surviving in Delhi…can we really?

Am just getting around writing about my “Delhi experience”…sorry its a bit late and a bit too long but just didn’t want to put it off any longer. Putting it off any longer would have meant not posting it at all, so for me its better than nothing! There are still stories about my “Delhi Tour”, which I’ll post as soon as I get those typed up as well! For now enjoy my “Delhi experience” if you don’t fall asleep reading this! – m.

Around October last year when I knew I would be going to Delhi in December for a conference, one thing that I started planning was about which book to read on the way, and while in Delhi. As the departure date came closer, I knew what I wanted to read – William Dalrymple‘s The Last Mughal (have finished reading now and will write about it some other time!). The book had just been released in October and the price was still quite high for a student – 25 pounds to be exact. Just a couple of days before my flight, I checked on Amazon and they were actually selling the book for half price. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to buy it online and receive it using the cheapest postage option before I left. If I had chosen next day delivery, the total cost would have come around 20 pounds so still quite a lot. So, I decided to buy the book in India itself and planned to read it during my five days in Delhi. The recommended retail price for the Indian edition was only Rs 695 (8 pounds)! For my flight to Delhi, I bought and read Marina Lewycka‘s brilliantly funny book A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian instead. It kept me laughing (smiling rather, as I couldn’t bring myself to laugh out loud in a crowded plane!) all the way to Delhi.

14 December 2006, I landed at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, around 10 in the morning. The immigration process wasn’t too bad as I had feared it would be. Worse was the wait for baggage reclaim. Took really a long time there (later that day saw news about the strike by airport employees, which might have been the reason for that delay). Finally as I emerged from the “green channel” I saw a placard indicating the direction where the conference delegates could get help – for example, in getting a taxi to their hotels. I headed to that direction, and arrived in front of the Delhi Tourism Board counter. There I could see a small poster announcing the conference details etc., which was a bit reassuring among the chaos of the airport. I asked if I could get a taxi to my hotel – YMCA Tourist Hostel. The person behind the counter said I could and whether I had already paid for it online. When I said I hadn’t paid, he said it would cost me 370 rupees for a standard taxi, or 550 if I want an air conditioned one. I rightly (as I would find out later) picked a standard one. Before coming to Delhi, I was told the taxi would cost around 300 rupees, so I though 370 was the standard rate for where I was going, and paid without much fuss – only to find out later that I should have bargained on that price. My friends later arrived at the same hotel from the airport for 220 rupees (some paid 250, some 270 as well). And I was the one who paid the most as I found later!! Ripped off ONCE! Lesson 1: ALWAYS BARGAIN on PRICE!!

The hostel… Room was clean and had a cable TV and phone but other than that, it was pretty basic. There was private bathroom but without hot water most of the time. The “complementary” breakfast in the morning included rock-hard toasts, eggs, and tea or coffee. Had to eat dinner at the hotel on the first night, which was daal-bhat-tarkari-achaar, that too very poorly cooked. Since this hotel was booked for us as a last minute change, I though whoever was in charge of all that must have been in a very bad mood. Strangely, I came to realise we were actually staying in a pretty good hotel for the price we paid not long after. For while we (me and other friends staying at the same hotel) were chatting with few other delegates and telling them about our hotel, they mentioned how bad their previous “budget” hotel was – communal shower, wires hanging by the ceiling, paint/wallpapers coming off, stained pillows and all! They said that was their worst experience as travellers and they decided to move to a luxurious hotel right next day – a 250-dollar-a-night hotel!! Nonetheless, that man said there was one thing he liked about his old hotel – he got the day’s newspaper delivered to his room every morning, which wasn’t the case in his current hotel! So all in all, I say we weren’t ripped off with regards the hotel…a sigh of relief!!

First day of the conference and we are early birds – after our hotel breakfast, three of us head to the conference centre. Catch a three wheeler just outside the hotel, and thinking (how could we!?!) it’ll take us to the conference centre on meter and would come cheaper per person, we just take the seat and tell the driver where we wanted to go. The driver turned around the three wheeler like a crazy bull and drove like a wind…never had I seen, let alone be on a three wheeler travelling so fast. Luckily for us, it didn’t tumble! The roads in New Delhi are wide and are neatly divided into lanes, but it seemed none of the drivers could see the white strip dividing the road into lanes. May be they all had “white-colour-blindness”. They were jumping in and out of the lanes as if the whole road was theirs to manoeuvre, and indeed it seemed like it, especially for the smaller vehicles like the three wheelers or the maruti cars. Anyway, after some crazy turns and over-speeding, the driver stopped us in front of Gate 2 (later we found out that Gate 3 was in fact the most convenient to go to our conference info-desk and all!) of the conference centre. The meter said 40 rupees but the driver asked for 80 rupees! When we pointed to this “fact”, he simply said that was the “rate” and we shouldn’t bother looking at the meter. Now we realised what we should have done – bargained on the price before getting on the “auto” as its commonly called. After a few minutes of arguing over the price, we could do no more than pay 70 rupees for the ride. The usual price for that ride, as we came to know during our time at the conference was 50-60 rupees! Ripped off TWICE!! Lesson 2: ALWAYS BARGAIN on the PRICE BEFORE GETTING on an AUTO!! (and never rely on the “meter”!)

