Our introduction to India was its sprawling and baffling capital city Delhi. Apparently one of the world’s most dangerous cities, well why not? We prepared ourselves by doing lots of reading up online and getting advice from friends who had been, but this was pretty mixed and we truly didn’t know what to expect.
We were constantly on our guard, starting with the second we got off the plane. We’d been told to go directly to the pre-paid taxi counter to book our airport cab and to ignore anyone who approached us otherwise. So we had done so, and once we’d got outside we’d been bombarded with men shouting, and had no idea where to use our pre-paid pink slip. Eventually, we found a cab who accepted the slip as payment and here we were, hurtling.
We breathed in the smoggy air, oooh look a cow in the middle of the road! Ooh look, another! I was so excited, Giz was just steely-eyed and concerned with us getting to our Airbnb in one piece. After much toing and froing and many shrugged shoulders the driver somehow, miraculously I’d say, found it. We were staying above a doctor’s practise. We paid the driver, he demanded a tip, we offered him 100 extra rupees, and he looked at us in disgust, didn’t take it, and huffed off. Eventually, a member of the doctor’s staff took us up to our room and showed us the kitchen, complete with water purification system, which we eyed suspiciously. We’d been warned about the water and we didn’t trust anyone.
The room was basic but much cleaner than we’d expected, based on the many accounts we’d been given. We dropped our backpacks and sat on the bed. We’d made it to India! What a buzz! We decided to do what we’d done so far on our first day in most new cities: go explore, without a plan. We hopped onto a velo-rickshaw outside the building, this is the main way that people navigate India, it’s basically a bicycle with a colourful trailer attached which is designed to seat 2 people, but we saw whole families of 5 or more riding in them regularly, as well as some carrying outrageously heavy loads.
A price was agreed (20 rupees, which is about 20 pence I recall) and so commenced our bumpy ride, gripping the bars on the side for dear life as our driver weaved nonchalantly amongst trucks, cars, rickshaws and cattle. There were piles of litter everywhere, some with cows and pigs grazing. Everyone stared at us. We were the only non-Indians around, it was blatant to all concerned that we were fresh off the plane.
At the metro station, we were scanned by security and found our way to a platform taking us towards the centre of Delhi. There were signs for women-only carriages which have been brought in to help protect women from sexual assault, but we stayed together in a mixed one. It was packed, but clean and efficient, we were in a ‘good area’. We randomly picked a station to get off at and walked out into a different world.
There were children on the steps down to the street begging, clinging onto my leg as I passed them, my heart broke but we’d been warned not to give money and I had no food or anything else to hand, a truly awful feeling. When we got to the street there were 30 or more velo-rickshaws and all the drivers started shouting to us, asking us where we wanted to go, we didn’t know! They wouldn’t leave us alone. We started to walk towards the street but couldn’t get across the road. People shouted at us from all sides, every direction looked dangerous, dirty and disorientating. We panicked, turned around and got back on the tram to another stop a few stations down. The same thing happened when we got off here except it was dirtier and even more overwhelming, this was when we realised that it was completely different here, and we had to plan exactly what we wanted to do, because wandering around soaking up the atmosphere was just not an option, no street signs, no maps, we were completely lost on an alien continent, and I admit we were panicky and scared. We made our way back to the Airbnb in a haze of disappointment. We’d have to get online, study the map of Delhi and try again tomorrow when we had some idea what we wanted to do.
That evening we met a couple of the other residents of the rooms above the doctor’s place who turned out to be patients. There was John from Nigeria who was there with his father, his father had half his head missing, he’d suffered an aggressive form of cancer and had come to India for treatment. John was very articulate and polite, his parents spoke no English but smiled shyly at us. Another neighbour was wheelchair bound with no legs, he helped us to order a takeaway curry as we were really pathetic and bewildered. It was about £4 for 2 veggie mains, a bread and a big tub of rice, he said it was really expensive. There was way too much food when it arrived so we shared some with the other guests. It was unbelievable delicious but we hadn’t seen where it was prepared so our Western paranoid alarm bells kept ringing and perhaps we didn’t enjoy it as much as we should have, a real shame. I know now it was absolutely fine.
