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Asia » India » National Capital Territory » Delhi
February 21st 2009
Published: April 26th 2009
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Incredible India.

This is the India Tourist Commission’s slogan for attracting visitors to the heart of the subcontinent. Catchy, concise, and actually very apt.

As usual with these sneaky advertising types, though, you have to learn to read between the lines. They never actually say it’s incredibly good; just incredible. I can readily attest that my previous trip to Delhi stretched levels of credulity to previously uncharted heights. Expect the unexpected; nothing, but nothing, compares to Delhi. It really is incredible. Many a visitor’s first words on arrival paraphrase Australia’s own tourist catchphrase:

“Just Where the Bloody Hell are We?”

The first incredible factor you'll come across is just how incredibly difficult it is to get from the airport to the city without being ripped off. Having been fore-warned of this we’d wisely pre-booked a hotel offering free airport pick-up. And so it was that for the first time in my life I became one of those smug bastards to stumble out blinking into the arrivals hall and find a chauffeur holding a board with my name. It didn’t bring a great deal of kudos in this case, as our chauffeur was a scruffy seventeen year-old whose ‘limousine’ was a tiny hatchback barely able to contain both us and our luggage, but he was at least present in the flesh as promised, and for that we were incredibly grateful.

He also proved to be a very efficient chap, whisking us straight from arrivals to the city at great speed, equally at home in all seven of the road’s three lanes, a blast of the horn and the odd nudge sufficient to part the waves of traffic whenever our path was blocked, which was pretty much all the time. It’s not as if we were the only ones at this game, a quick glance at the traffic revealing that in-tact body panels are something of a novel concept in Delhi.

What struck me more than anything else, though, was the traffic itself. Back in the nineties on my last visit most body-panels, when struck, would either have splintered or bled, and petrol-powered transport was in a distinct minority. Today we were close to grid-locked, choked by the traffic-fumes of a bewildering array of vehicles almost none of which would be deemed roadworthy in the developed world. Nevertheless, a staggering leap forward in a only little over a decade.

Indeed, on my last trip parts of Delhi had brought to mind descriptions of medieval Edinburgh from childhood history classes; Auld Reekie, a dark ages hellhole of poverty, open sewers, wooden carts, disease, and abject misery. Suddenly all was within ambitious spitting-distance of modern, jumping straight from 1160 to 1960 in a little over 12 years. At that rate, by my calculations, they’ll overtake us around 3.13pm, October 13th, and by Christmas will be living an idyllic futuristic lifestyle of the sort we were all promised by now back in the seventies, all the work done by robots and plenty of time for holidays on the moon. I’d get your bags packed straight away if I were you, as it’s pretty damn crowded here already.

Unfortunately as we neared our hotel the time-clock hit a glitch, before rapidly reversing when we were transferred from car to cycle-rickshaw, purportedly because the roads of Paharganj, where we’d dubiously chosen to stay, were too narrow and rough for conventional vehicles.

The real reason for the switch became apparent soon enough. Anywhere else it would have felt rather regal to glide through the melee in an upholstered cycle-chair. The snag was that much like royalty, you were paraded on public display, fresh meat for the touts, clothing too western, backpacks too shiny new, mouths agog in confusion. By the end of the street everybody who was anybody had your number clocked and their timeslot booked in your personal hassle timetable, which by now ran for a good 48 hours. No, Not Interested and Go Away would form the majority of my conversation for the next few days, and getting where you rather than somebody else wanted you to go would be a constant battle.

It was our own fault really. We’d booked into backpacker central, ripping off tourists having been a way of life in Paharganj since the sixties, passed down from generation to generation, almost by now a traditional way of life. On escaping its confines you rapidly come to realise that 99% of Indians are in fact kind, warm, generous and unfailingly hospitable human beings. Unfortunately the other one percent have all moved to Delhi to work in tourism.

India really has changed enormously over the last few years, and the sheer culture shock is not quite what it used to be. The slogan really should be ‘Incredible India, but not half as Incredible as it used to be.’ The level of cultural change and western influence in such a short period is staggering. In all my travels, India was the one place I thought would never advance, too stuck in its ancient traditions. Back in the nineties my tip for the top would have gone to Zimbabwe, so don’t seek me out for financial advice anytime soon.

Times change, nowhere more-so than in India.

Everyone, but everyone, whether or not they can afford a horse and cart, has a mobile phone, and Vodaphone seems to have out-Coked Coke by laying claim to every inch of advertising space imaginable. Sacred cows, their numbers rapidly dwindling, are these days likely to wander the pavements outside McDonalds, and skimpy Bollywood starlets smoulder on the cover of Cosmo, whose pages bear even less relation to the lives of real women than they do in the West. Religion and tradition are still very much foremost for the majority of folk, but one has to wonder for how much longer, as a titanic struggle for the hearts and minds is being played out by the western corporations.

