This post is a snippet from my new eBook, Gypsy Giraffe: Travel Tales From India. To learn more about the book, click here!
Please be advised – DO NOT visit Delhi if you have any of the following medical conditions:
Anxiety, nervousness, sensitivity to loud noises, sensitivity to dust or smog, claustrophobia, fear of crowds, fear of honking horns, fear of rogue cows, fear of stray dogs, fear of spiders, fear of traffic accidents, fear of crazy drivers, fear of having a toe or an arm amputated by a passing motorbike, fear of imminent death…
Basically, if you are afraid of ANYTHING at all, Delhi will be your worst nightmare. Chances are very good that you will NOT survive.
If, on the other hand, you thrive on chaos, if you’ve been known to waste away in front of exotic travel shows, and if you’re not afraid to put your life into the hands of some totally random, mentally unstable rickshaw driver…you might just have an AWESOME time exploring this city!
In fact, look up the word “insanity” in your closest dictionary. You won’t find a photo of a mental hospital or Grigori Rasputin. I guarantee that you will find a picture of Delhi.
Because this city is – in one word – INSANE.
But not in a bad way. Oh, we had a few scary moments today for sure, but our reactions were more along the lines of “Wow, this is so crazy and cool!” instead of “Wow, we just almost died!”
Our day technically began in Agra with checking out of our hotel and catching a 2.5-hour train ride up to Delhi. Our arrival into the city’s southern Hazrat Nizamuddin train station was pretty much what we expected – PANDEMONIUM.
There is nothing quite like stepping off a quiet, peaceful train and into a bustling third-world metropolis of 25 MILLION PEOPLE. We’re talking three times the total population of New York City! There is simply nothing (not even 10 days in other parts of India) to prepare you for the madness, the noise, the smells, and the chaos of New Delhi. It’s like going from a tiny, peaceful cabin in the woods to Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
Except it’s not New Year’s Eve. It’s like this EVERY SINGLE DAY.
After playing the human pinball machine with 10,000 other people exiting the train station, we made our way to the rickshaw stand and proceeded to hire a certifiably insane driver to take us to our hotel. He looked like a normal human being, but the resemblance ended there.
We exited the train station by driving the WRONG WAY through the bus entrance, squeezing between gigantic tour buses with only millimeters to spare (into blind traffic, of course). En route, our driver forms nothing less than a personal murderous vendetta against one of his fellow rickshaw drivers. The two are competing for space in the same lane, trying to pass the same cars/buses at the same time, even going into oncoming traffic to “beat” one another.
We endure – not one, not two – but THREE collisions with this other (equally manic) rickshaw driver before the two finally pull over, step out of their vehicles, and start screaming at each other. Things heat up, fist bangs on each other’s rickshaws ensue, gestures grow more wild, and we’re pretty certain a full-on fistfight (or worse) is about to break out at any second.
It was like a Bollywood version of West Side Story…without the singing and dancing.
So we did what any sane passengers would do in that scenario – we grabbed our bags, got out, and ran for it!! (Seriously, guys, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.)
Luckily it wasn’t much farther to our hotel, Bloomrooms, which is a beautiful, serene oasis in the middle of the city. We are located almost directly across from the busiest train/metro station in all of Delhi, but you’d never know it with these thick walls and courtyard-facing rooms.
It’s amazingly quiet for how NOT quiet it is once you step outside! This is the first “backpacker” type place we’ve stayed at the entire trip, and I gotta say…it’s great to be back. Downstairs is an awesome cafe with great food, board games on every table, and an endless array of your favorite 80’s music. If it was less than 100 degrees outside (in the shade), we’d be hanging out on the plush wicker furniture in the very zen-like inner courtyard, but due to the threat of imminent heat stroke, we’re opting for AC.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes.
We arrive at our hotel with the last of our rupees and set out in search of an ATM. About 2 blocks away, Jeremy has the terrible misfortune of being pooped on by a passing pigeon. All over his head. (And he’s terrified of birds and their germs to begin with). Yeah…pretty gross. So we backtracked to the hotel so he could take shower #3 of the day (you take A LOT of showers in India) before we set out again.
At this point it’s about 4pm – too late to explore any of the touristy sights. The security guard suggests a “scenic” bicycle rickshaw ride up into Old Delhi (the Muslim Quarter). “Good for photos,” he says. “Great for me,” I respond. Plus, we had yet to actually experience a bicycle rickshaw ride – we’ve only done the motorized kind – so it would be something new.
So he flags down a passing bicycle rickshaw, we hand over 100 rupees (about $1.60), and we set off for what will forever be etched in my memory as one of the most insane hours of my life. Traffic conditions like this simply don’t exist anywhere else on earth. We’re talking cars, buses, motorbikes, rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, bulls, goats, stray dogs, children, men pulling vegetable carts, women balancing enormous bags of who-knows-what on their heads…all competing for the same space on what’s barely a two-lane road.
Add in some mountains of trash on the roadsides and some dangerously sagging electrical wires that barely miss your head, and you’re starting to get the picture.
While we were going through an “intersection,” we proceeded to crash into the bicycle rickshaw ahead of us, while another one creamed us from the side. Now, this all sounds very scary, but keep in mind that you’re traveling MAYBE three miles an hour, so these are not high-speed or injury-causing crashes. Even the highways have maximum speed limits of 40km/hour (about 25MPH), so while the traffic is crazy, there’s so much of it that no one is actually going that fast. You can usually walk faster than traffic is traveling.
This is probably the only place in the world where you can get into five accidents in one day and come away completely unscathed!
So our rickshaw drops us on Chandni Chowk, the main thoroughfare through the old quarter. This road has been the center of religious and commercial activity in the city for the past 400 years, and not much has changed over time. It’s still insanely busy and it’s still lined with temples, mosques, and bazaars selling everything from silks to jewelry to electronics to wedding attire.
It is a shopper’s heaven and a claustrophobe’s hell.
I don’t particularly love shopping or tight spaces, but somehow the maniacal atmosphere of the old city didn’t bother me one bit. After our harrowing rickshaw ride, we spent another hour or two just wandering through the bazaar, getting completely and utterly lost, gawking at the powerlines that by all logical reasoning SHOULDN’T work, and trying not to lose any fingers or toes to passing motorbikes.
The shopkeepers in the bazaar are surprisingly not pushy – you can actually walk along and “window shop” without being hounded to death like we were in Agra. It was a nice, refreshing breath of (heavily polluted) air.
So, back to my earlier warnings. Is Delhi chaotic? Yes. Overwhelming? Certainly.
And yet…there’s something magical about it, too. It’s so wildly different than the western world, such a constant assault on your senses, that it almost feels like you’ve been in a bubble your entire life. Then that bubble bursts, and you’re surrounded by more colors and sounds and smells and sights than you knew existed in one country, let alone one city street.
But you know what? It’s pretty darn awesome.