Auto-rickshaws, Hindu Temples and Motley CrÃ¼e in India
My wife and I were offered the opportunity to travel with some friends to India. Of course, we jumped at the chance. Our friends were going to attend a wedding of a cousin. We figured weâ€™d never again have the opportunity to attend an Indian wedding, stay with locals and wear Indian clothes. After much planning (thanks to Lonely Planet), organizing lists, endless lists, and reading, Empire of the Soul by Paul Roberts, we stepped on a KLM flight to Delhi on November 4, 2005.
The trip was an exciting whirlwind of getting over jet lag, acclimating to India, visiting with our friendâ€™s family, attending various wedding events, seeing the sites, traveling, and eating. It would be impossible to tell the story in a single article. Below are some brief descriptions, stories and experiences that I remember best.
Auto-Rickshaws in Delhi
I became intrigued with Indian miniature paintings that chronicle the lives of the various Hindu gods. I learned that one of the best places to see these paintings is at Indiaâ€™s National Museum. I was excited to go, but first we had to get there from where we were staying – far from the city center. We had a few options: rickshaws, auto-rickshaws and taxis. We had used a rickshaw on a visit to Old Delhi on our first day in India the previous week. It made me feel uncomfortable – emaciated men transporting people around on a bench on the back of a bicycle. Somehow the whole experience screamed â€œcolonialistâ€. That was out. Taxis were too hard to come by where we were staying. That left auto-rickshaws. These had fascinated me since we arrived – green and yellow, three-wheeled, natural gas-powered vehicles that zip in and out of Delhiâ€™s crazy traffic like bumble bees. Auto-rickshaws are ubiquitous and I was hankering to take a ride.
We easily found a driver and quickly discovered that he was multi-talented. Not only was he an auto-rickshaw driver, but also a tour guide who wanted to take us to all the sites. â€œJust pick one!â€ he said, flashing photos of the Red Fort, Old Delhi and India Gate, – touting a shop as well, â€œGreat deals!â€ he said.
â€œYouâ€™re with me today,â€ he told us, as he aggressively maneuvered in and out of Delhiâ€™s congested traffic disregarding the “please use the lanesâ€ and â€œlane driving is safe drivingâ€ traffic signs. Undeterred by our not agreeing to engage him as a tour guide for the day, he went on to ask us if we planned to do any shopping. Foolishly we answered, yes, we were. He immediately told us, â€œAll the shops in Delhi are closed todayâ€ which was clearly untrue. He went on to explain that it was a national holiday to celebrate one of the nationâ€™s holy men, and that every shop was closed except (how lucky for us) this one shop he knew and he was happy to take us there right now! Thankfully, we were pulling up to the museum and were able to get out of the situation with only a vague promise that weâ€™d think about it. He pressed on. â€œI wait outside of the museum, my friends, how long will you be, one hour? Two hours? Iâ€™ll be right over here.â€
The National Museum was fantastic, especially the mini-paintings. They covered some of my favorite aspects of the Hindu gods. One featured Ganish, the popular elephant-headed son of Shiva, eating sugar balls one after the other with a look of pure delight on his face.
As we left the museum, our tout/driver friend was there to beckon us past other auto-rickshaws waiting at the entrance. Reluctantly, we agreed to engage him to take us to Connaught Place. He persisted with his nutty, obviously false claim that there were no shops open and then, in his final act of desperation, went on to tell us that he would get a T-shirt if we went with him to his preferred shop. (Could any previous travelers possibly been suckered with that? A T-shirt?) At our destination, we quickly gave leave to our would-be tour guide, auto-rickshaw driver, tout friend and wandered into some Delhi side streets looking for the wedding market.
Donâ€™t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)
No matter where I go, I always want to hear music, and India is full of music. I stopped in a shop in Dehradun called Pratap Music House. I bought some Ravi Shankar records and the pre-wedding festivities that featured â€œthe best DJ in Indiaâ€ – all the current Indian dance hits – with an electronically-altered deep and distorted voice over and over, along with fantastic traditional drummers who played between the pop hits. When the drummers played, I was often recruited into a dance circle where I had to attempt to match all the moves of another – much better – dancer. I shudder that there is video of that out there someplace.
Along with searching out local music, I always bring my own. When I was in Kenya in 2000, I took my first MP3 player along. It was one of the early Rio models and only allowed 15 songs for a two-week trip. I still hum Aimee Mannâ€™s â€œHow am I Differentâ€ when I think of Kenya. Now, Iâ€™ve upgraded to an iPod, and I was pleased to have over 2,000 songs at my fingertips. I could listen to any song I wanted and I was curious to see what song would rise to the top and say â€œIndiaâ€ to me the way â€œHow am I Differentâ€ said â€œKenya.â€
I figured it would it be Hippiolla by Sigur Ros, an obsession as we left for India. And I did listen to Hippolla a lot, but not half as much as â€œDonâ€™t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)â€ by Motley CrÃ¼e – a band I was deeply ambivalent about for much of my life. Just recently, though, I read a history of the band that prompted me to download the song. For two weeks I could not get the song out of my head, and now when I think of traveling on the road from Delhi to Agra, I hear â€œGirl, don’t go away mad. Girl, just go away!â€
Confused Americans in a Hindu Temple
On one of our last nights, our hosts suggested that we visit a nearby Hindu Temple. They said it was an amazing site and that no travelers ever went there as it was outside the city center. Sounded great. When the family offered to have their driver take us, we did not hesitate. We arrived at the temple and were surprised to see that it was huge and gleaming, brightly lit and packed with Indians. It was one of only a few nights a year that the temple had all of its rooms open, in honor of the holy-man, Gurunanak’s Birthday. Those shops were open, I tell you.
As we took off our shoes and walked in the temple, we were overwhelmed by all the activity. People were walking every which way, putting money into a collection pot, going up some stairs, sitting and quietly chatting. Trying to take it all in, we froze. We must have looked completely out of it, being the only Westerners. A man with his family in toe came to our rescue. He explained that hundreds of people would walk through the temple that night, and that it was all done in a particular order. He offered to walk us through.
We got a guided tour on a high holy day. We entered the flow of the faithful going up the stairs and proceeded to walk though several rooms, each with its own deity icon. There were several priests who were administering holy water, adornments, blessings and prayer. Feeling sheepish about clearly being outsiders, we attempted to defer from accepting the bounty, but time and time again our new friend, his family and others in the flow insisted that we partake. Once, when we politely left a line heading towards a priest blessing people with holy water, someone nearby stopped us and insisted we be blessed, saying it was only right. We left the temple only after looking at every nook and cranny, having been prayed for, treated as friends, and blessed not only by our new family of tour guides, but by nearly everyone we met.