India

At the beginning of September I spent some ten days in New Delhi, India. Primarily the reason for the trip was to attend VLDB 2016; in addition, as usual, whenever I could I went to explore and learn more about the local culture and life. It was my first time in India and the whole experience was, not counting the super hot weather, very exciting and fun!

I had no idea what to expect for India to be like. The picture painted in my head wasn't particularly pretty. To illustrate what I mean, just read this actually dead-serious account of some guy's trip to India.. it's ugly. Well, I'm happy to say that at least in my limited experience, it's all quite exaggerated. Life is definitely different than in the typical places I've been to in Europe, America, Australia and Asia. Some parts along the railway seemed familiar, reminding me of the Gypsy communities I grew up next to in my hometown; incidentally, I just learned that the International Roma Conference recommended the Government of India this year to recognize the Roma people around the world as Indian diaspora.

Mostly I was just worried of being fooled in some way, online at least it seemed like there is a never-ending list of a million different types of scam stories. Well nothing ever happened, so I'm one happy tourist. People seemed mostly genuinely honest and helpful, while I was constantly on guard because of the above stories.. but I relaxed progressively over the days as it all became more and more familiar.

I tried to gather related photos in a few short stories / albums, scroll on to check them out :-)

Getting around

Learning how to get around in India is probably on of the biggest hurdles for a tourist, especially one like me that doesn't like guides and organized tours much. The several options I took:

  • Walk: it was very interesting the first few times, but you quickly realize it's impractical for anything more than a few hundred of meters. It's hot, walk for more than 10 minutes and you are covered in sweat.. it becomes exhausting pretty quickly. Depending on where you are, the road can be very dusty. And often you have no clue which way to go.
  • Taxi: I took a taxi only twice, transferring from/to the airport.
  • Metro: in New Delhi there's a pretty good metro. Getting "tokens" for it is unintuitive and annoying, but eventually you figure it out and it works fine. Airport-style security checks whenever you go in the station :S
  • Tuk-tuk, auto rickshaw: these guys are the kings for short, few-km travels (although I've even taken them for 10km+ rides). They are absolutely everywhere, even at 3AM. It's totally unclear how the pricing works, but eventually you learn to approximate and haggle for a reasonable amount. The most memorable ride was from a train station to the nearest metro station (approx 10km) in the evening: the standard tuk-tuk has been obviously modified with a more powerful engine and the guy was proudly speeding past other tuk-tuks and even cars on the streets of New Delhi; almost the equivalent of a roller-coaster, except much less controlled :-)

Old Delhi

This is the heart of metropolitan Delhi. Originally it was the capital of the Mughals with a seat at the Red Fort; nowadays it seems to be really crowded with bustling markets along the narrow streets for anything imaginable, from flowers to goat brains. One of the largest mosques in India, Jama Masjid, is also here.

Train

It wouldn't be a proper visit to New Delhi without seeing the Taj Mahal, which is in Agra, 200km Southeast-ish. I decided to go by train, which eventually proved quite challenging.

Forget about just going to the train station and buying a ticket: this is impossible for mere tourist mortals I guess. There's absolutely no information about which train goes where at the train station itself that I could find. Unless you figure this out beforehand online, you will go nowhere. Moreover, the departure displays seem to be often out of sync and outright wrong.

As with anything in India, there's a learning curve.. and eventually when you figure out the rules, it seems to work. The trains are ok, and people are nice, chatty and ever curious. It was just incredibly hot in the most basic non-AC class that I took, a proper three hour sauna torture for only 170 rupees :-) Thinking about it, some extensive sauna training before you visit India in / around summer would probably be very beneficial preparation.

Agra

In Agra I arranged with the tuk-tuk guy that took me from the train station to the hotel to give me a tour around in the morning. The hotel had a good view on Taj Mahal and Agra, which got pretty amazing around the sunset. Ali, the nice tuk-tuk guide picked me up at 6AM in the morning, taking me to the garden behind the Taj Mahal, a smaller tomb place, and finally the Red Fort, which along with the Taj Mahal are the most famous places in Agra.

Agra Fort

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal is one of the most impressive places I've visited. It definitely satisfied all the appetite for symmetry and balance I've ever had! :-)