Our very first trip, after becoming nomadic? We jumped in at the deep end – and in 2009 spent seven months in India.
Delhi, with a population of 12.8 million, everyone of them, it seems, on the make, was down right hard work. Tenacious touts pretending to be our best friend, wanting to direct us to places where they would receive commission. Auto rickshaw drivers who refused to turn on the meter, and argued about price and destination.
‘Is closed today sir, because of festival” said one rickshaw wallah with a waggle of his head when we asked to go to Humayun’s Tomb – even though he’d agreed to take us just two seconds earlier. “Sir – it’s easier to go on the metro”, two helpful guys offered unbidden advice, when we tried another day, to go to the Red Fort – “you must first buy entrance ticket here” – they pointed to our map indicating Connaught Place – on the other side of town, a million miles from where we wanted to be. But our favourite was the driver who claimed his ‘raison d’etre’ was ‘to help tourists’. He wanted to take us to a shop “only looking, five minutes – and then they give me present for my daughter”. We failed to fall for his sob story and he pulled off, saying “as you like”, only to discover, seconds later, a mysterious mechanical fault with his rickshaw. “Bad luck for me, you must find another driver” and with that we were dumped unceremoniously on the tarmac. When we turned round, he’d already disappeared – in search of his next victim.
We tried not to let it get to us, but it’s wearing. Confounding. Confusing. I felt we prepared to do battle every time we stepped onto the street. And then there’s the heat – temperatures of 30+ degrees. And the dust. Constant and choking. And the press of the traffic, both mechanical and human.
Old Delhi is astounding. Think biblical and wild west and you might get somewhere close. “I never really believed there were a billion Indians on earth – now I’m beginning to get an inkling it might be true” said Jim as we squeezed through the convoluted winding alleys of the bazaars. Tiny, tiny shops, filled to bursting with goods. Shop-owners sitting cross-legged in the doorway. Stock orderers sorting through piles of wares wrapped in plastic. We walked through Kinari Bazaar, which sells everything a good Indian family might need for a wedding – plumed turbans, sparkling sari borders, rolls of iridescent ribbon, streamers of banknotes – plenty of bling! On and on we went – there was no end to it. Miles and miles of cloth and billowing saris, marigold streamers, green leaves and sweets for Diwali, gaudy posters of Hindu gods and Bollywood filmstars, and all this in an immense swell of people – packed elbow to elbow. We weaved in and out of cycle rickshaws, did our best to avoid scooters, cars and motorbikes and dodged sweating, straining men pulling long wooden hand carts piled high with boxes and sacks. The strain on their faces spoke volumes and they shouted and hoped that a path would clear. In such a crush of humanity this was almost mission impossible. I worried about my feet. Jim worried about his back.
But Delhi is a city with many faces and New Delhi is a different story. Built as the Imperial capital of India by the British, just thirteen years before the end of British rule in India, the scale of the buildings is impressive. The Rashtrapati Bhavan (formerly the Viceroy’s residence) atop Raisina Hill is imposing, colossal, stately, grand. At Connaught Place we sat in the United Coffee House, with it’s classic 40’s decor, and being typically British ordered a cup of tea. The Lodi Gardens also offered a chance to slow the pace. We strolled amongst ex-pats, and middle class Indian families picnicking and playing cricket.
Delhi has something to offer, but the jury is still out on whether the reward equals the effort required.