India: First Impressions

Of all the cities, towns, villages and campsites in all the countries I have had the privilege to visit throughout the years, New Delhi provided me with what has been by far the worst welcome to date. Having arrived at Indira Gandhi International Airport at 0055h, I took a taxi to the hotel we’d reserved in Paharganj, close to the New Delhi Railway Station. I don’t trust taxis as a rule, but the midnight closure of the city’s metro network left me with little choice. I will not delve too deeply into the details here – I have dwelled upon them far too much this past week – but suffice it to say that the journey did not end well. In case anyone has stumbled across this post while researching late-night New Delhi arrivals, hopefully these Cliff Notes will be of some use:

The taxi took me to the city centre, whereupon manned police road barriers blocked our progress. They claimed it was to do with a closure of the area for a festival, and graciously took me to a nearby “official government” tourist information centre called Incredible India!. A scam, of course. There is much written about this online. Long story short, they attempted to convince me that the city centre was closed, even going so far as to place a call to what was purportedly my hotel to corroborate that all reservations had been cancelled. This was followed by attempts to get me to pay exorbitant amounts for “officially recommended” hotels, which I was then compelled to visit. Absolute dives, to put it politely. Eventually they realised I would not cave, and let me out on a nearby street. Here I hailed an Auto (what would be called a tuktuk in Thailand), gave him the hotel’s address, and the entire spiel repeated itself.

At around 0430h, I finally gave in, exhausted by the disorienting day of travel and the experiences of the night. I agreed, after intense and heated arguing, to unjustifiably fork over the equivalent of €60.- for a lousy bed in a dingy room in a rip-off, scam hotel named Hotel Relax Inn. Subsequent checks online revealed that some people had been forced to pay nearly 3 times as much for a night there. If you’ve found this page researching Hotel Relax Inn, do not stay here. After a further heated argument with the Auto driver because of my refusal to tip him for his “helpfulness” (his word), I felt so unsafe in this place that for the first time in my life I barricaded the room door with heavy furniture as I slept. To underscore how disconcerting this was for me: I felt safer sleeping in the public bus station in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where local police would periodically wake people by beating them with batons, and safer too during the time the Kyrgyz civil war stranded us in Bishkek.

Walking along the Main Bazar towards the New Delhi Railway Station.

Walking along the Main Bazar towards the New Delhi Railway Station.

I left the next morning, refusing all offers of “help” from the hotel staff, and walked down the street to catch another Auto away from that horrible hotel. This time I found a friendly fellow, who took me directly to our reserved hotel, where – lo and behold – life carried on as usual and no sign of any festival or road closures could be seen. Once settled in, I reviewed the wild goose chase I had been taken on the night before; I had had an unsettled feeling leaving the airport the night before, and activated the GPS on my Fenix 3, which tracked the route we took (with the exception of pauses at the tourist offices and scam hotels). The zigzag, roundabout route can be seen here, and it’s incredible how close we passed to my reserved hotel.

Main Bazar, as seen when coming from the New Delhi Railway Station.

Main Bazar, as seen when coming from the New Delhi Railway Station.

A few hours later, J.D.’s arrival supplied a very welcome familiarity to my exhausting New Delhi experience. Making our way through the Main Bazar to the New Delhi Railway Station, we were assaulted from all sides by people persuading (“offering” is far too inadequate a word) us to ride in their Autos or rickshaws, to purchase their wares, to sign on to their tours or to donate money. Even accessing the railway ticket counter was a challenge. We were intercepted at the station gate by a large local man, who insisted that only ticket holders were allowed in, and that we had to proceed nearly a kilometre down the road to the “Official Tourist Railway Ticket Office”. Sensing our scepticism, he flashed an official ID identifying him as an employee of the railway services, and showed us a high quality, glossy map of New Delhi that displayed his ticket office. All proper, all nonsense. J.D. had himself been inside the actual Tourist Ticket Reservation Bureau earlier that day, and we knew for a fact that this was the only legitimate one. Given that he was backed by a small group of men, however, we acquiesced and proceeded in the indicated direction. After a certain distance, we attempted to double back, but were promptly intercepted by 2 men who had followed us, and now insisted on accompanying us to the other ticket information office to ensure that we “didn’t get lost”. When we arrived, this office turned out to be located behind a 4 to 5 metre high wall topped with coils of barbed wire. At this J.D. and I both decided “absolutely no fecking way” and emphatically retraced our steps. This time we managed to enter the railway station by sneaking in alongside a police car, and safely made our way to the actual Tourist Ticket Reservation Bureau without further incident.

There are way too few of these signs about. Though even if there were more, I'm not sure I'd trust them.

There are way too few of these signs about. Though even if there were more, I’m not sure I’d trust them.

A man looks out over the Main Bazar.

A man looks out over the Main Bazar.

These anecdotes illustrate what our one day in New Delhi was like. Every step out of the hotel meant dealing with such things; nothing was straightforward, no help seemed sincere, and distrust became the name of the day. It was a shame, really, as this is not the tone that should colour the start of any new experience, especially in a place like India, about which so many of my friends and acquaintances have waxed so lyrically. Some of the surrounding streets were indeed better, with people largely leaving us alone and just letting us carry on, but the sensation of having to constantly watch our backs never once left us. Even when this little girl of about six followed us nearly the entire way from the railway station to the hotel, we were convinced that she was attempting to draw us into another scam in some form or another. It was only towards the end that we realised that what she had been asking for all this while was food, any food, and not money or for us to subscribe to any kind of service. When we realised this and asked what it was she wanted, she immediately indicated a nearby food stall, where – once we’d told the owner we would be covering the cost – she promptly ordered herself a chicken paratha, which she then eagerly seized and absconded with. This was our introduction to India in this briefest of blinks in time in New Delhi; heavy experiences ranging from encountering the ugly, exploitative side of human nature to witnessing the vulnerability of those so helplessly dependent upon others.

A glimpse of the everyday chaos.

A glimpse of the everyday chaos.

I want to end on a positive note. My welcome and introduction to India was unpleasant and off-putting, and I am tempted to dismiss New Delhi entirely from any future travels. The city has not been kind to me. Nevertheless I recognise that I have but scratched the surface of what the city might offer, and that there is much of it that might yet convert me when I next visit. At the very least it has checked the complacency I’ve developed through believing that my own intimate familiarity with living in the Third World combined with my accumulated travel experience has fully prepared me for the eventualities of unfamiliar places. If nothing else, this has been a much needed reminder.

Cows are sacred in India, and most wander freely even in the country's capital.

Cows are sacred in India, and most wander freely even in the country’s capital.

Advertisements