To anyone who asked me about Delhi after my trip last year, I always said the same thing. It’s a place you love or you hate, I said, and thankfully I took to it straight away. It was true – from the moment I stepped off the Shatabdi Express train from Dehradun in the middle of June, 2015, I knew there was something different about this city. I have also always said that I am eternally grateful that I had two months to acclimatise to India in Dehradun whilst volunteering with the Saheli Trust, rather than coming straight to Delhi and being thrown into the deep end. I don’t think I’d have coped nearly as well in the capital if that had been the case.
More than one year later, I’m back again. Or I was, for a day or so. Whilst last year I spent more than a week in Delhi, this year, it’s been a flying visit before moving on to Dehradun for a couple of days to visit, and then catching a plane to Mumbai (please, save me the 40-hour train journey!)
So, a few things have been different. I’m no longer wide-eyed and unaccustomed to Delhi traffic, and I have even less patience for touts and over-eager rickshaw drivers. More on that later.
“Is it your first time in India?” A question asked by well-meaning locals, and most recently by a kind Frenchwoman called Miriam, with whom I shared a taxi to from the airport. The offer took me aback at first as I was waiting in line at the prepaid taxi stand, and being a naturally suspicious person, my first instinct was to go it alone. But sharing a taxi was cheaper, and especially as a woman alone at midnight in Delhi, probably safer. Laden with luggage, Miriam told me of her plans to visit friends and then head to Mysore to practise yoga; the city is a favoured yoga destination for Indians and foreigners alike. So, I was fairly reassured.
We made small talk about our countries and our travels. At one point, Miriam, a frequent visitor to India, asked me seriously, “So what is it like now, in England? With the Brexit?” I laughed, somewhat humourlessly. “We were so shocked, in France…” She said. It is something I have experienced before, this instant camaraderie between European travellers. There are twenty-odd years between us, but it doesn’t matter. We have the same concerns. I hope we do not lose it on an ill thought-out British whim.
We part at Miriam’s guesthouse, and I, through a series of gestures and repeated directions, get the taxi driver to take me to my own hostel. I am too tired and slightly scared of the unfamiliar parts of the city to dispute the amount he charges me for the extra few minutes. A sigh of relief when I see the orange neon sign outside.
Last year, I stayed for a few nights in a guesthouse in Paharganj, a stone’s throw away from the New Delhi Railway Station, and then another few nights with a Couchsurfing host closer to the airport. The guesthouse I stayed at, Kuldeep Friends, didn’t feel the most secure and I was glad to stay in somebody’s home for the rest of my time in Delhi, though I was quite a bit further from the centre.
This year, I opted for Zostel, a hostel chain operating in a number of larger cities in India. The Delhi hostel seemed very popular with other backpackers, though I mostly kept to myself for the couple of nights I was there. Exhaustion and culture shock can do that to you, no matter how many times you’ve been to India before or how well you think you can deal with a long flight. I used my Hostel World app to find a place, as usual, because it makes booking hostels so much easier – it’s reliable and it’s nice to know you have a place confirmed before arriving.
After arriving at Zostel and paying for my stay, I do the usual WiFi check in as soon as I arrive, letting friends and family know I’m well. Exhausted, I lock my bags up in my dorm, clean my teeth and collapse in my bunk in my clothes.
I don’t surface from my dorm until about three the next day. Even though I slept through most of the plane journey, I clearly needed the rest. Once I’ve looked up some trains and booked an onward flight, I head to the train station, immediately making for the tourist booking office to book my train to Dehradun, and a later one from Mumbai to Bangalore. I know exactly where I’m going. I don’t feel even slightly nervous crossing the road. I got this, I think. Before I left, I thought I’d have lost the knack for travel a little bit, my senses dulled by a year of living in one place. But I’m not an Exeter student now. It doesn’t matter who I am, in this city crammed with people. This girl, she knows what she’s doing. It’s like muscle memory.
Sadly, the muscle memory didn’t extend to predicting waiting times at the station, where I sit for an hour and a half before the man at the desk processes my ticket form. I’ve looked up the trains in advance and chosen my classes and times, so the process is fairly painless. I take the metro to Chandni Chowk, pressed up against hundreds of other people, and emerge, disorientated, near the Old Delhi station. I walk for a while, aimlessly. I’m sure I’ll find my way eventually, I think. I have a vague idea of where to go.
India has its own smell. As soon as I left the airport, I could feel the change in the air. It’s not always unpleasant, though it often is in the streets of Old Delhi. That garbage pile to my right probably isn’t improving matters. It’s a musty smell, usually. It’s the heat. Funnily enough, it isn’t as hot as I remember here. Perhaps it’s the monsoon rains, falling and releasing the pressure in the air. It’s a little muggy, but not unbearable.
