Around the World on $50 a Day - Delhi
Around the World on $50 A Day


Delhi and Agra, India

Less than two minutes over the Caspian Sea and Turkmenistan. Click > to play video. Double-click the image to make fullscreen.
We arrived in India on or a little ahead of schedule, the signs of a third-world but open society instantly reminiscent of the Budapest Airport. I changed $50 into rupees—one rupee equals three cents US—then found one of several hotel referral counters and asked about economy accommodations (the people at the counters all competing for your business by waving and calling— even for the money changing).

The young woman said she could get us a good room for $30 US, or a better one for $60. I asked what was wrong with the 1000-rupee room, she said "nothing," so I opted for it. She said the taxi was the only reasonable way to get there, as I later understood. I could get a prepaid one, she said, and it shouldn't cost more than 400R. So I went to the prepaid taxi window, paid 370R ($11.10). As we emerged from the terminal into the subtropical heat and humidity (about 90 degrees F), we were besieged by a mob of people wanting to carry our bags and get us a taxi. I kept up a litany of "no, no," as I edged to the booth where I was to turn in my prepaid taxi receipt.

A man helped me by telling me to stick the receipt through the window to get a taxi number. He then pointed out our taxi and was truly helpful. I gave him a coin from the change booth—he looked at it, said "no," and handed it back. I shrugged, not knowing I had given him only one rupee—three cents American.

The ride to our hotel I can only compare to Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. The driver was weaving in and out of traffic, constantly honking his horn as was everyone else, running red lights, going too fast and slamming on his brakes. Bob was terrified and my own emotion can best be called amused terror, something like I get from a roller coaster ride. The sights were astounding. Much of the housing consisting of lean-tos and sheds—thousands of men—they were all males that we saw, it seemed—walking, talking, sleeping on the sidewalks where there were sidewalks, urinating in plain sight anywhere at all, mixed with animals ranging from dogs to pigs to water buffaloes and sacred cows. Some of the men strolled or stood holding hands or arms on each other's shoulders. Yet there was no sense of hostility or fear, no sense of carousing; this appeared to be nothing but camaraderie and socializing.

At our hotel, the 55 Hotel, described as a short distance from the downtown New Delhi train station though we never saw it, we were greeted by what seemed to be a hoard of bellboys wanting to carry our luggage. There was no lift to the second floor reception or our third-floor room, so we acquiesed. The man at the desk accepted our reservation from the airport and said we'd pay up later (meaning checkout time, we assumed). Now, he said, we should go to our room. It was midnight.

The room was air conditioned, clean, with marble everywhere, with a bath en suite and two comfortable beds. Not bad for $15 each. We both slept well, relieved that, though astounding in a number of ways, our introduction to India—the biggest mystery on our trip—had been mostly positive.

Daily expense tally—room, food, transit: $26

Saturday, May 18

We began the day by reading the notice on the hotel door and learning from it that laundry service was available, something Bob was badly wanting. I decided to do mine, too, even though I'd prepared to make the whole trip without doing any wash, having brought enough socks, underwear, and T-shirts to get through 21 days. (Tip: I don't recommend this. In hindsight I wish I'd saved my feet and carried lighter bags. I'd feared wasting hours in laundromats, and we had done so in Paris. But most hostels and hotels have laundry services; and if you don't want to waste time, so do most dry cleaners. Take one-week's supply of clothes and have them laundered, even if you are traveling on the budget plan.) Things having been so reasonably priced up to now, we didn't even ask the price (it turned out to be 402R—$12.06, for all our laundry).

Bob wanted to get breakfast from the hotel, which we did—eggs and toast and tea for about $3 each. My eggs had "yellows" that were strangely "whitish," but they tasted fine. We ate on a balcony overlooking the street which, at about 9 a.m., still hadn't come fully to life. No doubt the heat of the night before kept many people awake late and now that it was cooler, they were still sleeping. After our meal we went to reception to discuss tour options.

The hotelier advised against our walking around, saying we'd be, not endangered, but constantly pestered. He also informed us that we had missed the sole tourist train to Agra for visiting the Taj Mahal, that it leaves at 6:15 a.m. and returns at 10 or 11 p.m. This meant we wouldn't be able to get it on Sunday, either, as our plane was leaving around 11 p.m. and we'd have to be at the airport by 9. Our host recommended hiring a car for about $12 each to show us Delhi, which we decided to do. He called RBS Travel, which operates out of the Connaught Palace Hotel, and it seemed that a driver had arrived at our hotel within a couple of minutes.

