Monday, May 3, 2010

"Wrapping up India" staring Delhi

April 15 to 20, 2010 (by Swiss)

Time flies when you're having fun, right?  And so it became time for us to say "good bye" to India, but not without one last stop.  For our grand finale, we were scheduled to spend about four days in India's capital of Delhi, located in what we concluded must be a giant oven.  Average day time temperatures when we were scheduled to be in the city peaked around 45 deg C, or 113 deg F for you folks in the states.  Hot. Couple that with 22+ million inhabitants, and we were ready for a sweaty and potentially smelly experience.

As fortune would have it, I have some wonderful family friends - the Nath family - living in Delhi, and they were gracious enough to welcome us into their home for our stay.  An SMS from Madhu Nath a few days prior to our arrival confirmed that her driver would be waiting for us at the airport, a welcome convenience after a streak of trains, planes, and taxi haggling.  Besides some sight seeing, our plan included the picking up of my Swiss passport at the embassy and research upgrade possibilities for our Turkish airlines flight from Cairo to Sao Paolo.  Fingers crossed.

An Unexpected, but Welcome, Welcome

Our Spice Jet barely made it out of Bagdogra as heavy winds/storms were sweeping in from the east.  This, coupled with security line related slowdowns and a good 30 minute taxi session to the gate at Delhi got us to the airport exit about one hour late.  The driver, however, was there as promised and we quickly got transported to the Nath home.

What we didn't expect were the spoils we were about to experience over the next couple of days.  The driver dropped us off at the guest suite, which easily beat any place we had stayed in our 8 months of travel.  As some of you may know, scoring a real mattress in parts of Asia can be challenging, especially on the budget circuit.  Same goes for proper showers, hot water, and (drumroll) A/C.  I am happy to report that we had it all, including a separate sitting room with satellite TV.  Besides beautiful diggs, Madhu, Ravi and Nikhil showered us with great company, excellent food, tips, and transportation into and out of Delhi.  In a sense, it was a much welcome break from "traveling", and a relaxing way to wrap up our final days in India.

Once settled in our "suite", we quickly hopped into the shower before being escorted over to the main house for a tasty dinner with Madhu and Ravi, who I haven't seen since the last time I had visited India, i.e., 1997.  The rest of the evening were spent chatting away before heading to bed for a good nights sleep.

"Driver, please take us to _____" and the Art of creating an International Incident

As mentioned in the intro, we did have some "chores" to knock out while in Delhi.  Madhu was nice enough to lend us her driver for a good chunk of the day on Friday, who would take us to the Swiss embassy, the Turkish airlines office, the museum of modern art, and finally Khan market to round out the afternoon.  So an itinerary was set, and we were off after a yummy breakfast courtesty of Shankar, who we both can attest cooks a mean Masala Omelet.

We arrived at the Swiss embassy shortly before noon, and since I was the only one with "business", I was allowed inside the complex while Lawton and our driver remained outside.  As promised, my passport for which I applied in Shanghai was patiently waiting at the embassy in Delhi.  A bit of Swiss German, some chicken scratch, and I became the proud owner of the little gem shown below.  Kudos to the Swiss authorities, who managed the whole affair across three countries (China, Switzerland, and India) both expediently and professionally.

Upon leaving the complex, I located our driver who was patiently waiting in the parking lot.  Jason, however, was absent.  The driver didn't really speak any English, but he did manage to communicate that he had walked off to the right a bit after I headed into the building.  We had talked about maybe swinging by the nearby Egyptian embassy to try to score a multi-entry visa for that country, as we were planning on visiting neighboring Jordan for a glance at the ancient city of Petra.  Not knowing how long I would be spending on Swiss soil, I figured he may have walked off in the direction of the Egyptian embassy.

Well, my assumption was wrong, which I discovered about half an hour (and one brief phone call) later.  Jason, continuing our tradition of visiting US embassies abroad, apparently had decided to swing by the Delhi branch conveniently located near the Swiss embassy.  It was there where he decided to take a picture.  We had done this in the past at other locations without incident, and there weren't any obvious signs posted advising against such action.