Incredible times.

The Untouchables are no more, having gained a degree of emancipation, and are officially now known as ‘The Dalits’, a name which for me is a just little too close to Dr Who’s one-eyed nemeses to be bereft of discrimination. Then again, I suppose just calling them the Touchables could have led to a staggering number of indecent assault allegations. Luckily they can still climb stairs, and the only thing they’ve "Exterminated" are a good number of cushy government jobs which now go their way through the wonders of positive discrimination, making them about as popular as their stalk-eyed counterparts.

Back in our world the first day proper was spent in Old Delhi, where India can be seen at its most extreme. The words hubbub and hullabaloo could have been invented here, and now I come to think of it, probably were. The markets of Chandni Chowk were an endless warren of backstreets and alleyways chockfull of humanity at its noisiest and most colourful. Every stallholder tries to tempt you to stop a while to view their silks, saris or jewellery, but to do so means to risk death by trampling by the steady stream of foot-traffic, cows and mopeds. Instead we allowed ourselves to be happily swept along by the throng while struggling to take it all in, as if on one of those annoying horizontal airport escalators. I half expected to see Bruce Forsyth leap out and cry “and on the conveyor belt tonight...”

Escaping into the nearby Red Fort the crowds thinned out considerably, probably having much to do with the 500 rupee entrance fee. Indeed despite being one of Delhi’s top tourist attractions, we appeared to be the only Westerners around, and before long it became apparent that as far as the Indians were concerned, we ourselves were now the top tourist attraction, as they went to elaborate lengths to include us in every one of their snapshots. This proved a mildly amusing diversion, until I accidentally opened the floodgates, innocently asking a guy who was surreptitiously shuffling backwards beside us if he’d simply like a picture of the three of us together. Before you could blink we were in paparazzi heaven and had a taste of what Brad and Angelina have to go through every day, a surreal and somewhat unnerving experience, especially when Debbie was almost dragged off by a swarm of screaming school-girls who sprang up out of nowhere.

We returned home on Delhi’s brand new and surprisingly efficient underground. Let’s not get carried away here; it’s not Hong Kong’s MTR, but seems to have been closely based on London’s Undergound, right down to the detail of looking 100 years old despite being still under construction. India seems to have a knack for this... it’s often difficult to tell if a building is being erected or demolished, and the majority of new buildings are not so much charmingly decrepit as just plain decrepit.

Conversely the next day we strolled through New Delhi’s colonial grandeur and found it for all its Victorian splendour to be a somewhat dull sterile experience, but certainly one on a colossal scale. One can imagine some awkward silences over tiffin when Viceroy Mountbatten hosted his royal cousins the King and Queen, only for them to find that his pad at The Residence made Buckingham Palace look like some grotty little east-end squat.

Ordinarily two days in Delhi would have been enough and we’d be on our way, but for a couple of distractions which extended our stay, one most welcome and one decidedly not. The first was my cousin Emily’s wedding to Tushar, a Delhi local born and bred, whose family and friends entertained us in great style over the next three days. The ceremony itself completely put western efforts in the shade, replete with street parades, illuminated horse and carriage and copious fireworks, frequently exploding in remarkable proximity to the wedding party itself, somewhat startling certain members of the British contingent. Admirably Debbie took it all in her stride, casually dancing along the street with the other guests despite a previous third-world rocket-up-skirt experience which brought the party to a rapid end on that particular occasion.

The not-so-welcome distraction was the ailment to which the city gives its name, Delhi-belly rearing its ugly head and delaying our departure for a good week while I acquainted myself ever more frequently with Delhi’s other great tourist hotspot, the toilet. Poor Debbie was imprisoned within the streets of Paharganj all the while suffering the touts’ never-ending attentions.

She did learn one useful thing.

Before long it became apparent that the world’s most famous man is not, as you might imagine, Barrack Obama, Osama Bin Laden, Tom Cruise, David Beckham, The
A Portrait of the Artist as a Sick ManA Portrait of the Artist as a Sick ManA Portrait of the Artist as a Sick Man

I stared at this image for hour upon hour from my toilet seat. Can't help feeling they've made my ears too big, but other than that the resemblance was uncanny!
Pope or even Ghandi.

Every conversation went the same...

‘Where you from?’

‘Australia.’

‘Aaaaahhh!!!......Ricky Ponting!!!!!!’

If only Ricky could persuade his cricket pals to tour China he’d rapidly have 2.3 billion world citizens in his back pocket and be well on his way to wearing the baggy green all the way to World President, to cries of ‘Ricky Ponting, Australia No 1!’.

All this despite still looking like an overgrown schoolboy, his beady little sunken eyes placed way too close together.

Then again the same thing could pretty much be said about George Dubya Bush.

Oh no, not that again, surely...

Now that really would be Incredible!

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