On the Ground in Paharganj – New Delhi, India
The mirror from a speeding motorbike left a red mark on my right arm. I saw the driver nonchalantly bend it back into position to ready for impact with the next pedestrian.
I focused my attention back to the Lonely Planet map I had cut out of the monstrous, five-pound tome on India. The map was wrong; my guesthouse wasn’t where it should have been in the maze of alleys, rooftops, and passageways. Stopping to study the map was my first mistake in Paharganj, New Delhi.
Everyone knows you shouldn’t stop moving on the street. Never stop moving.
I had slowed down just enough to allow the begging women, limp kid in one arm, to grab onto my arms. Merchants and hustlers, all of which knew I was a newbie because of the luggage tag waving from my backpack, smelled fresh meat and moved in for the opportunity.
I was surrounded.
I slipped between them as they argued over who got to rip me off first, nearly stepping into a fresh pile of steaming crap from a stray cow. The revered animal that produced the green obstacle stood motionless, staring at me and chewing indignantly. We met gazes for a brief moment; it was completely unaffected by the insanity swirling around me.
I turned around to bust three dirty little boys throwing rocks at me, full force. The little monsters were pelting the back of my legs with stones, then hiding behind cover. I jumped back into the endless stream of honking traffic to lose them. The noise was deafening.
I was told over and over that India would be an assault on my senses, but I had no idea that it would also be an assault on my body — well at least until I ate something that I wasn’t supposed to.
‘Assault on the senses’ is far too weak of an expression. Onslaught or complete devastation of the senses would barely do more justice. Think: all out nuclear war!
I could say that my welcome to India was a rocky one, but that wouldn’t be fair. India is more than massive, and so far all I had seen was Paharganj — a small, dirty slum in New Delhi that is now the backpacker district.
Paharganj is so chaotic, otherworldly, and downright miserable that it’s also laughable. Who would have thought that dumping a bunch of lost, newbie backpackers with pockets full of travel funds into a hellhole of a slum in New Delhi would be a good idea? Was it some sort of cruel, twisted joke?
There was a pretty good idea in my head that I would get my butt kicked in India for the first few days; I was right. Even still, I remember that I thought the same about Bangkok at one time, as well as remote Indonesia, China, Egypt, and lots of other places where people stare at you. Now those places don’t phase me. It could take years to add India to that list.
A woman has dumped a bucket of some horror from a second-story window onto the busy street below. She ducked inside to avoid the angry shouts. The cacophony of horns continued to blast all sense of direction right out of my tired brain.
My rucksack suddenly became heavier. In my peripheral I could only see a thin, dirty arm holding onto it, and me.
I finally found my guesthouse and regrouped up on the rooftop, sweat making brown streams out of the dust on my face. Paharganj is full of rooftop restaurants and cafes where travelers hide in the shadows to watch the madness below. Rooftops are the only safe haven because you sure as hell won’t survive sitting or standing on the street!
The few travelers that I encountered, the people I was hoping would show me the ropes for India, were largely useless as well. Most were newbies and just as freaked out as I was — experienced travelers know not to stay in Paharganj. Female travelers literally ran in off of the street, stressed expressions on their faces, and went straight to their rooms. The few I met told me how many times their boobs were grabbed by oily-handed men on their way home.
I sure didn’t expect Thailand’s Khao San Road backpacker scene when I arrived, but I highly suggest staying somewhere else in New Delhi when you visit. Paharganj is a place where threadbare dreams come to be crushed into the dust by rattling rickshaws.
In fact, the only time I saw someone smile in Paharganj was when they were taking money from someone else’s hand. Money seems to be the universal hope for everyone, the substance that can deliver them from their dusty, horn-blasting misery.
This neighborhood of New Delhi is the culmination of bad karma, a place where humans have quit caring and created a living hell. It is to be despised and escaped. Vendors refill bottles with tap water — you have to check the seals. They are willing to poison fellow human beings with parasites to get 15 cents closer to escaping this place.
Every travel writer, particularly Lonely Planet writers, is guilty of spinning a miserable place into a positive light. Here’s how the India Tourism Board could promote Paharganj as the next big honeymoon destination:
Honeymoon in Paharganj!
Want something different for you and your new wife? Looking for new food and an unforgettable experience? Well, forget quiet islands and sunny beaches, we’ve got it all!
- Divulge in delicious delicacies such as last week’s vegetables floating in recycled oil. Or try our curry mutton platter — the unrefrigerated storage really brings out the natural flavors of the mutton.
- Don’t worry about food being too spicy, our untrained, underpaid staff of teenage boys who prepare meals don’t use any seasonings anyway. Those black specks aren’t pepper, they’re bits scraped from the uncleaned wok. All meals include at least one complimentary arm hair.
- And don’t mind those broken seals on the water bottles, Paharganj tap water is renown throughout the world for the quality of parasite that we breed here.
- After dinner, relax to a soundtrack of blasting horns and angry shouts as you and your lovely wait in turn to squat on the toilet. You’ll thank us later when our food keeps your new bride thinner than when you met her!
- Feeling tired from your after-dinner purge? Not feeling as frisky as your bride? Well, don’t worry, the men on the streets of Paharganj are lined up to knead her Western boobs/bottom like naan dough. Let your wife run our gauntlet while showing one inch of white skin — she’ll be patted, squeezed, and poked like never before, all while you relax on the toilet.
- Don’t worry about her falling asleep early, our men will honk their horns around the clock below your street-facing window to ensure maximum time together.
- Cows. You love ‘em. We love ‘em. We’ve got ‘em!
Terms and Conditions
- Bedbugs and their associated eggs come at no additional cost to yourself.
- Anything our staff finds on your person or in your room is considered no longer your property
- All visitors to Paharganj for longer than one week will be required to wear baggy pants and/or get at least one facial piercing and tattoo to begin their spiritual quest.
OK, enough of that…
Now that I’ve thoroughly talked you into a honeymoon in Paharganj, the bigger picture:
India is in a struggle with China to essentially take over as the next world superpower, and they have the resources and intelligence to do so. Don’t think for a minute that I considered Paharganj the best that India could offer.
Much of the world’s amazing secrets and philosophies originated in India then crossed the Himalayas into China, including the Shaolin, energy studies, and kung fu that I love so much. Despite the deterioration of humanity that I encountered in Paharganj, this subcontinent is magical.
And despite having only three months to sample India, I’m going to find it. I booked a nightbus north to the green foothills and snowy mountains where levitating gurus and masters still hide. Or at least friendlier people.
After years of waiting to see India, I have arrived.
Next stop: Seeing the Dalai Lama in McLeod Ganj!