As young Josie & Morgan have described in their Dizzy Delhi post , we had a busy time of it in the capital. One of the greatest honours Gilly & I will have on the trip is the opportunity to see our destinations through our kids eyes. When asked, of the maelstrom of the Indian capital to choose the best thing? Josie loved the chipmunks (stripey little Northern Palm Squirrels) and Morgan thought the cycle-rickshaws were cool.
It’s not a new city to me, although the last time I was in Delhi was 1994 as a backpacker with buddy NRJ. So what’s changed? Well, I have, clearly, but Delhi? There’s an Old & New theme here, neatly following the naming of the city. There must be countless obvious changes to the place. Yet there is one thing – from where I blog – that sums it up. Crammed in to a tuk-tuk bouncing up the potholed Qutab Road en route to Lal Qila (The Red Fort) we got slowed by a ox-drawn cart. (“Cowmels” Josie named them due to their characteristic hump.) These weary plodding beasts of burden are as Indian as a an Indian thing, no change there. So our driver starts beeping his horn furiously. Not that we’d pressed him on urgency, it’s just what Delhi drivers do. The reveal came when the Ox-driver – dressed in filthy rags astride a rudimentary battle scarred cart – turns to see what the fuss is. I note that he’s on his mobile phone.
And there it is folks: mobile telephony. No different from Dagenham, Droitwich or Durham: everyone’s got a mobile. Obvious and evident in the sales figures of telecoms companies worldwide. But – for some reason – I simply didn’t expect it to be so omnipresent in India and am embarrassed by my naivety. Wi-fi-tastic, bluetoothed headset-toting, thumb-texting telecoms have pervaded urban India. Of course it has. India is doing it on its own terms (natch) and it’d be a pace outstripping us in auld Europe.
The traffic problem, on the other hand, I did anticipate. This town has got serious congestion issues and a serious brown atmospheric haze to go with it. The middle classes have all got a boxy city-car and the 2-stroke tuk-tuks are everywhere. Buses use their muscle to get through but the outer (one way) ring of Connaught Place was so gridlocked on our first evening we could have walked across the roofs and bonnets of vehicles – 8 crammed lanes worth – to reach our cycle rickshaw on one of the side roads.
To describe Delhi would take an age (and a proper author) so I’ll keep it to a few random observations.
The skies are festooned with urban birds of prey. At times there are hundreds swirling in majestic arcs above. Booted Eagles, Black Kites and surely plenty of other species abound. Presumably due to the rich pickings of waste strewn across the streets and edible live prey everywhere. (Some Indians are quite small.) Unkempt monkeys wander around railings and rooftops. Mangey dogs lounging everywhere, the occasional skinny cat and – of course – “cowmels”.
The 1931 New Delhi is not so new anymore. The sweeping, grand colonial townscape now has a backdrop of angular ultra-modern high-rise buildings, mulit-story billboards and roaring, honking, snarling traffic like many a city.
Old Delhi? Now there’s a different story. If you can stomach it, the bazaars and back alleys of Old Delhi are spellbinding, intimidating (in their own way), oppressive, cramped, jam-packed, often startling but never threatening. My reaction on a first visit to the Chowri Bazaar this week? The craziest place I’ve ever been. Kudos to the small Beers and Mrs B for taking it in their stride. It’s the set of a (Slumdog sequel) movie brought to life. A fictional movie surely? One where people live in filthy cheek by jowl in the name of commerce. Tell me they’re all extras in a grand production and go back to their trailers after the elaborate shoot, yes? No. As we kept having to remind ourselves – aliens air-dropped in from rural Wiltshire – this is how people live in Old Delhi.
Want a new tricycle rickshaw? Open air factory just there sir, mind the welding torch by your foot, cover your eyes from the arc. Shave? Take a seat by that tree-stump. Used shock absorber for your Hindustani Ambassador (Morris Oxford)? I’m sure there’s a good one in this pile of 50, I’ll just look. Handmade gift bags? 10,000? I’ll just get the porters to stack the bundles on their heads. 20′ steel reinforcing rods for your Grand Design X 100? Mind your back, here comes the pensionable rickshaw wallah with them now. Where in the name of all that is holy have you been? Sorry Meestah Beer, you can’t get the staff. Oh, he’s collapsed. Bananas? 50INR a kilo (tourist rate). Stone carving of your favourite deity? Small, medium or wardrobe size? Flat panel telly? Door handles? Wrapping paper? You name it.
