04/24/2015 - 04/27/2015
Jack Kerouac said "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time". I could say the same, if one substituted cities for people. That's why my favorite city in the world is the one I grew up in, New York City. The closest runners up are also among the largest and wildest: London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Bangkok. But no one who claims to be a lover of metropolitan greatness can be complete without a visit to India, home of some of the most populous and frenzied cities in the world. Naturally my first choice in India would have been Mumbai, but as luck would have it there were no direct flights from Guangzhou so we chose Delhi instead. It might not be quite as riotous as Mumbai, but it had the bonus of proximity to the Taj Mahal.
It might seem insane to have taken my pregnant wife and two small children on a first visit to India, but I was terrified that we would lose the ability to travel internationally for years once number three came along. I simply couldn't stand the idea of not having seen India until I was in my fifties, if not later. In the end, I figured we could hack it for six days even if it turned out to be more difficult that I expected. My biggest fear was the possibility of everyone getting gastroenteritis. I wasn't sure how we could handle two sick kids while possibly being sick ourselves. I resolved to be militant about what went into our mouths, especially water.
We didn't have to wait long to experience the uniqueness of India. As soon as we entered the terminal we encountered a vivid sculpture of disembodied hands making complex gestures against a background of concave copper disks. The effect was vaguely spiritual, somewhat artistic, but unmistakably Indian.
A long delay at the visa-on-arrival desk was terrifying, in that I was sure that the driver the hotel had provided would give up on us and return to the city. However, once we finally escaped the terminal with our baggage he was dutifully awaiting us. The horde of frenzied touts gathered outside the gate made me immensely grateful that we had prearranged our transportation. Since there were minimal Airbnb options in Delhi, we had booked a hotel in the old part of town far from the areas that tourists usually frequented. Our driver brought us to Tara Palace, which we found to be clean but otherwise very basic. It was far too late to do anything except collapse into our beds.
The main advantage of Tara Palace was that it was in close proximity to two of our highest priority sights in Delhi, the Chandni Chowk market and the Red Fort. On our first morning in Delhi, we woke early and made sure the kids were fed with the complimentary breakfast before setting out for the market. I had researched Delhi fairly well, so I was expecting it to be hot, crowded, dirty, and poverty-stricken. In fact, Delhi exactly matched my expectations, but there's an enormous difference between expecting something and experiencing it. We found Chandni Chowk quite overwhelming. The sidewalks were so crowded and obstructed by vendors that most people walked in the street despite the omnipresence of honking cars and motorcycles, and we soon found ourselves joining them. There was virtually no sense of personal space as we were bumped and jostled constantly. There were gruesomely crippled beggars everywhere. Lording over everything was the incandescent Indian sun, which seemed determined to suck sweat out of every pore of our bodies.
Within minutes we had rechristened Chandni Chowk "the Choke", and so it would remain in our minds for the rest of our stay. The Choke wasn't actually a market, but rather a main street on which several markets resided. Rather disappointingly for us, few of these markets emphasized food. Fabric and hardware were much more the order of the day. However, we were able to find enough vendors of freshly peeled vegetables and deep-fried samosas to assuage hunger until we found a place we could actually sit down and eat.
After walking west as far as we could stand the heat and the crowds, we doubled back the way we came. At the eastern end of the Choke is the Red Fort, a 17th century residence of the Mughal emperors. The site is a large complex of many buildings and structures, with the most imposing being the Lahori Gate that one encounters at the entrance. The abundant trees and well-manicured lawns were a pleasant respite from the madness of the Choke.
We headed south past our hotel towards Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. Our goal wasn't so much the mosque itself as the markets which clustered around it.
The small square in front of the mosque was a beehive of activity. Vendors were doing a brisk business selling snacks, clothes, and toys. Food stalls were placed strategically around the square, while other hawkers simply set up shop in the middle of the crowd or occupied the staircase leading down to the Meena Bazaar. Mei Ling found her beloved meat skewers fairly quickly.
About this time we noticed people were paying an unusual amount of attention to us, especially considering how crowded and chaotic the area was. We've been in lots of exotic places from Morocco to Israel with the kids, but it was unusual for people to come up and ask to be photographed with us. Even more surprisingly, it was mostly young guys who would be expected to completely ignore families with kids.
South of the mosque was a predominantly Muslim area of narrow streets where everyone walked in the street because the sidewalks were completely occupied with various vendors and food stalls. We continued to notice the unusual friendliness and familiarity of people in the area as we strolled around.
