Days 1, 2, 3 – Delhi
A crew of men sweeps debris off of an elevated road in downtown Delhi. The dust and bits of metal blow directly onto a small apartment building where a chain of women in brightly colored saris vigorously sweep it hierarchically down until, after many transfers, it falls to the street, where a woman with a little baby slung on her back sifts through the dust and dirt for anything of value. This is Delhi.
On an alley running between military barracks and senior officer’s houses, families of monkeys scamper through the trees. Young women lean over the balcony of a brothel and wave at me. “New York! California! Hollywood!” they yell. My driver, Davijon, says that they are very clean because they are in the military district. A young monkey runs to the end of a branch and takes a daring leap across the width of the road, barely catching the end of a branch on the opposite side. The women clap, and Davijon looks at them with a longing that that first softens and then hardens his face – he looks away and gets in the car to wait for me. This is Delhi.
Humayun’s Tomb is surrounded by piles of burning trash. An inversion layer hangs over the region like a glass ceiling, trapping all the dust, exhaust, and rancid smells of the city. Wandering around the tomb, I am as amazed by the architecture and craftsmanship as I am by the powerful stench of the human feces which dot the fields around the tomb. From the scalloped walls, built in the early sixteenth century, I see half a dozen men squatting in the fields. Embarrassed, I look away and suddenly notice the eroded but still beautiful floral motif carved into the walls. This is Delhi.
We are stuck in traffic at noon. The driver ahead of us gets out and walks to the shade of a tree. The heat is almost unbearable. My driver, and now friend, Davijon laughs when I say that “beep, beep” is how cars say “Delhi, Delhi.” Now when someone honks behind us he says “Delhi, Delhi!” and chuckles. When traffic starts to move, Davijon has to go and wake up the driver who is now fast asleep under the tree. This is Delhi.
A little girl sees me take a picture of a dog sleeping on a bale of compressed paper and demands, politely, to see it. I hold the camera down where she can get a good look and she immediately tries to take the it away from me. I glance around to see if she is part of a team of robbers, then discover that she just wants to use the controls to look at all of the pictures. The constant wariness needed to keep from being ripped off taints almost all first encounters. This is Delhi.
My stomach is rebelling and the cramps are shockingly sharp and painful. When the merchants and passersby see me wince, they often spontaneously offer to get me some lemon-water. Davijon is most concerned and insists on taking me back to the hotel, only reluctantly agreeing to help me finish my list of tasks after many minutes of my determined attempts to convince him that it is not as painful as it looks. Later he stops in the shade of a huge tree and pretends that there is something wrong with the car so that I can rest quietly for a few minutes. This is Delhi too.
Day 4 – Taj Mahal
We meet at five AM to catch the express train to Agra, city of the Taj Mahal. My hopes for cleaner air are slowly dashed as the train rolls relentlessly through mysterious towns and terrain barely glimpsed through the haze. We hire a driver at the Agra station and have him take us to Yosh Cafe where, according to the Lonely Planet guidebook, we can rent a locker for our baggage. It seems the guidebook needs to be updated to include the following annotation: “lockers are actually wooden cupboards and require renters to bring locks, place reeks of urine, wooden cupboards are not actually connected to the walls.” The streets around the Yosh evoke the Katmandu of the first Indiana Jones movie – utter squalid chaos.
You can’t appreciate the Taj Mahal in one visit. I know because I tried. The best I can say is that it has beautiful proportions from every angle. It’s relationship to the smaller mosques on each side, and the towers across the Ganges, create amazing symmetries and sight-lines. Even the scum floating in the reflecting ponds, does not detract from the experience.
Our train to Jaipur is not until late in the day, so we take a break from local cuisine and try the bland American fare at a five-star hotel. From a roof-top portico we can sit and watch the light slowly change on the Taj.
Day 5 – Jaipur
Our hotel, the Sunder Palace, is listed in Lonely Planet, which means that the clientele leans to the backpackers and hostel-goers, but it has a lovely cafe in the roof-top garden and wonderful breakfast for very little money. I get my pants-pocket repaired by an ancient Muslim man with a treadle sewing machine. I offer 100 rupees ($2.50), but he refuses and accepts only 10 (25 cents). While my pants are on the machine, his assistant gives me a makeshift sari to wear and makes me tea. The assistant asks me where I am from, and when I say California, USA, the man at the machine stops for a moment, cocks his head at me and then says “Arnold Schartznegger!” I laugh and say yes, that’s our governor, he smiles and returns to the pocket work.
There is a temple to Hanuman in the eastern hills above the city. The path up is too steep for cars and rickshaws so very few tourists make the fifteen minute walk. On the way to the top, a gang of boys comes at me laughing and offering me their left hands to shake – evidently an insult in this land – I laugh and scamper up the hillside to avoid them. At the top I meet the monk. His name is Ram Niwas and we proceed to spend the next hour enjoying the view, ringing various bells, and talking about Rama, Sita, Ganesh, and Hanuman. Though the temple is dedicated to Hanuman, he is not actually in the central vaulted room. Ram Niwas asks me if I would like to see Hanuman. Of course, I say, and he leads me down some steps that lead through his house to a little locked (to keep out monkeys) room. Inside is a four foot tall statue of Hanuman that is covered head-to-toe in bright orange paint.
“Freshly painted?” I ask
“Oh, yes. A bath for Hanuman every Tuesday and Saturday. Rama on Sunday, and Ganesh on Wednesday.”
“And for you?”
“Every time it rains,” he says with a laugh.