Continent and culture jump complete! We just spent a wild and beautiful 9 days in India and there is a LOT to write about!! From the moment we landed at the airport in Delhi, we knew we were in for a much different cultural experience than our previous 4 months gave us…
After taking an inexpensive taxi to our spot in the Hauz Khas village (south of the main parts of Delhi), we decided there was just so much to see and do and comment on. Unfortunately, a lot of sad things to observe (immense poverty, lots of skinny, stray dogs, trash everywhere and visible air pollution) but also incredible colors, contrast between old and new, beautiful clothing and stunning temples.
Once we settled into our hotel, we decided it would be a good time to venture out for food since we just finished an overnight flight and we were HUNGRY. But we got here on a Sunday morning and it was only about 8am. Nothing was open. But wait! A little side-of-the-road, you-could-almost-miss-it spot was cooking fresh Indian bread outside with a pot of some sort of stew. It became clear quickly that this was a spot the locals went for breakfast and so we decided this should be our first meal in India – when we stopped at the entrance, we *definitely* got some looks like “uh, are you lost?…” but the owner was more than welcoming, cleared us a table, brought us water and made us two fresh plates of some GOOD food. Juuuust a touch spicy for Nick’s taste (see: all food in India) but a delightful mix of Indian spices with lentils and vegetables and fresh bread to dip into it. Not a bad way to start our trip…
After adjusting to our surroundings (if that’s possible), we decided our first full day in India should be spent exploring as much as possible. So we went on a morning bike tour of Old Delhi with an amazing team we found on Airbnb! The meet time was 6am which we thought was a little nuts but…*weather discussion to come later*…it was already warm at 6am so we figured this was definitely a strategic decision that we would be grateful for later. To say this 4 hour bike tour was enlightening and amazing would be an understatement – we spent 4 hours really immersing ourselves in Old Delhi. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes and beautiful buildings were something to be marveled at.
We visited the last remaining part of the old walls that used to surround Old Delhi.
We stopped at a bakery that provides 50% of the city’s kulcha bread every day and has been open for 120 years producing ONLY that type of bread. And we got to try it! (Spoiler: it was realllllly good).
We rode through the largest spice market in Asia, including one massive building that only contained 26 varieties of red chilies.
We stopped for a visit at a Sikh temple – a place we had never visited back home – and were so taken by their hospitality, warm message and community kitchen (more on these temples later!).
We stopped for breakfast where Nick finally got to drink some lassi and we got to enjoy both sweet and savory breakfasts. When we were done, we were hot, sweaty, uncomfortable and grateful for every minute of the bike ride and tour. Even in miserable weather, this tour was one of the highlights of our trip because of how close we got to the locals, to Indian culture and to beautiful, old historical sights.
As mentioned before, Delhi is an incredible example of the stark contrast between the old and the new. In case “New Delhi” and “Old Delhi” don’t give it away, the city itself even visibly looks divided. Driving through New Delhi, you see beautifully manicured gardens, gated hotels and embassies and chains you would find back home. A stark contrast to Old Delhi and other parts of India. This mix and contrast of old and new throughout our time in India fascinated us both.
The Sikh Temples – Old & New
Nick and I had never had an opportunity to visit a Sikh temple before and aside from the few things we may have picked up along the road or life or in side discussions in school classes, we were embarrassed to admit we didn’t know much about the religion. In Delhi, there are many, many temples but there is one main Sikh temple in Old Delhi and one in New Delhi. We enjoyed our visit to the one in Old Delhi so much that we made a point to set aside a half day to go visit the one in New Delhi.
