The Real India?

We spent three nights in Delhi and filled our time with a walk around the old city and a great night out.  Plus one intended work day and one unintended sick/work day.  Driving in from Agra, I was amazed at the amount of construction south of Delhi.  I think this area is called NOIDA.  Less surprising by now was the half hour bathroom and car wash break our driver took at a highway rest stop after we replied “no” when he asked if we wanted to stop.

As we neared our hotel on Main Bazaar in Paharganj, our driver said “this is a very bad place.”  It is tourist central and the touts are quite unpleasant, but I think he exaggerated a bit.  Plus we had internal hallways and didn’t hear our neighbors shitting at all, so it was a marked improvement from Agra.

After dropping our bags, we got quoted many inflated auto-rickshaw fares to the old city but at last found an older gentlemen willing to charge us merely double what a local would probably pay.  Jokes were included free of charge.  He asked if we were married and then if I was happy (maybe it was Jenni’s Agra-induced scowl?), to which of course I replied “yes.”  Then he expressed skepticism and told the tale of an Indian arranged marriage and how the woman leaves her family which can be emotional.  So on the wedding day the groom asks the bride why she is crying, and she replies “I cry only today but you will cry the rest of your life.”

He dropped us a short walk from Karim’s, the legendary kebab etc. spot tucked away in an alley near Jama Masjid (which I think translates as great mosque, hence the same name here as in Agra and I presume elsewhere).  They were out of some items and we figured the leg of lamb might be a bit much for two, so we each got a Karim Roll.  It was pricey given how small it was, but maybe that’s because it’s made with lamb, and anyway it was delicious.

After our late lunch we walked around inside the walls of Jama Masjid which is the largest mosque in India.  It is lovely and affords nice views.  I’m told you can climb up one of the towers for really good views, but we got ushered out for the afternoon prayer time and decided not to stick around until it reopened.

The old city is crazy busy and lively and I would definitely spend at least half a day wandering around here.  We didn’t really do enough else in Delhi for me to opine, but my understanding is that New Delhi can be a tad plain and Old Delhi is where the action is.  The usual jumble of alleys and markets and fruit stands and tons of traffic.  We shared a tasty and jumbo pomegranate on the street.  There were more women and families here than many of the places we’ve been.

We walked a long way down Chandni Chowk and grabbed delicious sweets from Chaina Ram, which ended up being dinner.  It was dark and we weren’t quite sure how far the walk home would be, so after several attempts we settled on our first cycle-rickshaw of the trip.  He took us through the hardware section, and the metal back of the bike provides at least some protection from the madness around.

I’m glad we tried it, but the seat is so uncomfortable and you feel guilty watching the dude struggle mightily.  To ascend the hill over the train tracks he just got off and walked the bike.  I blame all the paratha.

Saturday we considered hitting a coffee shop but ended up doing work all day in the room.  When it was time to go we tried both online cab companies mentioned in my guidebook in hopes of avoiding haggling with a taxi in our touristy area.  Instead of a ride, we got a malfunctioning website, a 15 minute phone call and then a text saying sorry actually there is no car coming from you.  Not to worry, our hotel called a car.  Does the driver know exactly where we want to go?  Don’t worry, you’ll just tell him.  Oh he doesn’t speak English, but I’m sure you’ll sort it out.  I’d say perhaps 10% of the time we get in a car the driver actually takes us directly to where we want to go.  Good stuff.

Then the night got much, much better.  Jenni’s friend from Cornell, Aashica, lives in Delhi and we met her and Adi for dinner at Smokey’s in Greater Kailash II.  The food was great, but much more important the company was even better.  It was comforting to be with friends in the kind of place we’d probably frequent if we lived in Delhi.  The kind of place with a beet and goat cheese salad and a lamb and bacon burger.

It’s funny how I always think of the “real [country X, but I’ll just refer to India for this purpose]” as the part of the country that likely bears least semblance to my (former) life in the US.  I think most people have this tendency but I’ll take the bullet here.  I fully understand the notion that the way the overwhelming majority of the Indian population lives could be called the real India, and that generally it is more interesting to enjoy the contrasts when exploring another country.  But if you are a banker or lawyer or doctor or anyone else in a top income bracket in the US, you probably still feel like your life in the US reflects the real US.  Of course few in the US live the way most Indians do, so I appreciate it is a somewhat different concept.

