A large crack echoed along the street, followed by several loud pops. As children played and the streets filled with the smell of gunpowder, the fog seemed to thicken as day turned to night.
For a number of years the government have tried to improve the air quality in the city of Delhi during Diwali, but with little impact. The fire crackers were being set off well before dark, despite the restrictions only allowing for these to be lit between the hours of 8 and 10pm. A few people we spoke to had paid attention to this years rules, but most had not.
The pollution levels were so high my weather app was showing as ‘smoke’. The Air Quality Index (AQI) readings hit 999 – the scale doesn’t go any higher! By comparison, London on a bad day can reach around 60.
So, clearly this wasn’t good. However, it didn’t actually seem to impact me as such, for the first couple of days. I was aware of the dirtiness of the air but it wasn’t unbearable. In fact, I perhaps became too complacent and stupidly chose to not wear my mask that much.
As time passed, my immune system must have decided otherwise, as I started suffering from what I thought was a cold (note – I rarely get sick). After a week this became a sinus infection. Not ideal in the heat, so a nuisance really.
The city was surrounded by a haze during my last visit, 12 years ago. It’s just much worse now. India generally, is feeling the impact. The detrimental effect on the Taj Mahal has resulted in the Supreme Court ordering regular hearings with those responsible for its conservation.
If you can get past the pollution, and as I suggest, it didn’t seem that bad on the surface, then Delhi and of course India as well, is truly worth a visit.
However I do think it’s one of those places you either love or hate. I was curious to be heading back, and will definitely be going there again in the future. It’s a really amazing place if your stomach can take it!
It’s always interesting to return to a destination a few years on, and often see how it’s changed or experience other things. Particularly when a first visit tends to cover off the tourist sights rather than get under the surface.
India and Delhi in particular has changed, but they have n’t in many ways. What I experienced on my recent trip is just a small snippet, but the contrasts seemed so much more vast in comparison to 2006.
Around the city
Even knowing what to expect, the sheer number of vehicles and people, is difficult to comprehend when you first arrive. It also seemed far more chaotic than last time I was here. I concluded this was increased due to the holiday season and Diwali.
Tuk tuks, cyclos and motor bikes weave along the road, with little care for which side they should be driving on. The constant honking and beeping, and occasional yells made it very stressful to walk many of the streets.
It’s not that you feel unsafe, it’s just very difficult to navigate from A to B; even once you get used to the lack of structure and discipline that exists.
I had expected to see cows wandering in the road, causing disruption, as stray dogs scouted the gutters for scraps, but this was only the case once we ventured away from our hotel. Even the spitting culture I remembered seemed less of an issue. In fact the streets were marginally cleaner, although the rubbish problem remains.
The Swachh Bharat clean up campaign, initiated in 2014 by the PM, is making an impact in some areas. For example, there are more public toilets, but away from the city centre I still spotted guys peeing at the side of the road fairly regularly.
The metro, an addition since my previous visit, was very clean, and safe. However, the stares we endured each time we entered a carriage made us feel uncomfortable for the first day or two. I started to understand why there was a women only carriage at the front of every train.
There are more men than women, pretty much everywhere you go. Separate security lines for ladies (was the case in 2006 as well), made it very easy to get through. However, the men’s queue was always longer. As a Westerner, I stood out more as a women and women do need to be careful when travelling in India generally. More on that in another post. But, I never felt unsafe.
Time of year
When I was here previously, in August, it was the peak of summer. The temperature was significantly cooler this time, at the start of winter, in November. The latter is definitely a better time of year to visit.
The festivals at this time of year, bring back many families to Delhi so it’s certainly busier. We found a number of places were closed or closed early due to Diwali. Generally it was business as usual.
Walking the streets of Delhi on the night of Diwali was quite an experience. Aside from the smoke fumes, we felt welcome paying people’s homes as the curious faces turned to smiles.
In summary, Delhi seems much the same as it was 12 years ago.
I had assumed the traffic would have lessened a little, with the metro now available in many areas of the city. It certainly makes it much more pleasant to get around, avoiding the need to brave the crazy tuk tuk drivers.
The mix of sights and smells, on the senses, and total chaos in areas such as Old Delhi are what stick in my mind from my last visit. None of this has changed. I still felt like an excited traveller as I walked through Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. There is so much going on with all the smells, colours, rubbish and everything appearing all at once.
The key places to visit in Delhi include India Gate (war memorial), Jama Masjid (mosque), the Red Fort and Chandni Chowk. They are unchanged these past few years, other than the entry prices, increased security, segregated queues and camera fee for the mosque.
Plan a visit to India
Delhi certainly has been worth another visit. I’d recommend the well trodden ‘triangle’ after the capital for newbies. You should also prepare for a certain amount of culture shock. Goa is a great place to end with some beautiful beaches and less conservative attitude. In the heat, having to cover shoulders and knees isn’t a problem, and further south this becomes less of a necessity.
Unlike many of the places I have returned to after a few years, I don’t think India is going to change that much anytime soon.
With its chaotic streets, dusty alleyways and rubbish strewn corners. The love or hate feelings are part of the decision you make to visit or go elsewhere. For me the more times I visit the more I want to go back.
Check back for more from my recent visit, to find out what I got up to after a few days in Delhi.