the first stamp

I recently renewed my passport. The old one was expired.

It was also full of stamps (and one visa). It was beat up and a bit floppy.

But this new one? It was blank. As I flipped through the pages I got a little sad at how empty it was. I felt like I had lost my status as a world traveler.

A week and a half  ago I changed all of that.

It had started a year earlier when my sister announced that she would be volunteering in India for a month this summer. Since it was just a short plane ride away, she was also looking into a trip to Thailand.

Now Thailand is one of those countries that I have always wanted to visit. When Kara asked if I wanted to come over to India and then to Thailand with her I jumped at the chance.

Within a few months we had booked plane tickets and started looking at hotels.

Before I knew it, I was headed to the airport. On the way to India, I flew Transaero, a Russian airline.

Here's the thing about Transaero. The flights are super cheap but like everything in life, there's a trade-off. There were only 3 channels on the in-flight entertainment system, all of them in Russian. The food was edible but not super tasty. The bathroom floors were sticky. But the flights were smooth and the cabin crew was friendly. And for half the cost of a ticket on another airline, it was worth putting up with the negatives.

Well, except for one big negative.

Their flights are frequently delayed. In my case, by about 6 hours. The delay left me stranded in the Moscow airport for most of the day. Since I originally thought I would only have about 5 hours in Moscow I hadn't gotten a visa. I wouldn't have had enough time to actually clear customs, get into Moscow, and get back through security.

Without a visa, I wasn't even allowed out of the international terminal, which was a bit sparse. It's clean and comfortable, but there aren't a ton of shops or restaurants. Oddly, everyone assumed I spoke Russian and would babble at me in Russian.

Around 2:15 AM I finally landed in Delhi. Clearing immigration was a breeze. Since I had crammed everything into a backpack, I was allowed to breeze through customs without scanning my baggage or anything.

Since it was the middle of the night, I opted to take a taxi to my hotel.

That was when I got my first taste of India. It took the cab driver 3 tries to get the taxi to start. And once it was started, it felt like it was seconds from falling apart. On top of that, the car stalled at a light.

It was also the first time I experienced the heart-pounding experience of driving in India. The rules of the road are mere guidelines. Drivers were frequently in multiple lanes. They merged or changed lanes without looking. All of this was accompanied by a symphony of honks.

The next morning I was on my own. I booked a private car tour through Chaman Duggal. If you're looking to tour India, I highly recommend them! The van was nice and in good repair. The driver was friendly. The guide was just as friendly and incredibly knowledgeable. The price was reasonable. My driver picked me up at 9 AM and we set off on our tour.

Our first stop was Jama Masjid, a functioning mosque in Old Delhi.

We had to take our shoes off to enter the mosque. There are people there that guard your shoes. However since India works on a tipping system, you have to be prepared to pay them about 20 rupees when you pick your shoes back up. As a woman, I was also required to wear a covering, even though I was in a short sleeve shirt and pants. These are technically free, but again because of the tip system, it's best to have 20-30 rupees available on your exit.

That's another thing: when in India, dress conservatively. Cover your shoulders. Wear long pants/skirts. Yes it was miserably hot. But India is a very conservative country and while people may forgive you for wearing less if you're clearly a tourist, it's always best to err on the side of not offending people & being respectful of the country you're in. It makes your travels far more comfortable and friendly. Staring isn't considered rude (that's true of many Asian countries) so if you dress more conservatively you invite fewer stares. One of the stereotypes of Americans overseas is the person who visits another country and expects it to be like America, dressing and behaving as they would at home. And that's not well-received.  As an ambassador for your country, you can change that by simply being respectful.

Okay I'm off my soapbox now. Another thing about the mosque: you have to pay 350 rupees to bring any sort of camera in.

After the mosque, we took a rickshaw ride through the markets in Old Delhi. It's best to hit these after noon when all the stores are open and not just a small portion of them.

Old Delhi was a fascinating experience. People did everything on the street, including bathing (we saw a group of men in their underwear bathing on the corner).If you look on the right hand side of the photo above, you can see the jumble of wires that serve as their power lines. The narrow streets have a canopy of wires that carry power to residents. It's not the safest but without the resources to safely install wires without destroying the traditional homes and streets, it's the solution India has opted for.

When in Delhi, make sure to pick up some spices and teas. For around $30, I got darjeeling tea, green tea, two different masalas (FYI masala simply means a mixture of spices), beautiful vanilla beans, and saffron.

