15.01.2010 - 19.01.2010 15 °C
Excuse the long blog, but I've got a lot to say, besides this is the short version, initially I wrote a full length novel.
Before arriving here, whenever I asked other travellers who had already been to India, what it was like, I always got the same first response, and that was a "just wait and see for yourself" type of smiles. Now that I'm here, I have to agree, there really is nothing anybody can tell you that could prepare you for your first visit to India. I don't quite have the literary skills to describe it myself, but I'll do my best, mostly by using as many photos as possible.
Having left Beijing on a one stopover flight (via Dubai), I arrived in Delhi in the late afternoon. The immigration and customs hall at the Delhi International airport felt almost like a regional bus station as opposed to the international hub that it's supposed to be. It had long, slow moving queues being serenaded by inaudible arrival announcements from the loud PA system, each one prefaced by a chime stolen straight out of the Windows XP sound effects folder (the "you have new email messages" sound from Outlook Express to be exact. I'm not joking). After a long wait, trying my luck in several queues, I eventually got through immigration relatively unscathed. I then proceeded out to the arrivals hall where I could see two exits, one on either side of the building, each one crammed with hoardes of people peering inside. I knew most of them were touts and taxi wallahs waiting to whisk tourists away to a store or hotel that would pay them commision for bringing in customers. Having come from China, I was already well equiped to deal with them, but I was still dreading stepping outside and having to fend them all off. A visit to the ATM, money exchage and prepaid taxi booths were good stops along the way where I could get myself mentally prepared.
I finally headed out of the building with my taxi voucher in hand and into the mercy of the waiting masses. I walked straight to the line of waiting cabs though this didn't deter a handful of "helpful" locals offering to personally summon a taxi for me. I "politely" declined their offers and headed for one of the taxis waiting in the rank while still being followed. Before jumping in, I tried to make sure the driver knew where the suburb was that I was going to, but just asking is hardly a safety measure considering that anyone who stands to make money out of you in India tends to be agreeable even though they may not have a clue about what you are asking them. So I had no alternative but to trust the first driver who appeared somewhat confident.
Before we'd even left the end of the taxi rank, the driver stopped to let an "aquaintance" in through the front passenger's door. This guy turned around and pretended to have a friendly conversation with me. One of the first questions he asked me was if this was my first visit to India, to which I replied, "No, I have been here a couple of times before". I'd heard this is the best answer you can give them because they use this question to measure how suceptible you are to their little tricks. He then begun to inform me that the suburb I was going to was "A very bad bad area" and he was most kind to offer alternatives. I interrupted him by telling him I had already booked a place and had payed a deposit so there was no way I was going anywhere else (which was actually all true). This worked like a charm because he smiled, said "Ok" and got the driver to pull over so he could get out.
Then it was just me and the driver, negotiating our way through insane traffic and some incomprehensible scenes outside of the taxi's windows. If this had been the first destination along my trip, I would have been suffering from a severe case of culture shock right about then, but having just come from China, I was a little prepared for what I was witnessing. Even so, it was still a shock to the system and the only thing that kept my jaw from dropping was the extreme concentration I was using trying to direct the driver to my destination.
A typical scene on the side of the road in Delhi
The driver ended up having only a vague idea about the suburb I was heading to, though luckily I had done my homework (google maps) and I was able to use a couple of popular landmarks and a nearby bus station to direct him most of the way. Considering most of the streets in Delhi are not sign posted (and those that are, are very poorly done so), it seemed like an absolute miracle that I was able to guide the driver to the entrance to the alley where my hostel was located.
Another typical scene on the side of the road in Delhi, though this one is actually quite tidy looking
The hostel, called Nirvana, was like an oasis in the middle of all the chaos, and I must confess, just after arriving, the thought of not leaving the front gate again did pass briefly through my head. I ended up meeting lots of really good people in this hostel, almost all of them lone travellers like myself. There was never a shortage of sane friendly people to go out with and explore Delhi. The hostel is owned and managed by Francesco, a young Italian guy, and his business partner who I never met as he was overseas at the time. His main business was actually fast food joint called "Dosa King" that, not surprisingly, sold Dosas, which are a type of savoury crepe originating from the south of India. He was running the hostel as a side business mostly for the love of meeting and hanging out with travellers.
It's quite difficult to find a hostel in India, let alone a good one. To find one with actual dorms that targets young backpackers was a stroke of luck. This hostel had only been open for a few months and I'm sure in no time it will become one of the most popular hostels in India despite it being in south Delhi. The free meal was definitely a bonus to someone like me, brand new to India and extremely nervous about the food (safety-wise). Initially I had only planned on staying three nights in Delhi, but ended up extending it by another two, due mostly to the hostel and the people I met there - otherwise Delhi isn't really the place to hang around for too long when there's so much else to see in the rest of India. I have to add, eating my first meal at the hostel using a fork after ten weeks of only using chopsticks was rather strange, almost like how I've started feeling when I use a pen nowdays after relying so much on a keyboard.
