If you ask someone who’s traveled to India how they felt about it, they are likely to have strong feelings, one way or the other. I’ve never met someone who said, “I went to India, yeah, it was alright I suppose.” You tend to get “I LOVED it!” Or, “You couldn’t pay me to go back.” And part of this is up to chance, India is a fickle place, humanity smacks you fully in the face and no amount of planning can shield you entirely. Not that you’d want that, a big reason to visit India is to be enveloped by the complete overwhelming nature of it all. But, you walk a fine line, and one too many infuriating experiences can leave even the most intrepid traveler weary.
Before I left Sri Lanka my travel companions were mostly in the second camp, those who had been anyway. Two of the women mostly wished me good luck, feeling surges of anxiety even thinking of India. This shook my confidence a bit. When I visited three years ago I had a great time, but I feared I was taking my family on an adventure they’d prefer to forget.
Landing in Delhi felt familiar, minus the extreme smog. When I was here before the city was far from unpolluted, but I could see more than a few streets away. I’ve never experienced pollution like that, which makes sense, despite the more popular media coverage for Beijing, Delhi holds the crown for most polluted city. Aside from that, however, everything seemed the same; highways where lanes were suggestions, the cacophony of constant horns, people, absolutely everywhere. We crawled through a tremendous amount of traffic to reach our hotel, located in one of the few green expanses of the city. We cleared security and entered the sanctuary of a top-end hotel. My anxiety eased, this trip would be fine.
Alex and I make it a habit in the developing world to splurge on a nice hotel during our stay. Though, of course, splurging in these countries is still cheaper than a standard room in NYC, so it’s all relative. But we particularly enjoy the juxtaposition of our somewhat unkempt selves puttering up to a fine hotel amongst the more appropriately well-heeled clientele. Ideally, on a scooter, with our backpacks. It’s a way for us to enjoy the luxury while laughing at the absurdity of service that we find overwhelmingly unnecessary and stuffy.
In general, I don’t think you need to spend money to enjoy travel, and often some of the best trips we’ve taken have been on a tight budget. Money has benefits aside from comfort, like affording you the opportunity to do some unique excursions otherwise unavailable. Later in the trip, we avail of this opportunity. But it also creates a barrier, between you and the country. Or rather, increase the already apparent divide, and you might leave feeling like the whole thing was a bit superficial. But in India, where it’s a bit difficult to block out society, even if you tried, a little extra money spent can make your experience infinitely better.
We didn’t spend a lot of time in Delhi, though it has a variety of attractions, the traffic and smog gets old, fast. We hit the ground with a food tour, which I think is one of the best ways to delve into a new country. A local guide takes you all around the city, down tiny ally ways, to street stalls and corners you’d never venture on your own. You get a real sense of the city, and a good introduction to the food you’ll be eating. Cultural sights are great, but food is at the core of every society, it’s inextricably tied to their history, beliefs, and geography. Plus, in India, it’s absolutely delicious.
Alex and I also ate at one of the best restaurants in the city, India Accents on the same day as our food tour, which was primarily cheap street food (aka, the best). Of course, everything was incredible, and it was fun to see what “elevated” India food looked like. I would eat blue-cheese/bacon filled naan everyday if I could. We also visited a Sikh temple along with our food tour, where we wandered through an absurdly large community kitchen cooking up and feeding locals for free 24/7. The rest of the group also went to the Red Fort while I was sleeping off jet-lag, because one should see some of the architecture of Old Delhi in between eating.
Though a lot of people skip Delhi all together, I think the city has a lot to offer. In part, the chaos of it is unmatched in most of the world, and worth immersing yourself in the throngs of Old Delhi. It is a fascinating city. But, I would doubt most tourists would be sad to leave it behind, and we certainly were ready for a bit of fresh air as we boarded our (of course delayed) flight to Udaipur.