Sometimes, things don’t go to plan for a reason. Life stops you in your tracks and forces you to take a break. That’s exactly what happened to Ben and me during our time in Delhi. We had grand plans to plough through our next bunch of visa applications in India’s administrative capital. Unfortunately, we were a little too idealistic for our own good.
While Pakistan visas were surprisingly easy to get hold of, our China visas were declined due to our unique mode of travel (a private, overland vehicle). Ben brought all of his loveable charms to the yard and I argued with logic, but the Chinese embassy wasn’t budging on their decision. We later discovered very few foreigners had their visas approved in Delhi due to tensions between India and China. If only we’d known that sooner!
While Ben and I played the pointless waiting game, five days eventually turned into two weeks. Before we knew it, Delhi was starting to feel like home. For the first time in months, we actually had time to really get under the skin of a place and develop something resembling a routine. We weren’t just racing through the typical tourist agenda – it was bliss.
Here are some of my most memorable moments from Delhi – the must-do’s, the accidental finds, and the heart-warming local interactions.
During our stay in Delhi, Ben and I were based at the Smyle Inn hostel. Located in the Main Bazaar, this backpackers’ sanctuary is nestled right amongst the action. Street theatre abounds, especially later in the day, when roaming cows, veteran food vendors, henna artists, haggard beggars, sharp-eyed hawkers, and gangly rickshaw drivers all fight for a little good fortune.
But, while they look out for themselves, the locals also take care of each other…two-legged, four-legged and wonky-legged friends alike. I ran into one street dog, which was particularly “pampered”, as she’d just given birth to a pup. Shopkeepers were keeping her well fed, so she could enjoy being a new mum and put aside her usual street dog duties (i.e. hunting for food in mounds of garbage).
Having experienced several bouts of food poisoning since being in India, the street food wasn’t as enticing as it used to be. Though, I must admit, there was one devilish concoction which caught my attention – thickly battered, deep-fried, cheese-loaded sandwiches. OMG! Only in India (and probably America).
Before I was tempted to eat something that’d surely make me sick (in more ways than one), Harish from the Smyle Inn let me in on a local foodie secret – Haldiram’s. This modern, Indian franchise dished out a feast of traditional, tasty and super cheap eats. The place looked more hygienic than McDonald’s and the food certainly had more soul. It’s a great option for tourists wanting a taste of local flavours without fearing the repercussions.
At the end of the day, Ben and I favoured rooftop restaurants and backstreet cafes. Our top picks were the Brown Bread Bakery, which served healthy and organic meals, and The Exotic Roof Top Restaurant, which offered prime views of the local street life.
Weirdly enough, navigating the mayhem of the Main Bazaar became a daily “escape” for me. I’ve always felt most at ease amongst the hustle and bustle, where I can blend into the background, observe things in secret and fuel my imagination.
This particular bazaar was like catnip for women. It was jam-packed with fashion stands selling everything from traditional clothing and casual travel-wear to handmade bags, ornate jewellery and funky shoes. While I succumbed to lane of cheap hippy gear like every other tie-dye wearing tourist (for comfort reasons of course), there’s something about buying mass produced chintz that leaves me feeling a little…blurgh. So, when I stumbled across a beautiful boutique in a blink-n-miss-it back alley, I got rather excited. Bubbles Fashion was like nothing I’d seen throughout India’s tourist hubs – the pieces were original, well made and understated. It was time to refresh my weary travel wardrobe!
There’s no better way to explore the world’s big cities than by bicycle. Every major destination seems to have a tour group (or ten) and Delhi was no different. Ben and I teamed up with DelhiByCycle for an early morning ride around the old town. The monsoonal heavens opened up, making the experience even more playful and thrilling. Navigating through the dingiest backstreets of India’s capital was truly wild in the wet weather. At every moment, we were madly dodging something – men with giant slabs of meat on their backs; rogue tuk-tuk drivers; territorial street dogs; wafts of urine intertwined with warm, fresh rain; hanging electrical wires and locals on a mission.
Thanks to our savvy tour guide, Ben and I explored places we never knew existed. At one point, we hoped off our bikes and wandered through a residential complex which revealed a “real” side to Delhi life we hadn’t yet encountered – dozens of people sleeping on cement floors, surrounded by piles of rubbish. While it was hard to witness, the residents seemed content. During our tour, Ben and I were also taken to local hot spots for chai tea and a traditional Indian breakfast. Both went down a treat in the soggy weather – they were little moments of luxury amidst the rough ‘n’ raw sites.
Of course, we couldn’t stay in Delhi for two weeks and miss its star attractions. At the top of most tourist’s lists are: The Red Fort, India Gate, the Lotus Temple, and Qutab Minar – the largest brick minaret in the world. All of these man-made structures were charming and majestic in their own way; but, it was hard to appreciate their intricate beauty at times, as we were regularly pulled aside by Indian tourists wanting a happy snap with foreigners. So it seemed, we’d become the main attraction!
Delhi is also home to a number of impressive records, which are worth witnessing firsthand. Khari Baoli, Asia’s biggest spice market, is a boisterous affair, with over 30,000 vocal vendors selling every spice under the sun. I loved losing myself to the bustling, aromatic backstreets and getting thrown into the action. Wandering the main thoroughfare was an equally intriguing experience, but much grittier (if you’re new to India, you’ll find it a little confronting). But, before too long, Ben and I found ourselves in Delhi’s bridal wear zone. Spice shops had turned into glamorous boutiques selling ornate couture and blindingly colourful bling. Yet again, I was stuck by the wild contrasts living side-by-side in India.
To enjoy a bit of Western “normality”, Ben and I enjoyed a date night in Connaught Place. A cosmopolitan hot spot for Indian execs, loved up couples and tourists, it’s a slice of contemporary heaven for those seeking a unique dining experience or simply a night at the movies. It’s also home to India’s biggest national flag (63m high), surrounded by well-manicured gardens and Indian teens taking selfies.
After two weeks, the shock of Delhi had worn off and I’d fallen in love with this crazy city. While it’s packed with over 11 million people, there’s a distinct intimacy about the place which shouts louder than the constant sea of honking vehicles and bellowing touts. The micro-communities were fascinating and their daily routines seemed completely entrenched. In two weeks, the madness of the Main Bazaar started to make sense. I’d discovered how things worked and learnt how to swim with the tidal wave. But, just when I was starting to feel like a local, it was time to leave.