From divine desert dunes to sacred lakes and simple village life, I’ve been feeling the India pulse and loving it. My India Someday–You Wander We Pay itinerary has been chock full of varied landscapes and city scenes. I can’t lie though – sometimes the cacophony of the cities makes me lose my mind. Horn honking seems to be the official sound of this country, accompanied by the loud rumbles of autorickshaws traveling in every direction, with visible exhaust blowing out the back.
I always knew Delhi was on my itinerary but was sort of in denial about it. I had been warned extensively about the dirt, chaos and general craziness. Several fellow travelers shared awful stories of Delhi-induced travel fighting. My next stop would be Delhi and boy, was I dreading it. I even let friends back home know I’d finally have some more time to catch up and to get some writing done because I thought I’d hate it so much and never want to leave my lodgings.
My train (love my train rides!) from charming Pushkar (well, Ajmer actually) arrived Delhi close to midnight. I was sitting next to some fun young women (and some drunk men!) who live in Delhi and were coming from a 10-year reunion from their boarding school. These professionals who run their own businesses or work for internet companies warned me to never trust rickshaws, never take regular taxis, be careful on the metro, and basically fear all men in the city, essentially confirming many rumblings I’ve heard before. What an awful place this sounded like.
I exited the train and was bombarded by all sorts of chaos, primarily rickshaw and taxi drivers harassing me as I tried to find my way to the pre-paid taxi booth. I negotiated with one and we got on our way, though not without some trepidation on my part. I followed along using a map on my phone and had the driver speak to someone at the guesthouse where I’d be staying (a recommended measure to confirm the driver knows where to go and also knows someone is waiting for me!)
Granted it was midnight and much of the city was at rest, I was still quite surprised by the relatively traffic-free, smooth, well-maintained highways and roads, no cows or goats or camels in sight. As we approached some of the smaller streets, I noticed they were absolutely quiet. I might actually use the word peaceful. They were tree-lined and I even spotted some sidewalks. We were in the neighborhood of GK-1 (Greater Kalish) in South Delhi which I now understand is DRASTICALLY different than Old Delhi, particularly the Paharganj neighborhood where many backpackers stay (and get a bit batty from the madness, dirt and chaos!)
Thank you India Someday! Thank you You Wander We Pay! You booked me a charming room in a quiet neighborhood with several parks nearby, plenty of shopping, lots of food choices and a nearby Metro stop. This is absolutely the right thing to do – to ease into Delhi life by staying in the newer, quieter areas. Shame on the many guidebooks for not advising this. There are plenty of accommodations for the full array of budgets, from dorm-style hostels to boutique and business hotels.
Some may shun the idea of staying in a more upscale neighborhood, wanting to stay where the “action” and “real life” is but recognizing my privilege as a traveler and writer, I personally am keen on experiencing all a city has to offer – the new and the old, the wealthy and the poor, the restaurants and the street food, the clean air and the smog! There are way too many travelers out there hating on Delhi, never having left the Paharganj neighborhood to clear their heads, experience the disparity and see the actual city they judge by just one area (more on the dynamics and distinctions of touring/traveling/living in another post soon!)
My first plan of the day was to meet a friend’s friend who does some awesome community organizing work in India. He met me at Bed and Chai (where I was staying) and after a 3 minute walk, we were sitting under the shade of beautiful trees in a local green park. More on his important work in another entry! We made plans to connect again later in the evening at his office and then for dinner, leaving me to experience Delhi on my own for much of the day.
I had made a tentative, very loose plan to possibly connect for some afternoon touring with Julia, a fellow traveler, originally from Poland, who I met at Bed and Chai. Limited communication abilities (she could only get in touch when in wifi,) left this very up in the air. I ventured along the quiet streets (and sidewalks!!) and came upon the M Market area. I always picture an outdoor flea-market of sorts when I hear the word “market” but I’ve come to learn that it often just refers to an area filled with stores. This one was totally upscale, filled with corporate chains. Fun to check out the clothes and shopping habits of the locals, but I knew I wanted something more “Delhi” to eat and set out on an adventure out of the neighborhood.
As I sat in my rickshaw, the message arrived from Julia that she would be near Bara Gumbad tomb in Lodi Gardens at around 3pm. Park? Perfect! Exactly what was on my list to do. And so I got dropped off nearby (whole other story about the rickshaw negotiations) and entered the fabulous green oasis – a vast, gorgeous park, dotted with families, couples and individuals playing, reading and picnicking. It is also filled with remarkable 15th century ruins including the impressive Bari Gumbad tomb and mosque. Tons of beautiful birds and butterflies to top! Part of what I loved the most that was within the hour, our loose, unconfirmed plan came together, reminding me of the pre-cellphone-era when life could still work out just fine. Julia and I spent the next few hours enjoying some Dahi Sev Puri snacks and a pleasurable, unchaotic Delhi.
