Saturday, December 5, 2015

India - Welcome to Delhi!

Going to Delhi was our worst nightmare... this whole trip we have avoided big cities like the plague as we're not city people. We hate cities in general, we don't like crowds and for us more than three people is a crowd. The plan had been to stay only in the north of India as we found that already overcrowded... while that is known as one of the less populated areas of India. So we had never even vaguely planned on going anywhere near a big city in India, but due to circumstances out of our control, we had no choice but to go to the city which is the epitome of why we hate cities... Welcome to Delhi!

For us cities are simply places of congestion, pollution, noise, filthy smells, choc-a-bloc traffic, aggressive driving and way too many people. Delhi is one of the fastest growing cities in the world and boasts a population of over 18 million according to a recent survey done in 2015... That's more than London, Berlin, Madrid and Rome together which are the 4 largest cities in Europe(!) Delhi also just about equals the whole population of Australia. Add to that the incredible madness called India and the chaos alone is enough to drive anyone mad. Judging by the behaviour on the road that is certainly the case for everyone driving there, or whatever it is they are trying to do behind the wheel...

So why did we have to go there in the first place? Because part of the population in Nepal had decided they weren't happy with the government, which resulted in bloody battles, blockades at the borders and fuel shortages. As Kathmandu in Nepal was the place we were to apply for our visas for Myanmar, we now had to find an alternative option, which was Delhi. We're not making any judgement as to who is right or wrong in this conflict but just paint a picture as to why going to Nepal was not an option for us when we were there. As luck would have it we arrived on some kind of special holiday in Delhi, which meant youngsters partying in trucks, bonfires next to the road and people going mental on the highway... while India without all that is already pretty mental in our book. We survived, had to kick in a few doors here and there to stop cars running us off the road and had a heated argument with some numbnut who thought it was ok to push me off the road simply because he was in a car while I'm only on a bike... He knows different now, thought about getting out of his car, saw my angry face then realised 'little' Mike was behind me too decided to close the door again :-) The wimp!

We just stopped along the way for a cold Coca Cola
at this friendly family shop, they didn't have any...
but went out of their way to get it,
for free! (see text)
The weird thing with India is that while they are mad, dumb, inconsiderate and at times just completely stupid on the road... we also met people who are very friendly, helpful, smiling and considerate... when not behind the wheel! It might even be the same people, who knows? When we stopped for something to drink and asked for a Coca Cola, the man said with a very apologetic face that he had non. I pointed at the Pepsi sign and said that's fine too, upon which I received again an apologetic face. He then pointed towards the plastic chairs and said 'please sit sir'... jumped on his bicycle and left. Barely 2 minutes later he returned with a Coca Cola bottle, gave us two glasses and... wanted no money! It was his welcome to India gift to us. I'm always a little bit embarrassed when that happens as he has obviously little money of his own. At the same time I know it will offend if I insist on paying... so we thanked him wholeheartedly and accepted his gift.

These two examples just show how hard it is to understand India. As long as you're not on the road and don't mind crowds, then it can be a friendly and warm place. As soon as you hit the road, which you need to do to visit it, it becomes a mad death trap, where everyone seems out to kill you and according to a recently done survey 27 people die every hour on the roads alone because of it... Upon arriving in Delhi, the usual debate followed at the hotel, when they said the bikes would be perfectly safe outside on the street... I must look stupid to them for even considering convincing me. The hotel was in a narrow back alley in the centre of Delhi, where the homeless sleep on the streets and people do anything for a few rupees... and they wanted us to park our bikes between that, out in the open...! Despite making clear that was not an option and that we had an e-mail confirmation that the bikes would be parked in a garage, they were persistent that the bikes had to remain out on the street... 

