In the belly of Delhi

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iol travel nov 19 nt india 02 INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS The Jama Masjid mosque, which holds 25 000 people. Pictures: Garth Johnstone

New Delhi - When you arrive at Sam’s Café you feel like you’ve really touched down in Delhi as a traveller. A rooftop venue perched high above the Main Bazaar in Paharganj, this tourists’ favourite offers views for miles across the city’s patchwork of rooftops, bazaars, flats and the occasional grand piece of architecture.

Well supported by locals, who enjoy the multicultural menu and the chance to rub shoulders with strangers from far and wide, Sam’s is a refuge from the buzz of possibly the city’s busiest “touristy” bazaar, a quiet spot where the sounds – and occasionally the smells – from the dusty streets below drift by.

Kingfisher beers, hookahs and vegetarian food are the order of the day, although the restaurant also has a range of meat dishes on offer. We got stuck into relatively safe items like the delicious aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower), fried rice, daal, naans and, bizarrely, pizza, fearing the infamous “Delhi belly”… and our tactics proved sound as there was barely a rumble during our two weeks in India. We ate regularly (and very well) at Sam’s for about R150 for two, including all drinks.

But don’t be fooled into believing Delhi is all dusty roads and crowded bazaars – just a few kilometres away is the grand Connaught Place business and shopping district. Here we found the sophisticated Q’BA, where we easily spent R600 on a few rounds of drinks and a light meal.

Although the venue has a classy bar and restaurant area, most visitors were gathered on the rooftop enjoying a cool breeze and the non-stop action in the streets below. The roads are broad and Connaught area stores advertise the world’s top brands to India’s elite and booming middle class.

Although you will still be accosted by a small army of touts and stall holders in Connaught Place, it’s a little less frantic than the bazaars, where there’s an overwhelming clamour from vendors, beggars, taxi men and store owners for a share of the rupees stashed away in your money belt, while you have to keep an eagle eye out for the press of pedestrians, motorbikes, bicycle rickshaws and tuk-tuks all trying to carve out a gap in the throngs.

iol travel nov 19 nt india06 The view of the hustle and bustle below from Sams Caf� INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS

But it’s in the bazaars where real bargains and much of the shopping takes place for tourists, with clothes, linen, textiles, keepsakes, copper and brass pots, purses and bags purchased for next to nothing in South African terms.

You’d be taking your life in your hands if you tried to drive in Delhi. It’s bad enough being a passenger in a tuk-tuk at times, with every short trip presenting moments of heart-stopping adventure.

Intersections with traffic lights are rare (traffic circles are more common) and testosterone-fuelled occasions plenty, where the hordes of cars, taxis, tuk-tuks and bikes line up like F1 drivers waiting for the starting lights to drop… and then it’s “Go, go, go” as they all tear into action, seeking a gap in the wall of vehicles.

And yet, somehow, it all works. Delhi drivers are quite simply incredible. Impossibly patient, they regard what we would term a near miss with barely a shrug, and in our time in India we didn’t see one fender bender. While there seem to be no rules on the road, and watching the action unfold can rapidly speed up your ageing process, after a few days you start to relax a little and trust this mad army of exceptional pilots.

A short hop of a few kilometres generally costs about 100 rupees (R17), unless you’re in the mood to haggle, so many of the major sights are well within reach at an affordable rate.

THE SIGHTS

Humayun’s Tomb: Built in the mid-16th century by Haji Begum, the Persian-born second wife of Mughal emperor Humayun, this grand tomb features a combination of sandstone and white marble and is surrounded by formal gardens. Now a world heritage site, this stunning piece of architecture could well have provided inspiration for the Taj Mahal.

While you’re there take the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful, serene gardens. Entry is about 300 rupees a person.

Akshardam: An ostentatious Hindu temple on the city’s outskirts, described as having a “Disney feel”, Akshardam is definitely worth a visit. Our attempts to see the temple were thwarted by the fact that the site and many other attractions in the city are closed on a Monday. But we got close enough to see the impressive-looking exterior.

Lodi Gardens: A quiet refuge in the New Delhi area, although Lodi Gardens has nothing on Durban’s Botanical Gardens. It is a welcome place to enjoy some greenery in peaceful surrounds and also includes a few interesting mosques and tombs of Lodi-era rulers.

India Gate: This stately-looking 42m-high arch is a memorial to Indian soldiers who lost their lives in World War I and on the northwestern frontier in the Afghan war of 1919. Designed by Edwin Luytens, building began in 1921.

Red Fort: Known to locals as Lal Qila, the Red Fort is a massive, imposing construction in Old Delhi. Dedicate a few hours at least to the Red Fort and the neighbouring and equally impressive mosque, Jama Masjid. Entry is 250 rupees a person.

Jama Masjid: We were blown away by the scale and design of this magnificent mosque, which can hold 25 000 people. Definitely the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen.

Women are allowed to visit the mosque, shoes must be removed and garments will be lent to those not appropriately attired. Entry is 300 rupees per person. There’s a bustling bazaar extending from the steps at the approach to the mosque which seems more relaxed than most around town.

National Museum: Definitely worth a visit, look out for the stone sculptures and Mughal-era miniature paintings which showcase incredible detail. An interesting naval history section. Entry is 300 rupees and you pay extra for the optional audio guide and if you want to use a stills camera.

Sounds like delhi

The sound I’ll always associate with Delhi is that of the hooter. The ever-present honking, blaring, beeping and tooting does not always mean drama, as is often the case in South Africa.

In most cases a light toot on the hooter is simply a way for the driver to let those around him know, “I’m coming through, take note.”

Then there’s the slightly more officious beeping noise that says, “You’re getting in my way, kindly move left.”

A long blaring sound indicates irritation and demands immediate attention, while repetitive loud honking signals exasperation, sometimes with little hope of an immediate resolution to the situation.

Road rage does not seem to exist in India. The average driver has incredible reserves of patience. He/she has to, I suppose, or they’d never survive the streets of Delhi. - Sunday Tribune

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