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Published: December 16th 2016
An inspiration for the Taj Mahal, this monumental mausoleum is perhaps the highlight of Delhi's sights.
There were three countries that I was looking forward to most on this trip around the world, before I had even set off; Cuba, Japan and India. Europe
was starting to get a but samey, a bit boring to be honest - so I was looking forward to something completely different. Well, you don't get much more different than India!
Back in London, I had a rather annoying flight time which would see me leave Heathrow very early in the morning and arrive in New Delhi very late at night. When news got through that my flight had been delayed by an hour, I knew then that I'd miss the last metro service in Delhi and that I'd have to get a taxi to the hostel from the airport. Damn. Two buses and three trains got me to Heathrow cheaply - managing to save me £25 in the process.
One big night out tends to switch my body clock to nocturnal mode these days and that was exactly what happened in the days before I left London, which meant I didn't sleep at all the night before my flight. I got about three hours of 'decent' sleep on the flight
India's largest mosque in the heart of Old Delhi.
over but I arrived in a pretty groggy state - which isn't preferable since your first few hours in a new country often requires you to be on to it. I was not. Also on the flight over, I decided to watch Slumdog Millionaire for the first time. Great movie and a great decision - it left me under no illusions as to what to expect once I arrived.
When I smelt the air and felt the heat as I got off the plane, it suddenly hit me; I was now in fucking India! Getting through immigration, baggage claim and customs was a breeze - it was when I got into the arrivals hall that things began to go awry.
Firstly, none of the ATMs were working but I thought never mind, I can pay for a prepaid cab with my credit card. ₹580 (580 rupees - about £7) wasn't a bad price for a fairly long taxi ride - except that this prepaid service was only taking cash. Seeing that the foreign exchange bureau had a sign saying they accepted card payments, I along with every other foreigner in the airport queued up. When I finally got to
Crazy Streets Of Old Delhi
The narrow streets of Old Delhi are alive like no other with motorbikes, rickshaws and pedestrians all trying to fight their way through the traffic.
the front of the queue, the clerk then tells everyone that the card machine wasn't working. Sheeeeeet. I also discovered that the Indian government had just stopped the use and circulation of ₹500 and ₹1000 notes, with new ₹500 and ₹2000 notes to be introduced. Which to me just sounded ridiculous. Imagine if you live in the EU and then you suddenly couldn't use 10€ and 20€ notes. This would mean that everyone would have to use 5€ - or ₹100 in this case - notes, but there just aren't enough of them in circulation to make up for the loss and value of all the 10s and 20s out there. This in turn creates a run on banks as people try to make sure they have enough cash in what is essentially a cash economy here in India. In the meantime the only prepaid taxi office with a card machine was charging me three times as much as the first place for the same ride. But I had no choice but to take it. I was furious but also thankful I had taken the cheap way to the airport back in London as I now needed that money here.
Memorial arch at the eastern end of the Rajpath commemorating India's war dead.
I had hoped that I had left my days of financial struggles behind me in Switzerland
but I was wrong. Some compulsory expenditure on big ticket items in London (including the flight to India) meant that my budget was now a measly ₹1,500 (or £17) a day - £10 less a day down from my original budget. But I should be able to manage that or better in India right?
Well I now had to shell out a whole day's budget just to get to the hostel from the airport. And once in the cab, the cabbie was trying it on in terms of trying to squeeze some tips and commissions out of me. "Why are you staying in Laxmi Nagar? I can take you much cheaper and better place!" ("No, my place is already cheap enough already") "Why don't we stop by a tourist office along the way?" ("No, I'm tired and just want to get to the hostel") "You have any cash you can give me for tips?" ("No because I can't get any money out!") "Don't you have some pounds?" ("No! Or else I would've changed them!") This was exactly why I didn't want to take
Sunset over the Jama Masjid.
a taxi. Taxi drivers are just the worst. He also gave me the story about how he's struggling and working 21-hour days to try and guilt-trip me into giving him more money.
