I’m writing this post from India. I’m laying out in blistering 44c heat, on the sundeck at the Double Tree by Hilton in Agra, staring out across an infinity pool, sipping a cold Kingfisher beer, with a Taj Mahal backdrop (visible just behind my hear in the photo below). I’m not going to lie, it’s one of the most surreal experiences of my life. But also one of the most beautiful; the sounds, the smells, the sunshine. Bliss.
There hasn’t been any free Wi-Fi so far at the hotels in India, so I’m posting this retrospectively from Jaipur. And I apologise for not sharing much of my travels on Instagram and Twitter – but to be honest, I’d much rather be enjoying this experience for everything that it is, than being sat on my laptop and missing it.
So, before I was in Agra, I spent a few days in Delhi, exploring the city and seeing the sites. Driving in Delhi on board the bus was an experience in itself, but as part of our organised tour, after we’d visited the Jama Masjid mosque, we were treated to another form of transport: a rickshaw ride around the streets of Old Delhi. Though maybe not something I’d originally have included on my bucket list, it is something I’d definitely recommend to anyone visiting the country’s capital. I guarantee you won’t find a more authentic way of seeing the city.
The whole tour lasted about 30 minutes, and as soon as Grandma and I were loaded safely up into our carriage, our driver was up and pedalling. We were off.
In convoy with the rest of our tour party, our rickshaw was hot on the tail of Tammy and Phil’s, and followed closely by Chris and Rob’s. We set off laughing and smiling, excited by the prospect of what we might see in the heart of Old Delhi. But the laughter quickly turned to shrieks of “ooooh no, I can’t look” and “oh my god, that was close”. Definitely not an experience for the faint-hearted, on more than one occasion I screwed my eyes tightly shut and hoped the travel insurance would cover me should the worse happen.
We squeezed down narrow market streets and pedalled through tiny alleys, where vendors were selling their wares from mats on the floor only millimetres from our rickshaw wheels. I held my breath in fear for their fingers and toes, but they didn’t seem to bat an eyelid as we rattled past. Things were going by in a blur – everywhere you looked there was something happening.
We were overtaken on both sides by mopeds and motorbikes, coming in both directions. It was pretty evident there was no “side of the road” that you had to stick to. And had we not kept our arms and legs inside the carriage, it was quite possible that either, or both, of us could have lost a limb.
I couldn’t tell if the beeps and toots were at our rickshaw, or just because Indians have a very trigger-happy relationship with their horns, but it all got very intense. Two cart drivers were arguing with each other in garbled Hindi over who’s right of way it was and who should move their cart, while a boy on a moped behind us kept his thumb on the horn for a good two minutes. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeppp.
Oblivious to the chaos, our driver was cheery and stopped pedalling every two minutes of so to turn around and point something out: beautiful saris on mannequins in a shop window, a man selling fish from a mat on the floor, a store glistening with gold jewellery, and a book market where every stall was piled high with paperback novels (the majority of which were in English).
Oh, and not that he needed to because everyone was looking up anyway, but he pointed out the monkeys that were running around overhead. I have no idea what kind of monkeys they were, and our driver’s English was pretty limited so we didn’t get much information, but they were fascinating to watch as they jumped from one corrugated iron rooftop to the next, swinging from the electrical cables. There was a tiny bald baby one too, that was screeching (for its mum, I assume) at the top of its little lungs. We didn’t stop to get a decent picture, unfortunately, but here’s the one that I did manage to snap as we zipped along (it’s a tad blurry):
Without stopping for breath, our driver – who wasn’t exactly young, though obviously very fit – pedalled on. Then he stopped suddenly, shouting: “Look, ma’am, a big danger.”
Big danger was right, there were electric cables hanging precariously overhead. What with the “anything goes” attitude on the roads, it was already apparent that health and safety wasn’t top of the Delhi residents’ priority list. But these cables were something else; just look at them all hanging. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d caused a few injuries:
Our driver didn’t seem to even be breaking a sweat, which was surprising considering he was so tiny and the midday sun was beating down on us. But there was a sweaty odour lingering in the air, you couldn’t deny it. And every time we turned a corner there was the smell of something else mixed with it: the smoky haze of patchouli incense, the putrid stench of rotting meat, a sticky sweet aroma of something baking, the pong of raw sewage flowing freely into the narrow street.
There were chickens flapping in cramped cages, waiting to meet their final destiny. Mangy, flea-ridden mutts running along with the bikes and mopeds, darting in and out of the traffic without stopping to look left and right. Women wrapped in brightly coloured saris carrying tiny babies in their arms, and heaving under the weight of huge packs of laundry on their backs. I was suddenly reminded of the tightly-packed and overcrowded Moroccan medinas in Fez and Marrakech. There are many similarities between these two countries, despite them being on two different continents.
As we were free-wheeling down a slight slope, we suddenly braked, jolting forward. Phil and Tammy’s rickshaw had snapped its chain, and their driver hadn’t realised. Without a moments thought our driver jumped down off the rickshaw and picked up the oily chain, draping it around his neck. Hopping back on, he pedalled to catch up with the driver in front, shouting at him about the chain. We watched on amazed as their driver climbed down off the rickshaw and began to push it along the road. Poor guy. He kept up with the traffic though (thanks to a helping hand from our driver who pushed them along, while also pedalling our rickshaw).
I tried to capture footage of the experience, but as you can probably imagine, it was a bit jolty. Check out this video I made though, and let me transport you to the streets of Old Delhi on a hair-raising rickshaw ride. Hold on tight, and enjoy.
And if you want to find out more about what I got up to, check out my latest post about the Golden Triangle tour.