Sunday 17 Sep
An exotic blend of aromas.
In Thailand a 'regular to India' (read new age hippy) warned us, 'You have to mentally prepare for India.' He couldn't have been more true than about our first stop, Delhi. Nothing quite prepares you for Delhi. The only way to describe it is 'alive.' It's a seething mass of humanity and traffic. At it's best it's a swirl of colour, incense, people, cows and vehicles; at it's worst it's a stinking, chaotic and over polluted cesspit that makes your local refuge tip look like a palace.
I first came to Delhi 10 years ago with Mary and Katherine but we stayed in a campsite on the outskirts of the city and could dip in and out of the chaos at will. This time we were on the Paharganj road near the main train station and were right in the mix. Filthy does not even begin to describe where we stayed. Our hotel room was like a prison cell, the bedsheets looked like they could walk away of their own accord, but we were at least thankful for the roof terrace where we could escape from the oppressive heat, noise, crowds and putrid stench that was on our doorstep. After travelling in comfort around South East Asia it was a shock to the system.
But Delhi is nothing if not a city of contrasts. On arriving at the airport we received a royal welcome. Having met Praveen, an IT programmer, on the plane we were then introduced to four generations of his family, had our photographs taken and were presented with a huge bouquet of flowers (later in the week he showed us around his company, introduced us to his boss and took us out for a slap up meal)! After leaving Praveen and his family, an aging tantra yoga teacher took us in hand - he thought we looked like 'newbies' to India and wanted our first experience to be a positive one! He ushered us in to a taxis and dropped us at the door of our hotel. Our introduction to India couldn't have been any better.
The following day we visited the Jeera Mosque. People literally crossed the courtyard to speak to us and make us feel welcome. Given the world's current climate it was a fantastic experience to be so enthusiastically welcomed in to Asia's biggest mosque. After our visit, as we battled through the chaotic backstreets of Old Delhi to our hotel, passing frequent shouts from market traders and touts, an old guy clocked us, threw his arms in to the air and broke in to a broad grin. 'Ah welcome to Delhi,' he said. We couldn't help but smile. It seems ironic that having had such a glorious welcome to India, by the end of our stay in Delhi we were sitting on the pavement in the shit with everyone else.
Our overnight bus to Uttaranchal in Northern India was due to leave at 9pm, but like most logistical arrangements here things didn't go according to plan. Indian bureaucracy would test the patience of a saint. I'll give you the abridged version as it's too complicated to explain in full. Basically having waited around for over an hour and watched our 'tourist bus' depart without us on it, we were finally bundled in to an auto rickshaw driven across town and dumped at the side of the road in the middle of one of Delhi's poorest districts. Surrounded by tin-and-cratewood shacks, piles of rubbish and beggars, we sat down on our bags and waited for a bus we weren't even sure was going to show up.
At night the poverty is even more confronting than in the daytime. Hundreds upon hundreds of people line the streets asleep. They occupy ever spare scrap of pavement, lie on top of buses and across cycle rickshaws. Never have we felt so compelled to give people money, and not because you think it's going to do any good, not even to ease your own conscience, but because when your faced with a woman and baby with her stomach swollen from malnutrition, or a young guy shuffling on his hands with horrific open wounds, you simply can't think of anything else to do.
With all the hype at the moment about China and India competing to be the next super power, after visiting China we were really interested to see how India compared. It's no contest. Whatever you might think about China's lack of democracy and dubious human rights, it's organised and the whole country is developing. People in China are at least provided for in some way, they aren't dying of starvation. If a child dies on the streets of Delhi you get the impression it doesn't even register as a statistic.
India's top 2% might be getting rich in the IT business, as a programmer Praveen is chauffeur driven to and from work in an air conditioned cab, but for the vast majority of people nothing has changed. With the notable exception of a spanking new, heavily armed metro system, and a couple of out of town shopping malls the city hasn't changed since I was here 10 years ago. If anything the squalor and pollution is worse than I remember. India's democracy might be thriving but so is its population and its traffic. It's a big problem for Delhi which is choking with more people and vehicles than all the other 4 major cities of India combined.
Our 9pm bus finally showed up at midnight. We drove through smog so thick you could barely see the headlights of on coming vehicles. On the outskirts of town we stopped at a red light over which someone had stuck a transfer. It read 'relax.' In the stifling heat, noise and stench of Delhi, with the prospect of a 10 hour human crammed bus journey ahead of us we burst into laughter. India's 330 million gods clearly have a sense of humour.
After 4 days in Delhi we were glad to leave, but despite everything we've said about the squalor, noise and pollution the city does have a certain charm. No where else in the world can make you feel so euphoric one moment and horrified the next. It's a captivating place.