Getting to India already started as chaos. After driving too long to the airport, we waited for our airline check-in, and then headed to the lounge. Probably one of the better lounges we’ve been to in an airport. It had a great variety of food, showers, massages, and a bar. It did the job for the multiple hours we had to spend there as our flight to Kuala Lumpur from Bali was delayed an hour. We were pretty sure we weren’t going to make our connecting flight to New Delhi because of the delay but we landed with 30 minutes until departure and absolutely sprinted from two security checkpoints to our plane and actually made it in time (they did hold the plane because so many people were delayed getting on).
We arrived late Monday night to our Air BnB, back to our usual staying in a room in a house. A more authentic experience we like to think, and we were very excited! We were staying with an Indian man and woman whose son is currently working in America and does a lot of their Air BnB correspondence. The reviews for the place were amazing and I was hoping to learn some recipes from the mom and enjoy a few home cooked meals. We only had 2 full days in India and in hindsight I wish we had more. When planning this trip, I wasn’t too keen on India, I don’t know why it just didn’t speak to me. I knew I had to see it because I’m all the way on this side of the world and half of me and half of my family is Indian, so it would make sense. Bottom line, more time would’ve been better, but you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.
Our first morning breakfast of curried potatoes and paratha (another type of warm Indian flat bread) was left of the dining room table for us. It was absolutely delicious we could’ve eaten mounds of it. When we were done Scott was cleaning up the dishes and of course dropped and shattered one of the bowls, at least we were going shopping that day so finding a replacement bowl was on our to-do list. We hadn’t seen the location of our Air BnB in the light, so it was a pleasant surprise that it was located just next to a beautiful park and had lots of friendly dogs waiting for treats, roaming around.
The first thing we had to do was get to the metro station to purchase a ticket so that we could get to the train station to purchase another ticket, to get to the Taj Mahal the next day. Sounds like a process? It was! Most metro stations are set up the same, and if you’re lucky the ticketing kiosk has an English option (we were lucky that day), seamlessly we got a ticket and walked through security to get to the metro. An interesting thing about India is that the trains and metro require you to send your bags through screening, you to go through a metal detector, and to get patted down. The women have a separate pat-down station that is in a box shielded from everyone else with an all-female staff. It felt a little bit safer to go through all these precautions until we realized that they aren’t watching the bags go through the scanner but are instead staring at you or talking to their friends. Oh well, at least it looked intimidating!
Anyways, the metro was very clean and worked as any metro in any city worked. We got to the main Delhi station for the train, went up a series of stairs and dark hallways and eventually found the international help office. From there we were able to schedule our train to the Taj Mahal the next day and a train back. Unfortunately, our times were not all available, but we did get to leave early to get to the Taj before it got super chaotic. The only issue was that our return time was unavailable so we had to figure out how to kill 10 hours in Agra before we could take the train home.
That was our first task of the day and the rest of just wandering around Old Delhi and trying to take in as much as possible. We only had one day to spend in Delhi, and the other was to go to the Taj Mahal. Scott was determined to get into the thick of it, as he likes to call it, so into the thick we went. I’m going to be honest we went to quite a few markets and I couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. I do know that some of the best ones were the spice market, the cloth market, and Chandni Chowk. Before we walked through the massive markets, we decided that lunch was a priority. One of the most unfortunate things about Delhi is we couldn’t carelessly eat the street food like we do in most places. We were rampantly warned by locals and touristy alike that “Delhi Belly” (food poisoning) was common and to be careful. Just when we thought we found something that was safe, someone would tell us otherwise. So much looked so good, and honestly if we weren’t going to be on a plane in two days, we probably would’ve gone for it. But alas the risk was not worth the reward in this case. Instead we found a restaurant in Old Delhi called, Karim’s. We found out about this place from that Netflix documentary I mentioned in the Singapore post, “Street Food.” The restaurant smelled amazing, was absolutely packed, and had a ton of people ushering you to a table. It was worth it to spend a few extra dollars for something we knew we weren’t going to get sick off of. We ordered buttered naan (tasted like a warm pretzel), roti (typical Indian warm flat bread), buttered chicken (orange curry with a swirl of coconut cream and chunks of bone in thigh meat)… one second on thigh meat, my mom always cooks with thighs, I try to cook with thighs, thighs really are the best meat. They stay moist, are more flavorful, and the bottom line is if you want better taste cook or eat chicken that is bone in thigh meat! End of side rant. We also ordered chicken tikka, which is like spice rubbed meat, skewered and grilled with onions and peppers. There was no fault in anything. It was absolutely delicious, and we wished it wasn’t so far away from our apartment or else we would’ve been eating there for every meal.
Once we could get our minds off of being hungry, with tummies full, we continued on to a few massive markets just steps away from our lunch spot. There we saw people selling everything and anything you could imagine: car parts, knick-knacks, bowls, pressure cookers, knock-off everything, desserts, dried fruit, strange puffs of dough stuffed with more unknowns, giant furry blankets (who needs that in India?!) and my favorite thing, Chai. Chai is sold on pretty much every street; you just have to find one that calls to you. People have it served up in paper cups from thermos’ or at stalls with giant woks filled with boiling milk, a sieve to separate the spices, and perfect aim for pouring into a cup from 4 feet above (I think they do this to incorporate air and make the Chai light). We enjoyed our street Chai from Tea Point. I’m pretty sure we got scammed on the price, but it didn’t matter to me because I was in Chai heaven. Creamy, spicy, all the cozy feelings of Christmas in a cup. I love a good cup of chai.
