Note: Reposted from RealTravel.com and branded "Editor's Pick".
For the past three years I've wanted to visit India. After reading "A Fine Balance" by Rohintan Mistry, I've always looked forward to the day when I finally step foot in this diverse and colorful country. When I landed at Indira Gandhi airport on August 2nd, I was ALL SMILES until I walked outside the double doors and saw a sea of locals staring at me. I was slightly discombobulated not knowing what to do next. I finally spotted the pre-paid taxi stand and slid into one of those cabs.
My driver Manesh kept pushing for a different hotel and told me that he wanted to take me to a tourist office. I know that taxi drivers get a percentage, which is why I was super skeptical about this. I needed to book a tour for the following day anyway so I finally agreed. Little did I know this was a blessing in disguise (more on this later).
After booking my 3 day, 2 night Delhi, Jaipur, Agra excursion, I checked into Hotel Chanchal Continental in Central Delhi. I booked this via hostelworld and found it to be quite scary! Reminded me of San Francisco's Tenderloin district. I did not feel safe since I didn't find another woman in the entire building. I was greeted with PIERCING stares as if I were this alien being. In fact, I got this throughout my entire stay in India. I double bolted my hotel door and didn't feel comfortable enough to unpack or change clothes. I slept on top of the sheets near the damp towel they provided me. I guess this is what $20 US buys you. Thank goodness for the 3-day tour, which started the following day.
I met my tour guide/driver the following morning. We headed to Jaipur in Rajasthan, which is over 260km and 5 hours from Delhi. There were MANY picture taking moments, but unfortunately I was trying to take snapshots in a moving vehicle and only have blurred images. Bummer!
On the long drive to Jaipur, the unthinkable happened. I was in a car accident. It's all a blur to me. Still don't know what triggered the car to swerve uncontrollably. My driver tried desperately to avoid the truck in front of him, but we hit it before it sped off (Found out later that most people don't want to deal with the police since it's such a hassle). Since the backseat didn't have seatbelts, I flew from the right hand side to the left and slammed my forehead and shoulder against the window. I was in shock. The car was at a tilt over these small boulders. Had we stopped a few more inches to the left, we would have gone down the embankment and the car would surely have rolled. Thank goodness for guardian angels. After impact, we were immediately surrounded by 15+ witnesses - all men who wanted to help or were simply curious. The car miraculously started and we crawled 100+ kilometers until we reached my hotel in Jaipur. We were lucky to only have a few bumps and bruises.
I checked into this gorgeous hotel, Umaid Mahal, which was the complete opposite of Chanchal Continental. The decor is quintessential India with its beads, sequence, and gold/red accents throughout. Took a 30-minute rest break while my driver swapped cars and placed his Ambassador car in the shop. Afterwards, Sheikh showed me Old Town Jaipur, Jai Mahal (water palace), Amber Fort, and Silk Gram - a shop where all proceeds go towards preventing young girls from marrying at 13 and having kids at 14.
After visiting Silk Gram, we hit another snag. My driver went through a yellow light then he was immediately stopped by a traffic officer who falsely accused him of going through a red light. He just wanted cash, but my driver decided to argue with him. Sheikh leaves me in the car with the engine running and walks across the other side of the intersection. In the meantime, men are peering into the car and tapping the window. After being completely rattled by the car accident earlier, I WAS FREAKING OUT! I didn't know if someone would hijack the car while I was in it. So many thoughts racing through my mind at this point. 15 minutes later, Sheikh comes back and we're off...WHEW!
The following day, we're back in our original car (miracle that it didn't need major repair work) and on our way to Agra, roughly 200km away. We quickly stopped by the Astronomical Observatory, where they have numerous instruments used to locate celestial beings and the City Palace.
Seeing the Taj Mahal, the 7th world wonder, completely blew me away. I had a guide named Bablu with me the entire time explaining every detail and also taking photos along the way. The Taj Mahal is best known for its incredible symmetry. It was built by Emporer Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz - the lady of the Taj. It took 22 years and 20K people to build this architectural masterpiece. What a spectacular site. This made up for yesterday. After visiting the Taj, I went to the UP Govt. Marble Training School Demo Center, where they showed me the painstaking marble inlay work, the same process used when carving marble for the Taj Mahal.
I also saw Akbar's Temple, which is similar to the Taj Mahal in terms of symmetry. The entry gate is quite interesting since it fuses symbols from 3 different religions: Christianity, Muslim and Hindu. Akbar had three wives, each with a different faith. On the grounds, I saw deer and baboons. What a combination.
On August 5th, we're back in Delhi and I thankfully checked into a different hotel/Maurya Heritage in East Delhi. That night I took a cab to Greater Kailash Part 1 in South Delhi to meet with my friend Dev's brother and sister in law, Dushyant and Lizum Khare. They treated me to Shalom for a mojito, a mediterranean sampler plate, and shish kabobs. The company, the conversation, and atmosphere were superb. I saw a different side of Delhi, one that was much more modern and developed than other parts of India. On the taxi ride back to my hotel, I passed Parliament, India Gate, and Khan Market.
My last day in Delhi was spent reflecting on what I've seen these past few days. Here are some observations:
1. Driving in many places reminded me of critical mass where pedestrians, camels, cows, sheep, motor bicyclists, cyclists, trishaws, tuk-tuks, tractors, and vehicles fight for lane space. Quite comical!
2. Where are all the women? The ratio of men to women is 70 to 1 (probably more than this) in many parts of India.
3. Nobody uses turn signals. From what I've experienced, I don't see the point. It's organized chaos in most parts. Drivers also LOVE to use their horns. Good thing I had my iPod to drown out the cacophony.
4. Three people have told me that I look Indian. Most thought I was in my early twenties. YAY:)
5. Men like to STARE and also take pictures of me and with me. A foreigner traveling on her own, I stuck out and it was un-nerving.
6. Abject poverty in many pockets of the country. Even though I expected this, I was quite saddened by it.
7. India is a colorful country with many wonderful people. My driver Sheikh told me about his arranged marriage and the chaos leading up to his wedding day. He also filled me in on Bollywod star gossip. Pretty fascinating stuff.
8. In Agra, we hit a bicyclist who didn't stop to yell at my driver. Is this common?
9. My driver told me that cows are considered holy in India. Then he asked me, "Do you eat cows?" Is that a rhetorical question? I was afraid to answer in case he takes offense and drops me off in the middle of nowhere.
One final memory: On my way to the airport my final night, I get into a cab at 11pm to catch my 4am flight to Istanbul. 5 minutes after we leave the hotel, my taxi pulls over with a FLAT TIRE!!! Hahahahahahahahahahaha! He quickly replaces the tire, but then has to patch the other tire in case we hit another snag on the way to the airport. Another 5 minutes, we pulled up next to this makeshift tire repair site directly across from a homeless camp. Waited in the car for 30 minutes (almost midnight) completely unphased. I was actually smiling and laughing about all this. It can only get better from this point, right? Murphy's Law or a simple case of bad luck. You decide. At least it made this blog much more interesting.
On my way to Istanbul, Turkey!