Indian Learner Driver

Steep Learning Curve! A Learner Driver on the madcap roads of Delhi

In the space of two days Calcutta had gone from being somewhere I had been wary of visiting to a place that was a pleasant surprise. Although the narrow area I had explored was not in any way representative of the whole city, I felt Calcutta did not deserve the connotations it had in the West of the wailings and thrashings of the poor and diseased.
Checking out of the hotel the next day after a fair approximation of an English Breakfast, the manager took me outside in the garden to introduce me to the lady herself, Mrs Violet Smith, owner of the Fairlawn Hotel, who was wearing oversized shades, a couple of layers of make-up and the air of someone still oblivious to the fact that India had gained its independence some time ago thanks to a skinny chap in a nappy. Into her eighties I’d guess, she was a fascinating old girl, and she proceeded to tell me potted memories from her life history in her Queen’s English tones. I was surprised to learn she was in fact Armenian by birth. I complimented her on the hotel and told her I’d been reading the articles plastered on the walls.
“Oh, that old bullshit?” she said with what I guessed was a twinkle in her eye behind those owl-like shades.
I would’ve loved to have stayed and chatted – I had a whole host of questions to ask her, and not all of them were about Felicity Kendal – but I had to rush for yet another onward flight, so making my excuses and telling her it was an absolute pleasure to have met her in person, and meaning every word of it, I left the grounds and grabbed a taxi to the airport, boarding a flight to the Indian capital of New Delhi where the monsoon was weeks away from hitting. The weather was in the toasty mid-forties Centigrade and a highly unpleasant hot wind was blowing. Now I know what it feels like to be a roast chicken.
Delhi is the ultimate Scam City. As the entry point into India for millions of jetlagged, culture-shocked and confused tourists every year, some of the locals have developed ingenious ways to con the cash out from their fat wallets. I’d done my reading so felt prepared for what could come, although I didn’t expect for someone to try to pull the wool over my eyes so quickly.
Picking up my bag from the carousel, I wandered over to the pre-pay taxi booth, at which you can buy a pre-paid voucher for a taxi journey at fixed prices. Placing a 500 rupee note on the counter, I looked down to put my wallet away. Looking up again, it had magically turned into a 100 rupee note, and the person behind the counter was asking for more. Ah, the old 500-for-100 switcheroo! You can easily see how a tired, virgin traveller to India might fall for that, but I wasn’t having any of it. The guy caved in immediately at my protest of his cheeky attempt at conning me, the 100 rupee note seamlessly becoming part of my change which was laid back onto the counter in front of me to take. Traveller beware…
My taxi was bound for Paharganj, the backpacker ghetto and a market bazaar stretching out from the main entrance of New Delhi train station, which is another hotbed of con-artists. Indian men lurking on the stairs inside the station like to prevent foreigners from going up to the tourist ticket centre, telling them it is closed. Some even have fake railway employee badges or uniforms. They can get quite physical sometimes, blocking your way with their bodies or trying to grab your arm to stop you from getting there. Their plan is to redirect you to an “alternative” office outside, which is made to look like an official outlet but is in fact a private travel agent which charges commission for booking your ticket. It pays dividends in India to not believe a word of what anyone tells you if there’s the possibility there is something in it for themselves.
Paharganj must be an exciting yet overwhelming onslaught for travellers fresh (in a manner of speaking) off the plane in India. A busy market street with touts, drum sellers, rickshaw drivers, rubbish, stores and foraging cows – and with the associated noise and smells such a crazy melange brings – I was glad to escape the mayhem and reach the sanctuary of an air-conditioned room in the Smyle Inn, a decent backpacker haunt.
One of the many things I love about travel is that it’s a wonderful slayer of ignorance. I knew nothing about New Delhi before I came here, apart from the famous euphemism of “Delhi Belly”, which I had managed to avoid on my travels so far. Being the capital of India, I expected it to be overpopulated, traffic-choked, and closely resembling a latrine.
In fact, Delhi was a city of two distinct halves. The northern part was the old city, Old Delhi, with clogged, yet characterful market bazaar streets such as those in Paharganj, and was home to centuries-old architecture such as the Jama Masjid (Friday mosque) and the Red Fort, the latter of which was my first tourist stop. A towering beast of a structure, the Red Fort was built by the Mughals – like so many of India’s great sights – in the 17th century. Used as a symbol of power throughout its history, the Brits captured it in the mid-19th century after quashing a rebellion against the rule of the Raj and used it as their army’s HQ. After over fifty years in the power of Indian army and as an important symbol of Indian independence, it was opened as a tourist monument.
In stark contrast, New Delhi was an expansive planned city of wide roads spreading out like fingers between spacious roundabouts with secluded green parks situated on them. It was home to the grand buildings of India’s state parliament, the India Gate monument and huge mansions. Here, the traffic was sedate – at least by Indian standards – and the pace of life more relaxed. As I strolled along the tree-lined streets, it reminded me of Surrey with vampire bats.
45 degrees Centigrade heat is utterly battering on the body, especially for a Brit acclimatised to mild, overcast skies. You neck fluids constantly just to stay on the verge of hydration, only to pass a thimbleful of apple juice once per day. Luckily, an air-conditioned haven exists in Delhi in the form of a brand-spanking new metro system linking the two halves of the city, constructed for the upcoming Commonwealth Games in 2010. Thanks to the shocking terrorist assault on Mumbai last year, the metro is heavily fortified, with all passengers having to pass through metal detectors and have their luggage X-rayed, as well as soldiers sitting in cubby holes built up out of sandbags sporting nothing less than machine guns.
The final port of call during my whistlestop tour of the city’s sights was Connaught Place, a planned colonial-era circle of concentric streets of white pillared buildings which was now a hub for shopping. It’s a prime place to encounter scams, too, my favourite being the “shit on the shoe” scam. As you stroll around the stores, a helpful Indian gent points out that you’ve managed to get dog or birdcrap on one of your pristine Western designer shoes. But don’t fear – the chap just happens to be a shoeshiner with a kit ready to clean it off for a few rupees and make it look as good as new again. The scam is, of course, that the chap secretly flicked the shit onto your shoe in the first place! This scam has apparently declined in recent years; I guess word gets around, and as fewer and fewer tourists fall for it, the scammers channel their time into other ventures. I was a bit disappointed not to see it in action; I would’ve laughed my socks off at the chap had I been a “victim” of it.
Delhi might be hot, smelly and clogged in parts, but its two contrasting faces had been a joy to discover, and it was the first place in a while that had felt homely. I’d planned on returning later, but now it was time to turn northwards and head towards the roof of India, venturing into the foothills of the Himalayas.