In order to drive on the roads in Delhi you must take everything you know about the rules of the road and wipe them from your mind, they will get you killed here. Anywhere there is a gap you fill it and whoever is the first of the ten other drivers rushing to fill that spot is the winner. I couldn’t look most of the time it was truly terrifying. We arrive at the park and make our way to the ticket office. There are three ticket booths, men, women and foreigners. Locals pay 40 rupees to enter and foreigners pay 400. Personally, I think its a brilliant system, local taxes maintain these places so why shouldn’t the locals pay a token amount and we as tourists pay more? Anyhow, we were meeting julie's friend and her husband but received a message to say they were running a little late so I left their tickets at the gate and headed in to find the cafe with the great coffee. We had not had coffee since leaving Jordan and my nerves were in desperate need of caffeine. We marched our way as quickly as possible through the park in search of the café. The café was beautiful and did indeed serve great coffee and had a nice menu from which we ordered. Most of the time I have no idea what I’m ordering and usually hope for the best. Food in India seems to have two levels either spicy if a savoury or sweet to the level of dissolving your teeth. I had managed to order some kind of dumpling which I couldn’t eat, the texture bore no relation to anything I knew and so I could not consume it. Róisín, being so much more adventurous that she ordered a dish that she really enjoyed and then enjoyed some of mine rather than offend the chef. The clientele seem from appearance to be the very well heeled of Delhi so the problem was not the food the problem was me, but perhaps you already knew that. We finished up and went to meet our new friends.
We walked the park with them. They took us to Humayun’s Tomb and we walked the grounds for an hour or so. The tomb is made of red sandstone but very much in the style of the Taj Mahal. I really cannot get over how generous these two people were to relative strangers. Thanks to them I was feeling less scared of Delhi and little more inclined to explore. They dropped us to Connaught Place which is a main shopping area in Delhi. Our new friends wanted to know if we had heard of "fire paan", which we had not. She described what it was and told us we would be able to find a stall selling it in the shopping area. We promised to give it a try, not me of course I’m not that adventurous, just Róisín, after all it is her gap year!
There is an underground market, no not the black market but an actual market under the ground called Palika Bazar which is adjacent to Connaught Place. There we were dropped with advice not to pay more than 500 rupees for anything as they were all knock offs. We went into the park and down two levels of stairs to a hive of busy stalls all vying for our business. You couldn’t delay or even stroll through this place. Any delay is interpreted as an opportunity to sell and you will be approached by every stall holder within view, considering every stall/shop is no more than 2 meters wide that’s a lot of competition for your business. Like the old bull ring in Dublin there was a lot of knock off products but there was also some hidden gems too. There was some beautiful hand crafted leather goods which I couldn’t buy as we had so much travel ahead of us. I did come upon a shop selling silks which caught my eye. I thought as I was not going to be home with my girls for Christmas this was an opportunity to buy some gifts to send them. So I got down to haggling. The silk that had caught my eye was in fact a roll of silk fabric being sold by the meter. I was then shown pashminas (cashmere shawls) in every shade, colour and material. At the back of the shop the owner pulled back a curtain and started to present us with his limitless collection of pashminas. As I rejected what was being presented on the grounds of fabric he would then bring out higher quality and higher priced goods. When I found the quality that appealed but not the colour he presented more, dropping one at a time in front of me. I eventually decided on four beautiful pashminas and all for the equivalent of €40, a far cry from what I would pay for these things at home. Delighted with my purchases we left the market to go in search of food.
