At 6:30 in the morning, our plane touched down in New Delhi, India. The air was heavy and you couldn’t see out the plane windows due to the smog. Delhi is the most polluted city on the planet, and the second largest city in the world (behind Tokyo), with a population of over 18 million people.
Delhi is not to be taken lightly. It is crazier, dirtier and smellier then we could have ever imagined. No amount of research could prepare you for how amazing and awful this place is. The intention of writing about our bad experience isn’t to speak badly of Delhi, we haven’t experienced a fraction of what it has to offer. We will go back.
By 8:30am, we were standing out front of the New Delhi railway station. We just got off the express line from the airport, feeling quite accomplished for having navigated this portion with ease. All that was left was following the hand written walking directions we had jotted down from the Smyle Inn website. A quick 10 minute walk would get us to this hostel located in the Main Baazar, a ghetto backpacker neighbourhood full of super cheap accommodations.
Things went downhill real quick from there. We started down the sidewalk flooded with people, vehicles, stray dogs and garbage. We were greeted by a ton of locals offering cheap rickshaw rides. Initially we declined, but ended up accepting an offer because 30 rupees (60 cents) sounded like a good deal and it beat walking. We loaded all of our gear into his sweet ride, and set out for the hostel. He was super friendly, spoke good English, and we felt pretty safe and comfortable. We made a couple turns and then pulled up to the entrance of what looked to be a parking lot. The guy manning the gate walked up and asked, “where are your permission passes?”. He explained the Main Baazar was holding a festival, and because of the recent terrorist attacks in northern India the city was on high alert and we could not enter the neighbourhood unless we had our passes. Sounds legit? He told us in order to obtain these permission passes we had to go to a government tourist office, show our passports, and we would receive them, free of charge. He wrote down the name of the office. He cautioned us to not have any money out, and not flash any belongings because it was unsafe. We were a little leery, but didn’t really have another choice, being that we had all of our stuff and had no idea where we were, so we let our rickshaw driver take us there.
The “tourist office” was a tiny hole in the wall storefront, we walked up some stairs to a little room where a man was sitting behind a desk. We explained our situation but he already knew what we were talking about, and he asked us if we had a reservation at the hostel we wanted to stay at. We said no, and he kindly said he would call and see if there was room for us there.
Now we are aware of the typical scam “oh that hostel burnt down/is full/is closed, I’ll take you to a better one”, which earns the scammer a commission.
He called our hostel (ya, right), and of course they said they were full. He said that there was no way we would be able to get into the Main Baazar area, and the only options for us were to get a hotel in the city center (where prices are 500 dollars and up), or to get a taxi out of the city, because it may not be safe for us anyway. At this point we knew for sure that something was up, and walked out.
Our rickshaw driver was waiting for us outside. Still trusting him, we got back into his rig, and asked him to take us back to the train station. He was hesitant, making up excuses why we shouldn’t go back there, and at this point we were getting nervous, so we were pretty firm with him. He took us to this street he was claiming to be around where the train station was, and it looked nothing like where we had started out. As we spent more and more time with him, his English got worse and worse, and all of a sudden he could barely understand us. We pulled over to the side of the road, where a well dressed local claiming to be the Delhi Police approached us, telling us the same story that the guy at the parking lot had (festival, terrorism, blah blah blah), and gave us another tourist office to go to, claiming that the one we had been at was fake. He also stressed about keeping all money and belongings hidden, reinforcing the scare tactic. Again, not having much of a choice other than getting out of the rickshaw on a sketchy street with all of our stuff, we set out for the next tourist office.
The next one wasn’t any better then the first. Same look, same style, another guy sitting behind a desk. He didn’t really seem to push the whole Main Baazar being closed thing, but he was pushing the hotels in city center or a driver to take us out of town. Our original plan was to stay at our cheap hostel, and to take the train to Rishikesh in the morning; But with the bullshit these guys were spinning, that plan seemed like a fairytale. So a hired driver striaght to Rishikesh seemed like the lesser of two evils.
That is unfortunately what we did. Booked a driver at their tourist office and worked out a price that should have included a luxury sedan, a gourmet dinner and a tour of the Taj Mahal.
Thinking about it now, the rickshaw driver, the parking lot guard, the first tourist office, the “police officer”, the second tourist office, and the bank, was a tangled web where everyone gets a cut for bringing the naive, jet lagged tourist to pay huge money for a hotel or a car ride. Even both the men saying for us to keep our belongings hidden was a way for them to make us feel that we needed to stay with the rickshaw driver because we wouldn’t have been safe otherwise, which isn’t necessarily true. Could we have walked out? Could we have booked it cheaper somewhere else? Absolutely. There is no question they wanted our money. But they didn’t seem to want to hurt us, rob us, or any of the other terrible things we thought might happen if we continued to walk around this unknown world loaded with all our belongings.
But luckily 6 hours later we arrived in Rishikesh in a run down van, driven by an old man who didn’t speak a word of English and spent the ride coughing up bits of what we could only assume to be his lungs. After reflecting on this experience, we realize what we could have done differently. We are regretful and bitter about how things went down, but still appreciate the beautiful chaos that is Delhi.
We did not manage to pull out our camera amidst all of this, however we snapped a few pics with our phone of New Dehli and some smaller towns on our commute to Rishikesh.
Britt and Jeff.