Our next stop was the spot where Ghandi was cremated, which has been turned into a park. To enter the area where the memorial (above) is, you have to take off your shoes.

Next up was the India Gate, a memorial built by the British that now honors soldiers who have died in various conflicts. The park around the gate is heavily used by locals on the weekends. We saw people setting up for picnics and playing in the grass. 

We also stopped by the President's House but weren't able to get very close since the president actually resides there. The gates were beautiful ironwork resembling elephants. The facility was originally built by the British and you can tell. They combined a lot of Hindu building style into the house and surrounding government buildings but it still looks like something you could easily find in Europe.

From there it was off to Qutab Minar, the tallest minaret in India. It's located in a former mosque. The mosque itself is no longer functioning and for many years minimal effort was made to preserve the site. However in recent years the government has recognized the historical value of the site and taken a number of steps to keep it in good condition.

The story behind why it's no longer a functional mosque is actually quite interesting. In the Muslim faith, idols are not allowed. There are no images of any sort, other than maybe a natural pattern like flowers.

When the Muslims came to power in India they did what most conquering forces did back in the day: they destroyed key sites of the conquered culture. Centuries later the British would do the same thing, burning India's historical documents. But back to Qutab. Pieces of Hindu temples were allegedly used to build the site at Qutab, the first mosque built in India. Since these pieces included images of important Hindu figures, the mosque stopped being used.

Now whether that story is true or just a bit of local legend, it was still fascinating.

Our final stop on the tour was the Lotus Temple. The temple is a Baha'i house of worship. The Baha'i were started as a solution to the differences between the other major religions (Islam, Hindu, & Sikh). It's essentially like Unitarian Universalism in the states: everyone can practice whatever they want. They just join together in one, rather blank space to pray to whatever deity they choose.

We ended up not going into the temple itself. The line was over an hour long and the inside is more of an empty room. The main draw to the temple is the exterior. which is shaped like a lotus flower. It sits surrounded by a moat of sorts so that the temple appears to be floating on a pond when viewed from above. In the Hindu faith, the lotus flower represents purity.

Once the tour was over, Kara finally arrived at the hotel and we set out to wander through the stores and vendors surrounding our hotel.

In India everything is haggled for. From taxis to food to blankets, the price is negotiable. After a month of living in India, Kara had gotten quite good at haggling and negotiated like a pro with vendors.

We had found a restaurant down the street that was highly recommended on TripAdvisor but still affordable for dinner. The food in India is delicious, significantly better than any Indian food made here in the states. But there's a catch: you have to be careful where you get it from. Many visitors to India get sick from eating the food. Food safety standards are almost non-existent so there are a few basic rules to follow. First, only eat meat at a restaurant that others have eaten at without getting sick. This means that you have to do a little internet research and find somewhere on a site like TripAdvisor that other people recommend. Second, only eat fried foods from street vendors. Third, try and limit dairy. It's generally not pasteurized so it's hard to gauge how safe it is. Fourth, don't drink the water. Think of it like you would of the water in Mexico. I'm sure you remember the Sex and the City movie and Charlotte's unfortunate "accident". The same can happen if you drink the water in India.

Yes it's hard to eat safely there. But it's worth it. I loved everything I ate. Even though I was only there for a few days, American Indian food will forever be compared and found lacking.

Oh another thing about eating in India: people eat with their hands. Specifically, their right hands. You use the bread served with the meal (naan, paratha, etc) to scoop up the dish. Now the reason you use your right hand is a little...unappetizing. Toilet paper isn't really a thing there so people wipe with their left hands. Even if you don't, people may be a bit freaked out by you eating with your left hand. In major cities this isn't necessarily as common and people will be more okay with you handing things to them with your left hand. However when Kara was in southern India she tried to hand someone money with her left hand and the person wouldn't take it. So again, to be respectful of the locals, just use your right hand. Ripping the naan or paratha with your right hand is not easy if you haven't done it before but that's part of the adventure.

At dinner we also experienced a rolling blackout, which is another common feature of life in India. Sometimes the lights are only off for a few minutes. In this case, they were off for around an hour. We were still able to eat because our restaurant had a backup generator. Most of the buildings in the area didn't, so the streets were plunged into darkness.

Thankfully both of the blackouts we experienced were while we were at the same restaurant so we weren't forced to sit in the dark in the hotel room, something Kara had to do many times before I arrived.

On the whole it was an amazing first day in India. I learned so much about India culture and the history of Delhi. I wasn't super familiar with the country before I went, but I fell absolutely in love with it.

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