We--Lois and Eric Wickstrom, Kyle Zieba, and I--arrived last night at close to midnight. As promised, we were picked up at the airport, where I took the opportunity to acquire 5000 Rupees, about a hundred dollars and the limit allowed at the airport ATM machine. Interestingly, the receipt told me how much money is left in my checking account--in Rupees!
Late at night, we got only a taste of driving in India. Our driver, in deference to foreigners in his care, stopped for red lights. Nobody else did.
At night the air pollution stains everything a sickly red-orange. In the daytime it hangs over the city, blurring the winter sunshine on a cloudless day.
To imagine the experience of New Delhi from the point of view of an American who has never been to India, think of the most crowded bus or subway car you've ever been on. Now imagine that same crowd, just as thick as if they were packed into a confined space, jostling one another outdoors, on foot, on bicycles, on motorcycles, in buses, in cars, in taxis, in bicycle rickshaws, in auto rickshaws, and in carts drawn by brahmin cattle. That's right--on our first night into day we saw none of the famous sacred cattle wandering the streets [note: we saw plenty of them later], but we did see three of them harnessed to carts, earning their living.
Next, imagine dust. Not just a little dust, but a half-inch-thick layer of dust on everything. On the streets. On the cars. On the leaves of the trees. On the houses. On the majestic monuments.
But there are retreats. Our hotel, the Grand Park Inn (though we never saw a grand park anywhere nearby), is one of them. So is the restaurant where we had lunch today, Mati Mahal. In both cases, you are walking down a filthy crowded street, picking your way through cars pulled up on the sidewalk, food stands of every description, beggars, people selling toys, balloons, andfireworks (it's almost New Year's), so you have to work your way single file over buckled and broken sidewalk with the locals charging about their business and pushing you and everyone else out of their way. All of this is thick with dust...and suddenly you come to a shining clean doorway that welcomes you into a haven where you are cared for with clean sheets and hot water in the case of the hotel, or delicious and exotic hot food in a quiet, uncrowded restaurant.
We came in a day early to acclimate, so we had most of today free. This morning we took a taxi to the Red Fort, a huge place, larger than any European castle we've ever been to. It was built by the Moguls in the 16th century, was later used by the British, and finally by the modern Indian army. After WWII it became the museum we visited today.
After wandering about the fort all morning, we turned to Kyle and her Lonely Planet guidebook to find a restaurant, and took two auto-rickshaws (each one carries only two people) to get there. [Note: we soon learned that while only two westerners can fit into a rickshaw, Indians squeeze, sit on laps, and hang onto the sides to carry as many people as possible in any motorized vehicle.]
After lunch we walked through part of the bazaar to get to the Great Mosque. There we wandered about until 3pm, though as non-Moslems we could not go inside the mosque. It is a magnificent structure with a huge courtyard, but people sleep in the courtyard, which is dirty and sadly neglected. At 3pm we started looking for a taxi to take us back to our hotel for our 4pm tour organization meeting. To our dismay, taxi drivers flatly refused to take us there! So we again hired two auto-rickshaws.
We got separated in the rush-hour traffic (you'd have to be there to believe the congestion), but Kyle and I arrived for the meeting only five minutes late. Both drivers got lost, but Lois and Eric's driver was MORE lost, so they were about half an hour late.
Tomorrow morning we will start off at 5:15am, taking a train to Jaipur. It will be interesting to see how the two cities compare.