Hello for the first time from India! I truly can't believe that I'm here, and despite the fact I've only been in Delhi two days, I already have an enormous amount of things I want to write about! India really is so utterly can completely different to anywhere else on Earth, and is certainly a world away from anywhere else I've visited on my trip.
I arrived here in the early hours on Wednesday morning following a near 6 hour flight with India's second largest airway, Jet Airways. Fortunately my flight was on time, unlike the last time I flew out of Singapore, and we landed at about 2.40am. As I stepped off the plane I was stepping out into the coolest air temperatures I'd felt in nearly a month - a mere 21C. India doesn't feel anywhere near as hot as Malaysia and Singapore, and at night it does cool down a fair bit, whereas in South East Asia there barely seemed to be any change in the temperature. I've slept comfortably in my hotel without air conditioning for the first time since New Zealand.
After waiting an eternity for my bag (a wait so long even the Indians were complaining) I headed for the arrivals hall, where all the hotel pickup drivers were holding up placards with people's name on. There was meant to be one for me, but out of the 20 or so names on display, none of them said Adam Story, and none of them bore the name of my hotel. By this time it was well past 3am, and nearly 6am Singapore time, so I was very tired and not very happy! I called the hotel from a payphone but there was no response, so after waiting around a while I decided my only option was to take a taxi. I pre-purchased my ticket from the official booth and headed out of the arrivals hall, where there was a horde of private taxi touts waiting. A traffic police cordon kept them at bay, but one smartly dressed lad was my side of the cordon and on seeing my pre-purchased ticket he guided me to what I assumed was the taxi pickup. He wasn't in any uniform, but neither were any of the taxi officials, and I initially assumed he was legitimate simply because he was not behind the cordon. He waved across a "taxi", but I on seeing it I immediately knew I was being tricked. It was most certainly not an official black and yellow taxi that my ticket was valid for. He spoke to the driver and said he'd told him where I was going, and then he gently pushed me towards the car. I, in turn, asked the driver where I was going, and unsurprisingly he didn't know. He just shouted "get in" to me, but there was no way I was prepared to! By now a third tout had arrived to encourage me to get in, and they weren't best pleased that I was resisting. This didn't matter as I had built an awful lot of frustration after my pickup had not arrived, and I let rip at all three of them and walked off feeling somewhat better. When I turned round I saw where the official taxis were leaving from, which was previously hidden by all the touts, and I found myself a genuine one. My impression of India by this point was not especially favourable.
The drive to the hotel took about half an hour and I finally arrived at about 4.30am. The night guards let me in but they spoke no English so I could not complain about my lack of a pickup! I was more than a little relieved to get into my bed, but just 3.5 hours later I was woken up by all the noise from the street outside and I knew I wouldn't get back to sleep. The hotel manager knocked on my door at 9am purely to say hello. He was oblivious to the fact my pickup had not turned up, and apologized saying he'd refund my taxi fare. He also upgraded me to a better room, which was nice. Incidentally, you don't even have to leave the hotel room to get a taste of Indian life. The TV is constantly showing Bollywood style movies and extravagant soap operas, but it was the English language rolling news channels that caught my attention. The pace they report at is so fast - they don't even leave the rolling headlines up long enough for you to read them. Indian life is played out at such a high tempo, and even the news readers don't hang about! The reporters also aren't afraid to lambaste Pakistan, proclaiming "we have evidence of Pakistan's lies" - the Kashmir issue is still big news here.
The hotel manager got a member of staff to escort me on the 5 minute walk to the metro station, and I stepped out into the street which was so quiet at 4.30am, to see a world of activity. The first thing I saw was a woman walking along who was remarkably balancing 6 loose bricks on her head. This type of thing would be a circus trick anywhere outside of India, but here it's perfectly normal! I smiled at her, but she glared back at me, which was rather surprising at the time. The women here are not at all like those in South East Asia, who were all too happy to smile at foreigners. The Indian women seem afraid to make eye contact, and some of them even appear to give me evils! In South East Asia I felt like a movie star with the looks I got off some of the girls, but it appears the Indian women reserve those just for their husbands. Indian men on the other hand are the total opposite. They all seem delighted to see a white guy, and so many of them smile and wave, and ask my name. They're not afraid to stare, and many of them even go so far as looking at you up and down with their eyes. It's a little disturbing! As I walked to the metro station the man accompanying me started conversation, and within two minutes he'd decided we were friends for life and grabbed my hand! I wondered what a 35 year old married man with 4 kids was doing holding hands with a white guy, but this is commonplace amongst Indian men. I've seen so many male couples walking down the street hand in hand, or with an arm across the shoulder, and I doubt any of them are gay! Its merely one of the many cultural differences between Indian society and the wider world!
