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Exotic, exuberant India

I knew as soon as the tour bus left the Delhi airport parking lot that I was not in America anymore. Alien sights and sounds of Hindu temples, women in brightly colored saris and bicycle rickshaws weaving through honking traffic illuminated the fact that India’s culture was unlike anything I had ever seen.

“India is an experience,” said Anil Bahal, Globus tour director of India With Distant Frontiers, as I got my first glimpses of India. “It’s more than a holiday. India is an assault on your senses.”

I sat glued to the window, taking in all the crowded markets and the people riding nonchalantly on top of buses. What appeared chaotic to me just seemed like a typical Sunday to the rest of Delhi. Since the country has the world’s largest population (after China), India is used to dealing with masses of people.

In all the excitement, I felt fortunate to be introduced to this region. Last June, Globus invited me to immerse myself in India’s fascinating culture and history, without having to navigate its rather unorthodox traffic.

Driving through Delhi

Past and present stand side by side in Delhi. On a driving tour of the city, it’s typical to see ancient ruins next to modern businesses and upscale shops.

The capital city, New Delhi, has an organized feel, with grand government buildings and old British Raj homes. Not far from there, I met New Delhi’s noisy doppelganger Old Delhi, laid out like a labyrinth of narrow streets full of pedestrians, street vendors and rickshaws.

“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,” said Bahal as the bus stopped.

I eagerly climbed into a bicycle rickshaw to let India come rushing at me all at once. With legs of steel, the rickshaw driver easily maneuvered through the twisted grid of streets.

My senses couldn’t soak everything in fast enough. Everywhere I looked, I saw bright colors from bejeweled fabrics, fresh fruit and store signs. Incense hung in the air, as well as the noise of people buying, selling and honking to get through.

From the comfort of my seat, I could observe the market madness without worrying about which unmarked street I was currently on. Numerous people even took the time to wave a friendly hello as we passed.

After the ride, I respectfully donned slippers and a robe before entering the gated entrance to Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid, the biggest mosque in India.

“Even though India’s population is about 82 percent Hindu, we have one of the largest Muslim populations in the world,” said Bahal as we entered the mosque. “Not many people realize that. There are around 140 million Muslims in India.”

The massive mosque combines red sandstone and marble in its open-air design. I walked beside many natives who had traveled from the surrounding countryside to pray in this famous mosque. Constructed by the builder of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, the mosque features an expansive courtyard with a pool where worshipers perform a washing ritual before their prayers. Although the 17th-century mosque’s interior stayed fairly crowded, the atmosphere remained reverently quiet as people came in to pray.

That evening, I relaxed from my whirlwind day by enjoying the Broadway restaurant’s delicious flavor-embracing Indian cuisine, which included naan, lentils, curry and tandoori chicken.

Early the next morning, I climbed aboard a train headed for Agra. The journey revealed the simple living conditions of rural India. Outside of the more modern cities, many people live as they have for centuries, without contemporary conveniences. At one stop, I watched several women in vibrant saris carry huge bags of dirt on their head with amazing poise and grace.