Day 338 of 400: Old Delhi – India
In 1648 the Red Fort was finally complete which took 10 years to build under the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It served as the residence for Mughal emperors and now stands tall in Old Delhi as a much visited tourist attraction. There are other buildings on the complex and the property is about 254 acres. After we packed our things, checked out of our hotel and put our luggage in the back of the car. We hired another driver for about half the day to start at the Red Fort and then will go straight to the train station to head over to the city of Agra…home of the Taj Mahal!!
We took some cool pictures of the Red Fort and were approached by rickshaw driver who spoke English and told us we would see the “real” Old Delhi if we would give him 2 hours to ride around and tour the streets especially the spice market. We were debating back and forth about taking the ride or walking the Red Fort grounds but he explained being in Agra for the next couple days we would see many of these Red Fort types of buildings. But riding through the streets with someone who knows the area and speaks English is something we shouldn’t pass up. We decided he was right! We had him speak to our driver who spoke zero English and made arrangements so we would be touring for a couple of hours and then would meet our driver in the parking lot at an exact time. We climbed onto the back of the rickshaw which is a cart on 2 wheels attached to the back of a bicycle unlike the tuk-tuk which is motorized.
As he peddled us away…we worried about our luggage sitting in the back of that beat-up car and then worried about our lives as we drove between all kinds of traffic on a bike. It was actually an amazing way to really see Delhi…all the sounds and smells were swirling around us and it really allowed us to experience the small streets where cars couldn’t fit. We were riding right along side of cows pulling loads and cows dressed up, they are considered sacred in India and cannot be harmed-no beef eating in this country. The scent of cow poop that flows through one’s nostril is really not appetizing, but if you wait just a few seconds…you will then get the scent of dried spices filling the air, the nose is never bored in this city, that’s for sure! The wires hanging above our heads connecting the buildings was so unbelievably crazy…there is really nothing like it anywhere in the US. There was a guy actually up there fixing something and who knows how he wasn’t electrocuted.
Our driver was pointing out various buildings to us between our people watching. People were bundled up since it was chilly out and going about their day. We have noticed how many people in these Eastern countries carry such large loads on their heads. He drove us through a very busy area where only rickshaws could fit…it was a tiny alley jam-packed with people and stores of all kinds. If we had more time, we would have loved to spend a few hours in the area. After riding through the craziness, our driver pulled over to the side of the road and told us to get out…he wanted to show us a bird’s-eye view of the city from a local perspective. We followed him through an alleyway between the huge bags of spices and dried peppers into a deserted old building where we probably would not have gone by ourselves. We went up the stairwell, passing scents of urine and sleeping dogs. We got close to the top and looked out over the roof-tops…there were people bathing, people eating, and people carrying heavy loads of goods. There was garbage piled high, dried foods in bags and many old buildings and wires on top of each other. After a couple of pictures and listening to our driver tell us about his city, we continued climbing the old stairs of the old run-down building until we were on the very top of the roof. As we were looking out over the city and looking at a mosque, a dog came running over to us with white foam on his mouth…he was going straight for us! Thankfully this local we were with blocked us and pretended to pick something up and throw it at the dog as he yelled. The dog clearly had rabies but backed off at the threat and we moved quickly to a different side of the building. He told us, that dog was bad and to do exactly what he did…even if you don’t have something to throw at it…pretend to as you yell. That was a close one…there are many dogs with rabies in India and we were so happy to have someone there to protect us! On the other side of the building, we were looking right down at the spice market which is the largest market in India…tons of people and tons of bags of spices being sold. We walked back down the dark stairwell keeping our eye out for rabid dogs and back onto the main street. There were so many little stores back to back selling spices, so the driver pointed us in the direction of a store he “trusted” (probably got commission on our sale).
The store was thin but long…we walked by the many dried spices sitting in big brown bags and to the back of the store where one of the guys working there spoke English and walked us through some of the classic Indian spiced used in authentic dishes. As he was talking to us and having us smell different things…we saw movement in the cupboard…it was rat or a huge mouse. He freaked out saying he never sees them in here although he knows they are all over the streets at night. He shut the glass to trap it until it went back into the hole it had come from. So…the question is, do we still buy spices from a place where we just saw a rat? Of course! We bought some specific spices for Indian dishes we will make back at home as well as some of their masala tea…very high quality and some ginseng which is known to calm anxiety and help with memory. Each spice was in a air-tight bag and then they sealed it all into one big bag to make it easier to travel.
We climbed back onto the rickshaw and were driving back towards our car when the driver realized we had about 30 minutes but hadn’t seen the silk market. We agreed to quickly see what he was talking about since silk is a well-known product in India…although there will always be a debate on which country has the best silk. He pulled over to a place called The Silk Market. We got out and walked down some stairs where they had all kinds of silk articles for sale. The sales guy came over to us and immediately started asking us questions about what type of silk we liked. He showed us various price points, colors, textures and ways to wrap a silk scarf. He asked Giff if he had any scarves…Giff said he didn’t wear scarves and the guy started putting different things on him. We got talked into a couple that were pricier than Thailand and wondered if we just got scammed. It is very hard to tell a fake from the real thing…and everyone will try to tell you theirs is the real one.
