Arriving in Delhi
Whether you like Delhi or not, you have to admit it’s a fascinating place. It’s chaotic, crazy, and one of those places you will never forget no matter how short the time you’ve spent there. Everyone who’s been there has an opinion about Delhi. Mine is not a particularly good one though I must admit, I’m glad to have been there and to have seen and experienced Delhi. I’m glad for everything it made me see and understand but not so happy about all the smog I’ve inhaled that haunted me for months after coming back from India. But that’s another story. Although, no, because the smog is part of Delhi, it’s not something you can lift off the city to see underneath. It’s not like a blanket hanging over the metropolis, it’s more like a liquid, seeping through cracks and flooding everything, leaving no space untouched (and, let’s face it, no lung unharmed).
When arriving at Delhi International airport, the plane dips into the toxic fog. The fog is inside the airport, which smells of burnt coal, and of course outside the airport; the particles are visible in the light of the lanterns when you arrive late at night. And there’s the dog, rhyming with fog as if it were a poem, and the dogs too are everywhere, always, wherever you go.
If you’ve done the visa application online, you don’t need to queue. The process would be quite straightforward but the officers like to ask you a lot of questions even though you’ve already filled out the very annoying and lengthy online application, paid 80 USD, and have been granted the visa.
The roads are busy even in the small hours of the night and give you a taste of what’s to come during daytime. Or not, if your first day in India’s second biggest city is also the first of January. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prepared me for the amount of traffic clogging the streets of Delhi that day. A friend of ours picked us up at our hotel once we woke up around lunch time, still a bit jetlagged. We were hungry, so he suggested going to a restaurant a mere two kilometers away. It took us about an hour to get there. We ate, then decided to go see some places in Delhi, just doing some sightseeing by car. Never in my life have I spent so much time in a car without actually getting somewhere. After a few hours we managed to get to Agrasen ki Baoli, a stepwell in the middle of Delhi, quite an impressive sight but, of course, almost as crowded as the roads.
Our friend invited us to his place for dinner so after sunset (we still hadn’t seen anything else besides the stepwell and the traffic jam), we headed towards his neighborhood. On a normal day in normal Delhi traffic that would take about half an hour by car from the city center. Before heading there we stopped at the market near Connaught Place (we’ve just been driving in circles, really), because I was getting cold and wanted to buy a sweater. We didn’t bring any jackets since we hadn’t planned on spending the whole day outside and it was just absolutely impossible to go back to the hotel in that traffic. At the market, we had some Indian street food: sweet potatoes with lime juice and cumin – delicious and safe to eat (I guess). The drive – rather: the crawl – to our friend’s house took about three (!) hours. To be honest, I couldn’t wait to get out of Delhi the next day and head to Agra and the on to Rajasthan.
Delhi: An Experience
But the real Delhi experience was yet to come: Almost three weeks later, after returning from our round trip through Rajasthan, we stayed another four days in the metropolis. One of them we spent in an air conditioned, clean, and acoustically non-invasive environment: a mall in southern Delhi. Due to the permanent noise, I had a constant headache for the last five days in India, so it was kind of a therapeutic mall visit.
But back to when we got back to Delhi. The hotels we stayed at in Rajasthan had been really good value, some with breakfast included, some exceptionally clean. In Delhi, despite the overwhelming amount of hotels, it was hard (rather: impossible) to find something similar. The room prices are so much higher and the quality… in short: bad. Most rooms were filthy, especially the bathrooms. After a bad night in a bad hotel we moved a block further to the Delhi Zostel. It wasn’t cheap either but we got a big and spotless room, if a bit outdated (apparently never refurbished since the 1970s – kind of cool, though) and the staff there was great. Unless you stay at one of the good, expensive hotels in a soundproof room however, I recommend bringing earplugs: Delhi never sleeps. Ever. The honking of cars and auto rickshaws and the barking of the dogs is constant and relentless. Day and night.