But it does seem a bit silly for me to have the mindset that passing time in the manner I likely would if I lived here means I am forsaking the real India and substituting some misrepresentation of it.  One could even argue I’m doing just the opposite.  If you can afford a car, insurance and petrol, then you can hire a 24/7 driver for maybe $200-300/month.  So I bet most of you reading this would have a private driver if you lived in India.

Enough sounding off.  The night was awesome.  Aash and Adi hosted us through the hours of darkness and gave us an experience we never could have had on our own.  From Smokey’s we went to some hotel/bar complex (I don’t know the name but I think it was at/near Hotel Samrat in Chanakyapuri) and grabbed a scotch from a half-closed spot, and then went to another side of the area where the doorman ushered us in past multiple closed doors into some after hours back room with Russian girls dancing and further cocktails.  We were dropped back home around 4 am.

And then back to the real India :).  Jenni was sick all the next day (and more) so we never left our room.  At least our hotel had room service and the pizza and butter chicken were pretty good.  On Monday the situation nearly came to a head.  Our Air India flight to Varanasi was delayed 3 hours due to fog but we went to the airport on time anyway because who knows what might happen.  And as it happens the Delhi airport is super nice and is a much more pleasant place to hang out than our $35 hotel room.  We killed time and then I tried to withdraw cash from a Citibank ATM as we walked to our gate to board.  I went through all the steps, input the amount and hit enter, and then the power died and the whole machine went blank.  WTF?!?!?  So we didn’t know whether it was about to turn back on and dispense my cash to some lucky traveler or if Citibank would try to deduct the amount from my account regardless.  And of course we couldn’t sort this out with anyone so we just had to leave to board the flight.  Then we boarded but they had switched aircraft so we had a seat assignment that didn’t exist.  Things got tense and tempers were narrowly maintained, but alas we made it safely to Varanasi.

Practical Info

Transportation: Our drive from Agra took 3.5 hours on the toll road and with light traffic in Agra since it was a Friday and the Taj was closed, and it cost Rs 3,000.  Our auto-rickshaw from Paharganj to Karim’s cost Rs 100.  A car from our hotel to dinner in Greater Kailash II was Rs 500, same as our trip to the airport.

Delhi has a metro that is supposed to be reasonably good.

Accommodation: We stayed at Hotel Hari Piorko in Paharganj, fairly near the old city as well as Connaught Place.  Definitely a touristy area.  For $35/night in a big city, I thought it was pretty good.  Delhi has tons of lodging options.  A friend suggested staying somewhere in south Delhi, which is nicer and I think has more open space.  Several years back my family stayed at Master Guesthouse and thought it was great.  And as I write this from Varanasi, I wish we had stayed in more homestay-type properties while in India.  It is hard to overstate the value of an honest and knowledgeable local to assist you.

Food: Karim’s is legendary.  We visited the original location across from Jama Masjid, which actually occupies four spaces next to each other sharing a kitchen.  I think there are now other locations around Delhi.  Perhaps you should go for lunch at a more normal time, because around 3 pm they were out of several items.  The Karim Roll cost Rs 125.

Our one real night out in Delhi began at Smokey’s in Greater Kailash II.  This is a proper Western-style fun restaurant.  As I can’t think of a better comparison right now, I’ll say Houston’s look but a little hipper and a lot livelier.  You can get burgers and wings and cocktails and wine etc.  I thought it was very good.  But beware, we sat down to dinner upstairs at 9:40 pm and soon the music was so loud it was difficult to converse.  The bar area was lively and fun, and cocktail pours were legit.  They played Material Girl and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

Activities: My guidebook says foreigners have to pay Rs 300 to visit the Jama Masjid but we just walked in.  Note that it closes in the afternoon for about half an hour for prayer, and thus we got booted after about 15 minutes.  No shorts.  You can carry your shoes inside.  It has some nice views over the old city and Red Fort, which is one of the top attractions.

Had we done more, we might have visited Humayun’s Tomb, walked around the Rajpath, perhaps Connaught Place and more.  There are a number of museums in Delhi.  One thing I was bummed to miss is strolling around Hauz Khas, which Anish suggested (and Aash and Adi agreed).  This is a bohemian neighborhood with cafes, galleries and restaurants.

January 3-6, 2014 (Friday-Monday)

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