January 20, 2013

Incredible India! (Delhi, India)

We knew that when we decided to stay in Arambol a second week (read here) and fly to Delhi, India's capitol, we were going be in both ends of the India spectrum in the same day. It was very surreal to spend the morning doing yoga in Arambol and have a comfortable day among hippies and then arrive that late afternoon in the madness of Delhi. We met my mother at the airport, who had just arrived from North Carolina- she has always wanted to come India and decided to join us for a few weeks before heading off to Thailand and Australia. We had decided to stay in a few nicer places in Delhi because the cities can be intense and because we wanted my mom's first exposure to India to be comfortable, so we hopped in a taxi and headed to our home stay, K-One-One, in a nice neighborhood called the Defence Colony. After a good night's sleep, we ventured out into Delhi to explore. Since we were attending Nakul and Kunjan's wedding in a two days we knew this first day in India would be spent getting clothes for the wedding. While the neighborhood and the guest house were nice, the metro station is on the other side of an 8-lane highway that had to crosswalk/subway/overpass, so we had to make a terrifying trip across two four lane highways to get to the subway station. It was a real life game of Frogger. Going forward one lane while a rickshaw zooms by and stopping in the road because we didn't know if a motorcycle bearing down on us was going to going in front of us or behind us. This first day, a young Indian man saw our confusion and fear and stepped out in the street to and helped my mother cross the chaos of the street. We made it across, sighed in relief and then headed for the subway into downtown. Everything in Delhi is draining- crossing the street, haggling with a shop keeper, getting on the subway, getting OFF the subway, waiting in line for a restaurant, shirking beggars. As a tourist - it is all so overwhelming. 

Once we made it to the subway our battle had just begun. The subways are packed, and even when an empty subway car pulls up, Indians rush on and off the trains, pushing, elbowing and clawing to be the first on or off the train. Once we had fought our way into the city center we headed to a government emporium for Indian clothes so we could get saris for the ladies and a suit and kurta pyjama for myself. This took most of the afternoon, but the staff was very helpful and got us set up for the wedding. After hours of shopping and struggling with the crowds we decided to head back to the rooftop of the guesthouse (surviving the 8 lane highway again on our return) and drink some of the whiskey my Mom brought from duty free, and prepared to take on Delhi the next day. 
Mom and Steph in a bicycle rickshaw
The next morning we set off to do some sight-seeing of Delhi. We needed to head back to downtown Delhi, so we braved the crossing of the highway again. I started to walk across the four lanes with Steph and my mom at my side, so they were shadowing each step. My mom and I made it to the median, but Steph had been separated from us as a motorcycle cut closely between my mom and her. After a few anxious moments of her in the middle of this four lane road with cars flying past her at 60-65kph, she made it to the median. We re-grouped and prepared to cross the next four lanes. All of the sudden we heard, a loud screech and all turned around in time to see an elderly man get hit by a speeding car and fly about 6 or 7 feet into the air, head over feet, before landing in the road. This all happened about 10 feet from where we were standing and very close to where Steph had been stranded in the highway only seconds earlier. We gasped, traffic halted (so we raced to the other side of the road), and I stood on the side of the highway trying to console both my wife and my mother, who were both crying. We had all been convinced that we had just witness  a man die right in front of us. We were relieved when, somehow, the man got up and was dragged to the side of the road. A cop was standing close by and spoke to the man and the driver for a few seconds, then the car drove off, the man staggered down the sidewalk and everything went back to normal. It was a shocking way to start our day in Delhi and was particularly shocking for my mother, who had been in India lest than 36 hours. Needless to say, that experience put a damper on our sightseeing day in Delhi, and we found ourselves with little motivation to see much.

