DELHI, India — “Ladies and gentlemen, we have begun our descent…” After back-to-back eight hour flights with the final leg in the dreaded middle seat, my legs were ready to be freed from their spatial constraints. I peered out the airplane’s window and into the winter Indian night. A bright moon rose high above hazy specks of light dotting the ground. Soon, the bright lights of Delhi appeared, and we landed at Indira Gandhi International Airport. My four months in India had begun.
Upon exiting baggage claim, a representative from Overseas Adventure Travel (the travel company that my family has used in Africa and South America) greeted us. Immediately, the hustle and bustle of India revealed itself: horns constantly honking, taxi drivers pressuring people for rides, and people weaving through traffic. Most international flights to Delhi arrive and depart in the wee hours so the airport buzzed with more life than usual.
My father jumped immediately in the hotel shuttle front seat — he gets motion sickness if he sits in the back. Soon, he discovered that having a front seat to Indian driving — bursts of speed in traffic openings, followed by slamming the brakes, a three lane road acting as a five lane road, and of course disobeying most traffic laws — is not as palpable as gazing obliviously out the backseat window.
Passing many street signs denoting embassies and high commissions, we arrived at The Claridges hotel. A fancy, brightly uniformed and thick bearded door man greeted us and placed our bags through an x-ray. Male security guards “wanded” my father and I while a female security guard wanded my mother in a private room. After the porters delivered my luggage to the room, I was fast asleep.
The next morning, we met our guide Som, assistant guide James, our bus driver Umesh, his assistant Johnny, and the seven fellow O.A.T. travelers who were from across the U.S. and all avid international travelers. The Delhi air quality was listed as “very poor” by the Central Pollution Control Board with “Respiratory illness on prolonged exposure,” but bright blue skies welcomed us to the city of 18.6 million people.
We ventured to our first site of the day, a famous Sikh temple called the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib. Anyone can enter Sikh temples and receive a free vegetarian meal, but all footwear must be removed and a head covering must also be worn. We saw hundreds if not thousands of people being fed at the langar, or temple community kitchen. Also, anyone, even tourists, can volunteer which we all took advantage except my mother and father who took pictures of me while I cleaned the dishes.
Next, we explored New Delhi (the capital city designed by the British and completed in 1931). With India Gate, Parliament House, several ministerial buildings, tree-laden boulevards and roundabouts, bungalows for members of parliament, and manicured lawns, New Delhi was distinctly regal. We ended our first full day in India by touring the tomb of Humayun who was the second Mughal emperor.
By sheer serendipity, the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), the think tank where I am interning, was hosting a conference at The Claridges. I attended the final two evening sessions and formal dinner which featured prominent CPR professors and researchers, the former National Security Advisor of India, the former Foreign Secretary of India, and other leading practitioners. In my first taste of hospitality in India, everyone was overwhelmingly welcoming and constantly made sure that I was well fed.
The next day as the early morning fog/smog began to rise, we visited the Raj Ghat, a memorial that marks the location of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation. The memorial was serene and tranquil amidst the organized mayhem of Delhi.
We then bussed to Old Delhi, the former Mughal capital. Here, our preconceptions of India came to life: hordes and hordes of people, tuk tuks, bicycle rickshaws, mopeds, motorcycles, bicycles, dilapidated buildings, and masses of overhanging electrical wires all amongst incredible color and life. Needless to say, I sure wasn’t in Boise, Idaho, anymore.
We visited the Jama Masjid, which literally means Friday Mosque and is the largest mosque in India. Built by Shah Jahan, this momentous mosque can accommodate 25,000 people. All Western women entering the mosque had to don large cloaks due to previous Western women wearing nonconservative clothing there.
Hordes and hordes of people, tuk tuks, bicycle rickshaws, mopeds, motorcycles, bicycles, dilapidated buildings, and masses of overhanging electrical wires were all amongst incredible color and life.
Following our Jama Masjid tour, we ventured in a bicycle rickshaw caravan to the Muslim quarter for a home visit. After a harrowing drive, we arrived at our destination, to everyone’s surprise, alive. The Muslim family warmly greeted us and encouraged us to ask any questions. Concerned about my father’s freedom to ask any questions, my mother gave him “the look” that conveyed that he was not so free to ask any questions. We inquired about arranged marriages, divorces, Hindu-Muslim relations, and the caste system.
Our Hindu guide concurred with the Muslim family that Hindus and Muslims often get along well at the personal level, but at the communal level, tensions occasionally emerge.
The family’s adult children said that they preferred and were expected to have arranged marriages. With arranged marriages preferred by about 75% of Indians, cross-religious marriages are very rare and sometimes disfavored in certain communities. Divorce rates are extremely low in India at 1.3%, but the family said that societal and familial pressure, not harmony, is often a main factor for the lack of divorces. In regards to Hindu-Muslim relations, our Hindu guide concurred with the Muslim family that Hindus and Muslims get along well at the personal level, but at the communal level, tensions occasionally emerge. They also said that caste is generally known based on a person’s last name.
Additional discussed topics included education and jobs. Public education and job applications often offer applicants the option of listing their respective caste. If they are from a Scheduled Caste (SC) or Tribe (ST) or Other Backward Classes (OBC), reservations are available for them. For example, while SCs consist of 16.6% of India’s population and STs make up 8.6%, Tamil Nadu has 69% reservations in jobs and education for SC/ST/OBCs. The people in those castes and classes are from traditionally disadvantaged segments of the population such as Dalits, or untouchables. Our guide described the reservation system as affirmative action on an extreme dosage of steroids.
Delhi represented the diversity of life that makes India so magical.
Our day ended by walking through Chandni Chowk, a historical and bustling shopping market in the heart of Old Delhi. We witnessed the immense diversity of India: businessmen and women, children running to and fro, fruit and vegetable vendors, touts, beggars, open air butchers, street barbers, women wearing burqas, and men washing and urinating in public. Added to the mix were donkeys, goats, stray dogs, and, of course, cows. On our way back to The Claridges, our tour group boarded the Delhi metro. Entering the metro after walking through Old Delhi was teleporting from ancient times to the future. This new metro rivaled any U.S. or European metro that I had visited and felt out of place after our day in Old Delhi.
Delhi encapsulated chaos, order, the past, the future, regality, crudeness, pristine, dirty, old, young, liberal, conservative, and everything in between. Most of all, Delhi represented the diversity of life that makes India so magical.
As the azaan — Muslim call to worship — rang out over the city at daybreak the next day, our tour group departed for our next destination: Jaipur, the pink city in the desert.