Two different days in Delhi, 2 very different stories for this girl to come home with.
First time in Old Delhi
Nothing fills me with more excitement than landing in a new city. I was (not-so) fresh off a 14-hour flight from Melbourne but it was mid-afternoon in Delhi and to go to bed now felt like a massive waste. Luckily, I’d found a walking tour of Old Delhi online a few days prior and had booked a place, thinking I’d cancel if I wasn’t up to it.
It took a painful amount of time to get through the eVisa line at the airport and then longer to transfer from the airport to the hotel than I expected (because: traffic) so Deepak, my tour guide, was already waiting in the hotel lobby when I checked in. With no time to doubt my decision I changed quickly into cooler yet conservative clothing, washed my face, spritzed my pits and set off towards the metro station with Deepak at a spritely pace.
I’d chosen a walking tour of Old Delhi as I wanted to see the arm’s length wide lanes, bustling bazaars and trails of tuk tuk I’d always imagined finding in Delhi. With a warning about holding onto my bag, Deepak led me straight into the commercial heart of Chandni Chowk and as a western woman in all black clothing I was as conspicuous as a canary.
I quickly noticed that some streets seemed to be completely devoid of women depending on what they were selling. Chandi Chowk is Asia’s largest wholesale market and whole streets are dedicated to just one type of item. We started with the steel works and made our way to the spices via a lane for wedding invitations.
It was in the wedding lane that I suddenly found all the female shoppers. In saris the same colour as the decorations, women wove from shop to shop filling baskets with trinkets, cards and decorations for upcoming celebrations.
Despite the large number of crowds throughout Chandi Chowk’s lanes I didn’t feel intimidated. Sure, I got bumped into in a way that might start a fight in Westfield, but I learned to hug my bag, keep my elbows out and bumper car my way through the crowds like everyone else.
We did come to one impasse though. A crossroads in the heart of the market, where men pulling trolleys, rickshaws carrying tourists, delivery men with impossible loads on their heads and shoppers going about their business all came to a deadlock. Nobody wanted to give way. Some people started climbing over the trolleys, rickshaws and humans and somehow Deepak wound his way through all the motorcycles and men and wanted me to do the same.
I couldn’t see ground large enough to place one foot and knew my bum was too big to weave around the backs of bikes like he did. Starting to panic, I was standing immobile outside a packed shop when thankfully the owner spotted me. He beckoned with his hands and pointed to a tiny gap between his shop front and the pavement. Go in, he ushered, and I did – squeezing into that tiny corner until the worst of the crush had lessened a little. Thankfully, Deepak realised he had lost his charge and made his way back to me, both of us waving and thanking the shop owner as we departed.
Second time in Old Delhi
Two days later I’d been introduced to the blogger group I was about to board the Maharajas’ Express with and was offered a tour of Old Delhi before departing on the train that evening. The itinerary, it turned out, would cover much the same streets and sites that I’d already been to, but keen to see more of Delhi and have the knowledge of what it’s like in a bigger group, I joined for a second visit.
This time around there were about 15 of us tourists and rather than walking we were going to explore most of Chandni Chowk by rickshaw. It was probably these 2 things that made my guard slip a little.
It was now the weekend and Chandi Chowk was busier than on my previous visit. (I didn’t think that statement was possible but it turns out to be so!) As our rickshaws headed away from the Red Fort and into the heart of the market we made slower and slower progress. Our first stop came with treats though, we were visiting one of Delhi’s most famous jalebi wallahs to try freshly made jalebi. The rickshaws got as near as they could and some of our group hopped off to get a look at the goods.
The jalebi shop was on the corner of a cross-section, which much like the lane I’d got stuck in previously, was so clogged with congestion that people started climbing over our rickshaw. (One of the drivers in our group actually got clubbed around the head by a disgruntled pedestrian.)
I hopped down from my rickshaw and tried to join the group outside the shop but the crowd flowing in the opposite direction to where I needed to be just seemed to be pushing me backwards. Telling myself not to be such a wimp I looked for ways to jump through the foot traffic but was distracted by someone tugging my leg. I looked down and, through feet that seemed to be stomping right on him, saw a small one-legged beggar in torn-off trousers sitting on the pavement. Taken aback by his unlikely and precarious appearance I tried to give the boy a wide birth so as not to walk on him too and it was while focusing on this that a man firmly placed his hand somewhere it shouldn’t be.
I was trapped, unable to move between the rickshaws, the beggar and the foot traffic flowing across the front of me, and some unidentifiable man in this flow of people reached out and rubbed my thigh, all the way round as he walked past me.
Before I could shout he was swallowed by the crowd but not before I gave a hard shove to the shoulder of the suspected culprit, I couldn’t handle the idea of there being no repercussions for him.
After that I lost my appetite for jalebi. I turned around, got back in the rickshaw and waited for the group to finish their jalebi without me.
Thoughts on female travel in India
I spent most of my time in India with a group of 9 females, I am the only one who has a story like the second one you’ve just read. Outside of congested parts of Delhi we didn’t encounter a single incidence of ‘eve-teasing’ (the name given to chancers in India who use crowded spaces to cop a feel).
It’s no secret that female safety has been an issue in India though and I didn’t want my coverage to unfairly portray that my time was all roses. Neither did I want to scare-monger women with just the second story. Because the truth is this was my second visit to India and it won’t be my last. The number of men, women and children I met who showed kindness far outweigh this one chancer.
I do recommend women take precautions though and, as shown by my experience, this goes for whether you are travelling solo or in a group.
- Have your wits about you at all times and elbows out in a crowd, if necessary. The writer from the Nat Geo piece linked below also suggests wearing your backpack on your front to prevent “accidental” brushing – which is pretty much what I did with my handbag.
- Arrange private tours with a driver or guide that’s got your back and avoid walking in the more crowded streets – hop in a tuk tuk or rickshaw for a little more privacy.
- I recommend dressing in a way that is respectful of the culture and makes you feel comfortable but be aware that conservative clothes don’t make you immune from harassment – I was wearing a loose dress over trousers with a long kaftan over both in the second story, it was no deterrent.
- Finally, do your research. Skip places that make you feel uneasy but please don’t be deterred from visiting this beautiful country.
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