The conference days progressed well, at least for me as I wasn’t presenting a paper and just being a delegate meant a lot less stress. Went to a few presentations, some plenary and keynote speeches. One of the best things about the conference was – without a shadow of doubt – the food. Never at any other conference had I enjoyed food so much as I did at this conference!! Also took a day off to go sightseeing in Delhi – which also ripped us off I must admit, and I think I’ll write about that in another post. 5 days in Delhi wasn’t enough to see a once great city in the sub-continent but it was definitely enough to realise how difficult it is to survive there, for you could get ripped off at almost every step.

Take for example our purchase of a sim card for the mobile phone. A friend and I went to this shop to buy pre-paid sim cards for our mobile phones. We thought it would be cheaper for us to get in touch with each other and also to receive calls from friends abroad while there. This store sold pre-paid sims for 100 rupees each; however, we have to fill up a form, provide a pp-size photo and a copy of our passports to get a sim card. Fortunately I had carried my passport and a couple of photographs with me to be able to get those. My friend didn’t have a photo with him, so I asked if I could get two sims on my name, which I could but I had to fill up another form! Anyway, we needed the cards so I filled up the forms and provided the photos and the sales guy took photocopies of my passport right there. Now we only wanted 50 rupees credit on our cards as we would mostly use it to make local calls and to receive calls. According to our calculation, that would be 150 rupees each and 300 rupees in total for two sims with 50 rupees credit each. It was not so. The sales guy told us it would be 300 rupees each so 600 rupees in total!?! We just couldn’t understand. All we wanted was 50 rupees credit and we were told we had to pay 200 rupees to get that 50 rupees credit! After trying to understand the system, with the sales guy explaining and us listening to him with great attention, the only thing we could comprehend is that we had to pay 200 rupees to get 50 rupees credit the first time we use the card. Apparently that 200 (or 150) rupees goes towards activating the card, which both of us doubted. Anyway, we didn’t have much choice but to pay 300 rupees each and get the sim cards with 50 rupees credit it. We did feel ripped off AGAIN!! Lesson 3: No matter how careful you are and how much you try to understand the system, you could still feel (and are most likely) ripped off – and there is nothing you could do about it!!

One thing I am happy to report is that I managed to stay safe in Palika Bazaar, from having to buy unnecessary stuffs just because you asked the price or you touched the item! Another thing I loved Delhi for is the great number of very good bookstores, where you could buy pretty much any internationally available books in Indian edition – at a lot cheaper price of course. During my 5 days in Delhi, “The Bookworm” in Connaught Place became my favourite bookstore. They even brought me a copy of Tarun Tejpal‘s The Alchemy of Desire, which I couldn’t find anywhere, while I waited in the store for 15 minutes! Even better they charged me only 195 rupees, RRP being 325 rupees or something!! And yea, I bought Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal for 540 rupees and the booker winning The Inheritance of Loss for 300 rupees (both not from the Bookworm unfortunately – I bought these before I discovered Bookworm!).

So, I guess not everything is all wrong with Delhi. And especially when you travel in the brand new Metro with spotless carriages, and which are punctual to the second, you feel you are somewhere else. Of course you have to travel during off peak to imagine you are somewhere else! For during peak hours, you are swarmed in all direction by so many commuters that you just don’t know where to go or what to do to escape all that. London tube or Paris metro is crowded during peak hours too but Delhi Metro is something else. People don’t seem to know what queuing up is while getting on the train and that they should let people get off the carriages first before getting on! All they seem to know is how to push forward and how to struggle the crowd. To make matter worse, there were security checks at the station gates like they have at the airports, so there would be long queues at the gates, and once through it was just a sea of commuters wanting to get on the train no matter what!

Oh yea, I must say I got away lightly from Delhi, especially judging by the many horror stories I have heard of visitors being ripped off. But nonetheless I had quite an unforgettable experience myself, especially the city tour – the “Delhi Darshan”, about which I’ll post an entry soon! Lastly, there is one shop you shouldn’t miss in Delhi – the Khadi – a huge store in Connaught Place that sells all sorts of goods produced in India from the government subsidised industries. The quality of the items were pretty good, as were the prices – especially a very good place to buy Indian fabrics I think.