I need a few visas for our Africa adventure. So instead of running around the embassies in Kenya we decided to make a detour to India. The thought process was that we can find an agent in India that can handle all the paperwork for us in Delhi while we can enjoy some family time around the Diwali festival in Pune. One of our friends recommended an agent so we kick-started the process a month before we eventually made it to India.
Our good friend in Delhi was on a travel tour so we decided to check out the backpacking scene is Delhi. We booked a hostel that was well-rated on hostelbookers.com and made our way there the morning we arrived in Delhi. The hostel was in a neighborhood called Pahar Ganj close to the main railway station in Delhi. Pahar Ganj is an old-time marketplace with one main market street with a jumble of small alleyways running all along it. Our hostel turned out to be through a smelly lane behind the main square in the middle of the market. Once we got settled in, we explored the area a little bit during the day. The scene here is so otherworldly, so full of smells, sights and sounds that you have to see it to believe it.
India awakens your senses and stretches your limits. The aromatic smell from a restaurant wafting through the street may jump start your appetite only to be completely killed by the stench of urine two steps later. You may marvel at the fine touch of the silk scarf only to be repulsed at the beggar with calloused hands tugging at you from behind. The melodious chanting sound at the temples may put you into trance only to be rudely brought back to reality by the shrill noise of the blaring horns of all the vehicles. You can see a modern steel and glass building standing proudly next to bunch of straw huts with tin roofs. You can go from ‘this is the best food ever’ to ‘I want to puke’ while trying out the items on the same thali (plate).
So here is the list of things we ran into right outside of our hostel in the order we saw them: a guy peeing on the wall, a guy doing pooja (prayer) for one of the Hindu Goddesses, a few kids running around screaming, a dog sleeping in the middle of the road, a restaurant owner waving in all the foreigners, a building being renovated with all the materials spread around in front, a couple of kittens resting on their mom and a lady ironing shirts. This is all just in the 20m long side lane that took us to the main market.
Even with all this commotion, there is an amazing positive energy flowing through the streets and people find their own little oasis.
We kept passing by this man who lived in a matchbox size house where he had to fold his legs to sleep on his bed on one side of the room. The other side had a TV, small stove and some shelf space. There were no doors – the side facing the lane is open. But the most interesting fact was, almost every time we passed there, he had guests and he would be chatting up with them while they stood or sat on some stool outside his house or even on his own bed, because they couldn’t fit in the ‘house’ otherwise.
And this area is tourist galore – the main market street is full of restaurants, hotels, massage parlors, barbers and shops selling trinkets. We saw many boards in foreign languages targeting certain tourists – the most common language was Hebrew. We saw pockets of tourists walking around, eating or getting hassled by the touts.
This is truly what they call ‘Delhi Belly’ or heart of Delhi.
The Other Kind of ‘Delhi Belly’
Karims’ is a famous restaurant in Old Delhi famous for its tandoori naan and kebabs. We had been there on our last trip to India and had loved the place. So we found our way back there to again eat the naan that just melts in your mouth. We had just finished our mineral water bottle and forgot to buy a new one before we entered the restaurant. They put a couple of glasses and jug full of cold water in front of us. We were thirsty, so I asked the server if it was filtered water. He said yes – I confirmed twice just to be sure. I had a few glasses and Mariya got one. The food was ok – not as good as we remembered – may be because we had set up too high of an expectation.
But after dinner, Mariya started experiencing the other kind of ‘Delhi Belly’. She was out of commission for a day and half. This is the first tummy problem we have had on this trip.
I would like to reiterate the standard warnings all foreigners traveling to India receive – no tap water, no ice, bottled water only. I was saved this time – my Indian-ness is of some use after all. Mariya is almost back on her feet and we are planning on heading to the Hindu heartland to visit Varanasi next.