The largest video files are the two sections for India, approximately 18 minutes each. This was the most educational part of our tour. Click > to play video. Double-click the image to make fullscreen.

We discussed sights to see and he said we could afford to hire the car all the way to the Taj—more than 100 miles one way (we had been thinking it might be closer to 20 miles). He offered to take us to his boss for consultation. To make an already long story shorter, they sold us on an overnight trip southeast to Agra, thence almost due west to Jaipur, where we'd be put in an "excellent" hotel, and around sites there on Sunday and back to Delhi Airport for $102 US each, inclusive of everything but food, gratuities, and the few rupees each it would cost to get into the various "monuments."

The manager of the tour company assured us they would explain our cancelling our second night at the 55 Hotel, arrange to pick up our laundry, and bring it to us at the airport. He said 400 rupees should more than cover the laundry. I gave him that amount.

Our driver had a new, six-month-old Indian special make of car widely used there for taxis and having a body style resembling the 1949 Ford's. I never did see the name of the car; the horn bore the letters HM and a tour representative told us they're made just for India in Germany. It seemed to get a top speed, with the motor laboring, of about 40 miles an hour, but on the highways available, that was enough. It was air conditioned, which was vital in the dust and winds we later passed through.

We went to the 55 Hotel and got our luggage, the hotelier obviously disappointed to lose our second night's business, which was ironic as we'd been referred to the tour company by him. We paid the agreed-upon 1000 rupees and were off.

Our driver, Daup, whose name we didn't get until the end of our journey together, was a handsome and personable young man whose driving was considerably more careful than our airport taxi driver's had been, but the bottom line about driving in India is that you are constantly overtaking slower traffic from camels to pedestrians pushing carts, and you have to pass quickly to get back in your lane ahead of a collision with an oncoming semi or motor scooter or bicyclist. Bob said at the end of Saturday's drive that he wouldn't repeat the trip for $10,000, that he'd never had his life on the line so often in all his years put together before (and he's been a light aircraft pilot, once owned a motorcycle, and drove city bus for a living in Los Angeles). And I would have to admit that the same claim would apply to me, too, though I wouldn't require $10,000 to repeat it and would have to say, too, that I wouldn't want to have missed it. It ranked with the view from Dalky, Ireland, the unexpected liturgy in the Nevskiy Lavra church, and the sudden bursting into summer of Zurich as one of a handful of events that in themselves made the world tour worthwhile.

There were a few miles of highway between Delhi and Agra that were comparable, at least in number of lanes, to American Interstate highways, though there are no lane stripes anywhere, much less embedded warning bumps or reflectors, and very little highway signage.

It seemed to take us forever to get out of New Delhi, with the same sights as the night before continuing to compel our attention. We even saw an elephant at work near the outskirts of the city. And yes, we found that men using the wall or roadside as a WC was just as common in broad daylight as at night. Again the throngs along the streets were almost all male, women to be seen in vehicles, of course, and sometimes working in a garden, but so few in number as to be remarkable.

Though there was rarely anything resembling a house such as is common in the West, and I never once saw a store that was more than an open-front shop, we saw several tourist stops that resembled what we're used to. We stopped at one of these near the mid-point between Delhi and Agra to use the WC and for lunch. The toilets were modern, unlike the holes in the floor at one of the airport loos we had seen (holes rather than toilets were also to be found in Russia, even in the big railway stations), and the whole complex was covered in marble. Lunch was less than $4 each for three large plates including curry chicken and noodles and another item of Bob's choosing that I've forgotten the name of, Fanta orange, and Indian bread similar to pita. The food was as good as Indian restaurant food in California, but at a fraction of the price.

Taj Mahal

Agra was much smaller than Delhi, of course, but the same in appearance. A mass of humanity and animal life in the writhing motions of life. I haven't mentioned the dress—men wore everything from Western pants and shirts to robes to what appeared to be swim trunks to Gandhi "diapers." One thought related to this—and to the unexpected widespread use of camels in India—that struck me was: You must get lots of glimpses, here, of what much of the Holy Land looked like in the time of Christ.

