In my mind, the word “Delhi” is irrevocably tied to the term “Delhi belly”, aka food poisoning aka several days of praying at the porcelain altar. As I was flying there, I expected a messy, chaotic, dirty place, dotted with beautiful monuments of gone-by millennia. The arrival however surprised me: the airport was spacious, clean, modern and efficient, with serval recognisable Western brands on offer. The people also looked different. Many dressed in western clothes (polo shirts, shorts, jeans on women), and had the street-smart look of metropolitans, very different from laid-back Keralans who could not be seen wearing anything but traditional dhoties and/or pressed shirt-jeans-slippers-combo. Even the journey from the airport to the city centre was prettier than in many cities: green, clean, wide boulevards, albeit with Brownian motion of all sorts of means of transport and a few stray pigs who casually walked and played with monkeys. I liked this place.
The stereotypical image emerged close to my hotel (Krishna) in Paharganj. To borrow from the Rough guide to India, this area is back-packer central, but also an impoverished place where a lot of local street children live. To illustrate, the traffic is disastrous, and each street is illuminated by buzzing, old neon signs of dusty hotels with pretentious names (Elegance, Comfort etc.), and there are always people on the streets, clearly trampled by life in various ways. The room and hotel were tidy and spacious, with lots of super-polite staff. The only sense of being in a wild city came from the view from my floor-to-ceiling window. My room looked over a decrepit rooftop which had an improvised house built upon it where women and men were constantly cleaning clothes and beat them on masonry. I drew the curtains.
Always eager to explore my hood on foot, I ventured out towards Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque and one of many Mughal jewels in this ancient city. After I walked out, cycle- and motor-rikshaw drivers descended on me (“It is unsafe sir”, “Want a tour of the city”, etc.). I pressed on, and as I was approaching Old Delhi (via a bridge over a train station) squalor and buzz increased exponentially from an already high water-mark.
There were tons of people that Friday night (unsurprisingly given that the old city used to be a muslim stronghold). Within minutes I saw all possible activities that one can do: people were sleeping everywhere (including on top of a parked lorry), some were washing themselves on street pump, some were being groomed, some were relieving themselves, some were eating, some were cooking, some were begging, some were toiling, most were walking on, unphased in a frenzied rythm. They were from all religions and all walks of life: marigold clad devoted hindus, sikhs in colourful turbans, muslims in snow-white shirts, beggars and middle class crowd. And it wasn’t just the people in this Boschian tableu: goats were roaming, huge cows were pulling carts, eagles were soaring and chickens were clucking. There were trades of every sort and everything was sold in the labyrinthine bazaar where shops faded into darkness of alleyways. I could not even discern buildings in twilight, my gaze was transfixed on all sorts of street-food that was prepared al fresco as well as all the weird and wonderful shops. I was also marching rapidly, snapping my camera, and taking seconds to check my phone if I was going in the right direction (that was a bit reckless as every second a cyclist, or a cart or a rikshaw would cross).
This surpassed even my wildest expectations of Delhi. It was a picturebook representation of medieval squalor (as much as Alleppey backwaters were a rural idyll), and I was in it. I just gave in and felt like I was in a hallucinogenic trip. Half an hour of hypnotic jumping over people and things later, I was in front of Jama Masjid, its white bulbous domes hulking over the central knot of wider streets. I was hungry and decided to be brave. I took a dietary gamble as a weird communion with Delhi and India: I decided for those last few days to experience this place to the fullest, immersing myself fully.
I went for a kebab and a skewer of mystery meat from the nearby stand with a largish queus. They were both delicious. An elderly lady wearing a burka with unnatural red and orange skin, started shaking uncontrollably as I was eating. She quickly stabilised, took her food and went her way.
After this I wanted to see Connaught Place – bazaar’s polar opposite, built by the Brits to serve as a centre of western-stye trade. The walk took me over the New Delhi train station which now seemed tame compared to the freanzied bazaar, but was still quite insane. CP was a world apart. Its neoclassical colonnade reminded me of Leamington Spa’s Parade. Also like Leamington, it had Starbucks, which signalled that it was a part of the globalised world. No matter how much I shunned Starbucks and globalisation while in the UK, my heart now leapt at its stylish, clean interior and array of familiar sugary over-priced drinks. Smilingly I grabbed my tall-mocha-frapp and brownie and went out to see the array of westernised shops. This gave me strength to brave a walk back to Krishna and there I slept early, wanting to rise early to see the Red Keep and Jama Masjid in morning sun.
The next morning, I scanned my stomach for trouble and was happy to note there was nothing wrong. I shunned hotel’s bizzare oily breakfast and got some water on the way in a small shop where one of the workers was washing himslef from a bucket on the floor. I went to the bazaar where I had chai by the Ajmer gate. In this chaos, one could notice contours of classical beauty: the gate’s pointed arch rose over what would be a square with some neo-mughal building on the other side. It was however crammed with people doing all sorts of stuff and a white weary horse eating slowly. The craziness of Friday night was gone, but it was still a sight to see. There were mud discs drying, a series of people with horrific scars over their feet waiting close to the city hall (an unimposing colonial relict), street children playing, everybody else getting on with their Saturday morning. Aping F’s penchant for anthropological photography I wielded my camera, wanting to posses a part of bazaar’s crazy vistas forever.
