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India

Posted in Asia, India

We were a little nervous, but also extremely excited about our trip to New Delhi, India. It is a land of extremes but we knew we were up for the challenge.  Our trip started in Bangor and we were supposed to leave on Monday at 1:15 on a Delta flight to JFK.  Unfortunately there was terrible weather in the northeast, rain and high winds of all things in mid-January, so our flight was delayed and we finally took off at 6:15 pm.  We arrived in JFK at 7:30pm but our connecting flight to Amsterdam was long gone having left at 6:35pm.  Luckily there was a later KLM flight and we made a mad dash across JFK to get to it just in time to here the announcement that the flight was delayed due to mechanical problems.  One hour later we finally board and get settled, only to be informed that there was a security issue and we would need to de-plane and go through security again while they searched the plane.  Finally at 1:15 in the morning we take off for Amsterdam.  Of course we arrived too late to make our connection to Delhi.  KLM was wonderful though and since Brendan is a Gold Elite Member with Delta we received a free hotel room along with dinner and drinks.  Three days into the trip and we still had not arrived in India!

We finally arrived in New Delhi at about 11:30 pm and it was quite foggy.  Apparently we were actually lucky to have even arrived as fog is typical this time of year, and which causes numerous delays. The airport was quite crowded for such a late hour; it was very overwhelming and was quite an introduction to India. Because we were delayed arriving Brendan missed out on a recovery day and had to go right to work in the morning. I on the other hand spent most of the morning recovering from the three days of traveling and slept in our wonderful hotel room at the Hotel Diplomat until after 11.

When I finally got up I decided to nervously venture out onto the streets of New Delhi. I spent the afternoon walking around the city near our hotel. As I was walking along the streets I got quite a few stares but everyone was very friendly and I was not bothered at all, but I still felt extremely out of place and uncomfortable. I finally ended up at Safdarjung’s Tomb which cost me 125 rupees to get in ($2.70) and that was only because I wanted to take pictures. There were not many tourists and the place was fairly run down, but I enjoyed wandering the grounds.

Even with a street map I found the streets were quite confusing and I don’t remember many street signs. At one point I ended up taking a wrong turn and got completely lost. I remember vividly walking down a dead end street and starting to get a little worried. I normally am a very confident traveler, but I was definitely feeling out of my comfort zone. There have only been a few times in my travels where I have become worried and almost panicked and this was one of them. The trick is to do your best to stay aware of your surroundings, and while you may be panicking on the inside, stay calm on the outside. I quickly reoriented myself and figured out where I was and then resumed my journey.  I probably ended up walking an extra two miles because of my mistake (according to Google Maps I walked 7.5 miles that day).  Because of the wrong turn I ended up passing the National Rose Garden which was a pleasant surprise.  It’s important to look on the bright side when travelling, there are too many opportunities to let things get you down. The roses were a little past their peak, but were still beautiful.

The next day I decided I wanted to see Old Delhi and thankfully I was joined by a new friend, Margaret, who is at the same conference as Brendan but has a day off to go exploring. Looking back, I am so thankful she was with me, I’m not sure I could have handled Old Delhi by myself. She is a very experienced traveler who has been here before. Old Delhi was exactly how I pictured it in my head. It is a complete assault on all the senses, from the blaring of the horns, the hundreds of thousands of people walking the streets, to the smells of the incense and spices, I was completely overwhelmed. It is impossible for me to put into words how it felt and I don’t think pictures can truly capture the entire experience.

We took a tuk-tuk from our hotel to Old Delhi.  A tuk-tuk is a little three-wheeled car that has no doors. There are three ways to get around the city, the traditional taxi, the auto rickshaw (also called the tuk-tuk), and the bicycle rickshaw.  They all share the same road and because there are so, so many vehicles they get quite close to each other.  It was equally apparent that while there may be driving rules, no one actually follows them.

Our first stop was Jami Masjid a mosque built in 1656.  Everyone must take off their shoes before entering a mosque and we had to pay an entrance fee plus make a donation.  Since we were women we also had to put on shawls, I think because we had short sleeve shirts on. When we left we also had to pay the man for watching our shoes.  At first we argued, but then decided it wasn’t worth the 100 rupees ($2) to argue, plus he was holding our shoes hostage.

There were all sorts of market stands, including fruit, although I would advise against eating anything that you do not peel or thoroughly wash with bottled water before you eat.  Brendan and I were obsessively careful about only drinking bottled water and we were fortunate to never get sick. Even bottled water has to be checked carefully; if you buy it from a street vendor sometimes they take old water bottles and just fill it with Delhi tap water, so make sure the bottle is still sealed!

