March 3 - 6, 2013Once again Eric will narrate our experiences while Sam interjects her comments in italics.March 3, 2013: Arriving in India
We left Dubai and had an uneventful plane ride into Delhi with Jet Airways. The most interesting thing about the flight was that before landing the entire interior of the plane had to be sprayed with disinfectant. Apparently this is procedure for any incoming international flight. For anyone who has ever been to India you have to agree that this is an absolute joke. (India is worried about germs coming IN to their country?)
We got to the airport and immediately noticed how big it was. We made our way through customs, which we thought would be an issue since apparently they force many tourists to show proof of their ticket out of the country. We had not booked one at the time, but this ended up not being an issue. We got a little nervous when the foreigners next to us got asked, but we made it through without an issue. I believe it’s just another example of the power of the American passport. Some people view it
as kind of a get out of jail free card, while at other times it can be a headache. We grabbed our bags then met up with the driver sent from our hotel, who was giving us a ride to the hotel. He held a sign that said “Samantha Swedenberg”, which made him easy to find. First time we had a driver waiting with a sign! We felt quite important.
We loaded our bags into the car and then took off. We thought it would be a relatively quick ride, but he told us it would be about 50 minutes. Since he was driving like a maniac like everyone else in India does, we made it there in 30 minutes. He pointed out landmarks to us along the way, but it was difficult to see things at night. Everytime he would point out a landmark he would say, “Excuse me mister,” which we found to be very weird and funny. What we did see a lot of right away were cows. There were cows all over the place as they are a sacred animal in India. Having just arrived we found this fascinating, Sam more so than I. It was interesting how they were in the road, at times stopping traffic and no one cared at all. The driver dropped us off at our hotel which was in the Paaharganj area, the heart of the tourist/backpacker district of Delhi (technically it’s in “Old” Delhi). All the “budget” (read: cheap seedy hotels) are clustered throughout the small dirty and cluttered alleys around the “Main Bazaar” which itself is just a long road of touristy shops and restaurants, all selling the same kitschy Indian souvenirs and hippie linen pants. We have come to find India, much like Egypt before it, does not have a true “hostel” culture that we’ve come to find and like in Europe. If you want to stay cheap you will need to find a “budget hotel” or a guest house (more on these later). These budget hotels are not of the quality you’d find anywhere in America, but since we are no longer dealing with western standards, and we want to save money, cheap hotel rooms it is. Before the driver led us down the alley to the hotel he asked for the taxi price (400 rupees, or about $8), then asked if we had anything “for him”. The first of many not-so-subtle requests for tips/backsheesh in India.
The hotel was nothing special, but it had air conditioning along with our own private bathroom, internet, and TV. We don’t get to watch much TV, so being able to watch things like the news is pretty great. Surprisingly Indian hotel rooms come with TV’s, often they will come with a TV before an A/C unit (there is no such thing as central air conditioning in India, it’s all wall units.) Typically out of the 100+ channels there will usually be an English channel with movies, maybe an English music channel (like VH1), BBC and usually a CNN International channel. Just having a constant feed of news is great for tying us back into the real world.
We put our things down then went out to eat at a cheap place recommended by Lonely Planet (aka our travel Bible, also referred to as “the LP”)
called Tadka. The food here was amazing, which was a great way to start off our steady diet of Indian food. March 4, 2013: Delhi- Day 2
Day two involved us waking up around 10am for the hotel’s free breakfast. The free breakfast was pretty weak, involved a little toast, a little cereal, and some weak coffee. After breakfast we headed back to our room and proceeded to fall asleep again. Not really sure why were so tired, but we finally woke up around 3pm. We figured it was better to sleep than to be sick in India, so we didn’t really feel guilty about it. To do something with the rest of our day we headed off to walk around the Main Bazaar. We ended up stopping at a place called Sam’s Café, another place recommended by Lonely Planet. I had the Chicken Tikka Masala was very spicy. As in he was literally sweating.
I am very excited and looking forward to eating all of the spicy food in India. It may not totally agree with me, but I am going to enjoy it nonetheless. This particular plate made me sweat a little bit, but not in a bad way. Sam can’t handle the spicy flavor so India may be a little bit of a challenge for her, as when we say no spice at all, things still end up being very spicy for her.
