New Delhi, the capital of India, and the second most populated city in the world (based on urban area, of course), boasting a population of just under 25 million. A city with a rich history that dates back to early 6th century BC, it’s a city that always seems to be alive with the sounds of traffic and people and the savory smells of street food and the repugnant smells of street gutters. A common phrase I heard from a number of locals was that, “If you’re not moving, you’re not making money,” and that very much seemed the case. It’s a city that if dropped off into the middle of it without any direction or instructions you would feel so overwhelmed that you might just sit down and decide to do nothing, but wouldn’t last long because eventually a local would come along and help you find your way.
“If you’re not moving, you’re not making money.”
We arrived 2:00 a.m. and were greeted at the airport by a wave of cab drivers circling around looking for their late night fare. The air was still sticky and warm as if once the sun went down it decided to quickly catch the city in a mason jar to preserve the heat, like you would do with fireflies on a warm summer night. India never seemed to want to cool down throughout our two weeks there, no matter what time of the day it was.
We had booked a room at the Holiday Inn our first night, since it was near the airport and we didn’t want to deal with the hassle of finding our way into the city that late at night. There was supposed to be a shuttle there to meet us, but after walking around for what seemed like an hour and asking multiple people for directions, we found ourselves shuttle-less. Reluctantly, I accepted a ride from a cab driver offering to take us there for 800 rupees, a sum that I assumed was way over priced, but at that hour I didn’t care how much it was. After arriving at the Holiday Inn and going through check-in, the receptionist asked if we enjoyed our transportation to the hotel. I told him that the taxi was fine, maybe a little cramped, but it wasn’t too far of a drive. The receptionist stared back at me.
“You mean, you didn’t use the driver we sent you?”
“I didn’t know there was a driver. Was there a driver?”
Exhaling, he picked up his phone, “Yes, we had a black car waiting for you. He must still be there.”
Rule number one of picking someone up at the airport: Let them know you’re picking them up from the airport.
Surprisingly, I was able to fall right to sleep, and slept straight through the night right up until 15 minutes before the free breakfast ended and we had to run down stairs to quickly grab what we could before it closed down. I will say, the service at the Holiday Inn was impressive. It seemed like every time I turned my head I heard, “Sir, may I get you anything?” Such politeness.
After booking our night train to Jodhpur with the help of the concierge and packing our packs, we hopped in an Uber and made for the Madpackers Hostel in the southern part of the city, near the Hauz Khas metro station. This was our first introduction to Delhi traffic, where there didn’t appear to be any lanes and everyone was giving each other a honk to let them know that they were coming. At one point, our driver actually tapped the bumper of the car in front of us, and after the driver got out and made a few angry gestures (in the middle of traffic, mind you), he retreated back to his car and we were on our way as if nothing happened.
One of the things I love most about backpacking anywhere is the little tasks you have to accomplish any time you’re in a new city. The feeling of stepping out into a new place and having to go through the steps of figuring out, “Okay, how do I get from where I am to where I’m staying? What’s the best way to get there? What direction do I even go?” It’s that feeling of small goals being accomplished each time you figure out how to navigate a new city, or overcome a small challenge that I love.
Our first challenge we had to overcome was getting dropped off in the wrong location by the Uber driver and having to figure out how to get to our hostel. After asking for directions from a couple of security cards who spoke little English, we decided to start walking in the direction where it seemed the street numbers were decreasing and getting closer to S-39A where our hostel was. We found it after about half an hour of walking, but that was the first task we accomplished in Delhi, and we were finally at the place we would be calling home for the next couple of days.
One of the things I love most about backpacking anywhere is the little tasks you have to accomplish any time you’re in a new city.
Madpackers New Delhi was located on the second and third floor of a large white building, with a roof top terrace overlooking the city and hand drawn art adorning the walls throughout the building. The community room consisted of a few couches with light throw pillows on each, a desk for checking in, and bulletin boards announcing upcoming events that people could list their name along the side as attendees. The event posted when we walked in was for a sunset stroll through a garden nearby and a street food tour through a local market.
