Days in Delhi


British comic Eddie Izzard, performing for an American audience in San Francisco, once made the quip:

“I grew up in Europe, where the History comes from.”

In the U.S., where heritage status means something isn’t much older than 240 years, he’s got a point.

However, it’s also more than reasonable that Canadian comic Russell Peters or American comic Aziz Ansari, who are both first generation North Americans from Indian parents, could perform to a European audience by saying:

“My family is originally from India, where the History is older than all the grandparents that you can name by heart.”

(ignore that it’s unlikely either comic would do this, because History isn’t a burning topic in their stand-up)

Some studies have found evidence of humans in India from 75,000 years ago, while India is also considered to have had the first civilization in Southeast Asia starting around 3000BC, a few millenia later than Europe who got a jump on planting things around 7000BC.

Of course, starting points in History aren’t necessarily clean cut – does it start when there’s a sign of civilization (villages), someone has used a tool to kill an animal or maybe when someone’s been eaten by an animal because the poor bastard hasn’t learned to make a tool yet?

I have no idea, and I’m not about to root around to find it. That’s an entirely different debate that belongs in a symposium with scholars confidently striding across stage with great pronouncements while the other scholars in the audience furrow their brow, preparing their rebuttal.

In this forum of a lowly blog, however, I will say this: India is very old. And India is very big. It’s current population estimates are around 1.28 billion people. It’s so old and so big, that Rose and I were both frankly a bit intimidated to visit. All the other countries we’d visited had big populations, and had historical ruins. But none before India had both in such massive quantities.


We’d spoken with people about their experience in India, and it seemed to be polarized: “You’ll either love it or hate it”, most people would say. “It’s Heaven and Hell.”, a woman who we met in Malaysia had said, “It shows all of humanity”. Those that loved India also made sure to add plenty of disclaimers: “You just have to go with it. Don’t fight it or you’ll have a bad time.”

With that advice, Rose and I landed in Delhi – which, to appreciate India’s long history seemed a good place to start. I’d read that Delhi was an amalgam of over 10 cities, which had each been built over the course of 1000+ years according to the taste of each new ruler. As a new dynasty claimed the city, he imposed his design on it, sometimes building off the existing structure of a past ruler or razing it and starting fresh.

11 different “rulers” have had a shot at designing Delhi over time, including the British who were the last to have a kick at the can. Their bid is now referred to as “New Delhi”, which was inaugurated in 1931 and contains India’s parliament and other government buildings.

Before arriving, Rose and I had seen images and videos of crowds, moving around the streets, and honking their way to find room. Now 20 minutes into our ride, firmly ensconced in New Delhi, we were beginning to wonder: “Where are all the crowds?”. There were sidewalks, people were using them, and roads were largely devoted to cars, not people.

But our guesthouse was in Old Delhi, where we’d soon find out, to borrow from Eddie Izzard’s riff: “Is where the Crowd is from”.


Founded by Shah Jahan (he who also built the Taj Mahal), a Mughal Emperor in 1638, Old Delhi contained a massive Red Fort, a popular mosque and a huge open market called Chandi Chowk, among many other things.

But, for us, one of the most noticeable things was people. Yes, this is where the crowds came. And, as a later Indian would say to us while touring around: “This is the REAL Delhi!”.

This point became quite clear when, in our cab about to cross from New Delhi into Old Delhi, a young girl, maybe 6 years old knocked on the window asking for money. That wasn’t the real part: apart from New Zealand and Australia, every other country we visited had major poverty.

It’s a condition of visiting a developing country, which didn’t make it any easier to accept or feel okay about: but, after travelling for the time we did, it wasn’t something to be surprised by.

However, this young girl put that to test. After knocking for a while, I smiled at her and said “No money” – which we were told from our driver was wise, because if we were to open the window, the car would quickly be surrounded by other people looking for money, and it could be a problem.

Instead, I put my finger on the glass and began tracing it left and right, and the girl joined in: matching my finger up and down across the glass.

