Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sightseeing in New Delhi

After all that weeks of finding a flat and still getting used to the India I finally found some time for doing some sightseeing. Initially I was told that there is not too many interesting places and buildings to visit, but by the time it seems to me that you cannot start early enough to start with Delhi’s sights!

When we normally talk about Delhi, then we should be aware of the presence of New and Old Delhi. While Old Delhi was founded in 1639 and has been the capital of the Mughal dynasty, New Delhi was only built during the 1920s when the British decided to change their Indian capital back from Calcutta to New Delhi. So far the sightseeing tours of the last weeks only brought us closer to New Delhi, which is located in the centre and southern part of the joint city. Anyway, despite the relatively young age of Delhi, we were discovering ancient heritages from a time very much beyond the city’s foundation.

As you might remember, I once tried to visit the India Gate, but my plans were rained off. So the first time Jessyca, Sven and me went to the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the India Gate in the centre of Delhi. The Rashtrapati Bhavan is the Official Residence of the Head of the State, the place where India’s President Smt. Pratibha Devisingh Patil officially sits. India’s government buildings are protected really well, and there are usually a lot of military people with their big, but old guns… When we were there the doors were even closed and we could only take pictures from far away.

Apart from the similarity of the above statue and our German chancellor, the whole complex was not so much fun and seemed very restricted and dead. Thus we rather explored the other Government buildings, which are connected to India’s centre of power. Exploring on your own always means a bit to guess what these buildings are, but as much as we could get out of the securing gun people was that the following buildings were different ministries like the Ministry of External Affairs and the Parliament House. As well as in the entire city, these buildings currently get a new face to show all the expected visitors for the Commonwealth Games that Delhi has a lot of money. Unfortunately the finishing dates are unlikely to meet, because the Games start in only a few weeks and construction works have not yet been completed. Even on the pictures here you can see everything else then construction workers on the scaffold.

From where India’s Government debates you can already see the India Gate. In just 15 minutes you can walk there, or you catch a rickshaw. We, of course, preferred walking… >but it was not easy to make that clear to some of the drivers. One was almost following us for the whole way and reduced his price continuously. At the end he was joking to even give us money, if he could drive us ;-) We then reached the crowded gate, which is a memorial to 90000 Indian soldiers that died in several wars. All their names are carved in the stone and on the top the following line is inscribed: "To the dead of the Indian armies who fell honoured in France and Flanders Mesopotamia and Persia East Africa Gallipoli and elsewhere in the near and the far-east and in sacred memory also of those whose names are recorded and who fell in India or the north-west frontier and during the Third Afghan War."

Another day Jenny (a New Zealandish friend I met when I was trying to find a roommate), Sven and me drove in south-east direction to visit the Lotus Temple and the Iskcon Temple. Since these two sights give you a better opportunity to take part in them, it was also more interesting then the gray and standstill Government buildings.

The Lotus Temple is shaped as a lotus flower and attracts million of people from all over the world, mostly because it is a worshipping place for all different religions on the planet! Here they are meant to celebrate their existence in respect to the other religions. The garden where the temple stands is quite nice and invites to relax, if there would not be all the security people again, which tell you not to go on the grass. I don’t lose the impression that India is kind of ruling in their people’s life… Inside the temple you are not allow to wear shoes nor talk a word, but therefore it is a thoughtful atmosphere, where you also can see a lot of traditional dressed visitors.

In walking distance from the Lotus Temple another pilgrim destination is placed. The Iskcon Temple is a quite big and famous Hare Krishna temple and with a monk school and also a guest house. Similar to most of the Hare Krishna places you can walk the x steps and pray the “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama” x times to gain the Absolute Truth. Besides that you can also get impressed by the unique architecture and the red, white and blue colours. Since it is still monsoon time it was again raining heavily, so we were sitting under a stand letting time run. What a meditative task! As one of the highlights a religious ceremony will be held at a certain time. What’s happening then is kind of crazy in the eye’s of people who have no clue what’s happening there, me included. The temple itself opens and people start rolling on the floor and kissing the ground while Hare Krishna music is performed by some monks. Everybody worships different gods symbolised by figures of Shiva or Hanuman…

Sights in Delhi are quite far away from each other and if you don’t want to ride a rickshaw all the time, then biking is a good opportunity to get some orientation in your city. The only problem is the bad traffic, on which you have to get used first, but riding my bicycle in Berlin is a fair enough practise, although I fast had to upgrade my not existing “it’s my turn” attitude. Otherwise I would never have a chance to go on the street, because you really have to force others to give you way… One day Sunny (an Indian friend) and his buddy Christopher and me went on a six hour bike trip through the south of Delhi and cycled to the famous Qutub Minar and the Tughlaqabad Fort and head a really great time. It started with breaking the bicycle locker of my borrowed bike, because none of the keys were working. Therefore the construction workers from my neighbour house were trying all their tools from hammers, to tongs, to a saw and more and more people were gathering until it finally was ready to go. Sunny and Chris were waiting already…. As I mentioned already the chaos on the street is not that easy to handle and after I got used to driving in the rickshaw, cycling in Delhi is another level. Some of you might know that it’s damn hot at the moment, but the approximately 33 degrees were not the only problem. A humidity of more than 80 % was making sweat running as hell and so it was no surprise that we all drank some bottles of water and ate four ice-creams each ;-) By the way, I got one of those old Indian bikes! They are heavy and when you go in a curve, then the handle bar stuck on your knees, but it is still a really nice cycling feeling. It kind of feels as I image riding a Harley must be.