We did visit Jama Masjid, Chandni Chowk, a very crowded bazaar, and the spice market, but our hearts weren't in it. We vowed not to cross the street on foot again. Instead, we hired rickshaws to take us around the block. That night, we talked to the guesthouse owner about what had happened and he said that members of their neighborhood had been petitioning for a pedestrian overpass to be built and that, while the city had agreed that it was necessary, construction isn't planned to be complete for another 1-3 years. It was a stark reminder of some of the things we take for granted at home - things that we don't even think about; using a pedestrian overpass, having a crosswalk, or having road rules makes our lives automatically more protected. 


The next day we headed over to Gurgaon, a southern suburb of Delhi (technically in the state of Haryana) where the wedding was taking place. The actual wedding ceremony was taking place on Friday evening while the reception was on Saturday. On Friday afternoon, we arrived at the guesthouse Nakul arranged, and were welcomed warmly (with amazing Indian food) by his very close family. Nakul's family was coming from all over Inida, Malaysia, England and the States. We got ready (Steph got help wrapping her sari) and headed over to the turban wrapping ceremony. We felt very honored to be apart of these intimate parts of the wedding where at times we were the only non-family in attendance. After the turban wrapping ceremony the groom's family and friends all met on the side of a highway about half a mile from the hotel where the wedding ceremony was taken place. About 40 of us (mostly Nakul's family members), as well as a band, men carrying heavy lanterns on their shoulders, and a generator, all led Nakul, who was riding a white horse. The band would stop every 50 feet or so, and refuse to continue towards the wedding until people dance and tip them. So there we are, diverting traffic on a four-lane highway, shooting fireworks up into the sky and sometimes into traffic, with a scared horse (and a nervous rider), an open generator with gas spitting out of it, and a loud band announcing Nakul's arrival. It was amazing and terrifying and insane and completely 'India.' 

Steph and my mom at the turban-wrapping ceremony
Me, dancing in the street
Check out some video we took of the procession here:

Once we arrived to the gates of the hotel, Kunjan's family came out to greet Nakul's family. They danced a bit together and then headed to the gorgeous outside garden of the hotel, where most of the evening's events took place. Shortly after Nakul and his family arrived, Kunjan came out in a brilliantly colorful lehenga choli. She looked amazing and there was an audible gasp when her guests first saw her. She headed to the stage where Nakul was waiting. After a few symbolic gestures and actions by each of the families, including putting a flower wreath over each others heads, they had to take photos with pretty much every guest at the wedding. This took hours and kept them occupied while the rest of the guests hit the buffet and mingled. At 11:30pm, after most of the 250 or so guests had left, a small group headed inside where the traditional Hindu wedding ceremony took place. Nakul and Kunjan's families and friends went out of their way to explain the ceremony to us (which took close to 3 hours). The ceremony was very spiritual and traditional, but was still casual - some people napped in the back, and they served tea and cookies throughout the night while the priest chanted prayers or made offerings. We got back to the our guesthouse around 3:30am. 

Late night at the wedding

With the bride and groom
The Saturday night was another great night, but much more relaxed and informal. It was a great weekend, not only for the unique experience of going to an Indian wedding, but because we met so many great people. Nakul and Kunjan's friends and family were the most hospitable, welcoming people we have every met and, if any of them is reading this - Thank you so much for befriending us and helping us feel a part of things. It was absolutely our pleasure to meet you all.

And now for a story about Incredible India (which is the ad campaign they use for tourism). Although we had a great experience with Nakul and Kunjan's families we realized that heading to Varanassi and then Agra (all very intense places) might be draining after our already exhausting time in Delhi. We decided to change up our plans a bit and head north to the mountains of McLeod Ganj, where the Dalai Lama lives. The 12 hour bus ride didn't leave until 5pm so we relaxed at the hotel the next day and took the subway into downtown Delhi. The next hour was one of the more ridiculous times in my life, but I'm sure telling this story could never convey how ridiculous of a day it was. The ticket for the bus we were taking said to wait outside "Agarwal Sweet Shop" for the bus. Once again, only in India would they not give you an address, but just tell you to wait outside a candy shop until someone picks you up. We took a short rickshaw ride to the sweet shop and looked around- no bus, or any sign of other people waiting for a bus. We asked around but, something we've noticed about India is that, if you ask someone for directions that they do not know, they will just tell you something, even if it's wrong. We haven't figured out why there is an aversion to saying "I don't know where that is," but there is. So, when we asked people for confirmation of the bus stop, they sent us on walks around the block several times. 