We did this for a few seconds, and I smiled, while she laughed. Then the girl took a step back from the car, and with a newly mature look in her eye pointed at Rose. I looked over at Rose who was looking over at us at this point then looked back at the girl who, now having got our attention, pointed to Rose and I then made an “O” with one hand and stuck her index finger in and out of it, while leering at us. She then turned around, seemingly disinterested and wandered off, straight faced, back to hustle for more money.

“Shit”, I looked over at Rose, surprised.

In our travels, I tried to cultivate a perspective that was accepting of everything I saw as “the way things are”, and to be non-judgmental about it. I was an observer, I told myself, watching things around me. And it was fine, and it served me well. But after seeing the little girl, I felt a crack in my perspective.

I could tell she was wise, well beyond her years, and had seen things most North American children hadn’t, and was living hand to mouth without any sentimentality. And while orphans have been romanticized in the West from Oliver Twist to Annie, this undercut the entire pretence.

We were only visiting for a night and day, so I can’t say what the “REAL Delhi” is with any authority, but looking back I got the sense that this is what the guy, who I’d meet the following day, was getting at.

Rose and I were both exhausted by this point too. Nevertheless, we still had to eat. So, we moved through the huge crowds, and wandered down some side alleyways until we spotted a place to eat. After a big plate of food for a small price, we checked into our guesthouse and called it a night.

Day 2- Delhi  (Aka: where the photographs start)

We’d only planned to spend a day in Delhi, mainly because we heard how crazy the crowds were, not surprising given the population is estimated at 25 million. However, we also wanted to see some of its monuments, museums and other spots, which, after assessing crowds and traffic we realized could only be done in a day with the help of a driver.

Luckily Rose and I met another backpacker at our guesthouse who was in the same boat: he had one day in Delhi, wanted to see the sites, but still felt too jet lagged to negotiate every single ride across town from one spot to the next. We split the fare for a drive and set off.

There’s a ton of things to see in Delhi, so we had to be selective, and decided on a decent cross section where we could see a mixture of temples and monuments.


Our first stop was Laxmi Narayan – a Hindu temple devoted to the goddess of wealth, that kindly didn’t charge anyone to visit, and seemed more interested in promoting its wealth than accumulating it from visitors.


We weren’t allowed to bring in cameras, but the grounds were neat, including this funhouse, carnival piece, which actually had a prayer room inside it:


Next we went to a Sikh temple – Gurudwara Bangla Sahib.


From roaming the streets the night before, people were constantly trying to get our attention, and so when a lady at the temple beckoned us to follow her into an office, I thought it was another hustle. But Rose entertained her for a brief moment, which turned about to be a smart idea, because she then asked us if we wanted to see the kitchen:


As part of their faith, Sikhs provide free meals to anyone who visits their temple. A big-hearted gesture, clearly, but also a big undertaking. The lady explained that the temple serves up to 100,000 people a week ( I think that’s right), which they accomplish by running an industrial sized food production facility. Behind us were three-foot high, bubbling cauldrons of lentils, which we all took turns stirring, on which I couldn’t help saying: “I’ll get you my pretty!”.

Plus, on the other side was a chapati rolling machine that was shooting out, flat round white discs at the rate of a skeet shooting machine. It was amazing. People then took them, threw them on the grill, and once they were cooked, tossed them into baskets that looked like they once belonged to a hot air balloon.

The woman allowed us to flip a few chapatis as well, and have a sample: which were pretty tasty. After pretending to be part of the kitchen staff, we set off for our next spot, a museum devoted to the man who is attributed to have said: “be the change you wish to see in the world”, but in fact it was this:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Doesn’t quite fit on a T-shirt. So, undoubtedly a copywriter got his or her hands on it to make it ready for sale to roll-out across anything with a flat surface, tattoos included. Given that, who’s to know if these were also his actual words or edited for consumption (seen on the wall):image

The museum was also the place where Gandhi lived the last six months of his life, before he was assassinated on the same grounds. An event, which is commemorated by a pagoda at the scene of where he was shot, along with his footsteps there.


Not quite sure the footsteps were necessary – since we know where the spot was where he was killed. It reminds me of a cartoon when a character is invisible but has given away his position after stepping in paint.

