Of sulphuric beauty
We arrive late at night. Or rather, it feels late. It is 2am Sydney time and although this translates to just on 8.30pm Delhi time, winter is coming and the sun has long set, leaving tendrils of smog curling on the breeze.
When you tell people you’re going to India they tell you about the smell or poverty. Both are bad, though concerning to different folks in different measure. That first breath of air after 18-odd-hours travel time would have been blissful no matter what but honestly, my first thought is, ‘this really doesn’t smell that terrible?’
It’s slightly smoky, like Sydney in bushfire season, and slightly sulphuric like a pared back version of the volcanic hot springs in both New Zealand and Iceland. It’s not offensive and reminds me most of Bali. Spices and sulphur.
Our driver takes us to a hotel which also reminds us all of Bali – isolated from the road by ubiquitous palms it has a clear aesthetic of ‘east-to-appeal-to-west’ in the kidney shaped pool, multi-hued marble flooring and plastic-wood coverings. Bone tired, we fall into bed in our mausoleum-style room (more plastic wood and gold brocade), dead to the world and passing traffic (New Delhi traffic being well up in the top-5 most wild and wondrous things I’ve ever seen).
Breakfast next morning is a cross-cultural fusion of smiley potato faces and little rice dumplings called idli - all ladled over with copious amounts of some sort of aloo-deliciousness and various assortments of pickles. And porridge. And omelettes (we order one but three arrive so this is a mammoth effort as my sister does not eat egg). All washed down with lashings of really quite good masala tea.
All advice has pointed to a likely physical inability to stomach the food (hullo Delhi-belly) but this is a mid-price hotel buffet and it is delicious. Having confirmed there is sadly no more masala in the pot (and after a misinformed foray into machine-button-brewed western coffee) we traipse upstairs to drape ourselves in the scarves recommended as multi-purpose face-masks / head-coverings / shoulder wraps by Lonely Planet. I also don the Yves-Klein-blue Akubra I treated myself to at the National Gallery shop’s moving sale earlier in the year and which I have since only managed to wear to two garden parties… in my own garden. I am determined the hat will earn its keep this trip.
Our driver arrives, together with our guide for the day. As it turns out his job will be equal parts informing us ignorant westerners of the history we are greedily consuming and reprimanding the hoards of giggling and selfie-demanding Indian schoolboys who follow us around.
In quick succession we hit up India Gate (an Arc de Triomphe inscribed with the name of each fallen soldier in a ‘sorry-we-got-you-killed-but-jolly-good-for-the-Empire gift from the British in 1919), Raj Ghat (giant gardens where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated, now overrun with Indian schoolboys rolling down the lush green hills in their crisp white uniforms) and India’s largest mosque, Jama Masjid (where, despite all wearing long tops and skirts, we are draped in modesty polyester Homer-Simpson-esque-floral-muumuus).
The highlight though was yet to come; a rickshaw tour of Old Delhi – crazily traversing the Spice Market, Textiles Market and Wedding Card (!) Market to name but a few. Beneath a mad whirl of overhead electrical wiring and gold thread the place buzzed with shoppers and schoolchildren, all winding their way through spaces sometimes no more than a metre wide.
The format of shops here in India, and particularly in the markets, runs to little hole-in-wall affairs where a room (usually about 2m by 4/5m) contains an entire shop and is separated from its neighbouring shop of the same dimensions by a wall only a single brick wide. This gives the streets an amazing sense of bustle and production (even without the myriad of people) as vendors go about their business in full view of the street – cutting cloth, sewing garments together, threading beads; all invites one in as you wander by in a sort of stupor.
Broken only by the persistent coughing that results from breathing in the chilli-laden air of the Spice Market.
After a foray into a carpet shop (yes, we fell for that old trick. No, we have no regrets) it was time for an inadvertently cold shower (am I the only person who is forever confused by overseas plumbing?) and a long gin. Duty free is my god.
We stayed in Hotel Atrio for the first night and Hotel Jivitesh for the second. Atrio is close to the Airport but has little else going for it; Jivitesh was more centrally located with better amenities. Probably could stay Jivitesh again in a pinch but honestly we’re planning to change our booking and try out luck with a new hotel on our return to Delhi.