You don’t have to look far into the horizon of the mass media or the blogosphere to understand the size and darkness of the cloud hanging over next month’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Over here, a Reuters reporter asks how Delhi’s poor will benefit from the Games and finds no good answers; there, an IBNLive staffer suggests that the big winner will be corruption. Indeed, my colleague Vivek Dehejia has roundly denounced the CWG and gone as far as to say that he hopes that they fail. In the midst of all this bad press, there must be something good to say, somewhere, about something. Right?
My initial arrival in India was apparently much like everyone else’s. Two in the morning – or should that be night? You can never be quite sure in Delhi. Hot and dusty as all my friends in Japan had said when I told them I was going to India. First experience of an Indian ‘Q’ at an exchange counter; somehow fought my way out with some cherished rupees. Through the near-absent customs check – keep up now, we’re all in a hurry – and into the maelstrom which, fortunately for me, had at its centre a 20-something guy holding my name on a discoloured piece of A4. Whisked away without a word into a beaten-up blue van and off into the night. India smells different from anywhere I’ve been before, I thought. Driver and his pal got me to the hotel but became angry when I only tipped them Rs. 20. I trusted no-one, not even the albino gecko on Hotel Vivek’s lobby wall, until I was locked away in my room and could put my head down on a pillow and…
Waking up around midday after a fitful sleep, I ordered in a terrifically bland Palak Paneer from the restaurant on the roof of the hotel. Nice place, with a view of the area and plants all about the place, but rubbish food and service. No matter.
When I finally ventured out into the madness that is PaharGanj, I was greeted by not less than five drug pushers in a 20-minute time period of walking up and down. “Hey man, still in Delhi?” Yes, and you don’t know me. “Yo, you smoke hash?” No. “Hey man, where you from? I can get you anything man, hash, H, E, you name it.” I’m from New Zealand, now go away. Etc.
Admittedly I only spent a short time on those streets, but I felt like everyone, whether their business was legit or not, had nothing but rupees on their mind. I stopped and talked to a couple of shopkeepers, and in both cases I didn’t detect any flicker of genuine empathy in their eyes. It was all patter, all opening lines and techniques and always-be-closing, in a way that is hard not to admire because it’s so slick but puts you at such a distance from them as a person. I came to India because I’d been told it was a far more open culture than pretty much anywhere I’ve been but especially Japan; here in PaharGanj, with the dozens of sets of eyes that never smile, I felt like a true outsider, like I wasn’t really welcome.
After a few moments of embarrassing, Kit Moresby-esque mania in my hotel room (brought on by the prospect of having to stay a lot longer than 2 days here, which was looking likely but thankfully didn’t eventuate), I started to get the hang of social interactions and how to get things done. By the end of that second day, I felt like I could cope here for as long as I needed to, but it required a closing off of the more loving parts of my heart in order to remain on top of things. Several folks on the train and in Bangalore would go on to tell me that my instincts were pretty much right, that life in Delhi is quite different from most other Indian cities and that you do have to regard pretty much everything with a suspicious eye. Shame.
Onto the train, then, which I had been looking forward to so much. Nearly 40 hours, well over 2000km, all in a packed air-conditioned space! Ahh, this is real travel. I was lucky enough to sit with a group of men who, in various ways, were extremely friendly and open people. They asked me many questions about New Zealand, about Japan, about my purpose for being in India. I noticed in these men that they were able to be honest, genuine, completely open and friendly despite rarely offering a smile. It’s all in the eyes.
One was a Swami of the Sivananda Order, based in Ajjampura, and he very quickly saw through my happy veneer to the unease rumbling beneath. I had a lot on my mind about things I won’t detail in here, and it was written all over my face and body language, no matter how many times I extolled the virtues of being in India. “Too much feel,” he said. “I think you have too much feel. No feel, no worry.” And then, with a calming gesture of both hands lightly falling, “everything is clearing”. Again, this man rarely smiled, but he had an aura of positivity and simple calm that affected everyone around him. I asked him if he had any brothers or sisters; he replied, “No. Before I did, but now, no… you are brother. He (points to another man in the carriage) is brother. She is sister. Everyone.” He gave me his phone number and address and instructed me to come and see him. I think I will.
