The India diaries, part 1

Being 100% honest, upon the eve of my trip to India my biggest concern was the infamous Delhi-Belly.

 Of course, as a firm skeptic of stereotypes, I was initially inclined to believe that the gastro-intestinal issues that are commonly associated with visiting India are pretty much an exaggeration, the product of careless western tourists that have been spoiled all their lives by drinking tap water in their homes just because they can. Since (having been born and raised in the Dominican Republic) I never had that luxury, I told myself initially that I was almost immune to Delhi-Belly. Plus, I probably already have all the antibodies in my system that come from food not properly managed and conserved in a Tropical environment…

However, my scientific mind required more proof to effectively discard the hypothetical possibility of getting Delhi-Belly , so I collected testimonials from friends and friends of friends who had actually been to India. To my great concern, it appeared that indeed, many of them had fallen victim to this malady, and so, maybe it would be prudent to take extra precaution from my part…

“You have to take 1 Nexium every morning for your trip, STARTING NOW”  -Were the words of wisdom from my mom, who wanted me to start “protecting my stomach” weeks in advance of the trip. My dad, on the other hand, made sure I had enough probiotic, antacids, antibiotics, and oral electrolyte powders at my disposition. Of course, since hypochondriasis is contagious and runs strong in the Valdez family, I also made sure to stock up on my personal go-to saviours for stomachal discomfort: Tums and Alka-Seltzer. (Turns out, all I got in the entire trip was a sore throat)

Anyways… I arrived to India on Monday, September 8th at 1 in the morning; so needless to say, I was pretty jetlagged for the entire first day. I was traveling with a friend of mine, and staying at her parent’s house in New Delhi. (I think it is important to highlight the fact that neither my friend, nor her parents are Indian, they merely work there for the time being. In other words: we all pretty much looked like foreigners, a stamp that, as we would later find out during this trip, would doom us to incessant harassing by street vendors and self-proclaimed “guides” in tourist sights, as well as make us the subject of stares everywhere we went.)

Anticipating my jetlag, me and my friend didn’t schedule any sightseeing for that first day. In fact, all we did was drive around New Delhi to go somewhere for lunch, and later retrieve all the necessary ingredients to make dinner at many different markets in the area (I noticed how there was not one “big” supermarket where you could find everything in one place… but hey, I guess market-hopping for hours is more fun anyways).

Again, being 100% honest, New Delhi was not at all how I imagined it. The traffic did not seem one bit chaotic or disorganized, the parts of the city we were driving around did not look dirty at all, there were not “lots of people everywhere you look”, and I was even a bit disappointed  to not  see a single cow walking on the street that day. The vegetation even looked remarkably similar to that in Santo Domingo, and, if it weren’t for some clear architectural differences in the surrounding, I could almost swear I was driving around Ciudad Nueva

 Old Delhi, however, would tell a different story.

I guess when people that have not been in Delhi think about Delhi the images that come to their mind are taken from Old Delhi. This is the source of all the stereotypes about traffic jams, pollution, noise, and “lots of people everywhere you look”. Even though this seemed far from the reality in New Delhi (and particularly the areas we found ourselves driving around more ofter), I realized how it still was pretty accurate in areas of Old Delhi. In other words, these stereotypes were not necessarily wrong but merely incomplete.

The day we went sightseeing in Old Delhi was basically our baptism by fire of being a tourist in India. Our itinerary for the day was to see the Red Fort, then go to the Jama Masjid or “Friday Mosque”, grab lunch somewhere nearby (our Lonely Planet guide recommended Karim’s, just behind the mosque), and then go see the Spice Market. We were lucky enough to have a driver that would drop us off at the Red Fort, from where (according to our guide) we could walk to the other sights.

I started noticing how, with every inch closer that we got into Old Delhi the traffic jams become longer, the sidewalks and the streets became more crowded, the vehicle horns and the yelling on the street became louder and more frequent… basically the same city suddenly felt 20 times denser. At that moment the thought of eventually getting off the car and actually walking around the area became more unsettling, it was more a fear to the unknown than a fear of actual danger: How would we even get around the area? Would we be able to ask for directions? How do we even go back home from here? What if we actually get lost?

 As we approached the Red Fort I kept looking for some sort of tourist-friendly sign to point to where the entrance was, or at least for identifiable groups of tourists for psychological reassurance that even if we had no idea where we were or how to get around everything would be OK. Nothing. The driver dropped us near Lahore Gate (the main entrance) and told us we could take a tuk-tuk to the nearest Metro station to get back, which shouldn’t cost us more than 50 rupees.

So off we were. Sightseeing in Old Delhi. Maybe I had underestimated how foreign both of us really looked, or how relevant was the fact that we were both women, but I have never felt stared at that much in my entire life (and I’m from Santo Domingo, which is saying a lot). Not only that, but in the five-second lapse that took us to get off the car and cross to the entrance of the complex we were swarmed by all the tuk-tuk/rickshaw bike drivers, food vendors, necklace vendors, flower vendors, souvenir vendors, and self-advertised “tour guides” for the fort, etc, kindly saying “no thanks” to every single offer we heard. Al least this particular attraction had the advantage that the Fort sort of separated us (or “protected us from”) what actually was Old Delhi, so I had more time to mentally prepare myself for later…

The entrance fee was an astounding 4.11 dollars (250 rupees) for us tourists (Indian nationals only have to pay 16 cents of the dollar, or 10 rupees), and as we made our way in we passed the (airport-style) security check, where they scanned our bags and made us walk under the metal detector. The protocol was to segregate men and women (or “ladies” and “gents”) into two different lines so that the “gents” were further scanned by a male officer, while the “ladies” walked behind a curtain to be scanned by a female officer. Later I would realize that this is actually the customary procedure for entry in every tourist attraction, hotel (where they also scanned the car), shopping centre and even metro station. #cultureshock

Our walk inside the Red Fort served as confirmation of our foreign status, as every Indian family, couple, or individual turned around to give us the top-down stare (I guess it also didn’t help that we were carrying a selfie stick around and continuously looking at our map). At one point, this Indian guy even stopped us to ask:

“Picture?” -He said, gesturing with his camera-phone.