He did offer to take me to an ATM though which sounded like a good idea, as there wouldn't be queues in the middle of the night (it was now 2.15am). Well that's what you'd think. The funny sight of herds of cows just ambling down a residential street was soon replaced by the economic doomsday sight of people queuing for cash in the middle of the night. I did get some in the end, but at a price - £4 per foreign transaction to be precise and because of this completely avoidable cash crisis, withdrawals were limited to a maximum of ₹2000 each. So I had basically just paid £8 to get £48 out. In a way, I felt like I was back in Switzerland as I despaired at all the money I was throwing away and also felt like I was in Cuba again, with the queues and getting ripped off. If this was how things are going to be in India, I'm gonna run out
Qutb Minar Ruins
Very Indiana Jones.
of money fast. I then remembered that India was going to be the most challenging country I will ever travel - and as if India wasn't already challenging enough, I now have to deal with this cash crisis - and I prayed that my first couple of hours here would not be an omen of what was to come.
Despite knowing the challenge that awaited me in India, in the days leading up to my arrival I think I still allowed myself to be a bit complacent about things, relying on my travel experience to get me through. And so far it has to an extent but perhaps nothing can prepare you for the sense of overwhelming you feel once you get here.
Waking up on my first day in India with a combination of jet lag, anxiety and insomnia, I was mentally paralysed. I wasn't sure about what food I could eat, I wasn't sure about what water I could drink, I was even more petrified about spending cash than I already was with this countrywide cash crisis and I wasn't sure if I wanted to go out into the busyness and chaos. I was suddenly wondering if
Food Stall In Laxmi Nagar
One of the narrow, motorbike-infested streets in the very local neighbourhood that my hostel was in.
it was a good idea to have come here. I just wasn't mentally prepared. Perhaps you just can't be.
Talking with a couple of my dorm mates who have now been here for a few months put my mind at ease a little, apart from the fact that they told me there was no way I was gonna avoid getting sick no matter how hard I tried. I mean, I already knew that but hearing it again over here despaired me a little. But perhaps I needed to be told again because once I accepted it, I felt much better.
So...my first meal in India. There was a local vegetarian curry joint downstairs from the hostel which was recommended and I got the ₹60 thali. The whole block and area looked decidedly third world so I wasn't overly confident about this place but I had to eat and 75p for what was a filling meal was too good a deal to turn down given my financial situation. And you know what, the curry was quite nice! One of them was a bit spicy and had my stomach grumbling a little afterwards but otherwise I was feeling fine. Upma
View Over New Delhi
From the top of the Jama Masjid's southern minaret. Notice the haze.
a South Indian polenta dish - was another culinary highlight in Delhi.
Still feeling jet lagged, I decided I wasn't quite ready to face big, bad India just yet and with plenty of time up my sleeve, I decided to just chill at the hostel for the rest of the day.
After a semi-decent night's sleep I felt semi-normal enough to finally face New Delhi. Everything still felt a little surreal however and I needed a coffee to perk me up. But once I got out there, everything that you expect India to be was right in front of my eyes; the place was dirty and crowded with pedestrians, stalls, rickshaws, tuk-tuks and cars. The air was dusty, the ground was filthy; and I finally figured out what that smell was when I got off the plane - it was smog. It had me coughing from the chest on more than one occasion. There seems to be a permanent haze in New Delhi which has been confirmed as the world's polluted city - even more so than Beijing. But my word, Delhi was mayhem.
I took the efficient metro to Chandni Chowk, an old bazaar that now focuses on
Main gate into the Red Fort.
electronic goods. It seems like an entire block of old buildings has been roofed and the narrow alleys have been turned into an indoor bazaar flogging off all manner of anything electronic. Outside on the main street, the foot paths were completely taken up by scores of agitated locals queuing to get cash from the many banks on the street. Getting money out in the middle of my first night here now looked like a brilliant idea. This cash crisis is a real mess. Up ahead on the main street however, was my main destination for the day - the Red Fort.
Delhi was ruled for a while by the Mughal Empire who were Muslim and who were from Central Asia - the first Mughal emperor was Babar, who is said to have descended from Genghis Khan himself. The Red Fort was built by Babar's fourth successor, Shah Jahan in 1648, as the palace for his capital of Shahajanabad, one of many cities established by a succession of ruling dynasties in the Delhi area. The buildings inside the massive site are impressive in size and elaborateness and are totally different to what I had been seeing in Europe, many
Platform where an eternal flame and Gandhi's ashes lie.
of which were built around the same time. Within the fort is an archaeological museum containing various Mughal artefacts as well as a museum focused on India's struggle for independence and its various figureheads, which of course included Gandhi. His preaching of non-violent protest and the way he managed to convince a restless population to uphold his principles is nothing short of remarkable. Independence was achieved of course, from the British, who ruled India from 1857 to 1947.
