Travel notes from my year in India (2003): Delhi. 1 of 16

I have indeed finally arrived in India. I got into Delhi airport at 1:00 AM of Saturday. Interesting, shocking arrival. I get off in a first lounge with white marble everywhere. Very nice. Then I proceed to what I initially thought to be the exit, a room with some shops for taxis and buses and tours and a few guys asking me if I need a ride. I think: this is not so bad. Then I realize that this is only a 'pre-chamber' and exit to the main room, where there must have been 200/300 people screaming, pushing, showing me signs I cannot read. I think: oh, oh. And that is when I realize that even this is only a 'pre-chamber', people had to pay to get in here. So I finally leave the airport building to find a real ocean of people waiting. This is where the real fun starts: about 20/30 taxi drivers simultaneously pulling me, my jacket, my backpack, my suitcases in all different directions. Nobody knows where my hotel is, but they are all ready to take me there! Quotes fluctuate between 400Rs. and 4,000Rs. I settle for 700. Then we find out that my hotel is actually 60 Km outside of town! It is a resort in the middle of nowhere, with a swimming pool filled with... sand.

Then there is my best adventure. On Monday I am finally ready to move to a more reasonable guest house in town and later have lunch with a friend. I leave 2 hours before, for what should have been a 30 min. drive. Between Indian time and a few other adventures (a guy at the first hotel that did not understand credit card payment and send killers to chase me on the road), I end up not having the time to go to the guest house to change in proper attire and need to go to the lunch appointment directly. Only to find out that it is within the President's estate, that the husband is in full formal military uniform, and that they have a special guest for the day: the maharajah of Jaipur. That must have been my most embarrassing moment in a (very) long time. Lesson learned: Indians in India are NOT like Indians in California...

OK, then off to the old Delhi bazaar. Yes, the one I read about in '1001 Nights' and Kipling and Salgari and all the other books. But nothing could have prepared me for this. Even Burning Man was kids stuff in comparison! The chaos! The beauty! The smell! The crowd! The everything! I take a rickshaw (bicycle taxi) to go back, it takes us over 1 hour to do less than 1 mile, between cows happily munching in the middle of the road, cars driving full speed in the wrong direction (to avoid traffic, the bigger one wins here, and I am not the bigger one), and some ladies in beautiful dresses chatting (in the middle of the road, of course).

As you might have guessed, there is some initial culture shock. Especially after an extended 'stop-over' in Europe, visiting well-off family and friends! It is hard to adjust. I see the guy pushing my rickshaw and feel like getting off to help him push when going uphill. I see a 2 year old child playing in the garbage and want to stop to take her out. I see a man kicking a woman that is carrying what seems like 40/50 Kg. of stones on her head and want to go and kick the man. But there are so many examples, I realize I can't take it all on me. I feel guilty for my own luck and wealth, I am reminded of how blinded we are 'back at home' of how we really are a minority. Very arrogant in our ignorance, very lost deep into our self-created strangling web.

Two images come to my mind.

The first one is the afternoon walks in the Lodhi gardens. They use "recycled" water for the park grounds. The smell is quite pungent, in sharp contrast with the magical beauty of the stone walls of ancient temples coming to life in the warm winter afternoon light. As everywhere else, the stares, the constant stares from everybody. None of that terrifying but somehow also comfortable indifference we are so used to back at "home". So much coming out of those stares: curiosity, flirting, greed, sympathy.

Then the tailor. I need a formal Indian dress for the upcoming wedding. My friend arranges a custom fit (what else?) with her tailor, the one that all her maharajah friends use. He should be in Delhi on that day, we call him, he is already almost back home in Jaipur. He turns his car around and drives some two hours back to come to my guest house and take my measurements! All this service for a set (jacket, trousers, shirt) that will cost me somewhere around 100-200 USD!

Yesterday I had another moment of actualization. While visiting an amazing Muslim tower built in 1246 BC (Qutab Minar) some guys asked me to take a picture. I grab the camera telling them where to stand, then I realize that what they really wanted was for me to be IN the picture.

And it went on all day, one group after the other: the girls giggling and smiling, the guys asking me for pictures. Initially I checked my clothing for some bird pooh I might not have noticed (I was resting under a tree). Then I wondered if I was experiencing reversed racism. This time I was the minority.

Unsettling, once again.