“Where the Sam Hill is everybody?!?”

Well, we’ve made it to New York City and Christine’s cousin’s apartment! We’re officially finished with our time in India and I have to say, as fun as it might sound to be in a giant country’s giant capitol city for their Independence Day…if you only have one day in said capitol, do your darndest to avoid it in Delhi, India.

We had hoped for a leisurely day of sightseeing a museum or two, and Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial site…but every single thing was closed. We had looked for restaurants for lunch around noon, but everything was locked and barred. The streets were almost empty, and it in no way felt like India’s second most populated city (although if you’ll recall our feelings about socializing from the end of my previous post, this was definitely a positive). A turbaned Sikh rickshaw driver told us as we were walking to the Gandhi memorial that he was positive it was closed, but we had been told back at the hotel that it should be open. “I will take you there myself,” he replied “if it is open, then no charge for my driving you. If it is closed, then 20 rupees.” Well, it only took 45 seconds and it was probably the easiest 20 he’d made in a while.

This is, unfortunately, the closest we got to the main thing we came to Delhi to see

He did, however, tell us what would be open – the fabulous Gundawara Sikh Temple, and at no charge, too. “80 rupees, or 50 if you’ll just stop by my friend’s shop…” This is a common strategy in India. Stores will give rickshaw or taxi drivers either a commission or a fuel voucher for bringing tourists to them, but in least at Delhi with us, the drivers were upfront with us that they were willing to pass the cost savings onto you if you had the time to spare. And he knew we probably did, because everything was closed.

So that’s how we ended up at a huge rug store, run by a Muslim in a long white robe who literally danced with happiness when he saw us. “My name is Happy!” he proclaimed, then twirled on one foot and snapped his fingers in the air. “Please my friends, enjoy a cup of tea with me while we show you the finest silks in Delhi!” He danced all over a pile of rugs that his employees spread on the floor for us, and we let him talk to us for 10 minutes when we politely found a way to excuse ourselves and get back out to our waiting Sikh taxi. “But my friends your tea has not yet arrived!” Happy (or Kursheed, in his own language) said plaintively. “I’m sure those two will be happy to drink it instead,” I replied, pointing to another couple tourists were being hesitantly ushered through the door by a rickshaw driver. Happy must give out the best coupons.

The pool was filled with curious catfish, like this fellow, and koi

The Sikh temple had a huge shallow pool behind it, with waters that were supposedly holy. Hundreds of Indians were clustered around its edges (it was about half the size of a football field) wading in it, dipping their children in it, or even full on bathing in it. One thing the Sikh guards didn’t like though, were people sitting on its edges…a couple of white robed old fellows with stout staves were making the rounds along the edges of the pool, sharply rapping the marble steps next to anyone like myself who sat down for a second. “Stand up now,” one of them grunted at me, and the other gestured with his staff. Alright then! So we went inside the temple itself (after procuring proper head covering for both Christine and myself; Sikhs might have their turbans but I had my dear, beat up old hat from Jordan – only Christine needed to find a shawl to wrap around her hair). Inside, people were bowing and prostrating themselves before an alter with a man reading a book on it, and then tossing money into a huge long slotted box in front of him. We found out that it was a copy of the Sikh holy book, which is given an entire room to itself when not being displayed (“like a woman,” the young Sikh man who we asked about the curtained room at the corner of the temple told us).

In the center, a turbaned sea monster lurks

Back outside, we had some Prasad, which according to our guidebook and tripadvisor, is well-known throughout Delhi for being particularly tasty at this temple. We each donated 10 rupees to a man behind a counter, received a computer printout with our donation printed on it (it made us briefly nervous that it wasn’t enough, but I craned my neck and saw that most people were donating similar amounts on their own slips), and then gave that slip to another man at another counter, who slopped a brownish paste into a tinfoil cup and handed it to me. Christine and I sat down under a silk awning, surrounded by other diners, and sampled our blessed snack – it was very oily, like a lot of the north Indian food I’ve had so far, I could see the butter/ghee dripping off of every bit I picked up with my fingers. It tasted a bit like popcorn, actually, if the shells and the kernels together had been crushed down to a paste and mixed with oil. It was pretty good, but 10 rupees worth was definitely enough for me!

All we need now is a large coke and “coming soon to theaters near you”

We continued our walk back towards the center of the city, and stopped at (fittingly, since this was Christine’s last day in India) a south Indian chain restaurant that was packed with people – between the temple and now this restaurant, it was the most people we’d seen anywhere yet today. We each had a dosa, which is a huge piece of fried egg flatbread, about 18 inches in diameter, that is delivered to your table and you then fill it with spicy mashed potatoes and onions. Probably my favorite bit of south Indian cuisine.

