My jaw dropped. About 30 people sat nonchalantly on top of a bus right outside my window. None looked worried to be on a moving vehicle without any real seats, let alone seat belts, and when they saw the people on our tour bus staring at them in disbelief, they grinned and waved.
I wanted to yell to them to stop being so friendly and to hold on for their lives, but I soon discovered that a little chaos is perfectly normal in India. Since the country has the largest population after that of China, with a third of the geographic size of the United States, India has made exciting traffic a daily event.
However, India is so full of contrasts that I had to travel only a couple of blocks to find myself in a peaceful oasis at the ancient Tomb of Humayun. The juxtaposition of lively city markets with quiet beauty is one of the curiosities of India that I encountered on my weeklong trip with the Globus Family of Brands.
The tour introduced me to some of the most decadent and elegant aspects of Indian culture, as well as to its wilder side. I enjoyed both the meditative and the eccentric immensely while I tried to understand this fascinating country.
In 1562, 79 years before the Taj Mahal, the wife of the Mughal emperor Humayun decided she would build her husband’s tomb in a style previously unseen on the Indian subcontinent.
“The Tomb of Humayun is almost a sea of tranquility in a busy city,” said Anil Bahal of Distant Frontiers, Globus’ tour director of India, in front of the massive red sandstone tomb gates. “When you walk through the gates up ahead, it’s a Kodak moment in India. The perfection achieved is impressive.”
Through the gate’s domed opening, at the end of a long walkway, I could see the formidable sandstone tomb. Its style made use of symmetry, large domes, detailed mosaics and surrounding gardens to express a feeling of perfect harmony.
After this serene stop, I continued to tour New Delhi’s government buildings and elaborate British Raj homes. The constantly honking traffic and narrow streets that so intrigued me appeared again when I entered Old Delhi.
“Notice the butchers’ shops with their hanging meat,” said Bahal as I soaked in the Old Delhi market madness. “Every time I go by, I go vegetarian for the day. It’s all part of the experience. If you want to experience the sights, sounds and smells of real India all at once, the best way is a rickshaw ride through Old Delhi.”
So at my next stop, I climbed on a bicycle rickshaw guided by a confident local driver into the labyrinth of Old Delhi’s street market. After only a couple of turns, I was completely turned around and happy to have a driver who knew by heart which unmarked street we were on.
The street vendors offered a variety of goods for sale, from colorful saris to live chickens to spices. People kept coming and going this way and that as the rickshaw weaved its way through the crowded streets smelling of incense.
After the ride, I returned to a calmer atmosphere at the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India. The open-air mosque allows non-Muslim visitors to don slippers and robes to explore the site.
Even though 82 percent of Indians are Hindus, approximately 140 million are Muslim, so the mosque stays fairly crowded. The gorgeous mosque towered above me, filling the sky with stunning sandstone and marble details.
Many Muslims had congregated just outside the main mosque at a large pool for a washing ritual. After going into the mosque, I was impressed that it stayed so reverently quiet despite the number of people.