Saturday, July 30, 2011

Photos of Paharganj (and some advice for where to stay in Delhi)

For tourists on shoe-string budgets, Paharganj is usually the first introduction to India. Often it is a difficult and depressing introduction.

Located conveniently close to the railway station, this area of Delhi is a mess of ramshackle buildings, signalling quite clearly the tourist's arrival into the third world.

Main street area, just outside Delhi Railway station

Street view further ahead

There is a bazaar area near the station, where there are small eateries and many tour operators. This market has had a total make-over, and now houses a smart-looking set of shops that sell everything a tourist needs - inexpensive food, fruits, suitcases, chain padlocks for safety, money purses, toiletries etc. And of course, there are many shops offering hotel, road transport, train and flight ticket booking.

Amrit Kaur Market, with uniform facades in blue and grey

Vaishno Dhaba and Bajaj Hotel, offering pure vegetarian fare

A typical Paharganj scam is to have a signboard that lets tourists think they have walked into a government tourist office. Although frankly, you have to be a very naive tourist to actually believe the hole-in-the-wall shop in this photo is something official :)

Shops with misleading signboards - the usual Paharganj scam

Similarly, this shop below, which is opposite the exit gate of the Railway station, says "Government Authorised", but I wonder what exactly they are authorised for!

I wish the Tourism Department would do a clean sweep one day, and get rid of misleading signboards

Once you move a little away from the station area, you can see lots of lanes which have hotels and guesthouses in them. As far as I can tell, there seems to be no local population in this area, it has only hotel after hotel, and the only people you see are cooks, waiters, doormen, touts and other tourists. There are very few women around either.

This to me is the most depressing aspect of Paharganj - everything and everybody is geared to make money off tourists. If travel is about understanding local culture, the last place on the planet where you will find it is Paharganj, because this area is like an artificial zone that came up just to deal with tourists. You have to develop rhino armor-plating to deal with the insistent touts.

Typical street with hotel after hotel, facing each other.
Rooms are usually small and dingy, and naturally there are no views.

In the middle of this stuff, you sometimes come across "nicer" buildings with higher tariffs. The Ajanta for instance, has a colonial facade and a moustachioed doorman. There is something incongruous about these hotels, actually, because they are located on these small lanes where everything else around them is seedy. My opinion is, if you can afford to pay a little more money, then get out of this area and stay elsewhere (the tripadvisor site has lots of inexpensive little B&Bs where you can stay in nicer areas, I've stayed at several of them myself).

The Ajanta Hotel, which has an amusing 'wannabe' website with an American host introducing the hotel :)

To me actually the most interesting place in Paharganj was this tiny shop, which serves food to the staff who work at the shops and hotels. Here I found a bunch of guys getting on with their daily routine of cutting and chopping onions. They have a make-shift gas burner and by noon, they will have piping hot food ready. I would have liked to come back here at lunch hour to catch real people eating real food, and perhaps I would have heard a couple of interesting stories of migrants to Delhi.

Maa Bhagvati Restaurant, named after the goddess Kali

In spite of Paharganj being what it is, there are still lots of people who stay here. It thrives because it is very convenient for the rail station, and also because there is no other place in Delhi that will give you rooms at Rs 1000 or even less. Another positive aspect is that you get to meet lots of other tourists, backpackers mostly, and there's a sense of community that you get from those interactions. You can trade 'survivor' stories, laugh off your Delhi Belly with other victims, and admire 'veteran' tourists who have met and conquered Paharganj's seedy scams. In fact, these veterans won't stay anywhere else even if they can afford it :)

If you've made up your mind to stay in Paharganj, then I've heard good recommendations for Hotel Cottage Yes Please or Hotel Hari Piorko on the tripadvisor forums, but I haven't been there, so I don't know the tariff. My own pick for an inexpensive hotel would be the Ginger Rail Yatri Niwas, the budget hotel chain of the Taj group. It is located at the Railway Station, and is very convenient if you want to take the morning train to Agra. I've stayed at other Ginger hotels in India and they are smart, inexpensive and safe.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Safari on the Chambal River - weekend getaway from Delhi

If you enjoy the outdoors and birding, then I would highly recommend spending a night at the Chambal Safari Lodge near Agra.

Motorboats in which you go on the Chambal River

Chambal Safari Lodge. Not luxurious, but very peaceful and gracious.

Our knowledgeable guide knew exactly how to approach wildlife
(without letting the motor scare them off, and he was a good birder as well)

The seats are fortunately not wooden slats :) There is some cushioning!

