After our first harrowing day in New Delhi, Hannah and I were anxious to escape the scams, bottleneck traffic, and choking fumes of the capital city. We only spent one day there, but, to us, it felt like an eternity, as overnight flights and buses had prevented us from sleeping since our final night in Mozambique four days earlier. Despite the stress of that first day, our one day in Delhi was, nonetheless, an unforgettable experience.
Just walking the streets in a sleep-deprived haze was enough to take in the scents and sounds of India. As we walked past the tiny food stalls, my nostrils were enchanted by the smells of chapatis frying on iron tawas, samosas bubbling in oil, and the traces of garlic, cumin and anise mingling in a dance of aromatic curries. It was sensory overload. I walked the streets like a dog, my eyes and then feet lagging behind my nose which guided me from one food stall to the next. Meanwhile, my ears were assaulted by the cacophony of urban India. A symphony of car horns bleated their tones, while cyclists whizzed by ringing their bells and perilously avoiding collisions with pedestrians and auto-rickshaws. Bollywood music blared from the tiny TV sets behind the counters of food stalls, and arguments broke out between men sipping milk chai from their miniature glasses.
As we got into our taxi and rode to our first site in Delhi, the grand India Gate, I noticed something about all of the cars and taxis in Delhi: none of them had side mirrors. In the location where the side mirrors would have been now resided a few broken chunks of plastic and a hole. One car after another passed us, and I realized that this was not an isolated incident, I literally didn't see any cars with side mirrors. As we swerved through the busy streets, narrowly avoiding collisions with cyclists, auto-rickshaws and pedestrians, sweeping within inches of oncoming vehicles in perilous passes, I realized why there were no side mirrors left – either they had all broken off already from cutting it too close, or privy drivers had removed the mirrors preemptively in anticipation of losing them soon enough. Amazingly, despite the complete lack of, or at least driver ignorance to, existing road signs, stop-lights and lane designations, no one seemed to be hitting each other. I found this unfathomable. Drivers had a sixth sense as to when a lane in front of then would open up, and a prescience for knowing that an auto-rickshaw coming directly at them in the oncoming lane was going to veer to the left at just the right moment to avoid a nasty collision. It was a brilliant dance of cars weaving in and out of lanes, stopping and starting, merging and shouting, but never colliding.
The next morning, Hannah and I boarded a train bound for Agra and the Taj Mahal. We decided that it would be best to visit the iconic Taj Mahal at sunrise the next morning, so on that first afternoon we flagged down a cycle rickshaw, intent on getting a mini-tour of the other interesting sites in Agra. Our driver was a small and skinny, yet endlessly jolly man, who called himself Ali Baba. His rickshaw had seen better years and I had my doubts as to whether his miniature frame could peddle us around the city, but he had a gritty determination and wasn't afraid to tell us to step out and walk when we got to an incline, so we agreed on a price and set off on our adventure.
After visiting the Taj Mahal, we walked across town to the other great structure credited to the legacy of Shah Jahan, the Agra Fort. The fort was a massive red stone structure with a dried up moat running around its vast perimeter and what seemed like miles of towering walls layered one after the other to protect each successive level of the huge structure. Inside the fort, there was room for a whole city. Courtyards and finely crafted marble palaces populated the interior. While the Fort was originally constructed years before Shah Jahan came along in the 16th century, he was credited for designing the vast inner network of palaces and balconies which looked out over his kingdom. Famously, after his wife passed away and he built the Taj Mahal in 19 years, he was deposed and imprisoned by his son and heir. He spent his remaining years imprisoned in the great palace within the Agra Fort. There he could only look from the balcony across the river to his life's work and deceased wife's tomb, the Taj Mahal.
Our hostel in Udaipur was beautiful. Since this was the “Venice of the East” we decided to go a little ritzier that usual and found a place in the guide book called “Dream Heaven.” For something like 1000 Rupees ($20) per night we had our own room with private bathroom, hot running water (not always included) and a beautiful balcony overlooking the lake. After trying desperately to see every site, palace and fort during our first week in India, we decided to take it a little slower in Udaipur and just sort of take it all in.
Our last stop in India before waving goodbye was the great desert city of Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer was a city literally built upon sand. Everything in the city, including the great fort rising up in the middle of it, shone with the gold-colored sand it was built from. If it weren't for the bottleneck of tourists and ubiquity of tourist-oriented restaurants and hotels, it would have been an enchanting desert getaway. The day we arrived on an overnight train, we set out on a desert camel safari. It was an overnight safari, and we envisioned roaming deep into the Thar Desert and sleeping under the stars miles away from civilization. Well, it didn't quite work out like that. I didn't even get my own camel.
After driving an hour or so to another town on the edge of the desert, we waited at our camp for two or three hours while they prepared the camels. When it was time to mount our beasts, Hannah was given an ugly and ornery camel with a bottom lip that flapped in the wind. My camel, named Tiger, was a gentle giant, but our guide, nonetheless, mounted him as well, and sat behind me for the ride. Our “desert safari” only lasted about 30 minutes on the way out. We walked out to some nearby sand dunes, and the whole time I could only hear the clicking noises that my guide was emitting in order to control the camel. When we got to the dunes, it became clear that this was the place to come for a camel safari, because there were about a hundred other tourists on camels of their own who had come to the same spot to watch the sunset. The sun fizzled out behind the smog probably 20 minutes before it would have actually set on the horizon and we trotted back to our post where we spent the night in the small tourist huts we were provided.
From Jaisalmer, it was an 18 hour train ride back to Delhi to catch our flight out of the country. Our final train ride was a nightmare. Our booking agent had promised us reserved seats on all of our trains, but we arrived at the station and found out that we were on the wait list. I was granted a “Reservation Against Cancellation” ticket (which meant that I would share a seat with someone, unless there was a cancellation somewhere else in the car), and Hannah was given a general sleeper class ticket in a different car. I decided to abandon my seat and join her in the general class where our windows didn't close (it was cooold), and which were directly in front of the door. This meant that any time any Indian man in our car felt the need to hawk a loogie, use the bathroom or smoke a cigarette, he would do so only a few feet away from us. The men in the berth across from us decided to drink Boss Whiskey (the classy kind that is sold in plastic pouches) for the entirety of the 18 hour ride and, at one point, a fist fight broke out between them. Needless to say, we didn't get much sleep on the 18 hour ride.
Once we arrived in Delhi, we were ready to say goodbye to India. That's not to say I didn't and don't continue to love India, but it was time for a more relaxing trip. That evening we boarded a flight from Delhi to Mumbai, nearly missed our connection at 2 a.m., and then proceeded towards Bangkok, Thailand.
The following day it was time to board a plane and begin a long-awaited homecoming. 27 months of Peace Corps service was complete, it had been a year since I last touched American soil and sunk my teeth into a Chipotle burrito, and I was ready to do both. First, though, we need to fly to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and stop over in Tokyo before boarding a final flight to Chicago. In Tokyo, we laid over for 10 hours, and decided to take the train into the city to pass the time. While we were able to get a feel for the culture, and walked around a few markets, we were hindered by the fact that we hadn't planned our wardrobes very assiduously. Tokyo in December, it turns out, is colder than Thailand in December. Thus, we were ill-equipped for the below-freezing temperatures that we found in Tokyo when we stepped off the train. We ended up spending most of our afternoon huddled in the Starbucks drinking their holiday peppermint mocha latte.