April 1st, 2011
Our second morning in Delhi began on a much more relaxed note than the first. Still somewhat astonished by the sheer amount of sightseeing we had managed to accomplish in under 24 hours, the five of us decidedly set much smaller goals for that day. Sam, who hadn’t slept a single minute in 72 hours, insisted that we leave her to rest at the hotel, and so it was that Megan, Zach, Jon and I ventured yet again into the morning heat of New Delhi – this time to the Lotus Temple, which Ellie had recommended we take the time to see.
Empowered by a new understanding of Indian transportation, we wasted no time in hiring a cheap auto-rickshaw to take us directly to our destination. The white marble roof of the temple rose into view even before we arrived. We were dropped off in front of a large gate, past which red stone walkways stood flanked by rows of lush green grass and blooming flowers. The temple grounds swarmed with a rainbow of people dressed in every shade of brilliant color, the path leading up to the temple like a red carpet. The temple stood, white marble gleaming, the sweeping curves of its lotus petals bent towards the sun. Pools of turquoise water circled its base in perfect symmetry, the intensity of the water’s color setting off the purity of the white marble.
Needless to say, it was beautiful. We approached it cautiously, aware of our own cultural ignorance, intent on avoiding offending anyone. Carefully observing the other temple-goers, we removed our shoes, storing them in a sort of underground cubby system, before quietly being ushered into the temple itself. I remember taking a seat on a bench, the marble cool beneath my feet, staring up at the vast dome ceiling in silence. After a few minutes of tranquil observation, I made eye contact with other members of the group, and we left the temple to make room for the throngs of other visitors waiting outside its doors.
The remainder of the afternoon passed with considerable chaos. Suddenly starving, we requested a rickshaw driver to take us somewhere for lunch, and ended up at a sort of mall-like establishment full of Western fast-food restaurants complete with metal detectors. Hoping for something slightly more authentic, being in India and all, we wandered through the sweltering heat to a bizarre marketplace bustling loudly with vendors of electronics of every brand and variety. Something about the scene was surreal, a little unsettling, enhanced by the fact that Megan and I were the only women to be seen in any direction amidst masses of shouting men. As Zach disappeared to look for a spare camera battery, Megan and I stayed close to Jon, searching through the madness for somewhere we could eat lunch and not wreak havoc on our fragile American digestive systems.
Finally, we found a cool, shaded restaurant on the top floor of a nearby building, featuring hilariously, painfully bad music and large plastic decals of dancing men decorating the walls. By some miracle, we were able to find Zach again, and entirely incapable of communicating with the waiters or deciphering the menu, we proceeded to order lunch. I remember Jon choosing his meal on the basis of “most comical title”, a tactic that proved surprisingly successful given the range of possibilities. I was struck yet again by the strange closeness I already felt with my travel companions, these random young people circumstantially united under the roof of a rather shady restaurant in New Delhi. Our conversation became more and more bizarre as our fatigue increased over lunch, and when Jon had requested the terrible music to be replayed and the boys had begun to shout at each other deliriously in foreign accents, Megan and I decided it was time for us all to return to the hotel for a nap. It was with sensory relief that we returned to the Legend Inn and spent the remainder of the afternoon basking in the air conditioning and talking to Sam, who was feeling much better.
Our course, NOLS Himalaya Mountaineering, began promptly at five o’clock that evening in the form of a buffet-style dinner and crowded meeting in an empty hotel room. We were introduced to Chris, a music student from Vermont; Tully, a musician living in Los Angeles; Jade, an energetic 18-year-old from Utah; Devon, a worldly young woman living in Chicago; and Catlin, a young man from Alabama. Megan gaped in astonishment as Alexander Wells, a cosmopolitan young man from New York, entered the room – he had attended her high school. For the remainder of the trip, he would be simply known as Wells. I was overtaken by a sudden wave of fatigue so overwhelming it was impossible to ignore, and excused myself to nap on an upstairs couch until someone woke me, explaining that it was time to get on the bus. I slept for the entirety of the bus ride, and do not remember a thing.
When I awoke, greatly rejuvenated, the bus had pulled up to the train station of Old Delhi, a blur of color, sound, and pandemonium eerily lit in the hot nighttime air. We congregated nervously outside the bus, an extremely conspicuous group of disoriented Caucasian travelers laden with gigantic mountaineering backpacks and no idea what was happening. Someone shouted to follow a porter, and it was all I could do to grasp the backpack straps of the person ahead and push through the masses of people, desperately trying not to lose sight of the red-clad man with a gigantic parcel atop his head. All across the platform, groups of travelers laid down to rest, the saris of sleeping women forming a rainbow of sparkling fabric across the dirty station floor. Foreign as we were, we were ushered away from this scene into the first-class waiting room, a barren space of grey concrete, and told to rest. Wait here. We collapsed in a pile atop our backpacks, breaking out a deck of cards, and waited. Asked each other questions like, what was your name again? Where are you from, again?
As the hour grew later, we were informed that the train was approaching, and each assigned a berth to sleep in and a cabin number. I was assigned to a compartment with Seth, Catlin and Chris, and given the peculiar instructions to introduce myself as “Natalie” to anyone who asked and to claim that I had lost my passport. Again we were herded clumsily through the whirlwind of late-night life and noise, to wait beneath an illuminated sign reading, in English, “No Spitting” for the train to arrive. Right in front of us, a young boy stole a wallet from a girl, who proceeded to chase him, screaming, down the platform until she caught ahold of his arm and managed to slow him down. A crowd of people gathered around the thief as a policeman arrived on the scene and proceeded to beat him. We stared, dazed by culture shock and jet lag.
At last, the headlights of a train rounded the corner – our home for the night. Climbing haphazardly into my berth near the ceiling, I arranged its blankets into a makeshift bed and curled up between them, noting the strangeness of going to bed with my shoes on, on an Indian train with a huge group of strangers. I can still remember every sensory detail of going to bed that night: the firmness of the mattress, the awkward way I had to curve my body to accommodate my bag next to me, the hypnotic, gentle hum of the engine lulling me rapidly towards sleep. I remember listening to “Welcome Home” by Radical Face, feeling relaxed in the company of the kind young men in my train car, contemplating the adventure ahead. A wave of intense euphoria set in, of excitement and purpose and of the stars aligning, of everything headed in the direction it was meant to.
As our train departed Delhi, it was announced that India had won the Cricket World Cup, and the skyline exploded into brilliant fireworks. Our train departed Delhi, heading north, towards the foothills of the Himalayas.