I’ve been in more than 35 countries, and have largely ignored India. I’ve been to Asia many times and had plenty of opportunities to visit. I’ve ignored this trip largely because of two reasons:
- The visa process seemed like a nightmare, and multiple of my friends spoke about insane queues at the embassy
- Everyone I’ve talked to were always a bit challenged when I asked if they liked it, and all replies started with “well…”.
In addition, I’ve had my troubles with software developers from India. They usually quite good, but because of very big cultural differences, I’ve personally never had any successful projects. This probably says more about me than Indian software developer, but it’s clear, there is a pretty huge cultural difference.
However, I’ve had Taj Mahal – one of the new “7 world wonders” on my bucket list for a while and ignoring such a large country seemed wrong to me. With more than a billion people, and growing towards the most populous country – it was time for a visit!
After the decision was made, it was all about timing. Turned out, I had the opportunity to stay a bit more than a month in Asia start of 2018, and I could add a short stop-over in Delhi!
Luckily, it also turned out that the visa process had changed. I could apply for an e-visa online, which was really simple – even more simple than applying for a US visa! Yes, the website was horribly ugly and yes, I had to answer +60 questions in the visa form (including listing ALL countries I’ve ever visited), but it was still simple.
I didn’t prepare much more than this, so I just waited until a week before. A week before I say some news stories shared on Twitter about the “smog in Delhi”.
I’ve previously been in Beijing in China, where I experienced pretty bad smog. In Beijing, I could actually “taste” the smog, and I couldn’t see more than twenty meters. I remember the index “330!” – hazard levels!
New Delhi had just reached 430. Extreme levels – very dangerous.
Landing in Delhi – arriving in the city
I tend to forget bad news relatively quickly, so on January 3rd I went to Copenhagen airport and boarded my Air India plane towards New Delhi. After 7.5 hours in the air, we landed at 7 am.
Five minutes before landing, however, I was reminded of the smog. The clouds were insanely thick. You could not see anything. And as we started to go through the clouds, this continued. Suddenly I heard a “bump” and we had landed. I could not see anything. I could maybe see five meters, and I got this bitter weird taste in the mouth. Smog.
Well, or was it? Turns out Delhi usually has very bad fog in January. However, my guess would be that the combination of the extreme smog levels combined with the bad smog, simply made the experience crazy. Five meters of sight and a bad taste.
Arriving at the airport was quite fine. Everything worked, I got through immigration without any questions and got my suitcase. Indeed, I had pre-ordered a car and he was there with my name on it. I had expected the famous Indian chaos to start in the airport, but this was surprisingly nice and much like any other airport experience I’ve had.
However, then we started driving.
Now, it’s not the first time I’ve been in a car in Asia. First time I tried a taxi in the Philippines I was shocked. I’ve also been shocked in Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand. I’ve been island hopping and tried all forms of transportation in most conditions. I’m not easy to shock.
Indian traffic shocked me.
So, say a road has 3 lanes. It’s not uncommon in Thailand or Philippines this becomes 4 or even 5 lanes. It’s not uncommon motorbikes take up and 30-centimeter space they can get in Vietnam.
In Delhi, there is just no system. On the highway, people drove like there were no lanes. “Lanes” went in and out, no one drove straight but were always changing lanes and there are cows, horses, cars, motorbikes, people, buses, tricks and tuk-tuks joined together.
And they all horn. ALL. THE. TIME.
Oh, and the opposite lanes? On the highway, they’re (luckily) separated. In the city? Good luck. There is a tendency that opposite directions go on opposite sides of the road, but it’s not the rule. It’s pure chaos.
And did I mention the horns?
From the second we started driving, till the second I left India, I heard horns. I lived in a fine hotel, but even though I had 3 or 4 doors outside to the traffic, I could hear the horns. Everyone driving horns at least a couple of time per minute, and I think my mind will automatically replay this for the coming days.
On arrival, I was dead tired. I flew in late, slept a few hours on the plane and just needed to relax. However, in order to experience “real India”, I avoided a 5-star hotel and went for a cheap 3-star hotel outside the main tourist area.
The car left me off in front of the hotel, and this was a shocking experience. Constant noise. Lots of obvious scammers asking me “can I help you, sir?”. No asphalt but an old road and lots of dust everywhere. And the noise. Oh, the noise.
I needed to get inside.
Luckily, the check-in was quick and the hotel was superb by Indian standards. I got my room, celebrated that I had no cockroaches and went to sleep.
My first experience in New Delhi
After sleeping, I was ready to explore the city.
Being an optimist, I decided I wanted to walk around. So I took on some not-to-fancy clothes and decided to walk towards Connaught Place; a famous area in Delhi full of restaurants and shops.
This just cemented my first experience. At no time did I feel truly comfortable. So much noise. Cars and motorbikes swarming in and out. Dust everywhere. People peeing on the streets. Trash everywhere. Every minute someone trying to approach me. And to conclude all this, the smog/fog so you couldn’t see more than twenty meters at best.
Not a fan.
I got to the Connaught Place, expecting it to be a fancy area resembling a modern mall. Well. It was closer than my hotel. At least we had asphalt, some nice-looking restaurants, and the beggars had stopped. I got my first late-lunch, a butter-chicken, and loved it. Gotta admit, I’ve had lots of Indian food before, but this was the best tasting butter-chicken I’ve ever had. Perfectly spicy and good taste.
