Delirious in Delhi

If you are reading this article, my dear Owlet, then I’m going to go ahead and assume that you have at least a smidgen of interest in going to and learning about Delhi. There are already a great deal of excellent travel guides and documentaries covering the best places to visit much more eloquently than I ever could. Therefore I present to you a different view of Delhi than most books would, hopefully a more genuine, locally inspired vision. While they might not sound as exotic as going to Chandni Chowk to see the Spice Market, or visiting Qutub Minar and its impossible Iron Pillar, these tips can tell you just as much, if not more, about the city of Delhi and its incredible people.

 Drinking Chai… anywhere

Chai, which translates as tea, is as common a sight in India as it is in Scotland, and Delhi is no exception. From the chai wallahs who walk around the streets of Delhi with ready made pots and accompanying cups for thirsty passerbys, to the swankiest of 5 star restaurants, this sweet drink is everywhere. As a bonus, it tends to be on the safer end of the scale when trying to avoid Delhi Belly. When I was in Delhi, I quickly became accustomed to the routine of drinking masala chai in the morning, and would happily have more whenever possible. As one of my fellow travelers pointed out, there was an alarming likelihood of us bleeding chai by the end of our trip.  

So when you’re in Delhi, take a moment to stop by a café, or a roadside stall, and enjoy a cup of chai. You’ll be participating in not only an age old ritual, but a tasty one as well.


 Delhi Metro… during rush hour

In many aspects the recently built Metro is much like other subway systems internationally. It’s clean, fast, and from what I have experienced, reasonably on time. Each metro train sports a compartment at the front for only women and children, clearly marked by bright pink floral signs at each stop. It’s a fantastically cheap way to get around the city, and a great way to people watch. Plus you get to use nifty grey tokens as tickets, which makes you feel like you’re playing with Monopoly money. However if riding the metro around isn't enough of an ‘experience’ for you, then I suggest going on it during rush hour.

Rush hour on the Delhi Metro is a magical time, a bubble where people believe in, and have a healthy respect for, queueing. In other cities I have learnt the only way to keep my place in a queue is to stand practically on the person in front of me and glare daggers at anyone who even breathes in my general direction. Yet when we first found ourselves taking the metro at rush hour, we found hoards queueing politely in dead silence on the platforms – just as disconcerting as it was welcoming. As soon as the train arrived, everything changed. When the doors opened, the crowd surged forward in a frenetic frenzy to get on the train. I felt like I had been thrown into a mindless mob whose one purpose was to cram the entirety of the sixteen million citizens of Delhi onto this one train. Luckily our New Yorker subway instincts took over and we bulldozed a path through the crowd, dragging our hapless European counterparts with us. The end result was four foreigners, packed elbows to knees, laughing half in relief and half in hysteria and feeling like we had just won an epic metro battle.

 Auto Rickshaws… on the streets of Delhi

Navigating the roads of Delhi always makes for a memorable experience, and there’s no better way to do it than in the infamous green and yellow auto rickshaws that fill up the streets like red trousers in a St Andrews lecture theatre. Yet remember, in India, there seems to be only one rule of the road: don’t crash. Everything else, from stop signs to traffic lights, is taken as suggested guidelines rather than laws. My blood pressure still heightens at memories of seeing trucks or taxis playing the ever-so-exciting game of surprise chicken as they bore down at us on our wee tiny rickshaw.

You won’t be surprised to find that as a foreigner, you can expect to be ripped off. Even locals have trouble getting the drivers to use the electronic meter, often settling for a pre-arranged price. Our haggling was made especially difficult as there were four of us, which exceeded the limit of passengers per auto rickshaw. Every trip one of us had to assume the very unstable position of sitting on someone else’s lap and hoping we didn't hit any potholes big enough to catapult us out. Auto rickshaw drivers also share the belief that they are impervious to any sort of harm, and enjoy zipping between cars and cows at stomach clenching speeds.

We had a particularly memorable auto rickshaw trip back to our hostel one night where our driver asked us in broken English where we were all from (the UK, the US and France) and then decided that those were all different words for ‘American’, much to my non-Star Spangled friends’ chagrin. He then proceeded to talk and drive at breakneck speeds in Hindi at us on what, I’m guessing, were a myriad of topics all punctuated with repeated mentioning of “America? America!”  His enthusiasm for the topics was strong enough to warrant him often taking his hands off the wheel to laugh and turn back to look at us. During one instance he was so intent on getting his point across (perhaps he was commenting on Americans having dogs for pets?), he screeched the rickshaw to an abrupt stop in the middle of the street to pet a startled stray dog. His attempts to overtake cars and taxis also resulted in some interesting reactions by the locals. I’m sure I could have learnt some interesting swear words in Hindi, but I was too distracted praying to every deity I could conceive of to let us live.

It was definitely an unforgettable experience, and no trip to Delhi is complete without riding in one of these green and yellow vehicles. You will most assuredly see the streets of the city in a brand new way, as well as garner a whole new appreciation for strictly enforced driving laws.


Images sourced from Brian StaceyMeena KadriGlobal X and Let Ideas Compete. Edited by Ruoting Tao.