After our meal we headed back out to the Main Bazaar to find out where the Metro Station was and to find a cup of coffee. There was a great coffee place listed in Lonely Planet, but we could not find it. This has been and will continue to be a recurring theme throughout our travels- finding decent coffee.
We decided to head down a side street where Sam took a million pictures of a cow. I’m just amazed at how many cows they are and how they just roam around on the streets and no one gives it a second thought. They are not small creatures so sometimes take up an entire alleyway, not to mention they shit all over the place. We have to worry more about not stepping into any of the huge cow shit piles than any other aspect of walking the Delhi roads
. On our way back to the Main Bazaar we were leaving the side street when Sam got hit by a car. She was just nudged by it, but she was hit just the same. How there aren’t more accidents in India I don’t know, but thankfully it was just a bump. It was really a non-issue, the traffic in the smaller roads/alleys are usually in some kind of jam/standstill, so pedestrians just weave in and around all the rickshaws, cars and buses with no fear. I was walking in between two rickshaws right when one lurched forward to take advantage of the few inches of space the car in front of him just gave.
After our accident we just kept on walking around the bazaar and did a little shopping. Sam bought several pieces of jewelry which cost 290 rupees, which is a little less than 6 dollars. It was in one of the few “government” stores that have fixed prices. Fixed prices are not easy to come by in India as we would find.
I ended up buying a pair of shorts for 150 rupees, or a little less than 3 dollars. Finding men’s shorts through our travels has been an impossible task, so when we saw a table full on the main road we jumped at the opportunity. Eric was down to only two pair of basketball/gym shorts and a pair of jeans, and considering the heat of India, plus Eric’s natural body sweater, he desperately needed more warm weather clothing.
After walking a little more since we couldn’t find a good coffee spot, thought we might as well have a beer. I had a Black Label beer which cost 65 rupees ($1.20) for 655 ml. This was by far the cheapest beer on the menu and it tasted like it. Sam had a coffee while Bollywood videos were blaring in the background.
Following our drinks we went back to the hotel to catch up on pictures, emails, etc. I went to the front desk to ask about getting a SIM card for our phone. In India to get a SIM card they require a copy of your passport, you have to fill out documents listing stupid things such as your father’s place of birth, and to provide proof of your India visa. For a women filling out one of these forms you HAVE to include either your husband or father's name and details.
Once again this process is much more complicated than it is anywhere else. Every other country just sells you a SIM card without batting an eye, but India makes it more complicated. I signed my life away, paid 300 rupees, and got my SIM card. The only catch was I had to wait 24 hours for it to be activated. Gotta love India. March 5, 2013: Delhi- Day 3
Day three involved heading further into Delhi to explore things such as the Red Fort. Finding out how to get there off of the Metro was an adventure as most things are in India. As in we got lost and were walking the entirely wrong direction. The whole time we had a handful of bicycle rickshaw drivers slowly following us down the street telling us we were going the wrong way (they just assumed we were going to the Red Fort), and how they would take us the right way. We figured after a while they would get tired of following us and would leave us to go pester other tourists, but nope, they followed for our five minute wander in the entirely wrong direction.
We finally negotiated one of these bicycle rickshaw for 30 rupees, which is about 60 US cents. I find it fun most of the time to negotiate over these little things.
The Red Fort was one site that did not live up to the billing. It was expensive for an India site with it costing us 250 rupees per person, which is about 5 US Dollars. (Note that this is about five times the price an Indian has to pay for entry.)
There was a lot of harassment from tour guides, shops, and other random Indians along the way. Also, the site really
wasn’t that good. Compared to other sites that we have gone to and considering how much attention Lonely Planet gave to it, you would have thought it was great. We were highly disappointed and the amount of Indians taking sneaky pictures of us did not help out either.
