Sunday, June 22, 2008

Adventures in India: Heart and Soul

I arrived this morning in Old Delhi at 8:00 AM, and found a hotel for the day. I fly out this evening, but it is worth the money to have a place to relax until I head to the airport at 9:00 PM. Old Delhi is the very heart of the chaos of India, but I am finally getting in-tune with the pace of life here. I find it invigorating and exciting, although at first it would have seemed hectic and stressful. Old Delhi is crowded, chaotic, and bustling with life. It is filled with shops and merchants- like a huge outdoor mall. This is where Indians come to buy, sell, and trade everything imaginable. There is an electric feeling in the air - this is India hard at work, with no time to amuse idle tourists. I met no other gringos on the streets of Old Delhi and, not surprisingly, was not hassled or bothered in any way. So different from the touristy Paharganj with its many touts. When I return to India, I would stay here rather than in New Delhi.

Unfortunately, without tourists there are no sit-down restaurants, only street vendors. I found a compromise at the "Parantha Wali Gali," which is the closest thing to Indian fast food that I have found. I sat at a road-side table and was served a tray with various sauces and entrees, like a small thali (everyone gets the same tray). Then you order what type of stuffed parantha you would like. A parantha is like a thick pita bread that is made by rolling fresh vegetables and spices into flattened dough, then baking it in a tandoor oven. I tried peas, asparagus, and cheese. They are used to mop up the sauces and food on the tray. It was very spicy with hot curries, but delicious.

I spent the day walking the main street, which was closed to traffic and being decorated with orange flowers for the Prime Minister's visit this evening. I watched the elaborate preparation of floats for a parade and toured a couple of the sights: the Red Fort and the Jami Masjid mosque. The Red Fort is an enormous structure built from red sandstone with thick walls that bulge with turrets and towers. It is so large that inside it feels more like a college campus than a fort. Various buildings, temples, and mosques lie amidst beautiful gardens. Except when looking over the high walls, you would never know that you are inside a huge fortress. Outside are many food and souvenir vendors and a small carnival with rides.

From the fort I traveled south down a busy market street to the Jami Masjid mosque, the largest in India. Large crowds of Muslim pilgrims were waiting to pass through the front gate, as this is the beginning of the Islamic Urs festival. Muslims from around Asia are here for the next week to celebrate and pray. I managed to get inside by jumping into the middle of a group that were heading through the gate. Inside, a huge courtyard is surrounded by four walls with high minarets at each corner. Wearing shoes is forbidden - they must be carried or left outside. The main prayer hall faces Mecca to the west and is crowned by three huge onion-shaped domes. The courtyard is full of Muslim families and devout pilgrims praying and socializing.

I climbed up a narrow spiral staircase to the top of a minaret, which rises hundreds of feet above the city streets. The view of Delhi sprawling as far as the eye can see in all directions is amazing. At the top is a circular platform about 10 feet in diameter, surrounded by a low wall. Outside the wall is a narrow walkway with no railing. Both the platform and walkway were full of people. It was rather unnerving being up there, especially with people sitting on the walkway with their legs dangling into the air. Everyone was very friendly; they introduced themselves and had many questions for me. They all wanted to know where I have been in India, and what I thought about each place, where I am from, what it is like in America, am I married or have children, etc. I stayed at the top for about an hour talking and having a great time. I began to think: I am here on this planet, in India, in Old Delhi, in the Jami Masjid mosque during a Muslim holy festival, at the top of the highest tower, interacting with the Muslim pilgrims. I felt as if I was in the center of many circles; really in the heart of things. A fitting conclusion to my trip, and a great travel memory.

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