Connaught Place, recommended as “the place to go” by a friend of a friend, is a deathtrap for tourists. It’s Sunday, so most places are closed. Construction is everywhere I go. It’s dusty, it’s smelly, it’s hot. I am wearing my bagpack and in addition to this trying to drag along a 16 kg suitcase on wheels, which I had to bring with since the airport offers no storage facilities of any kind. This wouldn’t be all that bad in and of itself, but
a) due to construction there’s a maximum of a few metres of even surface until I have to lift the suitcase to ensure that the wheels don’t get stuck in a crevice or fall off altogether
b) it flags me as a desperately lost tourist who had just arrived into the center of Delhi without any idea of where the hell he is doing
Which incidentally is exactly what I am.
I am literally approached every half a minute by guys awkwardly asking me where I’m from (“Are you from English?”), complementing my beard (really?), stating the obvious while pretending to be offering useful information (“This is Connaught Place”) or trying to engage me in a random chit chat. One guy points me to a dodgy looking “Government Tourist Information Office”, suggesting I can get answers to all of my questions there. By this time I’m cautious to the extent of being paranoid, so all advances are flat out ignored with a shake of my head and lack of eye contact. Also, I pretend to know where I’m going and try to act like I’ve got everything under control – not an easy feat as I have to stop and lift my bag every few steps, as stated. Occasionaly I resort to holding my mobile phone to my ear and pretending to be engaged in conversation/awaiting for someone to answer and shake my head as people approach me. This strategy seems to work wonders, as despite the great amount of approaches they all seem to lose interest within seconds.
However, I am finding no places of interest and no travel agencies where I can hope to get a prepaid mini tour of Delhi. I am sweaty, hot, tired, fed up with dragging my suitcase after me and the incessant advances of the “helpful friends”, so all I want to do is turn back and return to the relative peace of the Domestic Terminal. To my horror I also realise that in my determination to pretend that I know where I’m going and walking straight ahead I have made a full circle around Connaught Place (yes, it’s a huge round road encompassing what I assume is to be a park, but which is presently sheltered by high fence and construction sites), so I’m starting to bump into the same people again. Now, if I could expect to get away with the “I know what I’m doing” charade the first time I saw them, I highly doubt it they’ll consider me well versed in the streets of Delhi when they see me run in circles like a madman with the same determined look on my face. I decide that it’s time to locate a cab and get the hell out of there, before I bring any more unwanted attention upon my poor tourist self. I find an autorickshaw driver and start negotiating the price with him. I ask how much to the Domestic Terminal, to which he responds “Whatever you like”. Hell no, buddy, that won’t work. I throw up a concrete figure of 150 rupees, to which he reponds with a vague gesture between a nod and an intricate manoeuvre to prevent his head from rolling off of his neck. He says what I think is “200”, so I resort to crude and childish negotiation strategy of “slightly below middle” and firmly say “170”, at which point he starts walking me to the car without having acknowledged the price. No way we’re doing that. I say “170, that’s what I’m paying.” I interpret his next gesture as consent, although I have a good feeling that it may as well have been anything else, including a symptom of some unknown ailment he’s suffering from.
Halfway to the airport he suddenly offers to take me on a scenic route and show me some of the local spots. Since at this point my paranoia is matched only by agent Mulder in X-files on his absolute worst days, I firmly decline any deviation to the agreed upon plan and insist that I’m in a hurry to get to the airport. I am feeling very disgruntled, more tired, and generally unimpressed with the first day in Delhi, which otherwise was promising to be quite entertaining. I have bet on one horse in expectation that my local friend would meet me and show me around, so I was completely unprepared and had no plans for where I wanted to go. As we approach the airport I realise I have no small bills, but only two 100 rupee notes. I already know how the payment is going to go down and fully expect him to “not have change” for me. So at the end I play the generousity card and hand him both bills saying “You know what, just keep it all, thanks”. To which he replies “It’s OK”, and takes the money. It’s OK?! It’s OK that I’ve given you extra 30 rupees that I’ve spent precious energy and a whole ten seconds negotiating down, without you even asking for it? I should’ve given him 50 rupees instead, and when he tried to protest say “It’s OK”, just to see his reaction! Stike 3, I’m done for the day!
My friend calls me while I’m almost at the airport and apologises for not returning my calls. She says that she’ll come out and meet me at the airport instead…
…That was over five hours ago and I have not heard from her since. I’m at the airport, having gone without sleep for over 24 hours and having recently gotten a notice that my flight to Bangalore is delayed by one hour.
Overall, if I can make any conclusions/give tips based on this brief taste of Delhi, these are:
1) Always, always have small bills – you will most likely never get anyone to return change to you.
2) Do not accept help from random people, especially for things that you can easily do yourself (like walking two freaking metres to a cab). If they insist do not smile and act polite, try to look away and shake your head, and generally make it clear you have zero interest in talking.
3) Do not engage in any “friendly” conversation initiated by anyone random, period. I’ve managed to break all of these encounters before they developed by just ignoring them, so I can’t say where they would have lead – but my guess is they wouldn’t leave me a happier person. Generally, if they’re approaching you themselves, they do not have your best interest at heart.
4) If you’re planning on being in a place for a prolonged period of time, don’t rely on your local friend’s word that they will meet you punctually. Check out places you want to go and ways to get there in advance, so that you always have a plan B in case your friends decide to bail.
I’m sure that if I was prepared for the few unpleasant encounters I would have been able to navigate them in a much better way. Also, if I had any idea of where I wanted to go and what to see, I would’ve been able to confidently ask about it, instead of appearing a lost tourist that I was. Overall though, no regrets – it was all an experience. And considering that 50 rupees is around 5 DKK back home in Denmark – not enough for even a quarter of the cheapest bus ticket – I can hardly complain about the financial impact of today. Besides, what the hell could I use a quarter of a bus ticket for anyway?