January 19 - 22
19.01.2013 - 22.01.2013 23 °C
The advertisements all say "Incredible India" and it's true. It's very difficult to describe because if you've never been you just cannot fathom the extremes and intensities of what you see and experience. Even though this was not the first trip for either me or Elmar, entering India after Thailand was a shock. We flew from BKK to Colombo, Sri Lanka and then to New Delhi. We could have paused in Sri Lanka for a day or two but neither of us really wanted to. On the flight to New Delhi our seat partner switched seats to be close to family and we were joined by an Indian bushiness man who later introduced himself as Rajiv. He quickly seized the opportunity to start chatting once I pulled out my Rough Guide to read up on potential cities to visit. I have to confess that we were so content in Thailand living cheaply yet comfortably that we kept procrastinating re our plans for India. We were so reluctant to leave that Elmar actually looked up flights from India to Thailand. They were quite reasonable (i.e., less than 250 US$ pp) so we felt we had an escape.....just in case. So here we were, hours away from landing with no plan other than hotel secured for two nights and a wishlist of cities and a chatty neighbour. Rajiv shared his story with us and soon offered his recommendation of places to go in Rajasthan (a large state in the Northwest, more details to come later) and also sites and restaurants in Delhi where he was from. By the end of the 3 hour flight we had earmarked several cities in our book and we had an invitation to his home for lunch the next day. (Rajiv, our new friend from Delhi).
Even after disembarking, he insisted on waiting until we cleared customs to make sure we got the right kind of taxi, the taxi driver knew exactly where to take us and that we had a reliable driver. Securing the right taxi might seem trivial to most but if you plan to travel to India sans the luxury of business where someone local plans and takes care of your every move, then educating yourself on the public transportation system is a must. India is an emerging country, which means there are still a lot of challenges that you'd find in developing nations. And for sure, transporting more than a billion people plus visitors ranks high on the list of 'gotta do better'. The amount of people owning vehicles has dramatically increased in recent years but this has not alleviated the problem, just created others such as the worse traffic snarls and jams you've ever seen and increased pollution. God bless the Brits for building railroad tracks but the rail system is also inadequate not only because it's limited in it's coverage of the country, but many are outdated, severely overcrowded and accidents take a ridiculous amount of lives every year. It's also very difficult to make advanced train bookings outside of the country as the online system operates on local Indian time and requires steps that can be frustrating and confusing. It's better to wait until you're on the ground and can either go to the train station or a reputable and reliable agent to make your booking. Buses taxis and tuk tuks or rickshaws are the other options to get around. Buses are either govt or private owned and most look as if they are from a different century. They are very simple in construction; many without glass windows only a sheet of hard plastic with folds like a fan at each seat that you can either roll up to let in some fresh air or fold down to keep out the rain. If you do take the bus, and sometimes for long distances they are the only option if you can't afford a private car, be sure to check then double and triple check that you are on the right bus. As we were to learn, saying "I don't know" doesn't seem to be a natural response with most people so they will pretend to know and give you elaborate misinformation. With taxis and tuk tuks, it's a rare occasion when you are quoted the right price particularly in high tourist areas. Strong negotiating skills and having advanced knowledge of general costs for your journey will save you from being scalped so ask your hotel ahead of time or a reliable information centre. At the New Delhi airport there are prepaid and pay as you go taxis. Prepaid are your best bet even if you are approached by a very friendly, kind driver who promises you a good deal. The airport is fairly new and looks very modern and western so you don't anticipate being scammed in such an environment but caution is required. It shouldn't cost more than 350/400 rupees from the airport to the city.