When the bill came, 150 rupees (~2-3 USD).
And some hours later, I also had an amazing dinner at a roof-top cafe in the Main Bazaar – 250 rupees (~4 USD).
While I hated the traffic, I loved the food.
Another thing the surprised me, was the people. As I started out, I’ve had a bit of a … challenge… with Indian developers. I feared I would have the same problem with the people in general, but I was wrong.
Everywhere I ended up having a conversation: in my Uber, hotel reception, tour guide, restaurants or wherever – they were genuinely very nice people. Most people I spoke to had a fine English. Not fluent or advanced, but absolutely enough to have a fine chat.
I don’t know why. I had this “wrong idea” that I should be very careful and I would mainly meet scammers. Looking back, this is largely racist and stupid, but this a big reason why I travel: I’m usually wrong about how things are, and I’m usually always positively surprised!
Now, I’m largely convinced the main reason I haven’t work well with Indian developers so far, has more to do with me not truly understanding their world, situation, and culture.
Visiting Agra and Taj Mahal – a trip from Delhi
One of the main reasons I wanted to visit India, was to see Taj Mahal. Taj Mahal is a very famous building – a beautiful burial site.
The main challenge, however, is that Agra is ~200km away from Delhi. And no, this is not a 2-hour drive in a nice car.
You basically have two options:
- Take the train. With the new express train, it would take less than 3 hours and should be a nice experience
- Get a car and a driver. Most costly, would take a bit longer but with full flexibility
I knew I’d pick A).
Well, until I arrived. First, I tried to Google a bit. I found out that the last week, the express train had on average been more than 4 hours late, so it was a total of 6.5 hours. These delays were caused by the heavy fog (smog?).
In addition, I tried to walk to the train station and got uncomfortable. Going here early, with the crazy traffic and me not feeling completely comfortable in Delhi, I went with the car.
Online car trips cost ~130-150 USD for one person. This seemed very expensive to me, so that was another reason I decided to go for a train before coming. However, when I asked around, it turned out it was much cheaper in Delhi. I picked the tour from my hotel at 7.000 rupees – roughly 90 USD. And I didn’t even bargain which I know you can from prior experiences.
After breakfast, my driver came. We started driving, but the fog was insane. He told me the fog was more crazy than usual, and we could literally not see the cars in front of behind us, despite being less than 10 meters between the cars. I’ve never seen so thick fogs.
The scenes reminded me of Blade Runner but without the rain. Driving to Agra, was like a dystopian future. The trees on the sideways of the road looked dead. This was a crazy experience.
After a bit more than 4 hours, we ended up in Agra. We parked, and I was handed over to my local tour guide. This was the most enjoyable part of my trip because we decided to walk 2 kilometers through the locals homes, instead of going on the main tourist road. This was amazing. I got to see small narrow roads, small houses with so many kids, cows roaming randomly around and goats chained to the small homes. For a moment, I forgot all about the horns, because cars are not allowed a couple of kilometers away from the Taj Mahal to avoid pollution.
We finally got to the Taj Mahal, paid 1.000 rupees (~15 USD) for the foreigner entrance, and jumped the queue… because foreigners are special apparently.
And then I saw it. Taj Mahal. The majestic building from the photos. One of the seven world wonders.
I was shocked by the sheer size of it. I had imagined it would be relatively small, but that was not the case. Taj Mahal is huge. Huge. Built over 21 years with more than 20.000 workers (slaves?) on the project, the building made of marble still stands to amaze.
As a part of the “standard tour” you also get to get close, go inside and walk around.
This was amazing and very recommendable. Taj Mahal is worth the visit.
Continuing and Indias future
I spent a few days more after this, all In New Delhi. The more time I spent in Delhi, the more I got to just accept the traffic, the noise, and the dirt. And I kinda didn’t mind it.
I loved the food. The people are genuinely sweet. Everything is dirt cheap. I honestly had a good experience, despite still having a problem with the traffic.
This also got me thinking a bit about India. Both in Agra and Delhi, I was surprised. It’s a very different way to live. Yes it’s dirty, poor and the traffic is crazy – but there are also many good things.
What surprised me was the replies when I spoke to people about their children. Most adults do not have an education and work crazy hours without much sleep to be able to pay for food. But when you ask them about their children, they all go to school.
Their children are ambitious. They want a future. They want good jobs. They want to “live better”. The ads and role models portrayed in ads and banners, were just like in the US. There were iPhone and Samsung ads everywhere, banners about a better future and heck – even “keep your city clean!” Banners were everywhere.
I really felt an extremely positive wipe. The young are studying like crazy. They’re ambitious. They want a better future.
I got to admit, I saw lots of positive signs – much like when I visited Beijing four years ago. India does have a serious middle-class which is growing. They have ambitious youngsters, who want a better India.
And despite I haven’t traveled around in India, from what I’ve heard, that’s the case in most cities.
I find this very optimistic and good. I liked Delhi and Agra much more than I thought I would, and especially the people.
So, I’ll finish this with a recommendation. Go to India. Visit Delhi. Visit Taj Mahal. Don’t be stupid and expect it’s like home. Yes, be aware of scams. Use Uber/Ola, remember to be friendly and accept things just work slower and different. And that is fine.
This was a good experience.