Wednesday, March 27, 2013

New Delhi: Quick Visit Story

i spent the past 7weeks in India (Jan.-Feb.), mostly in the very far north. It was my third trip, and also the most adventurous of travel. i was traveling with a friend from Rome, a buddy i had known for more than 8years. i'm American, he's a Dane from Sweden, we both live in Italy where we both work in tourism. On paper i think we made a funny pair and often had fun explaining the complexity of who we were and where we were from.

On my previous trips i had nearly completely avoided New Delhi, leaving immediately upon arrival and returning only with enough time to make my flight out. This time though, my friend, Kristian, and i had one day and a half to explore!

New Delhi Grand Bazaar
We arrived into New Delhi in the 2nd week of January. We stayed there at The Smyle Inn, a great backpacker's hotel in the Pahar Ganj area of the Main Bazaar. In the past i've paid $20 and even $50 per night for hotels in New Delhi that were not significantly better than Smyle Inn, despite the cost of just $10 or so per night. i found Smyle Inn to be relatively clean, have reliable hot water showers, plus free wifi and, in the day time, free computers to use. Plus, it was easy walking distance to one of the main train stations of New Delhi (be careful though, there are two) and a 300rupee ($6) taxi ride from the airport.

i personally had not done any research about traveling in India. Like my past two trips, i intended to go straight to the peaceful, holy towns of the foothills of the Himalayas and just hang out there. So, i had no plans for Delhi. Smyle Inn (like most hotels there) had a little travel agency office, selling tours and drivers and stuff like that. My friend Kristian and i bought a car tour of the major sites of the city for 1000rupees, and then split it with a Canadian kid (Mike) that was also staying at the hotel. No tour guide, just a driver to take us from site to site and explore on our own. This would be for the following morning, our first full day in India.

So that afternoon we decided to go out for a walk through the Main Bazaar and Connaught Place area. The Bazaar was a chaotic hot mess of souvenirs stands, shopping and celebration of kitch, mixed with the characteristic color (both literal and figurative)

New Delhi YMCA Hostel
i had had noticed, as i searched for and found Smyle Inn on TripAdvisor, that the YMCA had a hostel nearby, so being a long time fan and former employee of the Y, we hiked there to check it out. It was a drab little compound, with fascinating propaganda signs around outside of it. i went in and talked to the people in reception, telling them i'd worked for the Y in the States. They didn't care. i asked if i could see the hostel rooms. They were the same as the rooms in all the other nice-ish Indian hotels i've stayed at, except they cost triple the price. i went to see the gym - it was a normal, if dumpy-ish, gym like any other i've seen.

On the walk there, which probably took 25minutes, people (all men or boys, actually) would constantly come up to us or, more often, come start walking near us, stare at us, and eventually begin a dialogue with one of the following lines:

"Which country?"
"Where going?"
"Need hotel? / Need taxi? / Need marijuana?"
"You come see my shop? You come see my shop! Where going? WHERE GOING!"

They would just walk right up and start saying these things. Sometimes it was just curiosity, but mostly they were trying to sell us something. We tried many various responses, mostly trying different ways to be friendly but explain we were definitely not interested in anything they were selling, but it never changed their dialogue - they were like broken records. Once we engaged their attention in any way, nothing short of complete rudeness or increasing our speed nearly to a run would get them to go away. Not that we ever felt any threat, it's just annoying to have a broken record on legs walk next to you when you're trying to walk around or have a conversation. i bet this happened 20 times during this one walk!

View from Jama Masjud Mosque minaret, Red Fort in background.
The next day we were off on our car tour. Me, Kristian, and our Canadian-buddy-for-the-day, Mike. The hotel had arranged an itinerary through the well-beaten tourist path. We let this bring us to The Red Fort (worth seeing, but overpriced and kinda lousy on the inside), and Humayun's Tomb (completely lame, not worth it), but these places really seemed just like tourist traps.

Inside Jama Masjud Mosque, New Delhi, India
Near the Red Fort though, the driver directed us how to walk a few hundred yards through the Meena Bazaar to the Jama Masjid Mosque. Though not the most amazing mosque i've ever been in, it was beautiful and nice to visit. One perk was climbing one of the minaret towers for a view out over the city. (Be warned, we were told that the entry price, maybe 200rupees if my memory serves me, included everything, but there was in fact another fee to climb the tower inside.) The view from up there was fantastic.

The most interesting encounter we had there was with the Muslim man who accepted donations for watching your shoes during your visit, since you weren't allowed to wear them inside. He even put our shoes behind a little platform behind where we were sitting, saying, "Special place, foreigner shoes."  We we came out he asked with a smile how it had been and we said it was nice. Speaking, i think, of Muslims he then said, "Yes, we nice. Just Pakistan bad." (Perhaps, or perhaps not, relevant for context: some Pakistani soldiers had just killed an Indian soldier along the desputed Kashmiri border between those two countries the day before.) i think we paid him just 10rupees each for his unsolicited service, which would total little more than 50cents American, and he seemed happy with this.
Rajghat, site of Mahatma Gandhi's funeral, New Delhi, India

We asked our driver to take us to Gandhi Smriti, the site where the "great soul," Mahatma Gandhi was assasinated in 1948. This was our first attempt to get him off our assigned itinerary and he either didn't know where it was or refused to take us there, taking us instead to the Rajghat, the site of Gandhi's funeral. It was a solemn and moving, if minimalist, site. i'm glad we went there, and in the end i guess it is a better feeling to have gone to where he was celebrated instead of where his earthly life was ended. Here is a video tribute to his life with images of his massive funeral at this site.

