A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about delhi


Or What To Believe


The confusion starts at Indira Gandhi Airport. Perhaps due to over anticipation we expected to be hassled by bureaucracy; and we were. The Immigration officer wanted the form to be filled in correctly. Not having an address to go to is not allowed, even in this land of homelessness and nomads. He knew the absurdity of it, which was evident by the slightly cynical amusement in his eyes. He did not care personally; just doing his job.

Later we realised that security was strict everywhere. Hotels needed to take copies of our passports, we had to report where we had just been, where we were and where we were going, and fill in the same forms with endless questions wherever we roamed. In Kashmir, closer to the Pakistani border we were required to do the same at roadblocks. That means we each must have filled in the same form approximately 30 times. There are millions of visitors to India every year. Where are all those photocopies and forms now, I wonder? I thought e-communications were highly sophisticated in India.

We had been warned and briefed about the taxis at the airport. Don’t let yourself be led astray by taxi touts who will give you all the excuses under the sun to divert you from your destination in order to collect commissions from their cousin’s or uncle’s hotel, or will persuade you to drop into this “interesting” crafty workshop or, after your long tiring trip, a refreshing cup of tea and cakes at their brother’s cafe just around the corner where they just happen to have a few carpets for sale.

So, armed with the address of our Couchsurfer host [www.couchsurfing.org] and with his advice still ringing in our ears we pushed our blinkered and deaf way straight to the taxi co-operative stand; no more than a dingy box with a barred window, standing some distance away from the exit.
Inevitably, before that, we were assailed by a pack of touts who hurled offers of help and advice at us; “Hello, this way for a taxi.” “You want taxi co-op?” “Yes this one co-op,” as they pointed the opposite way to the box. There was no sign on the box so we needed to ask someone. Who to trust? These older men are taking no notice of us so they might be OK.

“What, that little box?” I queried, expecting something more professional and slick. We approached, together with a gaggle of touts, and could smell the urine wafting from the plywood wall. Surely there is no-one in here. It must be the wrong place. But after circumnavigating the box a couple of times and peering into the gloom, a lanky, slow moving figure manifested himself from the shadows and stared at us in a bored, grey faced way. I stuttered “Taxi co-op?” Gave him a stressed smile and showed him a piece of paper with my host’s address scribbled on it.
He wrote out a slip of paper and mumbled four words; “XXX rupees, number 39” Number 39? Number 39? I handed him a large bill, way too much of course and shuffling around to various drawers he laboriously counted out the change. A bystander showed us where to wait...next to the sign with 39 on it.

In the meantime touts were still approaching us. One of them did the “get annoyed with foolish tourist” bit to try and bully us into his taxi. “You’re fucking stupid, you don’t know anything!” was his parting shot. I was pleased in a way that I had made him angry, rather than the other way around.

At first we chatted merrily with the nice taxi driver, stage one had been successfully negotiated and we were puttering along in the battered black micro bus, the ubiquitous Maruti Suzuki, made in India. But, as traffic increased, doubts began to creep in; concentrate on your driving mate, you’re wandering in and out of lanes! Don’t turn around in your seat like that and slow down at the corners! Whoa, watch those cows and rocks on the road...where are the seat belts anyway!
Luckily there were few vehicles slower, so everyone had to avoid us. We were having our first experience of Indian driving and looked at one another with a grimace and a helpless shrug. “This is what it’s like in countries like this” I said sideways to Nell, in my well-travelled voice, not knowing what kind of driving thrills were in store for us later.

When in Delhi and not at his “palace” in Rajasthan, J lives in an enclave of apartments and houses which is locked at night for security. That brings to mind modern Condo-like developments like those in Florida, but instead of that we arrived at a warren of rather tatty and tall, concrete and brick terraced blocks which looked as though they had been thrown together a long time ago with little maintenance since. It was cute, in a way, a bit like bohemian back streets in Athens although with an Indian flavour, or aroma. I guess it looked like the kind of area which could still be affordable for wealthier Indian people; a city pad near the centre of New Delhi.

We clumped up the dark flights of stairs and called out J’s name.
“Welcome, welcome to India” said J as he led us into his cosy apartment. We chatted for a while and exchanged cultural differences; like you’re supposed to if you are a member of Couchsurfing. He and his family were delightful hosts and prepared a typical Indian lunch for us. We were amazed at how the food was hand prepared and cooked, including the chapattis. No baked beans on toast here, at least not for J’s guests. As there were already a lot of family members staying at the apartment we did not want to impose and did not stay the night, so a hotel had to be found. We already had one in mind which seemed reasonable, amongst a reputedly rough lot in the centre of town at Paharganj.

