Bliss and Jude lighting candles for Diwali

Sitting on the roof-deck of the small Delhi hotel, fireworks exploded overhead as we devoured plate after plate of delectable curry.  It was the end of our first day in India, and also the first day of the Diwali Festival (the country’s largest festival, which also marks the beginning of the Indian New Year).

Diwali is traditionally a family celebration, and we were lucky enough to celebrate with the owner of our hotel (Raj) and his family, in addition to other hotel guests from all over the world.  After being given bindis, we participated in a lighting ceremony and song, and tucked into some truly exceptional vegetarian Indian food.  Raj’s two-year-old daughter played with Jude, and female staff members at the hotel kept an eye on both children.  Jude was really enjoying the company, the fireworks (which went all night), and he even ate some paneer (a soft Indian cheese, served grilled).  Our New Year was getting off to a great start!

Delhi houses and businesses were draped in lights for Diwali, also know as the “Festival of Lights.”

Earlier that same day at approximately 1 a.m., we exited the airport and stepped out into Delhi for the first time in our lives (after a long flight from Vienna).  The hot air clung to our skin and was thick with smoke (why hadn’t anyone warned us that the pollution was this bad?).  We could smell and taste it with every breath, and it tasted like gunpowder.  Looking up, we could see dense particle-filled smog surrounding the streetlights.  The Diwali fireworks, which had just begun (but would not be let off in earnest until the next sun down, some 18 hours later) apparently exacerbate Delhi’s already sizable pollution problem (although, the pollution on Diwali was actually reduced from 2010) possibly explaining the gunpowder smell.

Waking up later that morning to bright and scorching sunshine, the pollution was notably less noxious.  (It always seemed worse to us at night.)  The hotel’s chef prepared Jude a crepe and us delicious omelets with finely minced fresh herbs and vegetables (including invigorating chili peppers) and we hit the road.

Driving in India

We’d heard and read a lot about Indian roads, but actually being on them in daylight—the ride in from the airport had been fairly uneventful as the roads were mostly empty at that hour—still took us completely by surprise.

Several minutes into the drive, and still blurry-eyed from our late-night arrival, we noticed a group of eunuchs dressed in saris going from car to car in the bumper-to-bumper traffic and asking for money.  (“We give money to the gays on Diwali,” our driver explained, possibly not living up to American standards of political correctness.)

The begging was heartbreaking, not just from eunuchs, but usually from small street children.  Stopped in traffic, they would rap on our car windows.  We followed our driver’s lead and didn’t interact with the children.  Jude, however, actively engaged them, smiling and waving.  Our driver was not worried and never locked the doors; the children were always friendly (if persistent), without ever being aggressive; and we did not make an issue of it or tell Jude to stop.  The children were not the only ones rapping on our car windows during our first day of sightseeing: a monkey did as well (he didn’t ask us for money, but his minder did).

Tuk-tuk and relaxing cow in Delhi

Over the course of a week in India, we saw a lot on the roads that astounded us: a man carting around two live goats, stacked on top of each other cross-ways (like photocopies of different documents), on his lap while riding on the back of a moped; up to five family members all riding on the same moped (though Indian law only permits up to two; we don’t know about goats); rickshaws; donkeys pulling carts; monkeys (see above); cows (which would regularly stop traffic); camels; and elephants.  As one tour guide in Jaipur told us, “Come to India and you don’t need to visit the zoo; just go for a drive.”  (Jude, of course, loved every minute of driving in India—if we found it fascinating, he found it even more so.)

Truck at a tollbooth just outside of Delhi

To drive in India is to fend for oneself, with little to no oversight.  Red lights are optional.  Horn use is rampant, and generally not received with any hostility by the honkee (a honk is just to let the other driver know that the honker’s vehicle is on the road, or is repeated rhythmically to ask the other driver to move over a little bit).  In fact, commercial trucks usually contain the painted admonition to “Blow Horn”; some trucks also remind motorists to “Use Dipper at Night.”  (We don’t know what a “dipper” is, but we suspect that the message is asking motorists to either [i] use their high-beams to alert the trucker to the oncoming vehicle, or [ii] turn—“dip” –the high beams off so as not to blind the trucker.  Please tell us if you know what this means!)

Despite the lack of structure (from outward appearances, anyway), we noticed that a sense of honor, or at least a sense of community spirit, pervades.  For instance, when our driver cut off a truck at a toll-plaza, he actually got out of the car and bowed to the trucker for forgiveness (cupping his hands together and issuing the traditional “Namaste” greeting).

We saw some less exemplary behavior at toll plazas as well: When our car was rear-ended—a small bump, no one was hurt—our driver got out to investigate.  The other driver, however, took offense to this and shouted at our driver, angry that the car ahead was already moving and apparently considering the bump too minor to hold up his day any further.

Sightseeing and Featuring in Indian Families’ Photo Albums (or Flickr Albums)

The first family that asked to take our picture

After an eye-opening first-ever drive in India, we reached our first sight: the Qutub Minar (the world’s tallest free-standing stone tower, which is surrounded by some fantastic ruins). We sprung for audio-guides.  Big mistake.  Although they cost only the equivalent of several dollars in rupees, we didn’t get a chance to use them.  Almost immediately, we were stopped by a friendly Indian family who wanted to talk to us and have their picture taken with us.  This pattern continued for the duration of our visit to the Qutub Minar (and, for the most part, everywhere we went in India). We would walk a couple of steps, and someone would approach us and ask to take their picture with us (or sometimes just with Jude).

We ended up enjoying the experience (though we didn’t learn as much about the Qutub Minar as we might have).  It was nice to meet new people who were invariably friendly and curious about us.  Most were South Indians who were visiting Delhi for Diwali (schools and offices are closed during the festival).  We asked people to return the favor, and got some neat souvenir photos ourselves—I also made a preemptive strike on a group of Buddhist monk tourists, and Jude and I posed for a couple of picture with the brothers.

On our first day, we also saw Humayun’s Tomb (the architectural precursor to the Taj Mahal); the Lotus Temple (a principal Bahá’i center of worship); India Gate (a memorial for Indian soldiers who died in WWI and the Afghan Wars, along the lines of the Arc de Triomphe), and took a quick drive by Parliament and the President House (which were both closed to tourists during Diwali).

Next day: On to Agra and the Taj Mahal!




  6 Responses to “India Part 1: Fireworks, Eunuchs, and Dippers”

  1. A lot more adventurous driving in Delhi than in NYC which seems tame by comparison! I think I would need some “self-medication” before going on those streets. Food sounds wonderful!

    • Hi, Jennifer. Luckily, we didn’t actually do any driving ourselves. Many of the highways weren’t that different from the Brooklyn Queens Expressway–the BQE probably has even more potholes, but definitely less wildlife.

  2. I find this a very good description of the wonderful chaos of India! Weren’t you also struck by the many smells (of spices, etc.) and vivid colors (of saris, mainly)?

    • Thanks, Mom! We did enjoy the many colors of India–we actually blogged about the saris in this post (on the eunuchs) and posted a picture of a number of nice bright ones in India Part 2. You’re right about the spices. They were wonderful. Some of the smells we encountered on hot days were, uh, less than wonderful.

  3. to dip your lights is as you suggest to go onto the lower beam i dont know about india but a common term in ireland

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