Haley Kardek describes her first days in India

Day One and Two: New Delhi

Two days ago, we arrived in New Delhi at 2:30am. After going through multiple security-checks and customs and picking up my two and my dad’s one bag, we headed outside into the very, very hot air to meet my exchange partner, Asma, and her father. Before, I had only talked to Asma through email but nothing was to prepare me for her endless bubbliness and energy (even at 3 in the morning)! Following our hugs and hellos, Asma and her father dropped my dad and I off at our hotel for a few hours rest before our touring really began.

The day started at 11 as we met Asma and her driver out in the lobby and headed out. Most people hire drivers day-by-day that take them anywhere they need to go and then waits until they are done to pick them up. That’s a pretty new concept for me as in the US, we drive ourselves everywhere. Let me say though, that after two days in the city, I understand why: the driving here is absolutely crazy! Oh there are traffic lights and lane-lines and clearly-marked one-way signs.  The only thing is people just don’t follow any of that! Driving through the city is a constant dodging of people, cows, bicycles, auto-taxis (little three-legged yellow and green taxis) and giant military trucks. Where in the US using your horn is considered an agitator and rude, here it is used as if it simply means “Hello, I’m over here”! Not very surprisingly, most people choose motorcycles over cars as you can weave in and out of everyone a lot easier. According to Asma, rush hour is supposed to be at 8am and 6pm but from what I’ve seen, there is no rush hour; every hour is rush hour!

Asma, having lived in Delhi her whole life, knew her way around the city and how to haggle very well! She took us to a few different bazaars (one called Dilli Haat) where we bought many hand-made dresses, bags, earrings, exc. (I am going to wait to get the saris in Jaipur which is known for its textiles and fabrics.) I’m glad I had Asma around because she always knew what to buy where and how much it really should cost. I also got the palm of my hand hennaed and my hair braided with colors. One woman told me that because the henna on my hand was so dark, it was suppose to mean that my mother-in-law would love me. I guess we will have to see if that’s true!

After that, Asma took us to two different temples: one, a Gurdawara (worship place for Sikhism) and the other, a temple for the Hindu-god Krishna. In the Gurdawara, we all had to cover our heads in wraps and could not wear any socks or shoes (you could say I enjoyed that part!). Upon entering the temple, we had to wash our feet, kneel and touch our forehead to the ground of the entrance. Asma taught me a few other prayers and signs of respect you had to pay also once in the temple. Inside, a man stood at an elaborate alter, singing, as people approached to present offerings to the god. A band played around him and many times people in the crowd would also join in to the singing. Outside the main temple building was a huge court-yard with a pool probably a mile-wide where people were touching the water with their hands or feet. Asma showed me that the pool was full of fish in order to respect all the natural parts of the world. She explained that people touched or washed their hands and feet in it with the fish as a symbol of equality, unity and mortality of all creatures.

The other temple for Krishna was similar in its vastness, elaborateness and beauty. We did not have to cover our heads but like in the other temple, we could not wear shoes. This temple was full of a lot more art: paintings and statues. Inside, altars with many different gods lines all sides of the temple. Covered in gold and fabrics of all colors, everywhere you looked was a new beautiful altar. This temple too had a court-yard but it was a garden full of native trees, flowers and birds.

These temples stood in stellar contrast to most other parts in the city though and that is what amazed me the most. Everywhere we traveled was beautiful but obviously impacted by poverty and lack of modernization. Dogs and people alike, slept huddled together on the dusty streets. I saw a family (a mother, her two, very young sons and handicapped daughter) weaving in and out of cars stopped at a light, begging for money, food, clothes, anything. There were alley-ways where piles of stone and demolished buildings blocked cyclist’s way as they carried ladders, mats and bags of food to work or to their family. Valleys in between different parts of the city were covered with villages made from cardboard, sticks and cheap fabrics: anything people could find. And next to all that, right around the corner from all these people, were the temples: giant; gold-plated and silver painted; elaborately carved with pictures of landscapes, gods and decorations; clean; white. Both temples, despite that we were visiting in the middle of the day, were packed tight with people of all classes, worshipping and spending time with their families. Groups were huddled around inside, quietly speaking to each other as they prayed. These temples are places of community. These are the only places where everyone becomes equal and everyone can share their beliefs, ideas and love for a shared god. This is what I have found India is about: community and family. I asked Asma what she does religiously. She answered me that she herself doesn’t practice much but because of her family’s strong religious belief and the long list of traditions her family tries to uphold, Asma strives to participate in every family gathering and practice. Festivals and ceremonies are very sacred to the Indian community because they become the only time that everyone, from the corporate workers to the children selling fruit on the street, can come together and celebrate their common love. This to me shows the importance and value of being an active part in the family and community: a part in which I hope, I too, can soon become a part of.

After running around with Asma the first day, my dad and I were exhausted and slept in (Haley sleeping in?! I know!) for a later start. After getting ready for the day, my dad and I were picked up by a friend’s driver and taken to Tata, a huge multi-directional company in India that my dad’s company works with, in Nodia. Tata was about an hour away from the center of New Delhi so my dad and I got to see many different sites as we drove on. My luckiest find was a little boy (probably around 7 years-old) driving an ELEPHANT right through the middle of the city! I thought that cows running around wild in the middle of the city were weird, talk about a massive elephant! Sadly, I missed the shot in my amazement, awe and excitement but I have been told there are a thousand more to see as I travel to Agra and Jaipur.

