The Scientific Activist (Archives)


Apr 25, 2006

India Travelogue, Day 2: Delhi

When Allison and I left the hotel early the next afternoon, we found ourselves in a completely different world. Although the streets had been empty and silent when we arrived late the night before, they were now packed with people going about their daily lives. The area we were staying in, Karol Bagh, was not particularly touristy, and we saw only a couple of people who appeared to be European or American, or who even looked like tourists at all. This was a pleasant finding, and it made the experience that much more real.

The sun, almost directly overhead, was bright and warm, but not unpleasantly so. It was a nice change from the dreary weather of England, and I enjoyed wearing a short-sleeved shirt outside for the first time in months. The dust that I had found so striking the night before was still present the next day, and it would be ubiquitous throughout Delhi.

March 25th was our first full day in India, and since the rest of our group of six would not be arriving until the next day, Allison and I spent the day just taking in India. And, there was a lot to take in. The fast-paced automotive chaos of the airport highway translated here to streets crowded mostly with people and autorickshaws, but also with cars and the occasional cow. The poverty was pervasive, but not necessarily overbearing. Most of the people seemed busy with some purpose, although I saw several people who clearly lived on the streets and faced a grinding destitute poverty. Since almost everyone we saw was probably financially poor, though, it’s impressive that some of the poverty was able to stand out at all.

Although we generally kept to ourselves, Allison in particular seemed to attract people’s attention. It wasn’t necessarily because her skin was white or because she was wearing westernized clothes, although those were surely important factors here. In fact, she was one of the few women at all that we saw that afternoon. I still don’t know if this was because of the time of day or because of where we were, because we did not observe this same phenomenon everywhere we went.

We walked about fairly aimlessly, although carefully keeping track of our location relative to the hotel. Each street we turned down seemed more crowded than the last. India was inescapable: the hoards of people, the vehicles, the noises, the enticing smells coming from the street food, the signs piled upon signs covering the sides of buildings. There was an energy running through the place that was hard to ignore. It was absolutely invigorating.

After we felt like we had absorbed enough of our surroundings, we decided to head toward New Delhi for a change of scenery, and hopefully to find some food. We had so far only seen street food, and although it was tempting, we were both pretty serious about avoiding anything that could make us sick (this turned out to be a virtual impossibility). We hired an autorickshaw to take us to Paharganj, an area about halfway between Old and New Delhi. Rickshaws, small three-wheel vehicles with meager two-cylinder engines, instantly became our preferred means of travel, mostly because of the price. We negotiated the price for this trip down to Rs 35, about 0.40 GBP, which was comparable to what we would pay the rest of our time in Delhi, and was probably about half as much as a taxi would have cost. Autorickshaws were cheap, simple, and all over the place. This last characteristic was clearly a product of the first two which have led to rickshaws now dominating the roads in many parts of India. Many people consider them to be pests, and it is expected that as the standard of living increases throughout India they will slowly disappear as more people can afford their own motorcycles. If riding in a car in India was stressful, riding in an autorickshaw was absolutely terrifying (probably like driving a go-kart down a Texas highway full of full-sized pickup trucks)—but only at first. I came to enjoy it as just another part of the experience.

Autorickshaws in Delhi traffic.

Paharganj felt more ancient that Karol Bagh, but also slightly more touristy, as we found ourselves in an area full of European hippie backpacker tourists, a demographic we ran into time and time again throughout our time in India. We didn’t find anything to eat, though, so we headed further toward the center of New Delhi, to Connaught Place, an enormous traffic circle made up of two concentric circles, intersected by close to ten busy streets. It was nearby, so we decided to walk. On our way, we met a boy, probably just a few years younger than us, who was very interested in talking to us to “practice his English.” He had long slicked-back hair, wore sunglasses, and sported more stylish clothes than we were used to seeing in India. He spoke English well, almost flawlessly, which we were not used to. Although almost everyone we interacted with spoke some English, it was generally very broken, and often mixed with Hindi. I’m still not exactly sure how widespread English really is in India, and I still have a feeling that most people in India probably don’t speak English, or at least don’t want to. Regardless, the people we needed to communicate with to get around invariably spoke enough English for us to get by.

Our new friend seemed very concerned with our wellbeing, and he highly suggested that we check out the “government tourism center” across the street to get a “free map.” Although he was nice to talk to, it was clearly a ploy to take us somewhere for him to earn a commission (since I still have not seen a “government tourism center," although there is a place that suspiciously sports such a label in the map above). We passed on his offer, and continued on to Connaught Place. Within a few minutes he was back again, or so I thought at first. It was actually a different boy, but wearing almost exactly the same uniform. He had the same story: he studies at the local university, he enjoys practicing his English by talking to tourists, and he really thinks we should go to the government tourism center to get a free map. We ran into versions of this same character several times, culminating in a group of about ten of him, all trying at once to get us to go to the tourism center they were pointing at.