So back to the story of Rajiv now that it's clear how nice he was being especially since he had been away from home for an extended trip and had to wait for us to go through immigration and collect our bags. We didn't know quite what to think, was he too nice to be true? There was no gain for him however so we thanked him sincerely and just stood aside and watched as he led us to he prepaid stand, repeated our hotel name and address to the driver and added some details that of course we couldn't follow. Before he took off in his car we exchanged email addresses and made plans to connect the next day. He thought it would be best if he picked us up rather than us trying to find our way. The attention felt a little strange but we're pretty open people and this is what we wanted, to meet interesting strange and wonderful people. The taxi ride took about 45 minutes to get to the city centre where our hotel was located. It was still light and we noticed that as we got closer to our hotel the surroundings changed and not necessarily for the better. The road surface was deteriorating and cars, rickshaws, buses and motor bikes were honking their horns randomly and constantly while darting to where ever there was a hint of an opening to squeeze forward regardless if they were on the road or not. Women were dressed beautifully in bright coloured sarees and pungent smells, some good others not so much, intermittently grabbed at us as they were carried by the dry but not exactly warm breeze wafting through the windows. The driver needed to call our hotel a couple times but we eventually pulled up to a building that seemed to be at the heart of a bustling street. Not surprising with an address that reads Main Bazaar. The English of the check in staff was flawless and we were soon led to a basic, mostly clean but cold room. As the sun set the temperature dropped significantly and we felt it more keenly after leaving hot and humid Bangkok and because we didn't have winter gear. We decided to go for a walk anyway and I could tell that Elmar was eager to reacquaint himself as it had been 20 years since he was last in Delhi. We wondered down the street next to our hotel and frankly I had to keep reminding myself that this was the capital city of India. The 'road' which I'm being quite generous in calling it so was filled with animals, pedestrians and vehicles jockeying for space between the street vendors shouting their wares. Bangkok isn't a quiet or always clean city so it wasn't as if we were fresh from the western world but we felt as if every sense was being bombarded and while on the outside we seemed cool and in control, in truth we were reeling and frantically trying to assimilate it all. (View from our 'Flashpacker' hotel in Delhi, Paharganj/Main Bazaar)
On our walk we thought we'd also look for someplace to eat as we generally are eager to try truly local food but the choices were few and the places we saw did not look appealing. Eventually we returned to the hotel and joined several other quests on the roof top restaurant. Everyone had their winter coats and hats on but even though we had none we didn't want to go anyplace else and it turned out to be a good decision as the food was very good. We had some of our favourite Indian foods; very spicy mutton Rogan Josh, chicken curry and Paratha (Indian bread) and to drink, Elmar had some very fine Kingfisher premium which is the local brew while I had sweet lassi, a yoghurt drink. Everything was satisfying and even comforting since we were feeling a bit out of our element. We spent a restless night, the room didn't warm up too much and our room felt like we were in the middle of grand central station. By next morning we were eager to do some more exploring and determine our next move. We decided to extend our stay for another night and opted for an upgraded room which was only $10.00 more but was bigger brighter and warmer and had a window that looked right unto the busy street. We also thought maybe things would look better in sunlight but it was pretty much the same; dirty and chaotic and for Elmar, pretty disappointing that in 20 years there didn't seem to be much progress, it was pretty much exactly as he remembered; or even worse. We walked to the train station to check out tickets as we decided we wanted to explore Rajasthan by train and the places Rajiv had recommended. By the way, we didn't get a chance to have lunch with him. He called our hotel and let us know that there was a death in his family. We were sorry to hear this and promised to let him know when we would be back in the area. The train station seemed to be under construction and we couldn't even locate the entrance. All along the way we were bombarded with vendors insisting that we needed to see their stuff, no need to buy, just look, only look. Ragged women with small babies propped on their hips followed us for yards constantly poking us and gesturing with beseeching eyes to give them money for the baby to eat. It felt like everyone wanted a piece of us and it generally started, with "Hi, where are you from, what's your name?" then we would get the hard press. We knew better than to respond to any of these tactics but it's still hard for me sometimes especially when children are involved. We finally reached the train station. Elmar after 20 years could remember where it was because so little had changed. It seemed to be under construction and we couldn't find the entrance so we had to ask for assistance. We chose someone who seemed to be an employee and he took us to a tuk tuk and told the driver where to take us. I'm still not sure why we couldn't have bought our tickets there but he said we needed to go to the DTTC which is the official tourism office for guidance and booking of train tickets. Once we got there, I became suspicious because the set up was more than a booking agent they also booked tours. And wouldn't you know it, no trains were available for the next 8 days. The agent, a tall handsome fast talking fast moving guy recommended that we book a car and driver vs the train as that would be easier and give us greater flexibility. It was actually quite interesting to watch the sales process unfolding right in front of our eyes. In about 10 mins. or so he had provided us with tea and had an itinerary for the next 12 days that would cover what's referred to as the Golden Triangle; Delhi, where we were, Jaipur the Pink City in Rajasthan and Agra, best known for the Taj Mahal. We shared other places we wanted to see and before we could complete the list it seemed, we had costs, hotels and an itinerary that mapped out a 13 day excursion that started with a tour of Delhi then hit the Rajasthan cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Pushkar. Then Ranthambore, which is a National wildlife Park, Agra then via train hit Varanasi the holy city and end with Kolkata formerly known as Calcutta. This would be a total of approx. 4000 km. These are the kinds of offers that can either be legit or a scam so what to do. The price options were not cheap especially if you wanted hotels with decent ratings. We hit the pause button with him and did a bit of checking on the internet. The hotels were within a price range that he'd quoted and received good ratings and positive feedback. We also looked at the booking agent's website and read reviews on trip advisor. It all seemed legit so we booked it, and prayed that we weren't being taken for a different ride. Below is a map of our route through Northern India.
