I flew into Chicago O'Hare and checked into the Admirals Lounge in ORD; the airport was packed with travelers. The only hint of Christmas so far has been that my flight attendant into Chicago wore a Christmas tree hat. As I look out of the window, I see snow covering the airport grounds. There would be a small delay as the plane is de-iced with goo coming out of a giant mechanical arm.
After a 15 hour flight, I was in India. I left the plane and went through customs, all within an hour. With suitcase in hand, I walked out to the open area of the airport.
It was an experience. There were hundreds of people, neatly packed together behind security lines and waiting for their tired guests. I slowly walked past the crowd, first looking left, then to the right, reading the several dozen name cards with my name on it. It’s like being inundated by paparazzi. It’s overwhelming, the faces a blur. I spotted my driver. He’s in the front row of the crowd facing me, dead center. He must have been watching my confused face slowly making my way through the crowd, hoping that our eyes would meet.
We jumped in the car and hit the streets, dodging cars coming from literally every angle. The street came alive with the chaotic noise of car horns, as everyone made themselves known to others. They straddled lanes, passed each other within inches of each other, and yet there was peaceful orderliness as we drove along the freeway. The air was hazy, warm. It was near midnight and I am finally here in India.
The Crowne Plaza in Gurgaon is less than a half hour away from the airport. It wasn’t long before we were greeted by a tall moustached man with curly shoes, ready to take my luggage. I went through the metal detector, and was whisked away to the lounge, a beautiful lobby that transported me to yet another whole new world. The security guard at the elevator placed his hands together as if in a prayer to greet me and my unnamed driver. I am already feeling out of place, ignorant of the culture surrounding me. They whisk me to my room.
Trivia: According to the hotel's information, Gurgaon is the “shopping capital of India.” And according to Wikipedia, it is the “call centre capital of the world.”
Go to TripAdvisor and look for Shuweb for my hotel comments.
My first full day started with a visit by my friends to my hotel. We drove back to their house, driving past herds of cows freely walking down the street, obeying traffic laws as they kept to the side of the road. When I arrived, the family welcomed me with warmth and hospitality, and they already had an itinerary for my adventures.
My first destination was a small plaza with handicrafts, cashmere and other miscellaneous items.
We then drove through New Delhi and into Old Delhi. They are a stark contrast to each other, truly a fitting name of “Old” and “New.” On my right side of Old Delhi were a number of condemned or abandoned buildings, and on the left were small shops. It was Sunday, and while the shops were closed, there were people selling books along the sidewalk. The vendors lined every inch of sidewalk there was, and people filled whatever space was left. I was a mere spectator behind the glass window of my car as we slowly drove through the old city (hint: look up "Sunday Delhi Book Market" and you'll find more information).
The Red Fort in Delhi was the capital of the Mughals until 1857 when the emperor was exiled by the British government. It is a gigantic castle whose scale cannot be captured by camera. The property was expansive and a marvel to see, with all the intricate details of the pillars and walls.
Click on photos below to enlarge.
My last destination of the day was a trip to the India Gate.
Gurgaon's mornings in December were hazy and surprisingly chilly. It would not be until mid morning that the temperatures warm up to remove a jacket.
My second morning in India was off to a slightly slow start, thanks in part to my jet lag.
The driver took me to the Qutb Complex, a series of monuments in Delhi. It was once again an amazing wonder in human engineering. The tower (Qutb Minar) and its surrounding buildings, with their ornate carvings in stone, were amazing to see.
The time for the main event had come. Excitement filled the air as I met the groom’s extended family. There were songs as the groom was prepared for the journey to the wedding hall.
Our journey started with the groom on a decorated car, and everyone else on a chartered bus where the singing and dancing continued. Traditionally, this journey to the ceremony would be done on foot, the groom on horseback or elephant. Modern times have made the journey to the site rather long and dangerous with traffic, but the festive mood was clearly not lost. We arrived at the last stretch of road before the pavilion, where a band was ready to start the parade.
The band was a sight to see. They marched us down the street with loud, festive music as people danced along the way. The music was energizing, the drums and horns rapidly carrying a cheerful beat. The groom remained in the car in the procession until we entered the pavilion, where he joined in the celebration.
The grounds were beautifully decorated, with the ceremonial square the most impressive. White flowers were stringed together to create a stunning arch.
The arrival of the bride marked the commencement of the ceremony. Flower petals lined her path up to the stage where she would meet the groom.
They were then led to the ceremonial square where a long ritual would begin, with friends and family surrounding them. Food was served throughout the ceremony, as people mingled and conversed as the ceremony took place in the center.
The event ended with a large buffet with food stations at every turn. By now, the air was chilly, and the warm (and sometimes mildly spicy) food warmed us up.
