11/5/07 Hello from Delhi! Our tour starts this afternoon and I wanted to get this blog posted before that. The travelogue that I have written and will attach below will tell you about our journey. What it doesn't cover is the time between my last post and the start of this trip. Besides all the packing and organizing, there was a very nice farewell Happy Hour and dinner around our neighborhood fire pit with our special Park Sierra friends, hosted by Carol Rodely. Because the weather had turned chilly, the new fire pit got a workout and was much appreciated.
Saturday we drove to San Diego and stayed with Darran & Marielle for two nights. They are doing well and very happy now that they are engaged. Here is a picture of them with the Dana Hotel behind them, which is where they will be married next October.
We walked over there with them on a sunny Sunday and had a delicious lunch at the fish restaurant across the street at the marina. Then we all went to Marielle's sister's house for dinner and Halloween. Here is a picture of Meg and Marielle.
The young people all carved some pumpkins. Here is Darran with his:
Two of the couples have little girls, and they were dressed up for the occasion:
There were not too many Trick or Treaters this year so the adults at the party did the most damage to the candy bowl. A good time was had by all thanks to Meg & Ben. Here they are with their "baby", Daisy.
The next day, we got ready for the big adventure, which is described below in our first travelogue. It is rather lengthy, but then we are having so many new experiences that we are enthusiastic!
India Trip Travelogue #1
The odyssey began Nov. 1 when we boarded the Amtrak train from San Diego to Union station in Los Angeles, and then caught the Flyaway bus to LAX. This was such a delightful way to get there as over a long distance, the tracks ran right along the oceanside, with wonderful views. And the ticket prices are fairly inexpensive. Our senior discount tickets added up to a bit less than $60 for 2, with the Flyaway bus costing $7 each. At LAX we had several hours to relax after dropping off our bags at British Airways and going through the lengthy security process. Having rarely flown out of LAX, we didn't know that most of the good places to eat and drink are located before you pass through the security check. So we had a very expensive beer and hot sandwich at the one bar/deli near our boarding gate. Our flight to London left at 6:25PM and the plane was packed. There was a large contingent of young girls of various ages and their chaperones who had done quite well at an Irish dancing competition, judging by the numbers of medals hanging around their necks. I was seated next to a very nice young Spanish woman who was a pilot for Iberia Airlines and who had just gotten married in Hawaii. Her husband is a botanist working on an advanced degree in California, so he stayed behind. It turns out that she lives in Palma de Mallorca, one of the islands where our ship will call on the cruise we are taking after the India part of this trip. She gave us her card and told us to call her when we get there. So many nice people with interesting stories are out there which always make even the fairly uncomfortable parts of travel delightful.
The flight was decent, with the very nice flight attendant, Marsha, supplying us with lots of small bottles of wine. It was disconcerting that there were so many movies, TV shows, and other entertainment on offer right on the small screens in front of each seat, but the volume wasn't loud enough to overcome the engine noise. On the next leg of our journey, from Heathrow to Delhi, we were seated in the front part of the plane with better seats and different headsets, which totally blocked out the plane noise, and we happily watched a movie we had been hoping to see. Isobel, the pilot we had met, said that at Heathrow we would not have to go through security again so we took several of the unopened bottles of wine with us off the plane. Unfortunately, she was wrong and we had to endure that unpleasant ordeal once again. And, of course, they confiscated every bottle we had. The plane was not full at Heathrow, and because some people had checked some bags and then not arrived for the flight, we were delayed for an hour while they found those bags and off-loaded them.
