Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 2: Delhi)

Saturday, Nov. 4, 2011


Delhi airport

Delhi. The only way I can describe Delhi at this point is, Yikes! And I can only begin to imagine what it would be like in July — “Yikes times ten,” perhaps.

Today I set off on my own to see two Mughal-era landmarks the Rough Guide insisted I should not miss: The Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, “India’s largest and most impressive mosque.” I did not see either, but I did get a personal tour of a Hindu prayer site and I also got whacked by a woman in the street as hard as she could hit me. So it’s not like nothing happened.

The major problem with Delhi for me is that a lot of people really don’t speak English very well, and I speak Hindi even less (namaste being the only word I know). So I set out for the Metro with only general instructions on how to get to it and no real sense of what the hotel manager had told me to do when I did get there. It’s about 80 degrees F. today, and the streets of Delhi are just like you see on tv — an absolute maelstrom of vehicles of all kinds, from bicycle rickshaws to trucks, none of them adhering to any of the lines that are painted on the street (a woman on the plane who is originally from Delhi and was coming back here from Brisbane for FOUR weddings in the next two months told me that in Delhi, the lane markers are considered no more than decorations on the streets. No one pays any attention to them). Our tour guide, who I met just an hour ago for the first time, told our group that the reason there are so few accidents in Delhi are “good brakes, good horns and good luck.” As I sit in my hotel room here in Karol Bagh (an area of many inexpensive hotels) the sound of horns in the streets outside my window is incessant. The sidewalks are few and far between, and usually jam packed with people both horizontal and vertical, hub caps, motorcycles, garbage, dogs, you name it. So the pedestrians kind of just walk around the vehicles (and through/between them, when it’s an intersection) on the edges of the streets themselves.

So I made my way to the Metro station about six blocks from the hotel, darting through the traffic as best I could and attempting to follow close behind other pedestrians when crossing busy intersections, and then I faced the challenge of finding someone else to ask about how to get to where I was trying to get to. The ticket seller at the Metro seemed not to have heard of the Red Fort so I pointed it out to her on my map, and that didn’t seem to help her much, but she did sell me a tourist ticket for INR20 or thereabouts that would get me around the city for one day.

I entered the station (which has a security system where you need to get patted down before you can go through, then send your bags through a scanner. Women go in a different patting-down line than men, as I found out by trial and error. šŸ˜‰ ) When I got onto the platform I asked two other people (I chose people in uniforms wearing guns who were positioned as security around the station, thinking that they seemed to be fairly safe bets) and by the time I actually got on the train I had learned that I’d need to go two stops then get off and transfer.

I did that, and then went through the same rigamarole at the station I got off at (a pretty central one named Rajiv Chowk), trying to find someone to tell me where to get another subway for the Red Fort in Old Delhi, and finding almost no one who could help me. I also appeared to be the only Western female in the entire city today, so I was trying my best to act like I knew what was going on but I’m sure no one was fooled.

I disembarked at the correct station and emerged into a very busy market area, crowded with shoppers, vendors and street people. I walked steadily in the direction I thought was correct (and probably was) but there were no signs in English and at a certain point the market thinned out and there were more street people than shoppers and as always many many more men than women.

I grew unsure of myself so I turned back and near the Metro I stuck my head into an intriguing-looking building, dark pink with small towers and many rooms containing (it turned out) statues of various holy men and gods that Hindu visitors were coming by in droves to honor. Despite the fact that the place was packed with devotees, a woman at the door welcomed me in, asked me to remove my shoes and wash my hands, and then gave me a tour of the premises, explaining who each of the statues depicted and showing where I could drop a bit of money into that deity’s coffers. I understood almost nothing of what she said and she didn’t know where the Red Fort was (although she did know of Canada. Lots of people here know of Canada and have relatives and friends in Toronto.)

As I was leaving the prayer centre another woman came over and pointed to a narrow arched lane nearby and told me to go down it and turn left to get to the Red Fort. The lane was standing room only, accommodating at most four people across, who were all basically pushing their way along the lane. It was lined down one side with with tiny shops selling brightly coloured fabrics and other goods which people paused to check out, slowing progress further, as did those who struggled against the tide to go in the opposite direction.

Finally, I emerged from the tunnel to the light and turned left. The streets here too were crowded and noisy and there was no sign of other tourists. After a few blocks when I could still see nothing resembling a red fort or any minarets, I decided it was pointless to go farther: I felt that I could not stop to take out my guidebook and look for a map or even dare to take a photo, as revealing my “tourist” status would just reveal me as a mark. There were no signs to the landmarks I was looking for — at least not in English — and there seemed to be no one official anywhere to ask. So I turned back, and this is when a woman in a sari, about 40, maybe about five foot three, came across the sidewalk at me with her fists raised. I thought she was shouting angrily at a man nearby but she kept coming at me at and she struck me hard on the chest and arms with her raised fists. It hurt but not a lot: mostly I was just amazed. I just kept walking, trying to appear as though nothing had happened, and the woman didn’t follow me.*

I made my way back to the tunnel lane and pushed my way back up it toward the Metro. A couple of children attached themselves to me, asking for money, but I refused — concerned that if I gave them anything, swarms of other children would emerge from the crowds also looking for money.