Regardless of your religious beliefs, whether or not you believe in God or whether or not you attend church, the Sikh temple and the few parts we were fortunate enough to see and hear during their services made it very clear that this was a message of welcoming, positivity and love. I could type pages about the things we heard and saw – the messages being read from their holy book that were up on a screen so everyone could read along while three elders of the temple sang the verses and played beautiful instruments…the unity of the masses sitting peacefully and worshipping…
One of the many things we learned was that each Sikh temple has a community kitchen – called a Langar – that in Delhi, served 30,000+ people a day. Free food, water, tea and biscuits to anyone of any race, creed, gender, etc. Every single day they serve 30,000 people. One of the more beautiful aspects of these kitchens was that everyone eats in the same place – seated on mats or carpets on the ground, next to one another….the entire purpose of which is to ensure everyone is on the same level…that everyone is equal. We walked in, just to observe, and a sweet older man came up to us with a tray of “rose milk” – exactly what it sounds like. Rose scented milk that is served to keep people as cool as possible. It was so delicious.
These kitchens were MASSIVE operations and run *entirely* by volunteers. Anyone from anywhere (including us!) could just walk into the kitchen, sit down and start rolling out bread, peeling and cutting potatoes, or stirring the enormous pots of vegetables and lentils. We were awestruck by the entire operation and mostly, by the message and meaning behind it.
Because of the stop in Old Delhi, we wanted to see if the temple in New Delhi was different. The messages and warmth and positivity of the services – and the enormity of the community kitchen were all still there but New Delhi’s temple didn’t feel quite the same to us. It was still stunning but the Old Delhi temple and those working there exuded a warmth that was hard to match. The New Delhi temple is obviously more visited by tourists than the one in Old Delhi as we had our own “Foreign Tourist Information Guide” – whether we wanted it or not! – who walked us around and explained things to us. The New Delhi temple was MUCH larger as was the property it sat on…but we just missed the feel of the community at the Old Delhi temple. After seeing these temples, we would absolutely recommend to anyone to visit a Sikh temple and their Langar.
The Food & Drink
I don’t even know what to write in this section. It’s India. We ate all. Of. The. Food. And it was all good. We burned our taste buds off with some of the spice and then we cooled them back down drinking endless lassi. Poor Nick + Indian spices does NOT always = a happy belly at the end of the day, BUT nonetheless we really enjoyed ourselves…as Nick says, Nick liked Indian food, Indian food did not like Nick.
As mentioned earlier, our first meal was basically street food out of two pots on the side of the road with locals. Street food is BIG here. Everywhere you look, people are cooking and eating on the road. We did our best to try as many types as we could while also being mindful of cleanliness and not actually hurting ourselves…
Even in our little microcosm of India – our neighborhood, Hauz Khas – it is readily apparent that Delhi is a fascinating mix of old tradition and new, more westernized approaches. On the same block in our neighborhood was an incredible South Indian restaurant where people spoke little English (went twice we liked it so much) and then next door, a beautiful, modern cafe with fancy gin & tonics, beautifully plated meals and the feel of a nicer restaurant you would find back in Philly.
I can’t possibly list or describe all the food we had but we probably both left with a “favorite” – Nick always knew he liked paneer (kind of like an Indian cottage cheese in cube form grilled or cooked in some tasty sauces) but he LOVED paneer in India. Probably an almost daily addition to his meals. Meanwhile, for those that don’t know me, my favorite meal strategy has always been “smorgasbord.” I just want to try a little of everything. So thali in India was my JAM. Beautiful plates full of smaller dishes – usually a few chickens, some lentils, multiple types of bread, and all kinds of dipping sauces/stews…I looooooved thali.
While we really, truly enjoyed our food in India, we were almost sad leaving know that it really isn’t possible to have Indian food like this back at home. Sure, we all have Indian restaurants we like in any city we’re in but as our lifetime Delhi resident tour guide told us, the sheer access to the quality, type and quantity of the spices just doesn’t exist outside India. He told us he lived in London for a year and a half and that he never found good Indian food anywhere, despite his best efforts. And it’s LONDON.
Everyone but Nick’s belly will miss the food in India.