After checking in we were taken to our private room, which was modest and consisted of just a mattress on the floor, a few pillows, and small closets to hold our clothes. The air conditioning didn’t seem to be working, but the stuffiness wasn’t unbearable and after setting our stuff down we set out to explore the hostel and sign up for the sunset tour since we weren’t sure what else we should do in this massive and busy city.
Chai was served at 5:00 p.m. and after having a cup of the sweet milky tea we set off on a tour of the market with a few other guests staying at the hostel. Our first introduction to the street food in India were momos, a ball of fried dough with vegetables similar to coleslaw on the inside and covered in an orange sauce. It was delicious, and for only 30 rupee we got 6 balls that the group devoured quickly and earnestly. Afterwards, we had a sweet dish that tasted like cinnamon, followed by a dough ball filled with a sweet liquid that you were supposed to down quickly like a shot. It wasn’t very good, and the juice was a bit overwhelming in how much was in there, and underwhelming in flavor. We ended up not seeing the sunset, but the market was a nice introduction to the food in India, and a casual evening as we prepared for the rest of our trip.
That night at the hostel we decided to forgo going to Agra at the end of our trip and instead take the hostel up on their offer of driving us to the Taj Mahal the following morning at 4:00 a.m. for 2,000 rupees. It just seemed easier to get it out of the way and ensure we didn’t accidentally misjudge our schedule and not have enough time to visit it. Also, it just seemed easier to have a ride provided for us rather than figure out the logistics of getting to Agra from Jaipur, get around Agra on our own, and then figure out a way to get from there to Delhi in time for our flight home. A few other people staying at the hostel signed up for the trip also, so it would give us an opportunity to meet other travelers.
Our Trip to Agra
4:00 a.m. wake up call. We actually had no trouble adjusting to the time difference, so falling asleep early and waking up early were not an issue. Three other travelers would be joining us on our trip to Agra: Valerie, a young blonde girl from Austria and had been traveling alone in India for the last few months, and Emily and Keira, who were two Canadian medical students on holiday break and planning on doing 5 countries in 5 weeks.
The drive to Agra was uneventful, outside the window the countryside was flat and barren, with smoke stacks standing off in the distance and billowing black smoke into the wind. A number of people were standing in the shoulder of the road, some of them running and others just idly standing around waiting for something that I never saw what. We caught our driver dozing off a couple of times along the stretch of empty roads, and suggested that we pull over for a coffee at the next available stop. I think he thought we said we wanted coffee, because when we finally stopped he got out and used the restroom and left us to go order coffee from a small stand nearby. The coffee was okay, nothing special, but it was a hot drink and provided a little pick me up for the 3 hour drive to Agra. The driver later started watching Youtube videos off his phone, which I guess is better than falling asleep, but still didn’t make us feel too confident that we wouldn’t crash on the way to the Taj.
We arrived in Agra around 7:00 a.m. and the city was already alive with honking, people crossing the street playing their own form of Frogger, and cows lying across the road without a care in the world. Street vendors met us at the entrance to the grounds, small children peddling tiny trinkets of elephants on keychains and snow globes with the Taj Mahal inside. Older men offered their services as a guide throughout the Taj Mahal, promising that they were certified and that we would not understand what we were seeing without their assistance. We declined all offers, but that didn’t mean that they didn’t follow us until the ticketing counter trying to sell us on their services.
Now, I’ve visited a few of the Seven Wonders of the World, and each one was just as impressive as the last, but nothing quite prepared me for when we turned the corner and witnessed the Taj Mahal for the first time. It truly was a marvel of the world and words won’t quite do justice for how beautiful and massive it actually was. In pictures it seems impressive, symmetrical and marvelous, but in person it stands out against the backdrop of a white sky like a tear drop from heaven.