And it was Gandhi's cremation spot of Raj Ghat that I visited next. I was on my way there by foot when a rickshaw driver kept hassling me and offered me ₹40 to save me about 20-30 minutes of walking. So for 50p I thought why not. On a black platform in the middle of a square enclosure is an immaculately tended bed of flowers and an eternal flame. It is a rather peaceful and respectful affair.
But it was here that my inauspicious start to the India turned a little more disastrous - in the middle of taking a panoramic photo, the shutter of my camera got stuck. Already on a tight budget, this was the last thing I needed and
A vendor tending his store in Delhi's spice market.
I felt pangs of despair for about ten minutes as I frantically tried to get it to work again. It has given me some beautiful pictures but it has also given me some problems like when it died in South Africa
, when I left behind my charger in Costa Rica
and when the replacement charger died in Andorra
. It reminded me of the stressful days in Ecuador when I was sans phone, and Central America, when my camera also bricked. Looking back, I'd manage to get away relatively unscathed in terms of my possessions in Europe. This was going be expensive to replace - another huge, unexpected expense I didn't have the budget for.
When my rickshaw driver offered me a tour of historic Old Delhi and a lift to the Jama Masjid - Old Delhi's iconic mosque - for another ₹90, I thought why the fuck not. And I'm really glad I did.
Deep in the bowels of Old Delhi is the madcap chaos of the Kinari Bazaar. Similar to the Chandni Chowk market, shop awnings give the bazaar an indoor feel and when it wasn't the awnings, it was the mass of electricity wires overhead, the amount of which I haven't seen since I toured Rio's favelas
. But more than anything
Colourful Old Houses
On a cul-de-sac off the Kinari Bazaar in Old Delhi.
was just the sheer amount of people, entrepreneurship and activity. I totally get how some can feel overwhelmed by it all but as we got stuck in a traffic jam of pedestrians, rickshaws and motorbikes on the Kinari Bazaar Road, which was no more than two metres wide in places, I was loving it as I grinned at fellow tourists in other rickshaws being led through the madness. This is India. Rickshaw drivers and motorcyclists would argue with each other but they'd also help each other out in order to keep traffic moving. Some would just unhelpfully honk their horns, an almost permanent soundtrack here in New Delhi. This riot of sights, sounds, smells and colour was all rather exhilarating.
The driver also managed to show me some old, colourful houses and a Jain temple before dropping me off at the Jama Masjid. He wanted more than we had agreed so I gave him an extra ₹50 - and then he demanded a hundred more! Though I'd appreciated what he had done for me, I wasn't about to pay him double what we had agreed and hand over more of my very precious cash. The Jama Masjid was closed to
My rickshaw driver got me to pose underneath a colourful archway in Old Delhi.
visitors by the time I got there but with my camera broken, a ₹300 camera charge, the fact that there seemed to be no official place to leave my brand new shoes before entering and now that I was tired from the day and jet lag, I thought perhaps it'd be better to return another day.
I was rather philosophical about my camera. It's old - I first used it over three years ago in Moscow
and thanks to my best friend Davies, I never actually paid anything for it. Going to the Sony India Repair Centre out in Delhi's industrial zone the next day, the verdict was that my shutter needed replacing and that it'd cost me 4-5 days and £125 to fix. Although I could ill afford such an expense with my budget already tight, £125 isn't actually too bad. I really should have put aside some money for big ticket expenses and emergencies such as this. I thought that my overall budget would've been able to absorb such costs but that hasn't been the case. While I've managed to more or less stick to budget, it has meant that I've had to watch every penny like
Arcade leading into the Red Fort that was and still is, lined with merchants' shops.
a hawk and I don't recall at any point of my entire trip, a period where I have been able to spend with abandon, safe in the knowledge that I have a decent financial buffer. I've been scraping pennies all the way.
The quandary I had now however was what to do for the next week while waiting for my camera to be fixed. Should I stay and procrastinate in Delhi or should I take a trip somewhere and come back? Where should I go? Agra and the Taj Mahal would've been a nice and easy trip away but I'd really prefer to have my camera back for a visit to one of the new wonders of the world. After a lot of deliberation and asking my fellow hostellers for recommendations, I considered doing a short tour of Rajasthan sans my camera, to kill the time. I also still had the rest of Delhi to do.
