Delhi days

I arrived in Delhi late Thursday night and after grabbing some water, cash and a SIM card, went to get a taxi. Outside the airport, there were 100 men for every woman. And the women weren’t alone. This whole ‘there are lots of single women traveling alone in India’ thing I read about must be relative, but we’ll get back to that.

I paid for a state sponsored taxi and when I told the driver where I was going – a haveli in Old Delhi – he had to confer with three other drivers who became animated and agitated. When he finally agreed, he told me the area I was going to wasn’t safe because it was full of Muslims. Racism is alive and well in India, folks!

This is no exaggeration: the taxi ride to the hotel was the most terrifying experience of my life. It was foggy and smoggy and dark to start, and the driver kept saying how dangerous it was for him to be driving at all. The highways were full of speeding cars, rickshaws, tut tuts, bicycles, and pedestrians all coming within a centimeter of killing each other, three to four vehicles across a two lane road, incessantly honking like a flock of geese. After a harrowing 45 minutes, he pulled over by a dark alley and told me to get out. He pointed to a sign with the hotel’s name on it and an arrow leading away from the road. I asked how far the walk was and pointed out the groups of young men on the corner. He gave me an ‘I told you so’ look but said he would take my number and call to see if I arrived ok. I pointed out that since I’d just arrived, my SIM card wasn’t activated yet so I had no service. He reluctantly agreed to walk me to the hotel.

A narrow walkway, a stranger and a foreigner struggling with a too-big suitcase, passing by a mangy stray dog sitting vigil in a doorway with a dozen candles burning and an old man frying up chaat in a tiny alcove. When we arrived at my hotel, I felt like we had really accomplished something. I turned to look at him and he held his arms open a bit, shrugged his shoulder and gave a bob of his head to one side. To me, this was an indication that he wanted a hug so I went in. He backed away quickly and said, “No! No no. More rupees, more tip.”

Lesson learned.

The next day I did a tour of Old Delhi (photos below,) and yesterday moved over to New Delhi. Tomorrow I take my first train ride, to Rishikesh for the week.

Today I’m grateful to be able bodied. Despite jet leg, I’m still able to climb the five flights of stairs in the old Haveli on Chandni Chowk to see the rooftops, to see the rose petals drying in the sun, the open courtyard where prayers are being held with mosque attendees. I am able. And I’m grateful.

Below is the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, which can hold 25,000 people. It was the ‘final architectural triumph’ of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (commissioned the Taj Mahal) and finished in 1658. We arrived shortly before prayers so couldn’t stay long but it was a serene place amidst the chaos of Old Delhi. Side note: in the mosque, three different young men asked for their picture to be taken with me. Ego aside, apparently its cool to make up stories about knowing foreigners, especially single white ladies.

This was another calm oasis, a small dead end alley off Chandni Chowk. The story is that all of the apartments on this street are owned by the same family and have been passed down generation to generation. There are two brothers right now, living side by side, who never speak to each other because they have competing food stands. Also, they cannot make modern renovations to the outside of the buildings unless they are historically accurate and no one can afford that luxury.

This is along Chandni Chowk, which was miraculously ’empty’ according to my guide, because of the Republic Day holiday. Empty to him just meant that you weren’t shoulder to shoulder with someone. There were plenty of people, bicycles and tuk tuks! The area is a spice market and these flowers are being sold by the kilo.

Ever wonder where those dried rose petals come from in your potpourri? Here. Drying on a roof in Delhi.

Next we went to this beautiful Sikh temple, although they don’t call it a temple, its a Gurudwara. In this case, Sisganj. The story is harrowing. It’s the martyrdom site of the 9th Sikh guru, Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by Aurangzeb, the last Mughal Emperor (who sounds like kind of an asshole. He was not in line for the throne but believed himself to be a better leader, so when his Dad gave the older son the crown, Aurangzeb came back from battle and had his brother trampled by elephants, then dragged his body down the street to show the public he wasn’t messing around,) for refusing to convert to Islam. Inside here, you can see a shrine of sorts – its for a book! They don’t pray to a person or a god, they pray to the book. And there are people there, 24/7, providing music and prayer (except when the book ‘sleeps’ because hello, #tired.)

They also provide meals everyday to about 20,000 people. Everyone is a volunteer, and their religion is heavily based on selfless service to others and equality of all human beings.

This is the view from my hotel, a haveli, where they have classical dance performance on weekends.

And finally, a glimpse of my tuk tuk ride to the metro station yesterday.

Why India?

In a few hours, I’ll be boarding a flight bound for Delhi to spend the next 40 days in India. If you asked me in the last 25 years why I wanted to go, I’d give my shpiel about having a best friend who is Indian since I was 16 or having practiced yoga since I was 20. And while those things are true and absolutely inspired the dream of visiting India, today my reasons are different.

When I started practicing yoga, I had zero understanding about my intentions, my anxiety, my joy, or my limitations. Yoga quite literally saved my life, body and mind. I read the sacred texts (though not sure I understand all of the sutras!) and stories, learned anatomy and did my teacher training. I had friends and acquaintances who made the journey or pilgrimage to the motherland, most of them in their younger days or without little kiddos waiting at home. I’d fantasize about going with my BFF and we’d visit her relatives. I had in my mind that she must have the same desire for travel as I did. But life kept moving along, and I never made it a priority to go. I had a small baby, I was in transition from jobs, I was in debt from college, I was a single parent, I had GI issues (true!) There were endless excuses but the dream never died.

The truth is, I was terrified. Of anywhere I have wanted to visit, India is the one that scares me the most. (Close second is Africa and I’m going to get there, too.) Its not the overwhelming population… or the lack of sanitation… or the waylaid trains.

Its the areas of poverty, the inequality in education, the mistreatment of girls, the old culture that is hanging on to the way things used to be done when the world is changing rapidly around them. I’ve never been much for filtering my thoughts, so I knew I would have to be a much more mature human being to visit these places and be respectful. Now, time has passed. I’ve traveled and volunteered enough now that I can see the gray. My passion for justice is tempered by a willingness to hear both sides of a story. And then to see if I can take action, work within the gray.

Oh I have loads of other fears, too. My anxiety has been on red alert since I decided to go. Malaria, dengue, dysentery, oh my! But I am facing these fears the way I have most of my life. Acknowledge, ask questions, be prepared, and then LET GO. I had a wonderful therapist who used to make me write down my fears on a piece of paper, put them in a box, and put the box in the back of the closet. Over time, I forgot about the box. The brain is bananas powerful, people.

So, I’m off. (Like a prom dress, har!) I’ll get a sim card when I land and share my number here on my next post, if you want to say hi. First few days and nights are in Delhi where I’ll be donning my mask because #smog and getting over jetlag.

Namaste, peeps.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. God Himself is not secure, having given man dominion over His works! Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. Faith alone defends. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” – Helen Keller

IMG-0387