In a lot of places I visit I feel like a pioneer and the locals are excited I showed up. In India, it was the exact opposite. I came armed with so much information and other people’s opinions it was hard to know what to expect. It is an amalgam of civilization employing lifestyles spanning several centuries all co-existing. Getting my visa to visit had proven to be an exercise in frustration, misdirection and unnecessary bureaucracy so I was prepared to be tested upon arrival.
But instead we breezed through 21st century India. The airport has been upgraded, customs was easy and the tour director was there to meet us and escort us to our luxury air-conditioned SUV. Our guide pointed out the infrastructure improvements from hosting the Commonwealth games – shiny new roads, hotels and metro stops. We arrived in the wee hours of the morning so there was no traffic and we whizzed up to the gate of our hotel to try and get a tiny bit of sleep before our daunting day in Delhi due to begin in less than six hours.
We stayed at the The Claridges in New Delhi. I was particularly entranced by the breakfast. One of my favourite parts of India was lots of fresh, juicy watermelon. Usually I both ate and drank it! I likely should have been drinking coffee instead. I didn’t realize we were going to see all of Delhi in one day!
We began our journey in 21st century India but our first tourist stop was going to take us back a few centuries.
I hauled a bunch of school supplies with me to India as I was told one of our activities in Delhi was to visit an NGO and I could donate them. Our NGO experience ended up being the most memorable part of our whirlwind tour of Delhi. Vishal is a product of the Salaam Baalak Trust. It’s an organization that takes kids off the streets of Delhi and gives them a place to live and an education. It’s a similar project to Tania’s work in Siem Reap albeit on a much larger scale. Michelle Obama has visited Salaam Baalak Trust!
Somehow I suspect the Secret Service did not let her participate in the Salaam Baalak Trust city walk. It is her loss. Luckily I had been reading books about India before I got on the plane so came prepared to be shocked. I think because I was so prepared for shock – and had been living a very insulated life my first few hours in India – I wasn’t shocked.. But India is not for the faint of heart.
The city walk starts from just behind the central Delhi train station and continues down some alleys and side streets. On our walk to meet Vishal, we noted the well-fed rats scampering close to our feet and the mountains of garbage arranged like a modern art installation against the sides of buildings. Then we saw the dead rat covered in scavenger insects. The only part that I found unnerving were all the stray dogs lazily wandering past us as we loitered in the alley waiting for the tour to begin. I am too cheap to get rabies shots (I also think they are really painful) so just try to follow the travel medicine doctor’s advice to not get bitten by a rabid dog or feisty bat…
I think I was paying more attention to the dogs than they were paying to me and our tour eventually got underway and the streets were more benign 🙂 We were joined by a whole gaggle of young girls out to see the world as part of some youth outreach program. Vishal was 18 so he must have been having a heyday having all these pretty young girls hanging on his every word. And the dude was charismatic in addition to being Bollywood handsome. He told me he wanted to get into tourism and I assured him he would be a success.
The tour takes you through some of the streets and alleys of old Delhi full of stray wires, throngs of people and accommodation for backpackers experiencing the “real” India. It was definitely a stark contrast to The Claridges. One of the tour highlights is trying to guess the purpose for the religious paintings on the wall in a narrow alley. None of the girls knew the answer. Vishal enthusiastically explained that they were there to discourage people from urinating against the wall. It’s a very religious place so peeing on a goddess just doesn’t seem right…
The tour ends with a visit to the headquarters of the trust, where I was able to lighten my suitcase by donating my supplies, make a donation and see the photographic evidence of Michelle’s visit. India is a fascinating, but often frustrating, place so it’s nice to see an organization making positive change.
Now that we had been forced out of our bubble we were ready for more
“real India”. Our guide introduced us to a rickshaw driver and we were off to see Chandni Chowk. He was pedalling a bicycle so it was hardly at a breakneck pace but navigating through all the chaotic traffic made it feel more like being on safari. One area that is particularly colourful and interesting is the marriage market, chock-a-block with saris in every possible hue, extravagant and sparkly jewelry and myriad traditional decorations. Trying to capture it on camera was a daunting task but I just kept
clicking as we bounced around.
Then it was time to do a whirlwind tour of important buildings…Jama Mazid (the largest mosque in India), the historic Red Fort, India Gate and Parliament. All are impressive and worth the visit but less interesting than the chaotic streets of old Delhi.
As a foreigner, you have to get your rupees in India. The plan was to hit Deutsche Bank to get a good rate but it ended up that we had arrived on a public holiday so instead were taken to a moneychanger. I didn’t do much research before I left on exchange rates but it’s likely worthwhile. It also would probably help to not spend only one day in Delhi and have it be a public holiday 🙂 It’s not clear whether I got ripped off or not but I only exchanged a little there and succumbed to just exchange money at the hotel. It seemed that you got a better rate on a major currency. The upside of our visit to the moneychanger was that I got to try some tea 🙂
I am fairly obsessed with chai. It was the Turkey experience again. We were seated. Tea was poured. A sales pitch was presented. You could leave without buying something but it would be awkward. And I wanted to bring some chai home so I went for the buy a lot and get one free offer.
By that point we were exhausted and trying to convince the driver to take us back to the hotel but Indians can be quite wily. I think it comes from living in a very complicated country. So, ostensibly, we were on our way back to the hotel… eventually…
But first we had to acquire another guide who would take us to an even older part of Delhi, back when the Hindus were having a good time living la dolce vita before the meanie Mughuls showed up and wrecked everything. He was a university professor and provided an excellent tour but we were living on vapours by that point so I can’t remember the entire history lesson…
We did see an interesting early Hindu temple. And then he dragged us through the streets of a very
real part of Delhi, full of cows, rats and garbage but also full of colour and people going about their daily lives. It’s the kind of walk that makes privileged westerners really appreciate how easy their lives are. Every time I turn on the kitchen tap I marvel at how lucky I am to have copious quantities of water that I can just pour into a glass and drink.
Eventually we convinced everyone that we really wanted to go back to the hotel. It seemed a little dull after our wild day in Delhi. I did have likely the best meal of my entire India trip and had an expensive but lovely cocktail in the bar, which felt more New York than New Delhi. I was back in 21st century India having spanned seven centuries of history in one day!!!