From there we ventured over to one of the biggest mosques in Delhi called Jama Masjid. When we entered the gates some Indians stationed at the gates were handing us pieces of fabrics for Eric to tie around his waist and a moo- moo for me to “properly” cover up I suppose. Then they charged us an “entrance fee” while they let other Indians walk right in. We are still unsure if this “ticket” was actually legit or just a fast one for the sucker white tourists. Regardless it was only $1 at most so I just agreed to pay to avoid a fight in front of a place of worship, though Eric definitely would’ve pressed the issue if it wasn’t for me.
The mosque was nice, it provided some great views of the city when you went all the way up. We were able to climb all the way up to the surrounding wall and to the top of a turrent, which Eric did not find comfortable given his fear of heights.
The funny part about coming here was how people wanted to have pictures taken with us. I was at the point of ignoring just about all Indian people since the only ones who talk to us want us to give them money. One teenage boy came up saying, “Excuse me can I ask you a question?” I finally told the kid to spit it out and he asked if he could take a picture with us. The poor kid was so nervous to even approach us and we didn’t help with being so rude just assuming he wanted to scam us in some way….too much time in Egypt…
We told him yes, which then opened the flood gates for others to want to take pictures with us as well. As we explained in the Jaipur blog post, anytime you stand still for longer than five seconds inevitably a random mob of curious Indians will form around you. Then they will, without asking, start to step up for their turn of getting a picture with the freak white people.
After about five minutes worth of pictures we decided to make a run for it and went out the exit. We paid the guy watching our sandals a few rupees, then took off. This area is referred to as "Old Delhi", and is not exactly the nicest part of the city. We were essentially walking past junkyards and shanty slum blocks to make our way across town. Not an area I would recommend to anyone after dark.
We next walked to the bird hospital where they take in a bunch of injured and sick birds, then nurse them back to health. I found it to be a little gross because there were so many birds, which means there was bird shit everywhere. Technically it's a Charity Bird Hospital, with some sort of affiliation with Jainism founded by some local veterinarian. Because the Jain religion is very strict about not inflicting any type of harm to any living creature, it only accepts vegetarian birds as patients. It was a bit bizarre to see what we would otherwise dismiss as gross pigeons being treated and cared for in this place. There was a LOT of birds, and the doctor even let me hold some, and though I've always been opposed to holding pigeons (aka rats with wings), because he suggested it I didn't want to offend him by calling the patients of his life's work dirty...
Next stop was supposed to be the spice market, but we had a little difficulty in getting there. It was getting dark and we assumed we were getting far from the tourist track because for once, we couldn’t find a rickshaw bicycle or car that could speak English. We were in a busy and bustling section of town. As we were walking down the street, some guy started stumbling across the street towards Sam, who was on my right, the side closest to him. We are still not sure if this guy was drunk or not, but Sam turned her shoulder to shield her camera away from the guy stumbling towards her and in the process he ran straight into her boobs with both hands. I threw an elbow at him to shove him off and he stumbled back smack into Eric, who took his turn giving him a more forceful shove. He then stumbled back towards a few Indian guys who were walking behind us
. Before I could throw a punch at him he was taken by a mob of Indian guys who started yelling at him, pushing him, and I saw one guy with his hand raised to start smacking him. It made me feel a little better about the whole situation that the Indians were delivering some sort of justice on him. That definitely put a damper on wandering around Delhi after dark and encouraged our decision to head home. We took the Delhi metro back to our side of town, which was surprisingly nice and clean for a public service in India, though of course absolutely mobbed at all times of the day. Having a mix-up with where to exit the metro station (just because it's clean doesn't mean it's well organized or properly signed), we got ourselves lost once outside and caught yet another cycle rickshaw the rest of the way back to our hotel. March 6, 2013
: Delhi- Day 4
Day four was our final and most adventurous day in Delhi. We woke up at a normal time so that we could meet one of our contacts from Couchsurfing at a Starbucks in Delhi. He had originally offered to host us in his “other” apartment that was slightly outside of Delhi. But since we wanted to be more central for our first visit to Delhi (and our first few days in India), we declined his offer but still made plans to meet up with him for coffee.
