Delhi, India is teeming with cars. And auto rickshaws (the open-air three wheel motorized vehicles that are supposed to sit up to four people.) The roads are jammed, 3 lanes mean nothing. 5 or 6 cars jockey to move forward, lines in the road ignored.
But we were impressed that the roads were in such good condition; that there were lane markers; that there were medians. Not that those features seemed to manage any traffic flow. Or pedestrian flow. Cars surge forward as people slowly walk a bike across insane intersections and roundabouts. Pedestrians simply hold their hand out, as if that is all the protection they need from certain peril. Honestly, we were surprised that in our 14 days in India we only witnessed one fender bender. One. Though my nerves were awaiting certain death (not mine, but for the pedestrians and cyclists and rickshaws.)
Thank Ganesh (a Hindu god, the remover of obstacles) that we had the BEST driver. We hired a tour company for our first 5 days in India. I found Travel Fair India by reading reviews on Trip Advisor. By the way, if you travel and don’t leverage Trip Advisor, you are missing out. Anyhow, our driver, Kuldeep Kumar, remained calm at all times; navigated the most congested to the most narrow roads from Delhi to Agra to Jaipur, and despite the chaos outside of our windows, I always felt safe.
In the months leading up to our trip, we heard from many friends with India travel experience that Delhi should simply be a transportation hub. “Get out as fast as you can,” we heard from a number of people. “Crazy,” is what I thought. I mean, we’ve experienced traffic in Kampala, Uganda. How bad can Delhi be? It’s bad. In fact, it was the friend we’d visited in Kampala (a native Indian actually) who warned us about the traffic in Delhi. But Indians have a reputation for exaggeration, right? Maybe, but the traffic is bad (and correspondingly, the air pollution is also extremely bad.)
Traffic aside, we did have as good a time as you can expect after a nearly 24 hour journey from the US. We allotted just a single day to “do Delhi.” Is that enough? Not even close. But I was glad to move on from Delhi because it frankly just took too much time to move around the city and the noise/traffic/pollution was overwhelming.
Our tour company provided us with a pretty standard itinerary for our one day in Delhi – though I have to say that it was too packed and it was premised on getting an early start which we did not have, and having the stamina to keep a healthy pace all day, which we also did not have. (I blame our late start more on the amazing hotel breakfast buffet than on our jet lag.) Also, traveling with kids meant that certain things would be “boring” and other things would catch their eye and require more exploration when the tour guide wanted to move us along.
Despite the itinerary, we couldn’t go to the Red Fort because we were there on a Monday and it was closed. [Not to give away too much from the rest of our trip, but we saw A LOT of other forts, so in hindsight, we’re not unhappy with having to skip the Red Fort.]
So our first attraction of the day was to visit the large mosque, Jama Masjid (“Friday Mosque”.) Being frugal travel skeptics, we decided to leave our phones/cameras in our private car (safe with our awesome driver.) The mosque charges a “photo fee” worth about $8USD per phone. When me and two kids climbed up the tower of the mosque, and had an awesome 360 degree view of Delhi, well, we were bummed that we didn’t have a camera. [The other kid and my husband were off finding what my 13 year old still calls “the worst bathroom in all of India.”]
After the Mosque, we piled into an auto rickshaw, to take in the narrow markets of Chandni Chowk – and it was abundantly clear that business strategy in India is very different than at home. Full streets filled with vendors and shops all selling the IDENTICAL items. One street for spices; one street for jewelry; one street for clothes; one street for home goods… you get the picture.
Our guide must have sensed that we love sweets and that we NEEDED to try fresh hot jalebi from “Delhi’s most famous jalebi vendor.” Imagine a thin donut, cooked in hot ghee (clarified butter) and covered in rosewater honey. Sticky. Delicious. 50 rupees (under $1.) Thinking about it now, I’m sad that was our only street jalebi our whole time in India.
Overall, my family loved the auto rickshaw experience. (There may be one adult member who shall not be named but he’s my husband who didn’t love it.) We got off a couple of times and went into spice shops, and even narrower lanes that were only accessible by foot and motorcycle. We all got through it without being hit by a motorcycle, or another auto rickshaw, or a car. All in all, a great success.
Next up was Raj Ghat – a memorial park that honors a number of historical Indian figures, but is known most famously as a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. It was moving and beautiful and reminded us of the JFK eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery.
I am a huge Gandhi fan. And I learned so much! Such as, he adopted a Muslim man who wanted to marry a Hindu woman, because he was dedicated to bringing people together. This might have been part of his ultimate demise. (Fun fact, the lady that Muslim man married was Indira Gandhi, the first female prime minister of India; but no blood relation to Mahatma Gandhi.) Learning about Gandhi reminded us of Martin Luther King, Jr. Both advocates for nonviolence, minority rights, acceptance and community; both were killed because of what they stood for; both men remain revered for their peaceful protests and for challenging the status quo.
Side note: we are a fair skinned American family. This proved to be hugely attractive to Indian nationals. If I had to guess, we were invited to take selfies or pose for photos at least 25 times (and were unwitting subjects in dozens more photos, taken by people who didn’t have the nerve to ask, but just ran up in front of us and took selfies.)
By now we were so hot and ready for the respite that a higher-end air conditioned restaurant would provide. The kids had different levels of love for the food, but for my 13 year old, my husband and I, we almost never felt hunger because, damn, the food was so good we may have overindulged with every single meal.
After lunch we went to India Gate, a memorial to those who fought in Indian wars. We almost saw the changing of the guard, but the 9 year old started to feel sick. (Super hot, super polluted air, jet lag, dehydration…. not a good combination.) As we quickly scooted back to the car, the 15 year old was stopped by a snake charmer, so of course he stopped and watched. I missed it, but luckily got my own snake charm “show” later in the trip in Jaipur.
My sick kid and I waited in the car while the rest of the family checked out Parliament and the President’s House. I half wonder if years from now, we’ll argue if we saw those buildings or not, forgetting that we did split up.
And then, at the very late hour of 3pm, we cried “uncle” and told our guide that we’d skip the remaining itinerary items so we could head back to our hotel. The kids just needed a swim and some down time. 90 minutes later (a quicker drive back to the hotel) we finally got to relax. The kids were bummed that the hotel pool was COLD (which we still don’t quite understand given India is HOT.) We barely had the energy to walk around the hotel to find a restaurant where the eldest fell asleep before the food came (but he woke up to eat, pizza no less.)
Determined to get an earlier start the next day (after being gently scolded by our guide) we organized our bags before falling into a hard sleep. But the breakfast buffet got us again, and we decided to linger at breakfast before loading up our small car for the drive to Agra.
Stay tuned for the next blog on our trip to Agra. (Spoiler alert, I LOVE the Taj Mahal!)