16 Oct 2013
I was struck by how many interesting people I met on my long day of travel to India. It was a long day because the flight left at 1.15am and I worked the day leading up to it and then had to get an earlier shuttle to get to the airport in time to pickup my rupees before the exchange closed (for some reason the bank couldn’t order rupees for me). My fellow shuttle passenger was off to China for business in the auto part industry. The driver had taken groups of school children to China. The guy I shared my inter-terminal journey with in KL was off to work on an oil survey ship off the coast of Korea. Even the group of high-spirited Indian lads behind me on the plane (who drove me crazy because the only position they appeared to be able to sleep in was with their long limbs crossed up against the seat back and so shaking me out of my already tenuous sleep on a regular basis) turned out to be lovely young men who worked at various Countdown supermarkets returning to family for a few weeks and who gave me contact details and told me to contact them if I needed help with anything. Another group of 30 people were MBA students from Waikato University off on a 2 week study tour in Malaysia and China. And a group from Malaysia were heading to Rajasthan because 2 of them were having a ‘destination wedding’ there that weekend.
After an uneventful journey including a rapid transit, I arrived at Indira Ghandi International Airport at 11.30am a very long time after I started my journey. Visa on arrival is a very new phenomenon for India and still just for a select few countries. The disproportionally large counter is set below and behind the stairs into the immigration hall where nobody thinks to look to find it. I asked someone and therefore was first at what ended up being a long queue. It was staffed by 2 old men who appeared to have to do everything manually in triplicate and it took both of them to process my application – a very complicated process of having me complete a form, supply a photo and pay US$60 (plus a little bit of flirting – as I had 2 photos and only needed 1, he asked if could he keep the other to remember me by?) But all this meant I could bypass the main immigration and my suitcase was just appearing on the carousel when I got there. Customs clearance involved handing over your card as you walked past (although some dodgy characters with what appeared to be 10 times their luggage allowance all shrink wrapped in pink plastic were given more attention). Out in the arrivals area I searched vainly for my transfer in amongst hundreds of people all trying to convince me that they would take me. I then went to Cafe Costa as instructed if I was unable to find my guide (but was still fair game to all my would-be guides). Eventually someone came and told me my guide was waiting outside and pointed to someone waving at me. Somewhat sceptically I ventured outside and was very relieved when he greeted me with “Miss Susan? I’m so sorry I left my ID card behind and am not allowed inside without it.” He also had my friends Brian and Eke on his pick up list for the night before. I had travelled with Brian and Eke earlier this year and took the opportunity to travel with them again.
It was the best part of an hour’s drive to our hotel in Karol Barg during which I discovered that it was the Muslim festival of Eid and that I really shouldn’t have left my camera in my pack in the boot of the car as there were several trucks laden with festivities passing us en route. Hotel Swati is a very new hotel, so new in fact that most of it isn’t finished yet. Our rooms are new and comfortable with all sorts of mysterious tapings of wire on walls that will no doubt enable something useful eventually. The safe in my room doesn’t work and a man is dispatched to supply batteries. I discover that Brian and Eke are in the room opposite.
I have just over an hour to freshen up and sort myself out a bit before our first adventure – we have booked to go on an Urban Adventures Delhi Food Walk. I was dubious because the tour doesn’t start from the hotel and we have to make our way across the city on the metro. Brian has the Delhi Metro App and thinks he can get us there – so what the heck. Fending off rickshaw drivers we walk along the street to the metro station reminiscing of similar experiences in Hanoi. We manage to buy the appropriate tokens from the vending machine and I manage fortuitously to place my token on the right spot on the turn style so that I am allowed through. With much gesticulation I am able to show Eke what I did and she joins me. After a period of increasing frustration we discover that Brian has a faulty token – a guard gives the token to Eke and gesticulates for her to go to Customer Service which is mysteriously on our side of the turn style – solo travellers beware! We manage to negotiate the station and get ourselves to the right platform and get on a crowded train (they depart every 2 mins). We have to change trains at Rajiv Chawk station so travel with our eyes glued to the map with the upcoming stations depicted with flashing lights. Our hearts sink as we see the massed throngs outside the train but we manage to stick together and find our way to from the blue line to the yellow line trains. After one false start where we jumped on a not too crowded carriage and got a very agitated response -it was a “women only” carriage, we hopped off and positioned ourselves much further down the platform for our next attempt. This time successful and we kept a group of girls amused who all wanted to have their photos taken with us.
We met our guide Toosha at the allocated spot at Vishwa Vidyalaya metro station and set off on our walking tour somewhat unexpectedly with a visit to a Hindu temple where we were introduced to a wide range of gods in all their varied splendour. This temple is unusual as it allows the gods to be worshipped from behind as well – we are lead down a corridor which is festooned with red dots on the walls where the faithful press their foreheads to the blank wall. With our shoes reinstated we squeeze into an electric rickshaw and head to the market area that is popular with students (near the University). It is an odd mix of very upmarket looking shops and every type of street stall and hawker you could imagine outside. But it is a very family friendly area and amidst the chaos of tooting horns as rickshaws jostle with cars, stalls and pedestrians on the narrow streets groups of friends, families and businessmen gather to savour their favourite street food.
We are introduced to shwarmas (similar to Turkish but with chicken, soy and paneer (cheese) fillings) with delicious sauces, steaming fresh momos – little dumplings dipped in sauces, non-alcoholic fruit beers – my lime ginger beer is not as sweet as the others’ mixed fruit, pineapple and mysterious blue beer options but they are very refreshing. Next we try pani puri or waterballs – little puffs filled with vegetables and mint water that you eat in a single mouthful. They are very popular with women and apparently a man doesn’t buy his wife flowers after an argument but buys pani puri and all is forgiven. Certainly we can hardly see the stall in the sea of immaculate saris. I discover that eating these morsels correctly is an acquired skill to avoid getting the contents all over yourself. We get an extra surprise with a delicious version filled with yoghurt, lemon and pomegranate. The bhel puri is much easier to eat in little dishes of puffed rice and other tasty morsels. We are getting very full but we are not done yet. Next step some green coconut juice before heading to Dessert Corner. We watch the skilled craftsmen squeeze liquid dough mix into exquisite deepfried artworks that are then steeped in a sugar syrup. Into a little shop where we try the most delicious lassi I have ever tasted, followed strangely by samosas but discover that these do taste delicious when combined with the sugary artworks called jalebi.
We take 2 racing pedal powered rickshaws back to the station and have an almost uneventful journey back despite being swept along by the massing throngs that literally push you into the carriages and keep you upright without a hand hold. We decide not to try to find our way back to hotel on foot which turns out to be just as well because even the rickshaw drivers have trouble. Confusingly there are 2 Swati Hotels and we kept getting taken to the upmarket version but eventually we made it back to our welcoming beds.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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