As it turns out, taking pictures of embassies, and especially the US embassy, is a big no-no in Delhi.  As a result of this policy, Jason got to experience the 3rd degree courtesy of the embassy security force and Delhi police, which included a brief interrogation ("I'm a US citizen on vacation", "I'm staying with friends", "No, I'm not here for a US visa as I am a citizen of the US"...), deletion of pictures, filling out of a form (it's India, after-all), a copy of his passport, concluding with a friendly picture of Mr. Jason M Lawton for their files. And no, they did not inform him which no-fly lists he managed to get on.  I can, however, report that our departure from Delhi went without a glitch or excessive cavity searches.

When all said and done, we had a nice chuckle about Jason, the international troublemaker and moved on to Turkish airlines.  Oh, and signs regarding the "no picture" policy are there, but they are a tad scarce, especially given the apparent reaction the snapping of pictures elicits.

So on to our visit with Turkish airlines.  As most of you know, we enjoy scheming.  Our grand scheme for Delhi was to see if we could score a seat upgrade to Business class for our flight from Cairo to Sao Paolo.  The flight, courtesy of Turkish airlines, involves a 3 hour segment from Cairo to Istanbul and a subsequent 14 hour segment from Istanbul to Sao Paolo.  Couple the fact that Turkish airlines is part of the star alliance frequent flyer network with both of us having well north of 100,000 miles, and you may arrive at the conclusion that it might well be worth the effort to try to upgrade to business class using frequent flyer miles.  We thought it was.

Upon arrival at the office we learned that our current tickets, being V(ictor) class fares, were not elgible for an upgrade.  For that to happen, you have to have a Y(am?) or B(aker) ticket.  We could, however, change our fare class by forking over 200 bucks, and yes, the agent informed us, there were 4 business class tickets available.  She advised us to check with both United airlines (office downstairs) and Star alliance (which involves a phone call to a US number) before shelling over the dough, as the transaction would be non-refundable.  She assured us that we could just call Turkish airlines the next day (Saturday) to complete the fare class change.

A visit with United confirmed that upgrades with a B(aker) class ticket are possible but once again pointed us to having to call Star Alliance to figure out how many miles we'd need.  This, unfortunately, would necessitate a Skype session when we got back to our room.  But things were looking promising.  By the following day, we figured, we might have our business class tickets squared away.  Key words being "figured" and "might."

Done with Turkish, it was time for a visit to the Museum of Modern art, a well executed museum housed in a fairly new (and air conditioned) wing.  Photos were not allowed inside, so we are limited to a couple of shots taken outside of the building.  The exhibition is well worth a visit and features works from a variety of artists coupled with nice descriptions about the corresponding period and its influence on the art.  It was also a pleasantly different way to experience an Indian history lesson and well worth a visit if you ever make it to Delhi.

Madhu needed her driver back around 3pm, so after our museum visit he dropped us off for good at Khan market, where our mission was to shop around a bit and maybe score a nice shirt for the evening activity, which was a visit to the Delhi country club where a ABBA shadow band from Sweden was performing.  Khan market is basically a collection of various shops - ranging from semi-upscale to swanky - where you can procure various items including Indian clothing and western food specialties.  Both of us bought a nice light dress shirt from Anokhi, before continuing our browsing through the book and food stores.  A worthwhile visit overall, especially if you want to get some high quality Indian clothing.

As the evening drew near, we learned that Madhu and Ravi were both tied up until around 8pm, so we grabbed a ride to Lodi gardens for an evening stroll.  Lodi gardens are located between Khan market and Safdarjung's tomb, and offer a nice mix of paths, landscape, tombs, and other sites for visitors to enjoy.  It's also nicely lit up, making it a popular spot for a visit by joggers, walkers, and people watchers in the evening hours.  Since temperatures were finally starting to drop from the brutal highs during the day, we managed to enjoy a good 1-2 hours walking around the gardens.  I'm sure a day-light visit would have been nice as well.  Pictures below.