We wandered a around Chandni Chowk and a little old man came up to us and wanted to be our guide.  We accepted and he guided us to another a mosque and took us inside for a tour.   We eventually got rid of him after paying him 50 rupees, but he seemed very determined to be our guide for the remainder of the day. We walked over to the Red Fort but Margaret decided she needed to go back to the hotel as she had not slept at all and really needed to get some rest, so I toured the Red Fort by myself.  The Red Fort was absolutely beautiful, but it would have been even more amazing if it had not fallen into disrepair and the fountains were filled with water.

Guess who was waiting for me when I came out of the Red Fort, yes, the little old man.  I now wish I’d thought to take a picture of him, but it was starting to freak me out that he was following us around, so I literally had to run across the street risking life and limb to escape him.   I decided to walk down the main road of Chandni Chowk and hoped to catch a tuk-tuk to take me to the Ghandi Memorial, unfortunately no one wanted to take me that far.  It was so strange and that panic feeling was starting to set in. I really wanted to explore the crowded little side streets and alleyways, but I feared getting lost and never escaping as there are no street signs, plus I was getting tired and thinking about how I was going to get to the hotel if I can’t even get a tuk-tuk to take me to the Ghandi Memorial.

I finally found a bicycle rickshaw that said he would take me, although I was a little wary as the memorial is quite a ways away.  As I thought, it was a mistake, he kept switching drivers and the main guy wanted to take me to his shop to buy something.  When he finally figured out I wouldn’t go he pawned me off to another driver who kept stopping at places for me to go into and see.  I finally told him I would walk from there and gave him 100 rupees ($2), when I was only supposed to pay him 30.  I didn’t have change and didn’t feel like arguing.  I think he felt bad because he tried to give me $2 US dollars back.  I’m not sure he realized that he would have lost out on that deal.

The picture opportunities were endless on my walk back to the hotel. I could have taken a lot more, but first I was so focused on getting back to the hotel in one piece that taking pictures went on the back burner, and second I felt very obtrusive, my large camera felt like it put a target on my back so I kept it in my bag.  It’s not that I ever felt threatened or scared on any of the streets that I was on, it’s just that when you get so tired and you know you have miles to go, you just focus on getting to your destination. The poverty I walked through was beyond imaginable. I knew that poverty was very extreme in India, but until you witness the living conditions it’s hard to believe.

Thankfully, I finally managed to find a tuk-tuk who knew where my hotel was and would drive me. As a photographer I wanted to go back to Old Delhi the next day, there were just so many great picture opportunities, but personally I knew I didn’t have the strength; it’s something you have to do in little pieces.  It takes awhile to immerse yourself into a culture that is so incredible and different than your own.

Saturday morning I woke up and felt like a train had run over me; I guess the jet lag plus walking so much the previous two days caught up with me. I barely had the energy to get out of bed and finally managed to take a shower and get out of the hotel room after lunch. I hated wasting any of the short time we had. Thankfully I hadn’t planned on too strenuous of a day after yesterday’s excursion, just to walk over to the Rajpath and try to get some pictures of the monkeys.

As I walked to the Rajpath I didn’t see one monkey and thought I was going to be disappointed, but right around 3pm they came out of hiding and were everywhere.  They must have been napping.  At one time Delhi was overrun with monkeys.  Here is an article in Time about it called “MonkeySee, Monkey Do“.  I’m not sure if it is still a problem as the only place I saw them was around this area.  They are very cute but they are still wild animals so I was very cautious around them.  Many of them would run away as soon as I put my camera up to my eye, I wonder if it looked like I was going to shoot them?

Thankfully we have a wonderful host who takes our group out to dinner each night and is extremely helpful in all things Indian. I think my favorite dinner was the first night where we had authentic north Indian cuisine at the Dhaba restaurant in The Claridges Hotel. I am so thankful that I brought a box of nutrition bars with me, I would not have survived walking around without them.

Tonight after dinner we went to Dilli Haat, which is a permanent market that you have to pay to get into. The market was established by Delhi tourism and the government, so it is more for tourists than locals and you don’t get the true flavor or an Indian market. The sellers weren’t very aggressive and some of them didn’t even barter. I don’t think Brendan got to truly experience India, I wish he had a chance to get to Chandni Chowk.

Sunday was the last day of Brendan’s conference and we could not pass up a trip to the Taj Mahal (World Heritage Site) while we were in India and decided to hire a car and driver to take us to Agra and then bring us back to the airport the next morning.  This is the most convenient way to get places and surprisingly not very expensive.  Renting a car and driving in India is a life and death adventure that we were not willing to risk and the train rides can be crowded and overwhelming.