A map of Delhi. During our first day, Allison and I basically made a triangle, starting at Karol Bagh in the northwest, continuing through Connaught Place to India Gate in the center/east, turning north toward the Red Fort, and then heading westward back to the hotel.

At Connaught Place, we finally found a restaurant that met our still overly stringent requirements, and the food was absolutely delicious, which I found to be a common theme throughout my travels in India. I had a mutton (goat) dish, along with some rice and naan (bread). I learned to eat in the traditional style, mixing my meat and rice together, and using my naan as both a utensil and a food. Allison had a mushroom masala, which was also very tasty. The vegetarian food in India was the best I have ever had, and it was often better, or at least more interesting, than the meat dishes: if there is anywhere I would consider being a vegetarian, it would have to be in India. I had a bottle of Kingfisher beer (one of the only beers widely available in India, a country that until recently was still widely prohibitionist) with dinner. It was a great first meal for the trip, although what was meant to be a late lunch turned into an early dinner because it had taken us so long to find a place to eat.

After lunch/dinner, we walked around (literally) Connaught Place, and then took an autorickshaw to India Gate, a large monument in the center of town. Since it was a Saturday night, we found the surrounding parkland (a surprising find in itself in the middle of Delhi) full of picnicking families, giving it a lively carnival-like atmosphere. Our autorickshaw driver had apparently followed us around India Gate, and eventually he convinced us to let him take us to Old Delhi proper. There, we had a great view of the Red Fort, which is brightly lit up at night. We spent most of our time, though, touring a Jain temple. I found Jainism to be one of the more interesting local religions, as it focuses on extreme nonviolence and vegetarianism, and one of its central tenants is the intrinsic value of all living things. Because its followers are not allowed to hurt even a fly, some of the most devoted among them wear face coverings to prevent themselves from accidentally breathing in or swallowing (and killing) an insect. In that same tradition, this particular temple featured a bird hospital. We explored the nearby areas, and also observed a Sikh temple. Interestingly, on the side of the temple were the five main tenets of this particular sect of Sikhism, written out in English. One of them was the use of special underwear to prevent adultery. This raised more questions than it answered.

Sometime after about 10:00 pm or so, we decided that it was time to head back to the hotel. We went to find an autorickshaw, but all of the drivers were clearly offering only highly inflated prices. Although I turned him away at first, we were approached constantly by a particularly persistent cycle-rickshaw driver. Neither of us really wanted to take a cycle-rickshaw, not just because it would be much slower, but because there’s something unsettling about exploiting someone else’s manual labor for personal transportation, especially when that person is obviously struggling and appears emaciated. The price was so much better, though, that his offer was tempting.

“How long will it take?” I asked.

“Twenty-five minutes. I’m very fast,” he responded.

Allison and I hesitatingly got in the rickshaw, something we would soon come to regret and a mistake we would not repeat. The ride started out harmlessly enough. Our driver was very friendly, and he pointed out several sights along the way. He was from Nepal, and he had moved to Delhi to make money to send his family back home. As the ride began to draw out past the twenty-five minute mark, he became quieter, and the city seemed to slowly clear out until it was almost empty. Although they were present in the day as well, animals roamed freely at night, particularly cows and stray dogs. I never thought that I could find anything scary about a cow, but as we passed through a small herd in the middle of the dark nighttime street, something about their big black penetrating eyes staring back at me did little to put me at ease. Still, the cows were just going about their own business, mostly looking for food. The cows in Delhi looked malnourished and skinny and from what I can tell subsisted mostly on garbage.

A cow walking through the streets of Delhi.

As the night dragged on, we saw more and more people sleeping on the side of the road. In some places, the whole sidewalk was covered with people. Although the weather was not bad for staying outside, the sight of such poverty was truly shocking, and many of the images are still frozen in my mind.

Sometime around the first time our driver stopped to ask for directions, roughly an hour into the trip, brilliant bolts of lighting began to light up the night sky. Eventually heavy deliberate drops began to fall, but the promised storm never materialized, which was fortunate for us. It was still the dry season, and this was the only time we experienced rain during our trip. Still, the roads seemed to become darker and steeper and our situation more hopeless as our driver stopped increasingly frequently to ask for directions. For a while he clearly had no idea where he was going.

The Hotel Indraprastha never looked better than when we finally arrived that night, approaching two hours after our time of departure. Although it was after midnight when we returned, we discovered the hotel’s rooftop café and had a late dinner there. The scenery was beautiful, the atmosphere was relaxed—complete with candlelight—and the food was impressive. Combined with a cold Kingfisher beer, it was the perfect way to end my first day in India and prepare for another.