We then toured some more around this spot, including a room that had his likeness, meditating, in front of his likeness, which I suppose is helpful for people who forget what museum they’re in.


Our next stop on the whirlwind was India Gate, which was built to commemorate the 90,000 Indians that died in World War I:


Nearby, now in New Delhi was Indian Parliament and the home of the Indian president called, Rashtrapi Bavan (I know these names are probably unnecessary to the story, but I looked them up, so they stay).


One of the highlights of the day was our next stop at Humayun’s tomb. He was a Mughal emperor after Shah Jahan, and after his death, his wife completed this ode to his greatness in 1570.

I thought it was a pretty impressive structure, which UNESCO had also long ago determined, and anointed it with their: “Oh we really like what you’ve done here” stamp of approval:


We toured around here for a bit, which took time, considering the tomb is essentially a mansion with other buildings within it.


The architecture was interesting, borrowing from Persian style, which Rose patiently stood in front of while I snapped:


The scale of the Tomb, India Gate and the Sikh Temple are immense. But our next stop would take the crown:

The Red Fort, part of Old Delhi, built by Shah Jahan is a huge complex with walls that feel like they go on forever – 2.1kms in total – which contain a group of palaces within grounds of 250 acres, each the size of the tomb we last saw.


We wandered around for a long time, seeing more palaces with intricate artwork:

image And more and more buildings.


It was also here that we were first asked to pose in a photo with complete strangers. Or, more accurately, I was asked to pose in a photo. Two guys came up to us, motioned me in to the shot, where I smiled, not knowing what the hell was going on, and they walked off, seemingly happy about things.

I later spoke to people about this, and they explained that it was a way for Indians to establish some prestige, whereby they could show off a photo with me (a white guy) in it and say to their friends or someone they just met: “Oh this guy? Well, he’s my friend from America/Europe/Australia etc.”.

It was odd, and would happen a few times in our time in India.

We ended the day by taking a bicycle rickshaw farther into Old Delhi to visit Jama Masjid, an old mosque. The bike trip was bananas. We spoke with one bike guide, which then attracted three other bike guides who began arguing about the price, offering better than the original guy.

We eventually carried on with the first guy, and he pushed us slowly but surely through the market streets where we got to the steps of the mosque (no cameras allowed inside):


And kicked off our shoes, and ran inside before the afternoon call to prayer, managing only to take a shot of the outside:


Next, it was time to take part in an Indian institution: train travel.


As a first-timer, booking a train is notoriously complex. There are, I think, eight different classes of train in all. And, when you book one, if you aren’t given a spot immediately, you are tossed into a waiting class system, which has as many levels as Dante’s Inferno.

Lucky for us on this trip we managed to secure two spots on the Sleeper class, which means two bunks up top for overnight travel.

Guidebooks suggested this class was only for “the most adventurous”, and I was leery of what we were getting into – especially once we had settled into our seats and I noticed Rose appeared to be the only female on the train car. There had been a lot of stories before we arrived in Delhi of women being abused and mistreated by men, which set me a bit on edge and I felt like I didn’t want to go to the bathroom on board, leaving Rose on her own.

It turned out to be an unnecessary precaution – we chatted with two brothers who shared the lower bunks of the car:


And they insisted we visit his town on the way home, writing out his address and name. It turned out the biggest menace was the weather. Still in the North, temperatures were around 8 degrees, and the Sleeper car was at the mercy of the elements with no insulation or temperature control.

At this point, of course, we didn’t know that:

But in the morning on the train, there are vendors who walk up and down consistently for 15 minutes carrying steaming canisters of tea, shouting “Chai. Chu-chu – Chai”, which were sweet words for our cold ears and bleary eyes after little sleep.

Lack of sleep, however, proved fortuitous, because in our next stop – Varanasi – we’d experience a combination of wildly incoherent things that nobody seemed to bat an eyelash at. Considering that, showing up with a skewed perspective from lack of sleep, might be the best way to be introduced to the place.

It was a nice thought. But, as it turned out, it really didn’t make a difference.

Next stop, the holy city of Varanasi, India.