In front of the Red Fort, the UNESCO protected seat of Mughals, there some filming going on, and I only realised the majesty of the structure once I got in though Lahore gate. Although the place looked very worn out, much thanks to the Brits who raided it and use parts of it as a war prison, I was instantly captivated by the Aladdinesque domes and pavilions. I then proceeded to Jama Masjid where normal tourists flocked. They had guides and were chauffeured around the city. They looked clean, happy and calm. I was sweaty, smelly but ecstatic.
I liked this mosque much more than the Red Fort: it served as a refuge of bazaar people from the craziness of the streets. Two super-cute street kids played around the ablution pool. It was so sad to see them, a little boy in a dirty linen shirt and a girl in black. I did all the touristy things (went up the minaret, took 1000 photos), and then went to a famous kebab shop, “Karim’s”, which RG lists as an unmissable thing in Delhi (as a Warwicker, I naturally trust RG more than LP, which proved itself deficient times over). Like all guidebook recommendations, it was good but not up to the delightful prose written around it, my mystery meat and a random breakfast cheese-pastry were better then their Lamb Korma, but the rice-pudding-like desert was very good.
Out of the bazaar, I went to see Humayun’s tomb complex (mind-blowing), monuments scattered in Lodhi park (lovely and serene) and finally, India gate-Rajpath-Presidential place axis. This British-built complex was intentionally, but unsuccessfully monumental, very Speer/Mussolini-lite, in line with the times. Tired from negotiating with riskshaw-men I went to the westernised oasis of CP, where peole were gearing for a night out. I missed F the whole day and as I generally hate drinking alone, so I contented myself with only two Kingfishers and a Punjabi-fast-food dinner. At some point between walking around eerily empty Rajpath and an after-dinner coffee at Starbucks later on, I decided to cut my trip a bit shorter and return home after my tour of Agra and miss out on Jaipur. I felt tired: backpacking holidays in India are fascinating but kill you, especially in big cities, which are lonely and even more of a hassle.
Waking up the next day proved me right: I felt very tired, my stomach rumbling and ill-will descending over any plan. I decided to take it easy and just do a Qutub minar complex (featuring a stunning huge medieval minaret) and go to Hauz Khas, a place that a friend described as a hipster village. As an ex-Marylebonian, I am a huge Monocle magazine enthusiast who subscribes fully to Tyler Brûlée’s aesthetic appreciation of up-market-yet-arty neighbourhoods.
Walking through Hauz Khas, I could even hear in my head the comments that would be written in Monocle about this hood. Plethora of small galleries and shops selling amazing minimalist craft leather goods were tucked in a green oasis. There was also a fetching medieval reservoir complex skirting the village, where Delhi youths were enjoying blossoms of teenage love and self-obsessions (there is a big selfie culture in India). With local Starbucks coffees imbibed (sadly no artisanal coffee places looked right and they only opened at noon – Tyler would not like that) and a good friendly bookstore visited, my tiredness lifted and I decided to screw the bane of my life (rikshaw drivers) and go for public transport. Surely, a Monocle-ite would have to assess city infrastructure and experience it like the locals? Of course, Indian public transportation has a bad rep, but after Hauz Khas, Delhi seemed just like a bit dirtier Belgrade with cooler mouments: exhilirating, but safe.
The bus journey was speedy and cheap (5 Rs) and I entered the bowels of a nearby metro station to gt back. It was clean and there were armed guards and an X-ray. All in all ok. After buying a token (which took a while), I went to board a train towards my hotel, and a helpful modern Delhi girl helped me jump in, just as the doors slammed on me. The train was packed, but clean and new. People were relatively affluent and clean, and girls and guys mixed without problem. Looking at the group of helpful female teenagers who behaved like teenagers do in the West, I wondered if the exstent of sexual harassment in India was overblown by sensationalist western media.
The train was approaching a stop before mine, when a guy asked me if I am getting off now, as I was squashed on the doors. I said no and started moving from the centre of the doors, when a yet unidentified body part of his started pressing and grinding on my crotch.
“Well it is busy, I guess…”, I thought until I realised that there certainly was enough space behind him.
“Oh well, in the West we indeed have a different conception of personal space”.
Half a second later he started moving his arms and I though he wanted to catch something firm to balance himself. Still, he proceeded to grab two of my very limpy and weary body parts. He squeezed me very intentionally. I was in shock, this all took maybe a minute and I quickly changed a coach and he left the train.
As I was going back from the limbo of New Delhi train station, and towards the circles of Paharganj, I realised that indeed I tasted another aspect of Delhi life. Although I know that the perv, who was my age and seemed normal, is not representative of 15 million souls in the city, let alone 1.25bn in this country, I just felt a bit tired.
Immersion tourism has its bad sides, and the light harassment and upset stomach I endured, were the mildest ones. I remembered M’s cautious attitude to travel and walking outside at night in India. India is a fascinating country for its remarkable, rich history, but also for its Hobbesian state-of-nature chaos. The nasty side of this chaos just skirted me, a strong, young, middle class, European tourist. I can only imagine how painful it feels to be immersed in it non-stop, with infinitely less resources to protect oneself, as say a street child.
I decided to take a bit of rest in Hotel Krishna’s comforts as the next day I am off to Agra early.