A Travellerspoint blog

Delhi Day Two

sensory overload

sunny 22 °C

[i]Happy New Year everyone. Of course it is already New Year's Day here and you're several hours away from ushering 2009 in. Our location couldn't have been more magical but you'll see that blog in a couple of days -- I'm behind in my postings because we have been on the run -- barely time to catch your breath.

I came to India for the spirituality … for the colour … the texture … the beauty … the inner peace … the crowds … the honking … the hawkers … the opulence … the squalor … the serenity … the chaos … the culture … the majesty of the past … the wisdom … the contrasts that are so extreme it can give you whiplash.

And in some ways I experienced all of it in about 6 hours on our whirlwind tour of Delhi – first Old Delhi and then New Delhi.

We began our day at the splendid Jama Mosque, India’s largest.

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The instant we entered this red sandstone and marble structure an incredible feeling of total serenity washed over me. It was palpable.

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Bring socks if you come because you must remove your shoes, and amazingly they will be waiting for you outside the entrance exactly where you have left them (although I did have fears that I’d be spending the rest of the day in bare feet.)

This was the last monument commissioned by Shah Jahan (who also built the Taj Mahal in honour of his beloved wife, Mumtaz, who died at 39 years old after giving birth to her 14th child.) The mosque took 5,000 labourers 6 years to build, it was completed in 1656 and it is considered one of the most beautiful houses of worship in the world.

This tranquility was followed by an absolutely frenetic rick-shaw ride through Chandni Chowk – a breathtaking bazaar that could easily have been created by a collaboration between Gaudi, Dali and Frederico Fellini.

To be honest there is nothing I can say that will do it justice:

The streets are about as wide as a sidewalk and twist and turn like a pipe cleaner that has been completely bent in different directions. All trying to compete for space (and I use the term very loosely) are pedestrians, cyclists, taxis, rick-shaws, freight-carts, bullock carts and cows.

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Every square inch has a “business”. Astrologers compete with stationers. Sidewalk photographers with old box cameras sit next to medicine booths where patients are treated. A man is getting shaved next to another man who is hammering silver. Buy fresh produce from a cart over here or pick a fresh chicken from a stall over there.

It is spectacular … a riotous mélange of sights, sounds and smells and we loved every minute of it!!

Next we drove by the India Gate (this country’s Arc de Triomphe), the Red Fort and made our way to Qutub Minar and Humayun’s Tomb.

The Tomb was built in the middle of the 16th Century by the widow of the Moghul emperor Humayun. It was this monument that introduced a new architectural era -- one influenced by Persia -- which in turn influenced the design of the Taj Mahal.

It was an action-packed day that culminated in a wonderful dinner at Ellen and Sam's. They invited everyone in the group and we had a marvelous time. It's not often that you can travel this far and end up in someone's home instead of constantly eating in hotels and restaurants. They served us a wonderful dinner and charmed us all with the stories of their travels, experiences and insights about India.

Our time with them is definitely a highlight of the trip for all of us.

Another is the people. Everyone who comes here talks about how beautiful the people of India are -- both physically, spiritually and in how kind they are. And it is all true.

Strangers smile and wave ... they invite you to their homes ... they will share anything they have with you, even if it is a crust of bread. Whether they are poor and dressed in rags or wearing beautiful saris made of the most exquisite silk they are peaceful, gentle, dignified and graceful. Their smiles make you forget any problems you might have and their eyes speak volumes.

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The stories I have heard about hawkers and beggars are greatly exaggerated. It is all very manageable -- including the incessant honking of horns. For some reason back home honking is an expression of anger -- here it is merely to indicate that you need to pass or change lanes or even to warn a driver coming the other way that you're there. After a while you don't hear it any more.

What I would never do, however, is a drive a car here. For that you need nerves of steel.

This is truly a unique country and already I know that I'll come back here.

Posted by a_broad 18:06 Archived in India Tagged luxury_travel Comments (5)

Delhi

a truly imperial city

sunny 22 °C

I am writing this while on a bus traveling from Agra (Taj Mahal) to Samode (where we’re celebrating New Years Eve) so if there are typos it’s not my fault – it’s a bumpy ride.

Amazingly – and luckily for all of us on this trip – I have a friend who lives in Delhi.

Ellen is a family friend – our parents met when I was an infant and they lived in the same apartment building. In fact, her parents were newlyweds – she wasn’t even born yet (look how honest I am, admitting I’m older than she is). They remained friends all these years and out of the 2 couples Ellen’s mom Sylvia is the only one still living (she’ll soon be celebrating her 90th birthday in India with her daughter and son-in-law.)

