The chaos started within ten minutes of standing on Indian soil. Albeit the solid floor of Delhi Airport.
The Air India flight had been trouble free, and as clean and efficient as any other long haul flight.
This was a vast improvement on my first experience, flying to New York in 1989.
The queues for immigration control matched those of most US airports, pre 2017. The signs for foreign visitors were very confusing. I joined what I believed to be the correct line, only to be told by a fellow passenger that we should be on a different one. On joining that, we estimated at least two hours, given the current rate of processing. Several passenger in front, left to get on the end what they believed to be a faster queue further down.
Everyone was friendly and the conversations varied, with regular visitors offering advice to us ‘first timers’.
Talking to strangers about the cures for, and prevention of diarrhoea is a strange pastime, but proved to be useful.
I needed to purchase some water, and once through the immigration check, I entered the main part of the airport, but I found nowhere to buy any. There were heavily armed army personnel guarding the entrance, and once you exit the building, you cannot return without a boarding pass, but I had no choice.
There was a small kiosk outside selling snacks. The young guy serving understood my request in English, placed two bottles of water on the counter and I handed over a 100 rupee note expecting around 70 in change. He returned with a handful of coins and a couple of notes, which I slowly counted. Seeing this, he went back to the till and returned with another couple of notes. I started counting again, watching him go to the till for a third time and return with a few more notes and a receipt. I smiled and thanked him, not for the money, but for my first lesson in Indian culture. I never did count the change.
I wanted to experience Old Delhi, but none of the hotels had good reviews, hence I booked one close to New Delhi Station, which had glowing comments, from mostly European guests. There were no Google street view images, but it looked clean and safe, and a short walk away from the ‘dodgy’ areas.
When my pre-arranged taxi stopped in a noisy, crowded street with broken pavements, and a cow blocking the road, the driver turned and said “This is it.”
The phrase, be careful what you wish for, came to mind, as I made my way over uneven concrete paving and avoiding dog excrement, to reach the hotel entrance.
The hotel staff were helpful, and the room was clean and practical with efficient and quiet air conditioning.
I was eager to take photographs and with my camera safe in a bag, ventured out onto the street, where there was a three way junction, with no obvious right of way.
It was chaos, with cars, trucks, motorcycles, tuk tuks and rickshaws, weaving in and out of one another, with the occasional cow or dog, wandering slowly, unaware of the danger. Pedestrians of all ages, traversed the thoroughfare with intuitive skill, ignoring the continuous honking of the high pitched tuk tuk horns. The smells of hot spice from the street vendor stalls, mixed with those of urine and excrement, as the mid afternoon sun dried everything to a crisp. This combined with the noise added to the atmosphere. I experienced the same excitement as walking down Fifth Avenue in New York 30 years prior, for the first time. Or walking along the Great Wall near Beijing.
I was in the centre of what a lot of Westerners would regard as Hell, but I loved it.
Most of the shops in this area were manufacturers and retailers of Hindu statues, with effigies of Gods standing or sitting in various positions, depending upon their human or animal characteristics. The entrances were higher than the street and the broken, uneven concrete platform of varying widths offered a safer alternative to the road.
Other streets had no defining area to walk, but it was safe, as the traffic moved slowly, and the various forms of ‘taxis’, were all looking for the next customer. Most of them honked and waved at me, to which I shook my head, indicating that I was crazy enough to walk.
I ambled along for about an hour and saw no other white people, this was obviously not a tourist hot spot.
I removed my camera from the case and decided to risk a few photos, knowing that my camera was possibly worth a years income to some people. Initially I avoided images with people, but many would wave or smile at me, inviting a shot. Even though they must have seen many Europeans with cameras, I was viewed with friendly curiosity.
Although the streets were dirty, there was a lot of colour. From the brightly dyed garments worn by the women, to the posters and shop signs.
One street vendor near the hotel would wave and pose as soon as he saw me. He didn’t speak English, which was a shame, as I was curious about the various foods on offer.
There was no wealth in this part of town, but there were no occasions where I felt threatened or in danger, even after dark.
The touts all had the same patter, asking where I was from, telling me of their trips to the UK, and relatives in Birmingham. Their one goal was to get me into a tour agents and receive a commission.
On one occasion a tuk tuk driver convinced me that I should get unbiased advice from the Tourist Information Centre, but on entering the building, I realised that it was just another scam.
By the third day, when I heard “Where are you from?” followed by “How long are you here?” I got wise. “I fly back tomorrow” became my polite ‘get lost’ reply.
