Its 1 am and I walk into my hotel in Kuta (Bali) with a bottle of Bintang in my hand. I see the receptionist sitting on the couch with this Australian guy, in the midst of some really engaging conversation. I say a drunken “hi” to them and head towards my room. The receptionist calls and tells me that his Australian friend just landed in Bali from Thailand. I don’t know why he told me that, I guess because I too landed in Bali after spending some time in Thailand. He tells the Aussie that I am from India. The Aussie nodded and during the course of the conversation, he told me all about how horrible the Delhi leg of his India trip was. Fake travel agents, horrible hotels, irritating beggars, and lots more. Surprisingly, it’s not just the Aussie, browse through the Delhi page of wikitravel or any other travel website, and you will find that there is a big section just about the imperfections of my city. I am tired of seeing naive travellers standing in the middle of a busy street with dusty scooters, Maruti cars and rickshaws whizzing by, with a map on their hands, overwhelmed by the noise, chaos and heat, trying to figure out where they are and where they want to go, while taxi drivers, beggars and scammers of all ages try different ways to lure them into their traps.
The aim of this article is not to scare you but to educate you about the risks and help you mitigate them. Here is the survival guide to the seemingly mean, but extremely lovable and enjoyable Delhi. My City.
Where to Stay
Anyone looking for cheap accommodation while in Delhi usually makes a beeline for Paharganj, Delhi’s answer to Bangkok’s Khao San Road. Packed with hotels to suit every wallet size, this place has grown in popularity over the years because of its proximity to the Railway Station, shops to cater to your every need and food to suit every tongue and stomach. Even though extremely convenient, considering the number of shady hotels mushrooming around the area, it might not be the worst idea to spend a tad more and staying in the Southern part of the city. Having lived in Delhi for over 20 years, I know for a fact that South Delhi is much safer than the rest of the city in terms of tourist scams and thefts. It is also a lot less touristy and way more professional. So, next time you are browsing through the hotels of Delhi, give the hotels in Defence Colony, East of Kailash, Safdarjung Enclave, South Extension and Jor Bagh another look.
How to go around
Two Words. Delhi Metro. With its wide network, be sure that no matter where you are in Delhi, you are never too far away from a Metro Station. With its air conditioned coaches, convenient operating hours, reasonable prices, and separate coach for the ladies, it is not only the most comfortable, but also one of the safest ways to travel while in Delhi.
Now, if for whatever reasons, you still prefer hiring a cab or an auto rickshaw, make sure the driver understands exactly where you want to go (your foreign accent may confuse them at times). Always insist on using the meter or if you know how far your destination is, settle on a price before commencing the journey. A trick that has worked for me in the past while hiring cabs is avoiding the overly aggressive taxi drivers and hiring the seemingly honest ones from the road, which seem to be on the go. Remember, when a taxi driver quotes a price to a foreigner, divide the price by 4 and the result is usually the actual price. In Delhi, there is no shame in bargaining, it’s actually expected!
Where and What to Eat
Delhi is famous for its street food, however it may be a bit too much for the western stomach to digest on the very first day. However, if you feel like testing yourself, try visiting the markets of Old Delhi and Chandni Chowk for some super delicious chaats, pakoras, momos, paranthas, Chinese food (with an Indian twist) and a lot more. If you are looking for something a bit more classy, head to the restaurants of South Extension, and Connaught Place. Moti Mahal and Pind Baluchi are two of the leading Indian Restaurant chains and are famous for their authentic Indian and Mughlai cuisine. (Make sure you try their butter chicken and tandoor delicacies). If you are not a fan of the Indian cuisine, no need to worry. There are plenty of western delicacies on the menus of most medium and high end restaurants. Also, there are a lot of international fast food joints dotted across the city at your disposal.
For the Ladies
If there is one thing I hate about my city, it would be the way it treats its ladies. It is not easy to be a female visitor and not be the centre of attention while doing even the most mundane things. Incidents of foreigners getting drugged and taken advantage of aren’t rare. Always try to be aware of your surroundings and it is always a good idea to avoid the overly friendly. Wearing full length clothes in the scorching heat of Delhi may not be comfortable, but it will certainly help in not attracting undue attention.
Interacting with the locals
Interacting with the locals is one of the major learning points about the culture, history and lifestyle of any city. In Delhi too, locals especially youngsters will love to talk to a foreigner, and guide them in any way they can but like in any other city, there is a small percentage of people who would try their best to get some easy money out of you. The trick is to identify them and ignore them. So, when a friendly stranger offers to drop you off at your hotel, ask yourself, would you go around asking people that when you are in your hometown? Is that normal behaviour? If the answer to that question is no, its probably a good idea to decline that offer, with a smile if possible, and move on. The same goes for people offering you drinks, or prasads (temple offerings), or anything else.