A cricket game in progress down the alley heading to the hostel
The front garden of the Nirvana Hostel in Delhi
On the day after I arrived, two of the girls staying at the hostel, Katie (US) and Roberta (Brazil) invited me to join them on a small sight-seeing excursion, to which I gladly accepted. This was to be my first auto ricksaw ride ever, and in a way I'm quite glad it happened in Delhi. The traffic was absolutely insane, road rules are optional (if they exist at all) and you are always buzzing in and out of gaps in the traffic mere centimeters from other cars, trucks and ricksaws. I think the best strategy to adopt is to either close your eyes or to focus out the sides of the ricksaw instead of straight ahead. Though you can't help but peek at the oncoming traffic when the driver goes through a roundabout the wrong way or you hear other people in the ricksaw gasping at the next impending near miss. The dangers aren't as bad as they appear to be though, because everyone drives like a maniac, hence they are predictable, and it's all about predictability - I learnt that in China when I started running across the road, it really caused havoc and confusion amongst the drivers trying to avoid hitting me.
My first ricksaw ride, somehow a still image doesn't properly portray the hecticness of it all
The first thing I did that day was to hunt down a Lonely Planet guide for India. So far I'd gotten on fine without one in China and Japan, but India is a completely different story. I would have also bought them for China and Japan but I really hate carrying around extra baggage and these books are typically large, heavy and bulky. Unfortunately, the India edition is probably one of the biggest, but I was willing to put up with carrying the equivalent of a brick around with me in exchange for the much needed helpful advice. I bought one at the first bookstore I walked into not knowing how easy they were to find, and it ended up being quite expensive for India, but still cheap in NZ dollars.
Then it was off to Jantar Mantar, an astronomical observatory built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II in 1724. The site consists of several instruments that can take various astronomical and chronological measurements. This was the first place where we noticed there was a huge admission price differential between the locals and foreigners. I believe we payed 200 Rupees each to get in, where locals only had to pay 5 Rupees, that's quite a difference! Though I can't complain because 200 Rupees is still only around NZ$6 and I realise it takes a lot of money to maintain these places but if the prices for the locals was much higher, the vast majority of Indians would not be able to afford to visit their own national treasures.
Roberta and Katie walk up ahead at the entrance to Jantar Mantar in Delhi
The instrument known as, Samrat Yantra, which measured the apparent solar time, or local time of a place and the sun's declination
Me at one of the "windows" of the instrument known as "Ram Yantras", which measured the horizontal and vertical angles of celestial bodies
Right outside the Jantar Mantar site, we walked past a man whose sole trade appeared to be a "fixer of zippers". He sat on a small concrete block and on the ground next to him he had a small bag full of zippers and zipper parts and another bag with a few tools. He wasn't short of business either because a steady stream of customers would appear from out of nowhere needing help with their zipper problems. Coincidently, Roberta had a broken zipper on one of her boots and she jumped at the opportunity to finally having it fixed.
The "Zipper Man" fixing the zipper on Roberta's boot, in only a couple of minutes it was like brand new again
Soon afterwards we arrived at India Gate, which is a memorial to fallen soldiers from several wars. Unfortunately, it was Independence day in a few days time and the gate was blocked off by police, I guess in defence of possible terrorist attacks. I still managed to get one decent photo of it from behind some police barriers before we moved on to our next destination.
India Gate, built as a war memorial
On our way to the next sight, we spotted a group of boys playing cricket (not difficult to find in India because you'll always find a game in full swing on every open space large enough for someone to swing a bat). As soon as they saw a camera come out, they abandoned their game and ran over to pose for us.
Young budding cricket players posing for our cameras, let's just say they weren't shy
Next up on our list was the Old Fort, but just a couple of blocks before that we bumped into a really old Mosque. The place was small, but quite amazing and we didn't have to pay to get in. The mosque and the walls to the compound were crumbling and looked deserted. There was a water well in the courtyard which was being used by some men to wash and even drink from!
The water well in front of the crumbling compound walls in the background, offers of a free drink from the well were politely declined
The very old mosque near the Old Fort
Thinking the old mosque was no longer in use, I made the mistake of stepping on the paved floor in front of the door arches with my shoes on, only to be told off by one of the muslim men near the well. It was a good lesson actually, no matter how old, crumbling and abandoned a holy site looks, you should always obey the same etiquette.
