India, at last!

Trip Start Jun 13, 2005
Trip End Dec 05, 2005

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Friday, June 17, 2005

Tuesday 14th June

A friend says her grandmother keeps asking when I'm returning to India, as she enjoyed reading my emails during the first trip. Said friend can now tell said grandma that, purely for her reading pleasure, I have quit my job, stored my remaining belongings and returned to the heat, happiness, dust and chaos that is India.

I was more than a little nervous about the experience awaiting me in Delhi: when it comes to enjoying large cities, I don't have a very good track record after my trip through South India; moreover I'd heard so many negative comments about Delhi that I'd resigned myself to the idea that landing in and passing through Delhi is just a necessary evil to be got over with as fast as possible on the way to greener, cooler, prettier places in North India.

I haven't been here 24hrs yet, so I hope I'm not speaking too soon when I say I absolutely love what I've seen so far. It's hot - 46 degrees - dirty, dusty and loud, but I'm not feeling the slightest bit of culture shock (not sure what that says about me!) - just a great contentment at being back, recognition of which hit as soon as I stepped off the plane into that familiar wave of heat.

I was elated with my decision to pre-book a hotel and airport pickup; I could relax all the way from the airport, look out for my first flambouyants (my favourite trees) and watch a pale white sun rise behind a hazy wall of smog.

I'm staying at Smyle Inn, next door to My Hotel and over the road from Hotel Decent, in the heart of Pahar Ganj. Classy it ain't, but it's where all the cheap accommodation is, and it's never short of visual or aural stimuli. Everyone is doing everything, everywhere - all at the same time and all at top volume. The hotel is in an alley-way off Main Bazaar - to make sure you're taking the right alley-way, just look out for the open urinals on the corner (believe me, you could find it with your eyes closed).

Main Bazaar is all hustle and bustle - backpacker central, lined with clothing, shoe and jewellery stores catering to Western shoppers. Noise level is high, and I can't count of the number of times I've almost been run over by bicycle- and auto-rickshaws. Step down a side lane, however, and you could find yourself in a little oasis of (relative) calm, populated by a few mango sellers on their barrows, a couple of cows eating yesterday's news, and the odd person lying on a bench in a doorway, sleeping away the afternoon heat.

After a few hours sleep this morning, I took a cycle rickshaw down to Connaught Place - described as a large roundabout with several roads leading off it; also one of Delhi's shopping areas. It's large, alright: Three circles within each other, all with roads leading outwards and blocks of buildings in between. I would guess that the diameter of the INNER circle is about 800m.

Returning to Pahar Ganj, I took another side road off Main Bazaar, had a Rs5 bowl of curd from a vendor, and walked further to spot the most beautiful, intricately-carved stone doorway with latticed balconies above it; further down the road were some gorgeous wooden balconies and windowframes. Anywhere else, buildings like this would be renovated and turned into a Millionnaire's Row at the drop of a hat. Here, they lie under a blanket of dust so thick you almost miss them, and are no more or less valuable than the concrete buildings surrounding them.

Wednesday 15th June

I rose with great difficulty at 8.30, having been wide awake for three hours in the middle of the night and taken two cold showers before getting back to sleep. After a breakfast of curd and coffee on the roof of a nearby hotel, I made my way towards Connaught Place to meet Akshay, a Delhite friend I met through a travel forum. I had planned to go to Old Delhi today, and he happened to have a meeting scheduled right opposite Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque, so I drove with him from CP (Connaught Place) to Old Delhi. We arrived at prayer time and the mosque was closed to visitors, so I accompanied him to his meeting. His client runs a business that has been in the family and on those premises for seven generations - since the mid-1700's; they're finally going online, and Akshay is designing their website, which needs some photographs. Since neither of them had cameras with them, I became photographer for the day. Amongst the things we photographed were some turn-of-the-century guidebooks to Delhi, in which the shop was mentioned. The books were fascinating - one described the "New City of Shah Jahan", which is now Old Delhi.

One of the shop's assistants was sent out to get us some chaat (street food) for lunch, which we ate in a lovely, cool office; apparently the chaat in Old Delhi is the best in the city. When the assistant brought glasses of water, he was sent out again to buy me bottled water. I protested, saying that if they were drinking the water, I could too. "48 hours!", they chorused - so I guess that's a hard-and-fast rule....

Later, sitting in the showroom, I was amazed to see a mongoose saunter out of an adjoining office and through the showroom! I followed it but it vanished, and I was told by one of the staff that it's been there a while and is great for keeping vermin at bay.

After lunch I left Akshay and walked around the Mosque; then through Chandni Chowk. Old Delhi is a predominantly Muslim area centred around Chandni Chowk, the main shopping street which sells everything from stationery to saris to halaal meat. The crowd and the noise, I decided halfway throught this market, is better observed from the seat of a rickshaw, so I hopped onto one for the ride back to Pahar Ganj.

Thursday 16th June

If you'd told me that on my second night in India I'd be partying with Delhi's media luvvies, drinking Castle Lager and getting down to the likes of Metallica, Iron Maiden and Guns n' Roses, I'd have laughed you right out of the door. But indeed, that's where I found myself until 2 this morning and yes, somewhere in the world, media luvvies boogie to 80's/90's heavy metal. After coffee and a hookah pipe at the uber-trendy Cafe Mocca, Akshay took me to Turquoise Cottage, where we spent the rest of the night with the producers/directors/actors of one of India's TV channels - I didn't catch the name over the screech of electric guitars. This was a side of Delhi I knew existed, but never expected to see up close and personal: women smoking, public displays of affection, bare shoulders and skin-tight jeans. A drive through suburbia on the way home was also interesting, simply because suburbia is usually the part of a city that a tourist is least likely to see. I saw wide, clean, leafy avenues; huge, immaculate buildings; bars and clubs like you'd see the world over. Akshay dropped me at Smyle Inn and was less than impressed with my choice of hotel location - he decided next time I'm in Delhi, he should take care of hotel bookings!

I was told off by the hotel manager today: "You were late last night! Your mother called twice!" - I felt like a teenager!

This afternoon I met Akshay again, went along to another meeting with him and for a chai at a roadside dhaba. I declined an invitation to tonight's party, where apparently I could have met a Bollywood actress, because I was just too exhausted.

Dinner, from a street vendor, had enough chilli in it to kill a few small mammals, so I won't be making plans for tomorrow until I see what the new days brings......
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