Still unsure of where the bus was we explained our situation to a nice man leaving with a large bag of sweets. He informed us that the police had set-up a temporary road block (they just stick a couple of fences in the street to force people to slow down), so the bus company had probably moved the pickup location so they wouldn't have to pay a bribe to the police. He kindly called the bus company for us, as no-one spoke English and explained that the pick-up location had moved and we needed to get there quickly, as they were waiting for us. He hailed a bicycle rickshaw, said something to the driver and told us to get on. Bicycle rickshaws are great for short rides or for a few people, but there were 3 of us and we were loaded down with all of our luggage and this poor young guy is supposed to pedal all of us. But, at this point, we have no options, so we load up the luggage in the back and my mom and Steph sit down, while I lay partially across Steph with my butt sticking out the side of the rickshaw and my head and shoulders laying over the luggage in the back. We looked ridiculous. This is a country where 25 people pile into a truck and cram onto trains, so they're no stranger to piling into or onto modes of transportation,  but I knew we looked ridiculous because, when I looked back into traffic, I could see people pointing, laughing, and blankly staring at us in shock. At one point the road got too steep for the boy, so Steph and I hopped out and walked quickly while my mom stayed in the rickshaw with the luggage. 

We came to a giant roundabout and realized we had to think of something else, as the traffic was insane and we knew we couldn't get across it on foot, so we asked him where we needed to go (because our helper with the bag of sweets didn't tell us - he only told our non-English-speaking rickshaw driver) and he gave us a vague wave. We realized he wasn't even sure where we were supposed to be going. At this point, we're in a neighborhood with NO tourists and we don't feel entirely safe. We were completely lost and were filled with anxiety, frustration, and an overwhelming urge to laugh hysterically. I grabbed a traffic policeman and had him talk to the bus company on the phone and, as he did this, local beggar children crowded around us, pulling on our clothing and our bags. This is always a difficult thing to experience (especially when you know there's nothing you can do in that moment to help them), but was particularly overwhelming at that moment. The policeman didn't speak any English but just pointed the direction from which we had come. He couldn't explain where we needed to go, but just kept pointing adamantly. We started heading that way, but we didn't have much confidence in where we were going, so we stopped someone else who spoke a little English to talk to the bus company. The policeman sees us do this, furious that we haven't just taken his advice (even though we had no idea what the advice was or where we were going), storms across the roundabout yelling at us and pointing down the street. Finally, the man with the phone tells us to go to the yellow building 200 meters away. We thank him, cross the street and find the bus parked on a nondescript road, in front of an ordinary building, with no signs or indication that one might catch a bus there. One of the employees greeted us and said, "We have been waiting for you," as if this was all our fault. When we told him we were waiting by Aggarwal Sweets for the bus, he said, "Ah yes, we couldn't pick up there"- like we were idiots for not knowing this. We were hurried on the bus, since we had supposedly kept everyone waiting- and sat there for 30 minutes before pulling away. 

This was all of the good and bad of India wrapped up in one crazy experience. It was utterly frustrating, heartbreaking, illogical, maddening, funny, and humbling. We were given horrible advice, bad directions, and were working within a completely broken system. But we were also helped by strangers on the street and were greeted warmly by all those who had patiently waited for us on the bus. Aaaah….Incredible India.

Take a look at all of our pics from Delhi here. Some more of our favorites are below.

Steph, before the turban-wrapping ceremony
Kunjan, the bride arrives

Placing garlands around each other

Some video of the ceremony can be seen here:

 Take a look at all of our pics from Delhi here.

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