Bartering is part of everyday life and every form of taxi had to be negotiated in advance. If the initial quote was 100 rupees, I would offer 40. This was met with ridicule and we would finally agree on something around 70. At the end of the ride I always gave the original asking price and often a bit more. Especially to the rickshaw cyclists, as they work extremely hard and cannot have a great life expectancy.
On the first morning I was showered and dressed by 5.30am and walking through small gatherings of people hanging around near the bridge. It appeared that most might have slept on the street nearby. The steps up to the road were scattered with litter and other filth that I did not wish to get near. A woman sat on the steps with her hand out and an old man spat something onto the floor. A rubbish pile, comprising plastic bottles, paper and discarded food lay to one side.
One elderly lady was collecting fresh cow dun and making patties, which were lined up, to dry out in the forthcoming heat of the sun.
I had intended to reach one of the mosques before sunrise, but was already too late, according to my watch. However, as I walked over the bridge across the railway tracks, I realised that there was no sunrise. It was masked by the layer of pollution, and until it rose above this, the city was shrouded in a misty orange glow. Much the same as I experienced in Beijing.
I walked briskly along the narrow path, a wooden fence on one side, the road on the other. I kept in line with the early morning commuters, trying to fit in, but knowing that I didn’t.
About a hundred metres ahead of me, a bag came over the fence, followed by a man. He stood still and started going through the contents of the bag. As I passed, on my return, he would be selling souvenirs.
Further along the fence was a gap, I glanced through as I passed to see an area of sheets of material and plastic, forming various shapes of living accommodation. This was one of many that I would see over the following days.
The intersection of Garstin Baston and DP Gupta Road is wide and very busy, trying to relate the roads in front of me to the map in my hand was difficult enough, but attempting to cross would have been suicidal.
This area was dark, without street lamps, and very busy.
A tuk tuk honked as it passed slowly, and I raised my hand. We negotiated a fee to the Jama Masjid and I jumped in the back.
As we rattled down the dark streets, the noise abated and soon I could make out the shapes in the shadows. There were people moving about in the dark, families with children sitting and playing. Discarded objects and personal belongings were part of their makeshift homes. We passed more derelict buildings, with cables criss-crossed overhead, more junk, dogs sniffing for food, several men standing around talking or pushing carts, and the odd skinny cow.
The road leading to the mosque was more civilised, men, dressed mostly in white tunics stood around in groups, and shops were open, displaying their produce on the street.
I sat, bouncing on the back seat, trying to photograph the sites, but attempting to take a shot from a moving vehicle in the dark with a low ISO resulted in mostly black, blurred images.
Finally the road widened with a raised central paving, just wide enough for a person to sleep on, which they did. Men and women, old and young, wrapped in rags.
The area around the mosque was busy, with tuk tuks lined up and hundreds of men standing around.
I left the safety of the vehicle and ventured across the road, knowing that I stood out like a snowball in a coal pit.
Showing my camera to a man by the gate, I was greeted with a quizzical stare and a nod. I looked up at the building, realizing that I would not get a good shot. The stairs were too steep, the angle was wrong. I changed to a wider lens and wished that I had the tripod with me. In order to get the shot that I was hoping for, I needed to climb to the top of the staircase, but I was concerned about the tuk tuk driver. There were a hundred pairs of eyes following every move I made. I nodded and smiled at those nearest to me, with one or two acknowledging, while others showed no recognition of the gesture. I decided that it was a lost cause and made a safe exit.
As I viewed the long line of tuk tuks opposite, a hand waved from further down the street.
In spite of feeling uncomfortable, like turning up at a party without an invite. I felt safer in this impoverished, alien environment, than in many American and European cities.
Throughout the rest of the day I walked many miles along the busy streets, wallowing in the noise and smells.
The following morning was extra smoggy as I weaved through the people gathered at the bottom of the stairs, buying their breakfasts from a local street vendor. The stairs had been cleared of most of the litter, but as I passed through the fumes of burning plastic attached me. The rubbish was piled on a wall near the stairs and spewing out flames and black carcinogenic smoke, adding to the already poisonous pollution.
Later that afternoon, as I walked over the bridge looking down at the station platforms, I heard a commotion, and stopped to observe. Below me, a smartly dressed man gripped the collar of another man’s tunic, while a woman in a colourful sari was beating him with a stick and shouting at him. He was cowering down, holding his arms up to protect himself, and crying out. A crowd had gathered around them. This lasted a few minutes before a police officer intervened.
The public urinals for men, were certain designated walls and there was an area under a bridge where many would go behind a curtain. This possibly accounted for the lack of women on the streets.
There were no supermarkets of any description, almost all food was purchased from street stalls, and both men and women would walk miles, bent over, balancing huge bags of rice on their shoulders.
