Going to New Delhi? A Word to the Uninitiated…Particularly Female
New Delhi, India
For a first-time international traveler, diving into the chaotic madness of New Delhi, India, is probably not the most gentle of introductions to other forms of lifestyle and culture. However, in the interests of being intrepid, jumping completely out of my comfort zone and hopefully having some wonderfully interesting stories to tell when (and if) I got back home, this is precisely how I began my traveling debut. But then I never was a sensible girl. Here are some of the things I learned.
New Delhi is a crazy, noisy and endlessly fascinating city to visit. It’s stinking hot in the summer, freezing cold in the winter, filthy, dangerous to passengers in vehicles and pedestrians alike. You will witness appalling poverty and extreme wealth, a melting pot of religions, unwanted attention to the extreme from some and complete and utter indifference from others. You won't be bored, though.
If you decide to go to Delhi, be aware that many of the Indian shopkeepers and touts are rather keen to sell things to visitors – in fact, they'll probably try to climb right inside your skin given half a chance. Being a Westerner, in particular, will make you a tout magnet, as they apparently suffer from the delusion that all Westerners come from big flash cities, drive around in Rolls Royce’s and have servants back home to carry their heavy wallets for them. Understandable from their point of view – you’re obviously rich enough to buy a plane ticket to be here in the first place – something that is totally beyond the wildest of dreams for most of them. Also, you’re rich enough not to be at work for a while. Although I mortgaged myself to the hilt to buy my ticket, and will spend many months in the future paying it off, I still find it a rather humbling thought that I was able to do this at all. Many of the Indian people I have interacted with will never go far past their own city or village, let alone see another country.
I have to admit to a certain admiration for these touts – their enthusiasm and tenacity is second to none. After the first few days, when their attention is often quite overwhelming, unwanted and intrusive to the extreme, you start to relax into the whole routine of waving them off and strolling right on by with an air of knowing where you’re going and what you’re doing. Wearing sunglasses and imitating a deaf person seems to do the trick also. Keep in mind these people are just trying to make a living and I’ve often found that a bit of humor goes a very long way.
I got the hang of this from watching my partner Paul – who this year was on his ninth visit to India – kidding around with the rickshaw drivers. We were stepping off a cycle rickshaw at the New Delhi Railway Station, when another rickshaw driver came up and offered us a ride. "Why yes", said Paul. "How much to go to the New Delhi Railway Station?" Once the tout clicked onto what had just been said, he laughed his head off. We went on our way smiling, and everyone got out alive.
For the uninitiated, one of the first things a tout will do is ask your name or what country you are from. For the large majority of us, inherent politeness makes it natural to pull up and turn around to answer such inane and innocent sounding questions. Be aware, they have learned this on their first day in "Touting Westerners 101" class. Armed with this knowledge, they will have you hooked and be reeling you in within seconds.
Another trap is the Indian woman carrying a baby on her hips and holding her hand out to you, whilst muttering about the fifty two children she has starving at home, her geriatric and totally-dependant parents, grandparents and uncles-in-law trapped in the house because they haven’t got three legs between the lot of them. What’s more, their house is about to be knocked down because the Indian Government has decided to build a ten-lane bypass right through their kitchen. At first I was taken in by these sad and woeful tales, but both Paul and some locals soon put me right by letting on that these babies are often borrowed or rented, sometimes drugged to keep them quiet, and it’s entirely possible that the woman owns three houses and rents out a fleet of auto rickshaws.
All is not as meets the eye.
If you are moved to give something to a beggar, keep in mind the general rules that the locals tend to follow. If it's someone who looks hungry, buy them some bananas. If you want to help the kids, donate books, pencils, etc, to the local schools. Many kids who are out begging should actually be in school, and giving them money will simply encourage them to skip their schoolwork more. If it's someone who is physically disabled, certainly give some money, if you wish. But don't go overboard – give them enough to buy a meal or two.
