My senses are reeling. we landed two hours later than scheduled, and we were relieved to see a smiling young man holding a card with our name on it. He’d been waiting for three hours. He led us through a throng of touts to a dusty car park. his car was battered – there were dents everywhere dents were possible to be. we climbed into the back, where we discovered the seatbelts were merely decorative.
The drive to our hotel would have been hair-raising if we’d been awake enough to hold our lives in any special regard. I had expected to see cycle rickshaws weaving in and out of the traffic while going the wrong way down a main road, but the true extent of the chaos must be directly experienced to be fully appreciated. Our man, impatient at waiting at a roundabout simply mounted the pavement, thumb holding down the horn, undercut all of the traffic in the nearside lane and cut back in front of a truck. I congratulated him on his maneuver. ‘I have other duties today’, he replied.
Although the near-continuous blowing of horns and shouting seemed impenetrably complex at first, by the end of this first road journey I’d figured out the rationale. Drivers of all vehicles use their horns to indicate the following: when moving forwards, when moving backwards, when turning left or right, when changing lanes, when parking, when turning around, when lights change, when lights don’t change, when there are any pedestrians, cyclists or animals, and when the planet is round.
Our hotel in Karol Bagh is probably as good as it gets in India without spending serious money. The room is cool, clean and the bed is comfortable. We don’t want to leave, although finances may force us into a more modest dwelling before we leave Delhi.
Food will be a big problem for me in India. As it is, I walk a narrow line between a healthy concern with food hygiene and an eating disorder. This is the case in merry old England, where the water is uncontaminated and the regulation of commerce is existent. We ate our first meal on the rooftop of the hotel. I allayed my fears that every bite was a potential health hazard by sipping a beer that cost three times as much as the food. It’s nearly 24 hours later and there hasn’t been a violent intestinal protest yet.
We watched a few minutes of one of the dozens of soap operas seemingly available on every channel and slept for a long time.
We started our second day in Delhi with omelettes on the roof. Perfectly tasty and nothing too much to worry about. I declined tea and coffee. Their time will come, and it will be after I stop worrying about the bottled water. A good scam here is to sell tap water in bottles. Unless you’re curious about Indian healthcare facilities, you have to be careful to buy bottles that are properly sealed. Royal Blue is my brand of choice.
After breakfast, we tried and failed to get a rickshaw to Connaught Place. After two streets, our rickshaw driver pulled over, turned the engine off and began a lengthy monologue that ended with his emphatic assertion that we were to visit a shopping emporium chosen by him, at which we would receive very good deals. His commission from the shop was implicit. The good thing about rickshaws is you can get the fuck out of them at more or less any point of your choosing. So we did.
This turned out to have been fortuitous, as so traumatised were we by the auto-rickshaw industry that we found our way to Karol Bagh metro station and got a tube. I don’t mean to sound imperialistic, but it’s fair to compare the Dehlia metro to the London tube, in that the station signs are almost identical in design. It is also quick and efficient. This is where the similarities end. A single fare costs about ten pence, and we repaired with little fuss to Connaught Place.
I will have trouble describing how lame Connaught Place is. I was warned about it by British Indian friends, but secretly hoped for grand old buildings and lots of green grass. I should have listened to my friends. The air was thick with exhaust fumes, there was nothing to see, and the only entertainment on offer was guessing the opening gambit of the next tout to harass you. If you stand still in Connaught Place for more than two seconds, someone will come and pester you. The same is true if you’re walking at any speed in any direction. My favourite tout was the ear doctor who offered to clean my ears for a few rupees, who showed me a notebook in which previous satisfied customers had written notes of recommendation. Amanda from Northern Ireland may well have enjoyed the benefits of a good ear-cleaning back in 1998, but I left neither shorter for cash nor cleaner of ear. Delhi’s noisy enough – in fact, he would get more business if he offered supplementary wax injections. I managed not to suggest this to him.
We got on the metro headed for Chandi Chowk, in the heart of Old Delhi – a total assault on the senses. The combination of smells alone were dizzying. Fried food, urine both stale and fresh, rotten vegetables, spices, detergent, sweat, concrete dust, you name it. The offers of rickshaws and guided tours were as numerous as in Connaught Place, but the touts were less of a nuisance in every way.
Crossing roads, I wondered why a concept as simple as right-of-way simply doesn’t seem to have caught on over here. I can’t decide if everyone thinks they are more important than everyone else, or if they realise they are as unimportant as everyone else, and their individual contribution to the maelstrom is negligible.
Chandi Chowk would be the first stop on the depraved poverty tour, if such a tour existed. People were lying in the streets in their dozens, covered in boils and (frankly) weird looking pustules, regarded no more or less by the people walking by than the hundreds of stray dogs meandering everywhere.
We stumbled upon the Red Fort. It looked amazing. There were touts and panhandlers everywhere, of course, and all the tourists seemed to have sat down by the police car parked near the entrance. We joined them. It provided the only feasible opportunity of the day to consult a map or guidebook without it being far more trouble than it was worth. You can’t take bags into the Red Fort, so rather than entrust them to the cloakroom housed in what I can only describe as a urine-soaked dungeon, we resolved to return the next day without bags.
We’re not short on time in Delhi. In fact, we’re here too long. Many people recommend leaving Delhi soon after arriving, and they are wise and venerable indeed. We’re here for a whole week, so I’m happy to stretch out the tourism.
On the way back to Karol Bagh, we decided to stop off at New Delhi train station, to get a feel for how things roll there. Things there roll depressingly. We have to get a train from here to Varanasi, for which we have mercifully bought e-tickets. Our cabin was unassigned at the time of booking, and we were told to consult a reservations board before departure. We wondered if we could find out where this might be ahead of time.
We tried to find the Tourist Information Office. According to Lonely Planet, it is upstairs at the station, and they tell you to ignore anyone telling you it’s moved/burnt down/been renovated, etc. This advice was hard to reconcile with the fact that the IT REALLY ISN’T THERE! There was a vast amount of scaffolding and deconstruction work going on, and the advice of a bona-fide station employee (at least, I think he was genuine, since he was checking people’s bags and tickets on their way through the security metal detectors) that the information bureau is now located solely at Connaught Place seemed reasonable. The thought of returning to Connaught Place that same day was too depressing, and we decided to pitch up to our train on the day and wing it a little. We considered footing it to Parahganj, but tout-psychosis set in and we ran for the relative safety of the metro.
We inadvertently returned to our hotel the long way round. Schools had just turfed out children in their hundreds, and we got a lot of attention from them as well as the touts. Every shanty street looked the same, and we trudged with increasing desperation until we finally spotted something familiar. nb, it wasn’t the herd of goats in the middle of the road.
I washed my hands twice, bought two big bags of crisps, two big bottles of water and a packet of cigarettes. Then I wrote all this. Then the Mumbai siege began. Yikes.
We’re going to the Taj Mahal tomorrow. Of course. And then to Varanasi, the so-called spiritual heart of India, where they burn the bodies on ghats by the Ganges. Also, if you die in Varanasi, you’re offered the chance to break the cycle of Samsara, should you wish. I’ll try not to let you know how that goes.