Delhi Diaries

After my first flight to Toronto was cancelled and rescheduled, and then an hour late, I stumbled into Pearson International Airport with 6 minutes to make my connection to Delhi. Luckily, that flight was late too. Cheers Air Canada. After a painfully long 15 hours we landed in Delhi. By then it was close to midnight so we were relieved to be met by the out-going Canadian fellow Lainey, and Luxman, one of AKF’s friendly drivers.

There’s something surreal and slightly unsettling about arriving in an unfamiliar place in the early hours of the morning. Disoriented and jetlagged, we rode in a heavy silence, unable to process anything. Though there was some confusion checking into our ‘butique’ hotel, tiredness does a great deal to relax the nerves. I lived in a pleasurable cloud of calm the first few days. I don’t think anything can truly prepare you for India, but traveling to Chennai and Puducherry gave me some basis of expectation. Still, Delhi is a whirlwind. Sprawling and congested, blasting car horns and traffic of every imaginable kind – car, bike, scooter, horse, rickshaw – rarely wanes. We stayed nestled in a small hub of chaos: my window looked out onto 2 freeways, a flyover, and an over-ground metro line. Ironically, this rapid development in modern transportation makes it near impossible to walk in Delhi. This brings me to some funny revelations Allie, Taheera and I made.

  1. You can’t walk. There are a) no sidewalks b) too many cars c) too much of everything else.
  2. Nothing opens before 11 a.m. For a city of sweltering heat, you would think early risers would be plentiful.
  3. Ladies Only Cars are a slice of heaven. Free of leering stares, and with a little extra elbow room, it became our most dependable way to move around.
  4. Everything happens on the street. There’s no such thing as private versus public space.

When we had a bit of time to explore the city after two days of in-country training, we encountered even more surprises.  Luckily, any unexpected encounter was unmatched by the amazing sight-seeing and food. With Lainey leading the way, our first stop was Humayan’s Tomb, a historic site which was restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Humayan was the son of the first Moghul Emperor. He envisioned the construction of a perfect, holy city, a few remnants of which are still visible. Most impressive is the mausoleum that houses his tomb. His wife was so devastated by his death that she built him a pretty insane building. Apparently, the architecture of his tomb laid the foundation for the Taj Mahal. The most striking part about Humayan’s Tomb was the peaceful greenspace that enveloped the site like a cloak. We stepped out of Delhi into a whole other world full of trees, flowers, and birds – the perfect way to recharge.

After one day around the city, Taheera had to leave for her work placement in Mumbai.  I was stuck in a zone of limbo as heavy rains pounded Gujarat. The rains and flooding are so bad my departure was delayed. There’s always a silver lining, and in this case it was the chance to adventure and help Allie settle in Delhi. On Friday, Allie and I hit the streets of South Delhi on our own. By far the most incredible part of our day was Lodi Gardens. For a city of chaos, Delhi contains a surprising amount of greenspace. Lodi is filled with trees, flowers, and fountains…as well as an amusing number of young couples madly in love hiding from the craziness of the streets. Most fascinating in Lodi Gardens is the 15th century architecture from the Lodi Empire’s reign. During the late 1400s and early 1500s, the Lodi’s ruled over Northern India and Pakistan. Ancient ruins of Muhammed Shah’s tomb as well as Bara Gumad Mosque lay hidden among the trees. A short walk away, is Safdarjung’s Tomb, who was actually a viceroy of Muhammed Shah’s. This building was the last monumental tomb of the Mughal Empire. The evening sun illuminated its imposing red sandstone and marble with amazing vibrancy.

Safdarjung’s Tomb – amber, gold, and dusty – was a world apart from the Ba’hai Lotus Temple. Liam recommended we visit, so we made a short detour to another peaceful greenspace hidden in the chaos of Kailash. Built in 1986, this Ba’hai house of worship is surreal in its silence, and marbled, geometrical perfection. Meandering in its manicured gardens was a no-go – fitting for its organized nature. No lovebirds were in sight here. Such structured order in the middle of the madness was unexpected. If Delhi is anything, it is city of juxtaposition. Still, nothing could have prepared us for the jarring contrasts of Old versus New Delhi the next day.

When people call Toronto a concrete jungle, they should check out Old Delhi first. Every imaginable sort of building is squished on top of and between crumbling colonial-era flats. Winding down alley-ways, you’ll lose daylight – and even off-line maps – amid the cramped buildings and knots of powerlines. It seems that people have built another building to hold up the first, and so on and so forth. The urban jungle even had its own family of monkeys scampering with ease among the rooftops. Though we visited the striking Jammu Masjid, and iconic Red Fort, the highlight of the day was when Lainey led us to a hidden rooftop amidst the concrete maze. In the late-afternoon sun, we watched kids flying kites, playfully ‘kite-cutting’ each other from faraway roofs with surprising dexterity.  Everything from laundry, to a professional photo-shoot was happening on the roof. If you spent time searching for the intricate details of everyday life, the blaring of car horns faded away. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to the city.

This post is dedicated first and foremost to the unbelievably knowledgeable and resilient Lainey, as well as Chancal, who was kind enough to take us into her home for a lovely meal.


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