Once we made the decision the tour went into effect immediately with the tour of Delhi. Crowded with 15 million people, it's sprawling, dirty and somehow despite it's touted progress still looks like a city trapped in the past. There are two parts to the city, Old Delhi which is more Islamic, filled with bazaars, and impressive structures like the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid which is India's largest mosque. (The Jama Masjid - the building and its curious visitors)
The city dates back to something like the 17th century and I didn't find it hard to picture life back then. New Delhi is British built and where you'll find wide, fairly clean, nicely paved boulevards, embassies for every major nation as well as the presidential palace. There are a lot of museums and cultural performances and if this will be your one stop in India there's a government sponsored emporium where you can buy anything that you could get elsewhere in India, from rugs from Kashmir to gems from Agra. Our tour that afternoon and the next day felt a bit whirlwind as we raced to each site but hey the time was limited and our driver had a list to cover. We unfortunately didn't get to see the Red Fort as the national holiday Republic Day was upcoming on January 26th and heavy preparations for the celebrations were taking place which closed the Fort to visitors. It was interesting seeing the preparations. We saw decorated camels and soldiers going through their paces and lots of decorations. (Preparations for Republic Day)
We knew we would be missing an elaborate performance but it couldn't be helped. We enjoyed the other sites however including Oz opera house looking building (Baha’i Temple)
That evening we froze our heinies off again at the roof top restaurant and again it was comforting and delicious after the hectic afternoon. We also slept better. We were much more comfortable and warmer in the upgraded room and it was much quieter too. After a filling and tasty breakfast of French toast and pancakes we headed out the next morning to see more of Old and New Delhi. Our first stop was a Hindu temple, where we heard about so many different gods my head was reeling trying to remember their names and what form they could appear in and what prayers they granted. It was nice to see female gods many who were warriors. One of my favourite has several arms and her name is Durga. In one hand she wields a sword, a head dripping blood in another and one foot crushing another head. I liked the girl power aspects especially as the bodies were unashamedly female as well. The most popular gods were those who represented money, good luck, power and protection from evil and no matter the time of day the temples were regularly visited by young and old. (Hindu temple in Old Delhi)
We walked for hours through tombs of past royalties set in lovely gardens including Mahatma Gandhi’s tomb, even through markets and alleys tasting local snacks, gawking at everything and being gawked at in return. (The 'Great Salt March' memorial in Delhi) (Street vendor selling sweet curd - super cheap and super tasty) (A Muslim festival in Old Delhi; men pounding their chests until they bleed)
The last stop was the government emporium with floor after floor of just about every imaginable souvenir a shopping junkie craves and where quality if not a cheap price is assured. We returned to the hotel exhausted again but as Elmar and I reflected over drinks there were some distinct impressions that Delhi left. One, the people are beautiful, both men and women and you want to cuddle each child including the street urchins because they just pull you in with their dark eyes. There are heartbreaking moments though of seeing some very young children, some as young as 2 years that are wandering the streets with other children learning the fine art of being a persistent beggar. 2nd, is an overwhelming distaste for how very dirty the city is, shockingly so at times for what if not the economic capital (Mumbay is), is supposedly a major metropolis. People seemed to be in the habit of throwing on the ground whatever they didn't want and if there were regular sanitation efforts to deal with refuse we couldn't find signs of it other than where governmental buildings were. Elmar felt that the city had taken a few steps back as he felt the poor infrastructure and magnitude of poverty was at best no better and from his memory actually worse than when he'd been there 20 years ago. 3rd, is the rich history of the city, things like seeing Ghandi's monuments and tomb reminded us of the power of a single voice when you are fully convicted to live your beliefs against all odds. What we were seeing hurt us but we cautioned ourselves not to become too sanctimonious and judgmental in wondering why no one was speaking out and doing 'something!' We'd just arrived and we needed to learn much more. 4th, the emporium which exposed us to more of the skilled selling tactics practiced here heartened us because we felt equally slick leaving there without making one purchase. The key is not to show even a whisper of interest in anything. We soon realized that every eye flicker or even a slight lingering look was a signal that they would pounce on and do everything to keep you listening to their spiel including whipping out 50 variations of whatever caught your eye. We went to bed looking forward to leaving Delhi and hoping that we would see stronger signs of the upcoming super power we know India has the potential to be. (In front of the Red Fort, Delhi) (At Qutb Minar complex) (I am sure the real estate costs for this barber shop are low)