Connaught place is a semi circle of Georgian style buildings harking back to India’s colonial days. Beautiful architecture with shaded verandas which were once the administrative centre of British control but now house all the familiar global brands such as Zara, VanHeusen, Benetton, H&M, etc. All the designers are here including the high street eateries and its one of these I choose to have our evening meal. All I really want is something familiar and although I loathe eating in Nando's at home at least a chicken leg is just that and I need to eat something I can recognise. The menu is adjusted for a more spicy tolerant taste but it is possible to get a plain chicken burger, no beef here, beef would not be on the menu until Goa, but I haven’t realised that yet. After our Nando's meal, we went in search of "Fire Paan" and found a street stall not too far from the eatery. What was fire paan? We discovered that it is crushed ice with syrup wrapped in a beetle leaf. They then light the leaf on fire and shove it into your mouth. You would think this would be dangerous, however, the fire is immediately extinguished once in your mouth. The smell of your breath afterward is delightful, akin to any well cleaned and sterilized toilet, honestly it was the closest thing to Jeyes fluid I have every smelt. After this we found a tuk tuk and made our way back to the hotel for our last night in Delhi.
Fire Paan in Connaught Place, Delhi
We had organised a tour which would take us around the Golden Triangle. Our car arrived at 8am. We packed our bags into the car and headed off with our guide to explore those yet to be revealed parts of Delhi. Our guide was a very knowledgeable man and took great personal pride in his work and his home place. Our first stop was Agrasen Ki Baoli, which is an old well and where you might think this a small circular structure with a bucket suspended over it on a string you would be very much mistaken. This was a vast structure about half the size of a football pitch and with steps leading down 30 meters. It was truly impressive and not something we would have found on our own, as it was off the beaten track and down a side alley. Next stop was the Lotus temple. Not sure what’s going on here. Its a beautiful park with a temple in the shape of a lotus at the centre of very manicured gardens. Apparently this is a new religion called Baha`i. The temple has no idols of any God but a belief system which recognises that people can accept or reject God and have free will to do so. Not so different from any other religion I think! Any and all religions are welcome to worship at this temple and read from what ever doctrine they believe in, not like any other religion I am aware of. I don’t fully understand how this works but sounds good. We were approached by a young man who offered to explain the religion to us. He told us about his religion and also pointed us towards the interactive centre just behind us which we could check out when we were leaving. The building was very impressive and there were queues of people visiting. I was very impressed with the numbers of visitors for a religious movement I had never heard of but the guide assured me that most people visiting this place were not members just sightseers like ourselves.
Golden Triangle Tour: https://www.viator.com/tours/New-Delhi/5-Day-Golden-Triangle-Tour/d804-15811P1
Next stop was the spice market and this was really exciting. We were brought to a park where we had to leave the comfort of the car and get into a rickshaw. I have always hated the idea of rickshaws especially in affluent Dublin where I wonder what type of person needs to be peddled around by another human being in order to feel good about themselves? But this is different, people here do what they can to put bread on the table. The guide had told us the fare would be 200 rupees which was around €2.50. Off we went in our rickshaw, the man pedaling the bike was pure sinew and he maneuvered in and out of the traffic demonstrating his years of experience. His english was excellent and he chatted and laughed as he sped along. Cars were recently banned from Khari Baoli in Delhi giving tuk tuks and rickshaws a fighting chance to make a living. As we speed along the central street a quick look down the side alleys showed a medley of shops with a chaos of wiring strung above, across and around buildings. It was clear that these building had been here for centuries and with every new invention a new wire was added to the outside. Along these wires ran families of monkeys, it is a wonder the entire place hadn’t gone up in smoke as there was clearly no health and safety regulation here or perhaps Europe is breeding more risk adverse individuals! Any how we get to the entrance of spice street and it is something to behold. This is where the restaurant owners come to buy their spices on a whole sale scale. The buzz, the smells the tussle of people is an assault to the senses. The narrow streets with wheelbarrow loads of spices being moved around is totally new to arguably most Europeans. Clearly, nothing has changed here in centuries. I imagine this is what markets were like across Europe circa 15 CE and before the advent of health and safety and government controls. Real estate is at a premium here and the guide indicates towards two shops one on top of the other to demonstrate this point. On the ground floor (which is the ground) is a shoe repair guy working away diligently, in a seated position and on a shelf above him is a guy, also in a seated position selling tea. Every square millimeter of this landscape is busy with people scratching a living any way they can. In another section of the market sitting in a semicircle on a corner of the street we see trade men for hire. Each man has tools of his trade in a bucket placed in front of him. A plumber has a few pipes and washers. A painter displays a buck with paint brushes. Here these men will sit until someone hires them. Another venture as explained by the guide was the exchange of money. Here if you had a damaged or torn note you could sell it at a stall on the street. The stall owner would give you perhaps 90% of the value but it meant you did not have to queue at the bank to get the damaged note changed. You just have to admire the ingenuity of these people and their work ethic. We are brought to a particular shop and introduced to the owner who takes us to a back room where he explains about the many and varied spices and herbs he sells. I bought a number of different spices to send home to my daughters. We were also brought to the best sweet shop in Delhi, Chaina Ram. This shop was, we were told, established during the time of the British administration and still is renowned throughout India even today. Its also very expensive even by European standards. This stall was a buzz with people and although I looked around I had difficulty seeing any sweets until I realised that sweet is the British word for dessert. Our guide asked us what we wanted and we were able to try some of these treats.
