So how was it? Well… great of course! But it just seems like such a big question. I’m sure little gems of experience and inspiration will bleed themselves free over the next few weeks, but here’s a taste:
We arrived in New Delhi at about 3am, where a friend picked us up and drove us to our hostel. As Jason and I approached the exit doors in the airport, I noticed a haze on the far side of the hall and wondered if there’d been a fire. It took me a moment to accept that the grayish haze lurking on the other side of the room was pollution.
It smelt like burnt tires and carbon monoxide. With every breath I could feel it swirl down into the bottom of my gut and lay in my belly like an angry serpent. Our friend Amit seemed oblivious. We zipped away from the airport with the music thumping and the windows down… to get a breath of night ‘air’. I could feel my nostrils cauterize.
We passed an elephant on the highway.
I woke up at six the next morning, the night before had been a blur. I felt as if I’d been transported to the tiny white washed room and my muscles locked in terror at the strange sounds swirling about our small refuge. I heard voices, and the screaming chatter of birds; traffic horns and and the alien swish-swish sound of homemade brooms scraping over the concrete sidewalks outside.
I did not want to leave the bed. I couldn’t face the hulking beast of pollution waiting to pounce on my lungs beyond our triple bolted door. My palms we already sticky and the shower felt like ice. 18 million people in New Delhi. 18 million.
My first cautious steps confirmed my worst fears. The sun balefully struggled to pierce the yellow sky and my lungs struggled to absorb oxygen from the blanket of pollution that wrapped about me. J squeezed my hand and assured me that in two or three days I wouldn’t even notice the smog.
That first morning out… have you ever read Out of the Silent Planet by CS Lewis? The main character goes to a world he can hardly understand or begin to make sense of. His description of his first few hours on Mars reads like a jumbled list of colours and shapes without context. You struggle to understand if the character is observing a mountain, a man or a tree. I felt a little like that.
There are mangy, crippled, diseased stray dogs everywhere. And for all their woes, they seem incredible content with their lot, lolling about in the sun or roaming in curious packs. They are tame, and probably wouldn’t mind a friendly pat or two… something I could never even imagine doing… especially before breakfast. The people in Delhi are avid animal lovers. Many of these dogs were dressed in dirty dog jackets to ward against the coming chill. I even read a newspaper article describing how to build cheap shelters for the dogs to protect them in the winter.
Several street corners we passed spouted dirty fountains. People bathed, washed their clothes and brushed their teeth in these.
Monkeys scramble along window ledges and snicker at the people below.
We found a market, and bought some imported bagels and yogurt. Over the next two weeks I would never get used to the type of service where someone will follow me around just to carry my packages. With so many people in the city there seems to be a job to cover just about everything. Armed guards open shop doors and parking attendants will tear out your parking ticket for you. At many places there is even a bathroom attendant to hand you paper towel.
Despite the unnerving attention and inflated prices because of our white skin, J and I found ourselves being treated like royalty. Whenever we travelled to a tourist attraction, we became the main attraction. Indian tourists all wanted a picture with foreigners… to the point were it became exhausting. But the attention was still fun. No matter where I went or how I dressed, part of me always felt beautiful and admired.
Once we figured out the rough price of things, we had quite a bit of fun bartering. You need to do this for everything- from scarves to rides in motorized rickshaws. We soon discovered that the colour of our skin easily inflated prices 10 times the value of an item. The best way to barter seemed to be simply to tell the shopkeeper what we were willing to pay and walk away. If they chased after us… (which they did 9 times out of 10) we knew we had an excellent chance of getting the price we wanted.
Each day that passed, I became more comfortable to the way things worked in New Delhi. I got used to the incessant noise of car horns and gas generators and even began to breath easier. We made friends and kept strictly to a diet of well-cooked everything and bottled water… surviving ‘mostly’ unscathed. Some parts of India look like blasted bomb sites- choked with blackened crumbling houses and piles of garbage. Other places sparkle with glass, chrome, and marble.
Through a random connection, J and I both preformed at a venue in a really upscale mall. We played guitar and sang a few songs. I won’t attest to any great skill- as always I think the main attraction was simply the colour of our skin and a sort of glamour of the ‘west’ cast over us like a magical spell. I could have sang yankie doodle and still have drawn a crowd.
I think I’ll take a break… I wanted to give you a ‘feel’ of India… hopefully I’ll have time to tell you a bit about some of our more interesting experiences in the days to come!