“The smell of death” – Delhi again

One of the things that has struck me most about travelling has been the amazing difference between experiencing an event and then recollecting it. Often, the less enjoyable travelling experiences that I have seem to slowly evolve to become a cherished memory and a great tale to tell. For instance, our overland crossing of Thailand in 2011 to escape the rain and the day in Bolivia when we found ourselves in a deserted village with nowhere to sleep. Both were rather unpleasant at the time, but I look back fondly on both days now.

This line of thought reassuringly crossed my mind as our final night in India descended into chaos.

If there was one weak aspect to our itinerary it was the final day. After leaving Jaipur in the morning we had no plans aside from hanging around the airport hotel in Delhi and then flying home the next morning. But when this blog is involved things can take an unexpected turn.

On the way out of Jaipur I considered buying some of the famous blue pottery for which the region is famous for. We asked Ashwani to drive us to a shop, but once inside it became clear that the pottery was mostly substandard and expensive. I tried to negotiate but they were having none of it. Then Ashwani, fearing for our safety, wandered into the shop and plonked himself down in a chair. With his imposing presence in place the whole episode came to an abrupt end and thankfully I didn’t waste my money.

The drive to Delhi was far less impressive than the drive from Agra and we munched on mango sweets between naps. Lunch was in yet another tourist friendly roadside eatery with a gift shop. The meal was good but not worthy of further mention. The toilet attendants, a husband and wife team, asked me if I was Tom’s dad, which was nice.

Before heading off we took a look in the gift shop. The gifts were junk mostly, but the arrival of about 50 Italians livened things up. They proceeded to barter for everything they could lay their hands on, setting about the poor shop attendant with fists full of Euros and Dollars. Somehow I managed to buy some fridge magnets amongst this chaos. As I left the shop attendant continued to battle with the Italians. I suspect that the sudden arrival of a great number of Italians could never be dull.

We arrived to our hotel in the middle of the afternoon. The ANDAZ was excellent, and despite being an airport hotel was possibly the best of the trip. We had no intention of hanging around the hotel though and Tom had researched an area of Delhi that sounded intriguing. Hauz Khas.

We got an Uber and then walked through a park on the edge of Hauz Khas. Things didn’t start well as the lake within the park stunk, but I have since read that a lot of work is ongoing to clean it up. As we walked we could see lots of fountains designed to get the water moving and aerated.

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Note the lovely green tinge to the water. The lake is in fact a man made tank, or reservoir, built around the 13th century to store water for the local population. Its current state was caused by a huge sewage leak that found its way into the water.

When we reached the built up area of Hauz Khas things took a turn for the better. Alongside the lake are some fantastic ruins which seem to not warrant a mention in any guide books. Hauz Khas is known as a student area and these ruins are a popular haunt for students in the evening.

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The temple complex was built around the end of the 13th Century and comprises a mosque and a mausoleum. Once the reservoir is cleaned up I would consider Haus Kauz to be a superb place to visit. At the moment it is great but the smell is a little overwhelming.

The village behind the temples is very hip, with bars, clothes shops and galleries. We found a nice rooftop bar and enjoyed the view for a while. As we chatted we got onto the subject of tuktuks and realised that we hadn’t really spent any time in a tuktuk, despite the fact that they are ever present in India. So Tom hailed an Uber tuktuk.

We waited a long time and using the app we could see the tuktuk slowly draw close and then drive away again. Outside in the road we could see a large group of regular tuktuk drivers hounding people for business. In our boredom we surmised that Uber tuktuk drivers are hated by the normal tuktuk guys. In the end though our ride arrived and we set off. It was now dark and we were planning to grab some food and get an early night. We had an early flight home in the morning.

The ride was initially pretty dull. We sat in some traffic and inhaled fumes for a while and then made our way towards the airport. Suddenly our driver swerved off of the main road and onto a side road. This road had no street lights and immediately our tuktuk plunged into some immense potholes. Tom looked at me questioningly but I could see planes flying ahead and confidently declared that our driver was taking a short cut.

The road quickly worsened and our driver had to carefully pick his way around the holes in the road. As we crested a hill some young children poked their head out from behind a collapsed building. Ahead of us I could see nothing but darkness. A unmistakable smell hit us. “That” I declared dramatically “is the smell of death”.

At this point it was becoming obvious that our driver had no idea where he was going but in true British fashion we didn’t want to be rude so we said nothing. I did however get my phone out to check Google Maps. We did still look to be heading in the direction of the airport so I was still not worried.

After a while we entered an area with some buildings set around a crossroads of sorts. There were no street lights and the road was unmade and still riddled with potholes. Our driver ground to a halt and gestured to a building that was only half built. “Anzac hotel” he declared. “No it fucking isn’t” Tom responded.

Tom got out his phone and showed the driver where our hotel was. The driver didn’t seem to understand and again pointed to the half built “hotel”. We persisted and the driver seemed very concerned that we were not getting out of his tuktuk. Eventually, and reluctantly he agreed to set off in search of our real hotel. But the tuktuk would not start. People had started to emerge from the darkness to congregate to watch what was quite possibly the highlight of the month in these parts. Tom looked concerned. “I’m really not enjoying this” he said, clutching his iPhone very tightly.

In all honesty I was a little concerned by this punt. We were deep into an area that tourist do not visit. We were unmistakably dressed as tourists and had spent the last 5 minutes waving our brightly illuminted and very expensive smartphones around. The crowd continued to grow as our driver did his best to flood his engine. I hurriedly worked on our escape route but eventually the tuktuk whimpered into life and we were off again.

Our driver had given up using his sat nav and clearly had as much of idea of where to go as we did. So Tom held his smartphone in front of the driver so he could follow that. At this point I realised that this was likely to be a great story to tell, assuming we survived, so I took a photo.

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We were slowly working our way through a maze of narrow walkways and it was now very clear that we were in the middle of a slum. The houses looked to be built from whatever the people could lay there hands on. Open sewers ran down the side of the road and the tuktuk wheels would splash through the sewage and over dead animal carcasses. The smell was horrific. Claire and I have seen poverty before during our travels, but nothing like this. It was a harrowing sight.

Eventually we reached what was presumably the centre of the slum, with shops and some street lights. Most surprising to me was the presence of a great many Chinese people. Quite what one’s life must be like to choose to emigrate to a Delhi slum I can’t begin to imagine. We continued to be a source of great interest to the local people. Clearly tourist do not venture into the slums of Delhi. I took another terrible photo.

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After glancing at Google Maps again I could see that we were nearly back to the main airport road. Relief washed over us and we started to chuckle about our experience. Once we reached the plush airport hotels our driver turned to us. Realising the craziness of the last 30 minutes he was laughing uncontrollably. We too laughed, and then took a celebratory photograph.

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Looking at us in this photo I am pretty sure that any attempt to venture out of the slum on foot would have ended badly. Blending in would not have worked.

Our final night in Delhi turned out to be one the best days of what was a fantastic trip. India is a fascinating country that is awash with history. Despite the poverty there is a vibrancy in India that is very striking, and everything is so colourful. I never really had a great desire to visit India, but having now had a taste I would return without hesitation.

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