And don't give to them everyday, lest they forget you are a human and not a walking wallet. Remember you have to eat and pay bills too. It's easy to support one beggar but, in a city of thousands of beggars (don't forget the staff who serve you in restaurants and hotels that you frequent. Often they do very long shifts for very little money. In many cases they go for months without seeing their wives and children. Many of them have moved to the city from their villages far away, sleep in rooms on the floor – often eight or more of them squashed together – and send money back to their families, while having to wait months to have a holiday so they can travel home to see them. A tip of ten or twenty rupees will hardly dent your wallet, but it will help them out enormously.
For Western woman about to embark on the New Delhi experience, my advice is to take clothing that is modest – tops with sleeves and trousers or skirts that don't show your ankles. Wear a scarf at all times to ward off unwanted attention towards your breasts. This is also handy for covering your head when you want to be less noticeable (i.e. on public transport) and if you dampen it, it helps keep your head cool (and often dyes it various colors for you if you've bought it locally, but there are worse things than being a rainbow). I've often seen female travelers wearing crop tops, singlets and shorts. That really is asking for trouble. Keep in mind that Indian women on the whole dress very conservatively, with hardly any flesh showing. Imagine what it's like for Indian men to suddenly see uncovered arms and legs belonging to attractive young females flashing in front of them – like handing a Playboy magazine to a young teenage boy and telling him not to look at the pictures.
Be aware that if you have white skin and hair any other color than jet black, you are going to be stared at – a lot. It is a very discomforting feeling, but get used to it. Indian people, particularly the men, have no problem with staring at something if it is new or different. To them it isn't rude – it's what you do. It doesn't matter if what they're staring at happens to be human. Now this is okay for the first minute or so, but when it has gone on for ten minutes or more, as will be your experience if you do go on any form of public transport, it's tempting to stare back or frown at them or even poke your tongue out. Don't. It'll only fascinate them more.
Buy bottled water. Make sure the top is properly sealed. It's cheap, you'll need to drink a lot of it and it'll save you from having diarrhea on your second day in town. You may still get diarrhea – par for the course when in India – but it will help you narrow the problem down to what food you ate rather than how many rats or other creatures were soaking in the tank you drank from.
Am I putting you off yet? Which reminds me – Immodium is the drug you will be wanting to stock up on. It is easily available at any Indian chemist, very reasonably priced, and generally referred to as "The Cork". If you get my drift. Which leads me unerringly to the next subject .
Generally, it’s not hard to track down the location of the nearest public toilet in New Delhi. Follow your nose. Be warned though, there aren't any doors. Men can stand there with their backs to the road, but it's pretty much the last resort for women. Go before leaving your hotel or guesthouse. In the warmer months it's so hot your body grasps and stashes any liquid you put into it anyway, so it's not like you'll need to go a lot. Unless you have diarrhea. If which case, I recommend you stay in your room, eat curd and take Immodium like there’s no tomorrow (just kidding – read the instructions on the packet and take it responsibly!, and put off your shopping until you have it under control.
Everybody is out to kill you. Well, actually they’re not. And even if they were, don't take it personally. Driving in New Delhi requires mammoth skills in concentration and multi-tasking. Accidents are bound to happen. If you keep my initial sentence on this subject in the forefront of your mind, you'll stay focused on surviving. In Delhi traffic this is a really good idea.
Rules of the Road
1. Lanes are for decoration only.
2. A honking horn means, "Look out – I'm coming through." If you don't get out of the way, the driver takes no responsibility for going through you.
3. Might has right. If it's bigger than you, give way – preferably timing it to the last split-second. It's more fun for everyone that way.
4. (For pedestrians) If you want to cross the road, DON’T use the traffic lights or zebra crossings. This means certain death! Find a crowd of Indian people going in your direction, plant yourself right in the middle of them and move when they do. The law of averages means that you have a good chance of survival.
So there we have it – a few basic tips that I learned along the way, or picked up from other, more traveled friends. Of course, one could write a book on India travel tips, but these few situations are the ones I feel you are most likely to come up against on a regular basis. To combat first-time-India-shock, it may help to do what I did. I approached going to India as if I were attending a huge, colorful festival, and I found it wasn’t far off from that atmosphere.
Good luck with your trip, and remember – you are in for the experience of a lifetime and a wonderful adventure.