I emerged from New Delhi Train Station, blinking in the dusty afternoon sun and still foggy-headed from an early start and a long morning on the slow train. Another busy Indian city to explore and another moment of arriving in an unknown place and having to allow myself to be washed along with the crowds as I find my way. After a few weeks in India, I’ve worked out that it’s misguided to rely on the local knowledge of passers by. In India if you ask for directions you quite often get two people pointing simultaneously in the opposite direction. The new Delhi metro system appeared like a shining oasis in a maze of unmarked streets. It was weird to descend from the loud hot streets into the clean air-conditioned tunnels. I boarded the ladies-only carriage, feeling like a scruffy peasant girl next to the women in their beautiful silk saris, and made a mental note to go clothes shopping.
I had obviously earned some great traveller’s karma, as a friend had put me in touch with two girls living and working here who offered up their sofa bed in their cosy flat in the calm Saket area of south Delhi. Eliza and Dharini were the sweetest, smartest and most welcoming hosts I could ever possibly hope to meet. It was great to be in a ‘real’ home, benefit from their local knowledge and hang out in female company. By the end of my first evening there the three of us were already sat together on the sofa watching DVD’s and eating pink icecream.
I felt a bit guilty that I spent more time in Delhi wandering around nice boutiques and sitting drinking cappuccinos than exploring the historical monuments, but it was a great opportunity to see another side of India that had remained walled-off to me until now. The girls took me to a book launch, where I got to hang out and drink wine with the arty young professionals in five-star hotel surroundings and they also recommended the leafy Hauz Khas area for a bit of self-indulgent cafe culture (the best honey lemon and ginger tea I have ever tasted) and some great shopping.
I did make it to a few tourist sites though. On my first day I spent a peaceful couple of hours in the Qtub Minar Complex, the highlight of which is an impressive tower. I was desperate to climb up it and felt sure it would provide the best view in Delhi but (in a seemingly rare moment of Indian health and safety awareness) it was out of bounds. There was also a mosque which was built on the site of a Hindu temple and had kept the original pillars carved with Hindu symbols intact. A nice reminder that religions could once co-exist without problems. I also visited the touching little Gandhi Museum where his meagre possessions (including walking stick and glasses) were laid out on his humble bed roll and you could walk the path of his final steps to a shrine in his honour.
I briefly braved the chaos of central Delhi and wandered the web of market streets in the Chandri Chowk bazaar but after an hour or two of noise, mosquitos, people with various body parts missing, car horns, hawkers, flies, pestering rickshaw drivers, mangy dogs and sewage smells I felt ready to return to the calm of the south.
At sunset on my last night in Delhi Eliza took me to a Muslim district to hear the sufis sing ‘qawwali’ song. It was amazing to weave through the narrow dark streets, leave our shoes in the care of a local shopkeeper, cover our heads and take up a place cross-legged in the square in front of the mosque to hear the singing. Once the locals got up and left to go and pray we went off to eat street food. We had rounds of ‘golgoppas’ (poppadum-like shells filled with potato, curry and vegetable water that you throw into your mouth and eat in one gulp to prevent it exploding everywhere) and sickly-sweet Jalebis and Halwa (deep fried and oozing with syrup but very nice). I’m not surprised that diabetes is common in India! It’s very difficult to avoid sugar here. Coffee and tea come in a default ‘sweet and milky’ state (even if you ask for unsweetened and black quite often) and there are sugary treats to tempt you on every corner. I might possibly be the only tourist to come out of India heavier than when I came in. I think I’m going to end up with my own Delhi-pot-belly if I’m not too careful.
Next stop….crazy Varanasi!