Despite the fact Karol Bagh, the district in which my hotel is located, is full of tourist outlets and hotels, I am yet to see any other white people in the vicinity. Walking along the street I must have stood out like a sore thumb! Even at the major tourist sights here there are very few white people about, which is a stark contrast to the situation in South East Asia. Tourism is big in Delhi, but its people from other parts of India who seem to be driving the boom. As I walked along I felt like I was looking through a camera lens - the scene just didn't seem real! The hotel person assisted me in buying me metro ticket and then left me to my own devices. Despite the fact it was 11am, Delhi's modern and regularly running metro was absolutely rammed with people - I was of course the only white guy on the train though! The metro system here is one of many things the Delhi authorities are trying to expand in time for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, which will be held here in October. There are also lots of motorway construction projects going on bearing the Commonwealth Games logo, but none of them look anywhere near finished. Still, with a population of 14 million (3rd highest in India), Delhi has the manpower at its disposal to get things done at short notice.
My destination was New Delhi railway station, where I headed to buy a ticket for an overnight train from Calcutta to Delhi for after my tour ends. The scene around the station was absolutely chaotic, and in the station itself there were masses of people, many of whom were laying down having a rest! I struggled to locate the international tourist's office, which was where I had to go to buy my ticket. I dodged the touts by strolling along as if I knew where I was going, which I think is the strategy you need to take here, and I eventually located the place. Having checked on the internet beforehand the train I wanted was sold out to Indians, but luckily they have a small quota of tourist tickets available on the major routes, and I bought one of these tickets for about 25 pound. There were some serious freaks of nature on display in the ticket office - mainly from Australia and England. They were weird hippy types who probably frequently change religions during their stay. I hope there are no such people on my tour, but as those type of people tend to look down on group tours, I've little fear there will be.
I then headed out of the station and took my first ever ride in a black and yellow Indian autorickshaw - something so synonymous with the country. For a bargain price the driver took me across to the Red Fort - one of the major attractions in Old Delhi. On the ride I started to get a flavour of the real India. We passed men driving donkeys up the street, stables, shacks, cows, and even a makeshift mini ferris wheel, which looked like a death trap, but seemed to be entertaining the many local kids who had gone for a ride. Sadly as we were moving through traffic I struggled to get pictures of these things, but I've already accepted that there's absolutely no way I'll even be able to come close to capturing the essence of India on camera. You simply have to be here.
The Red Fort is a relic dating from Delhi's Mughal era. It's a pretty colossal structure, but inside there really wasn't that much to see other than the remains of a few mosques. India was for so long in the grip of Muslim powers, but the population has always remained overwhelmingly Hindu, and nowadays Muslims make up just 12% of the country's population. Islam is of course the main religion in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Whilst wandering the fort I met another lone traveler, and I spent the rest of the afternoon with him. I can't remember his name as it was pretty complex, but he was a student from Japan. We went for lunch at the Red Fort restaurant and I had my first taste of Indian spices! It wasn't the curry that I found spicy, but bizarrely the vegetable pilau rice! If you don't like spicy food here, you'd be absolutely screwed, so it's lucky that I do. My dish was very nice, and the two meals I've eaten in my hotel (who thankfully provide room service meals) have also been good. No food poisoning yet! Judging by how dirty India is though, it's probably only a matter of time. There is litter everywhere, and the air is smoggy, but one thing that has pleasantly surprised me is the smell. There is a bad smell here, but it's only on certain corners, and in all honesty I think I smelt worse in Bangkok! Maybe if I hadn't been in South East Asia I would have noticed it more.
After lunch we headed out to a park where many famous Indians have been cremated. On the way we were harassed by a rickshaw driver, and we also got a display of gymnastics performed to us by a child beggar! There are a fair few beggars here, but again it's not as bad as I'd expected. The park was full of Indians making pilgrimages to pay homage to the dead. The main attraction is Raj Ghat, which was where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated after his assassination in 1948. There was a constant stream of people moving past the shrine. There were also a lot of couples lounging about in the vicinity - public displays of affection actually seem to be more accepted here even than in South East Asia. Indian couples to me look odd. The women here dress superbly and look really smart. They all wear brilliant and brightly coloured saris, but alongside them are the Indian men, who must be the scruffiest breed on Earth in their loose shirts and baggy trousers! Couples do look strange together as a result.