A very persistent cycle-rickshaw driver coaxes me into a rickety seat and I’m fairly disorientated, so when he promises to take me to Chandni Chowk market for 20Rs, I give in and cling to the bar either side of me, my little bag clutched between my knees. As expected, the journey is… Hazardous. Well, death comes for us all… I think. I’d much rather it wasn’t today though. I hold my breath every time the rickshaw squeezes through a gap it shouldn’t fit through.
We emerge from a junction onto the main street and I breathe a sigh of relief. “I know it here. Here is fine!” I tell the driver. I can see the Red Fort to my left, stark against the polluted air. I know this road, having walked its entirety last year. I am obsessed with walking. Indeed, I am annoyed because I could have walked this distance easily myself from the Metro. No use arguing now over 20 pence. But the driver isn’t done, chattering on about the market, so I let him take me through a tiny, crowded street flanked by gem shops, around the back of the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, to a store emblazoned with the name “Chandni Chowk Bazaar”. I sigh internally and prepare for battle.
My driver, so chirpy and eager to please, is trying to direct me into the shop. I narrow my eyes. “No. Take me back. Red Fort. I do not want to buy.” I will not move from my seat. The cajoling of the driver has no impact. I threaten to get out. I don’t care who’s paying his commission. I just want food, and a couple of pieces of local clothing. I did NOT sign up for this. Eventually, he agrees to take me back. A flicker of doubt in my mind. Maybe I don’t got this.
En-route, we are bumped by an auto-rickshaw, and nearly hit a car. My driver shouts what I can only assume are obscenities at the disappearing vehicle. Whilst shaken, I am fine but swiftly losing patience. The driver cycles ferociously, as if he thinks we can catch up to the offending vehicle. It is the second incident – the driver had previously nearly gotten into a fistfight with a man on a motorbike. Well, we were driving on the wrong side of the road but… Welcome to India.
When we get to the main road beside the Red Fort, I insist I get out and thrust the twenty rupees at the driver and ignore his complaints that he took me to a further place. Damnit. This is what I get for giving in. So I shake my head, and disappear into the crowd. I purchase a few tunics and a pair of leggings – I’ve found that local clothes always make a better impact, wherever you’re travelling. And any reduction of the stares I receive in India is welcome.
Having risen so late, I’m nearly dizzy with hunger so I drop into a street stall – Jalebiwala is famous for samosas and fried sweet donuts. I buy one of each and amble along. I duck into a shop or two, until I stumble upon a restaurant I loved last year. For old time’s sake, I decide to eat dinner there. Haldiram is a great place – a confectionary and snack stop downstairs, and a buffet restaurant upstairs. I order a cold coffee, masala dosa (lentil flour pancake filled with potato) and pani puri (crispy batter shells to fill with sauces and mixed potato and vegetables with spices), and eat at one of the many tables, surrounded by families and the odd tourist. Other than a few curious looks, I am largely ignored. At that moment, it’s all I want.
When I leave, it’s after dark, and that puts a quicker pace in my step. Despite not having done much, I want to turn in fairly early for an early train to Dehradun the next day. The metro journey back to New Delhi, only a couple of stops, is uneventful, and I return to the hostel and gratefully accept a bottle of cold water for 20Rs.
I’d have liked to spend more time in Delhi this time, but I’m not too upset that I didn’t. Having done all the sightseeing last year, it was a welcome change to just wander, unencumbered by my lonely planet checklist in my hand, and get accustomed to India again. On the one hand, Delhi is a shock to the system. But the way I see it – if you can handle Delhi, you can handle anywhere.
Despite the fact that I wouldn’t want to be out alone late at night, and that I hold my purse fairly close to myself in the streets, I am not afraid of Delhi. I know how to be in this city. How much to tolerate, how to keep my cool, how to deflect attention. I am happy to get lost in the madness.
But moving onto pastures anew is welcome. I’ve seen so little of India – I can’t say I would want to do the Golden Triangle again. Magnificent though the sights of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur are, I’d only consider seeing a handful of them again. And the most popular tourist spots wouldn’t be on the list. I’m not trying to say that I’m special. I enjoyed the Taj Mahal as much as anyone else. But I preferred the Agra Fort. Everyone has their own way of travelling, their own preferences for how to make the most of their time. For me, I’ve found that it’s the unexpected things which can be the most impressive.
So, to Dehradun. And then South. The next chapter is waiting. Until next time, Delhi.