A first ever visit to New Delhi is not to be sneezed at. Nor is it anything like a first trip to Europe. So we discovered very quickly on our first foray out of our hotel. Absolutely, utterly, completely . . . not even close.
We were warned.
We studied the itinerary and scanned the suggestions on Trip Advisor. Noted the items on our checklist of what to bring. Learned a few words of Hindi (well . . . you never know when it will be handy). We sort of knew what to expect. We skimmed through Google images and tuned in to any and every travel documentary that came our way. A few people we spoke to who had been there predicted we would either love it or hate it.
Well, yes, the place does encourage absolutes. I think, after 36 hours, I can say I love it. So, surprisingly, does Sue (apart from the attention and stares she received on the Metro, but more about that later).
Getting back to the first time we set foot outside our hotel. It was 8.30 am. We had been met at the airport (thankfully) the previous evening and transferred to the hotel. Up till the morning then it had been a fairly sterile experience, hermetically sealed; the sort five star travellers have, who swan from taxi to hotel to tour bus. It all changed pretty quickly for us as we stepped onto the street. Market stalls were not yet operating, but street beggars with limbs at impossible angles or holding toddlers, implored us for money. Tuk Tuk drivers circled and shouted invitations; not taking no for an answer. Dogs lay sprawled on broken pavements amidst litter of all kinds. Faces gazed speculatively at us from corners. Our own eyes straight ahead, we walked in the general direction of the Metro station and were grateful to see it appear not too far down the road.
Negotiating the Metro network proved the easiest part of the day. At least buying a Tourist day travel Card was easy, with a bit of help from kind commuters who stopped to help two bewildered tourists. Travelling on the Metro line during rush hour turned out to be not such a great experience: sandwiched into carriages so tightly that when you exhaled the crush made it hard to take another breath – sort of like a boa constrictor works I am told. An opportunity to get to know your fellow passengers intimately I suppose. Sue was not so impressed with the roving hands she encountered during the journey. After that she faced me and I put my arm around her. That seemed to discourage them. Ah, the joys of mass transit systems. That aside, we would recommend the Metro for getting around Delhi. It is clean, fast, convenient, and the services are frequent. It beats walking or travelling by road.
Very soon, we found ourselves feeling a part of things, and a bit less like prey surrounded by predators, but to a certain extent, I think its important, not to mention prudent, to stay alert wherever you are in Delhi. For a start, western travellers stand out like the proverbials. There is no blending in. You are the object of attention wherever you go. It's maybe best to get used to it.
Sooner or later you need to cross a road in Delhi. This is not a task for those of a tentative disposition. Hesitation is dangerous. Hundreds of cars, scooters, motorbikes, bicycles and hand carts all seem to respect assertiveness. I can not remember being in a tangle of predestrians and vehicles of the like that we experienced this afternoon on our walk through Gaffer Market in the Karol Bagh district. We survived, and I guess most people do. Reminds me of the saying “the quick and the dead” though. As for crossing a main road as a pedestrian though . . . forget it! Suicidal, even on a marked crossing. I would attempt a crossing only where traffic was travelling at 15 km/hr or less, or where a bunch of locals were wading into the traffic.
I'll finish this post with a short description of the markets that surround where we are staying in the Karol Bagh district. They occupy at least a 20 by 20 grid of streets (although 'grid' is not meaningful in the labyrinth of lanes and easements). I would be surprised if there was anything unable to be found for sale somewhere in this area. Aromatic street food, incessant car and bike horns, tens of thousands of people, indescribable squallor interspersed with powerful vignettes of humanity. Stray dogs crap in front of street stalls. Neatly uniformed school children thread their way past on their way home from school. Policemen stand and eat their lunch using their motorbike seat as a table. Locals congregate under any shady tree. Colours dance as you gaze from stall to stall, drawing your eyes from the pavement just long enough not to trip or slip on anything. It is emotionally exhausting, but at the same time exciting and spiritually uplifting to walk through here.
This is life. If my head and body wasn't starting to ache I would walk further into the maze of alleys and delight in its promise, its potency, its strange beauty, and its dangers. But I tell myself enough is enough for today.
The hotel door opens onto sanctuary.
More to come in the coming days as we travel to Jaipur, Agra and Varanasi.