Still not caught up. Hey, at least these are in India. This was on June 2. Will try to get Delhi part II and Varanasi up here now.
Julia and I spend our first few hours in Delhi being very pleased with ourselves, our main self-congratulatory points being:
1) We found each other at the airport with no trouble.
2) We found both an ATM and our ride to the hotel about 70 seconds later.
3) No one has stolen anything from us.
Our hotel is located in the heart of New Delhi, which is the eighth (and most intact) incarnation of this ancient city, built by the British Raj. The neighborhood, Connaught Place, is described optimistically by our guidebooks as a “blend of East and West, filled with shopping malls and western clothing stores amid Indian outdoor arcades.” What we find is a labyrinth of impassable roads buried within a dust storm and clotted with heaps of rubble, bricks, beggars, touts, and gaping pits that are either under construction, filled with garbage, being used as laundries, or all of the above. Our basset hound-faced conceirge apologizes for all the construction, which completely obscures any view of the hotel from the street. “Bahh, it’s for the Commonwealth Games,” he says, waving a meaty hand dismissively. “They must finish before the next month. The rains are coming! What they are doing?” It’s a nice enough place, with Western toilets and clean floors and windows that seal out the dust and stench, but it’s so quiet (I do NOT mean volume…more on that later) we have the pick of three rooms. Why? As I read later in a book called Holy Cow! by an Australian journalist who spent a few years in India: “Only the most foolhardy or ill-advised tourists come to Delhi in the summer.” The heat is so oppressive that we pay double for anything that bills itself as having AC. We gulp liters of water and still our clothes are soaked with sweat before noon. In Varanassi we learn the Gangatic plains have averaged 46-48 degrees Celsius this week. I haven’t looked up the conversion, but I read somewhere that 40 C is 104 F.
Before I go any further, dear reader, picture the last time you found yourself in a brand new place with very little idea of where to go or what to do. Imagine that you even have a map, but you’re not sure where you are within it. What’s the first thing you did? You asked for help, of course, and if you were in a nice, standard, vanilla kind of place like Canada or Europe, probably someone actually went ahead and helped you.
In Delhi, if you do not override this instinct immediately, you are vulture food. No one in Delhi is interested in helping you, although everyone will tell you–for half an hour, even, if you let them follow you that long–how much they want to. If you tell them where you’re going, they will tell you you’re going the wrong way. If you tell them where you’re staying, they will tell you it’s closed and you should follow them to somewhere much better, cheaper, cleaner. Everyone becomes like a shark in Delhi, and I don’t just mean vicious–I mean staying in perpetual motion to survive. If you stop for even a moment, a flock of well-dressed touts will descend on you with cries of “Hello! Where are you going! This way, madam! Hey, I saw you before, remember me?”
Now: picture the labyrinth I described above. Picture about 19782093810 people on foot, in cars, on bikes, on scooters sharing one of these narrow, dusty streets. Imagine standing in this street in the 47 degree heat with sweat pouring off you. You can’t take out a map, you can’t ask for help, you can’t read most of the signs, you can’t see where you’re going, and you can’t stop moving. Better still, the destination that you’re looking for may exist where you think it does, or it may be elsewhere, or not at all, or it may be closed, or it may actually exist in duplicate, triplicate, or untold numbers: “Official Tourist Office: Government of India” is the most popular sign in Connaught Place. (Only one is real, and the rest are private affairs that generally overcharge for shoddy or non-existant services. Dodge the decoys! What a great game for tourists!)
This is how Julia and I end up paying the official office an exorbiant sum for a five-day travel package.