Sunday, 4 September 2011

6 reasons not to hate Delhi

While browsing through Delhi-related blogs last night I came across this one, which as you will see attracted a good deal of ire from readers from Delhi and elsewhere. Some of the readers' comments are a bit hysterical (folks, being critical of a city and its culture doesn't make you a racist) but I tend to agree with the thrust of them - if you're blogging for a travel website, at least make an effort to give a balanced impression of a place rather than just ranting about how much it sucks.

Anyway, in an effort to redress the balance, here's my take on six of the eight "reasons to hate Delhi" raised in the post (I can't really comment on the "accommodation" one since I obviously don't need to make use of hotels here, and I haven't yet been here for the winter fog). I'm not trying to say the place is heaven - and indeed all of the objections raised about the city are well-grounded in reality - but a little perspective is a good thing.

1. Scams. OK, this one got my back up straight off. Yes, there are people in Delhi looking to make money out of foreigners. Yes, the auto rickshaw drivers will charge you more if you're not Indian. But compared to plenty of other places Delhi is hardly a traveler's nightmare in this regard. I have had far worse experiences in, say, Venice (which, much as I love it, is basically a well-oiled machine for extracting as much money from tourists' wallets as possible) than I have here. And the tiniest amount of research will tell you that you should bargain down from the first price given in the rickshaw. You'll probably end up paying 20 rupees more than locals would - but that 20 rupees means a hell of a lot more to the driver than it does to you. Think of it as your contribution to economic redistribution and just enjoy the ride.

2. People who don't want to admit they don't know where something is. Yes this can be irritating, but really - is it enough reason to hate a city? It's just a matter of learning to read the signals. You can always tell when someone is making something up as they go along - there will be a momentary gaze into the middle distance while the cogs turn, and then they'll give a vague answer like "that way". Take that as you would an "I don't know", and carry on. Simples.

3. Spitting and peeing in the street. True, these are less than attractive practices of the (male) Delhi walla, but show me a city where people couldn't improve their manners. Spitting was rampant when I lived in Seoul, and as for peeing - try going out in London after 10 pm and it won't be long before you see something similar. What this point completely overlooks though, are the many positive traits of the city's inhabitants - the sheer number of smiles you see in a single day, the genuine desire to help newcomers to the city, and the openness of Indians generally. It's called cultural differences, and if you can only see the negative ones, I wonder why you're travelling at all, never mind writing about it for a living.

4. Traffic. Hard to argue with the substance of the post - being in a car is indeed a hair-raising experience in Delhi. But again, the city is hardly unique in this regard, so it seems a bit unfair to castigate the whole place because of it. Also, the longer you are here the more you realise that India's roads do have rules, they are just very different from the ones we're used to back home. India has more deaths from road accidents than the UK, but they are far from having the world's highest rate per head of population. That incessant horn-honking is aggravating, but it's actually mostly about safety - most honks are given by cars approaching junctions to warn of their presence. Indian drivers know how their own roads work - until such time as the way things are done change here, us outsiders just have to get used to it.

5. Dirt. Um, yes. In parts, it's dirty. Yes, I agree the city authorities could do a better job, and I sincerely hope that as India gets wealthier more resources will be available to do this (they already keep large parts of the city, particularly New Delhi and the areas around the historical monuments, very nicely - something overlooked by the author). I wonder if the author has travelled elsewhere in the developing world. Poorer countries tend to be less prettified. I also wonder if the author has spent much time in much of London, which can be downright filthy, or New York, where rats happily trot in and out of garbage bins on the street. I love both those cities because they are vibrant, exciting places with surprises round every corner - such places tend to have a grimy side, and it's all part of the appeal. Maybe some prefer to travel to squeaky clean, half asleep little towns in Europe or America. Fine - but then why go to Asia at all?

6. Over-crowding. Most baffling of all. You come to a city of 17 million people and you complain that it's over-crowded? Lord above, take your holidays in an Alpine village next time and blog about how idyllic it is - but why go somewhere you know you're not going to like and then whine about it on a travel blog?