So we upped and left, upon which they called the owner who must have given them a real bollocking as they suddenly went very quiet and offered us parking as secure as possible in a lockup garage right next to the hotel. Later-on we met the owner, a very friendly and hospitable elderly lady who wasn't to be messed with and takes no shit from anyone. Looking at her we knew we were in good hands :-) As it turned out that thought proved more than correct! The Su Shree Continental is a good place to stay and very reasonably priced too. I mean where in Europe can you find a good hotel in the middle of a big city for less that 16 dollars per room? Add to that airconditioning which actually works, a shower that works, food prices comparable to street food delivered to your room plus the aforementioned lockup garage and we were more than happy. Su Shree can be found at N28.64431° E77.21331° or here in our complete Garmin list of India

The day after we took a Tuktuk to the Myanmar Embassy, which was an experience! Especially so on the way back when we found a suicidal F1 driver (in a single cylinder CNG fired tuktuk...) who knew every shortcut there is, which meant kilometres on the wrong side of the road, jumping red lights, dodging cars with quite a few narrow escapes and taking the bumpiest narrowest lanes he could find. He took, according to the GPS, 1 km off the 'normal' route over 'roads' that weren't even on the map, for which we had the privilege of paying 50 rupees more than on the way up :-)

The Myanmar embassy though proved to be another problem. I seriously do not understand why visas have to be so complicated. Quite frankly I don't understand why we need them at all. Let visitors come, don't ask for dumb paperwork but let them stay as long as they like and spend their money. Myanmar wants to know where you want to go, where you want to stay and need proof of every booking... then it has to go via the Hotel ministry(!), who will need 3 bloody weeks to approve it! Why? The only person who should care about me staying in a hotel is the hotel manager so he can make up the bill. For the rest: it's none of their business! Don't ask me all these dumb questions and proof about my bank account (as if I would go into the country without having enough funds to ride through it... I mean it's not the 'promised land' where people desperately try to escape to and live as illegal immigrants is it?) I've already had to organise everything through a tour agency, have the proof of booking it, so just leave me alone and let me travel! (end rant)

Checking out some of the photos...
The Consuls' secretary, a seemingly very friendly lady, looked helpful enough. She seemed to understand the problem we were in (ie we wanted to apply for a visa in Delhi rather than Kathmandu as no-one seems to know what will happen there in the next couple of weeks with the current explosive situation, or how serious the fuel shortage will going to be). She said she would do everything possible to sort this out... whatever that meant.

It's not only Myanmar being difficult by the way, or at least isn't when you want to apply for a visa in Delhi. Having looked into all the details required for another visa we thought of applying for, we found plenty we can't comply to. For starters all these numbnuts who make up these ridiculous rules should have a look at the map of their own country. Then they might notice there are also border crossings via land... so don't ask for proof of leaving via an airport when you arrive overland. There are even different regulations on the length of stay for persons arriving by plane or overland... What is the logic in that? The visa is for the person entering, and it's still the same person entering even if he or she does so overland... I don't mind trying to leave the country on my bike via an airport, but somehow don't think they will approve me riding over their runway... 

I'm getting seriously fed-up with all these dumb questions from mindless bureaucrats who have no idea what it's like to live in the real world and the trail of unnecessary paperwork we have to leave behind everywhere because of their lack of intelligence. By right they should be thrown in jail for needles pollution and environment destruction. Because that's another thing I just can't get my head around: arrive by airplane and you can apply online for an easy and environment friendly e-visa without leaving your hotelroom, while the same person arriving overland is not allowed to, has to supply stacks of photocopies, printed forms, proof on paper and then take a taxi to the embassy with his or her passport to file the application, wait x-amount of days and then take a taxi again to pick it up. What a good way to boost tourism! (end rant two...)

Back to unbelievable India: Despite Delhi having more tuk tuks than their roads can handle we wanted to walk the narrow and un-named alleys of Delhi and experience the place we were in. I'm sorry to say that the first thing anyone visiting would notice is the pollution. To give an idea of the severity of the problem, it is estimated by the World Health Organisation that as many as 10,000 people die here every year because of the air pollution alone...  According to the same organisation, Delhi is the dirtiest city of the 1600 they tested! Melbourne, one of the biggest cities in Australia scored 7.6 PM per cubic metre, Los Angeles, hardly known to be a clean city, scored 20, Beijing a whopping 56 and Delhi an unbelievably high 153...! And yet that is only part of the problem. The rapidly growing population and lack of water and waste treatment has made the main river through Delhi, the Yamuna river, heavily polluted. To put this in perspective, the level of Coliform bacteria (of which E Coli is perhaps the best known) is a commonly used indicator of sanitary quality of foods and water. Acceptable levels of this bacteria are in the region of 500, in the Yamuna river it is a staggering 329,312... Three hundred and twenty nine thousand! Part of the problem is that sewage systems (of which up to 2007 only 55% of the population was connected anyway) can't handle the affluent stream, while mushrooming landfill sites leach waste material into underground water as well. 