We made it to the Taj Mahal by about 4:30, our driver saying that after 5 p.m. the price goes from 10 rupees per person to 100R (from 30 cents to $3). Video cameras are not allowed beyond the entryway, but for an extra 25 rupees they'll show you a number of spots from which to get exceptional shots. So many such spots, in fact, that Bob got exasperated at my spending so much time on it. The official who took me around suggested that it was worth a tip (and it was, but I was assuming this service might be covered in the 25 rupees). Meanwhile, an "unofficial" guide had attached himself to me as soon as he spotted my camera bag and, although I kept imploring that I didn't want a guide (our driver had advised that we didn't need one), he insisted and persisted, did give me lots of valuable information, and eventually I gave him a small tip. (Tip: rather than take our driver's advice, plan to spend 50 cents to a dollar's worth of rupees—15 to 30—on a guide. It's worth it just to avoid the kind of arguing I had to go through, and once you've committed outside the monument, the hoard who want to enlist you will evaporate.) My guide was knowledgeable and seemed sophisticated—the type who might have been a school teacher in our world. He might be there, too, moonlighting...sad that the needs are so great.

The Taj Mahal

The Taj is as beautiful as its pictures—overwhelming in its sheer presence. I declined to go inside the actual tomb area both because I didn't want to leave my shoes and because I knew that without videotape I would little remember the experience, and most importantly because our driver had said to meet him in half an hour to 45 minutes, and it took that long just to do the outside. Besides the Taj itself, there are two other large buildings on either side of it, a Muslim mosque that is still used for worship, our guide told us, on the left, and a guest house on the right. Facing away from the Taj, the face of the building that serves as the entryway is inscribed with quotations from the Koran. The engraving is so designed that the letters appear to be of one size from top to bottom, though the lettering at the top, farthest from the eye, is larger than that on the bottom. Not only is the artifice of the Taj itself one of the most beautiful buildings ever constructed, the details on every hand are ingenious.

Once we returned outside the enclosed grounds, we were besieged again by boys of about 12 years old selling anything from bottled water to samples of the kind of marble used in the monument. And by the general cacophony that is urban India.

We began our way west toward Jaipur. Being in the subtropics, night falls earlier here, and by 6:30 it was virtually dark. Heavy winds accompanied by lightning (but no audible thunder), blowing branches and even a falling tree or two overtook us as we made our way on the narrow two-lane and badly rutted road. A little rain fell, but the storm soon passed.

Breakdown, a night in an Indian motel, and back on the road somewhere west of Agra. Click > to play video. Double-click the image to make fullscreen.

A few miles beyond midway to Jaipur, about 9 p.m., we heard a terrible ka-chunk and the car coasted to a stop, not to start again. We pushed it a few hundred feet to a crossroads where apparently Daup hoped to find a mechanic. There were businesses—open stall type affairs—on both sides of the road there, but the village had no telephone. Daup finally found someone willing to drive him to the nearest mechanic while Bob and I waited with the car for more than an hour. When Daup returned he told us the mechanic would work on it the first thing in the morning and we would continue on our way. But both Bob and I had grave doubts about that. The ka-chunk had sounded as serious as an axle or rear end to us, and we've both been in similar situations often enough to know that such repairs often take days. We implored Daup to call his boss and try to get a backup plan in motion to get us to the Delhi airport by 8 o'clock the next evening. Daup went off again to find a telephone.

At one point, while Bob and I stood next to the car waiting in the evening heat, a semicircle of Indian men from young to middle aged gathered to observe us curiously. No one addressed us, nor did we them, having no idea if people in this remote spot might know English. Some seemed to regard us as rare species; in their world we were. One sat on a nearby bench for at least a half hour after the others left. Maybe this was as close as he had come to the world beyond central India.

Daup returned to report that he couldn't find a phone but that he had come across a fellow driver whom he knew who would take us all back to a motel near the Agra-Jaipur midway point. And he assured us that if his car was not running by 10 o'clock Sunday morning, he would guarantee our return to the airport on time; he said he was giving us his word on it. Maybe we were travel weary, but after having concluded that we might not sleep at all this night we both slept soundly on that.

The motel offered us a large double room for 1000 rupees ($30 US), and although it was nice with a good bathroom, we had to count our rupees to see if we had enough. Meanwhile, they offered to lower the price to 700R, which we gladly accepted. We had just enough rupees left to buy bottled water (the tap water both here and in Russia is not safe for Westerners who have no immunity to bacteria it contains), a light supper, and breakfast the next morning. Work was still going on at the motel, but our room had completely marble floors and air conditioning as well as a ceiling fan, but only bottom (no top) sheets, no toilet paper, and no hot water for the shower. In light of all this, I felt the discount compared with 55 Hotel was well warranted. We had our light supper served in our room and breakfast at a table in the yard next morning, which caused Bob to remark, "I feel like a rich Englishman."

