Rather than launch ourselves fully into India from the moment of arrival, we opted to spend four slow-paced transition days in Old Delhi to get over jetlag, to acclimatize to the heat and get to know the basic operating skills of our host country. Our first impressions of India began at the Indira Gandhi International Airport when we arrived on 20 October, just before midnight. After a long uneventful flight from Edmonton (through Vancouver and Hong Kong) we disembarked into a pleasing modern airport, and soon met our first wall of frustration. We descended into to a packed Arrivals hall to find only three officials attending. There was no one guiding people to the correct lines, no one to keep things organized and there a general trend of confusion and frustration. People were regularly trying to jump the queue, so our time was spent fending off the intruders and friendly banter among the more (barely) patient travelers. Even though more officials (some arrogant and ill-mannered) did show up eventually, it still took almost 3 hours to get through customs. By the time we picked up our luggage and a free BSNL SIM card, our pre-arranged ride to the hotel was gone. We eventually sorted this out with the help of a friendly† taxi driver, and we were whipped away from the airport in the hotel minivan to arrive at the Hindustan-by Backpacker’s Heaven by about 430 AM.
After the good people left us to get comfortable in our room…well, honestly, those first few days are a murky hash of memories. Yuet had arranged for budget accommodations close to the New Delhi Train Station in what turned out to be one of the seedier areas of Delhi, the underbelly neighbourhood of Paharganj. Even Delhi Tourism calls it, “…Chaotic, noisy and dirty“, as if that somehow adds to the appeal. Off the popular and dirty main bazaar are even more squalid side streets, where everything from food preparation to bicycle repairs happens at street level amongst garbage, cow dung, and indescribable filth. Our jet-lagged brains were inundated with the aromas of exotic foods and fragrant spices contrasting with the odours of trash, urine, and shit. Our nights were plagued with blaring music being played through pairs of massive speakers in the narrow lane below our hotel room, and the mornings woken by the calls of the muezzin. and the clamour of bells from Hindu shrines. If we wanted a no-holds-barred impression of India, we had indeed chosen the best place to start…
During our last days in Paharganj, we did venture out to explore more of Delhi. We had our first auto-rickshaw trips through the raucous crowded streets, our first attempts at bargaining, our first wary endeavours finding the best (read ‘safest”) place to eat. However, the highlights of these first introductory days came at historic sites where we first found some respite from the mass of humanity: and we began at the Red Fort, Lāl Qila.
The Red Fort was constructed in 1639 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame. The fort sits covers over 250 acres of land, making it the largest historic site in Delhi. Most visitors stay on the main drag, but it is worthwhile walking along the periphery to find some truly quiet areas, some of it abandoned and overgrown and well worth a visit for the more adventurous photographer.
Next: Humayun’s Tomb and the Lodi Gardens.