I have travelled across much of the world over the past few years but one part of the world had always evaded me: the Indian subcontinent. India, in particular, had always been of interest, even though I have heard many scary stories from other travellers. On a trip from Dubai this year, I took the plunge and decided to visit Delhi for myself…
I flew into Delhi on Emirates from Dubai and landed in the Indian capital at around 19.00hrs local time. I had arranged an airport pick up from my hotel driver for the long and slow drive into the city from Indira Gandhi International Airport. However, after a trouble-free experience collecting my luggage and passing through immigration, including talking to an immigration official about my trip and him asking me if I could speak Hindi, I began to realise why India is so infamously spoken about. I exited the landside arrivals hall of Terminal 3 to look for my hotel driver, but he was nowhere to be seen. I must have walked around for about 15 minutes in the dark looking for a guy holding my name up on a card, but he was nowhere. This quite frankly infuriated me, and although it was not a luxury hotel, I nonetheless still expected them to send the driver as arranged and as paid for!
Realising that I was now going to have to use public transport to take me to Connaught Place in the centre of the city, I now needed some local currency, the Indian Rupee. As I thought I already had a ride into the city, I didn’t come prepared with any Rupees, and I asked around for an ATM, but was told it was in the arrivals hall. Great, I thought. However, due to Indian security at airports being very strict, you are only allowed into the terminal building if you have a boarding pass, and as I had just arrived from Dubai, and was not due to fly to Singapore for another few days, I clearly had no boarding pass! A couple of armed military officers refused me entry back into the terminal building, and at this stage I was beginning to get a little scared. Matters were not helped by the touts, scammers and beggars operating outside the airport, offering me cheap rides into the city. When I firmly tell them I have no money to pay, they offer to stop at an ATM enroute to the hotel. This did not sound a good idea to me, as I try to use my plastic only in trusted locations, such as shopping centres or airports. I did not want to stand by an unlit road on the outskirts of Delhi using my plastic to draw out money infront of a stranger.
Eventually I found a security guard who let me back into the terminal, although after explaining my dire situation and need for currency, he did start laughing loudly at my misfortune, probably thinking something along the lines of ‘what a dumb tourist!”. Once inside, I decided against using an ATM and instead changed all the GBP and Emirati Dirhams in my wallet into Indian Rupees. I did not have much left in the way of paper money; as you can imagine a few days in Dubai absolutely destroyed my wallet! After handing over around 100 Dirhams to the currency exchange guy behind the desk, I then gave him 3 £10 notes. He counted them all carefully and tried to tell me I had given him 2 £10 notes, to which I attested, and he eventually pretended to notice the other one laying there on the desk in front of him. Finally, I managed to get all my Indian Rupees, although not before almost being scammed by somebody inside the airport! That extra £10, which in Indian money equates to around 1000 Rupees could have fed that guy’s family for a week at least! Everyone tries it on in India, and you have to learn fast.
From researching my travel destinations online, I knew that I should also take an official taxi where possible, rather than use touts or cowboys. There is a small outlet at the back of Terminal 3 Arrivals which claims to be a taxi service ran by the “Delhi State Police”. Hmmm, sounds pretty official to me. Bought my ticket to Connaught Place, and was told at which taxi stand to hail a driver. I realise now that this was not really the “Delhi State Police”, rather an official-sounding name that a bunch of scamsters use to hoodwink the tourists upon arrival. I often think why do the Police not do something against these people pretending to be them, but then again, that’s not how it works in India. Be prepared for a culture shock in more ways than one!
As soon as I was ushered into my taxi, I realised that this India sure enough. It was a rickety old banger, with no suspension whatsoever, and the seats were all damp. The taxi smelt musty, and the driver had an epic cough, which must have been some kind of serious temporary disease, because he was basically coughing up from the very depths of his bowels for the whole journey. I could not hold my breath for an hour, so I belatedly resigned myself to the possibility that whatever he had, I would catch. Anyway, as soon as we pulled away from the Indira Gandhi Airport and began heading on to proper roads, I realised this was no ordinary taxi. In fact, it seemed to have a top speed of about 40mph whilst everything on the road was overtaking us on both sides. At this point, I had one of those moments when I wished I had gotten into a different taxi!
During the journey I noticed old men and young boys alike urinating in the road, whereas stray dogs and even herds of cows were running down the road. Unfortunately, the third-world reputation of India is true in every city. I could see it even in the dark of the nation’s capital. The driver had told me he knew the way to my hotel, which is reassuring at first, but when you realise you have been lied to it kind of creates a sense of panic, because I sure as hell don’t know where I’m going, regardless of whether it’s day or night!