I spoke to my friend Gurdeep online who comes from Delhi but we met in Manchester when he moved there over 20 years ago. He gave me some food and market tips for the next day. We researched Taj Mahal trips and proceeded to battle with the website for booking trains. If I give you one piece of advice about India only, it is this: if you want to see more than one region (which you should) you need to tackle the train booking website at least a couple of months before you go and ideally book your trains and plan your whole travel itinerary then. Trains are insanely cheap but unless you want to pile into the thing they grossly call ‘cattle class’ at the last minute (and be standing with tons of sweaty bodies and most likely numerous cockroaches for 8 hours) you need to figure out the online booking system. They need to provide you with a code so you are allowed to book tickets and it takes weeks. Then once you have the code you find that almost all the trains are fully booked. If you want to choose the class you travel in, you need to book 2 months in advance. There is a complicated system of classes which are described in detail on other blogs you can find if you do some googling. We only travelled in first class because that’s all that was left when we booked. We missed out on visits to some cities because there were no seats, and we were really gutted to have gone all that way and missed out on some key experiences. Next time we will not be so naive. More about our train journeys in later blogs.
The next day we were up and refreshed and ready to face the day with a semblance of a plan. We were off to Karol Bagh market. The lady at the metro station had no idea what I was saying in my Manchester accent, “Karrull baaaaag” I repeated to no avail. I pointed to the stop on the metro map, “Ohhh karelbag” she sang back to me in that staccato, melodious, GLORIOUS Indian accent. I learned to adopt it over time, shorten my vowels and sing my words a bit, not out of mocking imitation but because the English they speak and understand in India is so different to the English we speak at home, and if you imitate the style a bit you get where you want to be much more quickly!
It turned out Karol Bagh was as scary for us as any other metro stop, but we knew there was a market and some temples and we had a vague idea of the direction to go. So, this time we hopped on the first rickshaw that approached and said ‘market please!’, off he wobbled as we clung on for dear life for approximately 5 minutes around the corner to where the market began, “100 rupees”, er no, for a 5 minute ride, 50 rupees! “OK madam!” We should have gone lower! Arguing over pence seems ridiculous but actually, it’s all part of the fun, and they absolutely charge foreigners at least 10 times the going rate which is why they followed us halfway down the street everywhere we went!
It took us most of our 30 days to get used to the constant bartering. For Westerners who aren’t used to it, it can be very frustrating. We certainly had moments of: “Pleeeeeeease just tell me the actual PRICE, not 10 times the price and back and forth and back and forth and fake indignation and us walking away and you chasing us and…. Do we have to do this performance EVERY time we want to take a ride or buy anything?” but that’s just how it is, and it seems you have to embrace it, go with the flow and accept that even after a few minutes of bartering you’re still probably the laughing stock of the day as you’ve been royally fleeced. Most of the time you’re arguing over 50p, you don’t think you will but you do, you adjust to the currency and no-one likes to feel like a mug!
Karol Bagh market is a huge, sprawling expanse of tiny, narrow, smelly alleyways, soot covered shops and stalls chaotically falling over one another like that drawer in the kitchen no-one likes to open. We assumed there was some kind of order to it, some alleys seemed to be more full of electrical stuff, some food, some clothes, but it was a labyrinth and we had no idea where to begin, or after 15 minutes where we had or hadn’t been already.
The smog and exhaust fumes made our eyes sting, along with the smell of rot and sewage, the piles of rubbish, the pushing and shoving, shouting, hundreds of staring eyes, I think we saw one other non-Indian couple across a crowded street at one point but again, we were indubitably in the extreme minority. No day-trippers from the posh hotels we knew must exist SOMEWHERE came here, most people looked at us like we were either crazy, aliens, or potential victims.