The next stop on our tour was lunch which I would happily have skipped as I hadn’t quite accepted that every thing on a menu is some form of curry in various levels of spiciness and so every menu is a disappointment for me. Adventurous Róisín had no problem with menus and whatever she ordered she was happy to eat. Me on the other hand ordered a not too spicy BBQ chicken dish which had some familiarity with home. This time the food that arrived was undercooked and there was no chance of me risking food poising this early in the Delhi adventure. Róisín’s food was perfect. I began to wonder if she was sneakily translating the menus in her spare time as she always seemed to land on her feet, that might be verging on the paranoid!
Rickshaw through the market streets of Delhi
Finished lunch and off to the Mosque. A large dark red building where on arrival we removed our shoes and gave them to a care taker for a small fee. We wandered around and admired the view out over the city. I have to say I did not really feel comfortable in this place and felt like we were intruding and barely tolerated. I can imagine I would be just as resentful if people came into my local church taking pictures while services were going on so I didn't take offense. Next on this whistle stop tour of Delhi was Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial a really peaceful and serene place and the first place, according to our guide, where every visiting dignitary has to attend. The awe and respect with which people in India still hold Gandhi is displayed on every face that passes through this location. The gardens are beautifully kept and many of Gandhi’s most inspirational sayings are inscribed on plaques around the site. “Be the change you wish to see”, easier said than done but definitely worth striving towards.
We move from Gandhi’s memorial to the Sikh temple in Delhi. All are welcome here and anyone who wants or needs food can eat here at no cost. This place is not about income or your monetary worth. Anyone can volunteer to help here either cleaning, cooking or serving the many diners. We had the privilege of taking a look behind the scenes at the kitchens which produce thousands of meals for all visitors to the temple. All are welcome to visit and eat here regardless of race or religion and there is a real atmosphere of openness about the place. Visiting this temple was one of the high points and there is an atmosphere of welcome and friendship without the stifling piety which appears a feature of most religions. We left the temple at sundown and having been delivered safely back to our driver we said goodbye to our wonderful guide and left Delhi in the dark heading for Agra.