And the sightings are excellent!

We saw lots and lots of birds, even though we went at the end of the season when the lodge was almost closing up for summer. The last of the winter migrants were still in evidence. My old camera was simply not good enough for anything but the most basic of photos so I've only posted a couple above. I saw my first sighting of the graceful sarus cranes here. The National Chambal Sanctuary includes over 300 species of birds, both resident and migratory. It is home to the rare Indian skimmer, and also the place where you can see the gharial (in the pic above) and crocodiles. We also saw turtles.

Apart from the river safari, the Lodge also organises nature walks, camel safaris, horse safaris, jeep safaris and village visits. They also organise excursions to the nearby Bateshwar temples. I wish I had more time! I would have liked to explore this area in a more relaxed manner.

But really, even if all you have is a weekend, Chambal Safari Lodge is really a lovely way to spend it! There are only a limited number of cottages, this is not a place for someone who wants air-conditioning or 24x7 room service, but it's a great place for all nature lovers. Do read more about all their environment-friendly practices as well as the contributions they are making to eco-sensitive tourism before you visit!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Delhi by Metro tour...good things happening!

For the past two years, Delhi Magic has been running "Delhi by Metro", an offbeat and fun tour of Old and New Delhi. The tour uses local transport and is a great way to see Delhi through the eyes of young students who are residents of Delhi.

The tour is a unique partnership between us and Manzil, a non-profit that works with young people from non-affluent families. Guides for the tour are students from Manzil.

Deepa Krishnan (Delhi Magic), and Ravi Gulati (founder of Manzil)

The tour has become very popular, and for many visitors to India, it is one of their trip highlights.

Sandra Ghattas loves her solo Delhi by Metro tour.
Like all young women who visit India solo, Sandra was looking for a safe and interesting experience of Delhi. It was the first stop in her Golden Triangle tour. On her very first day, she met Nisha and Asit, who introduced her to the city, took her on a Metro ride, a green auto-rickshaw ride, and a cycle-rickhaw as well. They explored the chaotic and interesting bazaars of Old Delhi (Mughal Delhi) and also the impressive monuments of New Delhi (British Delhi).

Nisha and Asit are among the 10 students who we have trained so far, to become tour guides for the Delhi by Metro tour. Over the past 2 years, we have done over 100 such tours, not just for solo travellers, but also for travel groups made up of family/friends, researchers, teachers, non-profit foundations and so on. What makes me really happy is that the tours have run to high quality, and they have run profitably. Moneys from the tour have benefited not just the guides, but also Manzil as well as Delhi Magic. Tourists have gained an authentic introduction to "real" people in the city and their daily lives, instead of dealing with the usual tourism professionals. And, most important, they've had a load of fun!

My vision for this tour is simple:
  • I would like the tour to provide a means of income for the guides, so that they can continue their education without financial difficulties.
  • I would like the guides to learn about their own city's history, share it with tourists from different parts of world, and gain self-confidence and social skills in the process.
  • If any of these guides want to make a career in tourism, I would like this tour to provide a sort of early training ground, a place where they can take some baby-steps towards financial independence.
  • Ultimately, I want them to develop full-fledged careers of their own, in their own chosen fields, become fully independent, and fly away from the nest :) That will then make way for fresh batches of guides.
I am very lucky (and happy) that I am able to see this vision come true in such a short span. It is a tribute to the hard work and success of these students that two of them are leaving this year for study programs in the USA. Another fresh batch of students is now being trained to do the tour. Here are photos from my visit to Delhi last week, when I met some of them and gave them the first part of the training orientation:

Sitting in the Delhi Magic office: everyone has been handed their tour scripts

Prep work: Looking through maps and getting familiar with tour routes, reading handouts, registering names and addresses

My talented friend Shilpi will be doing further field-training sessions for these students, taking them through New Delhi and Old Delhi, and demonstrating how the tour is to be done. A compulsive walker, amateur photographer, foodie and tree hugger, Shilpi is a proud ‘Dilliwali’ and loves to take people on offbeat trails around the city. I can't think of anyone better than her to do this training!

Once Shilpi is done with her training, we will put the new guides on a 'buddy-system' where they tag along with the older guides, to see how tours are done. After some experience with it, we'll give them tours of their own to run. I expect that by Oct, this new batch will be ready to try tours on their own.

I am really looking forward to seeing how this new group shapes up.