“Hello!  Where are you from?” a stranger asked us as he kept up with our rather brisk stride.

We were walking from our hotel in Paharganj to the New Delhi train station, just about half a mile away.  Through our online research, we had discovered there’s an international tourist ticketing office in the New Delhi Train station on the first floor (what Americans would refer to as the second floor).  There we could purchase tickets for our planned trip to Agra with help from station agents and without paying the extra fees tacked on by a travel agent.  We had also read people will try to prevent tourists from reaching that ticket office by telling them it’s closed or moved to the building where they happen to know a travel agent who pays commissions.  Was this stranger walking alongside us trying to scam us?

“Where are you going?” He asked, obviously unperturbed by us ignoring him, “I am an architecture student in the US.  Home on holiday.”

New Delhi wasn’t the first place we’d been where strangers seemed to spontaneously start up conversations with us, but it was certainly the place containing the most strangers attempting to do so.  In New Delhi, there is an abundance of everything: noise, color, beautiful sights and architecture, and, of course, people.  People who seem not to notice you, people who openly stare at you and people who will go out of their way to follow you for absurdly long periods of time in an effort to extract money from you.

Another thing found in abundance in New Delhi: transportation. The public and private transport options in New Delhi are endless and extremely cheap.  Taxis and motor rickshaws abound, and with a little negotiation and patience, are very inexpensive options to travel

Asia, India, New Delhi, Delhi, rickshaw, jama masjid, busy, traffic, crowded, too big, crazy

Rickshaw ride

between tourist sites.  All the drivers know the names of the major tourist sites even if they don’t speak English and will drop you off right at the doorstep.  Bicycle rickshaws congregate around the exits of all the tourist sites and will charge you about the same as a motor rickshaw to travel at a fraction of the speed and comfort.  Public transportation, though not as convenient, is mind-blowingly cheap and easy to navigate.  A trip on the metro from Connaught Place to the Lotus Temple ( a distance of nearly 15 kilometers) will run you 18 rupees, or about US$0.30. We used each of these modes of transport, some more successfully than others, while exploring the city.

After buying our train tickets to Agra (yes the office on the first floor still exists), we exited the train station and walked south, through Connaught Place, toward the National Museum.  Connaught Place, a large shopping and office complex in the center of the city, is a series of concentric ring roads with whitewashed buildings containing shops, restaurants and offices making up the spaces in between.  Here you can find designer clothing shops sharing building space with Rolex watch stores and dirt cheap book stores and restaurants.  You’ll even find a McDonald’s where you can buy menu items like the McAloo Tikki sandwich and the Chicken Maharaja Mac (a sort of Indian-style Big Mac).

Expecting something like Times Square, I was a bit disappointed to see the run-down state of the Connaught Place buildings.  The white paint was well worn, and the bottoms of the walls and columns were covered in a reddish mud-like substance, almost as if there had been a flood recently.  Every wall and every column was covered in these reddish-brown streaks, from about a foot and a half in the air down to the ground.  In addition to the poor state of the buildings, the roads and sidewalks were covered with trash, especially the small packet wrappers of individually packaged chewing tobacco that every street vendor sold to passersby.

“It’s tobacco spit,” I said with a sudden realization after watching a woman spew onto the sidewalk in front of us.

Indeed, the marks on the walls and columns were actually the accumulated tobacco juice of thousands of people over what must have been many years.  The thought revolted me, and I kept my distance from the walls of buildings after that, always carefully watching where I stepped.  With less luck, we attempted to dodge the Connaught Place touts, people standing around who would randomly announce, “You’re in C block, D block is that way” and start following us, telling us the way to his shop.  We eventually found our intended road, Janpath, and began hiking past the luxury hotels and trinket shops that lined the road between us and the National Museum.

We had read in our slightly outdated guidebook that the National Museum offered a buffet lunch for tourists. As I mentioned, the book is outdated. Instead, we ate in the employee canteen, each receiving a heaping plate of lentils and rice for 5 rupees a piece.  The food was actually quite good, but we provided our own bottled water and received some rather strange stares from the employees eating alongside us.

The museum portion of our visit was excellent, but we were introduced to the typical Indian dual-pricing system — 10 rupees for Indian citizens, 300 rupees for foreigners.  Despite the outrageous price discrepancy, the foreigner price was still only about US$5, and it did include a good audio guide that walked us through the entire museum beginning with prehistoric archaeological finds from the Indus valley, through the Buddhist and Hindu artwork of early India, to the fine sculptures and paintings of the medieval Mughal empires, and finally the modern nation’s Independence in 1947 and subsequent wars with Pakistan.  We had expected to visit for a couple hours, but we ultimately spent the entire afternoon wandering the halls and evading a large group of Buddhist pilgrims drawn to an exhibit containing four bones fragments, supposedly from Buddha himself.

Our plan to see the India Gate monument, a towering memorial to the Indians who died in World War I, was thwarted when several very brusk police officers told us the monument was closed, so we viewed it from afar.  We left when several local women repeatedly tried to draw on us with henna ink, apparently with the intention of demanding payment once we were marked (A couple staying in our Agra hotel fell victim to this scam).