I had admin to do too. Without going into detail, I needed to get something checked out with an ultrasound scan which I didn't manage to do in London before I left. With time to kill, I thought that now would be
One of the main junctions on Delhi's metro network.
as good a time as any to get it done.
And so for the next four days, rather than being a tourist, I went about sorting out my admin. This meant lots of time living 'real' Delhi as I along with all the locals, went about my own business. This invariably meant spending lots of time on the metro where it seems that personal space isn't a thing here in India and where locals are more than happy to bump into you or brush right past you. People don't seem to have the courtesy here to get out of your way and in fact sometimes go out of their way, to get into your way. Where a Londoner would apologise profusely for even the slightest of accidental touches, here in Delhi, it's perfectly acceptable for strangers to simply lean on you or touch you for extended periods of time, even if there is loads of room in the carriage.
And wow, the stares. If you're a foreigner, some local men will simply stare at you for minutes, some with an air of suspicion bordering on contempt. It's OK to stare here apparently but it gets me annoyed and uncomfortable. They
Pavilion inside the grounds of the Red Fort.
would stare at you in Eastern Europe but not for this long. In the dorms at the hostel, local guests would also be happy to talk loudly to each other and switch on lights when people were trying to sleep. Indian men love to have a good spit as well, which I have become accustomed to but is still disgusting. Lots of this would have really gotten on my nerves ten years ago but I think I have really learned to respect other cultures and the way they do things, as well as being able to see and understand things from a local perspective - this and an increase in maturity, patience and tolerance over the years mean that this sort of thing is now just water off a duck's back.
As for the metro (as well as people on the street), it is also an absolute sausage fest. I reckon about 80% to 90% of people on the metro and walking the streets are men. Where are all the women?
Away from the metro, I discovered that one does not simply walk from one place to another in Delhi; even a five minute walk to the metro station is
73m high minaret which is the centrepiece of the Qutb Minar Complex.
fraught with danger as you try to constantly dodge the gauntlet of motorbikes, rickshaws, cars, stalls and other pedestrians on dusty, rocky roads that wouldn't look out of place in rural Africa. There is the constant blaring of horns as motorbikes who don't slow down for anyone and pass by a little too close for comfort, simply honk their horns to let pedestrians know they have exactly 0.5 seconds to get out of their way. Crossing the road is also a game of chicken with vehicular traffic. And I'd like to make an apology to Chisinau
for slagging off their footpaths; here in Delhi, they don't even exist.
To do my ultrasound, I ended up at the reputable and international-friendly Apollo Hospital. And wow, this place was something. A massive, modern-ish hospital, it look looked like a peach-beige shopping mall from the outside, had a lobby like a hotel and resembled a bus station on the inside, complete with gate numbers for the different departments, seats for the hundreds of people waiting in the main "terminal" and cafes to have lunch. There was an actual system here for dealing with tourist patients, unlike the first hospital I tried which was
Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Dargah
Atmospheric shrine dedicated to the Muslim saint Nizam-ud-din Auliya.
unhelpful, unfriendly, disorganised and chaotic - a place that was a microcosm of trying to get admin stuff done in India.
I even managed a hostel night out on Saturday in Haus Khas which is where all the cool, young, wealthy Indians go for a night out. I had never seen more local women anywhere in one place in Delhi than I did here. The bar we went into was a classic brick, Shoreditch-style bar/club which also had Shoreditch-like prices. At ₹250 for a bottle of Budweiser, I could have got four thalis or a three hour train ride to Agra for the same price. It was painful having to pay £3 a beer when you know how much cheaper things were outside. Already in trouble with my budget, I could ill afford an expensive night. But after a couple of beers on an empty stomach however, I was having a good time and high prices weren't gonna stop me. And for many locals on the club, nothing was gonna stop them having a good time either. The main dance floor was going off and it was so cool to see people dancing and jumping with complete abandon to
The very orderly, British-style "circus" that the British centred their capital around.
the latest popular tunes. Such a shame that the club closed at 1am then!
Four days after handing in my camera, I picked it up a couple of days earlier than expected and with my ultrasound done and all clear, I was finally ready to get back to being a tourist. With two days to see the rest of Delhi, I swiftly got on with it.
