As usual, I’m going to travel for two weeks, and I’m going to see what’s called the Golden Triangle (Delhi, the capital; Agra, where the Taj Mahal is; and Jaipur, the Pink City of Rajasthan) plus Varanasi, which is rather far from the others but seemed really interesting for being one of the world’s oldest cities and India’s holiest, with its famous stair steps into the Ganges.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Getting to Charles de Gaulle airport was problematic as always (I left home at 17:00 for a 21:00 flight and arrived at the gate in the middle of boarding!), and then there was the Air India experience. I almost always fly with Air France, but their hours for India were universally terrible so I had to branch out. The plane seemed modern enough -the windows were larger and instead of having shades, the glass could be darkened with the touch of a button- at least my area was barely functional: the screen was literally held together with duct tape, the mic jack only worked at times, and none of the power sockets worked so I couldn’t charge my phone. But I did watch Aquaman while listening with my right ear! Interestingly, the flight meal was curry, and turns out airline curry is still better than some curries I’ve had in France! Then I managed to doze off for maybe two or three of the flight’s eight hours, so it’s something but I was still exhausted.
When we finally landed in Delhi, I discovered with horror that the immigration line was gigantic -hundreds of foreigners crowding the halls- but little did I know just how slowly the line moved. To make a very long story short, I had to stand in line, slowly losing my sanity, for two hours and twenty minutes while just two officers verrrrry calmly took people’s data, picture and fingerprints. By the time I left and retrieved my bag it was around 12:30 (I’d landed at 10:00) and of course the car I’d booked via my hotel to pick me up was nowhere to be found. Did they forget about me? Did the driver assume I was a no-show and left? We’ll never know, because the hotel didn’t pick up the phone or respond to my e-mails, so I booked a prepaid taxi on my own.
After having a car waiting for you, booking a prepaid taxi is the most convenient option on first arrival, because you can pay by card if, like me, you have no rupees yet. So I did that, showing the clerks at the desk the hotel’s address, paid 700 rupees (€9, probably expensive but still cheaper than what I was gonna pay the hotel) and then they took me to a taxi driver.
Except! After my bag was in the trunk and I was in the back seat, the driver started yelling at the clerks in Hindi, and they argued back, until a small crowd of four or five employees gathered round to chip in. I couldn’t understand them, but from the odd use of an English word I gathered that the driver wanted to charge more for the ride because it was further away than I’d said. I’d already paid and didn’t have any cash, so I mostly spaced out into my jetlag while they hashed it out. When I was finally going to tell them if they could send me off with another driver, the argument died down and we took off. I hoped they’d reached an agreement or I was being kidnapped!
After a good half an hour on the road, the driver dropped me off at the Hotel Broadway, except! He said I had to pay 60 extra rupees because of the extra distance. I tried to explain that the hotel hadn’t moved while we were en route, that the distance was indeed what was ticketed (I’d checked on Google Maps!) and anyway I didn’t have any cash so I couldn’t will them into existence, when a hotel valet walked over to take my bag and I went “Oh great you can sort it out between yourselves” and hightailed it out of there. I checked into the hotel while they argued, and then the valet came back explaining that the driver wanted 60 extra rupees. At this point I had my bag and myself and keys to my room so once again I kind of shrugged and trusted them to figure it out among themselves. I still don’t know if they sent the driver away without the tip, or if they paid, or if they paid and they’ll charge me for it (it’s €0.76, by the way, it’s just that I didn’t have anything on me!).
All of this is to say that by the time I crawled into my room I was well and truly exhausted and starving, and it was around three o’clock in the afternoon so too late to go out for lunch and too early to go to sleep, and I was too tired to do proper tourism, so I settled with a walk around the neighborhood in search of an ATM.
Once concern I had about Delhi was pollution; as you may have heard, air pollution reached record highs this week in the city, due to traffic and factories but also to crop burning from neighboring regions. The levels had decreased significantly (from 480 to 250) but they still remain a far cry from the maximum acceptable level of 50 particles per cubic meter. When I looked out the window from the plane, that morning Delhi seemed covered in a sickly, yellowish haze, but now from the ground it was a clear, sunny day, and I could see clearly into the distance. I didn’t smell smoke or ash, but sure enough I hadn’t been walking for five minutes when I started to feel the air burning in the back of my throat, and my eyes watered. I’m not taking any chances so I took out my black filtered mask and my sunglasses, and covered my entire face with them, to the point where I looked more like I was going to occupy Delhi than to visit it. The thought crossed my mind that I probably looked like a massive dork, but the thing is, I’m always going to look like a tourist so I might as well just own it.
The hotel is close to Old Delhi, within walking distance from Pahar Ganj, the backpacker district, so even my short walk was a direct immersion into Indian urban life. From people’s warnings I’d been bracing myself, but honestly in the end it was just like walking down Siem Reap or Hanoi, except with more people. It’s an assault on the senses, especially smell (sometimes it smells gross, sometimes it smells fragrant, sometimes it’s a pungent or spicy smell that straight up shuts your ventilation ducts) and sound (every single rickshaw and scooter on the road is honking all the time). It can be overwhelming, but I minded my own business and nobody really bothered me. A couple of times a rickshaw driver idled next to me to ask if I wanted a ride, but I just shook my head no and they left without insisting even once. I can do this! Really, the most difficult part was finding a damn ATM, because there were signs for dozens but most were closed or didn’t look like they took foreign credit cards.
Eventually I managed to get some cash (what a relief!) and the shadows were growing longer, so I scurried back to the hotel before nightfall. I didn’t have lunch, so I’m gonna treat myself to dinner at the hotel’s own restaurant, Chor Bizarre, which lives up to its name: all the furniture is different, and they have an antique car sitting right there in the middle of the dining hall.
I barely had time to scan the menu before the waiter came, so I ordered the butter chicken, and he said, “Would you like garlic naan with that” and suddenly all the day’s tribulations were worth it! The curry was absolutely delicious, so flavorful and not at all oily, like some of the ones we get back home. Thus commences the trip!
Tomorrow’s plan: visit the Red Fort!