For the last couple of years or so I’d been thinking/dreaming of traveling around India. But in all those “dreams” I was always accompanied by a male companion because traveling alone in India, I thought, was “very unsafe and not worth the risk”. Then I quit my well paid job and my comfortable life in London to just wander around the world. This step gave me the courage to look at India without the lens of fear created by negative media and acknowledge that India too can be traveled solo. Of course, I did some research to back this up and what I found was quite surprising. A 2014 study published figures on rape cases around the world and India didn’t even appear in the top 9 countries with the highest rape cases! Instead other countries, that I deemed safer, like New Zealand, UK, USA and Belgium were on that list. http://www.statisticbrain.com/rape-statistics/ That’s not to say that India is crime and rape free. God knows we have our share of $hit. But no country is completely safe. You have to be careful regardless of where you travel.
Armed with my desire to travel, the knowledge that it’s not as unsafe and of course a lot of time on my hand I decided it was time to take the plunge into my own backyard. My first stop was Delhi. This was unintentional actually. I wanted to go get off that plane and head straight to the train station to go to Rishikesh but I dropped that idea and decided to spend a few days in Delhi to refresh my memories of my first visit around 18yrs ago.
Despite what the statistics in the link above say, the Delhi gang rape case is hard to forget so yes, I was nervous but also extremely excited to be in the national capital. I was feeling so patriotic and felt this surge of pride for my country (which I admit is hard to feel if you live in this madness on a daily basis) but I’ve been away long enough and have traveled around enough to know what a treasure India is despite some major drawbacks like pollution, population and corruption (to name a few).
I arrived in Delhi after a 12hr “midnight to noon” journey from Bangkok which involved a taxi – metro – flight – another flight – bus – walk. When I was on the bus from the Delhi Airport to the New Delhi railway station (where I had booked a hostel) I was observing the activity outside and comparing it to my drive back from Mumbai airport to Pune, when I visit my parents. Delhi was busy and there was a lot of traffic but somehow it wasn’t as frantic as I expected. There was a lot of space between cars and surprisingly there were no bikes/bicycles/cows trying to squeeze in. I didn’t hear a lot of honking. The roads were in a much better condition. I could see a lot of green around. So far I was impressed. My stop arrived, I got off at New Delhi Railway station. And my first impression of Delhi was shattered. My mind was like “If this is the new railway station why the hell does it look so old!” And I realized my mistake. It was the railway station of New Delhi not a new railway station. Duh! After a lot of asking around, trying to figure out who was scamming me and who was not, I bought my platform ticket so I could go through the station and get out on the other side, the alternative was a much longer walk or the auto rickshaws over charging me. I managed to wade my way through the crowd with an 18kg backpack in 35degrees heat to reach my hostel.
After 12hrs of this journey I was exhausted so for the rest of the day I stayed in the hostel and did only the most essential things. Eat aloo paratha and dal makhani!
The next day would mark my first official day of solo travel in India, so I’ll mention it. 16/07/2015.
I started my tour with walking to the biggest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid.
Old Delhi as seen from the mosque, far away from the madness below.
From the Jama Masjid I went to the “super impressive from the outside but ok-ish on the inside” Red Fort.
My last stop was Chandni Chowk which is the oldest and the busiest market in old Delhi. I wasn’t interested in the market but an alley called “Paranthe wali gali” (Street of Paranthas). It was only my love for Paranthas that motivated me to go to such a busy market.
All of the 7km walk that day, in the Delhi heat mind you, was on small and extremely busy streets. Walking on the road trying to avoid bumping into other pedestrians, avoiding being hit by bicycles or bikes, ignoring auto rickshaws and cycle rickshaws, and trying not to step onto street dogs was a mission but also quite amusing.