Although that delay caused us to be late arriving in Delhi, and despite the fact that it took a long time to go through customs, and then retrieve our bags, as we exited the airport, thankfully there was Sachim waiting for us. He works for Intrepid Travel just picking up people from the airport and helping them check in at the hotels. All the travel books warn about the touts at the airport, ready to convince unwary travelers to go with them on an over-priced ride to a similarly over-priced hotel. They were waiting outside the arrivals hall in their hundreds! Speaking of the airport and the arrivals hall, their terminal is new and gorgeous. Here is a picture of the decorations in the customs area:
Sachim called his driver and off we went on the 25km trip to Karol Bagh, the district of our hotel. While we were off-loading the plane, we had noticed a burning smell and as we exited the airport building we discovered it was from all the air pollution. The air was even worse with smog than we had experienced in China. As we motored along we noticed many of the things we had read about: cows standing on and alongside the road, cement tenement buildings, some people living along the roadside in tents or corrugated metal shelters, motorized rickshaws swerving in and out amongst the many taxis and trucks, areas of broken sidewalks with abundant litter, fields with smoldering garbage, people picking through garbage heaps, and lots of unfinished looking cement buildings.
The area where our hotel is located would be considered a slum in the United States. The front of the hotel looks nice, and the interior is clean and mostly wood and marble, but the buildings all around it look shabby. Here is a picture of the front:
Our room is fairly decent with all the amenities we need: TV with English stations, internet access, bathroom & shower, fridge, coffeemaker, etc. There is a whole row of stalls across the street selling car accessories. People pull up to have upholstery installed or repaired, buy parts, etc.
Just around the corner is one of the main streets although there is not a lot of traffic because the street is so clogged with people selling things off street carts, walking in the street because the sidewalk is so uneven and broken, eating off food carts, and all of this taking place in front of store fronts. We walked down to the McDonalds about 3 blocks away because it was the only restaurant we could find. The menu is very different because they don't eat beef here (Hindu people don't eat meat). So we had a veggie burger and a wrap that was a type of cheese (paneer) with a few veggies and salsa in a flatbread wrap. There were also some chicken choices, but no lamb, as we had been told. The place was packed. Of course, because we hardly slept on the planes, we were exhausted, so we slept for a while and then went back out on the street later. There is a lot going on probably because the Diwali Festival starts Friday. This is kind of like Christmas for the Hindus. There were lots of strings of lights over the street, and several special things are happening, such as women getting elaborate patterns painted on their hands. In other countries this has been done in henna, which lasts about 3 weeks. Here it is just a shiny, brownish paint which lasts a week or so. As we walked around, we could see that there had been quite an accumulation of litter and garbage on the streets as the day progressed, so apparently people here think it is someone else's job to clean up after them.
We tried to find a bank to change money but ended up at the money changer nearby. It was also a travel agency and telegram office. The rate we got was 44 repees per dollar with no commission, which was very good compared to the airport exchange booths which offered 41.3 rupees and a 10% commission. Unfortunately for us, the dollar is dropping, so this trip is getting more expensive as we go along.
Thursday morning we had the complimentary breakfast at our hotel and it was a nice assortment of foods, plus coffee, toast and eggs. Clearly they cater to foreign visitors. We chatted with two Canadian ladies who were just finishing their trip and they warned us about being really careful about only drinking bottled water, not eating salads, washing fruit even before peeling it, using hand sanitizer especially after handling money, etc. There are fruit vendors on the street with beautiful displays of things like pineapple, and it is killing us that we can't eat it!
When we asked the hotel clerk about taking the Metro to see some of the sights, he gave us a good map and some help and then he said he could get us a taxi and driver to use all day (8 hours) for 950 rupees. This was only about $22 and would enable us to get to more of the far-flung sights, so we agreed to do it. He picked us up at 9:30AM and we were immediately glad to have him because several women beggars with small babies were very persistent when we went out to get into the car and we literally had to shut the door in their faces. Again we noticed that the air was very bad. We asked the driver, Ramiz, about it, and he said that it wasn't particularly bad at this time of year; May was the worst. It was worth it to take the car just to experience driving around on the streets and be right in the traffic. My God – it is amazing that everyone isn't killed. They swerve and weave into every available opening with no regard for lanes or allowing anyone any stopping space. There are auto rickshaws, small trucks, mopeds, motorcycles, bicycles, buses, cars, horse-drawn carts, and people all vying for space on the very crowded roads. Here is a picture of an auto rickshaw:
And here is a loaded bicycle with the pusher guy in back:
If there are 2 lanes, they make at least 5 or 6. Many of the bicycles are carrying huge loads of goods, and sometimes have a man riding on the front and one pushing the load from the back as he runs along with the bike. Mopeds are carrying entire families. They leave so little room between vehicles that every car has scratches and dents on the sides and often on the back. And if they didn't get damaged while driving, they would while parked because they leave about 2 inches between cars.