Our driver took us down to Agra and brought us back the next day for less than 10,000 rupees, which is about $200.  Same day trips are less expensive, but we wanted to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise.  Our driver was very professional and also gave us great tips for visiting the Taj Mahal.  We had to stop a couple of times on the way down, at one of the stops he had to get out and pay a tax, it had already gotten dark so he told us to lock the doors and left us with the keys to the car.  There were tons of trucks around and street vendors and he said it can be dangerous. Thankfully nothing happened.

There is no way to convey in words the chaos of driving in Delhi, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t capture that feeling in a picture.  I’m not even sure a video would really do it justice, you need to experience it firsthand.  Any rush hour in the U.S. pales in comparison to everyday traffic in Delhi.  It took us 4.5 hours to go 120 miles and since we didn’t leave until 4pm on Sunday, half of our drive was in the dark.  We shared the road with other cars, tuk-tuks, cows, goats, pedestrians.  It was chaos, with no one following any driving rules. I’m not sure what was scarier being able to see the chaos or not being able to see it.  Brendan actually managed to sleep part of the way, but I was terrified.

When we arrived on the outskirts of Agra our driver pointed out a wedding celebration on the side of the road and he stopped to let me grab a few quick shots.  Before I knew it I was swarmed with kids and managed to get off four clicks of the shutter before jumping back in the car.

The next morning we woke up bright and early at 5:15am to go see the Taj Mahal which, according to our guidebook and driver, opened at 6am. We were staying at Gateway Hotel which is only 1.5 km from the entrance so we walked even though it was dark out. There were only a few people out that early in the morning which was nice, but the last half of the walk was through a dark park. The area around the Taj Mahal is closed to vehicular traffic to reduce smog. I find it extremely funny that they believe a half mile no car zone around the Taj Mahal will create some sort of magic barrier that is going to protect it from all the smog and pollution. We walked around in the dark feeling vulnerable when all of a sudden all the street lamps go out. There’s nothing like walking around in a pitch black park to get your vivid imagination going. We arrived at the ticket window and we’re the only people there when all of a sudden this guy shows up asking us why we are there so early and that the ticket counter doesn’t open up until 6:30. Ugh! We decide to keep walking around the park for a little while longer and then come back to find that a line has formed for tickets. They are very strict about what is allowed inside, no tripods, no food or drinks (they do give you a free bottle of water), all bags are searched, everyone goes through a metal detector and are patted down. Outside the gate you get all sorts of locals trying to sell you things and wanting to be your guide and inside you have to watch out for guys that come over to help you take pictures. They take your camera and then won’t give it back to you and you have to follow them around while they take pictures of you. Then of course you have to pay them to get your camera back. Luckily our driver warned us about them.

The Taj Mahal was incredible, an oasis of quiet solitude amidst the chaos of India, and we were so glad we made the trip to Agra. It is well worth getting up early to see the morning light reflect and change on the Taj Mahal, plus if you are one of the first people in you can see it before it gets crowded.

As we walked back to our hotel we got a better glimpse of the main street, since it was dark when we walked to the Taj Mahal. Imagine living on a street and people just dumped their trash in a big pile along the side of the street. Apparently this is what they do in India because there was this huge dump with all sort of animals digging through the trash.

I finally saw a camel in Agra and cows are wandering around everywhere in India because they are sacred, so it is almost impossible to find beef, even the McDonald’s I discovered in Old Delhi does not sell hamburgers.

The return drive to the airport took even longer than on the way there, 5.5 hours, and we arrived in Delhi around 6pm. Our flight wasn’t until 1:30 in the morning, so Margaret recommended that we hang out at one of the airport hotels until it was time to go to the airport.  Great advice!  We went to the Radisson and I have never seen security so tight at a hotel before. Our drivers car was searched, our bags had to go through an x-ray machine and we had to go through a metal detector as well as be patted down.

We flew from Delhi > Amsterdam > Detroit > Bangor. Our flight to Detroit was the exact same flight as the Christmas Day terrorism incident so security was extremely tight and let’s just say that the pat down I received was very invasive! While we always enjoy returning home, I wish we could have stayed a little longer.  It takes awhile to get acclimated to a culture and the people, especially one that is so different and diverse as ours, and I know I would have had a great time getting some amazing images. After visiting India and trying to photograph there I truly admire photographers who can immerse themselves in a culture and truly capture it and it’s people.  Some of my favorite photographers are Nevada WeirJamesNachtwey, and Steve McCurry.

Brendan & Jen {January 2010}


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