J’s son found us a Tuk Tuk around the corner, a new experience for Nell although I had used them before in China.
The traffic had got much worse, it was rush hour now and the journey can only be described as a cacophonic dodgem ride from hell designed by The Joker. I cannot remember any detail in particular, probably because I was catatonic. I can vaguely recall seeing Nell’s white knuckles desperately clutching the frame of the Tuk Tuk. She muttered something like “shit... I can’t kill him ‘cause I don’t know how to drive this thing.” Thank God [I was a believer again], we’re slowing down.
Oh NO! I wish I had not looked up, for we seemed to be headed for a solid mass of vehicles, bikes, rickshaws, people, cows, fruit stalls, kids, dogs, donkeys, potholes, lampposts, electric wires and piles of rubbish thrown together like one of mum’s Hutspot stews. With incessant blaring of horns on all sides including our own, miraculously a tiny gap appeared for just long enough to allow us through. We were now a couple of mum’s ingredients on our way through the Epiglottis, into the bowel of Paharganj. [Also known as the Main Bazaar, we later found out].

These bowels had Diverticulitis, because there were dark, smelly side passages where ingredients would lodge and fester. One of these held our guesthouse and, still shaking and feeling sick, these ingredients were about to lodge there. We did not care any longer. Exhausted, traumatised and in shock, we just needed to lie down. Our room, because it did not have any windows was blissfully quiet. We would happily have slept in a tomb.

We did wake up around dusk, probably because there were builders demolishing the wall downstairs. Also we were hungry. We had to head outside to eat as there did not seem to be a restaurant at the guesthouse. We were told that there would be one soon, which is why they were removing the wall.

We could not get out into the Main Bowel, there was a festival going on, people were jam packed against the sides of the street watching the parade. There were bad brass bands sounding a bit like the New Orleans Mardi Gras with an oriental twist,
orange ladies with jugs,
Knights in white satin [doobedoobedoobedooo],
moody blue costumes, men in orange scarves, monsters with several heads and dozens of arms,
children throwing marigolds and much more. We did not have a clue what it was about but jostled around excitedly, taking blurry photographs in the fading light.

The show finished and we squeezed through the crowd to go and sample some of that famous Indian cuisine. I kept my eyes on Nell’s steel reinforced handbag which she had borrowed from a friend and I was aware of every touch from passers- by. I pressed the little rucksack to my chest and tried to imagine what I would do if somebody tried to rob us. All depends on the size; I could handle a little pickpocket. What about a mob of them...do they have knives? I remembered some scary incidents in Jamaica. What have I done to poor Nell, bringing her here?

All we could find were a few tiny holes in the wall with some pots being heated over bottled gas burners. The odd backpacker was the only customer [there were indeed some odd-looking ones, wearing stranger clothes than the Indians, who were in western gear. The Indians looked at the dreadlocks and body piercings with more scepticism than we did in Australia].
We had been advised to “only frequent those restaurants that are full of Indians, the food will be good and fresh.” All very well, if you know where these places are; we were not prepared to wander about all night looking for a place to eat whilst getting more and more hungry. We both hate that.
At the back of a hole off the Main Bowel, we sat at a rickety aluminium table glaring in the fluorescent light. I thought, we should have worn sunglasses. Nell looked nervous and pale. I hoped it was the lighting.
“It’s OK they are boiling the food and frying some stuff.” I tried to reassure her. “It will be properly cooked”. The “waiter”, a young man with holes in his T-shirt, was attentive, placed some stainless goblets in front of us and filled them with water. We ogled them with suspicion and gradually our mouths began to feel like the deserts of Rajasthan. If only we had bought a bottle of water! He fetched some cutlery from somewhere, proceeded to wipe them with a filthy black cloth that had been dangling from the top of his trousers and, with a flourish, arranged them on our table.

We sat in silence for a while, imagining the consequences of using these contaminated utensils. The tension was palpable between us, then burst. “Did you see that...that cloth!” Nell hissed. I was struck dumb. What could I say? The stupidity of it all. Do we go and wash it in the greasy sink, and then, how do we get the water off? Or, do we walk out and starve to death?
We never had the nerve to walk out. This was our first meal in India, we could not be rude. What is the alternative? This is how it is here, the chilli will kill anything...Thus we received our first dose, on the first day, in the first restaurant in India, of Bacillus Delhius Bellyus.