In India, there is no peace and quiet anywhere, but here the soundtrack of honking horns was almost deafening, traditional music danced out of various speakers in weird contrast and we both had a headache after about ten minutes. But it was amazing, we were on edge, blaming each other for getting lost, overwhelmed, curious and confused. We were experiencing something real, something completely new to us and that mixture of fear and adrenaline is hard to beat.
Everywhere we turned there were locals tucking into delicious looking street food from filthy little carts. I so badly wanted to try it but I had heard so many horror stories of Delhi belly that I was too afraid. I feel really annoyed with myself now for not taking the plunge but it’s all well and good sitting here on my sofa eating peanut butter on toast, thinking of what a softie I’d been. But when you’re there it’s different, it’s intimidating, aside from the hygiene standards of which we’d never seen the likes before, we had no idea what anything was! What do we order? Is there a queue? How much does it cost? Which one is not gonna give us the shits? So we chickened out.
We’d researched some local recommended restaurants on trip advisor so we went and found one, after much aimless wandering (no 3G mate, no map, no phone, no clue!), we somehow happened upon a place we recognised the name of and spent about £12 including a tip on two feasts fit for kings. The attentive staff brought us huge silver platters and dished out numerous colourful veggie curries, dahls, and sundries. They poured us neon orange sodas and offered us ice (no thanks, we’d been told if you wanna avoid sickness no meat, no ice, no milk, no cut fruit, definitely no ice cream!) and every time one of our piles got low they came and topped us up with more, more chappati ma’am? more dahl? After we eventually learned to say no thanks they brought us dessert, gulab jamun, sweet syrupy balls of sponge, custard and fruit. We paid, munched down some delicious fragrant fennel seeds as breath-freshener and rolled ourselves out of there.
We were travelling with 10-12kg backpacks which were pretty full so we had no room to buy stuff really, and not much money either as we were sticking to the tightest budget we could. But who can resist those beautiful Indian fabrics? So we ventured a little into some clothing shops, ones with security on the door where you had to hand your bag in, this was a few streets away from the market part, and a lot more expensive, I tried on a number of kurtis and eventually chose a neon yellow and pink patterned one.
I could have bought ten, they were so beautiful and I think it only cost me a fiver. But money, space, weight blah blah. One day I will go back and buy ALL the colours. It’s a great place for shopping if you can navigate the streets. I bought some yellow Aladdin pants from a street seller for about 50p too. They served me well and although I have mended them twice now I still have them. The kurti is my special occasion top and is as beautiful as ever, hanging up amongst my black dresses like a jewel, reminding me of a country which changed me.
After the market, we headed off to the Hanuman temple. You can see it from the street, it’s so huge so we walked there. Probably we were crazy, it’s not so simple to walk even a short distance in India, the roads are so dangerous, it’s hot, we got half way and hailed a rickshaw. The temple is in the shape of the Hindu god Hanuman who has a man’s body and a face a bit like a monkey. He is 108 feet tall and he is amazing!
At his feet, there is a slain victim with his mouth wide open in horror and it is through his mouth that you enter the temple, venturing through other mouths along your way around.
This was our first visit and we’d heard that temples are free in India, ha! They are free but before you go in they take your shoes and socks, and you have to tip them to look after them, all the way around there are bells to ring, candles to light and statues to marvel at, each one will cost ya. I’m not complaining, a 10 rupee note is enough for each stop so it costs you a quid or so in total, but it’s funny.
They splodge you with coloured paint in the middle of your forehead reverentially, you feel so spiritual man, then ‘tip please!’!
It was one of my favourite experiences in India, just a short trip around the temple but on day two when you find yourself crawling through dirty (holy?) water in bare feet through the mouth of a giant bloke between the feet of a giant god and you get your first bit of bright red cotton wrapped around your wrist with blessings for your future and your family (how many children? how many brothers?) it’s an absolute buzz.
That night we talked to the doctor we were staying with and he arranged our Taj Mahal trip, his mate had a little business going and he could get us ‘special discount’, the driver would arrive at 3am.
Currently reading: Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Title song adapted from ‘Bootylicious’ by Destiny’s Child