Prior to venturing across the globe to the land of Chai, The Taj Mahal and befreckled Elephants I had many preconceptions. My vision of sauntering languidly through spice markets in a cloud of cumin was, in reality, more of a slow jog through a half-mile of rickshaws with my head down and my mouth and nose covered to prevent me from choking.
Boyfriend and I spent three weeks travelling from Delhi, through Rajasthan and down to Goa and there were times when I wished I had received the advice that we had to figure out the hard way. So, here it is – this is my India:
After organising an airport pick-up on booking our hotel – The Amax Inn, we arrived fairly stress free and only later learned that we had been slightly ripped off for the transfer that could have been easily sourced from one of the many cheaper airport taxi’s. We had found the guesthouse in the Lonely Planet guide and it looked shabbier than I had expected but the delicious thali’s and the willingness of the staff to smuggle in beer, more than made up for this.
When out of my comfort zone I have a tendency to be slightly anxious. And when I say ‘slightly’, what I actually mean is that I lose the ability to speak and clutch at my handbag like a recent victim of crime. So the first few days consisted of me avoiding eye contact, biting my tongue and not flicking the V’s at the numerous motorbikes riding on the footpath and beeping at me to get out of their – where they were suggesting I go, I have no idea.
One of the biggest mistakes we made on our first day was being convinced by a rickshaw driver that a ticket was required to visit India Gate and that ticket needed to be purchased from a ‘Government Tourist Information Centre’ a few minutes from where we were. On arrival we were convinced that the best way to visit much of what Delhi has to offer was by hiring a driver, we were hesitant as it was already lunchtime but assured that we would receive a full eight hours hire time. Four hours later after discovering that India Gate was an open, non-ticketed attraction, we were being dropped back to our hotel as all tourist sights closed promptly at 5pm.
This was a particularly expensive lesson to learn, but at least we made it early.
Once I had acclimatised to the pandemonium of Paharganj, it became a lot easier to navigate the crampt and slightly chaotic streets. One of the things I noticed almost immediately was the distinct absence of women. The bars and restaurants were an all male affair, even in the shopping district of Connaught Place the majority of women appeared to be street dwellers, selling their wares by day. The male dominance made me feel very aware of myself to begin with and I kept stringently to a dress code of loose fitting, full length trousers and a scarf covering my arms and shoulders. Regardless, my presence drew attention. In most other cultures the outright gawping would be perceived as outright rude but even I was surprised at the lack of foreigners so I began to understand why a pale, blonde chick could be seen as a spectacle. I never felt inferior or disrespected as a woman until one evening our rickshaw took a turn for the worst – but I’ll get to that.
From Delhi we were due to travel South to Agra. We were only spending 3 weeks travelling and I wanted them to be as stress free as possible, so booked the majority of our train tickets in advance. The website (https://www.irctc.co.in/eticketing/loginHome.jsf) requires a log on which requires an Indian contact number and is generally a huge pain in the arse at first glance, but after discovering Seat 61 (http://www.seat61.com/India.htm#book – from outside) it became a piece of cake! I was even then able to access the site and book further trains from my phone in India instead of queuing at the station prior to each trip. We were warned in India that the trains were dangerous for foreigners, that our tickets would be requested on entering the station and that we would be targeted. In reality, this was not the case. The journey to Agra was spent in the comfort of the Chair Car, we weren’t approached by touters or scammers at any point and our tickets were only requested once the train was in motion. Don’t be perturbed by hotels, tourist information or travel companies wanting to make a quick buck on the commission of an intercity taxi.
On the surface Delhi is a crazed riot of people, everybody is going somewhere fast, honking their horn, on the wrong side of the road… Or footpath. It is easy to shrink back into yourself and get pulled under by the riptide of the city, but the trick is to just let it take you with it. Haggle, walk in the road, laugh and interact – but whatever you do, as boyfriend taught me – do it with confidence.