According to the press, any foreign visitor at the Commonwealth Games will inevitably sit in a puddle of red betel spit, and then contract dengue, and then die in a bridge collapse (while, back at their hotel room, a dog is casually tracking paw prints across their mattress).
As two people who lived in Delhi, we can tell you this: the media tends to exaggerate.
For international events like the Commonwealth Games, the media normally provides foreign visitors with practical travel tips. But since they’re too busy hyperventilating about the Impending CWG Apocalypse, that responsibility defaults to us.
And this is an important responsibility. When Jenny and I first stepped into Indira Gandhi International Airport, we were slathered in sunblock and clutching the Lonely Planet like the bible, but we were completely ignorant of the city’s unique character. So, for the benefit of those few tourists not frightened away by the terrified bleating of the global press, we present a few tips for making the most of delightful Delhi: what we know now that would have helped back then.
Packaged stuff has a price on it. It will come to pass in Delhi that you will get thirsty. When that happens, you will buy a drink. And every so often, someone will hand you a bottle and tell you it costs 100 rupees.
We Westerners are used to being overcharged in airports, stadiums, and tourist areas where competition is limited and prices jacked up. We Westerners are also accustomed to prices being set by Management, and thus closed to both customer negotiation and merchant discretion. In Delhi, though, where neither the former nor the latter are usually the case, savvy vendors have learned of our tourist expectations. And they try to use them to their advantage.
And so you may one day ask a vendor, “Pray tell, how much for this large bottle of Aquafina water, kind sir?” (You’ll of course be speaking with the exaggerated politeness for which Western travelers are known the world over.)
“20 rupees,” the honest vendor will reply.
“100 rupees,” the sly vendor will whisper, hoping you will believe him.
And at first, Jenny and I did. In our culture, prices are inviolable and gouging is expected in tourist areas. So, finding ourselves thirsty at Qutub Minar or the Red Fort, we’d shrug and hand over whatever was asked. Until we learned about the MRP.
And now you, Delhi traveler-to-be, know about the MRP, too: packaged goods are usually printed with the Maximum Retail Price.
An honest vendor will charge at or below the MRP. If you encounter a sly vendor attempting a 100-rupee gambit, just politely examine the bottle for the MRP, point it out, and smile. He’ll adjust his price accordingly.
Smiling should be your default response. Hidden in our first travel tip was our second: smile, relax, and go with it.
Foreigners are, well, foreign in Delhi. So sometimes you’ll get stared at. Sometimes you’ll get cheated. Sometimes you’ll get pushed to the front of a queue even though a dozen equally-worthy people are in line in front of you. Sometimes someone will ask to shake your hand for no reason. Sometimes someone will shove a baby in your arms and pose you for a photo.
In many of these cases, you will feel uncomfortable. You’ll want to cross your arms, furrow your brow, and scowl your worst.
Don’t. No matter what happens, smile. Relax. Have fun! Go with it. Nothing bad will happen to you when you do, but you will miss many great experiences if you don’t. Jenny and I made a rule when we moved to India: no matter what we were presented with, we would smile and go for it. Which is how we got our famous Bollywood painting. Which is how Jenny rode with Delhi’s only female autorickshaw driver. Which is how I held a cobra.
No matter what happens to you in Delhi, smile and go with it. You’ll have much more fun that way.
Try the sidewalk chai. Delhi is paradise for street food. It’s also heaven for Escherichia coli. To balance the former with the latter, you may want to avoid the gol gappas — but make sure not to miss the sidewalk chai. Pick a vendor who has other customers, and as long as you see it boiled before your eyes, you have nothing to worry about. Give the guy five rupees per cup. He may or may not give you change. (Usually chai is only three or four rupees, but the two extra rupees mean a lot more to him than they do to you.)
Ask to take pictures. The subjects that Jenny and I photographed the most were things most Indians wouldn’t think twice about: vegetable peddlers, sidewalk barbers, and sari-clad aunties riding scooters side-saddle with more dignity than we could ever hope to muster.
And we know that our photo shoots were as baffling to our subjects as it would be if a tourist burst into Starbucks and started snapping pictures of the baristas back home.
Which is why our early photos are filled with people looking at us with surprise, with confusion, or even with aggression.
Then we learned the trick: before you take a picture, ask permission. That means make eye contact, raise your camera, and smile. If they say no, respect them. If they say yes, do your thing, and then show them the picture once you’ve snapped it. It’s a moment of bonding that both you and your subject will enjoy—and you’d be surprised who has an email address and would like a copy.
Three Hindi words for autorickshaw drivers. Bas—pronounced “bus”—means stop. Seedha—pronounced “seeida”—means go straight. And finally, kitne? means “how much?” You probably won’t understand the driver’s answer when you poke your head under the canopy and ask him, but that’s not why you ask in Hindi. You ask in Hindi to make him doubt you’re a tourist fresh off the plane; that way, he’ll be far less likely to try the ol’ three-hundred-rupees-to-Connaught-Place trick.
(And if a driver ever does quote you some ridiculous fare, remember the lessons from above. Smile and politely disagree. If he doesn’t change his price, walk away. You’d be surprised how reasonable he’ll a driver becomes when he sees your back receding.)
Here are many more tips for taking autorickshaws in Delhi. And here’s a bonus: for the ultimate weapon in negotiation, learn how to say bhaiya.
Drivers don’t always know where they’re going. And that doesn’t matter in the slightest. They’ll still get you there.
Don’t be afraid to take cycle rickshaws. Cycle rickshaws are weird for westerners. It’s challenging for us to accept another human being working so hard for so little to enable our own laziness. But if there’s one thing a rickshaw puller hates more than pulling customers, it’s not pulling customers. This is how they earn their living, and they want your money.
It’s a bit more challenging to negotiate a fare with bicycle rickshaw drivers, because they usually speak less English than the autorickshaw drivers. If you discover there’s been a disagreement with the price, think about your health insurance package and then think about his, and fork over a reasonable difference.
Don’t miss! The Dilli Haat shopping bazaar (you can bargain, despite what they say; and they use purified water, so you can try the gol gappas.) Appams with hot coconut milk at Saravana Bhawan. Kulfi falooda at Roshan di Kulfi. The lovely ruins at Hauz Khas Village. The Sunday book market. (Or did they shut it down?) The Nehru Place computer market (but not on a Sunday). The old city, the old city, the old city: throw out your Lonely Planet and get as lost as you can. You won’t regret it.
If you want to do something nice. Donate to Pardada Pardadi or Udayan Care. They’ll put it to good use.
There are many, many more Delhi travel tips. Too much for this humble article. Perhaps some of our readers will submit their tips below…?