Sam, Ellen’s husband, works with Unicef and they’ve had a fascinating life – living in exotic locales like Laos, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Sudan and currently in Delhi.

So we got to spend our first day and both evenings in Delhi with Ellen and Sam – and what a wonderful and memorable time we all had – a highlight being going to the tiny synagogue Ellen belongs to for the last day of Chanukah ceremony – in India if you can believe!!

Knowing me, would you be surprised to hear we went shopping first?

Long ago I decided that I wanted to dress in native clothes for New Years Eve. We will be celebrating at a beautiful heritage hotel – formerly a palace – and I thought it would be fun. I also love the clothes – the colours, the fabrics and the fact that they make you look and feel so feminine.

When I told Rashmi she said I should get a salwar kameez (tunic, pants, scarf) instead of a sari because it would be easier to dance – so be warned – we will be partying.

I mentioned this to Ellen and, being the sweetheart she is, she immediately set out to find a place where I could get a salwar kameez made in a day. So our first stop was a boutique where I bought not 1 but 2 beautiful salwar kameez – yes I will post photos of me wearing them). Haidee bought 2 blouses and Cynthia also bought a beautiful top. And believe it or not they assured us that they would have it all completed the next day – and they’d deliver everything to Ellen and Sam’s, where we were going for dinner.

That done we set out for some sightseeing with Ellen – who wanted us to see some places she knew we wouldn’t be seeing on our “official” touring with Rashmi:

Our first photo op was Rashatrapati Bhawan, the Viceroy’s Palace.
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I think every architecture student needs to come to India. These ancient buildings are so beautiful they just take your breath away. And when you see the intricate detail, the inlay, the grill work, the imposing size, it is impossible to imagine that this was all hand crafted; and the grounds – magnificent! P1000364.jpg

For our first stop Ellen suggested that we visit a part of the city she likened to Greenwich Village in New York. Trendy boutiques, art galleries, design studios and interesting restaurants. It was fabulous! We went into an antique furniture store where we all decided we could have bought everything in sight. We saw an impromptu “gallery” where local artists had painted “anti terrorism” paintings as a protest to the recent violence in Mumbai – which was incredibly moving.

It was tons of fun to just wander around and, before we left for our next stop we had lunch at a vegetarian restaurant where we shared a variety of dishes – excellent! India is a vegetarian’s haven I’ll tell you.

Then we went to Haus Khas Village, a 13th century mosque surrounded by a man-made lake after which we went to a market (not terribly unlike Kensington Market) and a terrific crafts fair where one could buy pashminas of every colour imaginable, dhotis, purses, art, even furniture. We were tempted, but there was so much it was overwhelming and we left empty-handed. But Ellen assured us that we would have lots of opportunities during our travels.

By then we were all getting a bit weary so we dropped Ellen off at home and went to our hotel to change for the evening. It had been a marvelous day and we all so enjoyed seeing sites that are off the beaten tourist trap.

I sure never expected to be lighting a Menorah in India …

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When Ellen mentioned that we could join her and Sam at her synagogue we jumped at the chance and I know it will be one of the highlights of this trip for all of us. It’s tiny – probably the size of my living room. The congregation consists of 10 families. P1000434.jpg

Imagine. So small they don’t even have an “official” rabbi.

The “acting” rabbi is a lawyer by trade, but he assumed the duties – along with being the caretaker and the chief cook and bottle washer – because he so desperately wants this synagogue “to be.” And he is so proud of his synagogue he insisted we could take pictures – even of the Torah – and throughout the ceremony.

To thank them for their generosity and hospitality, Rashmi invited Ellen and Sam to join us for dinner at our hotel and she made it very special, choosing Spice Route, the Thai restaurant that is rated one of the top in the world.

We had a spectacular time and course after course of tantalizing dishes were served. The surroundings were spectacular, the service impeccable and the company fascinating. Listening to Ellen and Sam’s stories of the life they’ve lived abroad was amazing and everyone just fell in love with both of them. We went to bed replete with good food and great company.

It was a wonderful beginning to a journey that we will all no doubt remember for the rest of our lives …

Posted by a_broad 17:44 Archived in India Tagged luxury_travel Comments (0)

Delhi's Imperial Hotel

a hotel that's virtually a museum

sunny 22 °C

First opened in 1931, The Imperial was designed by Sir Edward Lutyen's associate D.J. Bromfield. Lutyen was an architect who was hired to create New Delhi, a government complex which was surrounded by wide, leafy streets and roundabouts -- a stark contrast to the hurly-burly chaos of Old Delhi.