We had no idea how to get there so we took an autorickshaw from the Main Bazaar into the more western style area of Delhi. This was Eric's first autorickshaw ride and he was surprised with how it didn't suck as much as he expected it to. This is a good opportunity to point out the difference between a "cycle rickshaw" which is essentially a tricycle with an attached coach on the back, and an "autorickshaw" which is like a covered scooter with what seems like a lawnmower motor. This excursion brought us into “New Delhi”, which though still chaotic at least looks like it was built with some sort of city plan. The roads are actually decent and the buildings look built within the past few decades. The Starbucks was in a specific section of New Delhi called Connaught Place which is dubbed the commercial and tourist center of New Dehli. The area has a large circular garden surrounded by a ring road that’s lined with colonnaded buildings. You can definitely tell the British designed this place. But most surprising of this area (besides the fact that there was significantly less trash than the rest of the city), was how many western stores were located here. We saw multiple Addidas and Nike stores, Blackberry, United Colors of Benneton, etc.
Our driver spoke almost no English, so trying to describe to explain to him that we needed to be dropped off at Starbucks was tough. He put us in the general area, but we had to ask someone else how to get there. We debated stopping at the Subway or Blackberry store to ask for directions. Blackberry was a little closer, and they gave us directions to walk to Starbucks across from the park.
We finally arrived at Starbucks which was packed from top to bottom. As we walked in a white girl greeted us at the door. I think this is worth mentioning since the only white people we see are tourists, but she was working at this store. Turns out see was a British girl who was living in Washington state, that was over here helping start up this particular Starbucks location. It was only the second Starbucks in India, and had only been open a few weeks. She was particularly happy to see fellow white faces, and proceeded to give us the low down on the store, her India experiences, etc. It turns out that on Saturdays and Sundays the line to enter Starbucks extends 3 or 4 blocks. This particular location also has a security guard at all times, a metal detector, and people that seat you as well. She made us promise to speak with her again before we left so that she could give us more information about Delhi.
After ordering our coffee we went to sit down to wait for our Couchsurfing contact, Sanjay, to show up. This involved several phone calls and looking around for someone on their phone while talking to him. We should have just let him worry about it, since we were the only white people in there at that time. He sat down to join us and we had a very candid conversation about India, our experiences so far, our travels, what he does for work, etc. We tried to get information from him about Indian people, and why they were obsessed with looking at and taking pictures of white people. He said that it was mainly a status thing, that it is considered a good thing to be seen with white people. It can mean you are of a higher class (probably leftover from the caste system mentality)
if you are seen with them or associate with them. This type of information he provided was very good for us, especially in the weeks ahead. He also told us that there was a Dunkin Donuts nearby which really got my interest as I was craving a real iced coffee, not that Starbucks crap. We made plans to have dinner together that evening with Sanjay and his girlfriend. Before we left the British girl stopped us, along with another white girl that worked there. They told us about more sights and asked us about out travel plans in India. She also warned us about eating street food and especially the fresh fruit. She even recommended the best hospital to go to in the Delhi area should we need it.
We thanked them for the information and then started off on our day of sightseeing in Delhi, since we had not done much of that yet.
Our first stop on the sightseeing tour was Dunkin Donuts so I could get my iced coffee fix. After that we stopped at a couple of street bookstores to get some more books about India to read. From there we went to our first stop which was highly recommended by Sanjay. The name of this place Agrasen ki Baoli, It was an old abandoned water reservoir that had stairs leading down to some sort of water source.
This place was a little off the tourist map, which was a welcome change. To find it we had to wander around the more green and clean residential areas with big houses (probably used to be the consulate areas) and nicely landscaped yards. Who knew that there were pretty parts of this city!