We left the gardens shortly after 8pm for a ride to the country club, where we both rinsed off and changed into our new Anokhi shirts before joining Madhu and Ravi for a tasty dinner and show.  The cover band was actually pretty good, though a tad loud for casual conversation levels.  So we retreated to the dining room for a nice veg dinner while the band played in the background.

It was during this dinner where we first managed to discover Kulfi, a delicious Indian ice-cream like desert that for some reason had eluded us thus far.  We both agreed that this is a must find once we return to the US.  Exhausted from a full day of chores, activities, and a very filling dinner, we rode back to our pad with Madhu and Ravi to once more enjoy our bed with a real mattress.

Old Delhi and the beginning of the "Turkish Airlines Saga"

We kicked off our Saturday with trying to be productive, that is, get upgraded to Business class for our Cairo-Sao Paolo leg.  A quick Skype call to Star Alliance confirmed that we could upgrade our flight if it was a B(aker) class ticket, and the upgrade would cost us 25,000 (Cairo-Istanbul) and 30,000 (Istanbul-Sao Paolo) miles.  Confident that everything from the Star Alliance side was ok, we called up Turkish airlines to change our fare class.  When we finally got through to them after multiple attempts, their reservation system was down in Delhi.  So for the better part of the following hour, we called their offices around the world trying to get the fare class change done, with no success.

It wasn't until later in the afternoon (while sight seeing) when we actually got a hold of a Delhi agent linked to a working reservation system, and she basically contradicted the agent from the prior day saying that while we could do the fare class change over the phone, it would be canceled within one day as we needed to pay them.  And no, they do not take credit cards over the phone.  A second visit to their office was not possible either.  With no manager or other agents on shift that Saturday, it was decided to try again on Monday with hopes that we would get a hold of the agent we had talked to on Friday.  I hate to say it, but Turkish airlines was quickly dropping down our list of preferred airlines.

We grabbed a late breakfast with Madhu and decided to hire a cab to drive us into the city.  Plans were to explore Old Delhi, sample Indian McDonalds (a must in every country and time was running short), the Red fort, and then grab some dinner in town.  Oh, and we wanted to try out the Delhi metro.  We got into town right during the peak of yet another scorching day, hopped on the subway, sampled McDonalds, before heading to the red fort.  For those of you who are curious, the McDonalds menu in India is devoid of any beef or pork, and offers a variety of Indian themed sandwiches. The food was pretty good, actually, including my Indian themed chicken Big Mac.  And there was A/C.

Next up was the Red Fort, located in the heart of Old Delhi.  Built originally in the 17th century by Mughal emperor Shahjahan to serve as the capital of the Mughals, it has over time been used as a military camp and now is a popular tourist attraction.  It was also designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 2007, bringing our visits of such sites to approx 1,000,000 or so.

Oh, and there was a cool chipmunk which I gracefully stalked for a close up picture:

It was outside the red fort where we noticed a strange character walking around with what appeared to be a large stainless steel soup bowl.  He approached Jason with a request to take a picture, which of course immediately prompted a question by us as to why he was walking around in this heat with a giant bowl.

Long story short, he is an Australian cook writing a book about dishes around the world that can be made in a pot. This now being the second encounter with cooks that seem to travel the world (we met Belgian cooks on the train from Mumbai to Goa), we can't help but figure this is a popular thing to do in the cooking community.  Well, here's a shot of Jason taking the dudes picture.  We will keep our eyes pealed for his book.

Although it was a hot day, we decided to leave the fort and explore a bit of old Delhi, including the buzzing bazaar and Jama Masjid.  Jama Masjid, which I think means "congregational mosque", was comissioned by Mughal emporer Shah Jahan, the same dude who did the Taj Mahal, and completed 1656.  It today is India's largest mosque and located a convenient 10-15 mintue walk from the red fort. Unfortunately we arrived at the mosque right during prayer time and didn't have a chance to go inside.

Dinner was to be had around Connaught place, which we reached by yet another short subway ride on the efficient but packed Delhi subway system.