The hotel, which was restored in the '90's, is a magnificent mixture of colonial, Victorian and art deco styles and the minute you walk up the long drive that is flanked by 2 dozen soaring King Palms you know you've gone back in time to a bygone era.
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The truth is you could spend a month just wandering around the twisting hallways alone -- where every wall, every nook and cranny is filled with museum-quality art and artifacts -- in fact -- there are tours you can take of this hotel.

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There is no comfort which has been overlooked and I cannot think of a more perfect place to have started this holiday.
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From the floral arrangements, to the gardens, to the indoor courtyards if you can't unwind here then there's no hope for you at all.
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I never want to leave ... but alas ...
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Posted by a_broad 05:04 Archived in India Tagged luxury_travel Comments (4)

hello, my name is ...

time for the semi official meet and greet

overcast -3 °C

You've heard me talking about them for months -- my fellow travelers. Well most of them anyway -- this is the Canadian contingent. The Wrays, from Australia, are meeting us in Delhi.

So here we all are, in The Maple Leaf Lounge. We've checked ourselves and our luggage in and we're chilling with a drink or two before boarding our Jet Air flight to Delhi -- via Brussels.

Rashmi is our fearless leader -- the travel agent who put this terrific trip together and will now have to put up with us for a month.
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"Us" included Cynthia who has unfortunately lost her room mate -- her cousin Teri -- who has pneumonia and can't come ... Marnie -- a very well-traveled bridge player ... and Haidee, who's a professional photographer -- we're the ones planning to collaborate on a book.
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What I wasn't prepared for was how fabulous Jet Air is. After years of flying Air Canada and being confronted with dirty planes, torn upholstery, seats that are falling apart, messy bathrooms, aging flight attendants, bad uniforms, frequent bad service and food that is beyond appalling that, unfortunately, is what I got used to.

Well ...

Brace yourselves. This is a privately-owned airline. The equipment is new. The bathroom in our cabin had a full length mirror, hot towels, shaving cream, mouthwash, lotion, and a touchless faucet. The flight attendants are young, beautiful girls and very handsome boys, exquisitely groomed, fun, charming and wearing lovely uniforms -- that actually fit them like a glove.
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It was Haidee's birthday on the 27th and we were in the air. When she woke up there was a happy birthday message on her flat screen TV (yes we each had our own) wishing her a Happy Birthday from the entire crew -- including the Captain. The next thing we knew the entire cabin crew were making their way down the aisle. They sang Happy Birthday and had with them a bottle of Dom Perignon -- which they opened. We all got champagne and then they gave her a card -- the menu signed by all of them -- and the Captain.

When was the last time that happened to you on a plane?

OK, we were in Business Class. But I've been there before, too.

As for the food you could have been in a great restaurant. I had the Indian selections but you could have your choice of Italian, Continental, you name it. Between Toronto and Delhi we had 4 meals. Dinner, then breakfast and then from Brussels to Delhi we got lunch and a snack again.

White linen ... beautiful china ... real salt and pepper shakers ... and seasoning and quality you just don't associate with being 37,000-odd miles up in the air. We started with soup -- sweet potato and apple, garnished with fresh chives, seasoned with a whisper of curry. My palek gosht (lamb cooked in a garlic and green chilly tempered baby spinach puree) came with paneer, dal, green pea pulao, raita and pickles.
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Other choices included a vegetarian curry, jumbo prawns cooked Oriental style or ravioli.

I could have just stayed on the plane.

Even though I could lay absolutely flat (we had pods) I didn't sleep between Toronto and Brussels -- even though I'd downloaded a relaxation tape on my iPod. I just wasn't tired. But I slept like a baby from Brussels to Delhi. Rashmi said I was in a very deep sleep.

I wonder if that's polite for "you were snoring so loudly nobody else could sleep."

Because we had pods are seats became completely flat. Then they put a duvet on it to make it softer -- it is a bit
hard. A pillow and a nice warm blanket and I was out like a light.
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Amazingly the flight didn't seem long and boring. Of course they never stopped serving us -- hot towels, drinks, snacks, meals, hot towels, drinks, snacks, meals, hot towels ... and I got off the plane in Delhi relaxed, refreshed and full of energy.