We could easily have found a place to eat in that neighborhood but I wanted to check out a more upscale area called Connaught Place. On a map, Connaught Place looks like the hub of the city. It consists of three concentric rings and eight spokes, many of which continue outward to become major traffic arteries of the city. It was built almost a hundred years ago as a central business district, and is now packed with cinemas, hotels, and international restaurants. I had been advised to stay at a hotel in Connaught Place, but I was glad to have chosen our location in the old part of town. Like any modernized part of an ancient city, the area felt somewhat sterile and generic. Dinner was OK, but not memorable. After dinner I made an attempt to get a local SIM. I bought the card in an official Vodafone store and the salesman told me it would start working in a couple of hours. As I expected, it never did.
The next day I discussed our plan to visit the Taj Mahal with the hotel manager, and he offered to sell us a three day package tour of Jaipur and Agra to depart the next day. He threw in a driver to take us anywhere we wanted in Delhi that day. I knew the price was probably higher than I would find if I shopped around, but it was low enough that I didn't feel like taking the trouble so I accepted. Soon enough our driver came by and we requested to be taken to the INA market. Mei Ling was looking sprightly and quite pregnant in a local outfit she'd bought the previous day at the Choke. Like everything else in India, INA was a bit of a culture shock. The facilities were even more basic and grim than what we'd seen in poorer parts of China and Colombia, and the air was thick with flies which swarmed over the piles of raw meat and fish. Nevertheless, the market was bustling with people and the vendors seemed to be doing a brisk business.
Mei Ling can't watch food being made anywhere without itching to get involved, so she provided some free labor to some of the bread and dumpling makers. Afterwards we had a chance to sample some of her efforts.
Adjacent to the INA food market is the Dilli Haat textile and crafts market, which is much more of a destination for Western tourists. We'd already seen quite a lot of clothing at the Choke, so we didn't linger long there.
The next market was a wash out as far as food was concerned, having only a few of vendors selling nothing particularly new or interesting. However, we did encounter some gentlemen playing carrom, which fascinated Mei Ling and the kids. The players spoke perfect English and provided us with hot tea and pleasant conversation while they played.
Our next stop was Lodi Gardens in the southern part of central Delhi. This beautiful park was built around several 15th century tombs.
By this time we'd become accustomed to friendly locals picking up our kids and playing with them.
One interesting thing that happened as we were leaving the gardens is that while Ian and Mei Ling were walking hand in hand, Ian suddenly tried to pull away just as Mei Ling was changing direction. Ian cried out in pain and then sat on the ground holding his left arm and crying. Mei Ling tried to coax him up but he kept crying and wouldn't use his left arm at all. Fortunately, I knew exactly what had happened based on my experience as an ER doctor. Ian had a nursemaid's elbow, which is caused by pulling outwardly on a small child's outstretched arm. The traction causes the elbow joint space to gap open and a ligament slips into the joint, causing pain with any movement of the elbow. Fortunately, it's very easy to get the ligament to pop back out of the joint using a number of techniques. My favorite is the supination/flexion technique, in which the child's hand is turned palm up and the elbow is flexed. If one holds the child's elbow with the other hand, one can usually feel the pop as the elbow bones realign into correct position. If that technique doesn't work, an alternative is the hyperpronation technique in which the child's hand is rotated palm down and then turned as far as possible without causing pain. I included diagrams of both techniques.
Ian's elbow reduced easily and within a minute he was using his arm normally. I felt enormously relieved that thanks to my background we'd avoided a visit to an Indian emergency room, which was a very unappealing prospect. It occurred to me that every parent traveling with young kids should know to avoid yanking on their outstretched arm from below the elbow, and should also know how to reduce a nursemaid's elbow if it ever happened to their kid.
Once we'd returned to our hotel, we decided to return to the area south of Jama Masjid for dinner at Karim's. This century old restaurant is a landmark of old Delhi. The only table to be had was on a crowded balcony where I had to hold Ian on my lap to prevent him from crawling around on a floor covered with dropped food. The dishes were basic but fairly good, although I'm confident I've had better Indian meals in New York and California.
The coolest thing that happened to us in Delhi was that after dinner, we stumbled onto a Muslim wedding. A procession of decorated cars slowly trundled past us and we followed them a short distance to a reception hall.
Mei Ling was ushered into a separate room full of women in brightly colored saris, while I brought the kids into a room where some scholarly-appearing men surrounded the festively-dressed groom. The invited guests made sure I had a good vantage point so that Cleo could see and I could take video. As always, Indians of every religion went far out of their way to make guests feel welcome.
We couldn't stay at the wedding too long because it was getting late and we had an early departure for Jaipur in the morning. Despite the late hour, the main street south of the mosque was still packed with people going about their business like it was the middle of the day. The throngs of brightly-dressed people and swerving vehicles created a visual and auditory sensory overload.
The next morning we set off by car for our three-day tour of India's Golden Triangle.