Construction finished in 1653 and the Taj Mahal served as the resting tomb for the Shah Jahan’s late wife, who passed away during the birth of their child. It took 22 years to complete and cost the equivalent 827 million dollars in modern day currency, and shortly after construction was complete the Shah was overthrown by his son and spent the remaining years of his life in the Agra Fort, only able to view his masterpiece from the window of his confines.
The sheer scale and beauty of the Taj is difficult to comprehend. Adorning the Taj were intricate calligraphy of Persian poetry and passages from the Qur’an. The black writing going up along side the entrances change in size and grows larger the further up you look, so as to give the impression that the size remains constant no matter where you are viewing from. The white marble almost appears as if it were carved out of a single stone with how intricately it was put together and flows throughout the entire structure, and the gardens surrounding help to add to the beauty and symmetry of the amazing monument. The towers surrounding the dome tilt unnoticeably outwards, so as to collapse away from the dome incase of an earthquake.
Walking around the grounds we were experienced our first of many instances of locals asking us for photographs, as small children ran up and asked if they could have a picture with us humble tourists. Of course, we obliged, and would continue to throughout our trip with only a few occurrences where we turned down the offer for a photograph for a variety of reasons. At the entrance of the tomb we were asked to remove our shoes and proceed inside where we could see the final resting place of Shah and his beloved wife lying behind a fine screen carved out of marble.
From all angles the Taj Mahal appeared beautiful and massive, and again no words can really do the structure justice as to how marvelous it was, and how oddly it stood in the middle of seemingly nowhere. We spent a couple of hours just marveling at the construction, and left it appreciating that we had seen one of the true wonders of the world in person.
For the rest of the trip, whenever a local would ask what we thought of the Taj Mahal, I would always say, “Ah, man it was amazing. Thank you for much for building that it was really great.” Usually, I would get a confused look back, but most of them would get excited and exclaim, “Oh, yeah! No problem!”
Back at the car, we found our driver asleep in the front seat, dozing off in the early morning hours with a couple of stray dogs sleeping beneath the undercarriage of our car. We decided to let them all sleep for a little longer, and went inside a small restaurant for breakfast. A child followed us for more than 15 minutes trying to negotiate a price for his elephant keychains, leading me to start eventually negotiating the price higher and higher to see if he would go along with it. He did, and he was persistent, but in the end I did not buy any of his trinkets.
We spent the next couple of hours at the Agra Fort, an impressive red fort adjacent to the Taj Mahal and could be viewed from many of the rooms facing the Yamuna River. It was over 100 degrees outside though, so more than anything we hung around in the shaded passages, looking at over the grounds of the fort and the numerous people walking around.
It was another 3 hour ride back to Delhi in a car filled with stories of our various travels and life back home. We returned back to the hostel where we all went our separate ways for a little bit and rested after the long days journey. Later that day, I went with Valeria to the Delhi train station, hoping that by traveling with a more experienced India traveler I could get a feel for the local metro travel to help in the future when we needed to get around.
The metro was honestly better than I had anticipated, and probably better even then my local metro at home (sorry, Marta). I noticed that the intercom stated a familiar British phrase to all of the passengers as it reminded everyone to, “Please mind the gap.” On the metro is when I encountered my first random act of kindness from the locals. As I stood in line waiting to go through the metal detector, a local came and tapped me on the shoulder and told me I could go ahead, since I didn’t have a bag that I needed to pass through security, saving me a good 5 minute wait in a long line. It was a small gesture, but all the same, I was grateful that they noticed a foreign traveler unfamiliar with the local customs and rules and decided to lend a helping hand out of common courtesy.
The Delhi metro station was as busy and large as I had expected, with street noise echoing into the main station bouncing off the throngs of people making their way to their designated trains. No one paid us any mind as we made our way through the station, trying to find the office for foreign travelers so Valerie could get her 3 day ticket to Bangalore. We found it, and there in the office we saw an older gentleman do an impressive pushup in the middle of the office for what seemed like no reason at all other than to show off his old man strength. If I could understand the conversation I imagine it went something along the lines of, “Hey, look what I can do!”