Back on the Metro, which was now more crowded than it had been earlier, I decided to get off at Rajiv Chowk and have a look at Connaught Place and maybe see India Gate and some of the more upscale market promised in the Rough Guide. But up top when I emerged from the Metro station, it was store after store (many western ones there) and again few tourists, so again I was unsure how to get to the sights I wanted to see.

I decided to admit defeat, and to take the Metro back before rush hour got any closer. By then I felt like a pro at using the subway system and I think the achievement of my day was going as far as I did without much signage I could read, through all of those crowded confusing streets, and then making it back safely to my hotel — because if I’d got lost in Delhi, I’d have been really lost. It’s amazing what a little fear does for my sense of direction!

*Please note that I don’t attribute the woman’s behaviour in any way to the fact that she lives in Delhi: there are crazy people everywhere. And if she does live on the street in that city, she probably has a right to hate me on sight anyway.

19 responses to “Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 2: Delhi)

  1. Hi Mary, I have just booked this trip for January next year, you are such an inspiration as I am a little tiny bit worried about being in Delhi for two days alone! but the advice and replies and your blog are a real comfort.

    • Mary W. Walters

      Fantastic choice! You’ll have a great, great time. Do check out some of the links on the responses — I fully intend to do that next time. I want to see Delhi, and I haven’t. Yet. šŸ™‚

  2. Wow Mary, Thanks for leaving this link with your answer. Now I see India from a foreigner’s point of view and laughed a lot!! Lollss.. In fact, I think you’ve been very brave to travel in a city without anyone to guide you.

    I have been born and brought up in India and accepted that chaotic disorder with calm elan. I have migrated to Canada that last 2 years and now, infact, I miss the madness, particularly during the festive seasons. Lolls… Next time you travel, pls let me know. I can connect you to some people who can guide you through that sea of chaos. šŸ™‚

  3. Aww I am afraid you saw the worst the city has to offer including a crazy woman! lol :). And there are some really beautiful hotels.worth seeing if not Next time you travel to Delhi or India..please let me know…I can connect you with the right people…and places :).

    Love your blog. All the best on your future travels.


  4. Why on earth where you living in Karol Bagh! Awful place…Couldn’t you find decent hotels in Central/South Delhi? I am from Delhi, and I would never recommend anyone to go there..! Did u manage a glimpse of Akshardham temple, Lotus temple, India gate, Lutyen’s delhi – the grandeur of President’s house, Rajpath Road, Parliament, and the most important landmark India Gate?? Dilli Haat, and the expat haven – Lodi gardens /Khan Market, Hauz Khas Village, Cottage Emporium, India Habitat Centre, Qutub Minar?? There is a lot more to the city than you have depicted..also seems you only visited “Old Delhi” and lived in the area as well.

    • Mary W. Walters

      I was on a budget tour and they chose the hotel. I didn’t see any of the places you mentioned. I only had a few hours in Delhi, and I really didn’t know what I was doing as far as getting out and seeing the city. I must come back. I missed sooooo much!!

  5. ” I speak Hindu even less”. Me too, even though I was born and raised in India. In fact, I know nobody who speaks ‘Hindu’, so you’re in good company!

  6. I feel like I’m there with you, Mary. I’m scared. You’re not. You impress me. I’m looking forward to the next adventure.

  7. Holy cow, Mary. You sure are brave. I almost started crying when that lady started hitting you! It just made me so scared. I guess you are a good writer because your writing about the incident made me feel very claustrophobic and lost. You are in the right field!

    I loved you picture at the Taj Mahal. Wow – I cannot imagine being there in person and you were.

    Can hardly wait to hear more. Hope you are having the best trip ever.

    Love always,

  8. Wonderful account Mary. Sounds like so many of my own solo trips: a pinch of bewilderment, a dash of bafflement, and destinations that keep eluding me. Thanks for reporting on your journey!

  9. I’m impressed. You sound awfully cheery, despite the attack, etc., I think I would’ve needed a drink, pronto.

    Truly, it sounds overwhelming.

  10. Grand adventure!! So are you going to take another shot at the Red Fort? I sounds as if you have earned your chance to see it. Thanks for the wonderful narrative!

  11. Hi Mary,
    Thinking of you lots and enjoying living vicariously through your adventures. Love Ruth.

  12. Great reporting, Mary. I am going to hang on your every word on this trip.
    Take care.

  13. Mary W. Walters

    Thanks, guys. I’m loving it here — but it is much easier in a group!

  14. you are so brave, my goodness – day one india/ real adventure
    love you, and hopefully a smoother road ahead!

  15. andrea Spalding

    WOW, well done Mary. I was shaking for you just reading your adventure. So proud of you going out of your comfort zone like that. its amazing how adrift one feels when you dont know a city, let alone dealing with language and cultural differences. That was baptism of fire, Now you are a pro at the Metro everything else will follow LOL. ( And maybe the act of being struck by a stranger is a ritual that will boost your Karma to astronomical proportions ) I await the next chapter with baited breath. Much love and wide eyed wonder. Andy XXXX

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