Dealing with the beggars
Picture this, you are sitting in your cab on the way to India Gate or Qutub Minar, with the latest bollywood songs playing in the background, going through the lonely planet guide book, learning a bit more about the history of the place or maybe you are just looking out the window and taking pictures of the cows sitting on the road (it’s not rare to spot an elephant or a camel on the road either). A kid comes up to your window and asks for some money. Looking at his dirty, torn clothes and the sad expressions on his young face, you feel a bit sorry for him instantly. You reach into your pocket and give him some money. AND BOOM! Out of nowhere, your cab is surrounded by 10-15 kids all with the same dirty, torn clothes. All of them asking for money to buy food. See, right there when you gave money to the first kid, you made the biggest mistake that most travellers make. If you had just said no to him (or just looked away), his friends wouldn’t have raided your cab. When you give money to a beggar especially a kid, you are encouraging to him keep begging. I am not asking you to be heartless, but if you really want to help the needy, take some time off and donate to an NGO. They will use the funds to get these kids educated, so that they can leave the roads and live a better life.
This is a scam prone area, so say no to booking anything from the hundreds of travel shops opening up in the hotels, market places, near famous landmarks etc. I know that not all of them are dishonest, but it’s not worth spending thousands of Rupees, booking a flight and reaching the airport to find the ticket is a fake. Same with Rail and Bus travel. So, book your flights through reliable websites like Yatra.com, Make my trip, Cleartrip, or just book it from the airlines website (lots of internet cafes in the city, in case you don’t have internet in your hotel), book your rail tickets through irctc.com, which is the website of the Indian Railways. And if you want a bus, just show up at Kashmere Gate ISBT or Anand Vihar ISBT and book your ticket from the designated counter (Both these places have their very own Metro Station).
Escaping the Heat
Delhi weather is a bit extreme on both ends. Winter starts from October and lasts till January. Wearing a jacket and woollen socks and having a bit of hot chai (tea) every now and then will get you through the winter.
Summer starts from May and lasts almost till August, with occasional showers. Wear sun glasses and a hat, drink lots of water, use sunscreen lotions and avoid the outdoors in the afternoon. That’s the best you can do.
I don’t mean to scare you but, if the media is to be believed, Delhi is under constant terrorist threats. Even though, no major incident has happened in the recent past, every now and then you would see some new terrorist outfit issuing threats to carry out attacks in the city. Maybe most of it is just media hype, but who knows. So, its best to trust the efficient Delhi Police and Indian Intelligence Agencies and not let it get to your head. Best case scenario, Nothing happens, Worst Case Scenario, you end up on the latest Banged up Abroad episode. Just imagine you are in Gotham city and Batman will save you if anything happens. (Seriously, I am not trying to scare off you guys).
And finally, shopping
We, Delhites, pride ourselves on the fact that you can find anything in our city. It’s a bit hard for me to write this section because I am not much of a shopper, but if you are a backpacker and want some cheap clothes or souvenirs, these are the two places I would recommend.
- a. Palika Bazar: Located conveniently near the posh shopping complexes of Connaught Place, Palika Bazar is actually an underground market selling everything from electronics, to DVDs(pirated and originals) and Blu ray discs of the latest movies, Indian and Western, Clothes, Cosmetics, books etc. Bargain your ass off!
- b. Sarojini Nagar Market and South Extension: Located in South Delhi, these are the places where the locals shop. A lot less touristy and a lot more authentic than Palika bazaar, you can find almost anything you want in these markets. South extension is a bit fancier, with quite a few outlets of big brands but still it hasn’t lost its desi feel.
There are a lot of shopping malls and high end boutiques with major brand names all over the city, that can cater to the needs of people with different tastes and preferences. Credit and Debit Cards are widely accepted and credit card scams don’t pose a big risk, but still, try using cash whenever you can (Lots of ATMs around). All in All, I think you will be impressed with what Delhi has to offer.
Delhi is a big city and like any big city, it’s not easy on the first timers. Hell, it’s not easy on its locals. But that’s the adventure. And trust me, if you manage to deal with the beggars and the scammers, you will realise Delhi is a bit like grandma, always happy to see you, always up for a conversation, and always ready to give you a hug!