The hours – well, days – passed swiftly thanks to Swamiji and my other companions’ ideal attitudes. I got sick, a sickness in the bowel which has only just passed, but I didn’t care – I was experiencing India as I’d hoped I would, and that came as such a relief after that brief episode in Delhi. To Bangalore, then, and even more positive experiences to be detailed soon…
I got on that plane, still buzzing from all that had just happened, and the first leg of my journey to India began. To Beijing first, sitting next to a Japanese guy who studies there and was reasonably tolerant of my show-and-tell. Man, I showed those letters and photos to anyone fool enough to stop for a second, but I’ll shut up about that now.
Beijing had a new terminal built for the Olympics, terminal 3. It is quite ludicrously cavernous, like some evil dragon mastermind’s lair for plotting world domination OH WAIT… lucky I didn’t try and post that using the government’s free wireless in the terminal. Actually, Blogger is usually blocked in China, but for the duration of the Olympics they let the guard down to avoid awkward situations. But I digress.
From Beijing I continued on Air China to Delhi, sitting next to another Japanese guy, this time with a thirst for travelling. We talked a fair bit about the places we’ve been to (many for him, very few for me) and he gave me his card and said I should email him in case there’s a chance of us meeting up again in India or somewhere further down the line. It’s nice to meet such people on one’s travels.
Indira Gandhi Airport at Delhi is a little dustier than Beijing, Narita or Auckland, but all my luggage arrived so I didn’t care. That was kind of what I wanted, leaving those obsessively clean and mechanical aspects of Japan behind. Hilariously, I didn’t go through any customs of any kind; the channels were there, and they were staffed, but they were so bored and disinterested that you could probably get through pushing a hive of bees. I did have to change money, though, fighting off those attempting to push in ahead of me in the melee that is a queue in India. That’s one thing the British left alone.
I’d booked my hotel in advance and arranged for them to pick me up at the airport, and sure enough, there was a young guy waiting with an A4 printout saying my name. I went up to him and, without a word, he started walking and beckoned me to follow, barking instructions to someone on a cellphone. We got outside, where the sounds and particularly the smell of the city were quite different from anywhere I’ve been before – funny how those are the senses I link most to my memories of arriving – and made our way to a beaten-up blue van with a glow-in-the-dark display of the Hindu Holy Trinity illuminating the dashboard.
We weaved our way across city roads which were largely deserted but still required the driver to sit on the horn for much of the time. I’ve only this week understood that here, the horn is not reserved for emergencies or frustration; here, it’s as vital a road tool as indicator lights or clearly defined road markings are back home. You blast the horn to notify of your presence. If you don’t, you won’t be seen and are likely to cause an accident. It makes sense in the absence of those things I just mentioned, and now it’s as much a part of the aural wallpaper as the cicadas were in Kamakura.
Eventually we made it to Hotel Vivek, my home for this night and the next. I didn’t realize it was going to be in basically the roughest part of Delhi (and possibly all India), with shopkeepers hurling insults at me as I ignored their invitations for a cup of tea or a light meal at 2 in the morning. I also didn’t expect to see an albino lizard scurrying across the wall behind reception, a reception staffed by three men who seemed quite put out by the fact that I wanted to stay in their hotel. (I saw the lizard again the next day, so I’m guessing it’s like most hotels have a cat, just this one has an albino lizard.)
At such an early hour and after a day’s worth of travel, I was a little overwhelmed by dealing with a place so different from anywhere I’d been before. Still, I breathed a sigh of relief that I’d made it with no hint of difficulty, and appreciated the fact that this kind of cultural atmosphere was going to help me grow in so many ways. To my non-descript, dusty room, and to sleep… much more to come.