Buddha’s back…Alright! (dunh dunh na na na*)


* read to the tune of Everybody (Backstreet’s back)

We travelled only 26 hours plus to see him. You’d think to garner this much attention he’d have done something. But Buddha did the opposite: he literally achieved nothing.

An accomplishment that from a particular point of view might stir the heart of lazy bastards, but, from the point of view of the early Thai empire, stirred visions of a massive statue to commemorate his amazingness for sticking a big middle finger at the material world.


Ok, the Thai engineers decided to keep his middle finger down. But, look at those fingers. Oversized Toblerone bars don’t stand a chance.


11 metres wide and 15 meters high, Wat si Chum (aka. Big Buddha) is the biggest statue on display here at Sukhothai Historical Park, but it’s only one of over 193 ruins scattered around the place.

After our tuk tuk, train, bus odyssey the day before, Rose and I changed things up with a new addition to the transportation roster:


Also a UNESCO site, Sukothai Historical Park is accessible on bike, which made our tour easy, but also helped us slow down a bit from our normal hurtling caravan of activity that operates at speeds a lot higher than 5km/h.

I thought the setting was really tranquil – (For Buddhist ruins, a handy compliment) with few tourists around, and Rose and I took advantage, meandering along, and finding shade wherever we could.


Since we no longer had the help of a big body of water to cool things, we’d returned to the sweat gushing days we’d experienced in Laos and Cambodia (as you can tell from my photo with Buddha above).

However, one highlight that was worth the sweat was this stupa – Wat Sorasak.


Elephants figure heavily in Thai culture, once used in parades to project power and majesty during royal ceremonies and also in more practical terms, as construction equipment to clear land. From a Buddhist angle too, elephants were seen as protectors.


A worthy ally I would think: but sadly not one for us on this day, as the big beasts were no match against the sun that by this point had crisped Rose’s skin into a deep mahogany, and mine into the skin of a Yukon gold potato.

We pushed on to a Hindu site – Wat si Sawai one of the oldest in the park.


Interestingly, similar to the blending of Buddhism and Hindu which we saw in Angkor Wat, next door in Cambodia, this one had similar style, which was moving away from Khmer architecture to a more Thai style – reflecting Buddhist themes.

Of course, Buddha was in abundance everywhere else:


We spent a couple of days touring the park, and met another Canadian couple, who had been visiting for five days. While 800 year old statues are their own draw, I’m not sure we would have spent another three days exploring them at length.

However, we learned, neither was this couple. After touring the ruins for a couple of days, they they’d supplemented their days by going birding. As we roamed through ruins taking photos of everything around us, they also walked through the ruins, but were only interested in them if a bird was using one as a pit stop.

After one of them declared: “There’s a bird over there on that fallen pedestal” – I scrunched my eyes but didn’t spot anything. Seeing my wrinkled face getting nowhere, the same birder offered me his binoculars, and I had a peek.

As he sat over my shoulder, holding his breath in anticipation of my seeing this bird, which had now from all the preparation taken on mythic status, I expected I’d be looking towards some ornithological marvel: a toucan, a condor, maybe a vulture?

When I said: “Um. I’m not sure I see it”.

“Yes it’s that blue coloured bird. It’s small”, he repeated

Sure enough, it was a little bird perched in a way that I had completely overlooked it.

“Oh right. Yeah I see it”, I replied, doing my best to sound excited.

“It’s got a nice colour”

“Yeah, blue”, I said, maybe a bit too atonally.

I handed him back his binoculars. While I appreciated their enthusiasm, it was clear that I have a way to go before I get the same thrill.

Rose and I toured around a bit longer, once again tipping our hat to the master of the big nothing, who just to underline his empty contribution also seems to be forming the number zero with this fingers in the image below:


We eventually made it back for our third shower of the day, had a really good dinner at the guesthouse where we stayed, and plotted our next move. A visit to Chiang Mai and more elephants – but this time the real thing.

We gone to Vigan


After a week of bobbing in the waves of Palawan, wondering if I had it in me to live a simpler life here, fishing, swimming and sleeping days away, I was broken from my daydream by our merry band of travelers – Rose’s Mum & husband and Rose’s sister -who said it was time for our next destination, Vigan City.

