Saturday, 28 March 2009

Delhi: The Real Hustle (rs)

The hustle and bustle of Delhi engulfs you the minute you step off of your train and onto the platform. After the calm and pampered train journey on an AC coach with hot cups of tea and an omelette with bread, the mayhem and smells of the platform hit you immediately. People lie in the dust and grime of the corridors, the crowd bumps and pushes it’s way along and touts latch onto you like ticks engorging themselves on blood. Being foreign almost feels like being a light bulb to moths. For my own part I clung to Nipun’s Mum and Dad, directly behind Nipun and let the three of them deal with the bulk of the touts and braggarts, after all they had the advantage of speaking the local language. That didn’t stop a few making it through the front lines and on to me, but took care of the vast majority.

We had been warned by many people that Delhi was the city of scams and it took about thirty seconds for this to become apparent. We asked a smartly dressed young gentleman to point us in the general direction of the tourist office in the train station. After all, he was well turned out and had an almost official air about him. It transpired that it would be his pleasure to assist us as it could be a little tricky to find. And Delhi, he said casually, was a city of opportunists and conmen. “Follow me.” We did.

He led us up the stairs, across the platforms and into the car park. The touts flocked on every side.

“Auto rickshaw!!!”
“Taxi this way!!!”
“Good Hotels, come here.”
All at the same time, and from each point of the compass. Our good man led us further away from the station, striding confidently, a modern day John Wayne. But we were getting a bit suspicious because the tourist office was in the station and not across the road. When we pointed this out to him he shook his head dismissively and told us that the tourist office in the station was closed and under refurbishment, and had been for a few months now. When we spotted the sign for the International Tourist Office pointing back towards the station, he advised us that it hadn’t yet been taken down. We were dubious by this stage, but he looked us right in the eye and without even blinking continued to maintain that the refurb was well underway and there was no tourist office operating in the station. He pointed us to a scruffy old building just outside the car park where he was taking us to: “Government Approved Tourist Office.” That was where we needed to go. I would not have thought about it twice. Fortunately everyone else said that we should go back to the station and investigate ourselves. And upon investigation we found that the tourist office was alive and well, air-conditioned and full of semi-helpful staff. Semi. Oh how I laughed that evening when I started to read up on Delhi in the Rough Guide:
“New Delhi Railway Station is the worst place of all for touts; assume that anyone who approaches you here - even in uniform - with offers of help, or to direct you to the foreigners booking hall, is trouble - most are trying to lure travellers to fake “official” tourist offices opposite the Paharganj entrance, where you will end up paying way over the correct price, often for unconfirmed tickets.. Similarly, steer clear of all offices along Janpath that falsely claim to be Government Authorised.” In the same section it all also mentions that the touts will nonchalantly tell you that your hotel has closed down or was razed to the ground in a massive conflagration before taking you to another hotel of their choice, and commission.
We had just encountered our first scam… but fortunately managed to jump out of the frying pan before the full heat had been turned on.
We spent the following few days doing some of the Delhi sites, namely Qutb Minar Complex with it‘s 72.5 metre tower and intricate arches and ornamentation, the Lotus Temple or as it is properly known, the Baha’I Temple which has 27 white marble petltles opening up like a Lotus and then skirted the perimeter of the Red Fort before going to see India Gate. There is so much rich history and culture that it is difficult not to feel completely dumb struck. And then as you leave the temples you are back into the frantic rush, smells and sometimes outright claustrophobia of modern day Delhi.

We finished the day off at Akshar Dhan which is astounding. It has only been open for three years and as such it is not in some of the older Rough Guides or some of the maps. If it was not for Nipun’s parents we would have missed it entirely. The temple itself is vast and immensely ornate. The fact that it is new and shiny does not detract in anyway from its beauty and impact. As we had timed the visit in the evening we also managed to a sound and light tour that covered the history of. The lighting is very clever indeed and used to narrate the life and impact of on India. The tour ends with a themed boat ride which is a little contrived, but well worth the money for the narrative, lighting and technology. It is again one of India’s little idiosyncrasies, the temple and shows are ornate, clean and has had no expense spared. The moment you step outside though you are back into the chaos and bedlam that is Delhi.
Our last day in Delhi was spent organising the final details of our Agra and Jaipur trip. We took the Delhi Metro a couple of times which again proved to be modern, scrupulously clean and efficient. The crowd forms a single line files on either side of the door to get on the train whilst the people coming off the train have a designated area in the middle of these files. It works. You still have the occasional cretin jumping the queue, but compared to London it is really a jolly civil affair. There is a no food or drink policy on the train, music is not allowed so you need not worry about the twit next to you playing distorted MP3 tracks and the seats on either side of the carriage are reserved for the elderly on one side, and erm, Ladies on the other. Dwelling on the trains the security is pretty heavy too, everyone is patted down and electronically scanned before they reach the platform and all bags must be put through an x-ray machine. I guess if someone is determined to blow up a train then they’ll find a way to do, but it seems that the threat is being taken very seriously and with good cause to.
We finished off the day at the Red Fort and explored in a bit more depth. It could do with a bit of TLC but worth the visit and relatively calm amid the chaos of Delhi. I have mixed feelings now that we have left Delhi. On one hand there is so much history and culture as mentioned previously that it is awe inspiring. On the other it can be fiendishly dirty, claustrophobic and has a seemingly well deserved reputation for conmen and petty criminals. Then again we met some fantastic people along the way who displayed enormous hospitality. Delhi is compelling, and in spite of having left I cannot help but feel that we could have spent a month there and still only have scratched the surface.
We write this from Agra having just arrived at our hotel after a 5.30 start. It has just gone ten o’clock in the morning and we will be heading out to . Tomorrow we will have another dawn rise to see the Taj Mahal. More then.

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