12. Oct, 2010

The Delhi Diaries

The Delhi Diaries

India! The Lahore Gate at the Red Fort

Our trip to India started in Kathmandu, with a flight to Varanasi for one day and night, and then on to Delhi. At least that’s what we planned. But then again, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray, and in India, be prepared to stray more than you have planned. Our Air India flight was cancelled due to “operational reasons”. This reason, by the way, is not acceptable to our travel insurance company, and we believe was Air India official-speak for “not enough passengers”. Afer a few heated words with the airport grandmaster K.K. Kak from Air India, we decided to drop Varanasi and head straight to Delhi the next day. We were both disappointed to lose Varanasi, but given than Kathmandu had provided so much of what we expected to see in Varanasi, it made sense to get back to the plan, rather than go far, far astray so early in our trip. Our spirits picked up on the flight to Delhi though as we perused the pages of a Delhi daily newspaper which was choc-full of classified ads of parents seeking matches for their children. All the adverts were organised by caste, and if you believe what you read, Indian men and women are blessed with bounteous qualities. Arranged marriages – welcome to India.

Old Ambassador cars await us at the airport

Workers taking a break, but it'll be ready for the games!

Connaught Place - let the games / works begin!

From the minute we arrived in Delhi, it was like taking a step back in time. The taxis that queue outside the airport are all old Ambassador cars that seem to belong to a bygone era. As we drove in towards our hotel on Connaught Circus, we could see that everywhere the whole city was busy building a newer New Delhi, although the scale of the amount of work was not quite clear until we arrived at our destination. The hotel manager walked with me into the centre of Conaught Place, the centre of New Delhi, which was literally a building site. Excavators, unsurfaced streets, pavements with huge holes – the place looked like a bomb had hit it, maybe only a few minutes before we arrived. “It will all be ready before the Games”, and “Indians work better under pressure” were how the manager reassured us as we struggled to reconcile the time left and the amount of work to be done. “Come hell or high water” was how another described their determination, which as it turns out, is exactly what they had to contend with in the shape of intense heat, and flooding monsoons. While it was disappointing not to see Connaught Place, one of the landmarks of New Delhi, in all its glory, it was still exciting to see India at work on a large scale in a typically Indian fashion that no nation can rival for pure chaos – pedestrians walking right through the building sites, workers sleeping on the ground in the shade of the colonnades, youngsters showering under a hose in the middle of the street. It was crazy and exhilirating, if it weren’t for the intense heat which was to accompany us on every day we spent in Delhi at the peak of the dry season.

Weather outlook for Delhi - hot, hot and hotter!

Not happy with your hotel? Free showers in Connaught Circus

The manager showed me to a popular Delhi hangout before we parted company, and so began our introduction to Indian food. Keventers has been popular since almost the day New Delhi was inaugurated back in the 1930s, and therefore adds to the feeling that you’ve taken a step back in time when you arrive in India. All it sells are milkshakes and ice-cream shakes, and there are always crowds there – of people usually, and of huge metal pails of milk, always. I made this a daily stop on my Delhi itinerary. Coming from Ireland, where social occasions often revolve around a drink (of alcohol), I marvel at the fact that a simple milkshake stand (whose milkshakes are nothing extraordinary) can maintain this hold on young people – it’s great! Just around the corner was another landmark Delhi institution – Wenger’s Pastry Shop. Possessing a sweet tooth and being an Arsenal fan, Wenger’s was an instant favourite, and I was not alone. From savoury samosas to mango pastries and cream buns, I could have spent my entire time in Delhi operating within this 10 metre radius of Keventers and Wengers. Extend that by 50m to include the air-conditioned refuge of the hotel, and so could Ninfa!

Rickshaws and lots of colour in Old Delhi

We were in Delhi on three occasions during our trip, but the longest consecutive stay we had was our first stop there. India was the last country we would visit before heading to the World Cup in South Africa, and Ninfa needed to get a visa. This turned out to be a complicated affair thanks to the combined bureaucratic efforts of the Indian staff, and the South-African counsel. We had to go to the High Commission on three separate occasions before they accepted the application, and while frustrating, it at least gave us an opportunity to see more of the city along with our soon-to-become regular chauffeur. Tingko. Tingko’s prices got consistently lower on every journey as we became more savvy with the going rates, but it was still fun driving around in the back seat of a slow, old taxi which doubled as Tingko’s bed during his off-duty hours. When we finally ended up getting a new taxi driver to go to the train station, it ended up being Tingko’s cousin, Ragu! Delhi’s such a small place after all.