  • Your travelogue is interesting - came here through desipundit, and am finding all the classic observations foreigners would make in India - cows, poor people, dust and the likes hehe :)

    But your writing style is beautfiul and invites me to read. I for one hope to read the rest of your travels.

    Just a note:

    "ecause its followers are not allowed to hurt even a fly, you can recognize a Jain follower if he’s driving a motorcycle, for example, because he will be wearing a bandana over his face to prevent himself from accidentally breathing in or swallowing (and killing) an insect."

    -- Thats not quite true :) - ppl cover their face because they fear swallowing the insect, not killing it. Its nothing to do with Jainism per se. What you are confused about are the jain monks.



    By Blogger Supremus, at Wed Apr 26, 06:54:00 PM  

  • Thanks for the comment, Suyog, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the travelogue. And, thanks for clearing up that point about Jain culture.

    I think my first couple of entries do sound fairly stereotypical, but I think those are the kinds of observations that many westerners would make upon first coming to India, and I'm doing my best to relay my experience as it truly happened. I think you'll find that as the travelogue progresses, the tone will probably change significantly as I become more familiar with the country.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Wed Apr 26, 09:20:00 PM  

  • Nick,

    Apropos suyog's comments and your response, people usually find what they set out to look for.

    For e.g. an Indian in NY is more likely to find Empire State building, Time Square etc. and quite unlikely to notice the beauty of Hell's kitchen!

    Outsiders are more likely to discover the dirty underbelly of any city/country, be it London, New York or New Delhi.

    I believe you Westerners need to do more research about India before writing your analyses. Jains (especially their monks) do follow certain practices like looking at the ground while walking [to avoid stepping on ants and other insects] etc.

    Certainly wearing bandanas to prevent accidental ingestion of mosquitoes is not one of them. Most likely you saw folks preventing inhalation of dust particles! (may be even Non-Jains).

    Jain Monks do wear a white bandana [ but they don't travel in mo-bikes], if they have taken an oath of silence (to meditate). White bandana here serves as a sign 'Not to talk to him' (as he is under oath)

    I found the reference to Sikhs wearing special underwear to prevent adultery offensive. Who gave you such half-baked info, mate?

    "Kachcha" [ underwear] you mentioned is one of the Five Holy symbols of Sikh faith. It's a symbol of 'chastity' which is intended by the Sikh Gurus [founders of Sikhism] to serve the followers the need to remain chaste. It's plain cloth and doesn't prevent adultery (unlike the Chastity belts of medieval Europe)

    I am neither a Jain nor a Sikh, and yet felt incensed on reading such misinformation. Imagine what a Jain or Sikh would feel on reading it!

    How would you feel if a Sikh or Jain had written that Christians follow Cannibalism by symbolic eating of Jesus's body during Eucharist?

    You should be thankful you didn't say "underwear" thingy to a Sikh. I am not sure if you know that "Kirpan" [short sword] is another of those Holy symbols that Sikh is mandated to always carry with him. You might have got beheaded.

    [Note: It's just a joke. Sikhs are not violent, fiersome folks though they look one]

    I hope you'll do better research next time and keep others sensibilities in mind while posting future entries.


    By Anonymous Vivek, at Thu Apr 27, 01:26:00 AM  

  • Vivek,

    While I can understand your criticisms, and I appreciate you trying to clear the air on Jainism (although I have heard conflicting information from different sources). I think that it's unfair to accuse me of being insensitive to Eastern religions, though. My comment about Sikh underwear was taken almost verbatim from a sign on the side of the temple. It could have been a poor translation, but I could hardly be blamed for that. I don't think there's anything wrong with a little bit of lighthearted humor here anyways, especially on a subject like religion, where people arguably really need to lighten up.

    "How would you feel if a Sikh or Jain had written that Christians follow Cannibalism by symbolic eating of Jesus's body during Eucharist?"

    I personally wouldn't mind that at all. In fact, I think it would be a legitimate observation, a clever device for social criticism, and, if done well, a nice source of humor. I think it's important for Westerners, as well as others, to be able to realize how bizarre their religious traditions can appear upon objective observation.

    Before you prematurely judge my entire travelogue as overly negative, I would encourage you to stay tuned to future entries, where I really begin to explore the true beauty of India.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Thu Apr 27, 01:40:00 AM  

  • Nick,

    I never *meant* you wrote those things intentionally or with the purpose of hurting others sentiments.

    But, still, it shouldn't suprise you that people might feel offended by light-hearted jokes, especially if they're from an outsider about their culture in religion.

    I admire the right spirit with which you took the 'Eucharist'. But can you vouch that every Christian will take my example, equally sportingly. I wouldn't be suprised if some Christians who land here someday, badmouth me with choicest words in English language.