The streets of Old Delhi are narrow, restricting the size of vehicles. Goods were transported on small trucks, hand carts, converted rickshaws and the occasional carts pulled by oxen.
Cows wandered the streets, eating vegetation at the roadside or from one of the many piles of trash. I learned to give them wide berth as they urinate without warning, with a gushing stream like a fireman’s hose. Apart from defecating, the street dogs were not a problem, not at all curious about foreign visitors. They didn’t bark, bite or fornicate with one another, their streetwise instincts guiding them to sniff and eat whatever was safe.
The Taj Mahal, must be one of the most stunning architectural creations in the world, and getting there at sunrise was a memorable experience.
The taxi picked me up at 2am, and we left a very quiet city. Once on the main motorway, there was nothing to see. No street lamps, hardly any other vehicles and only a few poorly lit advertising boards. The fun part was truck dodging. My driver kept to the middle and outside lanes, passing one or two slower vehicles, but it was the unlit tractor-drawn carts, crawling along in the centre lane without lights which caused some disbelief.
After a couple of hours he turned off without warning, onto what appeared to be a tree-lined lane, then emerging into what was obviously a service area. It was dimly lit, with one large cavernous building, and a short strip of kiosks selling sweets and snacks and cell phones. The main building was a restaurant, but like no other that I had seen. The front counter was raised, and spread with very small cups split into two groups, tea and coffee. As they were being purchased, the guy behind the counter topped up a few more. My driver laid some cash on the counter and handed me a coffee, taking a tea for himself. It was strong, milky and slightly sweet, but added to the surreal experience.
The building had a completely open front, with a central eating area, while at the back was a very long counter with several large metal cauldrons spaced along its length, and a couple of guys on the other side.
We stood outside at a small, high table with our hot drinks, while about a dozen men sat on steps in front of the kiosks, talking and eating snacks. A couple of dogs wandered about, sniffing for scraps.
The sky was starting to lighten as we entered Agra, encountering only a few vehicles.
We arrived at the Taj Mahal drop-off point at 5.15, but the gates were not scheduled to open until 6.00am. The driver introduced me to a guide, and after some haggling from a cost of around £12, we agreed at £6, which he was happy with. It was a ten to fifteen minute walk through a park inhabited by inquisitive monkeys and a few cows, before reaching the gates and first layer of security.
All state owned sites were guarded by military, with automatic weapons, and airport style scanning.
I was only allowed in with one camera and a spare lens. Leaving the tripod behind was disappointing, but understandable when reaching the spot offering that iconic Taj Mahal shot.
There were about fifty of us, standing around a 5.30am. Most were nationals, but one party from Germany were dressed up in 19th Century outfits looking as if they belonged on a film set. The ladies wore long, colourful dresses, while the men had high leather boots, khaki uniforms and hats, like those that might have been worn by early explorers.
The gates opened at 5.45 and we moved through security into the main grounds. It would be another twenty minutes before the first rays of sunlight appeared, and the various birds and animals were just waking up. I wanted to walk quickly, but my guide was obviously a popular guy and kept stopping to exchange words with his colleagues.
There was very little light around the Taj Mahal building when we entered the main area. Arriving fifteen minutes later would have been better, but another fifty visitors would have arrived.
There it a barrier, about three metres across and one metre high with two horizontal bars.
I managed to get to the front, and as people left I worked my way slowly to the centre. Then crouching down I rested the camera on a horizontal bar and tried to remain still. almost centre position and snapped away, knowing that there was certainly not enough light for a perfect exposure, and relying on my having a firm grip to take some long exposure shots, but the crowd around me were unaware of my intentions and I was constantly being knocked and bumped.
After the scrum, my guide and I wandered leisurely around the grounds, with the sun rising, offering numerous photographic opportunities.
Agra is a small-town version of Delhi, the streets, buildings, people and cows were interchangeable.
I enjoyed Agra Fort and over the next few days, visited various historic sites, gardens, mosques and temples.
Seeing young children begging, and families living in tents or simply sleeping on the filthy pavements was tough, but everyone that I encountered was friendly and even caring towards their fellow citizens.
On several occasions I posed for ‘selfies’ as white-haired and white-skinned visitors were not a common site. I must have been the oldest person around, as pollution and poor healthcare inflicted a heavy price on life expectancy.
I did visit Connaught Place, a shopping area, in ‘New’ Delhi, and although it was clean and resembled almost any European city, with all of the regular chain stores, it had no character. I couldn’t wait to get back the crowded markets and continuous noise of ‘Old’ Delhi.
I will always think fondly of this not-so-beautiful city and hope to return some day.
It is not for the feint-hearted, and as a fellow hotel guest said “It’s not for anyone who likes straight lines.”