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Delhi | Cola Triangle | Jaisalmer

India — Camels and Cokes

India was by far the most intense part of the trip and the place where we were in the biggest hurry to leave. But now, in retrospect, it is one of the places our thoughts drift back to the most. In India, you are equally likely to step in a pile of brilliant, aromatic spices on the street, or in a cow pie. It was always tempting to tiptoe around the bad, the inconvenient, and the shocking, in search of the beautiful and the exotic, but there is something to be said for taking full, roaming strides through the good and the bad of this fascinating, and exhausting, country.

Images of India are indelible: chanted prayers echoing at dawn and dusk across city rooftops and over the countryside; the women so beautiful in their vibrant colors, no matter how rich or poor their circumstances; the other world that exists in the narrow winding back alleys of the Nehru Bazaar; the cool marble of the Taj Mahal on your cheek; the remote grandness of the abandoned ghost palace on the road to Jaipur; the hard eyes of the men on women, especially blond westerners who were spit on; a restaurant proprietress giving an impromptu women's liberation speech on the terrace of her café overlooking the Jaisalmer fortress square; tie-dyed cows wandering the streets covered in colored water during the Holi Festival; the 16 year-old entrepreneur in his tie and short sleeved dress shirt proudly leading us to his internet café (up a ladder from the chaotic street of the Bazaar, into a hole in a wall, thru a one room hematology lab where women were having their blood drawn, and down a tunnel to his pride and joy: a concrete cell containing four computers); drinking “apple juice” in a paper bag on an unlicensed rooftop above the dusty Delhi streets at sunset, being served fresh (real) juice on a silver tray by a butler in a luxury tent in Jaipur; lying on a sand dune at night listening to the absolute silence of the Thar desert; wiping the thick film of dust off our bodies every hour for 20 hours on our sleeper train thru Rajasthan.

Delhi — How Bazaar

We flew from Vietnam to Delhi and landed in the middle of the night. It didn’t take long to realize that all the traveling know-how we picked up in Southeast Asia was no preparation for backpacking in India. Not entirely sure where Asia Minor is geographically, but it was very clear that as far as traveling goes, we had just sent ourselves up to Asia’s Majors.

All the approved travel desks in the airport swore that our hotel was booked or closed and the taxi drivers did the same. But only after we were half-way to New Delhi. These ploys were very familiar from our experiences in South-East Asia. However, where polite, and then firm, insistence was always a successful tool in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, such defenses simply resulted in our jumping out of a taxi into the empty darkness of New Delhi after midnight left to wander the streets in search of our own way. Welcome to India.

We stayed for two nights in New Delhi in the middle of the Nehru Bazaar — a loud, crowded, bustling maze of vendors hawking spices, saris and wingtip shoes, with shady cafés, back alley barbers, and complacent cows.

We wandered the hot and dusty Bazaar during the day, trying to take it all in without being taken in. Again, our prior travels hadn’t really prepared us for the focused “attention” you endure in India. The innocuous “Hello, where are you from?” really means “Come see my cousin’s travel agency…Come eat in my restaurant…Come ride in my peddle-taxi.”

In the evening we would retreat to the roof of our hotel for a quiet couple of "apple juices" (Kingfisher beers) served in paper bags by our unlicensed host with a wink. We'd spend cocktail hour sipping our beers, watching the sunset over New Delhi as the evening prayers rose up from the shrines around the city. After dark we ventured out into the Bazaar again, perusing the night produce market and braving the winding back alleys, lit only by the metal sparks leaping out from the tiny little foundries recessed in the alley walls. When we walked into dark dead-ends, young children would appear to lead us out again. Then, inevitably, we would stumble onto one of the more bizarre and fascinating events in the Bazaar: The Wedding Parade.

An Indian wedding procession: first comes the brass band, dressed in marching uniforms, and playing a jazzy, festive, and endless tune. The band is flanked by men carrying ornate, rattling chandelier lamps. The band is followed by a raucous throng of sweaty men in suits, dancing wildly and passing around bottles of "apple juice." Next comes a horse ridden by the groom, all decked out like a maharajah and looking very uncomfortable with the whole thing. Second to last come the women, on foot, dressed radiantly with the bride in their center. The bride looks just as uncomfortable as the groom. And her feet probably hurt a lot more. Bringing up the rear is a lone man on a pedal bike pulling a diesel generator to power the chandeliers being carried at the front of the parade. Every night a couple of these parades would wind their way thru the narrow streets of the Bazaar well for hours. All happenings in the Bazaar would pause as the parades passed by.

One night, pressed up against a wall by the crowds on the sidewalk as yet another of these parades marched by, Will met eyes with a young Indian man sitting idly on the bike seat of a pedal taxi stuck in traffic behind the wedding party. “Hello!” the young driver smiled, shouting above the brass band. Will automatically dismissed him with a quick “No Thanks!” and for the first time in India, regretted it the moment he spoke. The driver, as if smacked across the face, just stared angrily at Will. Will, in turn, was embarrassed and angry at himself, recognizing that, after just two days, he was too numb from the intensities of New Delhi to really understand that he had just met the first really friendly face in India. He squeezed away through the crowd trying to regain his composure and swearing not to make the same mistake again, though he did. In the more traveled areas of India, it is unavoidable. His shallow attempt at penance was to relieve the next friendly taxi driver he encountered by giving him a ride on his own pedal taxi thru the city streets to the laughter of all.

After two days of Delhi’s local color, we packed up and headed for the Golden Triangle.

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