Friday, December 24, 2010

To Delhi

The original plan, after Varanasi, was a train trip east to visit Kolkata. Train travel in India is a wonderful thing and purchasing tickets is largely a hassle free experience, especially so when buying tickets online which is a very straightforward process. But although buying the ticket is easy, having the train actually turn up is another thing entirely. On arrival at Varanasi station to take the sleeper train to Kolkata the other day, I listened as it was announced that the train would be delayed for 14 hours which meant one more night in Varanasi - certainly not the end of the world. It did mean searching for a railway station hotel, never a pleasant task. I was turned away from that many full hotels that I had to check the date to make sure that it wasn’t actually Christmas Eve.

The following morning the latest news on the Kolkata Express was that it had now become a 20 hour delay and so I decided, fuck it, I’ll go to Delhi instead. And so I did. That train to Kolkata probably still hasn’t arrived.

On the overnight train I share a compartment with a French guy who’s come to India to hone his sitar playing skills and a German architect who’s very excited at the prospect of checking out Chandigarh’s architecture which I can’t work out is either an example of extreme dedication to the trade or just plain sad. Either way, the three of us decide to look for a room in Pahar Ganj, the heart of the budget accommodation in Delhi and conveniently located right outside the train station. Pahar Ganj’s accommodation options remind me of Hong Kong’s Chunking Mansions and that’s no compliment - the cheaper places vary in quality from flea pit to cess pit. The first place we view costs 170 INR a night but it has the mildewed air of a place that even the local vermin would shy away from. We end up in the extravagantly named Hotel Decent which, it’s fair to say, is an exaggeration. The furniture in the room has nestled in the corner as if someone had lifted the room, tilted it to one side and allowed it to settle there. The window comes in two parts, both of which are broken but it costs us 200 INR (€3) a night so it’s a done deal.

There is much to be seen in Delhi and, wanting to spend as little time in our hotel room as possible, I head off on the tourist trail. First stop is the absolutely pointless commercial hub of Connaught Place. Featuring a smorgasbord of cinemas, shops, restaurants, banks and bars, it’s best seen in passing on your way down to Rajpath to the south and even then only fleetingly. Rajpath is one of those typically impressive wide boulevards which stretches, Champs Elysée style, from the uber-British Secretariat buildings at one end down to India Gate - a war memorial - at the other. The Secretariat buildings, though impressive from a distance, remind me, as do all buildings of their type, of that quote in Shrek when they first see Lord Farquaad’s enormous castle and Shrek asks: “Do you think he’s compensating for something?” Yes, impressive but, yawn, seen them before many, many times.

Old Delhi is found to the north east of Connaught Square and it’s where I’ve spent most of my time in Delhi. The city has its own perfectly functioning metro system - no doubt finished off in time for the recent Commonwealth Games - and yet I found the city compact enough to be able to walk around for the most part. Old Delhi involves more walking than most areas because its mazy bazaars are designed to make losing yourself very simple indeed. Both the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid mosque are found here also and are both equally stunning.

Now that I’ve been in Delhi for 3 days, following on from my 4 days in Varanasi, I already know which distinctive smell will forever in my mind evoke images of India. And that smell is? Piss. It’s everywhere. Indian males have a piss on sight policy and have no difficulty whatsoever in lashing it out when the need arises regardless if this is on a rarely visited side street or a main thoroughfare - if you have to go, then you have to go seems to be the prevailing mentality. And because of this the distinctive Eau d’India is omnipresent.

One thing is certain - and I’m sure this probably isn’t the same for everyone who comes here - but India will not make me a more pleasant person. Because of the forewarnings regarding hassles and scams and because of previous personal experience etc, I walk around the streets with the bullet-proof demeanour of a man who will not encourage chit-chat of any kind because it invariably leads to “You come to my shop? Just looking.” Besides, I make a point of never talking to anyone whose opening gambit is ‘Yo man, what’s up?’, regardless of what country I’m in. But the flip side of that is that you’re never sure of when somebody actually wants to engage you in conversation. For instance, this evening as I made my way back to the hotel I fell into conversation with a man from Bhutan (so he claimed). We chatted as we both made our way in the same direction and I waited for the inevitable request to view his shop/give him a donation for a Buddhist school back at home/buy a set of 10 postcards etc but when we parted, it never came and my rigid determination to avoid small talk at all costs weakened somewhat. I’ll be back to being a bastard tomorrow though. It’s easier.

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