We left the memorial grounds and hailed an auto rickshaw with a driver willing to take us to Humayun’s Tomb several kilometers away for 50 rupees.  This particular ride taught us a valuable lesson: When there are dozens of auto rickshaws all desperate for business, negotiation is strongly in your favor.  Determine a fair price and present it to a driver who isn’t trying to hassle you.  He will usually accept it and take you to your intended destination with no unplanned stops.  The drivers who try to play the negotiation game for several minutes over a difference of 5 rupees are the guys who will attempt to get you to agree (or sometimes not even ask) to a stop at a gem shop along the way where you could be subjected to high pressure sales tactics and scams involving fake gems.  The drivers who say “OK” and just get in the rickshaw and drive provided, in our experience, a much more direct route to our destination.  No nonsense.  These were the only drivers I tipped while in India, usually an additional 20 rupees, and I was sure to tell them why.

Humayun’s Tomb at sunset was a very pleasant experience.  The grounds were large, but easily walkable, and there were signs at each

Asia, India, New Delhi, Delhi, Humayun, tomb, sunset

Humayun’s Tomb

point of interest with lengthy (sometimes too lengthy) descriptions.  Crowds were not very large and there was plenty of room to be alone — we even stumbled across a pair of teenagers doing who-knows-what in the dark recesses of the “Barber’s” Tomb.

We ended our second evening in New Delhi with dinner at Metropolis, a very good rooftop restaurant in Paharganj offering safe views of the hectic market below.

Our final day in New Delhi started with an early metro ride to the Chandni Chowk metro stop, a short walk from the Red Fort. The Red Fort, or Lal Qil’ah, a 17th century Mughal palace, is a sprawling UNESCO World Heritage site located along the river in the middle of a bustling business district. It’s also a good choice for escaping the noise and craziness of New Delhi.  We wandered the huge complex (250 acres) and felt like rockstars as domestic tourists randomly walked up to request photos with us.  The buildings were beautiful and very grand, but my favorite part of the visit were the small museums included in the ticket price: one housing Indian weapons from medieval to modern times and an independence museum chronicling Gandhi’s life and India’s march toward independence from British rule.

Our next intended destination, the Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque), was a 20-minute walk away, and we decided to take a bicycle rickshaw after encountering a large construction site between us and the mosque.  I don’t know if there was a communication error or if the driver just wanted to rip us off, but after a 20-minute ride in the wrong direction, leaving us further from the mosque than we started, the driver demanded five times the originally agreed upon price of 30 rupees, claiming the ride was longer than he expected.  After a lot of yelling on both sides I decided it wasn’t worth the effort — probably the driver’s desired outcome — and I left 50 rupees on the bike seat, hearing his shouts and curses as we walked away toward the mosque.  Looking back on the incident, I’m not sure I should have given him any money, but I just wanted to be done with the whole ordeal and US$1 seemed like a cheap exit.

The mosque appeared to be in the auto supply section of town.  There were literally dozens of shops selling what looked like used car parts.  Some of the shops were actual buildings with shelves full of mufflers and carburetors while other “shops” consisted merely of a guy sitting on a building’s stoop with a pile of filthy and rusty car parts spread out on a blanket in front of him,

Asia, India, New Delhi, Delhi, jama masjid, car parts, goats,selling, street, vendor, busy

Goats outside the Jama Masjid selling car parts

several goats standing guard.  In this mess of auto parts, we managed to stumble into a very busy restaurant with a tandoori oven right at the entrance. Three men, covered head to toe in flour, made dough while their co-worker baked naan in the oven. We ate a delicious (and cheap!) lunch of rice, lentils, and vegetable tikka masala — with a huge stack of naan on the side.

The mosque seemed secondary after all the goings-on around it but was very beautiful.  They charged an additional 350 rupees to take a camera inside so, we split up and took turns walking shoeless through the courtyard while the other guarded the shoes and took photos of the street below.  I actually think the Mosque’s exterior outside was more interesting than the interior.

The last stop for the day was the Baha’i House of Worship, commonly known as the Lotus Temple. It’s one of seven such temples around the world.  We could see the unmistakable building appear on the horizon while riding the metro.  The sun was beginning to go down, and the long shadows cast by the lotus flower-inspired “petals” made a stark contrast against the white marble building.  Volunteers from around the world arranged groups to enter the building, no shoes or talking allowed, but I was a little disappointed once inside.  As per Baha’i teachings, no pictures, statues or images can be displayed inside the building.  Additionally, there isn’t a central altar to draw your attention.  Instead, the relatively plain interior consisted of an arrangement of chairs around an open space in the center.  Although the architecture was very grand, even inside, we exited to walk around the temple and get some photos of the gardens and ponds that surround the structure.

We took the metro back to Paharganj to eat dinner and found a rooftop restaurant with a view of the traffic circle beneath us.  The insanity that was New Delhi raged below while we discussed our train trip the following day,

Asia, India, Delhi, New Delhi, beer, rooftop, restaurant, drinks, cold, dinner, food

Well deserved beers

stopping to take photos of cows that had interrupted the traffic stream by munching on garbage in the middle of the road. We were shocked to watch a grown man abruptly drop his pants and squat among them.

We had only seen a small slice of what New Delhi had to offer, but we were ready to exchange this huge city for the much smaller, much more tourist-oriented town of Agra.