Of my two favorite sites in the city though, one did not seem touristy at all, and the other was not included in our itinerary at all and took some real convincing of the driver to take us there (though perhaps this was simply because it was far away from everything else and took a long time to get to.)

Bahai Lotus Temple, New Delhi, India
The first was the Bahai Lotus Temple. It is a beautiful place, but a purely spiritual one. At the entrance a volunteer representative of the temple explains a little of the history and background of the faith and of the temple, says that photography is discouraged inside, but that you can stay for prayer, meditation or contemplation for as long as you want. i took advantage of this opportunity and had quite a nice session of meditation, finding some much-needed calm and happiness away from the chaos of New Delhi. i have a few good friends that are Bahai, and this beautiful temple and my peaceful experience made me think of them and our friendship. Those friends are from England and Ireland, and i know that the faith spun out of Islam in Iran in the 19th century, so i had no reason to expect to find so much info and peace from that particular faith in India, but i did and i was glad.

Akshardam Hindu Temple, New Delhi, India, photo from Wikipedia.
The other of my favorite sites was also quite a surprise to find, as it was a modern Hindu Darshan, or temple. What was surprising is that a) it was dazzlingly new, having been finished just about 8years ago, and b) that it was unlike any other active Hindu temple i'd been to in that it was calm inside. No priests bindi-raping people and begging for rupees, no pushy crowds of devotees stumbling over each other to get near statues of devas. It was a calm, clean, wonderful place...that did not allow any photography. So i share with you only this one photo from Wikipedia, but it fails to give a good idea of how beautiful and spiritual the site was. Like most other places of Hindu worship, it struck me as a bit overdedicated to their sect's founder, Swaminarayan, as opposed to focusing on Brahma and/or Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, but that is the same sort of distraction i find throughout Christianity. Scheduling even half a day here alone would make sense, as there were so many various parts to the temple and museum complex, including films, other multimedia presentations, and a good bookstore.

Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, New Delhi, India, after Qawwali.
Photo by Kristian
All day long i'd been telling my friends that at least part of the reason the driver was resistentent to doing anything that wasn't in our program is that at the end he was surely hoping to bring us to a shop where he would get paid for bringing us plus a percentage of our purchases as kickback. Sure enough, after Akshardam, he explained to us that now he would take us to a "very nice" shop where we don't have to buy anything, free tea, "only looking." But Kristian had read in Lonely Planet about the sublime quality of the Sufi style Qawwali music at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, burial site of one of Islam's most famous saints. The driver, a Hindu man, feigned not knowing what were talking about. So we showed him the address on a map. "That will not interest you," he said, he started talking about the shop again. But we insisted, and he so he dropped us off, shortly after dusk, at the edge of that Muslim neighborhood. As we arrived there were hoards of people, sprinkled with a few foreigners among them, all leaving. We got the idea that maybe we'd missed the event, but continued on against the river of the crowd anyway. When we finally got to what appeared to be the main part, the atmosphere was surreal and intense.

We were the only westerners around, there was nobody speaking English (or any other western language), there were no signs written with our alphabet, and what i think were dervishes, from the singing we'd just missed, were screaming like banshees. Then there was some sort of meal being handed out, it might have been just a ritual, but i got the sense that this was poor, hungry people trying to get their dinner, and that crowd start getting pushy, angry, and eventually there were little spats of minor violence (shoving, face slapping, yelling), in the line for that food. It made me self-conscious of standing there with our overfed bellies and hands full of luxury electronics. and so before too long, we hiked back out of that neighborhood and caught a 3-wheeled tut-tut taxi back to the hotel. The rush that is Delhi would soon fade away into mountainy backdrops as we climbed into the foothills of the Himalayas where Rishikesh and Dharamsala awaited us.

Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, New Delhi, India, after Qawwali. Photo by Kristian
All photos by author unless otherwise noted.

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  6. Don't you just love the comments that are adds! haha! It sounds like you and Kris had a good time together over there. I think I would have been a bit nervous in a crowd of people fighting for food too, and I would have felt awful too because I do get to eat everyday, and I have all this crap I don't need. Interesting stuff as always. :)

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  8. Interesting blog. I am happy that you were happy at our Hostel Smyle Inn. We do our best to keep things friendly for travellers. After reading your blog, I think I need to set the drivers right. I think a little tweaking of them will do the trick. Another interesting thing you pointed out was the people calling you from the street.

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    It is best to just ignore them and keep walking. It is not considered rude in India to ignore any stranger calling for you. This tip alone will save you a lot of trouble and for the rest books like Lonely Planet should be used.

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