We then headed over to the Old Fort which happend to be hosting some type of concert that night.
The entrance to the Old Fort in Delhi
Building in Old Fort
The walls to the fort looked impressive, though it was quite hard to get good photos because most of it was hidden behind lots of trees and shrubs. Not to mention certain areas were blocked off because of the concert that was about to commence. You needed separate tickets to stay and watch the concert so we were kicked out at closing time by some roaming security guards.
Some of the crumbling walls to the Old Fort
By this stage light was fading and we decided to head back to the hostel on yet another white knucke ride on an auto ricksaw. It took at least an hour to get there in heavy traffic and even though we'd been there already, it was still difficult to find due to the lack of street signs and because every street in Delhi looks exactly the same. At least our driver knew where the suburb was so it was just up to us to look out for our exact street (in the dark!).
The next day Francesco from the hostel, joined us on that day's sight-seeing trip. Francesco himself was quite new to Delhi and had been so busy running the hostel, that he had only gone out on one occasion to do sight-seeing himself. He offered to take us there in the hostel's mini van (driven by one of his helpful workers). Soon there were nine of us from the hostel going along for this trip (not including the driver) and we all had to cram in to the small van. It was a little crowded, but somehow it didn't feel as illegal in India, though ironically we did get a "ticket" for overloading - when I say ticket, I believe it was actually a small fee paid directly to the officer who then let us proceed just the way we were.
Us in the mini van, from left to right, Michael (Sweden), Sam (UK), Katie (US), Roberta (Brazil), Sam (Australia), Me and Francesco the hostel owner from Italy. Nick (US) was too tall to sit in the back and got to sit in the front seat - he became the official inside-the-van photographer. Jon (US) must have been tucked in on the far left because he's missing in action in this photo. All of us had travelled to India alone.
Our first stop was the Red Fort, a much more impressive fort than the Old Fort we had visited the day before. Many of the buildings in this fort were added at different times by different rulers and it showed because they were built in different styles, some from red sandstone and others from marble.
The Lahore Gate behind the smaller gate in the foreground at the entrance to the Red Fort in Delhi
Some buildings inside the Red Fort
Some marble archways on some of the buildings inside the Red Fort
A red sandstone building in the middle of an empty pond - it would have been really amazing looking had the pond been full
Our little group near the bazaar heading out of the Red Fort, from left to right, Me, Jon, Katie, Francesco, Michael, Sam and Sam (yes there were two Sams, one male and one female so in conversation we always had to prefix with "boy" or "girl" to avoid confusion) Photographed by Nick once again.
After the Red Fort, we went hunting for food. Believe it or not, we ended up going to McDonalds, not only because some of us were still a bit nervous about the food and that area was full of untrustworthy looking "street food", but also because we were a little curious about what appeared in the menu of the world's largest burger chain in a predominantly vegeterian country. Not surprisingly, there were no beef burgers, but there were chicken burgers and a seemingly popular "McVeggie". I opted for the latter because I still didn't know what to expect with the chicken meat over here and had previously decided to become a temporary vegetarian during my entire stay in India. The vege-burger wasn't too bad actually, not the most flavoursome, but it cured my hunger. Boy-Sam was feeling really brave and ended up buying something from a street stall right next to McDonalds, it was also right next to some public urinals, which by "public" I mean the most minimum of barriers and by "urinals" I mean up against the wall.
We headed about a block away to the Jama Masjid Bazaar which leads you on to the Jama Masjid Mosque. This Bazaar and Mosque offered some of the most surreal sights of the day. The place was absolutely packed with people, most of them men, which probably explains why a couple of the girls in our group ended up being pinched and/or groped during our walk. There were two long lanes of stalls selling almost anything you can think of and I was on the look out for some jandals (NZ speak for flip-flops) though I never found any there in the end.
Walking along the Jama Masjid Bazaar, the Mosque is in the background
The very surreal scene as I headed up the steps towards the Jama Masjid Mosque
The bazaar looking back from the steps up to the mosque
Francesco ended up having a big argument with the men standing at the gates of the mosque because they were trying to charge us to get in, meanwhile, local Indians were walking in and out undisturbed. They eventually changed their story from an "entry fee" to "camera fee". The fee was 200 Rupees just to take a couple of photos inside the mosque, none of us payed and we just left our cameras with the driver (actually mine was in my pocket and he never checked me). The inside wasn't anything particularly special anyway, it was the outside area around the bazaar that ended up being more interesting for me.