Once we arrived to Tata, my dad introduced me to a woman he used to work with and her co-workers. While they had a business meeting (and I struggled yet again to figure out what exactly my dad does for a job), I looked at tourist books and planned for our next two cities, Agra and Jaipur. When they had finished the “business talk,” we met some more co-workers of my dad’s friend and then all went out to a favorite restaurant for lunch. It amazed me how very young all the workers for this company were–barely out of college! I learned a lot during lunch as we talked about the traditional life in India and, again, the discussion of religion and its ties to the value of family and community.

The restaurant was very traditional and the meal was planned out for us by my dad’s friend. Before this experience, I thought American’s ate a lot. People had always told me that our portions and frequency was a lot more than other cultures. Trust me, they were wrong. A traditional Indian meal starts with your choice of a soup or a soft drink (I had a delicious chicken soup) and an onion salad. Then you move on to appetizers which usually is chicken kabobs and these fried cheese balls. Next, the main course: biryani, onions and tomato curry, one other vegetable dish and naan. And lastly, dessert which consists of fried dough balls dipped in sugar syrup, Gulabi (a sugary, orange candy) and this other dish, similar to bread pudding except in thick milk with spices. And that was just lunch!

After that, we visited the Red Fort (a castle built in the 1600s for the king who built the Taj Mahal and all of his wives). As soon as we arrived at the fort though, we were surprised by a little unexpected weather! Everyday, it had been at least 100 degrees out and was supposed to for many more months to come. But as soon as we were walking through the gates to the Red Fort, you could see this huge dust storm, above all the buildings, spinning straight towards us. My dad, his friend and I all covered our eyes and face as we were hit with very strong winds and stinging dust. Almost as soon as the winds began to die-down, thunder began to ring and rain poured down from the skies. A few seconds later, lightning began striking as we ran into the Red Fort with a hundred other people for cover. All of this took less than 5 minutes to appear!

The rain continued to heavily pour for about an hour but the lightning stayed all the way through the night! After that, soaking wet and very tired, my dad and I retired to our hotel for the night in order to rest for an early start towards Agra–hoping to get out before the traffic began.

Day Three: Agra

We left New Delhi at around 6 in the morning for a four and a half-hour car ride to Agra. Technically, we had planned for me to sleep the whole way down so I could be well rested and ready for touring when we reached Agra, but this is Haley we are talking about. (I ended up taking over 400 photographs instead: a much better use of the time!)

The scenery, heading down to Agra, was much different as we moved from the metropolitan areas and into the more rural, farm lands. I learned along the way that north India farms more wheat than rice (and vice versa for south India) and that is what “North Indian food” and “South Indian food” is based on. Life in the farm areas seemed a lot more laid back: not as much hustling and bustling (the no traffic helped as well). As we passed small towns, I observed at one point a grandfather, surrounded by about five of his friends, admiring what I assumed to be his little grandson on his lap. At another point, a group of boys were playing cricket in a dirt-covered, abandoned field. A woman, bent over a large hot bowl, stirred food for her family as she chatted to her friend next door.

It amazed me, just how much the women could balance on their heads as well! On the way, I saw balanced a bushel of wheat, buckets of water, bags of food, crates, the list goes on. Out of the city, there were also a lot of different animals to see such as camels (the ship of the desert a man told me), monkeys, sheep, pigs, chickens, horses, snakes, and, yes, elephants.

When we arrived to Agra, a city much smaller than New Delhi, we checked in to our hotel and rested for a few hours, waiting for sunset (the perfect time to tour to Taj Mahal). Created in the 1600s, the Taj Mahal is absolutely stunning. It massiveness and delicacy can only be observed as you stand at the bottom of it, looking up. Our guide, a native from Agra, explained the crazy symmetry and planned architecture of the Taj that the Mughal king built for his wife. The Taj is built in perfect symmetry and in the shape of an octagon so that you will get the same view from every side. All of the pillars domes and steps are arranged in groups of eleven with two groups of each, adding up to a final count of 22 which represents the number of years it took to build it. Even in the courtyard, everything is in symmetry: the gardens, the trees, the gates and the fountains. One of the coolest facts I learned was that the four towers, which stand at the corners of the Taj, are built slanting outward so if they should ever fall, they would never destroy the main building.

Days Up Until School

We have been on the road from Jaipur to New Delhi then Delhi to Solon, Solon to my school and finally my school to Shimla. You all will not believe the view I have right now! We are surrounded by evergreen tundra, tucked on one of the hundreds of mountains in the Himalayan Mountain Range. From outside the window, all you can see is mountain peaks for miles in every direction. It is absolutely one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen. We made the mistake a few minutes ago of opening a window to get some fresh air though and turning around a minute later to find a monkey sitting on our window post entering our room! It was a little shocking for my dad and I.

After traveling through Skipper’s Canyon in New Zealand, I never thought that I would ever find a road as scary and windy as that. I was very much mistaken. The road coming up to my school and the hotel which we are in right now, had no side-rails, lights or pull-overs! My dad couldn’t take the road for too long before he got sick. As it wound around the mountains, we had to share the road with not only giant military and transport trucks, but bikes, monkeys and even cows. (Tyler, imagine mountain biking up this road!) Everyone keeps saying how the best drivers have to be from India and now I most certainly have to agree!

Today, my touring ends and I am heading to the Lawrence School to begin my studies here! I cannot wait to get to school and meet up again with Asma and a few of her friends.