When we have arrived Qutub Minar, we as tourists were facing an entry fee which is 50 times as high as the one for Indians, but after all it is still ok. We had to pay 250 rupees (a bit more than 4 Euros) and could skip the long queue. The tower inside the area was not just the only attraction to some of the visitors and so it came that we were also kind of distracted from exploring the old ruins. The reason was that a lot of the Indian tourists wanted to have pictures with us and friendly as we are we initially said yes to everybody. If you imagine how much Indians are in Delhi, you can guess that we soon decided to not sustain this mission and had to disappoint some of our fans. Finally finding time for the ruins, we discovered a really nice complex from the 11th century. I think the tower is more than 72 m high and it was not easy to get it on one picture! Therefore the closer pictures were easier to take and you can see the beautiful reliefs. After walking around and getting lost for about an hour, we went back to our bikes and drove to the next destination.

Besides cars and rickshaws, cows also count as frequent traffic participants in India… As I mentioned we had some ice-creams and also Momo’s on the way there. Momo’s are a very preferable dish! These small steamed doe pockets are either filled with veggies or with chicken and are very delicious. Sunny and Chris just had the pleasure of eating them ;-)

Without any tourists in the wide garden of Tughlaqabad Fort, we really found a pearl of Delhi’s locations. Who likes nature and green will love this ruins, because it’s a calm place where nature is taking back, what once belonged to her. The composition of the green trees and bushes with the reddish walls and the sun set was really worth to cycle the 6 hours. Actually we were supposed to see some monkeys here, but obviously they had better things to do. Instead we were sitting on a brick wall and observed the on-goings in the close-by slum, which was really interesting. Some-how we enjoyed time so much, that the security guards had to come and tell us that they would like to close…

Sightseeing in Delhi can be a lot, exhausting or relaxing, full of tourists or very empty… you can visit buildings or scenic sceneries, read a lot before or just explore them on your own. In any cases you need a lot of time, because either something happens (breaking the bike locker first) or you have to go far, but most of the times it’s worth all the affords.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The 'finding a flat' odyssey

Alright guys, the day has come that I finally don’t want to keep you in suspense about my flat situation. As you know, I was mentioning in earlier blog entries that I was struggling to get settled in Delhi. This is due to the fact that living in Delhi can be quit expensive, although we al have the impressing India is a cheap country! The house market here can easily earn the attribute ‘incredible’ like most of things here, but why is it so expensive? First, I should tell you that most of the expats are living in South Delhi, because it is close the Jawaharlal Nehru University, to the offices of Multi National Companies (MNCs) and although close to Gurgaon, which is an outpost 30 km out of Delhi and hosts many, many MNCs. South Delhi is also a nice area with parks and some Bars and Clubs. Therefore it is easy to imagine what’s happening to rent prices in that area. Foreigners are usually paid very well and can afford high living standard and also rent prices, but this is not the main issue. The problem lies in the subsidy policy of most of the MNCs, because their employees often have to pay for a certain rent limit, the rest is paid by the company. That means it doesn’t matter, how high prices are and if you like a flat or an apartment you just bid the highest price! It is a classical market failure and landlords and agents are pretty aware of that. But let us get back to my story, because I can’t go for luxury apartments anyway and were looking for a basic flat, most likely a place where I could get a real Indian experience. Most of the people I know are paying around 15000 Rupees (250 Euros) for a room in a shared flat, but don’t think that they get some really nice place. All of us are faced to power cuts each week, some don’t have running water for some days… Some rooms don’t have windows and others are just far away from work.
From that perspective I was lucky enough that I could stay at another interns place for some days (thanks to Hannah) from where I shifted to a friends place for more then a week (thanks to Caro). That gave me the time for browsing for the right flat. If anybody every comes to Delhi and needs a room to rent, you should get enrolled into the yahoo group ‘yuni-net’, an expat forum which deals with all sort of issues people face here. From subletting rooms, finding roommates to selling bikes or giving travel advices there is something for everybody.
The days in Caro’s flat were pretty much fun, because a lot of here friends were coming and going every day. I could also make friends and get more advices on the flat market. We were exploring the neighbourhood in Safdarjung and I literately fell in love with that district. It is pretty much the Indian experience what I was looking for, and could still give me all daily needs and the security I was used to. After having seen all lot of markets, buzzing life and open streets as well as construction sites, Caro and Gitanjali show me the more relaxing side of Safdarjung. It was a very impressing and stunning moment, when we suddenly stood in the District Park, a peaceful green garden with some old ruins and a lake.

