Right after Christmas, I hopped on a plane to Delhi, the first stop on my two-week trip around India. For the first week, I travelled with Hara House, a new group tour in North India led by guides Jazzmine Raine and Kelsey White. Jazzmine is a sustainable travel expert and fellow ethical blogger I'd met a couple of times while she was living in Toronto. Now she is based in India. When I learned that she was giving travel tours, I signed up right away. India always appealed to me, but it's also intimidating and out of my travel comfort zone. I wanted to go with someone familiar with the country, and I also knew I would learn so much more about sustainable travel from Jazzmine.
This wasn't your typical group tour experience where you're shuffled from one attraction to the next for photo ops. While we did do the tourist stuff, we also mingled with locals, took public transit, and supported small businesses. We even went clubbing one night. Since the guides are young, this tour is perfect for free-spirited, adventurous types who also want to be more mindful of the way they travel.
How to get around Delhi
I flew into Indira Gandhi International Airport (DEL), the largest airport in India. Tourists need a visa to enter the country; I'd applied for an e-Visa a few months in advance. You can apply online for a fee, and it's valid for three months from the date of arrival in India.
Unless you want to take the Delhi Metro Airport Express Train, I recommend taking an Uber from the airport to your accommodation. It's your best bet in not getting ripped off by taxis. Uber is in Delhi and probably other major cities in India, but it's not everywhere in the country yet. There's a designed waiting area for Ubers outside the airport.
Once you're in the city, you'll probably want to take a tuk-tuk/auto rickshaw at some point to get around quickly. According to one of my travel books, a trip around the corner should cost Rs.30 and across the city never more than Rs.200 (although I'm not sure about Delhi because this city is quite big). If you're a conspicuous tourist, the drivers will most likely charge you a "foreigner price." Jazzmine and Kelsey haggled for us, which is one of the advantages of being on a group tour.
A note on traffic: yes, it is that crazy. Anything goes. Lanes are merely a suggestion. Forget about seatbelts—they usually don't work. You're not just sharing the road with other vehicles, but motorists, cyclists, animals (cows, bulls, stray dogs, camels, etc.), and pedestrians. One of the things that I could not get used to in India is the lack of sidewalks. I always had to be careful of the chaos around me. I don't think anyone listens to music on headphones while taking strolls because they want to stay alive.
Don't be offended by vehicles honking at you. While it can be an act of aggression in the West, in India it just means, "I'm here. Watch out." There's so much honking and noise on the streets that it almost becomes white noise.
A quieter and more sustainable way of getting around Delhi is by going underground. Delhi Metro is fast, clean, and cheap. The eight lines will take you to major tourist spots.
Each train has a women-only coach at one end of the train or the other. Follow the signs on the floor. The majority of riders are men because many women in Delhi are homemakers. If a man accidentally steps into the women's coach, the female riders will have no problem telling the poor guy to scram.
Make sure you have cash for tuk-tuk rides, street food, market shopping, and so forth. You can only get Rupees in India, so use an ATM at the airport. A lot of the ATMs in the city don't work, so once you find one that does, take as much cash out as your daily limit allows you to.
If you want tips on how to dress for India as a woman, see my packing list for this India trip.
Delhi belly and drinking water quality
In preparation for this trip, I received warnings from well-meaning people who had never been to India to be careful drinking the water or getting "Delhi Belly." They seemed to believe that time spent hugging a toilet bowl would be inevitable on any trip to India. When I was shopping for a filtered water bottle at MEC in Toronto, the sales guys made it sound as if I'd get every virus just by brushing my teeth with tap water.
While Delhi Belly is real and I have heard of people getting sick from brushing their teeth with tap water, I really don't think the situation is as dire as people make it sound. I personally chose not to get any shots, and I ended up bringing just a regular water bottle. Jazzmine assured me that filtered water is available everywhere and I would be fine. And I was. I've seen some of the water filtration systems they have in India, and they are very intense. Everyone else on my trip brought Lifestraw bottles, which filters tap water on the go. I brushed my teeth with filtered water for the first few days as a precaution, but others were using tap water and were fine, so I followed suit without issues. As far as I know, no one else on the trip got sick from the food or water either.
If there's one thing to be mindful of, it's to keep dehydrated. Delhi in the winter might not feel that hot, but the air is dry and polluted, so drink up.
Day 1: Dilli Haat, Lotus Temple, and Bahá'í House of Worship
In Delhi, the ten of us (2 guides, 8 tourists) stayed in an Airbnb apartment near Champa Gali in Saket, a hip hidden alley full of cool local shops, restaurants, and cafes, such as the sustainable Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters. Definitely hang out here if you're in the area.
On our first morning, we took the subway to Dilli Haat, a popular marketplace selling artisan goods from across India's 29 States.
The market is busy but not crowded since there is a small fee of Rs.20 to get in. I admired the textiles, rugs, paintings, and woven bags, but since I was traveling light with just a backpack on this trip, I only bought a pretty gold and purple shawl. You have to haggle at the market, and Jazzmine helped me. The sales guy really laid it on thick, making us laugh by calling us his "best friends." I can't remember what I paid, but it was probably wasn't over $40 CAD.
We had lunch at one of the food stalls at the market. I didn't take pictures because I was too busy eating, my main reason for the dearth of food photos in this post. I can eat Indian food every day. And drink chai tea.
Chai is available from street vendors everywhere. I wished I'd brought my reusable coffee mug on this trip to double up on my chai dosage.