The driving standards of Indian drivers are appalling. There is basically no etiquette on the road whatsoever. Whoever had the loudest horn wins. Whoever is best at a game of ‘Chicken’ owns the road. On one such occasion approaching a roundabout, I could see that we needed to give way to traffic already coming around the roundabout, but to my horror my driver didn’t even stop and just pulled out, making the cars on the roundabout slow down to a standstill. Cue lots of horn-blowing, but then again everybody uses the horn on roads in India. It’s like a right of passage. You’d get bullied if you didn’t have a horn on your car or auto-rickshaw, you kind of need it to defend yourself. I thought on more than one occasion that we were going to crash, and I feared for my life a few times, too. The only other time I was this scared on the roads was in Shanghai, when a rowdy Chinese driver decided to put his foot down and pretend he was Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull. And that taxi in Shanghai didn’t even have seatbelts! Here in Delhi, my taxi had a seatbelt, albeit crude, but that didn’t make me feel safe at all. I just wanted this journey to end so I could get to my hotel and go to sleep, for I was getting tired.
To my astonishment, I could see from the back seat, that my driver was also getting tired. His eyes were almost closed and he kept drifting off momentarily and then waking up again. Coupled with his appalling cough, I deduced that he must be high or something, and this made me even more uneasy. About halfway through our journey, the guy was beginning to drift all over the road, almost sideswiping other vehicles beside us. Then to my horror, it appeared that he was heading straight for a concrete central reservation area in the middle of the road, and I shouted at him “Hey! Hey! Hey!”. I am certain that it was only my vocal intervention that prevented us from having a major accident, and possibly from him writing off his own taxi!
Anyway, as we got closer to central Delhi, he began to query my hotel again, and I again told him the name, although I did not have an address, nor the name of the hotel in Hindi. This is important in Delhi, as taxi drivers do not always speak perfect English, and hotel names and city places are not understood by their English names. My driver did not know of a place called Connaught Place, and it was only after stopping beside the road and asking a bystander for advice and directions that he learned I wanted to go to ‘CP’ – the Indian colloquialism for Connaught Place. Still we seemed to turn from one wrong road to another, and even though it was very dark by now I still thought we passed Humayun’s Tomb, so we couldn’t have been too far away.
The driver was actually getting very annoyed with me now. Angry that I couldn’t speak Hindi, and angry that everybody we stopped to ask couldn’t converse with me in English. We stopped in some dark backstreet with the driver getting out of the taxi to have a cigarette at a nearby night market. I was all alone in the taxi with my luggage, which I was clinging onto for dear life, as I was fearful of theft, especially in such a dark place, and in particular because I am a “rich tourist”. When the driver came back, he had the nerve to demand another 400 rupees (£4) from me or he would dump me here with my luggage. This was extremely unpleasant although I guess I was in no position to argue much, although I did haggle the price down somewhat to 200 rupees. Nobody had heard of my hotel, and at this stage I was getting very annoyed myself, and decided to just ask the driver to take me the Shangri-La Hotel, which is arguably the finest and most expensive hotel in the city. Surely he had heard of that hotel? No. We had to ask local Indians again, and luckily one of them spoke good English and was being very friendly trying to help me out of my predicament. Most Indians are really nice, hospitable people. It’s just the taxi drivers who are wankers.
I know my hotels. I can go anywhere in the world and know which hotels to recommend and stay in. The Shangri-La is certainly the finest in Delhi, especially their Club Rooms with the all lounge benefits. I also know what it looks like from the outside, and roughly its location at the very epicentre of ‘CP’. The taxi driver didn’t know, though. We still took a few wrong turns, and even when we found the roundabout on which the Shangri-La is located, the taxi driver still managed to somehow take the wrong exit from the roundabout. Thinking about it now, how it that even possible? And believe it or not, when he realised he took the wrong turning, he reversed down a one-way dual carriageway back to the roundabout. Jeez. I am not accustomed to this kind of danger, although I guess it’s all in a day’s work for a taxi driver in Delhi.
Upon arriving at my new favourite hotel, we went through the security checks and were able to drive through the gate. I gave the driver the extra 200 rupees he had asked for, although I could easily have gotten away with not paying him. I was just glad to still be alive. If he had dumped in the middle of a dark backstreet with stray dogs and gangs hanging around, who knows what could have happened to me?! I did not have a reservation at the Shangri-La hotel, so I walked up to the desk and basically just booked one night in a Club Room, which was actually the cheapest room they had available that night, although at that stage of the night I was not sure if I trusted them or not. Still, I had a good night’s sleep, albeit with a few power cuts during my stay. Welcome to India, I guess.