We arrived in India for an 18 day trip with only 7 days planned, a visa, and mosquito repellant. I was nervous about the trip because this would be my first trip to a non-western country and India is a grab-bag of traveller opinions. On the one hand, many people travel there and say it is a great place, on the other hand people are constantly jokingly advising me to “not get raped” and that is a dangerous place for women. Knowing that I would have Jeff with me was of course comforting, aside from his experience traveling in southeast asia, traveling with a boy is way safer. Despite this, when our plane landed at the Indira Gandhi Airport in Delhi, my nerves were tingling with excitement, fear, anticipation, curiosity, and yes, a little bit of dread.
After breaking the passport control mans computer, we exited the airport to come face to face with 75 Indian men holding signs for their airport pickups. With some careful scrutiny we found our ride and were soon bouncing on the highway towards our hotel. The sky was full of a light haze despite the sun being out without a cloud in the sky from all the smog of the city. Dogs trot around the parking lot, or sleep in the shade in the middle of the sidewalk. Our car doesn’t have seat belts which is only slightly concerning because our driver weaves through traffic like he is a marathon runner trapped in a slow pack of joggers. Every car, ours and those around us, are honking and weaving, forget the traffic lanes, those are not going to work in this fucked up ballet of automobiles. As our driver dances, we pass dirty street shops built from scrap wood and blue tarps selling everything from car tires to fruit to sports drinks. Everything is dusty with an accent of imminent abandonment. Surprisingly, and thankfully, we make it to our hotel.
We check into our hotel and once in our room I declare that I may not be ready for this. Jeff laughs a little, and we take a nap to starve off our jetlag. Later, after some gentle pushing we head out to explore the area around our hotel. I’m tired still and now hungry so we make our way to some malls that our australian hotel-neighbor says has a food court. This seems like an excellent first outing destination. The first 90% of our walk is mostly alone, we are addressed by some rickshaw drivers but they all take our first “no thank you” and leave. We come upon a incredibly busy road and small street market, which are next to the malls. Jeff wants to walk through the market and I do not, it is busy and we are the only white people anywhere, and they are selling live chickens and it is in an empty lot literally carpeted in trash, and everyone is already starring at us and this is too much for my little brain. Jeff acquiesces to walking to the side of the market, which admittedly probably caused more stares, but we skirt around the market and cross a busy road into a mall. We hop from mall to mall (there are 5 in a row for no apparent reason) without being bothered except for one woman with a baby chasing me saying “please mum, please mum, please mum.” When we get back to the hotel, Jeff tries to talk to me about my fear. How do I admit that I am scared of the dark-skinned people who live in dirty places that need to wash their clothes without sounding like a racist, elitist, narrow-minded brat?
The next day after sleeping for 12 hours, we headed to Qutab Minar on the recommendation of Jeff’s colleague. Qutab Minar is the minaret within the Qutab complex, which is a series of structures built by the first Delhi Mughal sultans. The minaret is the tallest minerat in all of India. We entered the park after walking from the Qutar minar metro stop, much to the disappointment of the 50 auto-rickshaws nearby. We had to pay the foreigner price of 250 Rs, instead of 10 Rs for locals, but they didn’t care about our backpack despite many signs saying no bags allowed. The minaret is an impressive structure, incredibly detailed and ornamented with the Qur’an carved into the red sandstone and white marble. At the base of the minaret are buildings made of the same material, with as much detail added to them as well.
We relaxed in the park for a couple of hours, wandering from tomb, to victory arch, to tomb. It wasn’t very crowded here. We watched green parakeets fly from one structure to the next, peaking out from their homes in the holes of the UNESCO protected buildings.
We left the park around 4 in the evening, realizing we hadn’t eat yet today. I had heard of a government run crafts market not too far away, and thought we should go there. Of course, as soon as we leave the gates we are confronted by many very eager auto-rickshaw drivers, one whom was very keen to drive us.
“Where do you want to go my friend?”
“Okay, lets go!”
“Wait, how much?”
“Whoa, no way, that’s way too much”
“What!? Of course it’s not!”
“Sorry, it’s too much”
“How much then?”
“No way, its 14 km are you crazy?”
“It’s not 14km!”
“No”(We walk away)
“150, Indian Price!”
We continue walking
“Come back sir, 100 Rupees.”
We still think that this is too much, but we get in the auto-rickshaw. Fifteen minutes later (10 of which I was sure he was taking us to a secluded alley to mug us), we get out at a place called Delhi Haat. I’m pretty sure that this is the wrong place, but I can’t be sure, because everything seems to have 5 names in India (Qutur Minar, Qutar Minar, Qutab Minar, Qut’b Minar). The man reluctantly takes our 100 Rupees, and we get ushered into a store while we are trying to gauge if we are in the right place. Jeff and I are both starving, aka, we have short tempers with each other, and I finally admit that this is not the right spot. We leave the store, having to squeeze pass the owner who passively blocks the exit, and walk around the corner to figure out what to do. After some tense words followed by mutual apologies, we write “Dilli Haat” on a piece of paper and approach to older auto-rickshaw driver who has been quietly standing 20 feet away. He says he’ll take us there using the meter, which we are reluctant about because that usually means they’ll go some twisty way to raise the cost. He insists, and says it won’t be more than 70 rupees. Sure enough, he took us start there for a meter price of 60 rupees. I wanted to hug this man.
Dilli Haat is a nice reprise from the loud honking mess that we have been sitting in the last 40 minutes. It is a small open air market with handmade crafts from around India. The crafts stalls change every 3 weeks, and the prices should be fixed, though each stall may be different. We aren’t really looking to buy, just to look around. We did want to purchase one thing though. Food. We sat at the first food booth we saw and devoured a Thali fast enough to frighten the waiter. A Thali is a plate that has small portions of several kinds of curry or masala. Think of it like a sampler plate.
We return to our hotel via the metro, which though we are stared at, is extremely easy to travel on. We walk from the metro to our hotel, and this should be frightening because it is dark, but it’s nice because in the dark no one can see we are white. Later that night we went out for drinks with one of Jeff’s coworkers, Vivek. We have a nice time drinking rum and cokes in a bar he drove us too in his old-time India car, the Hindustan Ambassador.
After a full night’s sleep, a complete meal, and a little bit of alcohol, India didn’t seem to be so frightening to me. I was starting to appreciate the beautiful details of the place. I wasn’t ready to leave the hotel on my own though, and I still shrunk under any stare, and side-stepped away from sketchy-in-my-mind roads, but I felt like I was moving in a positive direction. It was only the first 2 days though, there were still 16 more days to be shocked, scared, and awed.