I asked some bloke in the street where I could find a map of Delhi. We wanted to use both the Metro and the HoHo [Hop on Hop off] bus to see a bit of the city. “Yes, you can get free map over there,” he said, pointing down a narrow alley. “There is Mall and government office with free map.” That sounded good to us; perhaps we could buy some things we needed at the Mall. A hundred metres on, Nell whispered, “is that the man we asked?”_ “Yes it is, isn’t it? Hmm I don’t like that.” He was walking ahead of us down the alley, which was dark and filthy; crows were pecking at an overflowing garbage skip. It felt ominous but holding each other’s hands we decided to just carry on around the next corner, prepared to run should that be necessary. We felt greatly relieved when the alley opened out onto a main road and the kind, smiling man held open the door of the “Government Office”. We had not seen a Mall but; oh well, we will at least get a map.

The people were so nice; we sat down in front a young man who asked what he could do for us. I mentioned the map. He smiled “of course, where will you be heading?” He did not give us one straight away, but wanted to tell us all about India, the latest political news about a hunger strike by an old man who was demanding an end to corruption in the Government. Admirable stuff for sure, but we were not really in the mood for deep, drawn out discussions; especially after a very, very long day. I’m afraid I got impatient and said I was not interested in politics. He was offended; “what’s the hurry? Relax, we have plenty of time.”
“But I only want a map” I said. He ignored me and carried on for minutes, talking politics. I began to get up and urged Nell to do the same. “Hey, hey, where are you going? This is very interesting information!” I saw his scowl as we walked out muttering, “All I wanted was a map.” The other people in the office moved out of the way and stared at the stubborn old man.

The next day we asked the hotel staff, where we could get a map. The wall had gone now and there was a huge pile of rubble in front of the stairs, so we could not pass without getting covered in dust. They had been bashing away at the wall until midnight but we slept like the dead anyway. A man on a rickety chair was chipping away at the cement overhead trying to break into our room right above. Some chips whizzed into my face and I ducked through quickly. All residents of the guesthouse had to pass this way. Health and safety? Public liability? These were the thoughts that flashed through my mind. A different world indeed.

A young errand boy would show us where to get the map. Of course he led us to exactly the same place as the previous night. We should have known better but went in anyway, thinking we could just walk out if they got funny. Luckily there were different people at the desks and one young guy actually took out the map; he was quiet and agreeable. He suggested an itinery we might like to follow in order to get the most out of Delhi, pointing out unmissable sights. Almost as an afterthought he said we could also go for short trips out of the city, to Agra for example. “This is a Government Office and you will get a great number of discounts on buses, trains and taxis everywhere”. He swept his hand across a map of northern India. “Many places are included in this, Varanasi, Rajasthan...”
It all sounded so plausible; a flexible Government permit which included even hotels in the cities we wanted to visit. We could stay or leave at will. We looked at one another, it was tempting. He offered us a cup of tea. I pushed for a price. He tapped on his calculator and gave us an estimate of around $2500 each, all inclusive except for food.
So easy... nothing to worry about; less than the rough budget we had planned.

At the back of my mind I was thinking, this is not really how I like to travel, but seeing Nell’s relieved and hopeful face, I asked; “how do I know you are really a Government organisation?”_“look at the receipt heading”_” You can print that anywhere.” [They actually said Government Approved.] ”OK, see these copies of passport pages with tourist’s addresses?”_”You can just get them from hotel counters, they copied ours just like that. We have been warned about booking long trips with agents. I will just phone a friend who lives here, to ask him about it.”He must have thought I was bluffing because he agreed.

J told me emphatically not to book, he had a traveller with him right now who had been misdirected completely by such a scheme. I told the agent but in a last ditch attempt to rescue his “confidence trick” [I can see where the name comes from] said he would speak to J himself. He regretted that, I think, for I could hear J’s voice from a distance and sparks were flying from my phone. Holding the phone away from his ear for a while without getting a word in edgeways, he handed the phone to his superior who had appeared from his room. Angry words like “Government approved... commission” and “We are NOT holding them, they are free to leave,” rang throughout the office as we cringed and a crowd gathered around.

I apologised to J for the inconvenience and thanked him for his good advice. He was perfectly calm and said, “don’t hesitate to call me anytime you like.” It felt good to have a friend and ally in this land where nothing is as it appears. We left, with the map. Bravo J!