Valerie and I talked about the differences between the metro in Atlanta in this one, and she seemed completely puzzled by the news that in Atlanta it was unwise to take MARTA west and south towards the airport and that the neighborhoods were unsafe to visit. “We don’t have that problem in Austria, it’s all safe neighborhoods,” she said. I wish that was the case in Atlanta, but the reality of the situation was just that there were some parts that were safe to visit, and some that were not. It was interesting to learn that it was such a foreign concept in another country though, the idea that some places were safer to visit than others and gun ownership was justified for that very reason.
The following morning, Emily, Mollie and I and our new Italian friend Lupo decided to go on the Delhi Belly food tour. Sponsored by the hostel, it took us through Old Delhi and introduced us to some of the local food and sites that we might not otherwise have seen on our own. We took the metro to the Old Delhi Station, and our first stop was a small stand that was set in the corner of side streets and narrow ally ways. The hostel guide told us that this is the real Delhi, the Delhi that shows what life has really been like for centuries, built on top of older generations of construction with power lines almost seeming to hang freely overhead like a loose bundle of cables in a forgotten drawer.
The stand served us lotan chole kulcha, a dish made of chick peas and special bread. It was spicy, but delicious and a great way to shock the senses in the early morning. We were told that you couldn’t get this dish anywhere else in Delhi, and that this stand was famous for it, which was apparent from the long line of locals waiting to get their breakfast there.
Later, we stopped by a sweet shop and had nagori halwa, a crusty pastry that you stuffed ground up mango and cinnamon into it. It was delicious and very sweet, complimenting the previously spicy meal we had earlier. From there, we took a tuk tuk to have tea in the spice market, samosas, and lassi from various street vendors. It was all delicious, but in the eat the food started wearing us down, so we sought refuge at the roof of the spice market in the shade of a tower. There, we talked to the hostel guides about daily life in India, the tradition of arranged marriages, and the overall history of the city and the various rulers that once served as kings in the region.
Afterwards, we sat down for a large meal of Indian stuffed prantha’s at Parantha Wali Gali, a local favorite spot that absolutely made us tip the scale in regards to how full we actually were. An Indian family next to us asked where we were from and after saying America I asked him and he replied, “Me too! From Indiana.” Of course, I didn’t believe him, but it was a nice play on words all the same. We made our way back to hostel via Uber to escape the heat and relax before our night train at 11:15 p.m. that night.
Overall, Delhi was quite the experience and shock to the senses. Like I said earlier, if you had dropped me off in the middle of the city with no directions or sense of purpose I probably would have remained forever lost in the hustle of one of the world’s largest and busiest cities. I’m both happy and sad that we only stayed for a couple days. Happy in the sense that we got to experience just a little bit of the largest city in India and the capital before retreating to smaller cities along our journey, but sad that we didn’t get to spend more time exploring the side streets and alleys that were chalked full of surprises around each turn. Perhaps when I return to India I’ll spend a couple days there before jetting off to a different region of the beautiful and diverse country.
One observation that I had was that walking around the streets and train stations it was very apparent that we were foreigners in this country. Everywhere you went eyes followed you in the crowd, acknowledging silently that you were not from there. It occurred to me that this type of standing out wouldn’t happen in America, where the country is compiled of so many different people from all types of backgrounds that walking around the streets it’s nearly impossible to tell who is a foreigner, who is a traveler, and who is a local. To me, everyone is just an American. A member of a diverse population of immigrants. Which, gave me a sense of pride, how diverse we were as a country, but also gave me a sense of sadness at the recent events trying to block people from other countries from coming to ours. It just seemed against all of the ideals that we were founded on, as a beacon of freedom for the rest of the world and a place where no matter where you’re from you can come here and be an American just like everyone else.
That night we started our journey to Jodhpur via a night train. That experience and story I’ll save for another time, but it was definitely one of the only times where I was legitimately worried about the situation we found ourselves in.