We got lost in Old Delhi. I don’t mean that we got lost in the splendor of Old Delhi, I mean we were lost and had no idea how to find our hotel. We asked for directions, but people didn’t understand or they ignored us and walked away.
Old Delhi is reputed to be overwhelming for Westerners. It’s recommended not to go on your first day in Delhi. So on our second day, we ventured there to see the sites: Lal Qila, called the Red Fort, and Chandni Chowk, the renowned Old Delhi market. This street market is the epitome of the busy, crowded, noisy street scenes we associate with India.
The small shops are narrow and jam-packed with merchandise, from elegant bridal outfits, jewelry, western clothes, socks and handkerchiefs, jewelry, toys, flat screen TVs, it goes on and on. There are food shops, too, selling cooked items, sweets and ice cream. Then, under the arcades and on the sidewalks vendors selling similar wares set up makeshift shops, crowding the sidewalks and leaving little space for pedestrians.
On the street, every type of vehicle tries to make its way: cars, buses, tuk-tuks, bicycle rickshaws, pushcarts, horse-drawn carts. Amongst them, pedestrians trying to cross the road or move more quickly than the sidewalk traffic. And always, the noise of touts shouting their wares, of bells, of horns, of motors, of drivers soliciting passengers, of friends calling to each other, of chanting from the temples.
On the sidewalks, shoppers walk single file, more or less, through this gauntlet of merchants. I found I had to watch every step not to bump into someone, or step on something, or be bumped into. After about an hour walking in this maelstrom, we looked for a tuk-tuk or bicycle rickshaw that would take us home. Drivers did not seem to know where our hotel was and instead offered to take us to tourist sites for what seemed like outrageous amounts of money. We refused and kept walking. We decided we could make it there on foot.
We navigated as best we could, making several turns that we thought were in the direction of our hotel. The lanes were getting narrower. By now, we were in the tin-ware section of the market, far from the tourists’ or general shoppers’ areas. It would be dark in an hour. We had to admit that our small map was useless and that we were totally lost.
Only bicycle rickshaws could manage the lane we were on. We tried hiring one – some drivers said no outright, others rode away without looking at us. No one understood English. One, without asking where we wanted to go, said he would take us for 500 rupees, a very high sum. A second approached and said he would do it for 400 rupees, still without asking our destination.
Fortunately, a man sitting in front of a nearby shop came to our rescue. He spoke English and called over a rickshaw driver he seemed to know. He negotiated for us and told us that for 30 rupees the driver would take us to where a motorized rickshaw, a tuk-tuk, would take us the rest of the way.
Riding in the rickshaw and afterwards the tuk-tuk, we realized how very far we were from our hotel and how very lost we had been. Luckily, a kind shopkeeper was there to rescue a couple of lost tourists.