Location: Delhi, India
The truth is, if you look for a safe place, you will never find it. Because there is no place that is truly safe in the world. What does “safe” mean anyway?
I have travelled to many cities in India, some solo and some with friends. But since this piece is about safety and India, one cannot help but talk about Delhi.
For all the flak it gets in the media, I liked Delhi. So here I share some stories on encounters with Delhi. Perhaps you might give it a chance too.
The first impression
The first time I was in Delhi, I went to meet a friend. She said, take a taxi from the hotel. We met and went to Humayun’s Tomb. Around the city, we took an auto rickshaw, and had some North Indian butter chicken. I didn’t feel like I was in a dangerous city. In fact, I loved the heritage, the food, and the friendship.
When I came back to Singapore, people said: What! You took a taxi by yourself? Do you not read the news about the city?
I don’t downplay their concern, but in my mind, I did nothing dangerous. I stayed in a reputable hotel, traveled in broad daylight, avoided dark alleys and strangers.
But that was my first impression of Delhi, and I liked it.
Many enjoyable moments
In my two years in India, I travelled by myself to Delhi several times for work. We had reliable drivers, and I started taking Uber in the city as well.
Several weekends I would find myself at Shahpur Jat in beautiful home stores, savoring the best Korean food with lovely Singaporean hosts, charmed by quirky boutique shops in Hauz Khas, and visiting sites like the Baha’i House of Worship that make you challenge how you see the world.
But roses always come with thorns
Once, I took a few friends to the Taj Mahal in Agra. The driver kept falling asleep at the wheel. This was an expensive and reputable company, mind you, but it turned out to be a day of haggling with a sarcastic tour guide and a tardy driver, in 40 degree celsius weather – definitely a day to forget. Luck of the draw I guess.
Another time, I was walking around in Khan Market. A guy walked by me. He wore flashy glasses, visibly worked out in a gym and said: oh, we just bought something from the same book store. I ignored him and walked on. In this country of a billion people, unfortunately sometimes you say hello and find yourself harassed for the rest of the day.
There are also cases of daylight robberies, and yes, it has happened to Singaporeans living in the city as well. Constant vigilance is something you must have in many cities around the world; Singapore is actually the exception rather than the rule.
Getting expectations right
Perhaps we expect many cities to look and feel like what the media portrays of New York and London. But can vibrancy only be found in lights, music and perfect pavements?
You would hardly be able to find perfectly curated neighborhoods and well-lit streets like Fifth Avenue in Delhi. Nor can you walk in this city, because no one walks.
But you will find the most vibrant colors, the warmest hospitality and some of the best street food here in this city that I often wished were easier for women to live in.
My favorite moment – Old Delhi
Each time I ask locals where their favorite place is, many speak fondly of Old Delhi. For the food, the sights, the sounds – if you want to feel Delhi, go find the old path.
So one afternoon with a couple of hours to spare, I went on my own.
It’s very simple – you hop into a bicycle rickshaw at Red Fort and a guy brings you around. You negotiate a price and go.
I spoke with one, and was surprised by his proficiency in English. He said: We go first. Pay me what you like after. With a big wide smile, he gave me an introduction of the area, and pointed out major food spots.
Many locals helped me to order food, told me what to eat, pointed out more places for me, and said, yeh bahut acha hai (Hindi: this is very good). I saw people lining for something, and I simply joined the line to find out what the fuss is all about. Almost everywhere you go, you have to share tables, but that made it so easy for a solo traveler to learn what’s best to eat.
I must have lost track of time. I was savoring a paratha in a little shop, and who else but my bicycle rickshaw driver shows up at the shop and waves to me frantically from the door, saying we have to go because it was getting late. Till today, I have no idea how he found me in the winding streets of Chadni Chowk.
I had one more stop before going back, and that was to the legendary Karim’s at Jama Masjid. I got something that the next table was having, and after some lip-smackingly good seekh kebabs, my stomach was ready for bed and my heart was singing.
Because I believed in kindness, I followed the locals, and it was magical.
Give the world a chance
Do I wish Delhi would be easier to live for a woman? Yes. Do I wish I could run outside and breathe fresh air? Yes. Do I wish the heat would just give us a break? Yes.
But the world is not safe. I mean, what does it even mean to be safe? If you expect to be safe, perhaps you might think to remain in your bed. Sorry to disappoint you, because guess what – apparently 450 people die from falling out of their bed in the USA every year.
So stop asking if Delhi is safe, or if London is safe, or if New York is safe.
Ask yourself: how do people live there? Because if millions do, so can you.
Ask about ways to get around, where to have fun, what to look out for. Keep it real – ask about the roses and the thorns.
Many of my travels are possible because of the many people who came before me, locals and travelers alike, who kindly shared their stories, local contacts and tips.
Follow the locals, find out reliable contacts, don’t walk into dark alleys, don’t accept everything someone tells you, make noise when you must, and never hesitate to walk away when your instincts tell you something is up.
And when you gave the wrong person a chance, paid more than you needed to, had a nasty encounter, forgive yourself. You can’t be right all the time.
Give the world a chance – live, love, laugh.
P.s. If you find yourself in Delhi, here’s where I usually stay with the most comfortable beds ever: Bloom Room – Link Road