The point is, without its imperfections Delhi simply wouldn't be Delhi. It's a massive, overwhelming cacophony of humanity in all its beauty and ugliness, and that's what makes it so intriguing. It's a city with an extraordinary, visible history and a rapidly evolving present, which seems to exist in several eras at once. It's maddening and exhausting, but it's also a vivid, exciting antidote to the carefully-packaged, chocolate-box tourist destinations of Europe. If you have any sense of adventure at all, this is a city you should come to at least once in your life.


Sonya said...

Nice post. I'm a little troubled by the other person's post (the one you were responding to).. At the risk of sounding like I live my life via stereotypes*, what did he/she EXPECT from the city...? It sounds like there was no attempt to seek out any clean and shiny parts, or fun activities, or historical bits, or anything positive. As for the driving... try coming to Buenos Aires, love ;o)

* Which of course I DO do, sometimes.

Chris said...

We all need stereotypes to help us understand the world, but that doesn't mean closing your mind to having them challenged! Which, as you point out, is exactly what the author of the original post seems to have done by not finding those bits of the city that didn't conform to her dire expectations...

KATEDJAY said...

I'm so happy to read your good and positive post. Thanks so speak like this about delhi. You're right. I know also well delhi, because I go often there and stay long time when I'm in Delhi. I also read bad article about delhi, people who complain , because delhi is not so clean or to noisy , or etc.. I love delhi , you right it's a incredible city. I'm 100% ok with what you say. Thanks.
Sorry for my bas English, but I come from geneva and french is my usualy language. Anway I think you understand what I mean :-)

I'll be soon in delhi, even it's just for a short stay. I'm so happy to see delhi again.
Take care, bye

Chris said...

I'm really glad you appreciated it and that there are others out there who can see the great sides of this city! Hope you enjoy your return visit!

Anonymous said...

we really enjoyed our visit to Delhi and would love to return one day. Dirt and overcrowding are ever present in Asia but we all know that before we go.

Chippy Chin said...

Excellent response to that "article". Excellent indeed. Thank you for writing it.

I came across her (therefore your) post while doing that bizarre "research before you go so you're not caught off guard" thing and what you've said has been very helpful. Thank you very much.

In truth, hers will be helpful in a way as well... it will deter other people like her (uninformed and closed minded) from going to Delhi. I'm sure the folks of Deli will appreciate that in the long run.

mayank gupta said...

Hey Chris,

I'm glad that you like the city :) And well, the post was published on my b'day as well :) I wish that Delhi could fix its demerits but then as you said "it won't be Delhi" then :P

ignite said...

QUOTE: “You'll probably end up paying 20 rupees more than locals would - but that 20 rupees means a hell of a lot more to the driver than it does to you. Think of it as your contribution to economic redistribution and just enjoy the ride.”
Basic math = if you are visiting Delhi for 2 weeks and take riksha twice a day and pay extra 20 rupees.
20*2 = 40.and 40 * 14 = 560 rupees.
May be if you come to America and is charged 5 USD extra every time I would like to know how you will feel especially when you work for the money yourself.
Summary: writer / Author seem armature and basing write on personal emotional content rather than facts and logic.

Chris said...

Thank you for your response.

Yes, I write based on personal emotional content. This is a personal blog about my experiences living in India. My responses to India inevitably have emotional elements, and this particular post was higher on emotion than most, since I was quite irritated by the original article. I am not ashamed of that.

I'm not sure why this makes me immature (I'm assuming that's what you meant), but then I don't believe maturity equates to only writing on the basis of "facts and logic": good lord, if you want to write emotion out of writing, the world - and the blogging world in particular - would be a dull place.

But even if you want logic, your US comparison doesn't hold up. The USA is a country that is richer and more developed than my own, so of course I would react differently to being charged more than I do in India, where I'm conscious of my own relative privilege and the opportunity I have, living here, to contribute to the local economy. And 20 rupees hardly equates to 5 dollars in any case.

Foreign visitors also pay a good deal more to visit sites of historic interest, and again I don't have a problem with that. I can afford it, as can most people who are rich enough to come traveling to India, and it means local people can access their own heritage even if they are poor.

My point was that for me personally, I don't mind paying a little more, and it's certainly preferable to wasting time and effort trying to negotiate a fare exactly equal to what a local would pay. I see this as a perfectly logical response. But feel free to disagree.