Even before we left the terminal of Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi we could smell India. It was evocative of home after a bush fire, but with an undercurrent of filth, not just the ‘pure’ smoke. And this ‘smoke’ had a subtle physical presence, even within the building, as though my glasses needed a clean. Exiting through the sliding doors, the potent haze cast an atmospheric Casablanca like pall over the squawking, darting traffic.
We met our driver Anand and the owner of Intense India Tours, Anil, in the crowded arrivals hall. Both were lovely, smiling men who gave off friendly and kind vibes. The first thing they asked was did we need to change money? With the currency crisis in India, things are crazy with long lines at ATMs that are emptied almost as soon as they are filled. And ATM withdrawals are capped at 2,500 rps (about $50 AUD), and foreign money exchange is capped in both quantity and frequency (only once a week). Luckily, we had followed suggestions from recent travellers as well as our tour operator, Anil, and we had changed our currency in the luggage collection hall. Even with a 15 minute cue to change our currency, we were still through immigration, visa approval, customs and luggage collection all within an hour. Well done, Indira Gandhi International!
Anil and Anand escorted us through the throngs to the van, where they placed the traditional marigold garlands around our necks in welcome and reverence; the dark, underground carpark an odd setting for the ceremony. Our driver, Anand, skilfully manoeuvred our van out of the stack of multi-storied concrete and we were on our way. It was about a 45 minute drive to our hotel, Le Meridien, in the centre of New Delhi, and when we arrived at about 10:30pm, we were very glad of our bed.
Le Meridien Hotel
The Le Meridien Hotel was spacious and comfortable – lots of room to unpack, which is always nice for stays of more than one night. Although, the lighting was a little dark and ‘atmospheric’ for my liking; a good light by which to read is often overlooked by hotel designers. There was a choice of pillows for personal comfort needs and a bed that promoted a restful sleep. One negative thing was that the airconditioning kept turning itself on whenever the key card was removed from the power socket on leaving the room, reverting to 19˚C even when it had been set for a higher temperature. So we kept returning to a ‘too cool’ room. At least we could keep it off while we were in the room, which meant it didn’t get too cold over night (most of the time a cool room in India is not a problem, but remember that we were there in winter, when it drops to 11˚C).
The bed was super comfy and we both slept relatively well. We were very impressed with the executive inclusive breakfast in the Lounge, with me being thrilled by the gobi masala (spicy cauliflower), green Thai vegetable curry, roti, and a whole bunch of other savoury treats. Of course, they also had all the usual suspects to please westerners, including an omelette station and cereals, but I was smitten with the other spicier options.
We had some luck with the concierge being able to exchange $10 USD pp per day, it meant a non-hassle top up every day to keep things going in the way of tips and whatnot. We met Anard just after 9am and we set out for the day. The first thing we noticed was his good English – he had been particularly quiet the evening before, even when questions were directed to him, which made me wonder about our ability to communicate over the coming weeks, but actually, him deferring to Anil was a sign of respect for his boss – some bosses don’t like the drivers talking too much when they’re there, but apparently Anil is not like that.
During the drive to our first site of the day, Anard proceeded to give us some history about Delhi. Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, is glorious in its alternating red sandstone and white marble glory. Entry is free, but you have to pay 300 rps for each photo taking device on you, whether you take photos on it or not. Great to have the heads up from our driver – so we both left our phones in the car with Anand, and John took some stunning pics on his camera. We tipped the guys who ‘guard’ the shoes that you have to discard until leaving. Good to know that they will be there when we return! I had to wear a voluminous kaftan type thing (as did pretty much every western woman there) to cover up. The ‘flaw’ with my attire was that my long sleeved top was not long enough to cover my jeans clad butt.
The Red Fort was more of a ‘drive by’ experience. Many people online, as well as our guide and driver, did not particularly recommend it – especially when we were to see far more impressive edifices on our travels. Besides, with a day that started with a fog that grew to a light haze, there wouldn’t have been much to see from the top of the walls. At least John got a pic of the walls as we drove past.
Raj Ghat is the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi that stands in the middle of green parkland near Yamuna River. In the centre of a large courtyard is a black marble platform that marks the spot of Gandhi’s cremation, and an eternal flame burns to one side. We had to relinquish our shoes, just like in a temple, to walk in the internal courtyard of the memorial, right up to the edge of the monument. That is how revered that man is – it is a holy place.
Our exploration of Delhi continues…
Accommodation: Le Meridien Hotel, New Delhi
Tour Company: Intense India Tours
Read our full Delhi story here:
Part 1 (current): Old Delhi
Part 2: New Delhi