India Travelogue: Delhi Part 1

For the next few weeks, I’m going to post about my recent trip to India – my first on the sub-continent. For those of you dreaming of a trip to India or for those of you who have been, feel free to add tidbits of your travel stories in the comments section!

Day 1 – Delhi

We arrived in Delhi after a long, but uneventful flight. The straight shot from Chicago worked well for us. We’ve since looked it up and this is one of the longest continuous flights available. My husband, my very tall husband, has the foresight to book exit row seats. Though there are some downsides to exit row (it’s a bit cold, it’s by the toilets and there’s no handy pocket in front of you to store all those bits and pieces that accumulate on a long flight), one of the major benefits is the floor space in front of our seats that can be used as an impromptu yoga area. In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this!

Welcome to Delhi! I’m here for the street photography and what a wonderful start to the trip photographing this man taking a smoking break in the Spice Market in Old Delhi. It is still one of my favorite photos from the trip.

The Delhi airport was surprisingly empty. I expected a scene like Havana with people pressed into a tight space all rushing around in a different direction – we would have this later in the day on the streets, but when we landed – 3:30 pm – there was none of that.

The only hitch was that after clearing customs we realized that the immigration agent had put an incorrect date on my husband’s visa. We would have our first taste of Indian bureaucracy at work – a perfect introduction to the country which is renown for its turgid bureaucracy. It took some time, but we managed to get the date changed. On the plus side, my husband has already seen the deportation room and met quite a few immigration agents in case things don’t go well with the rest of our trip.

We finally hopped into the private car we’d hired with our Delhi driver, Surinder. Usually my husband and I are pretty independent when we travel, catching trains and taxis easily and figuring out whatever public transport the city has to offer. In India, we opted for a slightly less spontaneous, and a bit more protected, experience. We simply don’t know how we’ll react to India so we’re being a bit cautious on our first trip.

We have contracted with the company Sudarshan India Tour, which will take care of most of our transportation needs throughout the trip including transporting us to and from airports and train stations. We had a great experience with the company and I’ll certainly write them a good review on TripAdvisor when I have a moment.

On our one-hour drive from the airport to our hotel in old Delhi we saw what is typical of many large cities. The outlying areas were mostly residential and probably not the best of what the city has to offer. We did whiz past our first monkeys sitting on a sidewalk outside what looked to be a park area – more monkeys – many more monkeys later. When stopped, we were approached by children begging or selling little things. We’ve decided not to engage with them. We understand they can be aggressive – and though our experience is currently limited, this seems to be the case.

The traffic was what you might expect in this area of the world – lots of cars, bikes, tuk-tuks and buses – all vying for the same road space with lots of dents and scrapes to show for previous battles. Lanes seem to be suggestions, though not very good ones, and motorbikes seem to think the lines were painted for the soul purpose of showing them the way to the front of other commuters.

Busy street outside Jami Mosque in Old Delhi showing various modes of transport: Rickshaw, tuk-tuk against the colorful street background.

There is a constant beep of horns as these seem to be connected to both the gas and the brake pedals. We’d come to learn that Indian drivers use their ears as much as their eyes in driving. It must be a sonar thing. A friendly beep is simply to tell the driver next to you that you’re going by. An auditory wave if you will.

As we came closer to old Delhi, the sun set and the roads narrowed and narrowed – and narrowed again until we could go no further in the car. We’ve come in on a Sunday and the market is in full swing. Our driver phoned ahead to the hotel so they’ve sent a porter to meet us. Partially to carry our luggage but mostly to help us navigate through the back streets of Old Delhi to the hotel.

We’d get our first real view of the streets of Old Delhi in the morning. Bikes and rickshaws jostle with shoppers in the crowded streets of Chandni Chowk market.

We followed the porter, a little apprehensively, through increasingly narrowing alleyways. Follow me down a dark alley! It’s not an exaggeration to say that we could touch walls on both sides of the alley at the same time. There were monkeys on the roofs overhanging our heads and I looked forward to photographing them during daylight.

Since it was dark by the time we arrived at our hotel, we decided not to chance our first walk in the streets of old Delhi at night with the busy Sunday market. This was fine – our hotel was a destination in and of itself.

Hotel Haveli Dharampura is a famously renovated building in old Delhi near the Red Fort, the Jama Mosque and the Chandni Chowk market. It is beautiful Moghul architecture with the associated arches and tiles. We arrived at night and all the architectural details were beautifully lit. We booked this hotel specifically because of it’s location and it’s high reviews. We were not disappointed. Most people stay in New Delhi, but I wanted to photograph the older part of the city and we always try to get a place near where the action is.

Our first view of our hotel in Old Delhi Hotel Haveli Dharampura. The Moghul architecture beautifully lit at night.

We signed into the guest register – a beautiful and large bound ledger seemingly from a different time – adding our names to this historical document. We were greeted with a small welcome ceremony where a welcome bindi (red dots) were painted on our forehead, were given a beaded necklace and a Kiwi “mocktail” – how urbane.

The hotel held a couple of other surprises for us on our first night in the city. On Sundays, they have live classical Indian dancers who literally performed right outside our room and a beautiful dining area in what is a private open air courtyard created by the structure of the building.

On our first night in Old Delhi, classical Indian dancers perform at the Hotel Haveli Dharampura.

Our room is beautiful and relatively quiet considering that we’re dead center in one of the most populated cities on the planet. A little noise from neighboring houses and the occasional dog barking was all we could hear through the thick Moghul walls.

We decided to explore the hotel for the evening and not go out into the streets of old Delhi and there was plenty on offer. There were nooks with interesting seating areas and the top floor was a terrace with views of both the mosque and the Red Fort. An iron spiral staircase led up to the best views in the house.

The view of Jama Mosque from the rooftop of the Hotel Haveli Dharampura.

The plan has changed slightly for tomorrow. I’m going to watch sunrise from the hotel rooftop.

So far, India has felt fairly safe and not too overwhelmingly chaotic. We will get our first taste of a market tomorrow without the car to protect us from aggressive sellers and the crowds.

We’d venture into the Chandni Chowk market outside our hotel in the morning.

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