Get lost in Old Delhi, and find the best sights

On one such day, Tingko dropped us off in Old Delhi. We were coming to see the famous Red Fort, but when we got there, we were told it was closed every Monday, so our luck was out. So instead, we went off to visit the nearby Jama Masjid which is the largest mosque in Delhi. Ninfa hates the heat as it can trigger her migraines, and constant attention from touts and hawkers and street merchants gives her a headache anyway. On the other hand, I quite enjoy most of these things, although admittedly Delhi stretched my appreciation to the absolute limit. When we got to the Jama Masjid, we were hassled about using a particular entrance and paying lots of different people for tickets, robes, guarding shoes and anything else that came into their heads. Ninfa had had enough so she went to cool off in a cafe. On the way back, I decided to avoid the simplest route, and get lost a little in the web of streets in Old Delhi. And lost is exactly what I was; no matter how many turns I made differently on each occasion, I always ended up at exactly the same point at the end. All roads lead to Rome, but in old Delhi, they all lead via the Jama Masjid, which fortunately is where I was headed anyway. However, the walk did give me an opportunity to see some fantastic street scenes of trading, eating, tea-drinking, in narrow, colourful and crowded streets with monkeys playing on the electricity wires overhead, and goats parked alongside motorbikes.

Monkeys watching the action in Old Delhi

Jama Masjid

When I got back to the Jama Masjid, I managed to avoid one or two of the supposed costs of entry, and was given a huge robe to cover my shorts, and left my shoes with the doorman. The worst thing about having no shoes was the burning heat of the sandstone floor which was torture. They had some rope carpets leading across the floor, so I hotstepped it over to one of those and strolled around at my ease within the confines of the carpet lines. As I walked around, I ducked out of the way to avoid appearing in a photo that a young Indian man was taking with his camera-phone. But I was a little puzzled when he tried to take the photo again – focussing on me, not the mosque. As I continued, I noticed I was being tailed by about 10 young Indians, and this in a shaded part of the mosque where one was not confined to the rope carpet. One of the boys finally plucked up the courage to approach me and ask me my name, where I was from, and if he could have his photo with me. Once one of them had broken the ice, it melted in a flash, just as it probably would on a sunny Delhi afternoon, and the others flooded over to smile for the camera. And it wasn’t just the young guys, but one middle-aged man asked me to have a photo taken with his father. Of all my stalkers, there were no more than 10 words in English in total, but it was a very photographic experience, and both parties seemed to enjoy it and left with much satisfaction at having their photo taken with perfect strangers from halfway around the globe. One of the boys did guide me over to a side tower in the mosque where a “guide” took me up one of the minarets for some fantastic views over the Jama Masjid, the streets of Old Delhi, and the nearby Red Fort with the Indian flag flying over the famous Lahore Gate. I tipped him the sum he proposed and headed back to meet Ninfa.

Sikhs distribute water to the faithful

Sikh priest is all smiles during the upbeat, musical ceremony

Minarets seen from the minaret at Jama Masjid

It was now approaching sunset, and was probably a bearable 40C as we walked down the crowded Chandni Chowk. We took a quick stop at the Famous Jalebiwallah, who is famous for making Jalebis, deep-fried, sweet, dough whirls served with honey – a messy and tasty treat! In India, you just add wallah to a word and you have a profession. For example, I could be a computer-wallah or a business-wallah, and Ninfa would be a diplomacy-wallah or a law-wallah. We continued on past the hordes of shirt-wallahs and chai-wallahs until we got to a Sikh temple, full of Sikhs (not Sikh-wallahs – a rare exception to the rule). Sikhs are easy to recognise as they invariably have long beards and a big turban, as it’s considered a sin for them to cut their hair. We walked around the temple with our guide, who inquired if we were interested in converting, perhaps to bolster their numbers from the small but important 2% that they make up of the Indian population. We declined, but much enjoyed the music and welcoming atmosphere. Even the chief priest would look over at us and smile for the camera when we were taking photos, right in the middle of his ceremony. One of the cornerstones of Sikh religion is charity, and as such each ceremony is ended by giving water to the celebrants as well as a sweet dessert-type paste in a huge bowl, which is dished out by hand by one of the faithful, and which it is considered offensive to refuse. Although the manner of serving did not appeal to me much, I ate both Ninfa’s portion and mine.