One thing that really surprised me was that most of the people on the street were men! Where were the (rest of the) women?? I was dressed in a full sleeves cotton shirt and a knee length skirt and I remembered thinking, no more skirts in Delhi. I’ve never enjoyed being stared at. The other weird bit was that not every local realized I was Indian. This was a first and I don’t know how I feel about it. At one point, as I was about to take the stairs that would lead to a bridge that I needed to cross, a guy came running to me and he said, “mam, where are you going?” I replied “Jama Masjid” and he said “Please take a rickshaw, that bridge is not safe and foreigners are not allowed on that bridge”. When I told him I was Indian he said “ok, then you can go on that bridge”. I was surprised for so many reasons! Was my safety not as important because I am Indian? Or am I less likely to be harassed if I am Indian? And why do these people not realize I am Indian? It probably doesn’t matter that much but after that, I started asking questions/directions in Hindi. It was easier to get by speaking the local language anyways. It was all a bit overwhelming. It was like my first day of my backpacking trip, in Hanoi. I was constantly in a “flight or fight” mode. I didn’t bother getting my fancy camera out coz I feared it will attract more attention. My sole focus was getting to my destination. And there was a regular stream of “just breathe” chants going on in my head. I guess I was having a culture shock in my own country.
Bart, a Dutch traveler I met in my hostel, who’s been traveling in India for 4 months on his beloved Hero Honda motorbike, joined me on the second day and we spent the day sight seeing on his bike. It was during this ride that I realized that the day before I was in Old Delhi. New Delhi, even though just as hectic, is bigger with wider and well paved roads, a lot of green around, is much cleaner and in general less overwhelming. I was heartened to see this side of the city.
We started the day with Connaught Place (CP) which, I later read, is the “former location of the headquarters of the British rule.” It is also the largest financial, commercial and business center in New Delhi. The businesses on CP are arranged in 3 concentric circles with a park in the middle and is very confusing to get around for a first timer. Alternating streets of one-way traffic meant that we went around the circle many times before we found the shop that we were looking for. It was a fun (and easy) way to see CP so I was not complaining.
From there it was on to India Gate which is a war memorial built for the 82,000 British Indian Army soldiers who lost their lives in World War 1 and the Third Anglo Afghan War.
We then made our way to the Akshardham temple which is the largest Hindu temple in the world measuring 356ft long, 316ft wide and 141ft high and featuring over 20,000 sculpted figures. I expected it to be just one structure but it was actually a complex covering 32 acres of land! Most of the buildings had exquisite, detailed carvings and the green lawns and the big ponds made the atmosphere very tranquil. Unfortunately cameras and mobile phones were not allowed inside so I have just one picture taken from the parking lot.
There were 3 exhibitions that gave the viewers an insight to Indian values and heritage and also to the life and works of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who is considered an incarnation of God.
On the down side, the Akshardham is not an active temple (at least it didn’t seem like it). It’s more of a tourist attraction. The exhibitions, although good, were more like a theme park adventure than anything else. Its more appropriate to call this a monument instead of a temple. But the amount of work put into building this complex is very obvious. The whole thing took 5 years and 11,000 workers to finish!
Another thing I witnessed this day is how Indians react to Westerners or “Phirangi” as we call them. When on foot, we didn’t go 15mins without someone approaching Bart to greet him, shake his hand, talk to him, take a picture with him or just to say hello. It was extremely entertaining to witness this side of my own people who in general our not very good at starting conversations with strangers from their own country. Some credit goes to Bart as well as he is an extremely calm guy. I mean, he actually enjoys riding a motorbike in India! He has a ready smile which I’m sure also attracts people to come forth and talk to him. On the down side (everything seems to have a downside in India LOL), a lot of people who realized that I am an Indian, would talk only to me and that too in Hindi. I would reply in Hindi if they didn’t speak any English but I met some guys at my hostel who spoke good English and still chose to talk in Hindi (when Bart was around) despite me responding in English every time. Isolating people in conversations, however unintentional, is something that just does not go down well with me. I’ve been on the receiving end of this and know exactly how it feels.
So that was my first few days in Delhi. There’s a lot more to see and do here but it will have to wait for when I come back in a month’s time. As the Dutch say (Bart told me this so don’t hold me to it) “The City isn’t going anywhere”.