Vigan is a city, eight hours North of Manila, given a UNESCO world heritage designation for its Spanish colonial architecture that’s survived since the 1600s, including occupation of invading forces.


But all of that would only play a backdrop to the real reason we were here: FAMILY. A lot of it.

This was not a journey into a quaint countryside home to connect with a handful of cousins and aunts and uncles.

This was a journey into a village, populated almost entirely by Rose’s family.

30 cousins, 11 aunts and uncles, a smattering of second cousins, and a sprinkle of third cousins for youthful diversity.


While I would claim that the main activity in Palawan was solitary meditation on the environment and rolling waves, in Vigan, the primary activity was group mediation.

With so many people with varying interests and activities, Rose’s mum with the help of her immediate inner circle of sisters and brothers, undertook a colossal, military operation, to ensure food somehow showed up at the house, got cooked, tables got laid. Plus transportation showed up and we ended up exactly where we were planned to go.

Seeing the velocity at which these wheels of industry spun, I took as far a backseat as possible to avoid getting crushed. In fact, on one occasion, I sat so far back I was in the back of a truck with a group of other children on the way to the beach:


Aside from the machinations of moving a horde of people, Vigan city also proved impressive. Our visit coincided with its annual fiesta, that brought out dancers:


Entrants into a carriage design festival, which owners rode through town:


But, of all the activities in the Philippines, there was one that I was steeling myself for, well before I arrived. Karaoke you might think? Yes, that happened:


However, I’d ripped through enough Bon Jovi on the mic in Canada to not feel entirely taken by surprise. Although, the biggest challenge for karaoke in Philippines was learning to do it with a straight face. As I learned, everyone who sang karaoke, REALLY sang. Regardless whether someone could hit a high note, they were going for the karoake machine’s high score.

No, this activity was much nastier, and more nervewracking than stage fright. Here’s what my nightmare looked like in the flesh:

What you’re looking at is a fertilized egg, containing a bird embryo that, judging by the darkness of its feathers, is probably 18 days old. It’s called Balot and it’s a Philippine delicacy.

So, I put it in my mouth, and chewed:


Then chewed some more, wondering if I could get it into my stomach or if my stomach would change direction:


Luckily, it stayed down with the help of some spicy vinegar, and a half bottle of beer.

But I wasn’t the only daredevil.

Rose and her sister each ate one, plus Rose’s mum’s husband, who admitted to me afterwards that he hadn’t eaten one in over 25 years, and was just as worried about it.

While Balot weighed heaviest in my mind, in the scheme of animal’s to be eaten at Rose’s mum’s house, it was of least importance.

Rose’s mum was having a party for the entire family, and the honoured guest was a cow she had purchased just for the event that would appear in various forms in various dishes.

However, this was no supermarket cow, already covered in cellophane wrap ready to pick off a shelf. It mooed, it licked, it sweat – it was alive and someone had to dispatch it.

Yes, even in writing this, I feel the inevitability of where this is heading:

“Marc. As a first time guest to the Philippines, please honour us by being the one to kill the cow”.

My heart’s beating faster as I read it.

Thankfully, that was only fantasy.

There were much more qualified guys in charge of the job – namely, Rose’s cousin Atong who is a certified butcher, and was one of the guys involved in doing the deed.

The weather in the Philippines is so hot, that they arranged the killing in the middle of the night in Rose’s mum backfield. By morning, this was all that was left of the killing floor, while beef dishes were already well underway:

image image

While I shied from this slaughter, on a separate occasion, I put on a strong face and practiced calm as I ripped out a handful of leaves from the ground, plus, barbarian-like, tore hot peppers from their branches, all sacrifices for that evening’s meal.

I have no regrets.

Later on we headed to the Vigan town square to watch a laser fountain show, which depending on where you stand could be seen as amazingly avant-garde or insanely disparate as it mixed music from Skrillex, the song “the eye of the tiger,” Katy Perry, some Korean pop bands, and a Journey song.


That brought our time to a close in Philippines as we headed to the airport and our next destination, the hot, humid environs of the capital city of Laos, Vientiane.