(It’s been a while since the last installment – when you last read I had hopped on a bus and was heading towards Delhi)
Delhi overwhelmed in two waves. The first hit as our bus crested a rural overpass. The air changed, suddenly. The rotten-eggs smell of sulfur and a caustic, congesting density attacked every breath. The culprits dotted the flat plain – smokestacks; ‘industry.’ As we neared Noida the air became slightly more bearable, and the smokestacks were replaced with collections of high-rises; lonely, empty dreams of utopia set in the haze.
The second wave hit stepping out of our rikshaw into the sheer human mass of Paharganj’s Main Bazaar Road. There were just so many people. People standing, people walking, people talking, people yelling, people selling, people people people. Navigating wearily through the crowds and alleys to our guesthouse we lost track of daylight. Overhead, the buildings came together, the last gaps in between filled by a tangled mess of insulated electrical wires and neighbourly conversations; an urban cocoon.
We were tired, but managed to get in a good meal before crashing in the room.
We woke up late; it felt good. After a refreshing breakfast of curd, muesli, honey and fresh fruit we set out to better explore the back alleys and back back alleys of Paharganj. We spent what was left of the morning wandering aimlessly through the mess of streets (shamefully using Google Maps to get un-lost at more than one point).
Compared to Jaipur, the people of Delhi were almost too willing to help. As we wandered around Paharganj we were approached by a few people all too ready to point us in the direction of their favourite malls and sights, confused at why we would want to walk around Paharganj. One particularly tenacious young guy led us talkatively through some streets out of Paharganj and on to a main road lined with luxury sari and carpet shops.
Though he might have been confused about why we were wandering around those streets the truth is I was more than slightly awestruck by them and by Paharganj. Off the main bazaar road, I have never been anywhere where people go about their normal lives in as dense an environment. Kids running around, playing, bathing under pipes snaking their way down from some sunlit world overhead. Pushcarts and scooters inching through the tiny alleys. Storeys of conversations, phone calls, hailing neighbours and chaiwalas chants filter through the corridors. Street food outlets are packed tight into the numerous nooks and crannies left over from the maze of buildings, their kerosene stoves burning bright.
After lunch, we went to look around some of Delhi’s sights: the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid. Both were impressive, though I was a little bit too tired to be fully engaged.
The evening we spent in and around Connaught Place, the heart of British-era Delhi. We found a great dinner place nearby, a traditional Indian family-style place specializing in all forms of chicken.
I got more energy back after dinner as the city cooled down. As we were heading to another part of Delhi the next day I wanted to take one last walk around Paharganj at night.
Our second day’s morning started out even lazier than the first. We left the room, checked out, ate breakfast (missed the lunch menu by 15 minutes) and started heading south towards our new hostel in Hauz Khas. That drive showed us an entirely different Delhi. This Delhi was all about parkland, wide open spaces and luxury. The drive took us past the back side of the presidential palace and through the embassy quarter beyond. Ornate walled compounds lined the avenue for kilometers; their grounds were lush and green.
We arrived and checked into our hostel. I liked it almost immediately. It had the familiar ring of some of my favourite European hostels, an open and welcoming space that, despite it being prime sight-viewing time, was full.
Though that traveler enclave beckoned, we set out once more. I’m glad we did.
The Lotus Temple is India’s largest of the Baha’i faith. Its modern petals rise out of a green field, ringed by the angular geometry of nine tiled pools. The experience is highly managed from start to finish, with one permitted path coming and going. At the entryway to the temple, visitors are grouped together (in lines! – a rarity in India) by welcoming but firm hosts. Inside it is quiet. Large marble pews radiate around an off-centre stage, and large windows blur the line between inside and out. The petals’ spines draw the eyes upwards to the crown high above. And yet the space is intimate, personal and in many ways unremarkable.
We spent the evening hanging out with the hostel crowd, drinking beers and swapping stories on the rooftop patio.
Day 3 and 4
I spent the rest of my time in Delhi between my bed and the bathroom. I guess some of the street food got to me, despite my ego-fueled assumption that I would be fine after 3 months of conditioning in Hubli. I guess I was wrong. Delhi belly strikes again.
We left early in the morning on day 4, starting our long journey back to Hubli.
Delhi wasn’t half bad. Actually, I enjoyed myself there. I’d spent the week before hearing from everyone and their cousin that Delhi would disappoint. People in Hubli flat out asked me why I would want to go there. I guess that’s the key: if you want to go to Delhi, make sure people give you rock-bottom expectations before hand.