Welcome to another ‘first taste’ post, which have proven, thus far, to be quite popular! (Thanks readers!) Today I want to recount my first taste of India, back in 1999. Even for the traveller who’s been to a few places, India can be a bit of a shock when you first arrive.
For me, I had thrown myself in the deep end somewhat with my first solo trip around the world landing in Thailand (actually a pretty good choice for the first up traveller) and then into Delhi. I was very much of the mind not to plan that much back then, so I had an idea of where I might spend the first night and then I’d work it out on the ground.
I knew that I probably wasn’t going to spend a second night in Delhi. I’d moved on quickly from Bangkok, to spend a few days at the end of my time in Thailand there, and that was my plan for India as well. But even a day in Delhi is enough to be absolutely gobsmacked.
Off the plane in Delhi, and baggage claim showed me straight away that I was in a different place. The ceiling had those sectioned flats in rectangles all about, except that over half of them weren’t there so you could see all the electrical workings. The amount of baggage that came off that plane was something else – it seemed that for every passenger there were five large cardboard boxes, plus oversized bags and other mysterious objects wrapped in brown paper.
Deep breath. I needed a taxi into town and this was something that had caused me to worry before I even touched down because bartering at the airport was supposed to be very hard. Best to find the prepaid taxi booth. Luckily, I met three others going into town, and the booth was just outside the exit doors. So were two-metre high wire fences with THOUSANDS of people pushed up hard against them trying to look at the passengers. I guess they were family. It was midnight you know, and not that many flights coming in. THOUSANDS. I to this day still don’t understand it.
Now, I had an idea of a cheap place to stay called the ‘tourist village’, the others had a hotel they wanted to stay at. We immediately had protest from the driver who wanted to take us elsewhere, but as four we were strong I guess and able to stick to our guns. However, their hotel didn’t work out and we ended up at the Tourist Village in sort of half-cottages. It was pretty cheap, but not very near the centre of things.
It was like a little village behind a high fence. We went out to get something to drink, and we found ourselves walking up the road. Well, the footpaths had dozens of people sleeping on the street. It was an incredible culture shock and wake up call, very early in my first visit to India. We had to walk around the people. It was honestly a very confronting first night along with the throngs outside the airport.
The next day I hung out with the people I’d stayed with the first night. They wanted a mega cheap option, and went to Connaught Place to find Ringo Guest House, where a dorm bed was only 90 Rupee (at the time less than four dollars). I left my bag there whilst we went to the station.
The New Delhi train station is seriously busy. Outside you will find rickshaws filling a huge car park along with taxis, but the passageways, bridges, waiting areas of New Delhi station are packed to the hilt with people waiting for trains or waiting for arrivals. Foreigners have their own (well they did back in 1999 and 2004) own air conditioned room where we took numbers and waited to be served for 30 – 45 minutes.
I bought a ticket on the train to Chandigarh in the evening. That room was also packed, this time with only foreigners. Yes, as a tourist you will not be alone in Delhi, although the sheer volume of people who live there may make you feel that way.
We explored a little of Delhi in the afternoon, including some interesting underground passageways with dozens of vendors under Connaught Place. We had some lunch also at Connaught Place – a large circular area which at the time represented modern New Delhi I guess. It didn’t matter where I went, there were always people, people and more people. It was fair to say I had never been confronted with crowds on this scale in my life before.
My train was on time at about 630pm. I was soon out of Delhi. An announcement came over the loud speaker that the train from Kolkata was running 23 hours late. I was thankful that wasn’t my train. I would return to Delhi at the end of my time in India for a few days. I was scammed and had bad Delhi belly, experienced an earthquake and a car accident on my way to the airport. Delhi and I have never been on good terms.
So would I recommend it as a first experience in India? A first taste? Well, you know it’s the capital. And so many people have it as their first Indian Experience. If I had the time – at least two months – I would probably fly into somewhere much smaller such as Kochi in the south where everything is more chilled. I rather liked Kolkata and Mumbai on subsequent trips, but both are big, highly populated cities. Hard to take a breath, like in Delhi.
Delhi does have a backpacker scene, in the Paraganj, not far from the station. And that’s useful for cheap accommodation and making connections. There are plenty of things to see in Delhi too from the Red Fort to the rather awesome train museum. My view has been coloured, as it is always likely to be, by my experiences.
So if you’re brave, and possibly not travelling alone, why not give Delhi a bash as your first taste. It’s 2016 now, and a few years ago they did a lot to neaten up the place for the Commonwealth Games. So it might be easier to navigate today.
India generally is big and crowded as a country though, so my recommendation would be to try and fly somewhere smaller. There are plenty of flights into other ports – have a look at Air Asia for example, they fly to a wide range of spots from Kuala Lumpur. One thing is for sure, India, wherever you go, is an unforgettable adventure! I haven’t been there three times because I hated it! May the Journey Never End!