It was a beautiful sunny morning as the Plane descended into Delhi airport. A thick blanket of smog covered the city and I was so glad we had to wear masks because this stuff was something to behold and did not burn off as the day progressed. Róisín registered for our visas in August 2021 because the Indian government decided to reopen borders since closing them due to the pandemic. They closed the borders again within 3 weeks but were honoring those visas that had been issued so we were among the lucky ones! We had arranged (through the hostel Roisin had booked) to be collected from the airport. All a little nerve-racking as we were required to check that the driver had the correct code which was "chai tea". If he did not know the code we were not to go with him, lovely welcome to India! Apparently bogus drivers turn up having wangled your details from the hotel porter or some other deviant manner. They turn up in place of the legitimate driver and whisk you away to a totally different accommodation (I might have thanked them if they had). We meet our nice taxi driver even if the transport was a little battered looking, I kinda thought this is all about the aesthetic keeping with the gap year and economy travel theme and this was definitely that, a battered old VolksWagon van. The one thing that struck me on entering the car park was the number of stray dogs and they are not small dogs. Most are the size of a Labrador and they move in groups I will not say packs. I am nervous of dogs, however, these dogs did not appear to be any threat to us. Leaving the airport you can see the well kept embankments on either side of the road. These embankments are kept in check by teams of people on their hands and knees with a trowel digging out each individual weed. No roundup here lads but you have to wonder about the cost of labour. We stop at a roundabout and in the middle of this roundabout were two women and a child about the age of 2 years. The child started to wander toward the edge of the road, my heart was in my mouth but the women did not make a move other than to laugh. I eventually figured that the child was playing chicken with them and fully understood the dangers of the road as he ran toward the edge turning and laughing at the two women, it was all a game. So you grow up fast in India.
The hostel we were heading to was in the old part of the city and this was unlike anything I had ever seen. He pulls up at the top of an alley and tells us we will have to walk to the hostel from here as the van will not fit down the narrow street. The street is packed with stalls and people, and I am at least 100 miles outside my comfort zone wondering how much worse it could have been if we hadn’t the secret code for our driver. We turn the corner into the alley and there is a row of men urinating up against the wall and this is a sight that will be repeated through out India. My head is screaming, Oh My God where the hell are we!? How did Roisin find this place? It did have incredible reviews so figured the best course of action now was to follow the guy wit our bags. We got to the hostel and I felt a little bit reassured as the guy on reception seemed to anticipate our needs and asked if we had purchased a sim card as yet. I needed cash and luckily there was a cash machine at the top of the road. Having checked in I was feeling a little less overwhelmed until we were directed out of the building into another hole in the wall around the corner. When we get there we are directed to the counter to check-in. Behind this counter was a young man with the rudest of temperaments. He was having his breakfast and continued to have his breakfast as we waited in the hall. Roisin stood politely in front of the desk and I sat down not trusting myself to speak as I was really mad now and mad beats scared any day of the week. There were 3 more guys hanging over the stairs staring at us. I have already made up my mind I am not staying in this dump. We are checked in and brought up three flights of stairs where we are introduced to our room. What should have been a private room with twin beds was a grubby room with a platform that a family of five could have slept in. Grubby sheets, walls and furniture. The en suite consisted of a toilet and our shower was a bucket and jug. I hadn’t quite understood what the porter (bit of a stretch) had meant when he said just give him a call for hot water. Our shower was a bucket. After our porter had left I took out my coat, put it on and zipped it up to my neck. I then sat on a stool, being sure not to touch walls or anything really, and collected my thoughts. Thought number one was that we were getting out of here but first we needed cash.
We left everything in the room and made our way out of the building. We had to go up through the piss alley again to the ATM that was right on that corner at the top of this alley. When we got to the ATM we had to wait our turn before we could access the machine. It was in a little room off the street but there was no door. I asked Roisin to stand behind me watching the crowd. I inserted the card and pin and waited for my cash. A notice appeared on the screen to say transaction declined. I knew I had the funds so I tried again but again the transaction failed. A few guys offered to help with the transaction but I thought better of accepting and decided to move on as we were attracting too much attention. We had no choice but to venture out into this crazy city. I figured if we walk long enough we would find another ATM and perhaps less crowded. The more we walked the more we were approached by every faucet of humanity, beggers, stallholders, disabled, children with hands outstretched, it was unbelievable. If I had any money I would have happily parted with it just to get them to leave us alone. The more I walked the more I confirmed for myself that we were not turning back until we got some cash and could get the hell out of this place.