Now that I’ve buttered you up a bit, a little on the disparity of India. At first, I wasn’t bothered by the stares, I assumed because Scott and I looked like the only tourists in much of the areas we were walking in (him being the only white person we saw while walking around) we expected to get some looks. But as the day went on, and our whole time in India progressed, I became exhausted and irritated by the stares, which I then noticed were more directed at me than him. People aggressively staring at me, like stop in their tracks and stare until I was out of sight even if they were standing in the middle of the road type of stares. Scott said at one point that I probably was looked at more in that day because of the sheer mass of people then I had ever been looked at on a single day in my life. I’m trying to not remember my time in India as uncomfortable but a lot of it was because of this. Overall, Delhi was a complete culture shock, the saddest place I have ever been. We walked around with street kids begging and throwing themselves at us or between us and cars, people walking around with our eyes, limbs, and so on, people with polio a vaccine preventable disease, the poorest of poor digging through and living in trash. There were cows in the streets everywhere, trash everywhere, stray dogs who had clearly been beaten, pollution that makes you feel like your lungs are clogged, people who will never know what it’s like to have electricity or a flushing toilet. We met women who had been doused with acid by their husbands, mothers, and strangers. It was an incredibly sad place, and with a billion plus people it is right in your face. You are forced to acknowledge it. It changes your life, what you value, and how to move forward. India is a place that though it was not my favorite, I believe everyone should visit (I will bring my children here to experience this) because it will give you new perspective.
But it’s not all bad. Delhi has so much to offer in textiles, kind people, good smells and lots of color. We went through street blocks of saris with beautiful, intricate details in every color you could imagine. There were hilarious rickshaw drivers who effortlessly weaved through traffic with even a joke to spare. I saw spice bags as tall as me, fragrant, unfamiliar, and tempting. It was a shock to the senses, an adventure, as the guy next to me on the airplane said when I told him it was my first time in India.
Scott and I purchased some biscuits to give stray dogs and, in the process, we met a sweet man selling candles for Diwali. I tried to purchase just one candle from him, but he misunderstood me and gave me a whole pack, regardless we made a friend and Scott went back and gave him some more money to hopefully help him out.
We ended our first day with a small local market for dinner. Ate some popcorn on the way (it’s got to be safe to eat right?) and enjoyed spicy corn in a cup and grilled chicken with naan for dinner. An exhausting day to say the least, but we were off to bed early because we had to wake up to catch our 6am train the next morning to Agra, where the Taj Mahal resides.
Along with the metro, busses, trains, rickshaws, taxis, India also has Uber. Which is obviously super convenient, safe, and useful for us. We were able to take an early morning Uber to the Delhi station in order to arrive 30 minutes before our departure. In case we were confused, we wanted to give ourselves ample time to get lost and find our way again. Luckily, we found our platform immediately and headed toward our train, berth, and seat numbers. We opted for an airconditioned, speed train, and to our surprise that also meant we got a meal, water, and tea both ways. It was one of more pleasant slow-travel experiences.
Arriving in Agra, we were greeted by haggling rickshaws and not so convenient Ubers. We opted for rickshaw to the Taj Mahal as it was only a short distance. Passing by cows, dogs, people, carts, on the way as our driver navigated the no rules of the road rules. He dropped us off at the less popular gate, as we asked, but not without trying to scam us first. A common thing for rickshaw drivers to do is to take you to places they are commissioned to bring tourists. So, he tried to tell us that the Taj was closed for three hours and he needed to take us to a breakfast place first. We insisted that he drop us at the gate as we knew that the Taj was not closed because why would it be at 9am on a weekday. Scott says that I’m hesitant to trust anyone when we travel, and he’s not wrong, but it’s for reasons like this. I could be a little less edgy in these situations… but it’s a work in progress!
Sure enough, we got to the gates of the Taj Mahal and it wasn’t closed! We went through what they called VIP entrance, which is just supposed to make tourists feel fancy, and collected our shoe covers for the mosque entrance. When we walked through the main gates that open to the garden, pools, and the Taj Mahal we were honestly captivated by the seen. It was better than you could’ve ever imagined. There absolutely nothing built in the background of the mosque, so it looked like it was just floating, there was no real sense of depth, and it is massive. Scott compared it to looking at the Grand Canyon, it looked like a picture. We spent some time getting pictures, walking the grounds, and spending an extra few dollars to go into the actual mosque (where you must wear the shoe coverings) this I would not recommend for the extra money though. They cram you into a small section of the mosque, have someone try to entice you by telling you a tale of love, and then they ask for more money! Take our advice and save money, just look at the Taj Mahal from the outside, it is much grander than the inside.
After the Taj Mahal we decided to go to a small café just down the road called “Sheroes.” The café was dedicated to helping victims of the acid attacks in India. When we got there all the food and drink is paid by your choice of donation. We ordered a few things and donated accordingly. Then we watched an informational video that provided context of the acid attack victims. Women all over the country are being attacked by having acid poured on them, often when they’re sleeping, by their husbands, mothers, brothers, and strangers. No one helps them, they’re left with excruciating burns on their faces and bodies and forced to have tens of surgeries. Many women said they would rather be shot by guns then have acid poured on them, that’s how intense this was. Often, their attackers never even receive punishment, but this is changing with the help of organizations such as Sheroes, who help the victims. Currently they are working towards regulating acid sales and providing proper trial for victims. Sheroes also provides a space for acid victims to work in the café, we met a few lovely women this way.
On the train home we took in our last bits of India as we passed through the countryside. We reflected a bit, I had strong views both in favor and against our time in India. In the end, I think we spent an OK amount of time there. I would like to come back and visit a few more places, maybe volunteer in some health clinics, and adopt a dog 😊 We both are incredibly thankful and humbled by our experience there, and I have a feeling we will be back.