My wife let me go to India on a cultural exchange program on one condition: Bring back plenty of presents.
True to my word, I arrived home in California after a month in Delhi feeling like Santa — my giant duffel bag full of sparkly bangle bracelets and bindis, colorful bags, patchwork quilts, woven shirts, flowing skirts, ethnic shoes, original artwork, funky pillow covers, vibrant tablecloths, handmade stationery and much more.
Best of all, these one-of-a-kind treasures cost less than $400. Although Italy and France may have great markets, the U.S. dollar goes further in India than it does in Europe. (The current exchange rate is 46 Indian rupees to $1 U.S.)
In Delhi, you can find incredible shopping in markets, from clean and orderly to dirty and chaotic. Highlights include Dilli Haat, Janpath and Chandni Chowk.
New Delhi, India's capital, is full of rich culture, historic sites and flavorful food. The city is also a jumping-off point for visiting Jaipur, where you'll find painted elephants, snake charmers and camel rides, and Agra, home of the must-see Taj Mahal.
To get around, visitors can hire a car and driver for a full or half-day; a basic car within Delhi will cost about $20 a day. (All drivers should know how to find the markets mentioned in this article.)
A motorized rickshaw, which seats two people, costs about half of what a taxi ride does. Although they are supposed to have running meters, they often don't work or aren't turned on, so agree on a price with the driver beforehand.
When planning your shopping spree, be mindful of Delhi's notorious traffic. Even a short distance can often turn into a time-consuming drive.
Of all Delhi's eclectic markets, Dilli Haat is arguably the most popular among tourists. It's also a well-known hangout for young locals.
Expect to pay 15 rupees (about 33 cents) to enter this government-run market. After buying your ticket, you'll walk through a quick security check before entering the fenced shopping complex.
Inside, craftspeople from throughout India set up shop for about two weeks at a time before moving on. Other merchants, in established shops, are there permanently.
Shoppers can stroll among the stalls to view the handicrafts, some of which are being worked on by the artisans themselves. Each of India's states has a specialty craft, such as the hand-painted king and queen puppets of Rajasthan, and they are featured alongside textiles, jewelry, sandalwood carvings and brassware.
At these shops, you can purchase Western clothing with an Indian flair, along with traditional saris for women and kurtas for men. You can even pick up pointed, elf-like shoes to go with them.
Tourist-friendly amenities at Dilli Haat include toilets and a large food court that serves fried vegetable samosas and shots of sweet chai. Another bonus is a booth where women can get temporary henna tattoos.
Bargaining here depends on the vendor. Some will sell an item for a fraction of what they first quote; others will barely budge. You're more likely to get a better deal toward the end of a merchant's two-week stint as they then are trying to shed their inventory.
As for my bargaining strategy, I typically walked away until the seller shouted out a price I was happy to pay. My best find at Dilli Haat was an oversized patchwork elephant quilt, for which I paid 1,500 rupees, about $33, half its original price.
After shopping and eating at Dilli Haat, take a short drive up Aurobindo Marg to Lodi Road and wander around the serene Lodi Gardens.
Farther north and more central in the city is Janpath, which translates to the "Path of the People" in Hindi. Shopping here includes street-side stores with a great selection, all within easy access of several large hotels. My purchases included scarves embellished with Sanskrit characters and canvas bags with prints of tigers and Hindu gods.
Not far from these stores is the Janpath street market, where shoppers walk through a security gate to enter the block-long market.
This market is cheaper and more hectic than Dilli Haat. Merchants mainly sell clothes, with sunglasses and other merchandise in the mix. Goods here are typically export surplus, so you can get some good deals.
Even so, bargaining is still relative. At the Janpath street market, I spotted a pair of peacock feather earrings that cost only 65 rupees. I paid that amount because I felt no need to haggle over something that cost less than $2.
Although better deals can be found at Janpath shops, you'll also have to contend with beggars and people trying to sell you everything from wooden snakes to miniature chess sets along the streets. I had a good laugh when one guy put a vibrating handheld massager on my back, causing me to jump.
After you've worked up an appetite shopping at Janpath, go to nearby Connaught Place. Try some tasty dosas at Sagar Ratna (http://www.sagarratna.in), which specializes in southern Indian cuisine. A meal for two, including dosas and fresh fruit juice, will cost you less than $7.
For a more expensive experience, check out the magical atmosphere at the upscale Veda (http://www.vedarestaurants.com), also at Connaught Place. Don't miss the Daal Veda, black lentils cooked with tomato puree and ginger garlic paste along with Indian spices.
Janpath starts at Connaught Place and runs south past Rajpath — Delhi's version of Washington, D.C.'s National Mall.
More adventurous shoppers can take the Metro from near the Rajpath (the Central Secretariat stop) to a congested shopping bazaar called Chandni Chowk. Construction on the extension of the Metro system south is underway as Delhi is hosting the Commonwealth Games in October.
I went to Chandni Chowk twice — once during the day after visiting Mohandas Gandhi's memorial and the other at night before attending the sound and light show next door at the Red Fort.
Chandni Chowk is one of the oldest and busiest markets in Old Delhi. People either love or hate its fast-paced nature.
Although I purchased only a few gifts here, this market made the biggest impression: thick, humid air heavy on the skin; the smells of car exhaust, sewage and tobacco smoke; hot deep-fried snacks dripping with sticky syrup. Add some rickshaws and cows wandering about and you get the idea.
Less than two days after returning to my home in the Sierra Nevada foothills, I was in a local bookstore where my wife pointed out that the same scarf around my neck (the Sanskrit one from Janpath) was for sale near the cash register.
Not only was it six times what I had paid, but it's purchase wouldn't be nearly as much fun.