Tuk Tuk through the streets of Delhi
We kept walking wondering how far we might have to go to get a cash machine. Again, men would stop what they were doing and follow saying “Hello madam can I help you, where are you trying to go?” I waved them away and kept walking. Then a guy comes out of a travel agency and again “hello madam, can I help you. I am working with the government travel agency so its safe to talk”. I figured he was telling me he was tourist information as we get at home. I did not believe him but asked if he knew where I might find an ATM. He was very helpful and asked me to come into his office so that he could give me a free map. I wasn’t too keen on following him as the office was way in at the back of the building. I told Róisín to stay out front and followed the man. We got to his office and he began showing me brochures for any number of tours we could take with his organization. I told him that I had a better chance of booking a tour if I found an ATM. Out we went onto the street again and he pointed just a few yards up the road. He wanted to come with us but I insisted that I would return after I got to the bank. We managed to get some money from the machine and I ordered a tuk tuk as soon as I stepped outside. We were back in Gotham in no time.
We had discussed sim cards with the guy on reception and since we were at a loss as to how to navigate Delhi, I figured we have cash, we now need communication. We were assured by the receptionist that the man for the sim cards was on his way so I decided to wait. While waiting, the owner of the establishment happened to phone the reception. He specifically asked to speak with me as he had concerns regarding his son's return from his studies in England and if there were any major delays at the airport. He also took this opportunity to ask how I found everything, I lied and said everything was fine. He did say that I should contact him if I had any problems whatsoever and I assured him I would. The man with the sim cards arrived and signed both Roisin and I up to a mobile network. We gratefully headed back to our room where Róisín got to work booking alternate accommodation. I said “Róisín, that’s it, I appreciate that this is your adventure but I cannot take one more kip hole budget accommodation nor do I have too. I am way too old for this crap and I doubt if I will live long enough to re-run this on a five star budget. So you are welcome to jump on board my 5 star adventure and re-run this with your student friends at a later date. Agreed?”
We booked accommodation not too far away, but away. I went down to reception to tell them we were leaving and I would be grateful if they would order me a taxi. I had promised Róisín I would not be mad or rude just as nicely as possible we were leaving and that is precisely what I did. The reception guy was shocked and I assured him that everything was fine it was just that the place was just "too budget" for me and I had booked alternate accommodation. He calmed down and accepted my explanation telling me he would send someone to fetch us as soon as the transport arrived. I returned to the room and was only a few minutes there when there was a knock on the door. On opening it I was surprised to find a man who introduced himself as the owner. I stepped out to speak with him and again reiterated what I had previously told the reception. He offered every form of compromise possible. He would move us to another room. I assured him that the mistake was all mine in thinking I could do budget and that I had no intention of looking for a refund as he had tried to offer me. He really did try everything possible to get us to stay and I have to say he was a genuinely nice man but I told him I had already booked and paid for alternate accommodation. He offered to pay for this too. I assured him once again there was no need. I told him that I had no intention of leaving a review if that was his concern and its also the reason I am not giving the name of the hostel here. He wanted to know the name of the other place and said he would personally take us there at his own expense. When Róisín told him the name of our new accommodation he said it was in exactly the same district. I thought "Oh my God! Into the fire we go, what kind of dump has she booked now?" Anyhow after much to-ing and fro-ing he arranged for his receptionist to personally escort us to the new location, and in lieu of refund offered Roisin free accommodation for her and a friend at any future date. We arrived at the new location and oh what a dream. A uniformed porter came to help us with our bags. Reception was beautiful. The room was beautiful and if it were in the same area it was definitely on the outskirts. I went into the room got into bed and told Roisin I was not stepping outside the door until it was time to leave Delhi.
Hi, I'm Olive and I am the writer of this blog. I am traveling the world with my 22 year old daughter, Róisín, who has just graduated University. I wanted to document this journey because it is unusual for a woman of 58 years old to go on adventure that most students do on a gap year. I will try to share my insights into this epic journey with you along the way and maybe inspire more people my age to go on these crazy adventures too.