There were about 15-20 people there, none of which were tourists. We snapped a few pictures then hopped into an auto rickshaw to start taking us to other parts of Delhi. Our next stops included Humayun's Tomb which was another huge expansive park dedicated to one person (whoever Humayun is). Just like the Red Fort, it was interesting to check out the beautiful buildings and gates, though neither of us are knowledgable about ancient Indian history so the context was a bit lost on us. Then we did a bit of wandering through some winding back alleys of another section of town to stumble across a courtyard that hosts the marble shrine of the Muslim Sufi saint Nizam-ud-din Chishti. We would have never found it if it weren't for directions from the LP. As usual we got plenty of stares here as we were probably the only white people within a mile of this site, but once we sat down amongst the other pilgrims (spectators?) we were eventually ignored. The shrine is set up in the middle of a courtyard for people to come worship and pay their respects. There was a constant line of Muslim men waiting for their turn to enter the shrine, while women gathered along one wall outside. There was even a sign that said women were not allowed to enter. When we sat down on the ground in the courtyard surrounding the shrine I initially put my legs straight out in front of me, until a guy close by looked back at me, frowned and swatted his hand towards me feet (Muslims consider the soles of their feet to be dirty and should never point towards a sacred place) I quickly tucked my feet underneath me. While we were sitting there a guy (religious leader maybe?) walked around the crowd handing out what looked like plastic baskets to men to wear on their heads, he even put one on Eric's head. These are actually called taqiyahs, which are a type of prayer hats for Muslim men to wear. Next stop was to check out the Lodi Gardens. It is a beautifully landscaped park with lots of flowers, trees, green lawns and plenty of crumbling tombs and mosques to explore that change up the park scenery from your average park. It was also a welcome reprieve from the dirt, noise and bustle of the Delhi streets we'd been navigating the past few days.
Before dinner we swung by the India Gate in the core of New Delhi. It is a national monument of India and commemorates the Indians who lost their lives serving in the British Indian Army. We couldn't walk up to it, but it was still impressive to see it situated along the long and wide Rajpath boulevard. Along the sides of this boulevard was open grass lawns with Indian families sprawled out, vendors selling snacks, ice creams, and balloons for the kids. The area certainly had a carnival-type atmosphere around it, though to us it seemed a bit random. (Why is it exciting to look at a stone arch?)
Eventually we headed back to the Connaught Place area to reunite with Sanjay for dinner. At this point another very strange thing happened as we head are wandering around the Connaught Place shops tyring to find our meet up spot with Sanjay. Some boy probably aged 10-12 years old was covered in dirt and blood and making a beeline for us. He came up asking us for money and we said no. He started to touch my arm, which caused me to tell him to piss off. He then proceeded to follow us around while we were walking to Starbucks. We even sped up a little bit to lose him and he was still trailing us. Sam is a little more sympathetic than I am because I have no problem ignoring everyone and not giving them money. It may sound heartless but when you see plenty of poor people while traveling you can’t give them all money. I would rather just not give it any of them than to be selective with whom I give it to. We finally lost the kid and part of the disturbing part for me with all of this in India, is that they only bother white people. When this kid came up to us there were plenty of nice dressed Indian people near us. We were in one of the rich areas of the city, but he made a point to come at us. That’s the part that really annoys me and makes me not want to give anyone money. If they harass other people as well, namely Indians, I am a little more sympathetic. When it is just towards the two white people in the crowd, then I am not sympathetic at all.
After a little mix-up with the directions we met up with Sanjay and hopped into his car, picked up his girlfriend Saduko and headed towards what seemed like a hipster gentrified area of the city that had turned into bars, restaurants, and little boutique shops. We took a quick lap around, admiring some of the graffiti murals, then sat down at a nice Indian restaurant. Sanjay gave us a lesson on Indian food, so I ordered a mixed plate to try all sorts of different things. I started sweating from how spicy the food was, but I was loving it. I got a more tame rice-based dish as I’m still nervous about the spiciness of Indian food. I did try some kind of dessert roll which was some sort of coconut or fruit wrapped in a menthol leave. I wasn’t a fan. Also after dinner we were also introduced to the customary after dinner sugar/mint (anisee seeds) combo. You’re supposed to scoop in your hand a bit of sugar and a bit of these seeds then toss it all back in your mouth. The mint is supposed to freshen your breath and help with digestion while the sugar helps it go down (the Indians LOVE their sugar too as we will come to find).
After discussing our travels further with them it was time to wrap things up and head home. Sanjay drove us back to our hotel and we went to sleep as we had a 6:30 am train ride from Delhi to Agra. Overall Delhi Experience
(scale 1 to 10): 5 Delhi certainly wasn't as bad as we were led to believe, there are some interesting sights to see and it was a nice introduction to the Indian food. India in general is a hard adjustment.
Check out all of our Delhi pictures here.