Time to catch my first Metro ride! I descended the shiny, clean stairs into the polished, well-signed station, immediately noticing it was way cleaner, easier to use and much less chaotic than our treasured NYC MTA subway system. Again, not the crazy Delhi I expected! I easily purchased a “smart card” and headed for the “women only” section where I enjoyed the full-on air conditioning, clean air and smooth ride. A full scene of street food nibbling and general hanging-out seemed to be taking place outside the Malviya Nagar station, a communal scene I’d love to see in the streets and public space of NYC.
While walking to his office, I finally saw my first cows of Delhi. This was one of the things that struck me the most. I hadn’t yet seen cows. No mounds of cow dung. No goats. None of the usual craziness I had been experiencing in all of the other cities I had seen (which I’ve also grown to be quite endeared by). We spent some time at his office and then took the Metro towards India Gate where we enjoyed a long walk to the Canteen where we ate a delicious Thali dinner, again passing endless amounts of open green space.
Ok, time to experience Old Delhi and the craziness! Julia and I ventured out the next morning to see some of the major sights and to meander the markets, nibble the street food and sense the chaos we’d heard so much about. We were NOT let down. Yes, it is quite intense–intoxicatingly so! And in a fabulous way if not staying in a noisy hostel right in the middle of it all. We loved the tranquility of the Jama Masjid Mosque (especially the sound and view from atop the minaret), the delicious meal at Karim’s (the Mughlai restaurant that’s been around since 1913), and the market teeming with goats (perhaps because it was right before a Muslim holiday) and the spice market – dang, did we love the action and beauty of the spice market.
Getting from place to place in Old Delhi though can be maddening, given the abundance of people, rickshaws, bicycles, peddlers’ carts and basically anything else you can imagine. I can definitely see why people lose their minds here. After walking in the brutal heat for quite some time, we loved our cycle-rickshaw ride which took us through it all, at a perfect pace to catch a bit of a breeze and to feel the pulse of the craziness just enough to be entranced by it.
I shamelessly now crave more time in the “chaos” and can’t wait for my next Delhi visit to dive back in. I believe the key is being open-minded, not-rushed, well-hydrated, patient and curious about individual stories, the complex systems and general functioning of the city. Many tourists pass through for a quick stressful visit and spread disdain for a city and its people they haven’t fully met.
More green space! We enjoyed checking out Humayun’s Tomb, another set of impressive 16th century ruins surrounded by plush gardens and sampled some flavors from all around India at the renowned Delhi Haat. My first momos in India.
Even more green space! And perhaps my favorites – the adjacent Deer and Green Parks. With another loose plan to connect with Julia in the trendy Hauz Khas village artists enclave for dinner, I ventured out to Deer Park, frisbee in hand, to check out the sprawling green space with more ruins/tombs and with a well-stocked deer enclosure. I had heard from a few folks that this was the “Central Park” of Delhi and it sure was. The post-work crowd was running, stretching, roller-skating, making music and enjoying the fresh air, cool ruins and pretty lake every which way you can imagine. My only regret was not arriving earlier.
The sun would soon set so I worked my way around the beautiful lake and was struck by the awesome Lodi-era tombs and eye-catching ruins populated by a young, hip crowd. A bit of a maze, I finally found my way up into the Haus Khaz village, magically connected with Julia again (neither of us had cell service, nor did we have a concrete plan), meandered the quaint artist boutiques and enjoyed an absolutely delicious South Indian dinner (the most tasty sambhar imaginable – still dreaming about the perfect balance of tamarind and spice.)
Delhi – you took me by surprise! I like you! And am ready to come back again. When I returned after my visit to Agra and Orchha, I stayed in Saket, another quiet neighborhood with tree-lined streets and lots of character. I also remember passing yet another great green space, nestled in between the windy highway exit ramps as my bus approached the (chaotic!) station.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not suggesting you are the ideal “green” or “socially just” city. Far from it. I can’t wait to write some pieces about trash and plastic. And I can’t wait to get riled when I explore more of East Delhi to get a better sense of the disparity and how people live. But for what I’ve seen in my limited experience as a traveler, you are certainly greener and more open than I’d have ever expected, especially given the endless complaining I hear from fellow travelers and Indians from around the country.
I know you have quite a lot of people to manage and lots of unnecessary trash to deal with but I must say you’re off to a decent start with some of your open park space and your clean, easy to use Metro system. I’m excited to explore more of you as a City and am sad for the many tourists who only see Paharganj and get scared away
Thank you Delhi!
Thank you India Someday!
Thank you You Wander We Pay!