After we waded our way back through the bazaar crowds, we crammed back in the van and headed to Humayun's Tomb. The site doesn't just hold one tomb, but a couple as well at least one mosque and a few other buildings, but it was Humayun's Tomb that was the most impressive. The first building we visited was Isa Kahn's tomb near the entrance to the site.
The small gateway to Isa Kahn's Tomb and Mosque
Isa Kahn's Tomb, you could climb up to the roof area, but only up some trecherous steps in pitch black darkness
The setting sun and Isa Kahn's Mosque, opposite his tomb
A father leading his son towards the Isa Kahn Mosque
Next was the impressive tomb of Humayun, a huge red sandstone building with some resemblance to the Taj Mahal... but not quite as big or as striking
The spectacular, Humayun's Tomb
Inside Humayun's Tomb
I thought the above photo looked better without the flash with the reflecting marble sarcophagi. Plus after turning on the flash I captured someone who was suddenly standing in front of me which gave me a huge fright, it became even creepier when, with big wide crazy eyes, he asked me in broken English, "Tony Blair, prime minister Britain? Bush president US?". This guy was definitely on something. I replied, "Ah, umm... not anymore!" and got out of there as quickly as possible. Apparently he'd done the same thing to Katie and Roberta.
At the very end of the day, Francesco took us to his "Dosa King" street stall. It was my first (and probably last) taste of street food in India. I figured it was safe because Francesco owned it and he had eaten there many times without any problems. Plus he told us the bulk of the food preparation was done off-site and very hygenically.
My Masala Dosa being prepared, don't worry, he washed his hands ...I'm sure he washed his hands. I didn't spot the two guys giving me the evil eye (on the far left and the far right) until I reviewed my photos for this blog
After such a long day sight-seeing, it was nice to get back to the free meal and a beer at the hostel, followed by a game of cards or two.
Jon, Roberta and Sam during one of our card games at Nirvana hostel
The next day, Jon, Sam, Sam, Roberta, Katie and I decided to go for another excursion to another bazaar, but we didn't realise it was closed until we got there. As we started walking to get something to eat, two little boys came out of nowhere begging for money. There was an older boy and a much younger one who was really little. As soon as the little one spotted girl-Sam, he chased after her, eventually catching her and latching on to her leg with his arms. She managed to get away from him briefly, before he caught up with her again and latching on to her leg even harder using both his arms and legs. She was shaking her leg and telling him to let go, but all he did was just start to giggle. The rest of us were partly in shock, partly in hysterics, and partly a little nervous. A small crowd of amused onlookers was starting to gather and girl-Sam suspecting this was a way to distract us while the little boy's accomplices went on a pick-pocketing and bag-snatching spree, started walking away with the child still attached. The little boy was almost pulling her pants down and he was so tiny she didn't know how to pull him off without hurting him. I realised that enough was enough and headed over to pry the kid off her leg. I pulled his arms free but for a while he still had his legs wrapped around her ankle, then I think girl-Sam managed to pry his legs off and once free she started running. I'm still holding the boy in the air so I put him down on the side of the footpath and followed the rest of our group who were by that stage making a hasty retreat across the road. Luckily, none of our bags or wallets went missing and we all survived to travel another day. I was too surprised to even think about taking my camera out at the time but Roberta was quick to the mark.
Child clinging to girl-Sam's leg (photo kindly provided by Roberta)
We did finally make it to the restaurant we were heading to, a place called "Banana Leaf" which was mentioned in the Lonely Planet, hence we thought must have been safe enough. I had an onion and tomato Uttappam which turned out to be a little tasteless on it's own, but the sauces provided ended up saving it.
My onion and tomato Uttappam from Banana Leaf
Lunch was followed by a trip to the underground Palika Bazaar located in the center of Delhi. It is a bizzare bazaar (ha ha) which twists and turns around like one huge subterranean labyrinth. Most of us were in search for specific items like shoes, shoals, socks or sandals. I ended up buying some nice decent quality jandals (flip-flops) from one of the countless shoe stores, though something tells me they weren't really licenced by "Puma".
Entrance to the underground Palika Bazaar (forgot to take photos inside)
That was pretty much it for my introduction to India. Most of the gang left the hostel the next day, except for girl-Sam, Jon and I. Of course me being me, I'd left everything to the last minute and still hadn't sorted out any accomodation or train tickets to my next destination. So I spent the day relaxing and doing a bit of planning on the net, reading my Lonely Planet and paying a visit to a small travel agents through which I could book train tickets. The next afternoon, I left the comfortable nest I'd grown accustomed to and leapt into the wild, yet again on my own.
Heading to the New Delhi Railway station, I spotted a beggar knocking on car windows for money. Silly me decided to try to take a sneaky photo.
...Oh oh, do you think he saw me?