08.06.2012 - 13.06.2012 42 °C
We left ourselves five nights in Delhi to finish up our time in India. We planned to do some serious souvenir shopping and see the sights of Delhi and Agra. Helena's parents, having taken pity on our tales from Rishikesh, kindly offered to pay for a decent hotel for us in Delhi, and boy did we appreciate a comfortable bed, fully effective (and quiet) aircon, mini bar and satellite TV!!
What to say about Delhi? Well, it has some decent parts and clearly there are Indians here with money as evidenced by the chauffeur-driven cars, the designer shops and the big houses in the nice suburbs. But Delhi is still very much Indian in that it is chaotic, dirty, and crowded. We were staying in Connaught Place, one of the city's nicest areas, and everywhere we looked things were half-finished: huge trenches in the streets for goodness knows what maintenance (we never saw workmen in them), electrical cables and steel wiring poking out of gaps in the pavement and the edges of buildings, dusty mud everywhere. It makes Shanghai look extremely sophisticated!
Connaught Place - one of Delhi's swishest areas. Indian chaos still reigns!
We managed to cover various state markets, government souvenir shops and the usual selection of backpacker tat shops during our stay. As we had done in Oz and Hong Kong, we sent a package of souvenirs home from Delhi on our last day - however, the ritual of preparing the package for sending was unlike anything we had ever seen before. The Post Office will not sell you a box - they instead point you to a guy who has a small stall just outside the front door of the building. The guy fished out a rather battered box that had been used at least three times before and we filled it with our wares. He then began to weave his magic - literally: He cut the box to a perfect snug size and then wrapped it in white linen fabric, which he proceeded to hand stitch around the box, forming a sealed and very aesthetically-pleasing package. It took fully 20 minutes and he was giving us banter the whole time about his work and the European football championships as he deftly stitched up the mummy-box. The price for all this? Just under EUR 2. We laughed as we remembered that last time we sent a package from Brussels we paid more than that just for the box to send it in, and then were told in the post office we'd have to buy a roll of Sellotape to seal it as well!! India - the land of customer service!
India is also the land of scams, as we were reminded when we went into the PO with our linen-clad box. The guy behind the counter weighed the package then demanded our passports and 20 rupees for photocopying. Helena handed it over, only to have another PO worker come up a minute later and say that a photocopy of the passport would be required and would cost a rupee. She saw red, and when PO worker number one returned she very publicly explained to him that photocopies do not cost 20 rupees and demanded her money back. The guy actually looked sheepish and handed the money back. He seemed to be getting a hard time about it from his colleagues; he in turn was abusing his fellow worker for letting the cat out of the bag on the real copying charges!
The classified pages of Delhi newspapers are full of adverts seeking brides and husbands. The details are incredible, with separate sections for every caste, every regional identity, every religion and even professions. Details provided include height, appearance, education/earning potential, and precise date and time of birth to allow a matchmaking assessment to be made
The sights of Delhi were no great shakes. We saw the Red Fort, which was nowhere near as nice as the buildings we had seen in Rajahstan, and the Jama Masjid mosque - also not as good as we had hoped.
Scenes from the Red Fort
A crazy Hindu temple in Delhi
We did enjoy a trip to Gandhi Smriti, the Gandhi museum, which is on the site where the great man lived his final months and was ultimately assassinated by a Hindu fanatic. It is inspiring to learn about a lawyer who made such an incredible contribution and is held in such esteem by his nation and beyond. Much like with Mother Teresa, it is very humbling to see the spartan room in which Gandhi lived with a mattress and a small writing desk, and the meagre display of the worldly possessions he left behind. He was in every respect a true man of the people.
Gandhi's room at Gandhi Smriti
The last steps of the great man
As always, in Delhi we enjoyed the food. We found plenty of good Indian food, including delicious sweets and chaat at Haldiram's just round the corner from our hotel, south Indian food at another joint on Connaught Place, and - ok - Domino's Pizza and Costa coffee. One night we saw a huge queue at a hole in the wall on Connaught Place and found out it was the local milkshake joint: we joined the queue and were rewarded with delicious ice cold mango and vanilla shakes served in old school 400ml glass milk bottles.
Enjoying south Indian dosa in Delhi
Our thoughts on India
We have spent five weeks in India and there are no doubt many who would say that it is nowhere near enough to know the country. Still, five weeks have given us lots of impressions and an idea of what kind of country India is.
When telling people we were going to India, those who had been would consistently tell us "it's very, very poor" to such an extent that it almost lost its meaning. Also, having been in China just before, we thought we were used to "poor". But, as it would turn out, nothing could really prepare us for the poverty in India. It is everywhere and it affects everything. We read somewhere that the official definition of poor in India is a daily income of less than 28 rupees, which is the equivalent of 0.4 euros. A bottle of water cost just over half of that. Never have we seen more people with absolutely nothing. The contrast to China is considerable - the material standard there being so much higher. It is surprising that these two countries are even mentioned in the same breath. India has a long way to go before it is where China is today.
Just like in China, we stand out and we are very often a target for hawkers and beggars. This really gets to you, even when you try to keep in mind that there are more things at stake here - there is no system to look after those who are poor and they have learnt that foreigners are likely to pay more. On the other hand, Indians are some of the friendliest people we have met. We have often been met by warmth and a great sense of humour and incredible service. There India beats China every time! Indians are also incredibly zen. They live on top of each other and still they seem so calm. Sadly, the approaches of friendly people often drown in those of insistent hawkers and we have probably pushed away decent people thinking they were just after our money.
The friendliness is one highlight, the food another. All this chat about the best Indian food being served in London, is simply not true. The best Indian food is served in India; we have eaten so well, at such a low cost, during our five weeks here.
A final highlight of India - strangely for a pair of non-religious travellers like us - is the spirituality of India. There is a whole spectrum of religions across India, living side-by-side, and every Indian wears their religious colours with pride. Wherever you go, the rituals of religion give India incredible vibrancy and colour. We loved the Bhuddist monasteries of Darjeeling, the crazy Hindu ceremonies of Varanasi, the Islamic architecture and sounds of Rajahstan, and the music and communal eating of the Sikhs' golden temple in Punjab. The Hindu "holy men" who try to paint travelllers' foreheads and then demand money are no doubt annoying, but Indian Hindus will constantly give rupees to holy men in return for blessings, honk their horns and rub their ears as they drive past holy temples, light incense, ring bells, chant, and generally do whatever they can to improve their karma. And particularly in Hinduism and Sikkhism, music underpins all the rituals: the tone-rich beat of tablas, the tune of the hand-pumped organ or sitar, and the melodic chanting that accompanies it. Indian music is the best we have heard travelling and much of it is linked to religion.
So be prepared to be unprepared for what India will throw at you. But the highlights are truly exceptional.