 “Sure, I can take you a picture”  -I replied, going to grab the camera.

 “NO… PICTURE.” -He would say again, pointing to where his wife and three children were already posing for the shot.

 “Ah… you want US in the picture”

 “YES” -He was so happy we understood. Of course, we felt we couldn’t say no, so we embraced our minute of celebrityness and posed with the guy’s family for a picture.

About 45 minutes and 30 photographs later (a couple of which would be later featured on my Instagram) we walked out of the Fort, mentally prepared to actually embrace the chaotic atmosphere of Old Delhi and walk to Jama Masjid. I realized that we would have to make our way out again through the nest of local sellers trying to tourist-trap us.

“Hello! Excuse me! Spanish? Italian?”  -This vendor guy yelled at us, as he started walking approaching us.

 “Me, Spanish (sort of, I guess he meant language-wise and not nationality-wise. Either way, I didn’t expect him to know where the DR was so…) She (pointing to my friend), Italian.”

He then started telling us in spanglian how he had a rickshaw bike and he could give us a tour of Old Delhi and all the sights that there were to see.

 “No thanks, we just want to get to Jama Masjid”

 “250 rupees, for the entire tour”

 “No thanks, we don’t want a tour. How much to take us just to Jama Masjid?”

 “200 rupees, Jama Masjid, Silver Market, Chadni Chowk, and then Silver Market”

“No, it’s ok, we’ll just walk to the mosque”

Ok, 150 rupees. 150 rupees!”

 “Ok, 150 rupees to Jama Masjid. But we don’t want a tour”

 “Listen, 100 rupees, that is my final price. I take you to Jama Masjid, I show you the bazaars in Old Delhi and finish off at the Spice Market”

(How is this even a business? Why does he want to take us around longer for less money instead of just dropping us at the mosque?) At this point we were sort of looking at each other not knowing whether we should just go for it… I guess we were not so sure it was completely safe.

 “100 rupees. Fixed price, I guarantee.” -He said again, hopeful.

O.K. I guess we could do it… So we took is offer and started our rickshaw bike “tour” of Old Delhi. The guide told me to wear my backpack on the front and not on the back, since there are pickpockets in the area. He spoke surprisingly good English and explained to us how this was “the real Delhi”, how diverse and cheap were the markets that you could find here, and how Chandni Chowk was such a landmark street/avenue. (To any Dominican reading this post, Chandni Chowk is probably something like La Duarte but 40 times busier, with tuk-tuks instead of carros públicos). We took a turn in a very, very narrow street, which our guide told us was the silver market. I think this probably was as claustrophobic as Delhi could get, as I always had the feeling our bike would bump into something. Dogs, cows, men pulling wooden wheelbarrows everywhere, stores one on top of the next, and LOTS of people EVERYWHERE you look… Yup, real Delhi indeed

All and all, this ride wasn’t too bad. We got to Jama Masjid and told our driver that we would probably have lunch after seeing the mosque, and that we did not want to make him wait. He of course insisted that this would not be an issue, but we paid him there anyways and thanked him for the tour.

There was no ticket office at Jama Masjid, but a sign at the entrance stating that we had to pay 300 rupees to get in. There was an old guy below this sign who looked at us and pointed at the sign. Apparently he spoke very little English, and he pointed to our shoes.

 “Yes, we’ll take them off to go in” -This of course I expected before walking in to a mosque. What didn’t occur to me was that before going in, the old guy would also stop us, pick up a couple flowery robes from a pile at the entrance and made sure that we wore it and that it was securely tied in the front. As the old guy was helping me tie the robe I tried to repress any thought of when was the last time –if at all- these robes were washed, or who might have worn them before us. Nevertheless, we embraced the experience once more, and I guess that, besides from the fact that I burned the soles of my feet walking barefoot under the Indian sun, and the dozens of stares we received once again (now looking extra touristy by being the only ones in the mosque wearing these flowery robes) our visit to the Jama Masjid went by smoothly.

We exited the mosque from another gate, and for a second looked ahead at the bazaar in the streets in front of us… how surreal it seemed that we were there in the middle of all that chaos, and how, regardless of where we chose to go next we still had to make our way ahead this unknown area. We were only halfway through our day, and already feeling exhausted. I guess it was the intensity of Old Delhi and the incessant bustling of its streets.

And the heat.

Definitely also the heat.

At that moment, all of my Dominican pride of “I can take the heat”, or “I’m used to bad traffic and traffic-jammed streets”, “I am used to vehicles horning all the time”, “I’m used to street vendors trying to chase me to sell me overpriced stuff”, “I’m used to seeing beggars on the street”, etc, pretty much faded away. This, I came to realize, was definitely a whole new level.

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