Our Day at the Taj Mahal (with a sidetrip to Fatehpur Sikri)
We organized a day trip to Agra where the majestic Taj Mahal sits and got our butts up at 3:00am for an early morning drive…we arrived before many of the crowds and were lucky to feel we almost had the place to ourselves. Pictures don’t do it justice either – it is ENORMOUS. And made entirely of beautiful, white marble. A LOT of marble. One of the many interesting things we learned is that there were initially plans to build a black Taj Mahal just across the river from the Taj. Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal as a tribute to his wife, intended to build this essentially for himself but was stopped by his own son, the ruler at the time, when he realized Shah Jahan was to use public money for it.
Pictures don’t do it justice, it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World for a reason and absolutely worth the visit for anyone going to India.
The guys that organized our day trip took us afterwards to this ancient village called Fatehpur Sikri and it ended up being one of our favorite parts of the day (sorry, Taj!). We were truly transported to a locals-only place. And it was very obvious from the moment we got out of the car because we sure did get some looks! Nick found many groupies (ie adorable children who just wanted to shake his hand and follow him around) and we peered in and out of lovely local shopping spots…
Getting Around Delhi
Delhi has 26 million people. It’s ENORMOUS. It was actually fairly easy to get around Delhi though. There have a huge and seemingly well run metro system with many stops. Tons of rickshaws on every corner. They even have Uber! Not only that, it was very inexpensive to get around – for a 30-40 minute Uber ride to just about anywhere, it cost around $3. But…while fairly easy to get around…the traffic and driving is STRESSFUL. You know those painted lines on the road that people in most countries use as a guide for where they should be driving? Not a thing in Delhi. Looks like it’s 3 lanes across? Count those 5 cars across.
And people use honking their horns in a very different way than we do back home – in the U.S., if you honk your horn its typically an angry or aggressive move (yes, intended to prevent accidents too, I know) but in India, everybody honks. Everybody. And it’s simply to let people near them know they’re there. No one is put off or bothered by it in the slightest – it’s just a normal way to communicate and prevent accidents. One of our drivers told us that often in other countries, when their DMV officials hear they had a driver’s license in India, that green lights them for just about whatever they need because if you can successfully drive in India, you can handle anything.
We knew India would be hot. Nick was dreading the temperature change (Santorini was a high of 83 every day) and we both worried about our ability to function in *hot hot* weather. Our second day here it was 97 degrees…but in case that wasn’t enough, let’s add insult to injury – the heat index (due to humidity and pollution) was 118. It was just SWELTERING. We were shocked that the locals really have adjusted to it – everyone is wearing pants and long sleeves or heavy saris that cover them from head to toe. Us Westerners were the only ones really suffering through the weather. To be fair, we came during summertime and during “monsoon season” but we just didn’t quite expect it to be THIS hot. Because of the infrastructure in parts of India but also because of the sheer temperature and its effects on just about everything, there were short blackouts or brownouts almost every afternoon when we were at our hotel cooling off. They never lasted more than 5-10 minutes but everything seemed to struggle to keep up with the heat.
The Shopping & The Clothes
I realllllllllllly fell in love with the women’s clothing in India…not enough to say I’m changing my wardrobe but the fabrics and the colors and the designs of almost every outfit made me stop in my tracks sometimes to admire them. The richness of the colors, the beading and the designs combined with the flowiness of the clothing was head-turning to say the least.
So of course I had to go shopping! There is shopping almost everywhere in Delhi but I wanted to go somewhere special…so the Palika Bazar. The only underground, air conditioned shopping area in Delhi (a cool respite from the heat) – it seems to focus mainly on clothing and electronics. An odd combo but as soon as step into the 300+ vendor market, you know this is a place the locals come. And it’s time to bargain hunt and negotiate prices! We found beautiful sarees, silk scarves and many other precious items around every corner.
So India. Wild, beautiful, chaotic, full of spice, color and wonder. Even at the end of 9 days, we knew that India was far too large, too diverse and too overwhelming to actually take in in one short trip.