Old Delhi & Chandni Chowk Market
After almost three weeks in Rajasthan we had seen our fair share of monuments and forts and decided to skip those kind of sights in Delhi (also, we weren’t keen on spending even more time in traffic jams). But we obviously had to go to old Delhi and Chandni Chowk market. Since walking isn’t really an option in that city, we called an Uber. We would have been faster walking, seriously. Old Delhi is a maze of tiny streets brimming with people, carts, bikes, and cows. For a car, it’s impossible to get through. Old Delhi is not only geographically distant from the malls of South Delhi, it’s also centuries and worlds apart. Poverty is visible all over Delhi; heartbreaking, shocking, absolute poverty, the like I have never seen before. There are people living on roundabouts, in midst of that horrible, incessant traffic, that deafening noise and the ever-present extreme pollution. In Old Delhi, poverty is concentrated in those narrow lanes. People are waiting for work, running about, trying to make a living or just survive the day, there are piles of garbage rotting under the hot sun, and carts drawn by horses or men hauling bags of rice and other heavy loads through the crowded streets. The poverty and the feeling that there’s no real future for these people is reflected by the old colonial style buildings which are derelict and crumbling and the once beautiful facades are now only black. Ornaments and letters announcing old, long since closed businesses hint at former wealth or, at least, at that this place used to look much different. The old buildings will probably never be restored nor will they be torn down anytime soon although I’ve read of plans to change the area. I doubt this will happen in the near future. For now, development is concentrated in areas outside the city, whereas the old centre is being left to itself.
Shopping in Old Delhi
We found our friend amidst the crowds and first went to eat naan at this famous place I don’t remember the name of and which I’d probably never find again. Huge, stuffed naan, impossible to eat but of course delicious and very filling. On the spice market we stocked up on spices – super hot chili powder, all kinds of fennel seeds, masala chai spices, first quality bright green cardamom – and dried fruits. Compare prices of several shops and don’t buy where the products have obviously been prepared for tourists. If you’re not sure where to shop, observe where the locals buy their spices.
Loaded with heavy bags full of delicacies, we got lost in the textile market, which is an almost impossible to navigate labyrinth, but luckily, we had a local guide (not our friend, but a friend of a friend of a friend’s of his). There’s a labyrinth for individual customers and another labyrinth for wholesalers. From the outside, I had the impression the market was rather small but once you enter, there’s lane after lane of stalls while you go ever deeper into that textile heaven; it’s like magic.
Before we left Chandni Chowk, our friend bought some samosas with sauce from a small stall. We advised him not to and politely declined his offer to get some for us. We proved to have good senses: he got horribly sick the next day (of what’s commonly referred to as the Delhi Belly). And he’s Indian, born and bred, so really, be extremely cautious with food.
To get back to Connaught Place we took the metro. The metro is a great thing and it’s probably the best way to get from A to B in Delhi although, unsurprisingly, it’s also overcrowded. To use the metro, you first have to get your ticket eg. chip. Then, you queue for the security control, women and men separately. Let me be frank: I think most security controls in India – and there’s lots of those – are just for show. Seriously, in front of almost every hotel there’s this wooden frame which is supposed to be / to look like a metal detector and which you can either step through or simply walk around because the frame will never beep.
Anyway, the metro. After security control I caught up with Hossam and our friend and we went down to the platform. There, I could chose if I wanted to board the mixed/men cart or the women only cart. The guys strongly advised me to take the women only cart, which was a good choice. There, finally, I was able to breathe a bit and stand by myself without my body being kept upright by other bodies around me. The number of people living in Delhi is massive and it seems almost impossible that the city can accommodate them all. Somehow it works, but barely: scores of people live on the streets, apartments are tiny, and more and more buildings are being erected to house the ever-growing population. Most of those buildings, however, are unaffordable for the majority of people in need for housing.
This enormous amount of people need to get around and the streets as well as the metro are bursting and overcrowded. And with more people and more vehicles comes more pollution. The first day, at our friend’s place, his eleven-year-old daughter explained me that the fog we see everywhere is pollution and that it’s worst in the winter months and during the festival of Diwali because of the fireworks. Should this really form part of a child’s life, this first-hand knowledge about toxic air pollution? After three weeks in India I got sick like I hadn’t been sick in years. What about all those children growing up in that smog? It’s not OK.
You might think I’m too harsh with Delhi, that it’s fascinating in a positive way too. I might even agree with you; there’s loads to see and to discover and it’s like a world in a nutshell. There’s a bit of everything in Delhi, which is amazing, even wonderful, but to see it that way requires that you can ignore a lot of facts and a lot of things that are just not OK. Delhi is an eye-opener but not from a touristic point of view. I would never recommend it as a tourist destination, despite the sights it might have.
Delhi made me think of so many things we’ve done and keep doing wrong. Like the West’s hunger for cheap goods and cheap labor that has created an economic boom in India. More than ever have the cities become magnets for people from towns and rural areas. The poverty, which has existed before, gets ever worse the more people there are because despite the boom, there’s not enough work for everyone and there’s certainly not enough space. The pollution of air, water, and land can’t be ignored anymore because it’s so obvious and so irreversible at that stage. Delhi made me think, many times, that we just can’t keep on going like that. Not here, not anywhere. Something has to change. We need to change. This road is one way only and we’re already too far ahead to go backwards.