tonight is also our first yoga class in India. I can’t believe I am going to practice yoga in India – so exciting:)

  3. Kathy says:

    Wow! This sounds like an adventure, for sure. I’m glad you both still have your kidneys, and I’m sure the rest of your time there will be marvelous. 🙂

  4. Mary says:

    Now that sounds like an adventure! Talk about a complete 180 from your time in South Africa!

  5. Crystal says:

    Oh man, reading this makes me miss India! I definitely told you it was one of the more difficult places to travel 🙂 I agree with Jason, you will love it (hopefully) once you get out of the big cities. Delhi was my least favorite part of India. You are wise to keep your guard up, though, there are lots of people who want to rip you off! Just remember there is always someone else who will come down to your price, just keep looking! Say hi to the cows for me 🙂

    • Mike says:

      Thanks for the love, everyone! Things have been better, and although I would not say that I love it here, we have seen some cool things, and Diwali was more fun the longer that we were here. We will blog more in the next few days. Saw the Taj Mahal today, though, and it would be a highlight in ANY country! Amazing!

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