As it was a tad early for dinner, we decided to check out the area and chill at Central park, which offered grassy areas to sit down and take in the city.

We later grabbed some Dosas at Saravana Bhavan, which to our surprise turned out the be a south Indian chain restaurant that actually has a location in Sunnyvale, CA.  Small world.  Even though it was a chain restaurant, the food was excellent and prices very reasonable.

For our ride home, we felt adventurous enough to score a tuk tuk for the 30 minute ride to the Naths house, an experience that was fun but not to be repeated.  We decided that freeways are best traveled by vehicles having more than 150cc engines and sporting a bit more generous crumple zones.

Badminton and Movies

Our Sunday plans were to meet up with Nikhil, who is Madhu and Ravi's son (and Chiara's brother).  Since he lives closer to downtown, we grabbed a quick bite for breakfast before catching a cab into town.  Nikhil had worked for my Dad years ago, so I've known him since I was quite young.  Needless to say, I was pretty stoked to see him again.  We arrived at his house in the later parts of the morning, where we hung out for a bit to catch up on the news.  Plans for the afternoon were to visit the Yonex 2010 Asian Badminton Championships (A/C!) with Nikhil and some of his friends.

We arrived at the stadium, which was still a bit under construction for the upcoming commonwealth games, in the early afternoon heat.  Since cameras were not allowed, there is fairly little documentation of the event.  This, coupled with my lack of ability to describe Badminton in an exciting manner, leads me to basically sum it up this way:  The Chinese are really, really, ridiculously good at badminton.

Upon leaving the tournament, we headed back to Nikhil's for yet more A/C and a quick afternoon nap.  Plans for the evening were a movie and then dinner.  Indians are notorious late-eaters, so it's no big deal to show up to a restaurant at 10pm.  So we met up with another one of Nikhil's friends (her name escapes me right now - sorry), who joined us to an evening screening of "The Hurt Locker" followed by an excellent 10pm meal at Bukhara.  Bukhara serves Delhi's - some claim India's - best Indian cuisine, which in our case was mainly focused on their tandoori cooked meats.  And you get a bib.  Score.  To sum it up, the movie was ok, the food excellent (you must try their Daal), and the bibs ueber-cool.  Stuffed, happy, and tired we cranked up some Lady GaGa (he had a nice audio system) and cruised toward his pad to call it a night.

Counting down

Monday morning came early as we grabbed a ride with Nikhil back to "the farm", which is the nickname for Madhu and Ravi's place.  Since this would be our last day in India, we had to take care of lodging arrangements in Egypt and straighten things out with Turkish airlines.  Not too much exciting stuff to write about, and while we did manage to get Turkish to finally change our fare class, they told us it would not become effective until we paid for the change.  With no payment accepted over the phone, this would have to happen once we got to Cairo, and thus delayed our upgrade scheme once more.  We met with the entire family for a nice dinner of Thai curry and some Indian dishes, after which it became time to say goodbye to our wonderful hosts.

Madhu was kind enough to arrange us a driver to pick us up at 2am for our ride to the airport, which we groggily caught after a 2 hour nap.  It was officially time to say good-bye to India, we had a great time!


Jaimee and Asa said...

Hey guys! Great post about Delhi. Makes us wish we'd checked it out although it helps of course that you had a really sweet place to stay. I liked how you mark moments in time around whether there was A/C or not. We certainly did that in India as well. Also, pretty random you got to see a badminton game. Anyway, I hope Petra was cool, and enjoy South America. We'll be following you to see how it goes.
Take care,
Asa & Jaime (we met you in Dahab in case you forgot :-)

Unknown said...

Nice score on the "guesthouse"! I'll bet Jason knew all along about the not taking pictures of the embassy thing in hopes of being "subjected" to a cavity search upon your departure. Via my co-worker (Rutesh) I've score a great list of Indian eateries in the Bay Area. You'll have to check them out upon your return to let me know how they stack up...

Selah said...

I love that Jason got interrogated!
The Red Fort looks pretty cool, as does the Lodi gardens.

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