Ramiz drove us first to the Lakshmi Narayan Temple which is a large and impressive temple erected in 1938 by a rich industrialist and dedicated appropriately to Lakshimi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. We merely stopped across the street to take pictures.
He then drove us by the huge and impressive parliament building and the associated congress halls, but again, we just drove by. There was a huge park area near the India gate, but because parking was difficult, we didn't stop to see this monument which is like the Arc d' Triomphe in Paris, but not as big. It is a tribute to the 90,000 soldiers of the British Indian Army who fought in WWI. We could barely make it out because of all the air pollution. At the Mahatma Gandhi last home and assassination site, we found a very peaceful place with beautiful gardens, lots of information, and some exhibits illustrating his life and achievements. It was free and very well maintained. We had again watched the movie “Gandhi” before coming here, which greatly contributed to our understanding of the political situations which influenced his life. The next stop was at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum. She was not related to Mahatma Gandhi but was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. She was India's first woman president and prime minister. The museum was her home, and it was filled with exhibits about all of her achievements in addition to displaying some of her personal effects and furniture. It was interesting to see her office, bedroom, dining room, etc. and the beautiful grounds. There is a glass path across the grass indicating where she was walking when she was shot by one of her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, and there is still an honor guard here.
This museum is also free and well kept. In the car park there were men selling peeled cucumbers, with chili sauce of course. This was a unique snack food, we thought, but we didn't dare eat one.
We had a fairly long drive south to the Qutab Minar, the world's tallest brick minaret at over 210 feet and started building in 1139 under India's first Muslim ruler. Because of the smog, we could barely see it and didn't relish the idea of paying 250 rupees each to enter the area and climb it because the views from the top would have been zilch.
The practice here is that Indians pay about 10 rupees and foreigners pay 250, for many of the monuments. Ramiz was quite surprised that we didn't go in. He then drove us to a restaurant for lunch after which we wish we had insisted he take us somewhere else. It was overpriced and clearly existed off feeding foreigners mediocre food. I suppose Ramiz got his meal for free because he took us here, a common practice in many of these countries and one we had experienced before in the Middle East. The last stop of the day was at the Red Fort, one of the main attractions in Delhi. The red sandstone walls are nearly 100 feet tall and form a rough oblong of over 2 km.
Shah Jahan, the same ruler who built the Taj Mahal, started this fort in 1638 and it was completed in 1648. It took us a couple of hours to walk there from the car park and see all the gardens and buildings inside. Once again, we paid 250 rupees each and the locals paid 10. I guess this is only fair because they don't make much money and they wouldn't be able to see and appreciate the monuments of their own country if it cost too much. Even so, there are many parts of it that are under repair or restoration, and a lot more of it is in sad disrepair. There are the usual things you find in a palace complex: a bazaar area for commerce, the bath area or hammams, a pavilion for public audiences, one for private audiences, living quarters, extensive gardens, outdoor pavilions, and servants quarters.
By the time we got back to our hotel, it was nearly 4:30 PM and we were exhausted, even though we had been driven around the whole day. Jet lag is still having its effect, I suspect. After a rather mediocre dinner at the nearby Raffles Restaurant, we hit the sack early. We have noticed that the nearby main street is very busy and crowded, with open stores and shops and then it comes to an abrupt halt at 9PM. There were a lot more sounds of fireworks into the night last night, so the Diwali celebrations have started already.