Category Archives: Delhi

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)

(the tiniest bit of) Delhi

It’s a good thing we paid up for 10-year multiple entry visas for India, because we didn’t get out and about to see nearly as much of Delhi as we’d like. We spent three nights in Delhi, though we basically didn’t go out during either of the two full days. Saturday day we spent in our hotel room doing research for our upcoming adventures in Thailand, Malaysia and Laos (we leave India so soon!). (But we did get out in the evening for a super fun night, see below!) And Sunday.. well, it was here that my streak of luck with avoiding a foodborne illness ended. At least I made it a cumulative four weeks in the country before it happened. And anyway, I think getting sick in India is a right of passage.

We had hired a driver in Agra to take us to Delhi, and much of the drive was actually incredibly pleasant. We paid extra to take the expressway (the tolls are over Rs 500), and it’s definitely worth it, as you travel on a nice modern highway with unbelievably little traffic. There is hardly anything around for much of the drive, which I found somewhat surprising as well.

I was amused by our driver (he is from Delhi) who asked our opinion on the people of Agra, saying that he thought they were not nice. Much nicer in Delhi we asked? No, he said. Only in the South. And when we pulled onto the street where our hotel was he made sure to tell us “this is a bad place.”

Despite that warm welcome, we really enjoyed (what we saw of) Delhi. Our hotel (Hari Piorko) was not amazing, but it was many many steps up from the accommodation we had in Madurai and Agra. I was pleasantly surprised that for about $30 a night in the capital city we could get a spacious, somewhat modern room with blankets, toilet paper and hot water. Each room also has a fish tank built into the wall. The water in them is practically black, and it’s a wonder the fish in there are still living, but it felt like this place might have been the bee’s knees back in, like, 1981. When the fish tanks were last cleaned. Anyway, I think it was the only place we’ve stayed in India that offered room service, and this came in quite handy since we spent so much time in that room.

After arriving Friday in the afternoon we stepped outside our hotel door and into the madness that is Paharganj (hawkers galore) and negotiated with a few tuk-tuk drivers before getting a ride over to famed Karim’s for some middle-eastern-ish Indian food. The place is absolutely packed, and I think there was even a security guard manning the entrance. Get there early, as they were sold out of a few things we’d contemplated trying. We ordered Karim rolls (lamb, and a delicious spice combo), which were fantastic, but quite small, especially at the price tag of Rs 125 each.

Our tuk-tuk driver was hilarious. Example: he asked, are we married? To Alan, are you happy? And then he tells us that when a woman cries on her wedding day (for arranged marriages it’s often emotional for the bride and her family since she is leaving her family to live with the husband’s etc.) and when the man asks why, she explains, I cry for only one day, you cry for every day after. Oh, ball and chain jokes. They translate everywhere.

After lunch/dinner/dunch we wandered over to Jama Masjid and explored the mosque for a few minutes before being kicked out for the afternoon prayers. It would have been nice to climb the tower for a better view of the city, but we kept on and bought a pomegranate from a street cart for our first dessert of the day. So good.

And then we ventured into the Chandni Chowk area. There are tons of shops selling textiles, clothes, food, everything. And there are tons of people and vehicles, of course. Holy mother of crowdedness. Each time I think I’ve experienced the on-top-of-eachother-ness of India, it’s one-upped. But I think Delhi truly takes the cake. At one point I literally had to crawl over a man’s push-cart to finish crossing a crowded road we were stuck in the middle of. That really is an awesome experience, if only when you reach a breaking point and confirm you are still in one piece.

We fought our way up to Chaina Ram, legendary for their desserts, and bought a nice big box of assorted sweets that we picked out based pretty much solely on how delicious they looked, though we had essentially no idea what was in any of them. And after eating them all I still couldn’t really tell you, except that I think pistachio, coconut, rose water, milk and cardamom(?) play big roles.

We hired a rickshaw driver to take us back to our hotel, and while he agreed to a price of Rs 80 we wound up giving him 100 because it looked like such hard work.

After a full day’s worth of trip-planning on Saturday we were rewarded with a fun night out with my college friend, Aash, who lives in Delhi. She and Adi took us to a happening spot (Smokey’s Bar and Grill) for dinner in Greater Kailash 2. I was very happy to have arrived at a place where we could drink the ice cubes and order salad. And even happier to reminisce on college days, share great conversation and get the locals’ perspective on all things India. They were fantastic and very generous hosts, and it was refreshing to see the “real” India as we might experience it if we were living in Delhi, rather than as tourists hopping from one sight seeing spot to another. We went big, closing down Smokey’s, venturing to another bar for a drink before last call, and last a sneaky, hidden bar that’s only allowed (I use that word loosely) open late because you can’t hear it from outside (it’s tucked far into the middle of a huge hotel). The crowd here was captivating. There were a handful of men being entertained by some Russian ladies, and one very drunk American who was super excited to see fellow Americans. When we arrived back at our hotel at around 3:30am I wasn’t sure if we were at the right place because I didn’t think it possible the packed street full of hawkers could ever be so barren.

After our experience trying to find the correct airport/terminal in Mumbai, we’d asked an Air India employee which airport we would go to in Delhi to fly to Varanasi. She assured us there was only one. Feeling smart, we hop in a car to take us to the airport on our way out and the first thing out of his mouth is “which airport?” Oh god, here we go again. Luckily, whichever one he took us to was the correct one.

Examples of things I by now find a comical part of the India experience: (1) We attempted to use an organized cab service that you call in advance so we could avoid haggling over price, though after 15 minutes on the phone trying to explain where we were and where we wanted to go all we ended up with was a text message saying “sorry, we can’t provide you a cab.” (2) Feeling not so hot myself, overheard in the Delhi airport bathroom: an American boy in the next stall puking up a storm and between sobs and retching crying to his mother, “I hate India.” (3) When we tried to use the airport ATM it shut off right after we entered the amount of cash to dispense. The helpful folks at the airport offered essentially no assistance, leaving us to figure out whether our cash came spewing out for a stranger once we’d boarded our flight. (4) Getting on the plane we discover that we were assigned seats that fail to exist. Mass confusion ensues while everyone stands around in the aisles until finally someone figures out that they switched the planes so our seat assignments don’t match, and tell us to sit wherever there’s an open spot.