Smelly Shoe, smelly shoe, what are they feeding you?
12.23.2015 - 12.25.2015 65 °F
New Delhi, more like Shoe Smelly. Our time in New Delhi can be summed up in one interaction when we were walking through the modern, high end area of New Delhi called Connaught Place. As we walked through a local market, someone tapped me on the shoulder to point out that I supposedly had stepped in some dog poo (which is not ridiculous since the city is littered with stray dogs everywhere). This gentleman offered to show me where there was some running water to wash off my shoe and when we turned the corner there was a shoe shiner/cleaner that he brought me to. Without thinking too much about it, I offered up my soiled shoe and the shoe cleaner cleaned it up for me. As he was cleaning I noticed two things, there was only poo on top of shoe (so I obviously did not step IN it) and the gentleman who pointed out the mess was hovering around the shoe cleaner. After he was done cleaning the shoe cleaner claimed that the charge was 1,200 rupees, which is probably 15x what the cost should be in India. At this point I was convinced that this was all a long, smelly con on the Westerner and gave the shoe cleaner 100 rupees and walked away (which he didn't object to). In retrospect, I do wonder how the original gentleman got the dog poo onto my shoe. Was he carrying it in his hand or in a bag waiting for some sucker to walk by? If so, how long was he holding it? Is there an expiration period where you need to retire the pile you're holding and reload with something more fresh? Did he see me approaching and this stroke of brilliance hit him so he grabbed the nearest pile of dog feces for a quick relocation to the top of my shoe? What if he missed my shoe and was just someone throwing dog poo around the market? Would anyone care? Did no one else in the crowded market wonder why this man at some point had in his possession a handful of dog crap? These are questions that may never be answered and still not the most confusing local habits we encountered in New Delhi.
When we first arrived at the airport (Indira Ghandi International), we got stuck for almost 90 minutes in the e-visa line. This is the line for foreign tourists that have already filled out the invasive visa application (they ask for your religion, profession, info on your parents, etc.) and received their tourist visa. We couldn't find this e-visa line at first and we ended up the last people in line from several arriving flights. There were only a few people with open windows to process visas and passports and even those few people did not seem to have any sense of efficiency despite the growing line of incoming and increasingly impatient visitors. They also apparently needed to scan the print from every finger of every entering visitor from fingerprint scanners developed for one of the Sean Connery James Bond films (i.e. they didn't work). If anyone ever flies into Delhi, our advice is to go directly to the end of the customs desks, do not pass Go, do not collect $200, do not use the bathroom, go and get in the e-visa line as fast as Americanly possible.
Our first day (and early evening) in New Delhi we decided to take the short 15 minute walk from our hotel to the aforementioned glamorous Connaught Place. On the walk there, we were approached several times by concerned residents that there was a protest slightly ahead of us and it was not safe for Westerners to try and walk directly through. We were consistently given friendly detour routes that would help us avoid any international incidents. After a tumultuous 2015 and signing up for news alerts from the State Department for our trip, it didn't seem unreasonable that parts of the world would be carrying out protests that wouldn't take too kindly to a couple of crackers stumbling through on their way to try and find the New Delhi Adidas store. So....... eventually we acquiesced (a slight detour seemed like a decent compromise for safety) and took one of the tuktuks promising us safe voyage but as it turned out, it was just a scam and our tuktuk drive took us to several "bazarres" (basically tourist trap shops with cheesy stereotypical Indian souvenirs - pashminas, kurtas, sarees, etc.) that were off the beaten track. On our Old Delhi tour we confirmed with our guides that the warnings of protests were nonsense and a common scam and the tuktuk drivers get a commission for bringing customers to the bizarre bazarres. A nice warm welcome to India on our first night.
Eventually, two days later and after having our shoes pelted with excrement, we made it to Connaught Place. It is a large circle with shops around the perimeter and typical street market vendors in the center. It was pretty underwhelming. The athletic apparel stores are covered - Reebok, Nike, Puma, Adidas, but otherwise most other shops are Indian department stores. We were there right around Christmas and they were beyond packed, but it may have been due to the holiday season (I know Christmas is not a big religious holiday in India but it is a national holiday that most people have off work, so lots of people head to this area). Otherwise, there are some local restaurants and a couple of the American fast food joints that you can seemingly find in any corner of the globe - KFC, Dominoes's, Dunkin Doughnuts, etc.
We took a walk to India Gate, which is a big memorial for British and Indian soldiers that died in WWI and other battles where the two sides fought together (more often, it seemed that Indians fought on behalf of the British). It was a nice memorial and worth seeing if you are in New Delhi, but not particularly more compelling than comparable memorials you would likely find in most capital cities.
We took a train from New Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. In India, you have to show your airplane ticket (or boarding info) to get into the airport, so it seemed reasonable that you may have to do the same at the train station. There were several gentlemen checking tickets at the gate and they informed us that our train was delayed (and/or cancelled according to a second person tertiary to our ticket checker) and they would help us out and take us to a place where we could buy/exchange for new train tickets or book a car to Agra. As we got this grand speech, we quickly realized this was another scheme, they seemed a little too desperate to not let us enter the train station and by taking a step back we realized that they did not look like they were associated with the train station in any official capacity. We had to argue to get our boarding information back and physically push through to get into the train station. Eventually we made it onto our train, which was not delayed at all and we confirmed with someone in our cabin that this was another common scheme to tell people that their train was cancelled and try to convince them to take a private car service instead once their train departs. This was another scheme that just mad us sad, that people had no problem having us miss our legitimate train and derailing a whole trip for the off chance of booking an angry car passenger.
Overall, New Delhi is a grind. It is exhausting for a Westerner and we became so guarded against schemes, liars and cheats that I'm sure we dismissed some actual friendly advice in our few days there. We went back and realized that we actually didn't take any pictures around New Delhi, likely because we felt the need to be on guard most of time. It is possible that having a local tour guide like we had for Old Delhi may have helped us in our efficiency to navigate this part of the city, but there's not quite the same amount of things to see and do for your average tourist.
If we sound too salty about New Delhi, please let us know what we may have missed!