Intricate details of the Qutb Minar
The Qutb Minar is now surrounded by a security tape, and people are no longer allowed to touch it. However, the designs of the tower are large enough that they can easily be observed from nearby.
By now, my driver and I were like best friends, though we barely understood each other. I continued my exploration of New Delhi and surrounding areas. My first stop was at the Bahai House of Worship, a location where all religions are accepted under one house. Here, people were allowed to enter the building in silence for prayer and meditation.
The building is in the shape of a half open lotus flower, and is surrounded by 9 pools of water, which represent the lotus flower leaves.
The next location was by far the most impressive. Intricate details, the unique individual carvings and messages that each sculpture conveyed are at a massive scale in Akshardham. While entrance was free, virtually nothing was allowed into the area, including cameras, cell phones, food, purses, any tools or even bad manners/language (but they do offer a photograph for a fee, and they have a couple of cafeterias). The main building was surrounded at its base with elephant sculptures (and their corresponding lions, people, goats, etc.), each telling the values of life and describes the wisdom and importance of elephants in Indian culture. Each sculpture, pillar and wall was unique unto itself, and with such vast quantities, a person could spend all day admiring this tremendous feat.
But Akshardham is not of historical significance. Its construction began in 2000 and was officially opened in November 2005. The monument represents the traditional culture and spirituality of the Swaminarayan sect of Hindu religion, and is the product of the BAPS organization.
The next destination was the Humayun’s Tomb, a precedent of Mughal architecture, most notably the famous Taj Mahal.
We finalized the day with a drive along the parliament buildings, where monkeys resided.
The original plan was to greet the 2010 year gazing the Taj Mahal, but it was not meant to be. I had a stomach bug that weakened me and kept me in bed for nearly 2 days. I had welcomed the new year in my hotel in Gurgaon, where they had a party on the ground floor. I sat back and watched the party goers dance until the clock struck twelve.
On New Year's Day, however, I was healthy enough to see the city again. The driver picked me up for a tour of the Ambience Mall (after all, Gurgaon is the Mall Capital of India).
The next morning started at 9am as a new driver was hired to take me on a two day trip to Jaipur. He was assigned to take me from site to site. There was also an English speaking guide waiting for me at the hotel, which was the Holiday Inn (again, see my hotel reviews on TripAdvisor).
The drive to Jaipur took 5 hours as we dodged speeding trucks and cars.
Along the way, we saw small towns with their vendors lined along the streets. We saw camels pulling carts along side tractors and trucks.
The guide welcomed me at the hotel, and we quickly started on our tour. We commenced with a trip to the Pink Palace.
This was an interesting study in the history of Jaipur and its kings. Jaipur, known as the Pink City, was so named because a king ordered that all buildings be painted in pink, as pink was the color of welcome.
The architecture represented Islamic and Hindu influences. They were so beautiful, in fact, that they had to hide the ornate designs whenever the Emperor's men in Delhi came into town.
The grounds also lay to some of the world's largest and accurate astronomy tools in the world.
I was given a demonstration of India's block painting. The painting is considered "blocks" because there are several blocks that make up one illustration. By separating the blocks, they were able to use different colors.
We then went to a jewelry store and ended the tour with a view of the Hawa Mahal.
Early in the morning, I lined up to ride an elephant from the base of Amber Fort to the entrance of the castle. The ride, which took approximately 20 minutes, was a casual walk on the back of the elephants.
For animal rights reasons, these elephants are only allowed to make 5 round trips; therefore, it's important to show up as early as 8am to secure a spot.
Upon arrival, the guide gave me a personal tour of the castle, describing the Hindu and Islamic influences of the castle and the life of the king and his family.
The Jaipur castle was so beautiful that the king had to hide its beauty from the emperor in Delhi.
Click to enlarge
The tour ended with a view of the Jal Mahal, which looks to be a floating palace. The palace is unused and not open to the public at this time. Unfortunately, while it is pretty in the photo, the water was green and smelly and filled with garbage. The government is apparently looking to clean up the lake and refurbish the castle to open it as a hotel or restaurant in the future (if you're interested in staying in a floating palace, go to the Lake Palace in Udaipur)
Once the guided tour was complete, my driver took me to Albert Hall, a museum showcasing the history of Jaipur.
We ended the tour with the Birla Temple.
On the following day, we drove back to the Crowne Plaza in Gurgaon and spent the evening with my friend's family for a great dinner at China Club. The dinner was a very memorable and educational event, as I was able to ask a number of questions that I had from my trip.
My last day in India had come. The flight would leave that night, and so I wanted to see New Delhi one last time. The driver took me to the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, a large, multistory building that sold many handicraft and other touristy products.
My flight home would commence at 3am, and I stopped over in Brussels and Chicago. I was home after a 30 hour jounrey. Thank goodness for Business Class!