Our flight to Zagreb, Croatia is in the early morning on Wednesday. We are about to wrap up more or less a whole month in India, and I am feeling ambivalent about it. There were plenty of good things about this country, and I’m grateful for the experience of it all. At the same time, I want to get off my chest two very troubling experiences that I keep thinking about.
One of the things that frustrated me the most here was something that I had already mentioned about Thailand. There, Steve and I both felt relegated to the realm of the tourist, instructed firmly to follow the route that was laid out as though at Disneyland. Here, it is more the role of the tourist that I cannot escape. Walking down the street in both Delhi and Amritsar, I was constantly targeted and invited to walk into a shop, take a taxi, or buy something. It got to the point where I was constantly on the verge of yelling “DO I LOOK I LIKE I NEED A TAXI?!” and Steve started cultivating a stupid or sad look so no one would approach him. There were so few places we could go where people would just let us be. The expectation of personal space or privacy itself was a joke, unless we were locked inside our hotel room. People constantly offered us things or services to buy, not because we actually needed it or could use it, but because we were walking ATMs. I have never felt so dehumanized in my life. A little of it can be brushed off, but I fully admit that I take things too personally, and by the time we left northern India, I was entirely drained.
Written largely on the Kerala Express (12626)
Departed from New Delhi Railway Station, New Delhi, Rajasthan
Headed to Ernakulum Junction (South), Kochi, Kerala
11:30 am, Tuesday, March 11
We are on our way! Our train just pulled out of New Delhi a few minutes ago, and we are picking up speed. My first impressions of the 2-tier AC class so far — it is mostly neat and clean, but not as fancy as Amtrak. The hard sleeper class in China is very similar. Across from us is a nice-seeming but quiet gentleman. He speaks a little English, but either we have trouble with his questions or he has trouble processing our reply. There seem to be no other foreign tourists on our car, but I have glimpsed a few monks in their orange garb. There are a few curious kids also shyly peering at us too.
Steve and I are both getting over a bad cold, and he has had some disagreements with Indian food, so he is less enthusiastic about this trip than I am. The conductor just came by to check our IDs, and our neighbor had to peel his sweater vest halfway up his chest and partially unbutton his shirt to extract his wallet which was on a chain. It reminds me of this underwear that my mother once showed me from China, which had a small zip pocket for cash in the front. Basically, all Asians are paranoid about theft and pickpockets, but probably for good reason. Men have come by hawking lunch, but I feel adequately prepared, with two liters of water, two footlong Subway sandwiches (oh the fresh veggies), chips, and two rolls of TP. Let’s hope this is enough.
Yesterday, we made an absurd five-hour journey, a calculated retreat from the mass of humanity that was Delhi, in hopes of finding a slightly better environment. What we found rather was India’s penchant for bureaucracy, lies, and general inefficiency. I want to write about it because I feel like it was so typically India, but it must be noted that nothing catastrophic happened: we didn’t lose our luggage or passports, get ripped off for a large amount of money, or cry and curse at the officials. It was simply just travel in India: death by a thousand micro-aggressions.
After checking out of our hostel, we walked through the dusty halls and elevated walkways of the New Delhi Railway Station, and upon arriving at the Airport Express Link, requested two tokens for the airport. The man behind the counter asked us where we were going (Amritsar) and the name of our airline (SpiceJet, a low-budget domestic airline), and directed us to get off a stop earlier, at Delhi Aerocity, instead of the Airport station for our domestic flight. The international terminal we arrived in initially led directly into the Airport station, so when we emerged from the Delhi Aerocity stop, we were dismayed to find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, bound by empty stretches of roads on each side. Most passengers from our ride were getting on a shuttle bus for 30 rupees each ($0.50 USD), and it seemed like our only option, but we were reluctant. In India, you’re never sure if you’re being led in the correct (and cheap or free) direction or if you’re being taken for a ride. However, there were positive signs, since the cost was relatively low and other Indians were on board, so we gave in, half-expecting that we might be taken to the wrong terminal and have to get on another shuttle. Here, nothing’s simple.
A sudden, unseasonal downpour ended our first full day in Delhi before it even got started.
Wearing raincoats and hoisting our green umbrella, we had barely gotten two hundred meters down the Main Bazaar in Paharganj before we realized that we were going to get soaked on our way to explore Connaught Place, about ten minutes’ walk away. And wet Delhi streets are just plain miserable. Dry, they are dusty, trash-strewn, and dirty beyond belief. Wet, they are riddled with puddles of filthy water, which you can try to sidestep, moving from one elevated patch to another. Something in my soul shrieked wordlessly each time that water sloshed over my feet in its sandals or splashed onto my pants. We called it a day and headed back, for hot showers, a soap-scouring, and sending down a half-load of laundry to be done.
New Delhi Railway Station
International Tourist Bureau, 1st Floor 5:15 pm
India is rough. I am trying not to be such a baby about it, but I thought I could handle it, and it is harder than I thought. There’s such a fine line between feeling okay (and possibly even happy or upbeat) and finding yourself extremely angry and ready to pull a punch at the next person who tries to open their mouth in front of you. When you’re trying to find something important, India just tries to make it hard. Finding a restaurant, a train station, making change… it’s like wading through pudding, every moment.
99 times out of 100, when someone tries to address you and offer advice, they are up to no good. Occasionally, they may be telling the truth, but unless someone in uniform or behind an official counter or desk says the same thing, you shouldn’t believe it. And yet, even knowing this and having been told this twenty seven times, it can be easy to be misled and confused by signs and a group of touts all saying the same thing and working together. They will coax and point and argue and corral you like cattle in the direction they want you to move, promising, lying, and separately corroborating each other. “The ticket office is this way, ma’am. This way.” It is enraging and tiring, and I’ve never been on the receiving end of this treatment in such an intense and thorough way. Scams happen in China all the time, but I don’t get explicitly targeted, and I understand the local language. Here, we are foreigners, doubly, clearly so, with my East Asian features and Steve’s pale skin and blue eyes.
Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.
– James Joyce, Ulysses
This quote (from a book I’ve never read, I confess) floated to the top of my mind when I opened this blank page. At any given point on this trip, I am busy trying to experience everything that is going on, synthesize it, and be thoughtful and retrospective at the same time, especially for the blog. You know, I just want to catch up on the latest for all the folks following along at home. The last time we saw our heroes, they were catching an early flight to Kuala Lumpur…
Simply being in the moment and enjoying it is a luxury that has been hard to take advantage of. So instead of a retrospective, here is an attempt at the now, however mundane.
The now is a dusty but surprisingly serviceable inn off the Main Bazaar drag in Paharganj, India’s backpacking district. We have soft beds, I’m listening to a TV which is broadcasting Al Jazeera News, and there is exactly one outlet that I am monopolizing to power my computer. We had vegetarian thalis with butter naan an hour ago on the crowded, dirty street, listening to the cars and scooters and tuk-tuks continuously honking at each other, and later found an optician’s office where we filled up on contact lens solution.