We popped in and out of Delhi a few times during our two weeks in the north. It’s a great city for making transit connections, but otherwise it’s a bit frustrating and more than a little overwhelming to deal with. The first thing we had to adjust to was driving in the city. I’ve been to Rome, and thought that city had crazy driving. Then visiting Thailand took it to another level with motorbikes laden down with more people and goods than seems reasonable. But neither held a candle to what it was like to drive in Delhi – and mind you we were being driven, not driving ourselves around.
We got around in private cars, old Ambassador taxicabs, tuk tuks, and even the occasional cycle rickshaw. Regardless of the vehicle, being on the road was rather terrifying. For any given number of defined lanes, there were about 2x that many vehicles abreast, and that could include any of the ones I mentioned above, as well as buses, trucks, bullock carts, and even a surprising number of loose livestock. The merges and lane changes are done with very little breathing room, often with just an inch or two of clearance. Any ride feels like a constant series of near misses, and your adrenalin response is in high gear the whole time. Then there’s the constant, never-ending honking. The system does seem to work; despite our near-constant terror when on the roads in Delhi, we didn’t see any actual accidents there. I’m sure you get used to the driving style after a while, but two weeks was nowhere near enough for me to do that.
Normally, we like to do a lot of walking when we are traveling. It lets us sink right into a place, and take lots of photos. It also opens the door to serendipitous discoveries and experiences that are my greatest joys while traveling. For a variety of reasons – the heat, our jet lag and overall disorientation, and the road construction and general lack of usable sidewalks in a lot of areas – walking just didn’t seem feasible a lot of the time. Being driven was the expeditious way to get around, but we ended up feeling like we were isolated, protected in a little bubble. We did have the opportunity to get out and wander in a couple of neighborhoods, Nizammuddin near Humayun’s Tomb, and the market section of Old Delhi, near the Jama Masjid.
Nizamuddin is a very old Muslim neighborhood, named for a famous Sufi saint, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya who settled there in the late 13th century. The mosque and his mausoleum do draw a large number of Muslim visitors and pilgrims, but it’s not much of a tourist destination for Westerners. The neighborhood was quite interesting, but I wasn’t feeling too well the day we visited and probably as a byproduct of that I felt extremely conspicuous there. I didn’t want to hang around for too long, and looking back I wish I’d stuck it out a bit longer. Dan really enjoyed it, and I think if I’d been feeling better I would have too.
We spent our last day in the city in Old Delhi, and the first part of that was wandering through the market between our hotel and the Jama Masjid. This was really, really fun, and in the space of about an hour and a half we had several great encounters with people. It started when Dan decided to try to buy cookies from a bakery stall. The baker didn’t really speak any English, and we really had no Hindi to use to try to communicate. With the help of a friendly young man who had been hovering nearby, we succeeded in making the purchase, though we ended up with half a kilo of cookies. We thanked the young man, and offered him some cookies, which he gladly accepted. He shook Dan’s hand, and tried to shake mine, but I gave him a namaste instead. (It’s considered bad form for a woman to make physical contact with a stranger, even if her husband is nearby. It makes you appear ‘loose.’ Since there’s a tendency for all Western women to be viewed this way to start with, this was not an attitude I wanted to foster.) He complimented me on my good manners and then went off about his business.
Shortly after this, we ducked out of the main flow of traffic on the street to pause in front of a closed market stall and drink some of our water. It was hot, and we immediately drained our water bottles. The man in the next stall gestured to us to give our bottle to him. We did so with mild reluctance, assuming he was going to pressure us into paying for some water we couldn’t really drink anyway. Sure enough, he ducked around the corner briefly, and returned with our bottles, full from the neighborhood tap. We thought for sure he’d hit us up for some money, but no – he saw that we were obviously warm and thirsty, and was just being hospitable. (We didn’t drink the water, but we really appreciated the gesture!) He even refused our offer of cookies as a thank you.
We had one more fun experience when we strayed off the main market road, thinking to wind our way down a side alley as we got closer to the Jama Masjid. We ultimately hit a dead end and had to turn back to the main street, but on the way we encountered a group of young boys in school uniforms. They greeted us with a chorus of “hello,” “hi,” and “good afternoon sir,” and then started asking us for money. These kids were clearly not in need, so we declined to give them cash and offered cookies instead. A few of the bolder ones took us up on this, and much giggling ensued.
Now, I did start feeling a bit too warm, and too crowded, and definitely hungry by the time we got close to our destination, but this little excursion was great fun, and felt a lot more like what I’d been hoping for in this trip.