Daily expense tally—room, food, transit: $13

Sunday, May 19

The motel grounds were beautiful. It was a farm area not within sight of other dwellings, so it made a great spot for some video to contrast with most of what I'd been getting—the cacophony of Indian life.

To our almost shocked surprise, Daup was back, in "our" car, before 10 a.m. Bob was so surprised he actually hugged the driver. He and I agreed that the airport via the shortest route was our next destination, so we drove back toward Agra and on up to Delhi, stopping for lunch at the same restaurant as the day before. We had to borrow money from Daup (who offered—we didn't suggest it) to eat, as there was no exchange available and they didn't take our credit cards. We sensed that Daup may have feared breaking down would get him in trouble with his bosses, so although we had already paid for a room in Jaipur that we never got to use, feeling that Daup was completely a victim of circumstances and nothing he did or failed to do in the breakdown, we didn't discuss the breakdown or any refund for the room with his employers when we met two of them later at the airport.

We got to the airport around 6 p.m., but were relieved, for all the "near misses" that seem to be routine in Indian traffic, to be there even if five hours ahead of our scheduled flight and having seen only one "monument" up close on our $204 excursion. Though Bob particularly hated the danger of the drive, we both felt it good value in terms of miles covered, and I would have hated missing the Taj Mahal. I was more interested in seeing India in a wide array of conditions and types, and the tour had surely accomplished that.

Back to Delhi at the beginning of the monsoon season. Click > to play video. Double-click the image to make fullscreen.

While waiting with Daup for our laundry to arrive at an airport parking lot, Bob discovered that his trip ticket was missing. The laundry was delivered by two men from the tour company who assured Bob that losing the ticket shouldn't mean having to buy a new one. While the rest of us waited by the cars, Bob went inside to try to find a Delta Airlines representative. A bit later, Zaffer Boktoo of RBS Travel decided to follow Bob to see if he could help, which we felt he could, being a speaker not only of the local dialect but the tour industry patois as well. A few minutes later they were back, Bob saying that Delta had no representative here other than indirectly through Singapore Air, its partner on which we would be flying, and their first response was to tell him he would have to buy a new ticket and get Delta to reimburse him. They told him to come back at 8:15 after they'd had more time to consider the case.

Zaffer offered to help, but Bob thought there was nothing he could do even if they would allow him into the departure area of the airport, which they would not, as he was not holding a ticket. Zaffer and the other man from RBS then departed, and Bob and I told Daup there was no point in his waiting any longer. He reminded us that we hadn't repaid him for lunch, to our chagrin, and when we said we still had no rupees, he offered to take American money. I gave him $20 to cover the loan of about $6, and told him to keep the rest as our tip, with which Bob readily agreed. We bade Daup farewell and went to the departure terminal amidst much trepidation about Bob's having no ticket for the remaining portion of our trip. We decided to check our luggage in as early as possible, and while we were waiting in line to do so, a representative of Singapore Air whom Bob had spoken to earlier approached and handed Bob his ticket. Someone had found it in the WC and turned it in; Bob had been carrying it in a money belt around his waist, but the belt wasn't quite big enough for the ticket, and it must have worked out while he was using the toilet when we first arrived at the airport.

Our India adventure still wasn't over. Once securely on our Singapore Air flight waiting to depart at 11 p.m., the wait without the beginning of taxiing stretched from minutes to quarters of an hour. Finally the pilot came on and announced that a significant fuel leak had been detected and, although he didn't know how long it would take to fix, his best first guess would be 18 to 24 hours.

Determined to remain philosophical, I thought it ironic that, despite my intention to travel economy class, we would probably be spending the night in a first-class hotel at Singapore Air's expense. Maybe the Hilton...if there is a Hilton in Delhi. By the time I concluded that there probably weren't enough first class rooms in Delhi for the 400-some passengers on this plane, over two hours later, the pilot came on and announced that most of the work on the repairs was finished and we would be taking off in another hour. And so a night which had been scheduled as all-night aloft turned into an even later one. Once airborne, we had heavy turbulence most of the way to Singapore en route to Hong Kong, but nothing fell off. Apart from the turbulence and the three-hour push in our schedule, there were no problems. We both even managed to get a little sleep in the full 747.

Daily expense tally—room, food, transit: $29 (includes $14 gratuity to driver)



 © Jon Kennedy 1996, 2009