Our journey began the second we stepped off the plane at the Delhi Airport after fourteen hours of flying. Our bodyguard, Sam, was waiting there to pick us up, and led us to the van we would be riding around in during our stay. Soon we met Raj, our knowledgeable tour guide, as well as our Sikh bus driver and his assistant. As soon as we walked out of the airport, there was a distinct smell to the outside air. It is difficult to describe in words, but it is as distinct as the smell of the wind blowing off the ocean in the summer. We loaded into the van and headed to our hotel, watching out the windows the entire time. The streets seemed so peaceful, and we were one of the only vehicles on the road. Cows were the only living things awake, grazing alongside the sidewalks. We had no idea that the streets would soon be filled with the hustle and bustle of the city life, even busier than what we were used to at home.
Our hotel was located in New Delhi, and was called The LaLit. Security at the gate of the hotel was heavier than I expected. There were six security guards, who stopped our van and inspected it for a good two minutes. Once they allowed us to enter, we had to put our suitcases onto a security belt, and then walk through a metal detector. Normally I am annoyed by excessive security, but experiencing such tight security in India made me feel safer and more relaxed. One of the first major cultural differences I experienced was the inspection of men as opposed to women. John got searched thoroughly, while the women just had to open their purses and allow the guard to peek in. It is true that major terrorist attacks are generally carried out by men, but in the United States, the women would get searched just as intensely as the men.After getting through security, we walked into the lobby of a hotel which was probably the nicest I have ever stayed in. The ceilings seemed sky-high, and there were brightly colored paintings on the walls. There were modern pieces of art centered in abstract lighting, and a stone sculpture with a waterfall running down it so that the sparkling water gave the room a grand feeling. We checked in, and went to our rooms to shower and sleep for a few hours so that we could begin our journey well-rested.
We met up at around ten a.m. for breakfast, which was a combination of traditional Indian food and Western breakfast food. Wanting the full Indian experience, I ate mostly Indian food, which was pretty tasty. After breakfast, we exchanged currency at a fair rate: 47 rupees to the dollar. Our first adventure for the day was at a temple called Shri Lakshmi Narain. Getting there in itself was an adventure for us Americans because of the driving situation. People honked every two seconds, which led us to believe that honking takes on a different meaning in India. There were lines painted on the roads defining lanes, but no one followed them. The road was shared among bicyclists, auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, tour buses, cars, and the occasional cow that wanted to cross the street. The quote in the headline comes from Mary referring to the roads here in India. There was a traffic policeman at every intersection, and everyone driving seemed calm even though it appeared chaotic to me. On some of the motorcycles there were three people and a baby, large packages, and nearly no one wearing a helmet. In the United States this would be extremely dangerous and illegal, but in India no one drives fast because it simply isnít possible- the volume of traffic is just too dense for speeds above 45 mph. We arrived at the temple (without wrecking) and were immediately told to take our shoes off. We put our cameras in lockers, since cameras were not allowed, and preceded up the steps of the temple. The sun shone off of the pretty white marble, making those of us without sunglasses squint. At the top of the steps, there were multiple altars, each worshipping a different god or goddess. The most commonly worshipped god was one who was supposed to bring wealth and prosperity. We also later learned that the three ways to achieve salvation were to eliminate greed, anger, and lust. This seemed contradictory, as Mary pointed out- achieving salvation required the elimination of greed, yet the most commonly worshipped god is one who brings wealth. This contradiction does not happen in just one religion though. All religions have contradictions which require the follower to determine for themselves the meanings of sacred texts and teachings.
After leaving the temple, we had our first encounter with hagglers. If someone speaks to me, I was taught as a child to give the person my full attention, especially if the person is older, out of respect. I quickly learned though that giving the haggler any of my attention gave him the green light to pursue me hard-core with what we would consider high-pressure sales tactics. With the help of Raj and Dr. B, I was able to pull away from the haggler despite the fact that he was persistent. We boarded the van, and headed to the second temple of the day, the Akshardham Temple. We lined up in front of the magnificent-looking temple so that Raj could take a class photo, and were shocked that schoolchildren were taking pictures of us also. They came up to us and wanted to know where we were from. A group of schoolgirls took turns shaking our hands, telling us their names, and asking what ours were. They were all very friendly, and made us feel a bit like rock stars. They wanted to know about our culture, and we were curious to learn about theirs. They seemed more open-minded than many of the world leaders today, which got me thinking that if the world were only children, people would understand each other better and there would be less fighting. We spent the majority of the afternoon at the temple, and ate lunch for less than a dollar. The temple was gorgeous, and the greenery landscape and good weather made us feel like we were in paradise.
That evening, we went to an Indian dancing show. I later learned that the styles of the different dances could identify with the regions of India from which dances originated. The costumes of the dancers had vibrant colors, and the lighting of the auditorium added to the uniqueness of each individual dance. When the dances were over, we went to a western-oriented restaurant for dinner. The decorations were western (there was a photo of Marilyn Monroe on the wall) but the food was Indian. After the appetizers I was satisfied, but made room so that I could try some of the other authentic Indian dishes. Even though we felt safe, Sam kept a close watch on us, accompanying us to the bathroom, and glancing over to our table once in a while, I suppose to make sure we were all still there. Sam, along with Raj, did a great job making sure that we all felt safe. Our bus driver, who is Sikh, also made me feel safe. Dr. Bhattacharya told us that Sikh men are known for being courageous, strong, and big.
Reflecting back on our first impressions of India, it makes sense that we have gotten so much attention in the form of stares and waves. It is not every day that the Indian people see Americans our age walking their streets. It would not seem unusual to us to see Indian people in America simply because we are used to seeing cultural diversity. The Indian people are very friendly and welcoming, which we all appreciated. The opportunity to experience a culture so different from our own is unparalleled to the sleep we were lacking.