Touching down in New Delhi International, I couldn’t believe it: we landed right in the middle of a sandstorm. Planes only two terminals away were almost entirely lost in the softly glowing sand colored haze.
Stepping into it, however, I was horrified to realize that New Delhi wasn't suddenly stricken by a sand storm or anything like that – the sandy haze was rather part of the city’s permanent condition. The dust and the smog are so omnipresent I found I could stare at the midday sun without penalty. A sun that looks far away, like it’s too timid to come any closer.
I’d read heaps in preparation for my visit, and I’m glad I did. From a mile away, anyone could tell me as a westerner, and as such, I found myself almost universally bombarded as a skinny beardless Santa Claus with a bag full of rupees. If I didn't already know ahead of time how to navigate and avoid the myriad scams rampant in New Delhi, I surely would have been eaten alive by touts and con artists.
Nothing, however, can prepare you for the experience of being here. New Delhi traffic makes getting around in Manhattan look like baby town frolic. Pedicabs, trucks, and rickshaws whirl about in a flying frenzy, leaving mere centimeters of clearance as they dodge pedestrians, cows, and goats, and each other, even at high speeds, and up to six vehicles across in two lanes of traffic.
My time so far has been excruciatingly bogged down by logistical issues. My hostel was hidden smack dab in the middle of Paharganj, which has to be one of the most congested places in the world (though I feel like I'm probably going to have to eat those words later). Every space is occupied by people, motor vehicles, and animals. Every alley way is packed with guest lodgings next to footwear vendors next to samosa stands next to five guys peeing against a wall. The air is a pungent cocktail of turmeric, carbon monoxide, and feces, garnished with the whistle of firecrackers and a thousand klaxons.
The morning of my second day was nearly entirely consumed at the New Delhi train station. Despite the urgency with which New Delhians drive, they are remarkably patient in other affairs; for instance: the pedicab driver who stopped for a cigarette break or the one lady at the information desk, who was serving the hundreds there, taking personal calls. I spent at least two hours in queues, and learned that none of the trains in my first week and a half of itinerary had any availability and that the office was not taking credit cards at the moment. I had to walk nearly a kilometer to find an ATM that actually had cash in it, rebuild in a moment an itinerary I had worked on for months, and make two trips back to have them correct mistakes they made in processing my tickets.
So it probably sounds like everything’s been terrible so far, and well, things have been pretty terrible so far. But it’s amazing what a shower and a good night’s rest can do. Last night before I went to bed, a man in an alley paused while getting a straight razor shave to tell me, “you have an Indian face,” while gesturing towards my mustache, “a nice Indian face.” Those were the first words I heard all day without the hope of profit lurking behind them. I decided to let that be a turning point. New Delhi was just one of the many faces India has to offer. I finally have my affairs in order, I’ve acclimated (or at least I have a bit), and I’m finally optimistic again. And it only took one day of “Oh God, what have I done!?!” to get this way. More: my next stop is Khajuraho, where I’ve been invited as a guest to a wedding. An Indian wedding. Yes please.