Ninfa goes shopping for an Indian dress - nice look!

In the end we did not see everything we would have liked to in Delhi, and in fact one day, we gave up and went to one of India’s most modern malls – all in pursuit of some respite from the formidable heat. One thing the mall did provide was a look at modern India – the fastest growing economies in the world. From one perspective you could be anywhere in the world with the same omnipresent brands everywhere – McDonalds, Starbucks, Zara etc. A mall’s a mall, but there was a lot of confidence and a lot of money on show from the people here, and you get the feeling that they’re happy to live life their own way, away from the restrictions that their culture may previously placed on them. I still wondered, however, if these were the same people I had read about in the newspaper on the plane. Take a taxi away from the mall though, and its not long before you realise that these are the elite few (if few is a word that can be used when talking about India). Anywhere in Delhi, you’re never far from homeless families sleeping under motorways with not enough money to even clothe their children. The shackles of convention are easily thrown off with wealth, but the shackles of poverty seem harder for the booming economy to shake.

Side attractions at Humayun's Tomb

Humayun's Tomb

Although we sometimes travelled by taxi, as our main means of transport in Delhi, we took tuk-tuk. Coming from Donegal in Ireland, I had a personal fondness for Delhi tuk-tuks, as they are all painted in the Delhi (and Donegal) colours of green and yellow, and they all bear the Delhi (and Donegal) registration DL. This was all becoming a bit confusing as I began to think I was spending an Indian summer in Donegal, rather than an Irish summer in Delhi.

In the minaret at Jama Masjid - nice look?!

Of the sights of interest that we visited in Delhi, Humayun’s Tomb was probably the most impressive. It’s a huge tomb built for a former Mughal ruler of India which was built by his wife. It is similar in many respects to the Taj Mahal, but a less ornate version, and built in red sandstone, as are most of the monuments in Delhi – Delhi has a red feel. Upon passing through a grand entrance monument, there is a long promenade which is dissected by a long fountain and lined by gardens full of little squirrels. In the surrounding gardens are some smaller tombs which are less maintained that the Humayun’s Tomb, and their partial state of ruin adds to their charm. Other monuments we visited were India Gate which is right in the centre of the wide and long Rajpath avenue. It’s a great place to go at night as there are thousands of locals who come to walk in the pedestrianised area around the monument and fly kites, play badminton and racquetball, and buy snacks from the mobile traders. India Gate and Rajpath during the day offer some beautiful views of the Indian Parliament and showcase the immaculate planning of the city of New Delhi – it’s great to arrive on the Rajpath all of a sudden and take in the magnitude of the view, and the numerous official Ambassador limousines with their government charges.

The lotus flower inspired Baha'i Temple

Jama Masjid

There were a few monuments we didn’t see in Delhi which are probably well worth visiting, but the truth is the heat defeated us. Having visited Rajasthan after Delhi, I think there is a lot more to see outside Delhi than in it. Delhi is really an opportunity to see the organised (?) chaos of an Indian metropolis, the contrasts between rich and poor, and the grandeur of a former Mughal empire, British colony and developing economic powerhouse. It was tough going on many occasions – the first experience of India is a rapid education for anyone with many a tough test along the way, but breathing deeply (just as our yogi advised in Udaipur) and with lots of air conditioning we saw it through. We loved the chaos, the curiosity of the people (like in Jama Masjid), their accents, the way they can nod their head side to side so quickly and effortlessly (which means yes, no, I don’t know, and loads of other things), and the carpet salesman who could have talked for weeks! We disliked the chaos, the heat, the constant attentions of the touts and hawkers, and the dust from all the building works around Connaught Place. But it’ll all be ready for the games …

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