Nervous about my paperwork, I left Doylestown at around noon on Wednesday, March 30. Dad dropped me off at the Doylestown train station with alligator tears in his eyes.
I flew to Boston, then overnight to Amsterdam. I catnapped in the Amsterdam airport for a few hours and then caught my long flight from Amsterdam to New Delhi. The feeling of flying over the Middle East in the dead of night, totally alone, leaving my home behind… it was pretty weird. It’s still hard to believe that I am here; how far from home I really am. How far I’ve come in just a few days. There is no one on this continent who actually knows who I am or cares about me; its an isolating and invigorating feeling.
On the plane, I sat next to a Sikh man and his son. He was heading home to Amritstar, in Punjab, to see his family. His son was visiting India for the first time in 12 years. He told me about Amritstar, about the Gurdwara where one can get a good free meal. He told me about Hindu culture and the turban- how the Hindus wear the turban simply because the Muslims told them they couldn’t, long ago. He told me that Rajasthan will be really hot and (laughingly) that I probably won’t be able to catch the Duke/UNC basketball game at a bar in Delhi.
We land in Delhi at 2 am and I get through customs slowly. Then, it is 3 am and I am in the lobby of the airport, looking through the windows at the throng of taxi drivers just outside on the Delhi streets. The act of walking outside feels intimidating.
My original plan was to wait at the airport until sunlight, and then travel to my hostel. However, I am impatient and I want to rest. So at around 4:00 am, I get a taxi from the stall at the airport and get in the car on my way to my hostel… or so I think. This begins a long nighttime journey that introduces me to the scams of New Delhi and does not end up with me at my hostel.
We start driving through the muggy Delhi night air; my window is open to the humidity and smoke and horns of the highway. The air has a unique smell like no American city- kind of like a mix of smoke and sweat and food. My driver offers me a cigarette and we smoke together, chatting idly and brokenly about the United States, and India, and Covid-19 and Ukraine.
We get to the Paharganj neighborhood and my driver announces that he does not know where my hostel is. For some reason my downloaded map is not working and I don’t have cellular data. Okay… helpless.
We stop in at a “Tourist Office” to get information. This is a small, hot hole in the wall beneath the highway on nondescript street in Paharganj. Inside is a sleepy man named Amit who offers a seat and asks me about myself. I show him my hostel booking and he calls the hostel to see what’s up. Apparently no one is answering at the hostel. Also that hostel is in a lousy neighborhood and I should stay at a better hostel. I know the classic hotel scam but at this point it is around 4:30 am and I am very tired. Amit insists that another hostel will be better and will cost the same as my hostel. So, after around 40 minutes at the tourist office, we go ahead to the different hotel. I’m vaguely aware that this is probably a scam to get me to stay at the hotel of Amit’s choice, but if all costs are the same I’m pretty much indifferent.
We arrive at the hotel; my driver is now grumbling about how much time he has wasted. I tip him 200 rupees and he starts complaining about what a small amount of money it is. He asks for 500 additional rupees; I give him 300 additional rupees and he is off. We arrive at the new hotel and there are like 5 men standing around waiting for me. I have such a strong sense of being plucked out of my life and inserted into an alien planet; I am confused and tired and I have no idea what is normal and polite. I feel alone. At this point I really just want to lay my head down and rest.
The concierge tells me the cost of the hotel is around 9,000 rupees (almost 100 bucks) and now I realize the full extent of the scam. I am absolutely not going to pay 9,000 rupees so we negotiate down to 2,200 rupees and they take me to my room.
My room is cool and clean with the news blaring on the television. For thirty bucks this is absolutely great- I actually don’t mind getting scammed out of my hostel. I will find the hostel tomorrow. I’m starting to fall asleep when there is a BANG and a glaring flash of white light outside my window as the power in the room shuts off. I hear voices shouting outside my room as I drift slowly to sleep.
I wake up around 10 am the next morning feeling refreshed and excited. I walk up to the roof and take in the hot, smoky air of New Delhi. Then I walk down to the lobby of the hotel and ask for a ride to my hostel. I meet my driver, Ashok, and he is pretty excited to talk to me- asking me all about American movies and stuff. So we get in the car on the way, finally, to my original hostel.
Ashok, of course, did not take me to the hostel. In a 25 minute screaming ride through Paharganj, Delhi we arrived back at the tourism office. Amit was standing outside and gestured towards me. At this point I really wanted to get to the hostel I had booked, basically just to get an outside perspective besides Amit. Also I was annoyed. So, for a minute I insist that Ashok takes me to the hostel but he suddenly does not understand very much English. He’s going in to chat with Amit. So Ashok goes in and I’m waiting in the car. I feel dumb. Amit comes out and shouts something about a cup of tea and a smoke so I say what the hell and I walk inside.
We do the idle small talk and then Amit starts trying to sell me on some big 3-week tour through Rajasthan, Agra, Varanasi, Rishikesh, and back to Delhi for like $4,000. I politely say that “I’ll think about it.”
Then Amit helps me get my phone connected with an Indian sim card and we have a smoke- some special product brought by an Israeli from the Kashmir region.
We’re chatting about America, and India, and Covid and Rajasthan- him trying to sell me on this guided tour and me trying to enjoy the feeling of smoking the Kashmir cigarette in this little hole surrounded by tens of millions of people, pressing in. He is talking emphatically about Rishikesh vs Varanasi and I am like holy fuck I am in India. I am in the belly of New Delhi talking to Amit while 10 million Indian people are just the door.
I finish up and stand up to leave. My hostel is only about 1 mile away. Amit is insisting that I go with one of his drivers but I am really ready to be rid of this guy and his insistence. I put the big 40 pound pack on, buckle in, and walk out to the smoky, loud, 105-degree street of New Delhi.
The city smacks me in the face like a wave. I look down the street in the direction I have to walk. There is a tight underpass against the highway with a massive construction site. Pedestrians are picking their way through flip-flop wearing construction workers using jackhammers on the concrete. Intimidated, I start walking towards the construction.
Walking here is an assault on the senses. First, the smells-
- Food cooking (everywhere- all over the sidewalks and street)
- Raw sewage
- Vegetation (there’s actually a lot of trees and foliage. Feels jungly in places)
Second, the feel of movement-
You really have to be fast, alert, head on a swivel, because there is no real walkway. No concept of “right-of-way.” Cars, tuk-tuks, mopeds, and pedestrians all generally share the sidewalk and street. You are stepping over random shit and avoiding big holes from construction. There are tuk-tuks whizzing by and crossing any intersection requires great faith in humanity- and if not that then at least your own dexterity.
If you are white, everywhere people are staring at you and trying to talk to you. Twice, someone deliberately tried to confuse me by really trying to persuade me to tell them where I was staying, and then saying that it was the other direction. It was confusing but I had google maps so I just ignored the guys and walked faster. One guy said, “are you lost? Tourists don’t walk in this neighborhood. Very bad neighborhood.” Although it was a fine neighborhood (I think). He was just trying to get me to ask him for directions so that he would have justification to require a tip.
I start to feel extremely hot. Sweat pouring down my face, body clenched from stress, shoulders weary from the heavy pack. I’m irrationally stressed that my hostel is not going to be there and I will be stranded out on some random street. Finally, I turn the corner and see the welcoming sign of the backpackers youth hostel. I enter the air conditioning and breath a huge sigh of relief, exiting the sun-baked dusty street outside. I heave off the pack and collapse on the couch without a word to anyone. I made it.