Delhi: Two days to see India’s urban side
October 17, 2014 | By Mitch & Jewels |
We weren’t excited about Delhi, but it is a major transit hub and our only chance to check out India’s urban side, it made sense to spend two days and two nights there. We had super-low expectations, and the actual experience was much better than anticipated.
Hotel Star View and its bizarro issues
Our two nights were separated by our three-day jaunt to Agra and Vrindavan, so when we arrived in Delhi we found a triple room at Hotel Star View for the two of us plus Jen. There are a few major hotel areas in the city; the area we chose – Main Bazaar Road, a 5-minute walk from the New Delhi train station – was pretty nice quality and typically around $20 USD for a double room for a night (we paid $23 for a triple room, but probably could have negotiated it down more if we weren’t too exhausted to bargain when we arrived). There are many cheaper options in Delhi, but this worked for us on our quality-versus-price scale.
However, as it turns out, we ended up having two really bizarre issues with Hotel Star View.
First. The staff there is super lovely, and Salman, the main night desk clerk was really awesome. But… there is a guy who they send upstairs to deal with any issues or just to check in on us who is really weird and super creepy. (For example, to bring us the wifi pricing, the room service menu, or explain the laundry pricing.) But what’s bizarre is that instead of knocking on the door, if it’s unlocked he just comes right in. And let’s say we lock the door and then Mitch stands in the doorway to answer him and deal with the issue, he actually tries to get past Mitch and come in. Which is really bizarre and super creepy when, for example, Jen or Jewels had on a sports bra instead of a long sleeve shirt and would have been invisible from the front door if the dude hadn’t barged in.
The other issue is that our friend Deepak, who is from and lives in Rishikesh, was coming down to meet up in Delhi on our last day there and then travel with Jen for a few weeks after. He was on a night bus and arrived in Delhi at 4:30am, and our plan was for him to put his bags down in our room and rest a bit until a reasonable hour. Then Jen and Deepak were going to change hotels and Jewels and Mitch were going to leave our luggage at the desk until our flight out of India later that night. Totally reasonable, right? But, Hotel Star View wouldn’t let Deepak upstairs with westerners because he is Indian. Not at all… not to drop off his bags, not to rest for an hour, not to even help carry Jen’s bags downstairs. It makes sense that they would have this as the blanket rule to prevent any scary Indian men from following western women or maybe to prevent prostitution (I don’t even know if that’s a thing in India, it’s certainly not as prevalent as in SE Asia), but it made no sense to not allow it in this situation.
So after that, Deepak and Jen made a 5am move to Hotel Arjun just down the street, which was a bit pricier but super lovely and spacious rooms with very helpful staff.
Making the Most of Two Days in Delhi
We arrived in Delhi after about a 12-hour bus ride from Dharamsala, which was a bit nauseating and car-sickening at first, but then calmed down into a pleasant sleeping situation. We got in in the wee-hours of the morning, found a hotel (per the above), showered, and then got some breakfast. For whatever crazy reason, instead of resting we decided to have a full first day.
Shopping on Main Bazaar Road
We did some shopping along Main Bazaar Road, where the hotel is located. We probably should have saved all of our India shopping for there, because there are TONS of stores with everything that you can get elsewhere for really good prices. Many places are actually fixed price (which saves the annoyance and stress, or the game, of haggling) and many of the places that allow negotiation start pretty reasonably anyhow. A lot of foreigners were there doing wholesale shopping – we were surprised since we figured wholesale places would be more tucked away and at even better prices, but that did not seem to be the case.
The post office experience
Then we went to mail a box of stuff back to New York… a bunch of presents, some of our clothing, random stuff that was weighing down our bags that we didn’t want to keep hauling around. We went to the Central New Delhi Post Office, and assumed they would have boxes for sale there the way they had in Rishikesh. Wrong. If your stuff is not properly packaged, they send you across the street to these guys who have the Indian version of a streetside chips-and-soda shop (and boxing service). There, for nearly $5, they selected and cut a box to size for us, and then sewed a piece of cloth around it (no, really). It made us feel like our box was getting a lot of love, and like it was actually going to get delivered in one piece. After the very surprising and kind of awesome experience, we took our boxes back to the post office and discovered, low and behold, that everyone had a sewed-up cloth-wrapped package if they were mailing a parcel from the post office. Weird.
Old Delhi’s Red Fort
After the box-wrapping extravaganza, we (instead of going back to the hotel and resting) decided to go to the Red Fort, Delhi’s biggest tourist attraction. The area around it in Old Delhi is a messy bizarre bazaar with full-on traffic and people. We were hungry and ate a little in a stall at the bazaar which was delicious and only mildly dangerous.
The experience of going into the fort is impressive. Crossing the major road to get to it was a harrowing experience – after all of our travels, this was the road that made me pause for a moment of reflection when we safely made it to the other side. And then you cross these police gates into a much more tranquil area, and there are the gates to an amusement park, which seems weird and totally out of place.