After lunch, we hopped on the subway again to visit the beautiful Lotus Temple. In the shape of a flower, it is a Bahá'í House of Worship. I had not heard of the Bahá'í Faith before my visit, and it sounds very inclusive of all people and religions.
The line to get in is long but fast moving. You have to take your shoes off before going inside the temple. Once you're in, sit and savour the silence. I was still a bit jet lagged, and I practically fell asleep sitting upright. When we got back to the Airbnb, we hit the hay early because we had to wake up before dawn...
Day 2: Delhi Bike Tour, Old Delhi, Spice Market
Jazzmine had signed us up for a bike tour to explore Old Delhi in the early morning when it was less busy. The sky was still dark when we met the two guides from Delhi by Cycle at 6:30 a.m. Our lead guide Himanshu joked that biking through Old Delhi will open all our senses, including our sixth sense. He wasn't wrong.
I really wished I had a GoPro on my bike to capture this truly insane experience. So many different people and animals share the little alleys in Old Delhi: bulls, goats, horses. Men carrying huge slabs of meat. Monkeys climbing the wires overhead. Heck, a giant black rat crossed my path in one little alley. I screamed as Jazzmine cackled on her bike behind me.
We stopped at the Spice Market for a scenic break. The mixture of dust and spices sent us into a sneezing symphony up the stairs. Ah yes, this was the India I came for, the one that can't be captured on celluloid or in pixels.
After breakfast at the famous Karim's restaurant, we biked through a more tranquil neighbourhood, stopping at the stately Maidens Hotel. We had a chai break while our guide regaled us with more facts and stories, but I was distracted by the beauty of the trees and the birds chirping. There's something dreamy about Indian gardens. I felt the magic in the garden of the Lotus Temple too, a feeling specific to India.
Even the smog in Delhi made my surroundings more romantic, as if I were viewing everything from a gauzy filter used in old films. (On a serious note, the air pollution in Delhi can be terrible, even dangerous. I don't think I'd be able to handle the summers here. It's sad because this city has so much to offer.)
When we headed back to Old Delhi, it was around 10 a.m. and traffic was in full swing. I had more confidence in my biking by then, but it was absolute madness, intense and exhilarating. I had close calls of almost biking into people or cars and witnessed some of my travel pals do the same. No time to freak out though. The locals weren't fazed anyway. You either sink or swim in this chaos, so we were in survival mode.
When we parked our bikes, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I couldn't believe I had biked through the worst traffic I'd ever witnessed in my life. I felt like I could do anything after that.
In general, I felt safe on the tour because we had one guide leading and another behind to make sure we were all okay, but would I bike alone or even with friends around Delhi? Hard no. But I would do another bike tour. It's best to go into this not knowing what you're in for, so I'm glad Jazzmine made it sound as if we would just be having a cute little bike ride through a quaint neighbourhood.
Afterwards, we took rickshaws to The Main Bazaar in Paharganj. This area is just as noisy and chaotic if not more. While good bargains can be found in this market, I wasn't in a shopping mood. Everyone was exhausted. And it wasn't even lunch time. We ducked into Brown Bread Bakery, a hidden cafe quiet from the outside madness, where we had a coffee break.
We did wander the shops a bit, but I was ready to keel over at this point, not just from all the intense biking but the jet lag. I wasn't the only one. We went back to the airbnb to rest up before going out for dinner at Evergreen Sweet House in Haus Khaz Village, where we had South Indian food. They have a great bakery too with all sorts of Indian sweets.
Afterwards, we went to clubbing at Mango, a place Jazzmine and Kelsey frequent, so they ran into some of their friends. The club itself is not unlike any other club in Toronto. They played hip hop and Top 40 stuff, with the odd Indian song. It felt surreal to be clubbing, probably the last thing I expected to do in India.
This day was probably one of the longest in my life in the best possible way. I'll remember these experiences forever. Delhi is a big city, and I'm sure there are plenty more things to see and do, but the next day we were on a train to Bikaner, Rajasthan.
Last Day in Delhi: The Roseate Hotel and Aheli Spa
After adventures in Bikaner, Agra, and Rishikesh, I flew back to Delhi and had a short day in the city alone before my morning flight back to Toronto. I stayed at The Roseate, a five-star hotel near the airport. I used my points so I don't know how much it cost, but it was probably under $150 CAD. To compare, five-star hotels in Toronto are $450-$700 CAD per night, and I think The Roseate has more to offer. The architecture is drop-dead gorgeous, and the service is top-notch.
After I returned from India, My mom asked me if there were any doors in the hotels in India, which I thought was hilarious. She had seen The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a movie about a fictional hotel that is apparently doorless. But yes, Mom, not only do the hotels here have doors, The Roseate is the most high-tech resort I've ever been to. Everything can be controlled from the iPad in the room, from opening the blinds, to ordering room service, and looking at through the peephole camera.
When I entered my hotel room, I felt like McCauley Culkin in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. I was rolling around the bed in tears of joy. Remember, I was coming from taking bucket baths in a standard Airbnb apartment. Not only was I able to have a hot shower here (I made it quick, given the water shortage in Delhi), I was in the most gorgeous, luxurious setting.
No stay at a fancy hotel would be complete without a trip to the spa. I went to the Aheli Spa and got a massage to prepare for the long flight home the next morning.
When I showed up at the airport, Ukraine International Airports informed me there were no more seats and closed shop. WTF. (Note: never travel with UIA.) They didn't know when the next flight back to Toronto would be, so I was stranded.
Tired and stressed, I couldn't face the bad traffic back into Delhi, so I booked a one-way ticket to Goa.