I came home from my first trip to India with the distinct impression that most people had expected me to go and have my heart broken.
With Bollywood-fueled dreams and college knowledge of Indian literature, I had studied Hindi, swished around in saris, cheered on cricket matches and dabbled in masalas. Those around me expected that now I, a small-town Florida girl, would find not the India that I had loved from afar but the problem-ridden India of reality.
Did I find that India? Of course I did. India, like any other country, has its beauties and its vices, and being able to recognize both is important to loving it as a whole. You cannot see the glittering palaces of old without recognizing that much of the population lives in grimy poverty, and vice versa. India is a study in contrasts.
Standing out, blending in
Last May, I stepped out of the airport into Delhi's perpetual haze and 115 degrees of dry heat wearing my Patiala salwar, the voluminous pants native to north Punjab state but mostly known back home as my "Hammer pants." Yes, as in MC Hammer. The land I had dreamed of seeing for four years welcomed me with a gust of hot, dust-filled air.
My sister and I arrived in India's capital during the hottest part of the North Indian summer, when the temperature is consistently above 100 degrees and the humidity is beginning to build toward the monsoons. (But, for the record, it can't match the muggy discomfort of a Florida summer.)
Our tour was a bargain in price — $1,599 for seven days, including airfare and hotels — even for the sweltering off-season, but I left it determined next time to go it alone. We were shepherded around the city like sheep, going nonstop to monuments, returning to the hotel exhausted just before dusk.
But India is a country to experience rather than see.
Yes, there are plenty of monuments to see — the ageless towering Qutub Minar, the Mughal bastion Red Fort, Gandhi's cremation site — but that is but a piece of the true appeal of Delhi. It misses something of the soul of a bustling city of 22 million that has been built and rebuilt by dozens of dynasties, notably the Mughals and the British Raj.
The tour took us to many a nice restaurant but also to many a terrible tourist trap, sparing us any sickness but also sparing us many culinary joys of a city famous for its street food or chaat. High on the list are paani puris (literally "water bread"), more locally known as gol gappas for the way you gulp them in one bite. Food sanitation tends to be an issue, but we never had any problems with "Delhi belly" (South Asia's "Montezuma's revenge").
The tour guide scoffed at our plans to dive into the Indian fervor for cricket when the Indian Premier League season was in full swing. The sport is played in fields and streets, anywhere there's enough room to throw a ball and swing a bat. But the IPL packs stadiums to watch international stars mixed among home-country favorites. The saying goes that India's true religion is cricket and its god is a batsman named Sachin Tendulkar.
But jokes aside, India is a place where belief is steadfast and robust in many forms. A majority is Hindu with significant Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain minorities, not to mention Jews, Zoroastrians and Baha'is. In Delhi, the faiths are well-represented.
The Baha'i Lotus Temple is much more modern than most houses of worship there, but no less impressive. From the outside, it looks like a mock Sydney Opera House, flanked by reflecting pools, and it really glows at night. At the Laxmi Narayan Temple, also known as the Birla Mandir for the family that built it, there is a certain calming effect, a feel of reverence, in shedding shoes to walk halls dedicated to the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity.
Shoes are also shed to enter the Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque. The sandstone courtyard sears the soles in the summer, but there is cool respite in the prayer hall beneath the dome. Here again our tour infringed as we were made to wear "gowns" (really housecoats) to cover ourselves, even those of us wearing conservative native clothes. It engendered a distinct separation more than anything else, especially as we were not encouraged to respect Islamic tradition by covering our heads in the mosque, though I did as I whispered a prayer in the shade.
The masjid is in Old Delhi, near the Red Fort and the famous market Chandni Chowk. Riding a bicycle-drawn rickshaw through Chandni Chowk's narrow and crowded lanes is a can't-miss experience. When you think you can't possibly pass the shoppers and pedestrians and scooters and animals and other rickshaws without injury, you somehow will.
And since we stood out as Americans, folks in the shops would even dash out and run alongside our rickshaw to say hello and ask us about America. Being an American in India is to be something of a celebrity.
The biggest crush we felt was at the glimmering marble Taj Mahal in otherwise unremarkable Agra — best treated as a day trip from Delhi. As we people-watched, Indian tourists approached at least two dozen times asking to take photos with us. We had the experience elsewhere — a lady in the ruins at Fatehpur Sikri unceremoniously handed us her baby — but not with the sheer volume as in Agra, where people seemed more awed to shake our hands than to see the Taj Mahal.
An exhilarating ride
Delhi made me sweat from more than just the heat.
The city's traffic is thrilling in the same way a roller coaster is — if a roller coaster felt like you might die at any second. Lanes are hardly even a suggestion. If you can squeeze through anywhere at any time, you go for it. So traffic flows about seven or more vehicles wide on a three-lane highway.
But once you get over the initial panic, the way to experience it isn't from the safety of a tour bus looking down on the chaos. It's in an auto-rickshaw, or tuk-tuk, a small local cab that zips along in the thick of it. The tour guide told us we could fit two people in one, but after seeing the locals pile whole families in, we figured four people was no stretch (and it wasn't). In an auto-rickshaw, you can feel the wind rushing past and every bump in the road, hear every horn beep to let you know you're surrounded.
Who knew something so frantic could be so fun?
But it is both, much like India itself. If you are brave enough for an open, bumpy ride, the experience is so much more rewarding. As many words as there are to describe India, there are few to explain how being there feels. It is overwhelming at times and at others frustrating. It is crowded and dusty and yet growing and alive.
You just have to be open to feeling it.
Caitlin E. O'Conner can be reached at [email protected] Follow @CaitOConner on Twitter.