The clock was ticking and we needed to get back to our car. We paid for the scarves and walked back up the stairs…I told our driver the prices seemed high and he said they are cheaper on the street but we didn’t have time. He peddled us back to our car where our driver was patiently waiting for us. We exchanged info with the rickshaw driver who wants us to include his contact information on this blog in case any of you are going to Delhi. He really was worth every penny…very trusting and knew a lot about his city. If you need his contact info, please email us and we will get it to you (assuming we can find it).
Once we were back in the car with the driver, we saw our luggage was still safely there. Before getting to the train station, we wanted to at least get a picture of the Jama Masjid. When we were at the top of the building looking at the whole city, the rickshaw driver had pointed it out as the largest mosque in India and something we shouldn’t miss. Our driver, found a parking spot kind of close to it and we walked through the many vendors selling their tourist trinkets along the way. We had very little time so literally took a few pictures standing on the steps of the gate which was the entrance for the Jama Masjid. We actually couldn’t even see the mosque from there…we needed to enter the gate but didn’t knowing we had a train to catch. This area was buzzing with people…if we had more time, we would have added it to our list of things to see.
The driver got us to the train station and we walked in looking for the platform. It is really strange but one of the things to watch out for in India are scams at the train station. People try to send you to the wrong place…we went to check in and the guy standing right by the X-ray machine told us our train was delayed and to go over to customer service. We questioningly went over and stood in-line to find out, the train was not delayed. The women behind the counter told us which way to go to get to our train…we were walking that way when we were again approached by another guy telling us we were going the wrong way. Why do they want to trick us?? What’s in it for them? We ignored the advise and finally found our platform where the on-time train was just arriving. We sat on the bench not realizing our train was right in front if us…I noticed the train number was the same even though the destination displayed on the monitor was off, we asked a stranger who confirmed we were in fact staring at our train! We found our assigned seats in the back of the train which was with all the locals.
We got our things on the train and sat on our seats which were more like counters, there were three…one on the bottom, one in the middle and one on top of that…all bed-like. There were a couple of guys sleeping/sitting in our seats and we showed them our tickets and they ran off the train…clearly had no tickets and were using the time to take a nap. I had read in an Indian tourism book that everyone should take a train in India at least once to see how difficult it is…that it is an experience to say the least. What were we in for? More and more people were gathering on the train as it was departing soon. I went looking for a toilet while Giff watched our stuff and the one right next to us…was a hole in the floor, “squatter toilet” and had a huge pile of human poop laying on the floor outside of the hole. Ummm….that is one of the most disgusting things ever. Even though my bladder was about to explode, there was no way I could get myself to use that bathroom…oh my gosh.
I sat back down knowing it would not be possible to hold it for the next 2 1/2 hours it would take to get to our next destination, Agra. As the train slowly chugged away on the tracks, we realized we could probably walk faster than the train was going. We also were in the cheapest seats which meant people were hopping on/off the train in our section without tickets to get a free ride to the next town. There weren’t any workers checking tickets in our car and clearly no one was monitoring the bathrooms either. A couple of guys who should not have been sitting by us asked if they could squeeze in…we reluctantly moved over. They spoke English and chatted a bit asking questions about America. Giff was right next to them and was forced to do most of the talking. Somehow the conversation got on marriage and they explained that 90% of marriages in India are still arranged by the parents and only 10% were like Giff and I which they call a “love marriage”. It is so interesting culturally how so many people don’t pick “their person” to marry, but it is more of a business agreement and they are content with it that way.
There were locals jumping on/off the train selling food and tea…walking down the aisle offering their goods the way a vendor would sell his peanuts at a baseball game. The women across from us finished her bag of chips and threw the wrapper out the window without thinking twice about it. That is exactly why there is so much garbage all over the streets piled so high. You would think they wouldn’t want to live day-to-day in filth like that…don’t they know it’s their kids who will deal with the consequences? It is really awful…we also saw one of the guys getting on the train had just ordered a tea and after steeping the water just flung the tea bag on the sidewalk. I did by the way find another toilet that was more western style vs. a hole in the floor but it had a sign saying to please only use when the train was moving…the toilet released straight out onto the tracks.
The train of course took longer than its scheduled time to arrive in Agra but it finally did. We got our things off the train and then got into a cab. One of the things that is really annoying here so far is how the cab drivers basically target you from the second you step foot off the train (they did this in other countries too). They walk right up to you asking you if you need a ride and wanting to know where you are going…they walk with you the whole way to the exit even when you say no thank 20 times. Giff is really good at be confrontational with them and telling them to move out of our personal space.
A short taxi ride and we were at the Radisson Hotel, the hotels are expensive here but there is really no middle of the road…you either stay at nice expensive places or dirt cheap scary places. We had to put our luggage through an X-ray machine to get into the hotel which was a little scary…it reminded us that there are bombings often enough in this part of the world. We got checked into our room and ordered room service. We just relaxed in our comfies watching a movie and eating dinner for the evening.