Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Delhi - day three

The Times of India reports this morning that the day we arrived the temperature was over 43 degrees, but that yesterday it uncharacteristically dropped 5 degrees to just over 38. Not to worry, Delhiites, it’ll be back up to seasonal norms within a day or two.

“This is quite bearable,” I mused, as we walked through the plush, enormous arrivals hall of Indira Gandhi airport. “It’s air-conditioned,” she shot back with a look of barely contained scorn. The a/c slowly faded with the memory of the uncomfortable airplane seats and rubbish food, so that by the time we were outside looking for our taxi driver, it was starting to feel like we’d arrived in a place that was biding its time before turning us into little, dribbly, melted wax sculptures of our former selves.

The heat is the only topic of conversation with the taxi drivers. Our first driver assured us that the monsoon hadn’t started yet, but was due that afternoon. This was a little too close for comfort to the sardonic forecast that I had been making in Cardiff. So far he has not proven to be a reliable guide to the rains. It is still dry, and very hot. It seems that the rains aren’t expected till the third week of June – just time for us to get used to the heat, before being drenched on a daily basis.

The ride in from the airport revealed nothing so much as a striking resemblance to some of the huge Latin American mega-cities that we have been through. While the airport is a bubble of first world development, it can’t push back the tide of underdevelopment that laps right outside its front door. Construction site refuse lies piled up in corners, where resourceful labourers have used it to make the foundations for their corrugated tin shacks.

It’s an established fact that local lane indiscipline and a naked ignorance of the basics of braking distances account for 72% of the opening comments in all travel blogs that visit Delhi. The other 35% discuss digestive concerns. (We’ll get on to that later.) The roads are astonishing, but not for the degree of “madness”, but rather for the degree of mutual comprehension that is displayed, albeit to a cacophony of horn-beeping. People stand in the third lane of a six-lane motorway trying to flag down the next bus, indifferent to the horns and swerves of the passing traffic. At roundabouts cars, auto-rickshaws, bicycles and pedestrians compete for the limited space, but there appears to be no anger, no road rage, and the use of the horn seems to be entirely post-facto – you get beeped if you’ve been a bit rude, but only as an acknowledgement, not a rebuke. The traffic moves slowly, but reasonably fluidly, which in itself seems like something of an achievement, given the numbers of vehicles.

Once we got to the hotel, we were left to melt for nearly four hours in the reception, as they don’t allow check in till noon. I suspect they’ve had a few unwary Brits turn up from the 6.20am British Airways arrival, expecting to find somewhere to crash, and have decided to enforce the rules with a rigour that excludes any element of human sympathy. Moving on from the hotel has provided its own little challenge. Once we stepped out to wave down an auto-rickshaw to the local tourist office, it becomes immediately apparent to the driver that we don’t know where the tourist office is. Hence he then takes us to a different office, where he’ll collect a commission for delivering unsuspecting foreigners. This is vaguely amusing the first time, when you are dropped off outside such a ramshackle, run-down, side street bolt-hole that it is inconceivable that it could be the official Delhi tourist office. As soon as you insist on your destination of choice, you are met with a barrage of smiling apologies and another trip. This time we were dropped off outside something that seemed like it could indeed be the info-nirvana of the DTTDC. Assuming that the auto-rickshaw driver wasn’t going to give us a tour of all the dodgy tour shops, we took the plunge and entered. It wasn’t the DTTDC, but the fact that we still haven’t discovered where the DTTDC office is is a testament to the resolution of the local rickshaw drivers to take us to where they want. The only comfort to us was that despite spending more than half an hour in the office, and being regaled with bottled water, chai tea, crisps for the boy, offers of ice cream (politely refused) and the free map that we sought, we left (after offering to pay for all the blandishments – refused in turn with great mock indignation) with only a hand-written itinerary and a business card. The sound of laughter as the door closed behind us was, I swear, the sound of the man’s colleagues laughing at him for failing even to extract the price of a bus tour from us. But now we’ve pulled the trigger on the gastronomic Russian roulette, having no idea of the provenance of any of the foodstuffs brought to us, so we’re waiting to see if the chamber was loaded with cryptosporidium.