Delhi made me sick. To be honest, I kind of wished I could get Delhi Belly because standing/ sitting over/ on a toilet in the hotel room, spewing and spluttering, sounded better than having to deal with another corrupt tuk-tuk driver.
Of all the dirty, chaotic and corrupt places in India, Delhi was by far the worst. That’s it – no if’s or but’s. After spending our first three days in India there I was ready to book an Air Asia flight to Thailand and put this all behind me.
Luckily I didn’t and got to experience a slightly less overwhelming India, but I still regret that (due to Delhi being a central stop in Northern Indian travels) we ended up spending a significant portion of our time there.
Upon landing at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, Lonely Planet recommends one take a prepaid taxi into the city. Sounds simple right? Wrong.
Upon exiting the airport building one is greeted by a sea of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers and it is only a very strong belief in Lonely Planet that drives your quest beyond their screaming offers to a very unofficial looking cage with a “Prepaid Taxi” sign overhead. For all we know that was just yet another example of Indian ingenuity – perhaps a cheap replica of the real prepaid taxi stand – conveniently hidden in some dark corner of the building – just to test tourists’ resolve to find it.
We paid the 300INR (approx. R50) for the airport transfer to our hotel – which seemed reasonable enough. A small Indian man grabbed our luggage and carried it 10 metres to one of those small minivans, loaded our bags and then stood staring at us.
Turns out he was not our driver but a porter and was now waiting for a tip! Because he carried our bags (which we had on a trolley) 10m! Seriously? Being the tourist that I am, and knowing that most of the Indians seemed to think we were American, I just started shouting “No!” and looking away – anxiously waiting for our driver to get in the taxi and get going.
The drive from the airport was interesting to say the least. Monday morning peak hour traffic into Delhi is LITERALLY bumper-to-bumper. There was not a car on the road that was not dented and we soon found out why when our driver just gently bumped another car to squeeze in. Everyone seems to drIve with their side mirrors turned in – maybe because the lanes painted onto the road are largely ignored. And then of course, as one starts to near the city itself; cows, dogs, monkeys and pigs start making their appearance in the traffic.
Turning down Arakashan Road, Paharganj, I started to panic – what sounded like a central location when I booked the first two nights’ accommodation was quickly looking more and more like a slum. With no pavements for pedestrians to walk on and barely enough space for two auto-rickshaws to drive next to each other, we were introduced to the constant hooting noise of the Indian transportation system.
Getting (the fuck) away
After arriving in Delhi the first thing on the agenda was getting the fuck out of Delhi. Again, sounds simple right? Wrong. Being good little tourists we read our Lonely Planet and set off:
“For foreigners, it’s easiest to make ticket bookings at the International Tourist Bureau (23405156; 1st fl, New Delhi train station; 8am – 8pm Mon-Sat, to 2pm Sun). Do not believe anyone who tells you it has shifted, closed or burnt down – this is a rampant scam to divert you elsewhere. There are reportedly railway porters involved in scams, so stay on your toes and don’t let anyone stop you from going to the 1st floor of the main building for bookings.”
Lesson one: Never ask a tuk tuk driver to take you to the International Tourist Bureau. Or anywhere containing the words “official”, “government”, “tourist” and/ or “information”. Inevitably the driver will take you to a friend’s travel agency. Inevitably it will be in some dodgy part of town (not that any parts aren’t dodgy really). Inevitably the driver will try convince you that this is an official government tourist information office because “Look at the [handmade] sign outside that says Official Government Tourist Information Office“. Inevitably you will have to pay him for this pleasure.
Lesson two: If, like us you have now learnt lesson one and request to be taken to the New Delhi Railway Station – be specific. You can enter the station from two sides and – as part of the national pass time to frustrate tourists – your tuk tuk driver will probably drop you off on the wrong side. You want to be dropped off on the Main Bazaar side. Being dropped off on the Metro side is a bit like being on the Amazing Race – though there are signs for the International Tourist Bureau – they are not always apparent and sometimes far apart. Asking for help is not an option as that signals weakness – the stuff touts live off.
Lesson three: Never give up hope – the International Tourist Bureau does exist. When you are just about to give up hope you see another sign for the International Tourist Bureau – pointing to the first floor. You have elbowed your way through crowds of helpful vultures trying to divert you elsewhere and now have the office in sight. But of course, there is yet another vulture on the stairs as you make your way up. Ignore him or – if like me you are fed up just start swearing at him profusely. *Angel music playing* You have made it.