The Indian society is just coming out off the centuries of arranged marriages and the parts of women and men in relationships are also slowly getting to become more equal, but still it is almost a bad behaviour to show love in the presence of others. Therefore it’s really common the young Indians go in the parks, hiding from other and can finally be together. Anyway, it is not a guarantee that it works out as the case of the above picture is showing.

Just next to District Park the Deer Park - another place where creatures which love to hide - accommodates a lot of deer as you can see on the next picture.

Another nice facility in the Safdarjung district we discovered at the same weekend and learned loving it already. My Berlin friends will probably understand, when I’m saying I found a second “Sandmann”! The place I’m talking about is a billard “club”, which entry sign was hanging almost on the level of the ground, because its stairs are going down into the basement. Club is also not the right word, but if you like random places, where you can bring your own beer (usually a beer in a club in Delhi costs at least 360 Rupees/6 Euro) and play billard and pool at 4 different tables for a price, which makes expats laugh, then ask me for how to get there...

They streets of Safdarjung host all sort of shops, from the guy, who sells men’s articles to the plastic shop to the grain and flower shop to the food stand to the tailor to the pharmacy to the juice maker... every shop is specialised on some kind of product range. Fruit and vegetable marketeers are pulling their wooden wagons through the small, dirty and smelling streets. Along Hindi temples and ashrams you’ll find a lot of dogs straying around, and also holy cows...You really get an “Indian experience”! As you can see, I really fell in love with Safdarjung. Thus it was obligatory that I was looking for an apartment in this area, especially since it’s only a few minutes away from work and rent prices seemed less expensive than in other parts of South Delhi.

The decision was made. I wanted to live in Safdarjung, so I just had to seek for some people, who were in the need of a roommate and then I soon could have settled. Different it came, because I had to notice that there were not too much room offers in my favourite district and after seeing only one place in a week, I decided to get my own flat and look for a roommate on my own. From the homeless arrive I have run through the stage of a room seeker to finally become a roommate-seeker. But not so fast, I still had to find my future flat. How I did that? Well, I think this was Indian-Andreas way of trying, because I was just asking people on the streets. Initially, I still asked them for only available rooms, but some-when I met a guy, who was finally showing me different apartments from the really shabby class up to proper Indian styled places. The last place I couldn’t resist so I was even willing to pay for the two rooms and also a high agent fee since it turned out that all the motorbike rides to the different flat were not just favours to me! Anyway, I had a good feeling and thought that it’s easy the sublet the other room. At the end it should have turned out as a very much cheaper option than these other expat apartments, but I already tell you that this flat was not the last place what I called my home. Anyway, I spend a nice week in Arjun Nagar, in between two temples, where people regularly gathered for singing mantra and holding other religious ceremonies. Just in front of the building was a muddy road where marketeers were selling all the standard vegetables (lady fingers, aubergines, potatoes, carrots, onions, ...) and fruits (mangos, bananas, apples, melons, coconuts, lemons, ...) of India. The entire flat was empty until I bought a mattress and convinced my landlord to get me a fridge, stove and some dishes for an extra monthly rent. I even put some plants from the roof-top inside the living room to make it look more cosy, but after letting some potential roommates come and visit the place, I had to find out that it was not everybody’s wish to live in a quite Indian area! Watch some of the pictures and ask yourself, if you would have moved in.

Paying for two rooms, not finding a roommate and living alone made it easy for me to imagine the easy-going living in the GTZ offered apartment, which is coincidentally also placed in Safdarjung. Luckily another intern just finished his work and left India, so I could get a room in the place where I still live now and will stay until I’m leaving for traveling. Since it is subsidies by the company I can happily gain from the properly working van, the air conditioning (which I we never use), the big veranda and roof-top, the everyday coming maid, which cleans house, dishes and out clothes and most importantly the company from my roommate Sven and housemate Jessyca. The fact that the flat is furnished also makes it more livable. Maybe my new place looks a bit messed up, but as I mentioned we have a maid coming every day and besides washing our cloth, she also cleans our apartment. Now, after having settled in meanwhile, I’m still struggling to find new people for the old flat so that I can get some money back.

So at the end you probably understand why this blog entry had been delayed for so long and why I called it an odyssey. I’ve gone through the stages of being a guest in Hannah’s and later Caro’s flat, have had my own flat for a time long, were looking for a roommate and at the end I ended up in another flat being a roommate to Sven. Quite a good experience in the first 5 weeks, ey!?