Tuesday, October 14, 2008

First Trip To India: The Arrival in Delhi

Chapter One - The Arrival in Delhi : Culture Shock...

I arrived in Delhi. Picking up the luggage was rather straightforward, so was immigration, but not so for changing money. It took me over an hour with only three people before me in the queue. I arrived in the middle of the night and because I had to do some things on the forthcoming day, I needed a place to stay fast, so it had to be close to the airport. I went to the Diplomat Hotel. There they told me at the reception that the hotel was full. I don't know how it was possible, even after reading the LP guide, but I finally ended up in the Ashoka Palace hotel. An indeed shabby (and smelly!) single room was Rs 1400 (taxes incl.) and they only wanted to come down to around Rs 1300. Tired as I was, I decided to take it, but it was the worst place (and the worst deal) of my whole trip.

The next days in Delhi I stayed in Hotel 55 at Connaught Place. A single room here was Rs 600 (incl. taxes). An extra bed costs Rs 250. There was a shower with hot water, but you should check it before taking the room. There was 24 hrs room service, although the snacks on offer are very limited. The kitchen staff is very kind however and will try to supply you even with things that are not listed on the menu. The whole hotel staff was friendly, in fact.

The days before heading home again, I had come down with amoebic dysentery and decided to stay my last miserable night in some comfort. For this I went to the Connaught Palace Hotel. A (small) single room cost US$ 76 (incl. taxes) but it was very OK. It should be ! As in true four star style they can supply you with almost anything... for a price. I also still had to reconfirm my flight so - as I was feeling bad - I asked the staff to do it for me. They agreed... for Rs 100 ! Then I was told that the phone was out of order and I had to accompany a person to another phone. That other phone was located in the hotel souvenir and carpet shop. Instead of making the call, the travel desk person said he was going to the KLM office personally, so I handed him my ticket. Left behind, I was hassled to buy carpets, which were - by the way - hellishly expensive and not particularly great. I told these people that I was going to my room because I was expecting the doctor. So I left. Later that night I got a phone call from the carpet shop. They had my ticket and if they should bring it up. After all, I wás sick. I agreed. When I opened the door the two merchants were there, carrying my ticket... and three carpets. I told them that I wasn't interested, but they said they had already moth-proofed them for me. I took some time to get rid of them. This is just another case to illustrate the nerve that some people have, even hassling a sick person.

Talking about hassles, I also had some troubles with the guides over by the Qutab Minar. As soon as I had walked past the entrance, I was accompanied by someone who asked me some personal things. As not to offend him, I replied his questions briefly. After that he had walked with me for about 50 meters and started talking about the place. I asked him if he was a guide and he confirmed that, showing me his 'official' badge. I told him that I didn't want a guide and thanked him. He replied that he didn't charge very much and that I wouldn't find my own way around. I asked how much he charged. It was an amazing Rs 350. I told him to take a walk. Nevertheless he stayed with me and I really had to verbally force him to leave. He did but not before he had completely lost his temper and got visibly very angry with me. This was one of the first sights that I visited in India and not a great introduction it was. The Qutab Minar was great, though. Another great place that I visited in Delhi, are the Chattarpur temples. It's a real complex. Unfortunately, this was thé first place I went to see and at that time I had not yet developed any feeling for orientation in this city, so I cannot recall where exactly they were. About Tughlaqabad I can only say : watch out for aggressive monkeys. Preferably hire the old guide at the entrance of the tomb. He has a stick to keep them at a distance. No, that's not the only reason; he's also a nice person with lots of information. He's not expensive and takes his time.

Other interesting places that are not in (m)any guidebooks are the Bangla Sahib Sikh temple. It's near the crossing of Baba Kharak Singh Marg and Pandit Pant Marg. It's a very welcoming place. They even provided me with a lot of background information books and stuff on the religion. All for free ! Then there is a great monument, a series of big statues which are called Gyharha Murti (hope the spelling is OK). It represents Mahatma Gandhi walking. He is followed by eleven other people, the representatives of India's different religions and groups, like a Sikh, a Muslim, a catholic priest, etc. It's very impressive as every statue is several meters high and the whole walking gang is at least 20 meters, I think. It should be near the crossing of Willingdon Crescent and Dalhousie Road.