Lesson four: Bring your passport and cash. After all that we felt like idiots having to return to our hotel to fetch our passports. But luckily the office is open till 8pm and the long queues snaking through the office move quickly. It was worth the wait. My advice if your trip to India is a short one (recommended): try to book all trains for the remainder of the trip. Trains are a popular mode of transport and should be booked two days in advance to ensure you will get a seat in your desired class. The staff in the International Tourist Bureau office are friendly and speak English – which is not always the case in smaller cities.
Where we stayed
We spent our first two nights in India in Hotel Amax Inn (www.hotelamax.com) which is located in a small alley way off Arakashan Road – a perfect place to escape from the constant hooting. We booked our stay there through Agoda but one can book directly with the hotel. Considering we paid the equivalent of R330 for two people for two nights accommodation this hotel really was not bad: the room was clean, the bed comfortable and the water pressure existent. As a bonus, the hotel has free wi-fi in the lobby and 24-hour room service. The manager was helpful and gave us some useful tips to avoid corrupt tuk tuk drivers. All and all, a great budget option – just a pity it is not really walking distance from the train station (well not with two 20kg backpacks).
Due to the fact that we would return to Delhi midway through our trip and “connect” there for a half a day before heading further North we decided to book our last night’s accommodation at Lord’s Hotel and use this as an excuse to dump our bags there for the half day. The hotel is conveniently located on the Main Bazaar in Paharganj – walking distance from the New Delhi Railway Station and Metro. We paid 800INR (R130) for the room for our last night in Delhi. The room was not great and the lack of water pressure/ hot water was frustrating – especially since this had been a recurring theme throughout our budget travels. It also does not have a restaurant but the street below is teeming with food stalls and restaurants, so this was not a big deal.
Sights we saw
Humayun’s Tomb – restoration alert: large parts were closed during our visit due to restoration – worth finding out before making the mission. More
Red Fort – get the audio guide: even if it is not that good it makes the fort seem a lot more interesting. More
Safdarjung’s Tomb – look up: such cool, symmetrical, carved ceiling that create the illusion of 2D when photographed. More
Chandni Chowk – If you want to experience a real local market. Nothing sold really interested me – seems to be the market where the surrounding community shop – so it is nice to stroll through, absorb the vibe and then go back to the hotel to wash the goat shit off your flip-flops.
Connaught Place – If you are into brands and have credit cards that need some attention. Not really for the budget traveller. Caters to the growing upper-middle class in India and offers most of the well-known foreign brands we have back home. But a nice place to walk around and window shop without the imminent threat of being run over by a tuk tuk.
Main Bazaar, Paharganj – If you are looking to stock up on harem pants, hand luggage or fake sunglasses. Due to its proximity to the train station and with a steady flow of hippies, this market has harem pants for every taste. I even bought myself some – although I only sleep in them now (*cringe* – I wore them in public in India)
State Emporiums – If you are looking for authentic crafts from various regions. Said to be fixed price but nothing is what it appears to be in India. This is a good place to stop at the end of a trip to buy nice sari’s and pashminas for friends and family back home without having to lug it around for the whole trip.
Yashwant Place (Russian Market) – If you are looking for cheap leather goods. Be prepared to negotiate. I managed to pick up a “real” Armani Exchange sheep leather jacket for 3000INR (less than R500) and could probably have haggled it lower if I was not so tired.
My favourite memory of Delhi was sitting in a secluded, little dining area on the roof top of Hotel Amax Inn, overlooking the slum that is Paharganj, the hooting of tuk tuk’s in the road below muted, eating some of the best Indian food of my life. India is so full-on all the time and being able to escape from the chaos and just soak it all in was amazing. Sipping sweet spiced tea, one has all sorts of profound revelations about the world we live in and our future in the context of a growing world population and our ever-decreasing resources.
Of course (as is apparent from this post) the tuk tuk drivers drove me absolutely insane. I have never swore at so many people to their faces as I did in Delhi. But surprisingly this was not the worst thing about Delhi. During our visit a young girl got brutally raped and murdered, resulting in violent marching protests and less-violent candle burning protests.
Women are treated so differently in India. Adam and I started telling people we were married because women are considered sluts if they travel with men who aren’t their husbands or male relatives. I also stopped asking men for things – it just seemed to be much easier when Adam spoke to them. Not to mention the fact that storekeepers always tried cop a feel while trying to sell clothing to me.
Living in South Africa, where men and women mostly have equal rights we take women’s rights for granted. And my experience in India made me feel so lucky to be South African.