After lunch we followed the dull roar of crowds southward to the India Gate, a tall stone structure that basically is the Arc d’Triumph of Delhi (I’m going to guess that it’s one of the many monuments to India’s independence put up in the late 40’s or early 50’s). This was apparently where the entire population of Delhi had been all day – a crowd of hundreds of thousands or more was milling about a large grassy mall that stretched a kilometer or two from the Gate to the Parliament buildings to the west, where the sun was setting majestically behind the tall brown buildings. And of course, just like in Agra, we were a subject of much gawking – and this was magnified hundreds of time. We quickly decided that being at the center of the mall and walking to the Parliament would make us feel like a pizza in front of a fat man, and stuck to the water channel running parallel on the south edge of the Mall. It was much quieter, shadier, and we were barely bothered at all – a good choice. Children and adults alike were flying kites and banners, poor children were offering to paint Indian flags on everyone’s faces for a few rupees, and people were kicking footballs around.

It took about an hour to walk the length, where we were stopped along with dozens of other waiting Indians, by a large line of soldiers with machine guns, who were gruffly yelling at people to back away, don’t sit on the steps, don’t take pictures of us, etc etc (or at least that’s what I theorized from expression and body language, as everyone was shouting in Hindi). I approached an older man with more medals on his chest than most, and asked why cars were whizzing right through their security line in the road that bisected the Mall, if pedestrians weren’t allowed any forward. He said that they weren’t allowed to. “But there they are, they’re just going right past you,” I responded. He kind of shrugged and sighed. That’s about the extent of the Indian security I’ve seen thus far – we’re more than happy to bark at anything that’s easy to stop, or put metal detectors at every possible location – but we won’t actually get off our chairs to stop it, or actually search 90% of the bags, or actually plug in the metal detectors (that’s the funniest part). To be fair, it was about the same way in Jordan too.

“Do not approach the stairs, citizens!”

But at sunset, they let everyone in, and we were all able to walk a couple more blocks and take pictures of the parliament buildings as dusk fell, until we reached another line of policemen barring any further approach to the homes of the President and Prime Minister, behind wrought-iron gates and fences five meters tall. We turned back, along with the rest of the Indian tourists and cars (at least they were stopping them too) and headed back to the metro system through a line of pretty fountains, which now in the darkness had been illuminated in the colors of the Indian flag – orange, white, and green.

Christine and I had a couple more hours left together before her taxi would be picking her up to take her to the airport – we had arrived separately, her for school and me for tourism, so we’d have to leave separately too. But we tracked down a dingy Indian street restaurant a few blocks south of our hotel beforehand, to have a last Dal Fry with chapatti. I was petting a particularly friendly street dog who put his oily head right into my lap and gazed soulfully at me, when a well-traveled looking woman with a floppy hat like mine and a backpack came up to our table and asked us if the last seat was available. We welcomed her, figuring from her attire that she was a tourist like us. However, Rosie (as she introduced herself by saying “this is my seventh face and name”) seemed to be a little off, and was soon asking us if we would buy her dinner and some chai. I consented and let her talk to Christine (she had taken a liking to her, apparently) about how to get free food and housing from the Sikhs and where the cheapest rickshaws were. She said that she was married to an Austrian “but only in the bed he comes to India” but “very soon I will get the money to leave Europe”. When I went up to the counter to pay for our meals, the cashier raised his eyebrow at her and said “You know that woman?” When I admitted that she seemed to be bumming food off of us, he said “that was nice of you to do, I saw that. I was going to warn you she’d ask about that. She’s been coming around here for years now.”

After bidding Rosie farewell and letting her dig into the rest of our Dal Fry if she wanted it, we were both thinking it would be nice to have a last Indian Kingfisher beer together before she left – but we were shocked to find that on national holidays like today, every bar and liquor store (and there aren’t many of either, and the latter are all government run) is closed by national law. What an idea! Can any American imagine what chaos would rule if the US government demanded that on Independence Day, no alcohol be sold? Good grief. However, our hotel’s service assistant was a wily fellow (and for his security, you might note I’ve not mentioned which hotel we stayed at) and when I lamented the problem to the hotel desk, he followed us down to our room, waited until all three of us were behind closed doors, and took our order for a couple tall cans. We had time to pack our bags, and he was back, pulling them from his side pockets and charging 150 rupee a can, which actually wasn’t too bad for black market goods. Hidden subterfuge, but you brought this on yourself with your silly alcohol laws, India.

I saw Christine off in her taxi in the rain and slept well in the king sized bed – I was content to spend the last morning in bed, getting inexpensive room service and writing these blog entries. Two and a half weeks of travel and tourism is definitely enough for me – I’m ready to be back home, at work, and back to normal. i fully expect that we’ll both be back in India together in the next few years though, after all I wouldn’t want to disappoint our soldier friend Anshuman in Varanassi – we have an entire eastern side of the country to see!

Taken by an Indian guy who actually stopped his car on the road to take our picture…at least this time I got him to take a picture with my camera in exchange. Farewell, India!