Eighteen hours after pulling away from the Jaisalmer train station, we arrived in Delhi, tired, hungry, and hot. We had the pleasure of sharing our bunk beds with a family of screaming children that thought the train compartment was a jungle gym. Luckily, we had booked our hostel in advance and somehow found it by taking the metro and only asking for help a few times along the walk. Zostel was clean, air-conditioned, spacious, and full of friendly staff and customers. There was even cable TV in our room, so we settled in and watched James Bond and Oceans Eleven, feeling no desire to go out into the sweltering noisy streets.
One of the perks of being in a big city, was the western food options. There was KFC, Popeyes, McDonalds, Starbucks, etc. The best part is that all of these chains do free delivery in Delhi, so without leaving the comfort of our room, we enjoyed two delicious footlong Subway sandwiches.
After pigging out on Western food the day before, we agreed to stick to Indian all today. Luckily, there was a restaurant next to our hostel that served South Indian food and their masala dosa hit the spot.
After much nudging and encouragement I finally convinced Byron that we shouldn’t spend our last few days in India inside the room watching movies, no matter how burned out we were feeling.
The tuk tuk ride to Humayun’s Tomb was exactly what we were trying to avoid: chaos, traffic, and blaring horns. However, as soon as we passed through the park gates, we entered a land of peace and nature. This grand building was designed by a widower for her late husband, and it’s said this site gave inspiration for the design of the Taj Mahal. A large boulevard cut through the park and led us directly in front of the grand structure created with white marble, red sandstone and eight-sided geometrical figures. Although this was the focus of the park, we wandered around and found several other grandiose tombs in varying levels of preservation in the far corners of the gardens. After relaxing and enjoying the escape from the hub bub of the city, we took a tuk tuk past the India Gate and back to our hostel, proud that we had seen one sight today.
As soon as it got dark and our stomachs started growling, we ventured down the street to the Main Bazaar. Neon signs glowed from every storefront as the owners called out to the hundreds of people walking by, admiring the goods spewing out into the street. There were long traditional kurti dresses, billowing Aladdin pants, brass trinkets, hippie blankets, henna artists, food vendors, and everything else in between. This street had been dead earlier, but as soon as the hot sun went down, all the people came out to shop, dine, and socialize. Amazingly, we bumped into the two Brazilian girls from our camel safari in Jaisalmer while they were getting elaborate brown ink designs drawn on their arms. What are the odds of randomly running into one of the people we knew in all of India?
Even though I regretted the decision later on, we ate chicken and egg Kati rolls from a street vendor. Aside from the burning spice and questionable food safety practices, it tasted delicious. We did a little bit of shopping in the market and headed back to the hotel to watch Django on TV.
We were in no hurry to go sightseeing, but finally we ventured out to Swaminarayan Akshardham–the Disney World of Hinduism.
We walked past a massive parking lot, past a turnstile that led us to a bag check desk (no phones or cameras allowed), then through a metal detector and pat down, and finally into the complex. A voice on the loudspeaker was announcing the rules and the timings of various activities.
The temple complex was completed in 2005 and was built to commemorate the life of Swaminarayan, a central figure to Hinduism. The massive temple wasn’t even the most entertaining part, regardless of being the largest Hindu temple in the world and one of the most beautifully carved buildings I’ve seen. To illustrate the life of Swaminarayan from childhood to enlightenment, the complex has robots, an IMAX theater, and a boat ride. First we walked through the lifelike dioramas with robots acting out scenes of his youth with fiber optics, light and sound effects, and the smallest animatronic robot in the world. The massive 85′ x 65′ IMAX screen brought the audience through his teenage years of traveling and teaching. Finally, an amusement park styled boat ride floated us past life-sized figures from India’s history, such as mathematicians, astronomers, and philosophers. At each section of his life, there were plenty of food vendors, water fountains, and souvenir shops. I’m not kidding when I say it was like a western theme park.
We strolled past the pools that surrounded the giant temple, which contained water from holy rivers all across India. Adjacent to the temple were the Lotus Gardens, designed to feature religious quotes from all denominations. My favorite was Voltaire, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”
Some fresh watermelon juice and delicious bhelpuri kept us occupied until the water-laser-light-fire show when the sun went down. Everyone in the park gathered on tiered steps while munching on popcorn and waiting for the show to begin. After a live singing performance, the fountains shot water into the sky and created the illusion of dancing and shimmering to a scripted play about the Upanishads. Massive projections of the Gods acted out scenes while fire and lasers emphasized their passion and anger. This show far surpassed the humble Bellagio fountains. After spending our entire day at the temple, we were exhausted.
We enjoyed some authentic tandoori chicken and spicy butter chicken before taking the metro to Old Delhi. The roads were impossibly hard to navigate as everything was packed into tiny spaces with little to no indication of which street is which, so we ditched our printed walking tour and just wandered around. Each street had a different purpose, such as the stationary lane, or the auto parts road, making shopping surprisingly organized.
Just outside the towering Jama Masjid mosque, hundreds of tarps and tents formed a haphazardly planned market. I purchased a few trinkets after bargaining hard and headed back to the hotel to escape the heat. Later, we ventured out to the main market again and this time bought a new duffel bag to carry all our new souvenirs in. Although the extra weight would be burdensome, we figured we were so close to the end of the trip that it would be worth the haul.
Our last day in India! Part of me wanted to dance around and celebrate and the other wanted to spend more time immersing ourselves in the vibrant culture. We still had some space in our new souvenir duffel, so we spent the afternoon shopping in the underground mall of Palika Bazaar in Connaught Place. We had some fun honing our bargaining skills and walked away with a dress, a leather wallet, a scarf, and fake Ray Bans all for under $15. We celebrated by having a western lunch at Nandos and I got to have my first salad since Australia. We still had leftover rupees, so we indulged in another round of shopping in the market and filled out bag with blankets and trinkets.
We decided it would be right to have Indian food for our last meal in the country. The dingy restaurant served steaming hot paneer burjhi and spicy thali on metal plates–a perfect stereotypically Indian experience. On the walk home, we got our shoes shined for 50 cents from a homeless man living under a bridge, and packed our bags.