When we stepped off the modern airport express metro line which brought us from Indira Gandhi International Airport into New Delhi, we were confident we could find our way to our hotel with ease – things looked simple enough. It seems though that the metro had lured us into a false sense of security, giving us a soft and gentle introduction to the city of Delhi that was quite the polar-opposite of what we were about to be confronted with. Bleary-eyed but alert, nothing could prepare us for the rollercoaster of emotions that engulfed us within seconds of exiting the station. Any chance of finding our feet or getting our bearings vanished in an instant.
Utter chaos surrounded us in every direction. The well-known saying that India is an ‘assault on the senses’ is most definitely true and Delhi was no exception. We looked left, then right, before repeating the process for the next few minutes and making our very best attempt to cross the road in front of us. Crossing it would lead to the railway station which was supposedly the direction we needed to head in to reach our hotel. As we carefully placed one foot in front of the other, we were presented with the deafening sounds of beeping horns, grizzling car engines and animated locals jostling with each other to pass by taxi’s, trucks, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, tuk tuks and rickshaws. Rules of the road seemed non-existent to us but I am sure that everyone knew exactly where they were going, not forgetting the cows roaming the street who seemed to move to their own tune. Alongside the chaos, we were without doubt not quite as mentally prepared for the sudden exposure to such raw scenes of urban poverty. But then how do you prepare yourself to witness human beings sitting amid the pungent and overpowering smells of excessive rubbish, open drains and human and animal waste? The question as to whether this was living or existing entered my mind.
As much as we liked to think we were prepared and clued up on the numerous scams that are reportedly bestowed on tourists on arrival in Delhi; confused and growing weary, we began to accept the advice of a seemingly well-meaning stranger who ‘helped’ to point us in the right direction. Without realising it we had been taken advantage of within the space of ten minutes. A ‘friendly’ man helped us into one particular tuk tuk, whose driver then took us to a dark and dusty car park where a fake security guard with a dubious government of India security pass attempted to con us out of money, citing that it was too dangerous to enter the road our hotel was on. Something about riots – a scam we had not long before reminded ourselves about on the plane! We consciously kept our cool as the man became increasingly frustrated and aggressive. Eventually he gave up on us and after pleading for the driver to at least take us to a main road, he agreed. We quickly walked away not having parted with a single rupee, much to their disappointment. The light had all but faded and what bearings we did have were completely gone. We were stranded in what felt like a very unsavoury part of the city and were still none the wiser as to how to get to our hotel. After struggling to find street signs and with our trust in rickshaw drivers now temporarily shattered we ended up using our mobile phone to call our hotel who offered to speak to a tuk-tuk driver on our behalf and insist that he deliver us to our hotel.
This was not quite the introduction to India we had hoped for and naturally we quickly became distrusting of the kindness of strangers which in all sincerity is not a very nice feeling. However, after a long and deep sleep in our hotel in traveller hub, Paharganj, and some leftover Jelly Babies from the plane journey, we brushed ourselves off and set out in search of Delhi’s Red Fort.
We tried our luck again with a tuk-tuk and this time the driver took us directly where we wanted to go without passing go and without trying to collect anything from us other than what had been agreed. For this we thanked him profusely. We encountered another scam-merchant en-route to the Red Fort who hopped into our tuk-tuk uninvited and after plenty of pleasantries and questions about where we were from and where we were going next, insisted that our tuk-tuk could not go to the entrance to the Fort and that we would need to get in another one which surprise-surprise he was willing and able to offer us. We soon got rid of him and were on our way again. Whizzing past other tuk-tuks, cars and motorbikes we narrowly missed squishing the feet of women and children pushing past. We hit a traffic jam where no one was going anywhere fast and coughed from the fumes as a thick coating of dust lined our mouths. Several hurried locals climbed through empty tuk-tuks rather than wait for the vehicles to disperse. From the corner of our eyes flashes of blurry but bright, vivid colours from sarees worn by women caught our gaze, before a sweet smell of masala chai wafted past us – it was surprisingly comforting.
Inside the Red Fort the crowds dispersed and we discovered a haven away from the hustle and bustle outside the walls. It was a Sunday afternoon and we looked on as families wandered around the grounds and relaxed in the expansive gardens. We entered the Fort through Lahore Gate, which as the name suggests looks towards Lahore in Pakistan. The gate itself is significant because it was here that the Indian flag was raised in 1947 when India became independent from Britain. The Fort was originally built during the Mughal dynasty’s reign in 1600’s and was founded by Shah Jahan. Sadly for him he didn’t get much chance to enjoy the palatial surroundings because his very disloyal son decided to imprison him in Agra Fort! Walking around the maze of palaces, pavilions and gardens is an interesting way to learn more about how the Mughals lived. The Diwan-i-Am, the Hall of Public Audiences, was particularly striking with its huge smooth deep red columns which once would have had heavy red curtains hanging on them to block out the sunlight.
The Museum on India’s Struggle for Freedom was an interesting addition to the Fort. Inside we learned about the challenges Mahatma Gandhi or ‘Gandhiji’, as he is known out of respect in India, faced in the years following his return from working in South Africa and his subsequent wanderings around India. The Museum focused on the callous massacre of a crowd of unsuspecting people who had gathered on Baisakhi on 13 April 1919 inside Jallianwalla Bagh, an enclosed space in Amritsar, Punjab. A thousand people are said to have been killed when Brigadier-General Dyer ordered troops to fire on the crowd.
After exploring the Red Fort we visited Raj Ghat, a large, open and attractive space with a simple memorial to Gandhi centred below the walkways which look down onto it. An eternal flame burns in his memory and locals and tourists alike can choose to remove their shoes and walk through to pay their respects.A bite to eat in trendy and modern Connaught Place gave us a surface-level insight into the startling gap between the wealthy and poor, and the huge differences in the way people dress and act. Traditional and conservative on the one hand, the modern middle-class on the other, and now another group of people – young and decidedly ultra-modern in solely Western clothes and shopping at expensive designer stores.
Delhi has been an eye opener in many ways and there is certainly more to see than our brief visit has allowed for. Despite this, once is certainly enough. It can be difficult taking to cities that are not made for walking around and this one certainly isn’t. I think it’s time to escape to the hills with our lives still intact.