    It's not about what you or me meant with our casual observances. It's about what others feel.

    I understand you didn't do it with any malintent. That's why I advised you to do more research before you post, and preferably err on the side of positive intead of negative.

    There's a saying in Sanskrit which goes 'Satyam Vadha, Priyam Vadha'. Always tell the truth, but in a way that doesn't offend others. I think that applies here.

    With reference to the translation of "Kachcha", actually the word 'Priyam' above means 'lovely'/'with love'. 'Talk lovely' or 'Talk with love' is meaningless in English. That's the inherent danger in relying on translations made by semi-literate painters. Consulting with knowledgeable persons will help in understanding the true meaning (if that's a persons interest)


    By Anonymous Vivek, at Thu Apr 27, 02:05:00 AM  

  • Vivek,

    Thanks again for your comments. I guess I should take it as a compliment that people expect a definitive guide to India out of the travelogue. I hope everyone will keep in mind, though, that this series is first and foremost a recollection of my experiences and personal perceptions of India during my trip, and people will take them for what they're worth. I hope you enjoy the rest of the log.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Thu Apr 27, 09:20:00 AM  

  • " If riding in a car in India was stressful, riding in an autorickshaw was absolutely terrifying"
    Well, this is how people live in South Asia and millions of people even can not afford a ride in an autorickshaw. However, I wish that you write about the historical places in India.

    By Anonymous Razib Ahmed, at Thu Apr 27, 02:40:00 PM  

  • I'm getting there....

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Thu Apr 27, 03:59:00 PM  

  • Dear Nick,

    As Vivek rigthly pointed out, the information you have supplied regarding Jainism is way away from reality. I am myself a follower fo Jainism, and would like to help you undestand some facts. But thanks for deleting the line in which you wrote that a Jain follower can be recognized if he is wearing a bandan over his face on a motorbike. Please! You must have experienced the pollution levels in Delhi, so there's every reason a concerned citizen will prevent inhanling pollutive chemicals while riding a motorbike. This has got nothing to do with Jainism. Jain monks actully wear the mouth covering not for pollution, but to prevent the insects (as you pointed out), but these monks don't drive around in motor-bikes. In fact, Jain monks follow practices of extreme asceticism, and it is against their beliefs to make use of man-made luxuries such as a motor-bike or for that matter, even a bi-cycle. Jain monks travel by their own very feet.
    Since you showed some interest in the Jain religion, here are some links that might help enlighten your knowledge about Janism:

    Best wishes,

    By Anonymous Gaurav Jain, at Wed May 03, 06:28:00 AM  

  • Hello Nick,

    Nice to get an 'outsider's' perspective of their first day in India:-). This being your first trip, it was interesting to read about your reactions to the contrasts that is India.
    I am an Indian woman, but I work in Switzerland (Biochem, incidentally:-), and when I look back to my first day here in Switzerland, it was a totally different experience and even though its one of the most organised places on earth, I also had misjudged certain things (which makes me laugh now!).

    So Vivek and Gaurav, before your sensibilities are 'hurt' on Nick's interpretaion of Jainism/Sikhism etc. try to put things in perspective and realise that this was his *first* day in India, and no one is expected to be a scholar and you dont need to 'enlighten' them with the complex country that Inida is. It takes years to understand a country and so what if we get somethings wrong? It isnt the end of the world.

    Good site, Nick...enjoy the travels!

    By Anonymous Sonali, at Thu Oct 05, 03:54:00 PM  

  • Hello Nick
    your india-travelouge abt delhi is so intresting and exhaustive.your description of events is so spell binding and intruging.Are you a writer??how do you find India in comparisin to other countries specially the people.

    By Blogger sandeep, at Sat May 12, 06:15:00 AM  

  • So Nick by now you may have got a very good idea how "sensitive" Indian people are...specially when it comes to religion..
    There can be 4-5 accidental deaths daily in Delhi and majority of these by rowdy private buses but still its not worthy to get as much a reference as a third rate movie review...there can be 4-5 hours daily power cuts (now in both peak summers as well as in winters) in INDIAN CAPITAL itself but no blogs are written...people get killed on crowded major railway stations just in order to get inside an already super crowded train but this news do not find any coverage for more than a day or two...people spit…people urinate openly on streets/walls...people break all traffic rules...people take bribe..people give bribe..but these are not the issues..nobody treats them as issues...YES but a religious misinterpretation hurts...It hurts our sensibilities because we are so sensitive in nature…
    It seems we have cocooned our sensibilities in the cover of a 5000+ years history for all matters except for one..and you did touch that one only...Not a good start but may be a very good lesson for you very early on…take care mate!

    By Blogger Anup, at Wed Jun 13, 05:54:00 PM  

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