Waitrose? Tesco? Hypermarches? All aboard at that end of the retail spectrum and travel all the way to the other end of the line and then stay onboard until the train reaches the depot then get off – mind the gap – and walk for a bit. Teeny,tiny little cupboards of commerce are where it’s at. This is the breathless, heaving, teeming reality of the Old Delhi bazaars. It’s intoxicating and – if you’re not of the mood – potentially panic inducing.
Then, you reach the gates of the Jama Masjid. This immense red sandstone mosque – it’s courtyard can accommodate 25,000 worshippers – rises up magnificently for the raptors to swirl around its minarets.
After taking in the main area of the mosque, we find ourselves climbing one of the minarets (tower) – up the narrowest spiral staircase – to take in the view. The platform at the top is not for the feint hearted. Avoiding toppling down the open stone stairwell, taking care not to lean on the loose railings… now check out that view. We have an Eagle eye view ourselves now. The reduced visibility of the Delhi smog somehow adds to the magic shrouding the Red Fort and the rest of the city in mystery. The soundtrack of traffic and bustling streets wafts its way up. The children are beside themselves with excitement which swells my heart. And scares the whotsits out of Mrs B. Time to carefully descend now folks.
Our visit to Lal Qila (the Red Fort) was tranquil enough. The huge and forlorn Lahore Gate has sandbags outside with machine gun emplacements. Soldiers defending a fort from the outside? Incongruous. I imagine that the Fort is blushing red sandstone with embarrassment. (In fact there is heightened security across the piece in the Delhi after a car bomb the day we arrived. We lose count of the number of times we are scanned and patted down. Of course, this being India, the luggage scanners do nothing like scanning and the metal detecting wands go off but no one really cares. It’s just going through the motions.) Once inside, we revel in the peace away from the throng. Peace that turns out to be short-lived as it’s school picnic day.
J&M are rapidly turned in to celebrities by dint of being white and blonde. Indian personal space does not equate to the western norm and soon the smaller Beers are being photographed left, right and centre. These snappers are mainly youngsters using – yep – phone cameras. The kids pose unselfishly, bemused by such attention from polite impromptu paparazzi. It’s an amusing sight for us (largely ignored) parents. J&M are hustled to line up with the Kumars for a portrait or beckoned to sit next to some too-cool-for-school teens for a snap. Pausing at a shady spot we find ourselves at the centre of a school outing. Slowly, the children line up around us and we get chatting to their teacher. In his class, he has 80 girls. Eighty! 400 students on this trip today, all smiles and good behaviour in their burgundy uniforms. The small Beers fall into a sort of wedding line up situation – “you must be sooo very proud?” – and get to shake hands with lots and lots of schoolgirls until Josie’s arm begins to ache.
The Fort itself has seen better days and its beautiful aqueducts are long since bone dry. These masterpieces of 17th century irrigation-cum-air-con bereft of water seem terribly sad to me. The only place with any water are the “paid WC” where an angry european tourist railed against the bog-wallah. “You charge us 250INR to get in here and now it’s money to use a toilet!?” He has a point: whilst Fort admission is good value at £3.20(UK) we note that the locals tariff is 10INR (12p).
The return trip to the airport at 06.00 that is highly symbolic of the changes to my eyes. Stepping over the sleeping homeless, around the dozing cowmels in the pre-dawn and skipping the puddles of raw sewage, we route-march rucksack laden across the bridge traversing the dozens of tracks at an already bustling New Delhi railway station. Presently, we descend into the bowels of the Airport Express: a clinically clean, world-class, 21st century transit system. (Fee? 100INR. £1.30! Take THAT Heathrow Express.) We are then whisked to the airport in quiet, clean, hermetically sealed air-conditioned comfort: isolated from the real India out there. The new, separating us from the old.
Next stop Kerela.