Safdarjang Tomb, DelhiSome entrance fees that I can remember in Delhi : Red Fort : Rs 0.50, Qutab minar : free, Jami Masjid : Rs 10 for entrance, Rs 10 for photography and another Rs 10 to climb the minaret, Lodi Tombs : free, Hazrat Nizam-Ud-Din Aulia : free, Nehru Museum : free, but the planetarium was Rs 1, Safdarjang Tomb : Rs 0.50, Jantar Mantar : free, Museum of Natural History : free, Int. Dolls Museum : Rs 2, National Museum : Rs 0.50 for entrance, another 2 for photography. This last one had one of the better collections that I've ever seen. The Nehru museum was more interesting than I had thought it would be (there's a nice display of gifts by foreign nations). The planetarium is not that special, but there's a real Soviet Soyuz capsule by which the Indian cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma returned to Earth after a ten day space flight as the guest of a Soviet team. He also visited the Russian space station Salyut 7 during this trip. In the Red Fort, photography is not allowed in the Mumtaz Mahal and you have to undergo a bag search. I could carry my equipment inside though. I only wished that I hadn't carried the camera around my neck, because one of the guards inside got somewhat carried away when he saw some LED's burning on it. He insisted on me removing the film. I politely refused and calmly tried to explain the situation, but I can tell you that it has taken all of my politeness capabilities to the limits to escape from this one. If something like this happens to anyone, I can only say to remain very calm, keep smiling and shake hands. Be utterly friendly.

If you're visiting the Jantar Mantar, it's a great help if you can find someone from the Archaeological Survey to guide you around. It's not very interesting otherwise. Beware though, a full explanation can cost you up to Rs 100 (but it took more than an hour).

I saw some terrible poverty in Delhi, for instance in the slums (like near the bridge over the Yamuna), but also near touristy places like Hazrat Nizam-Ud-Din Aulia or the Jami Masjid. At the latter, really terrible scenes could be seen on the 'boulevard' leading to the main entrance. For example, a man without arms and legs was lying in the middle of the road. Many Indians already have dark skins, but this guy was really black because of the dirt. He was in such misery that he was singing religious songs (I heard the word 'Allah' several times). Cars and carts were passing this lump of miserable flesh on the right and left, sometimes nearly hitting him. Sometimes somebody compassionate threw him a coin. He had to pick it up with his mouth, lick it off the street... He had no other ways. This was hard to look at !
The poverty you see sometimes gets to you. It's prevalent in most places in India. What also touched me was a total disrespect for humans and - surprisingly - even for animals. On the way to Agra, I could drive along with someone. In the distance I saw something lying on the street. I thought it was another dead dog like you see so many. Closing in, I thought it was too large for a dog. I supposed it was a donkey or something. Coming up-close, I saw it was not an animal but a man, a sadhu, who had only just been run over by a truck or bus (judging from the damage). His head had almost been split in two. The bones of his legs were sticking up. Blood was oozing out of several wounds. It was a terrible sight and even now writing this I feel a slight shiver. Like so many accidents in India, it had been a hit-and-run. People on bicycles and on foot were passing the victim as if it wasn't there. There was no driver around. Nobody seemed to care. That was hard again. The guy I was with, honked his horn at the dead body as if it was going to move over.

Old men at Rajpath On my way from Ayodhya to Shravasti I saw a corpse lying behind some bushes. It was cleaned of its flesh by the vultures. Some people were sitting only ten meters away, drinking tea.

But, like I said before, what came as the biggest surprise to me was that in this country where people refrain from eating animal meat, there is a lot of cruelty to animals. In Varanasi, I was standing in the street when I saw a person getting into his car. I warned him that there were two dogs lying in the shade under his car. He nodded, got in his car, started the engine, put the gears in reverse and drove backwards. His front wheels were running over the two poor creatures. The howls were terrible.

Some holy cows in Old Delhi were standing on the median. As long as they are parallel to the road there is no problem, but when they are not there can be. A truck in front of me hit one of the animals, taking a piece of flesh as big a T-bone steak out of the cow's butt. I started observing other cows from then on and I saw some in the next days that had missing tails. They had been cut off by passing vehicles, no doubt.

An Indian guy I went along with in the last couple of weeks of my trip, saw a puppy dog running towards him on the road. He had more than enough time and distance to hit the brakes and stop. The little thing was so young that it probably didn't sense the danger of a car yet. But no, the foot stayed down on the pedal. A couple of honks later, I heard the poor bastard bouncing like a ball under the car. I felt really bad.

These are just a couple of the situations that I came across. At the moment they make you feel bad, but you have to forget about it. This is not your average country. Cruelty to animals is common in all developing countries, but I must say that in a vegetarian country, in a country where cows and even rats are regarded as holy, it's really astonishing. And don't tell me like some Hindu told me : "Hindu's love animals. We do not hurt them. We take care for them. But, it's the Muslims who are bad to animals." Bullshit !

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