The Red Fort itself is enormous and impressive largely for its size. There are a stunning array of rooms and open areas in red sandstone, with some mosques and special areas in white marble. As per the local style, the size and scale were staggeringly impactful, but the details in themselves were also quite stunning.
When to tip, give, and donate
To get back to our area from the Red Fort, instead of taking an auto-rickshaw, a bicycle rickshaw offered to take us for Rs 150 ($2.50 USD) after we turned down auto-rickshaws who were asking for too much. But when we saw how hard this poor guy worked and how nice he was, we happily gave him Rs 250. It’s unbelievable how hard some people, and especially manual laborers, work here. What’s more unbelievable is when you consider that they’ve probably been doing this for 10 years already, have no real career prospects beyond doing this for another 30 years, and when their bodies can’t handle the hard work anymore, then they will rely on their sons doing the same to support them. And then you consider that they probably only get a couple of fares each day since there are so many people trying to get work and not that many people hiring them. It’s really heartbreaking. These are the people I wish we could help more.
It’s so hard here, we want to tip for good service, but so often we are asked to tips and it feels like Indians trying to guilt trip or downright extort foreigners. Gah. And beggars – oiy! In the early morning, you see little kids walking around with no problem, and the minute they see foreigners, they curl up into a very passable state of paralysis. All afternoon you walk by the same kids dragging themselves around by their arms while sitting on a piece of cardboard, holding out their hands begging and pleading for money and help. But not only do you not know who is legitimately disabled, but you also don’t know who is there of their own will, whose parents have them beg, and who are enslaved to street gangs making them beg. It’s a disturbing system, to say the least.
One day in a train station, we gave some dried dates to a beggar kid and he was so happy and appreciative, he sat down to eat his dates, occasionally looking up at us with a giant smile as though it were the best thing in the world. We were so happy we had given to him. Then the next day, we gave two oranges to another beggar kid in another train station, but it soon became clear that he was a little brat. He and his friends ate the oranges, were laughing and joking and running after each other as soon as their pathetic display worked and we gave them the oranges and beating up on some other beggar kid. What’s ridiculous is that he kept coming back over to us and pestering us, grabbing at our hands and shirts and not leaving us alone, showing us his belly and his empty mouth, when we had seen him joking around with his friends a minute before. Sigh… Sometimes you just look into their eyes, make a guess, and give (or not) a piece of fruit or 10 rupees and hope it’s for a good person and will be appreciated.
Back near our hotel
At the end of our first day, we had a terrible dinner at Café Nirvana (it looks decent from the outside, but don’t believe it!), then packed our bags, then passed out. The next morning we left our luggage at the hotel and walked out of the hotel before dawn to catch our train to Agra, then spent a day at Agra and two days in Vrindavan.
We got back to Delhi a few days later around dinnertime and collected our luggage from the hotel, checked back into the room, and went out for dinner. Mitch had chatted on the street with this guy who claimed to be a Buddhist teacher from Bhutan, who through a weird combination of circumstance ended up stuck in Delhi for a few weeks. He seemed interesting enough, so we invited him to join us for dinner… and spent the following hour trying to assess whether or not it was a scam. Dinner cost about $2/person, so we’re not worried either way, but it’s hard to figure out how much to trust humanity.
The next day was our final day in India, which is just crazy. After the hotel situation with Deepak in the pre-dawn hours, we had a mellow morning hanging out with Jen and letting Deepak sleep. For breakfast we had our last Indian dosas for a while (so good!), and we had lunch at a little street-side place with at tandoori oven out front (always the best indication of where I want to eat).
The Lodi Garden
We decided to spend the afternoon at the Lodi Garden. It’s pretty amazing that it exists in Delhi, a calm haven in the middle of Delhi’s insanity. Lodi Garden is a beautiful, peaceful outdoor park/garden with several old mausoleums and a mosque. It was gorgeous to walk around, see a few last parrots, take some yoga photos, and have a last day of remembering why to love India.
Our last hours in India
For our dinner, Jen treated us at the roof of Hotel Shelton, which was super lovely and actually one of our best “Indian food” meals… palak paneer, navratan korma, and a mix veg curry with a beautiful smokey flavor, and gulab jamin (our last!) for dessert. The views from the rooftop let you get take in Delhi without being in the middle of it… Oh, India, how we will miss you!
Then Hotel Arjun hired us a taxi to take us to the airport, where the driver drove balls to the wall and seemingly miraculously moved us forward in gridlock traffic, amidst a cacophony of horns, swerves, short stops, and fitting through miniscule spaces between other cars. Just in case we miss India.
We got to the airport around 10pm for our 12:45am flight. My visa expired at midnight, and as we went through the emigration line at 10:30, the officer looked at my visa and commented that I was using every last day of it that I could. I responded that India had been wonderful to me and I was already looking forward to my next visit. He smiled, and said that I should get a new visa and come back soon. We will see when I am ready to deal with applying for visa #4, but we’ll definitely be back.
As usual, here’s a collection of Delhi photos if you feel like clicking through them.