We were both very nervous about India; we had neither of us been before and had probably done a little bit too much research, to the point that we scared ourselves with everything that could go wrong. So, for those of you planning your first visit, we are going to be a bit different and say: “It’s going to be ok. Yes, it’s a bit nerve wracking but take a deep breath and just do things one step at a time.” This mentality has helped a lot but we can’t promise that there won’t still be times when you want to scream with frustration.
We had a bit of a palaver in Colombo airport because we hadn’t printed out our visa documents, we only had screenshots. Turns out you need a hard copy so James popped over to the handy “simpleton tourists who haven’t printed their documents” printing station to retrieve them. A couple of things to know about Negombo airport: you go through at least two security checks before you even get to check in and everything is vastly, unbelievably overpriced. As you don’t have to get rid of your liquids etc. until you go to board, take anything you want to eat or drink with you, it is not worth buying it in the airport, also buy your souvenirs somewhere else, the prices are eye watering.
Our flight on Air India was perfectly pleasant with various bits of carb and a bucket of papaya served for breakfast. We landed and stepped in to Heathrow Terminal 5, or so it seemed. Delhi airport is enormous, spotless and well organised. Everything we had been taught not to expect. We reached immigration and thought that surely here we would encounter chaos. Not a bit of it. Some of the queues were moderately long but in the e-visa queue there were maybe six desks open and only two people in front of us, we got through in minutes. In to the clean and well signed baggage hall, now it must be time for a very long wait for the bags only for one to have disappeared in to the ether. Caro’s bag was already going around the belt when we arrived and James’s appeared 5 minutes later. What was going on?! Where was the mayhem? On the arrivals side no one approached us to get in to their dodgy looking taxi, we were able to book one of the traffic police taxis easily and found the stand no problem. The only thing that met expectations was the abundance of non-functional ATMs; of the 6,000 in Delhi airport only one was working, but at least we managed to find it.
It took us over an hour to complete the 15km journey from airport to hostel. Delhi traffic certainly lived up to the hype; it’s crazy, loud and hot unless you are in an air-conditioned vehicle, which we weren’t. After a bit of driving around in circles through the maze of blocks that make up Chittaranjan Park (or CR Park as it is commonly known) we found our hostel and gratefully stepped in to the air conditioning. Nomadia Hostel is relatively new and therefore pristinely clean down to the white sheets that practically glowed.On that first afternoon, we didn’t venture further than the local shops for food and water but the next day we woke reasonably refreshed after a night in the bed pods ready to face Delhi. We travelled round via metro and auto rickshaw. The Metro is excellent; it is clean, the ticket system is easy to use, and it felt very safe. The security screening at every station feels a bit strange at first but you get used to it very quickly.Upon disembarking the metro at the Red Fort we stepped well and truly in to the craziness that is an Indian city. The station is right next to the fort but this is surrounded by a tall fence and we couldn’t see the gate, just what looked like a police roadblock.A man started beckoning madly at us and pointing just beyond the roadblock, it was the gate and the man was a rickshaw driver who, as soon as we got within hearing distance, started rattling off all the places that he would like to take us after we were done with the fort. We smiled and kept walking, his final words “please be careful your bags Delhi full of bad people” ringing in our ears as we approached the fort.We made it all of 10 steps unaccompanied before a new friend joined us offering his services as a guide, we just kept saying “no, thank you” repeatedly until we reached the ticket desk, purchased our tickets and passed through security and in to the fort proper. We actually weren’t daunted at all by the constant attention because we had been forewarned by many blogs and actually, although they were persistent, the offers were never aggressive and you could simply walk away. Now on to the fort, which is very cool and, as the name suggests, red.Large sections of it were closed for restoration, which was a shame but there was still plenty to see.Even the newer buildings commissioned by the British in 1858 as army barracks were attractive, although admittedly not in keeping with the overall style of the fort.We had our first experience of Indian queuing as we tried to get up to the military museum and found ourselves being shunted aside by a stream of elderly women who were evidently desperately keen to see some armour. It was absolutely heaving inside with people madly trying to take a selfie with large swords in the background and we caught each other’s eyes wildly over the tops of the heads of the throngs of people with matching “get me out of here” looks. We did manage to glimpse some of the exhibits, a favourite being this arm shield / backscratcher.We also had our first experiences of regularly being asked for selfies with Indians, something we politely declined. It was a regular feature of our time in Delhi and has been since.
Having cut our teeth in the fort we decided that we were ready to brave the warren of bazaars that is Old Delhi, just across the road from the fort. We were not yet ready to attempt to cross 17 lanes of traffic and most likely perish, so we used the metro as a subway and came up on the other side of the road in a makeshift covered market that smelled strongly of urine and specialised in mobile phones. Gritting our teeth, we plunged on and came out the other side in to slightly fresher air. After that things did actually improve, the streets are crazy and they are filthy but Old Delhi does have a sort of charm and we were quite happy strolling the streets, occasionally cutting down in to a bazaar.Our top tip for Delhi: do NOT wear flip flops, the ground is absolutely disgusting, trainers are your new best friends. This has since proven true in every large city that we have visited in India. That being said, we had a great time wandering around and even managed to secure an Indian sim card with relatively little hassle.The Jamal Masjiid, on the edge of Old Delhi, is another must see site and we made our way there through streets strung with the most alarming collection of wires making the place look like something out of a dystopian horror story.The Jamal Masjiid is as impressive as you would expect for a mosque capable of holding 25,000 people. James was not allowed in as he was wearing shorts and Caro couldn’t go in without the company of a man so we settled for a picture of the outside.
Just walking around Delhi is an eye-opener, for one thing people seemed to be sleeping everywhere.
We made our way back to the metro through a market at the foot of the Jamal Masjiid steps which appeared to sell everything and anything and was absolutely rammed with people and dogs and overflowing with colour.However colourful, the reality for many in India is one of gruelling poverty and running parallel to the market was a wasteland constantly circled by crows, filled with rubbish and populated by barefoot young children in scraps of clothing.These children would occasionally come running through the market clearly on the lookout for any potential tourist targets, hence why James spent the day wearing his backpack on his front and achieving the resultant “tourist in a hot country” sweat patch on his front.
Our next destination was a section of the city that appeared to be dedicated entirely to Ghandi in some way or another on the bank of the Yamuna river. The park is a little bit of a walk from the nearest Metro station and the 1km revealed more of Delhi’s hidden treasures; a large group of rats that made James’s skin crawl and the set of traffic lights that appeared to be Delhi’s lady-boy hotspot.
Raj Ghat is a peaceful park with a beautiful memorial to Gandhi and was a place of complete calm and quiet within the chaos of Delhi.To the south is Gandhi Darshan, a pavilion displaying photographs and information about Gandhi’s life. The volume of information to digest here is quite extraordinary and it would take many hours and multiple visits to read it all but we had an illuminating 45 minutes here reading a few sections about his life.We had one last item on our agenda for the day which was to see India Gate. It wasn’t the most interesting or exciting place that we had been but it was nice to be there in the late afternoon and join the locals strolling up towards the impressive buildings of the Central Secretariat with a couple of ice creams after a day very well spent.