Incredible India: Welcome to Delhi

I’ve calmed down now. Last night in the airport, I bought a SIM card from a desk in the arrivals hall from two chaps who seemingly had absolutely no interest in my presence or in taking my money and who sullenly filed my ID, flung me a card and said something about having to wait 30 minutes for activation. I’ve got a couple of gigs of data, so I’ve opened up Google Maps and I’ve found a route to the Red Fort. I consider taking a rickshaw, but I’m not sure what kind of prices I should be paying yet, and there’s always the knowledge that I’ll have to pay over the odds because I’m a tourist. 

To get to the Fort, I’ve got to walk through the crowded and chaotic streets of Old Delhi. The streets here are narrow – so narrow I could put my arms out and touch buildings on each side of the road. There are people everywhere, with shops and businesses crammed into the winding streets. Business of the same type seem to cluster together along the roads – one street full of motorbike parts shops; another full of hardware and ironmongery; another full of fabric shops. Rickshaws trundle past, cows amble along, and everywhere and at every turn there are the ever-present honks and grumbles of motorbikes zipping through the streets. 

I follow the map through this enclave, fascinated and taking in the sights and sounds. I barely take any photos. I plod along, checking the map and dodging motorbikes and cow dung. In the middle, encounter a cluster of sweet marts. Since it’s past lunch time and I haven’t eaten, I decided to get some of these treats. When I was growing up, my family would often stop at a sweet mart in Leicester after visiting my grandparents, and I’m always surprised that Indian restaurants proliferate around the world but the sweet marts aren’t so common. I choose a selection, and I watch nervously as the man picks them up with his hands and puts them in a paper bag. India doesn’t have the most sanitary reputation, after all…

I eat my treats as I continue walking, and once I come out of the other side, I find myself on a wide road thronging with traffic. An older gentleman approaches me. Where am I from? What am I doing here? I just decided to say no to whatever he’s asking and continue walking. I’m close enough now to the Red Fort that I start to see tourists buses and groups of travellers making their way to the site. 

Search for things to see and do in Delhi and the Red Fort will most likely come out on top. It’s a huge monument that gets its name from the red sandstone used to construct it. In the past it was used as a ceremonial fort for the royals, and today is open to the public as an attraction. I enter through the Lahore gate and pass through the Chatta Chowk bazaar that is full of shops selling jewellery, souvenirs and trinkets. 

Having passed through, I make my way around the gardens. It’s a big site, covering 254 acres of land. There are several buildings and gardens, and it’s very peaceful after the hurly burly of Old Delhi and the streets outside. I wander the buildings and enjoy the gardens. There are several families and large groups, but it doesn’t feel crowded. I consider staying for the Red Fort light show at night, but it’s early afternoon and it doesn’t begin until the evening, so I don’t spend more than a couple of hours here.

I head back out into the streets and make my way to the Jama Masjid, another of the top tourist attractions in Delhi. This is one of the largest mosques in India, and I’m surprised to learn of the prevalence of Islam here. I always associate India with religions such as Hinduism and Sikhism, of course. I climb the steps to go in, but I’m told I can’t go in yet as prayers are happening. I sit on the steps outside and wait for an hour, enjoying the sunshine and watching the action in the crowded streets.

Once inside, I’m taken aback at the size of the courtyard. I later read that the size of the Jama Masjid mosque is 400 square feet and it can accommodate 25,000 people. It’s thronged with worshippers and visitors, all jostling to get photos. 

One of the three minarets is open to the public, and as it’s approaching sunset I decide to pay and go up. The minarets stand 40 metres tall, or five storeys high. I pant my way up the narrow spiral staircase, dodging people that are coming down. At the top of the minaret is a small viewing platform – so small that the stairs take up most of it. From here the views are fantastic. I can see down into the courtyard and I can see across Old Delhi. More and more people come up and inside until there’s barely any room to move, and as I’m tall and broad shouldered it becomes quite a squeeze. I wait though until the sun begins to go down and get some shots across the city.

I make my way back through the thronging streets of Old Delhi, and set my directions to Paharganj market. I haven’t eaten all day, aside from the sweets from the sweet mart, and I remember the line of restaurants along the street. I wander along them and decide on a place. There are sinks outside and I wash my hands, ready to eat my dahl and rice with clean hands. I see people from the restaurants doing the same, so I assume I’m going to be safe to eat here. I’m so hungry and greedy that I order two massive chapattis and lassis to go with the meal, as well as samosas. I’m not taken with the lentil dahl and I don’t eat much of it, but the samosas and chapattis taste great.

I’m close to the hotel now, so I decide to head back. Along the street is a nice little coffee shop, so I stop in there to check through my photos and read up on what to do tomorrow. I get a second coffee and enjoy some time sitting down. 

Once I’m finished I stand up and head to the counter to pay, and then it hits me: a stomach cramp. A twist in the gut like no other I’ve ever experienced. A few seconds later it’s gone, but when the shop owner is handing me my change it hits me again. I start to panic. Is there a toilet here, I ask? Nope, is the answer. My hotel is just down the street – maybe 200 metres away. I’ll have to dash there. I trot off as fast as I can, my stomach hurting and cramping away. I dash through reception and jab the buttons on the lift, panicking somewhat now. I still haven’t adjusted to the ‘British way’ of floor numbering after living in Korea for so long (i.e. ground floor before first floor, not first floor meaning ground floor) and I hit the button for the floor below mine. These doors are the slowest fricking lift doors I’ve ever come across. The need to get one floor further up and into my room is getting ever more critical. Finally, the doors close and the lift cranks itself up to my floor. I dash across the hallway, get to my door and have trouble getting my key into the lock. For fuck’s sake, I’m thinking, sweating and cramping and holding on for dear life. Click! The key turns, I chuck the door open and head straight to the bathroom. A few seconds later and it would have been curtains. 

Welcome to Delhi.