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Our driver from the Delhi airport was trying to kill us. At least thats how it seemed as we were flying through the streets, narrowly missing other cars, trucks, people, cows, and anything else that got in our way. Later, after some more time on Indian roads with even more reckless drivers, I would look back and commend this man for his caution, but right now Denae and I were scared. A group of teenagers was walking in the road, slightly in the path of traffic. Our driver aimed right for the center of them, somehow swerving around at the last possible second. Trying to hide my white knuckles, and noting that the pedestrians had completely ignored us even as we were seemingly about to smash into them, I asked the driver if many tourists got scared on the drive from the airport. He just grinned.
We were staying in Pajarganj, a so-called tourist ghetto full of cheap hotels, restaurants, internet cafes and shops selling everything you could think of. Our car wound its way through twisted early morning streets filled with sleeping people, cows and garbage. Dangerous looking scrambles of electrical lines snaked everywhere, and buildings had a rickety, built over time appearance that would give a US code inspector nightmares. Our driver parked and led us up a small anonymous alley, past a stinking open urinal, and to our destination. Our prebooked 300 rupee ($7) room in the Hotel Namaskar was a windowless, bright pink cell that felt vaguely like a steam room even in the relative cool of the morning. But we’re not too picky about our accommodation, and gratefully we hopped into bed and slept for a few hours.
Fresh from the calm, ordered United States, mid day Delhi seemed like pure chaos. Swarms of green and yellow auto rickshaws- small three wheeled motorcycle taxis with a rear bench seat- buzzed everywhere and fought for space with other cars, bicycles, bicycle rickshaws and people. There were so many people. People everywhere, walking every direction, selling things, talking, yelling. Walking was difficult because there were few sidewalks, and everywhere we wanted to go there was a steady stream of people and
traffic going every other direction. Crossing streets was a somewhat terrifying feat that we usually accomplished by finding an Indian who was going the same direction and following him. There is a huge commission racket in Delhi where taxi drivers and roving, seemingly helpful young men- called touts- lead tourists to shops or hotels and get a cut of the inflated proceeds. As we walked around it seemed like everyone was in on the scam, and it soon became exhausting trying to shake off the more persistent of them. We took a couple auto rickshaw rides and both times the drivers found an excuse to stop at the same curio shop; when we protested the second time the driver was upfront about the money he’d get if we looked around, even if we didn’t buy anything. Later, on foot, the man who said he was leading us to the restaurant we were looking for turned the corner, and there it was again, the Cottage Emporium. We just laughed as he pleaded for us to go inside, saying that they would buy his son school supplies. When that didn’t work he said something about helping a blind friend, and finally said he was coming clean: he didn’t have a son but he was a student; they would buy him school supplies! About that time a rickshaw pulled up and out stepped two slightly bewildered looking tourists who obviously didn’t know what they were doing there.
We took a rickshaw to an area of town called Old Delhi, which is packed full of bazaars selling everything imaginable. We walked around, taking in the sights and smells. India so far for us is a very smelly place, with urine and other even more offensive toilet odors being among the more prominent in many places. Its not as bad as it might sound, though, and spices and cooking food and many other exotic and fragrant smells make up for the unpleasant ones. We visited the massive Red Fort, a very old structure with a long line of tall, fortified walls and inside some ornate ruined baths and residence areas that were fun to walk around. We were having a good time, but we were also sweating like pigs. Delhi was simply too hot, and after only a couple days there we decided to make our escape to Manali, a hill station at the base of the Himalaya.