While we are on the subject of Delhi, and what to believe...
After seven weeks of travel we headed back into Delhi on the train. At Delhi Junction we were told that this was the only stop in Delhi, so we had better get off. Good job I enquired! That’s just great; and when we asked at the other end too! We needed New Delhi station so that we could get a “Tourist Quota” ticket, our only hope of getting to Varanasi. Lugging our packs loaded with gifts to the exit, we were approached by the usual press of taxi drivers. The price they quote is often two or three times what it really costs. We knew that it was only a 2 or 3 kilometre trip but they wanted to charge us 400 rupees, so...we got a Tuk Tuk for 150 rupees instead. Oh yes... we were experienced now!

We drove through typical Delhi early morning chaos, which is a bit more manageable than the rest of the day. Dirty streets which were actually being cleaned in places. People living in doorways or just stretching and scratching themselves where they have slept in their rickshaws. Humans, dogs, cows, donkeys, even pigs, and of course all of their various bodily wastes.
Arriving on the opposite side to the Tourist Quota Office we were advised that we needed to walk all the way across the many tracks to the Paharganj side. “Next to platform one” said a particularly helpful chap, who then proceeded to practised his very bad English on us. He was kind enough to show us the way, and led us down to the booking office.
No Tourist window! Immediately, an “Indian Railways Official” approaches and tells us that there is no tourist office here, “closed some months ago; now at Connaught Place.” Helpfully, he bargains the Tuk Tuk down from 150 to 50 rupees.

OK..! At the “Government Tourist Office,” which did seem rather small to be the official one [...we were tired...] the suave young man is confident and listens patiently to our story. He checks the train schedules on his computer but shakes his head. Even the Tourist Quotas are full to Varanasi and Agra for the next five days. We sit and ponder for a while. Delhi, for five days? Oh no, I don’t think so! Until he suggests; “Why don’t you take the Golden Triangle Tour to Agra, Jaipur and places in between? It will only cost you about thirteen thousand rupees for five days, or four nights.” [We pay food and hotels]. That’s 300 dollars; or 60 dollars per day, for a driver and car. We knew we were being bamboozled, but that was not a bad deal and would take us to some interesting places for the last week, so we accepted. Our attitude had changed somewhat after seven weeks in the country. Go with the flow, was now our mantra.

We discovered later that the official tourist office was not there, although [deceptively] not far away. We did not read the bible “The Lonely Planet Guide”, but thought we could handle anything now; we were too cocky. Here is a Quote from that revered tome:

“For foreigners it’s easiest to make ticket bookings at the helpful International Tourist Bureau” [marked on the map as the place we were led to]...”Do not believe anyone who tells you it has shifted, closed or burned down- this is a scam to divert you elsewhere [see the boxed text, p133] {part of which says; Don’t believe helpful chaps who try to direct you to the many “tourist offices” around Connaught Place. There is only one official central tourist office, at 88 Janpath.” Not the place we were Tuk Tuk’d to} There are reportedly railway porters involved in scams, so stay on your toes and don’t let anyone stop you from going to the first floor of the main building for bookings”

[I’m still confused. The opposite side of the station, where we first entered, had an upstairs in what was the main building with booking windows, but no Tourist Quota Office!]


Unless I’m boring you with these tales of scams, which everybody encounters when they come to Delhi, read on for another, it’s only short.
Not wishing to be ripped off by another Tuk Tuk driver, I argued vehemently for him to reduce his price. He smiled sardonically and finally agreed to half price, 150 rupees. We travelled from the National Museum back to Paharganj. Along the way he argued. “Look, the roads are closed, I go the long way round” [later I checked the map and it was as direct as any other route]. He puttered to a stop on a wide road just before we reached our destination. “Oh dear, no more petrol, very sorry” he exclaimed with genuine regret. “Never mind” I said and Nell gave him 200 rupees; more than the agreed price, for during the trip, I had whispered to her that we should perhaps teach him something about honesty being the best policy. He was profusely thankful, but as we turned and walked away feeling good about ourselves, cried out; “Madam, Madam please, is wrong change!” He was waving a 100 plus a 10 rupee note. “Oh, I’m sorry!” With an embarrassed laugh Nell quickly swapped notes with him.
It took me a moment, as we walked away, but by then he was doing a U-turn and drove off the other way; his petrol tank miraculously filled.

Please read on in Delhi part 2...

Posted by takinitezy 20:59 Archived in India Tagged india airport delhi bazaar poverty tuk_tuk rickshaw couchsurfing caste_system Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 1 of 1) Page [1]