On The Road, Indian Style
It’s been, as I mentioned a bit of a whirlwind tour of India, and will continue to be so for another week and a half or so until we reach Kathmandu in Nepal. We have spent no more than one night in any city (save Mumbai), and in some cases not even that, arriving in the morning and leaving the same night. It is not the way I enjoy to travel most of the time and I find it is not conducive to getting to know and understand a culture or a people. However given Adam and Emily’s flight and the fact that some cities were only stops to see one or two things it has been a lot of fun nonetheless. In just a week and a half, I have traveled over 2000 km of railway tracks and roads, seen 7 cities in five different states, and watched rocky cliff-like hills dotted with marble quarries turn to monkey-inhabited fertile green forest turn to dry arid farmlands where few crops deign to grow to flat deserts that stretch for uninterrupted miles of scrub, shrub and stunted trees, and passed every mode of transport imaginable from horn-blaring trunk to trains of camels.
The highlights of the journey so far range from simply looking out the window of the train to drinking chai on a street corner with a random stranger discussing Obama’s politics (a favorite topic of discussion for any Indian who gets out more than 4 questions). The first thing you will be asked by any Indian, before even your name is, “Which country you are from?” Usually followed with some sort of “America!? I see, good country, sir!” and then “Your name friend?”, “How long you are in India?”, and “What you like about India?” The curiosity of most Indians about foreigners is never-ending and some, like the sari shop-owning Muslim whose excitement to talk with us with palpable, will bribe you with chai, or some fresh out of the frier samosa in order to keep you around for longer just to learn more about you.
In addition to friendly chai drinkers, Ahdmedabad is also home to some of India’s most interesting architecture. The old town is a beautiful mixture of Jain, Moghul, Gujarati and even European designs, and over the course of the tour we took we were guided through a stunning temple, a wide variety of architectural styles and a beautiful and unusually decorated mosque. Ahdmedabad is in fact such a “happening place” architects such as Louis Khan, Le Corbusier, and Buckminster Fuller have dotted the cityscape with their creations. The Indian Institute of Management (the 11th ranked BMA program in the world apparently) is a fascinating campus of bricks designed by Khan, which thanks to Jess and Adam’s status as students of architecture, we were permitted to visit and photograph. It was a beautiful example of geometry and in many ways it looked like a giant model built using those wooden block toys you have as a child, albeit a very sophisticated set of blocks.
Rajasthan is one of the more well-known Indian states, and is famous for its colors, especially in its handicrafts, clothing, and art. Our trip up to Delhi included stops in both Udaipur (the “city of lakes” home to the palace in which the James Bond “Octopussy” film was filmed) and Jodhpur (the “blue city” home to an absolutely awe-inspiring fort Meherangarh, the ancestral home of the maharajah of Jodhpur). Udaipur was a lovely town where the highlight was simply wandering the narrow, winding, and hilly roads, seeing huge wedding parties, watching children splashing in the river, and enjoying samosas and chais on the street sides, Jodhpur on the other hand, also a small, windy road filled town is dominated by the massive fort on top of the hill – a feat of engineering and architectural genius that it was never taken by a hostile force in its over 500 years of history and required very little restoration work to return it to its former beauty. The tour was a bit expensive (for India) costing around 9 dollars US with a camera pass or 7 without, both including a fantastic audio guide tour – probably the best such tour I’ve ever heard. In addition to the overwhelming impressiveness of the fort, there were stunningly beautiful rooms, fascinating armories, and very interesting galleries, among the more intriguing of which were the palanquins, elephant saddles, and miniature paintings.
It was another night train from Jodhpur up to Delhi, India’s bustling capital, which I have to admit did not impress me overly much. It was the first time in India where I felt uncomfortable, and it is hard to identify exactly why it was so. It is certainly not the friendliest city to which we’ve been, nor is it the prettiest. What I believe it boils down to is simply that the people who we met in Delhi were just overall, not as happy or open as the rest of India. To be fair we saw only a very small slice of the Indian capital – staying in Pahar Ganj – the budget hotel strewn road filled with tourists, touts, and the usual array of useless shops which high concentrations of tourists always attract. We did get to Connaught place, an atrocity of English urban planning, a massive roundabout with three concentric roads to which all the major Delhi streets connect. The concentric circles between the radians also form blocks of buildings which form an upper class shopping complex, a stark contrast to the underground bazar below it, home to knock off cheap electronics, poor imitation clothing, and more useless bad quality handicrafts. And the ruins complex of qutub minar a massively tall, slightly leaning, brick tower which is another testament of early maharajahan engineering. Begun in the 12th century and reaching its final height a couple of centuries later, it is a beautiful monument and the complex has a strange history, being largely Islamic mosques and mausoleums, but the wall carvings of some of the ruins testify to a time when Hinduism became the ruling religion at qutub minar.
I wish that we had had more time in Delhi – I feel that with the time to explore, to get out of Pahar Ganj, it would have been a far more rewarding and positive stop. There were however some shining moments, which includes what was possibly the best meal we’ve had in India. Just off the Main Bazar street where it ends in front of the train station there is a collection of bustling and popular South Indian dabahs (hole-in-the-wall restaurants open to the street usually with a tandoor [Indian clay oven]). I cannot tell you the name of the one to which we went, but it’s just after the lassi/curd stall on the left, directly opposite the internet shop, just in case you end up in Delhi and want some fantastic food. The meal consisted of perfectly spiced curries (dahl fry – lentils, paneer shahi – unpasteurized cheese grilled in a unique masala, rajma – beans and aloo palak – potatoes and spinach) and the most perfectly textured tandoori roti (basically naan) I’ve had in India, magically melding crispy bottom, fluffy insides, and a perfect chewing consistency. It is one of the tastiest memories I have, period.
Next stop on the never-ending (exaggeration) Indian road trip: Agra.