On top of that garbage collection is seriously inadequate, resulting in garbage everywhere you look. It isn't a pretty picture I'm afraid and sort of brings home the damage we are doing to the planet we live on. It also emphasises the results of over-population and shows we can no longer control the mess we make in this world... our own mess. Places like Delhi are perfect examples of how seriously we need to get our act together as at the moment pollution is seriously out of control. You might think it's good where you live, but realise the Yamuna river does in the end dump all that polluted water into the sea... the same sea which reaches the shores of where you live. Delhi's air pollution moves around too and over big distances. When the nuclear reactor blew up in Kiev, Ukraine, the wind carried the radioactive particles as far as the most northern tip of Norway... and that was just one explosion, not a continuous stream like in Delhi. In short this does affect us all and it also affects travelling through this unbelievable country. The people we spoke to fully agree that something needs to be done. Some say 'In the coming 3-5 years there will be many changes in India. We have to. Our country can no longer sustain the damage we are doing to it'. It will be a massive job but I hope it does happen. 

This aside, walking the narrow alleys in Delhi is an experience. The madness, the extremities which make up this city and the unbelievable chaos are perhaps best experienced here. Follow the main roads and you will find millions of cars, buses, trucks and tuk tuks all competing to exert the highest pressure on your eardrums. While the narrow alleys behind it are where the real people live. Houses often consist of one narrow room for a whole family, shops are tiny and workshops are simply outside on the already narrow roads. To me these areas are far more interesting than the tourrist attractions. Here you'll find the colourful people, the friendly small businesses and strangely enough, you won't be bothered here by beggars or pesky salesmen. Probably because tourists don't come here, so they don't come looking for tourists there either.

On the main roads and areas like Connaught Place you will be pestered continuously. Most of the time by people persistently trying to sell you stuff you don't want or trying to persuade you to take a ride in their 'very comfortable' tuk tuk. As annoying as it gets after a while, they are at least trying to earn a living by working for their money. Although they can be annoyingly persistent, it's the beggars which are hanging on your arms pleading for money with a wailing cry, which are a very different breed. A friend of ours in Mexico, where you can find people begging too (although nowhere near as bad or annoying as in India) has learned us a valuable lesson when she said 'Young and fit people can work for a living, only the old and disabled need help'. In Delhi we found mostly young and fit people begging for money, some spoke perfect English too... Don't take this wrong, most of the people here do work in some form or other and don't bother you. Some are very poor and have just a hand cart or bicycle rickshaw to carry goods in, others polish shoes, repair clothes or cook up a storm on the streets. There are countless small shops selling drinks and basic foods, while others have a small mobile shop or repair the millions of scooters and motorbikes that roam the streets. They are, for us, the people that make up this colourful city, the people who make it worthwhile to visit Delhi. 

The day after our visas turned out to be ready at the Myanmar embassy... Hurrah! We all felt relieved that we finally had them, at the same time they made a mistake with mine by using Mike's photo in it instead of my own... I looked at it, realised that the embassy would be closed the day after, which was followed by the weekend and thus would give us a delay of another week... Quite frankly I'd had enough. They had been stuffing us around long enough now, the name on the visa was correct as was the passport number and I was not going to stay in Delhi for another week... We ended the day in style: A tuktuk race, back to the hotel, through Delhi during rush hour! We had tuktuks cornering on two wheels, plenty of near misses, airborne at speedhumps and... 8.5 km of fantastic fun! We won the race... by just seconds! More fun than F1! I started this post by saying we are not city people and that we try to avoid cities. That said we really enjoyed Delhi and wouldn't mind at all coming back here one day...