Then they opened the door to the aircraft. I immediately started to cough. And as Cynthia later said, it smelled like the day after a fire. It's the pollution. You can actually see it, it's so dense.

After waiting forever -- a piece of Rashmi's luggage (she had 6 bags full of gifts for the villagers we'll be seeing) and a piece of mine were thought to be lost but they eventually showed up. Oh you'll never know how happy that made me. Mine housed the infirmary I brought along with me. Don't ask. I now have enough medical supplies to treat everything from sore feet to minor surgery. The best news is that Marney was a nurse. Between the two of us we can open a clinic here.

Finally (after one in the morning), luggage in hand ... and on many, many carts we go through the doors into the terminal. And what waited for us there was something I could never have imagined!
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And in that throng of people there to pick weary travelers up do you think we could find our driver?

Eventually Rashmi had to make other arrangements and we were herded into 2 jeeps and taken to our hotel. It turns out our scheduled driver thought we were flying Air Canada -- on a flight arriving at about 12:30 a.m. so he was on his way to the airport when we were on our way to the hotel.

The Imperial Hotel is everything that, as a kid, I imagined India to be. British colonial. Stately. Elegant. Mahogany. Twenty-foot ceilings. Pictures of Queen Victoria everywhere (this hotel has museum quality art and artifacts on every wall and in every nook and cranny). Seriously. They give tours here. Marble floors everywhere -- even the rooms.

It is beyond anything you could imagine.

Right in the centre of the lobby there were hundreds of gorgeous red balls suspended from the ceiling -- Christmas decorations.
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And tell me if, after a more than 24-hour journey, this looked inviting ...
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I cannot wait to explore this magnificent hotel, but it will have to wait until I've had some sleep. The bed is calling ...

Posted by a_broad 10:49 Archived in India Tagged air_travel Comments (3)

We're Here!!!!!!!!!!

pinch me, I don't believe it

overcast 0 °C

After wanting to come to India for years and years and years ... after planning this trip for months and months ... here I am in the most gorgeous room you can imagine at the fabulous Imperial Hotel in Delhi!

OMG!!!

Tomorrow (make that later today because it is now 2:15 a.m.) I will upload some photos -- of our little group at the Maple Leaf Lounge, on the plane and THIS ROOM! I will also go into detail about the trip here. I honestly need to get some sleep but knew you'd all be wondering how I was and where I was.

But until then ...

Jet Air is the most amazing airline I have ever flown and I have flown on several Canadian, American and International airlines.

The smog here can kill you -- the instant the opened the door of the plane I started to cough and I haven't stopped yet. No wonder my doctor gave me antibiotics in case I get a respiratory infection. It is so dense it sticks to your skin and your clothes and you actually walk into it -- like walking through a curtain -- even inside the airport.

The honking of horns is relentless and deafening -- even at 1 in the morning when we finally walked out of the airport.

No matter what anybody tells you about how they drive here trust me you are unprepared for it. I closed my eyes and kept them shut and that's what I intend to do for the rest of the trip. A prayer here and there wouldn't hurt either, let me tell you.

What I was thinking when I said I wanted to come here by myself I do not know. We thought a piece of my luggage didn't make it -- we waited the better part of an hour. The airport was chaos -- who I would have ever found to report it to I do not know. When you finally get out of the customs area the sight that awaits you is unbelieveable -- I took pictures which I will upload tomorrow -- but they don't do it justice. The doors open and you see hundreds of people -- literally ringing the hall -- all 3 sides -- and they are about 6 or 8 deep. And they all have signs -- they are here to pick up tourists -- from hotels, from tour companies, from travel agents, from family and friends.

You cannot imagine. And they are so tightly packed in -- think sardines in a can -- it is impossible to figure out who is who, what is what and where your driver is.

Our pre-arranged bus didn't show up. If you're thinking taxi stand forget it. If you're thinking limo stand forget it. If you're thinking just ask someone in a uniform forget it. If you're thinking just call someone forget it.

We had Rashmi; and thankfully she organized 2 jeep-type vehicles for us. How I don't know. All I know is that after travelling for the better part of 24 hours and being hot, dusty, thirsty and tired in a place unlike anything I've ever experienced before I am certainly happy that I was not alone.

I am very happy I am here with our little group and with Rashmi -- we all talked about it while we were waiting for her to solve the transportation problem and we all agreed.

Come with a group!

I am going to sleep now ...

Posted by a_broad 12:50 Archived in India Tagged air_travel Comments (5)

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