Delhi: First Impressions

I think the very first thing we noticed when we stepped off the plane in Delhi, was a very different smell in the air. It smelled somewhat like a mix between sweet Indian spices and burning rubber. Once through passport control and into the baggage claim area, it became very evident that the burning rubber component, at least, was from a serious pollution problem. While flying into the city I had thought that all the lights seemed blurry because it was a foggy night; reality set in as I gazed at the “fog” heavy ceiling. What I had seen instead was smog. After collecting out bags relatively unharmed, we exited out into the arrivals hall where we soon located a man from our hostel holding a piece of paper with my name printed on it. He then made a quick phone call and pointed to another man outside and sent us on our way with our sign and 500 INR (9 USD) to pay for our taxi ride.  Although our arranged pick-up gave peace of mind to clearly new visitors lacking the necessary information to avoid scams at every turn, I wouldn’t call the drive to our hostel relaxing. Lane lines and appropriate distances are blatantly avoided on smoggy four lane highways. Erik and I held our breaths as we dodged between trucks, rickshaws (bike taxis), motor bikes and cars. Nevertheless, our driver was friendly enough and 20 minutes later he stopped and led us down an alley to our hostel where they graciously handed us two bottles of water and lead us to our room suggesting that we looked tired and could check in the next morning.

After four hours of sleep we were awoken by a chaos of new morning sounds. Men singing and chanting, Indian music, cattle and a symphony of car horns signaled the preparations for the daily market a street over from ours. After a quick breakfast of PB&J that we thankfully had left over from the flight, we headed downstairs to sit and get some local knowledge from our hostel host. Over tea he generously offered recommendations of where we should visit, how we should get there and what we should eat. He informed us that there was no way for us to get train tickets and that even the tourist quota tickets would be gone due to all of the students studying abroad being home for the holidays. Still half asleep myself, I was lucky that Erik quickly picked up on the first of many times that we would be fed false information that day. I didn’t completely recognize the game until we were given a free ride to a recommended nearby “tourist office” where a man told us that no train tickets were available and that he could get us to Nepal in 6 days through a multi-city tourist package.  We graciously thanked him and left deciding that it was time that we go exploring on our own.

Opting not to call the hostel driver to collect us, we picked our way back through unbelievably crowded and chaotic streets and somehow made it over to the main train station, picking up some Dutch backpackers from our hostel on the way, who had also almost fallen victim to our host’s “advice”. Even armed with a new awareness, we almost got taken again at the train station; an impossible maze of entrances and lines. We received conflicting information from several sources until a man who claimed that he worked there spit out a story that sounded a lot like what we had read in a guide book. He almost got us with phrases we knew to be true like, “first floor, tourist only tickets, leave tonight, sleeper class, reservation request form. . .” But, now we had strength in numbers and firmly decided to check out another “first floor tourist-only room” that Erik had read about. Sure enough we soon figured out that the tout indeed was sending us to a “tourist agency” as opposed to the official train station tourist office. After an hour in line Erik and I had our “non-existent” and “impossible to get” tourist tickets in hand that would sweep us off to the India-Nepal border the following night. We also noticed an interesting sign that stated very clearly that Indian students studying abroad were not eligible to purchase tourist quota tickets. I was quickly realizing that these guys were good, and that knowledge was power.

Old Delhi and The Red Fort

Upon exiting the station we decided to go as a group to visit the Red Fort which is an old Mughal fort built by Shah Jahan,  who also built the Taj Mahal. To get there we had the choice to take a taxi for about 300 INR (5.50 USD) for all of us or navigate the metro system and walk through a hectic city market area. As reasonable as the taxi sounded, we stuck with our new plan of attack and struck out on our own. Which ended up being a great choice, considering that a metro ride costs 8 INR (14 cents) per person.  Once we figured out the system of buying tickets, going through metal detectors that no one paid attention to and recognizing men-only and women-only subway cars, we found the metro to be clean, fast and very convenient.

The walk to the fort itself from the metro was quite an adventure in itself. After stepping over dogs, getting hit with boxes carried on men’s’ heads, and playing Frogger (literally) with cars, rickshaws and buses we made it to the fort where we paid the non-Indian admission price to see a once massive and impressive fort that has fallen into complete disrepair.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed lazily walking about, still trying to get used to children coming up to shake our hands, or locals trying to slyly take pictures of us. We exercised our new found confidence and independence with a metro ride back towards the main train station. We stopped in for a much needed but difficult to find beer on the way back to the hostel and resolved to spend the late afternoon indoors drinking water, sitting out of the foggy sun and attempting to take a bucket shower.

Connaught Place and New Delhi

The following morning we thought that we would venture to the other side of the city, New Delhi and Connaught Place. New Delhi is the home to mostly government buildings including parliament as well as the epicenter of the city, Connaught Place which is a series of concentric circles with park in the middle.

We spent a nice morning wandering the around the inner circle window shopping at higher end stores, wandering through the center park, and sitting in some much appreciated shade.

New Delhi is a stark contrast to the bustling streets of Old Delhi and is characterized by wide shady boulevards and endless government buildings. Despite the shade, we quickly tired of the calm and opted to hop back onto the metro to re-visit the markets of Old Delhi. On the way we quickly stopped in the Delhi metro museum which examines the building of the metro that just opened in 2002. It’s incredible what a difference transportation can make to a city.

India is a whirlwind of sensory inputs; the smells from the spices, the sounds from this huge living city (a lot of horns), the colors from women’s clothes. It can all be overwhelming, exciting and beautiful all together, but we look forward to heading for the hills to clear our lungs for the next two weeks. We will then return to Delhi and meet up with Erik’s Indian colleague who has promised to give us a grand tour of much of Northern India, semi-local style.

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