My first stop was Connaught Place, a British-style circus with a circular road and curved buildings built around it, reminiscent of something like The Royal Crescent in Bath
. It was where the British had decided to build their centre in the capital and everything in the area has maintained its Britishness; opposed to the mayhem in Old Delhi, everything around Connaught Place was calm and orderly. Except the touts. But I can brush them off pretty easily these days.
I then walked to the parliamentary sector and blimey, the area is grand. Designed all by Edwin Lutyens, the stately buildings were built to show off British might. The Indian president's residence behind a tall and regal black gate is guarded 24/7 and not open to visitors (unless on a pre-booked tour).
The Rajpath perhaps epitomises the scale
One of grand government ministry buildings at one end of the Rajpath - the "King's Way".
and grandeur of Lutyen's design of administrative Delhi. However, the 3km, garden-flanked path connecting the president's residence to the India Gate is not as pleasant a walk as you might expect on the sandy clay, under the hot sun.
The India Gate is basically a war memorial to India's war dead but this Arc de Triomphe-like
landmark is a big tourist draw and there are touts with DSLR cameras offering to take your picture with the arch, as well as bizarrely, ear cleaners! Why of all places would someone want to get their ears cleaned here?
From there I took a pleasant walk to the Lodi Gardens. The neighbourhood was a rich one and there was hardly another soul on the wide footpaths which passed standalone bungalows. The gardens themselves were an oasis of peace and as well as lakes and pretty spots to park yourself on a bench, there are four quite magnificent tombs of the Sayyid and Lodi rulers who governed Delhi between the 15th and 16th centuries.
The highlight of the day - and perhaps New Delhi - was Humayun's Tomb. Walking through the main gateway, the sight of this huge inspiration for the Taj Mahal was simply breathtaking.
Devotees performing a qawwali outside the Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Dargah.
It was built in the 16th century for the Mughal Emperor Humayun with gardens, waterways and a couple of other tombs in a large complex. Definitely worth the ₹500/£6 entrance.
Perhaps the coolest experience of the day was a visit to Hazrat Niza-ud-din Dargat. Walking past a ropey area into a lively bazaar, this Muslim shrine is a bit hard to find through the massive maze of shops selling rose petals. Refusing the advances of the the rose petal merchants who wanted me to give them my shoes, I then stumble upon the shrine and realise I have to take my shoes off. So I sheepishly walk to back to them, where I buy a two plates of rose petals for ₹100 as insurance for my shoes. I couldn't go inside the shrine itself with my shorts but devotees were placing their petals on to the grave of the saint Niza-ud-din and offering their prayers while doing it. The colourfully clad women outside are also not allowed in the shrine, so they all sit around the gold ornaments on the shrine walls, offering their own prayers. Outside, a band of devotees are beating drums and singing a [i[qawwali, lending the
Detail at the site of Qutb Minar ruins.
place some real atmosphere. I'm told I'm not allowed to wear shorts in here either and I think some people weren't too happy about me snapping pictures, so I took it as a sign to leave.
The next day my first port of call was Qutub Minar - an Islamic religious complex of ancient ruins from around the 12th century, which included mosques, tombs and a madrasa (school). Its centrepiece however is the 73m high tower. Many of the walls of the old buildings including the tower itself have very intricate carvings on them. The whole thing was rather impressive and felt very Indiana Jones - well worth the visit!
Finally, I visited the Jama Masjid. ₹300 is quite a lot to charge merely to take photos but this is a majestic and iconic sight. I'm sure there were more than a few scams going on in there too, including a guy at the base of the southern minaret charging everyone 20 rupees to leave their footwear with him before climbing up, despite being able to carry my flip-flops with me around the entire complex. Another tout tried to charge me another ₹300 again for leaving the complex. I
Bara Gumbad Tomb inside the Lodi Gardens.
got up the minaret for an extra 100 rupees however for a fantastic view of the sunset over this massive sprawling city, although the permanent haze meant you couldn't see as far as you normally might.
And that concluded my time in Delhi; as my first stop in India, it was a lot to take in but I didn't feel as overwhelmed as I thought I might. Touts aren't as aggressive or persistent as I thought they might be and travelling to similar kinds of places like Egypt and Morocco in the past has helped me in this respect.
After ten days however, I felt like I had had my fill of the place but staying at my first stop for an extended period let me 'settle in' and get used to India, much like how I settled in to South America in São Paulo
. Now I feel ready and excited to explore the rest of India!
बाद में मिलेंगे । (baadh mem milengae),
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