After the Ghat we visited the Gandhi Museum, which was pretty informative. It's pretty shocking what he went through at the hands of the British to gain independence for his country. Our final stop in the day was Connaught Place, which is considered the heart of Delhi. It's about the only part of Delhi where you can see western civilization creeping into India. There is the odd western brand boasting a shop on the circular plaza, but not many. We visited the park in the middle of Connaught Place, which you bizarrely had to pass through airport style security to access. This is also the case on the metro and at all tourist attractions - I think it must be an anti terror measure. You also weren't allowed to take pictures in the park, which I found a little perplexing. After our wander, and after I'd bought an Indian plug adapter (they have unique sockets here), I said goodbye to my Japanese friend and caught the metro back to my hotel.
Today I've had an even more productive day of sightseeing as I hired out a driver and car for the day at the recommendation of the hotel. He cost in the region of 17 pound, which is actually fairly reasonable given the distance he drove me. Many of the sights in Delhi are very spread out, and I seemed to spend more of the day stuck in traffic than actually exploring! It's a shame the metro system isn't more developed. My driver spoke little English, which was a shame as most of the other Indians I've met seem to speak it quite well. His battered, yet fairly new Tata car also had no air conditioning, so I felt very hot as we queued in traffic. When outside the car 28C doesn't feel too bad to me, and yesterday must have been the first day where I didn't sweat in nearly a month.
The first sight he showed me was the Indira Gandhi memorial. She was the Indian Prime Minister in the 1970s and 80s and is no relation to the more globally famous Mahatma. The memorial was situated at the nice house she occupied whilst in office. Some of the rooms had been left as they were when the house was occupied, but you could only see them through windows. There was a lot to read but my driver said we had a busy schedule (which we did) and gave me 10 minutes to browse! The most poignant thing on display was the sari she was wearing when she died, and they'd also movingly paved in crystal the path she took immediately before she was shot, with the place it actually happened marked by the sole glass pane. She was killed in 1984 in the grounds of her own home by 2 of her own guards of all people.
After the memorial the driver took me to a shop, which was an agreed aspect of the tour beforehand. I had to spend 15 minutes looking round so he would gain points with his employer and edge closer to a pay rise! He also got a small fee for taking me there. It was pretty awkward for me as I had no interest in any of the many items on display! I left as soon as 15 minutes was up and he drove me on to Qutb Minar, which is an impressive ruin from another former dynasty. The Qutb Minar itself is a high stone tower, but there were lots of other ruins to see too and I got some nice pictures. We then had lunch - well I did! I was of course at my driver's mercy for this and he took me to a fairly expensive restaurant, which he would have got commission from. There was just me and another Chinese tourist in there, yet loads of staff! One of the waiter's wouldn't leave me alone as I ate, constantly barracking me with questions about my travels!
The next sight to see was the Bahai religion's lotus temple, which was a beautiful white structure somewhat similar to the Sydney Opera House in style. The Bahai are a small religious sect who preach love for everything and the usual hippy stuff! They even had in their employment a strange girl from England, who'd obviously been converted. I decided I wanted a picture with me in it and the temple, but having waited around for a white person for ages without success, I decided to ask an Indian woman who was waiting for her husband on the phone. She didn't respond, but her husband did! He looked astonished that a white person had approached him, and he looked perplexed by use of the camera. The picture he took was awful, and I had to ask a South African bloke to take another for me later.
The driver then battled through the manic Indian traffic to reach our next destination, Humayun's Tomb, which was a magnificent memorial structure somewhat reminiscent of the Taj Mahal. On route he annoyingly dropped me at another shop begging me to go in and stay for 15 minutes. This shop owner was not happy at me being in there and clearly not wanting to buy anything, and he pretty much told me to leave after 2 minutes. My driver wasn't happy but neither was I, and I made sure we didn't stop at any more shops. I was annoyed with him at this time, but I've a lot of respect for someone who can drive in Delhi! You can't leave an inch of space on Indian roads otherwise someone will get their nose into it. Every inch of road space is also taken up, and people are constantly pulling out in front of each other and using their horns. It really is mental and I can't believe that over the course of the day we didn't have a scrape.
The last stop of the day was the Akshardham Temple, which is India's newest and most lavish Hindu temple having been built in 2005. They bizarrely wouldn't permit cameras in, probably for anti-terror reasons, which was very disappointing as the amazing building was probably one of the photogenic things I'll see all trip. The complex was huge and I only had time to explore part of it, as I had to be back at the car for 5pm. I was highly impressed by the whole place though and wish I'd had longer. If you watch any Commonwealth Games coverage in October I'm you'll be able to see it - the stadium is going up right next door.
Tomorrow I am planning on visiting the sight where Mahatma Gandhi was shot, as well as the Delhi Gate, which is the symbol of the city. I will meet my tour group in the evening, and the following day we are departing Delhi on our first night train in India, bound for Jaisalmer. I may or may not update before then, but I'm sure this has left you enough to read. A record long blog, but this is definitely a seriously interesting place.