Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Arrival in India

The pungent acidity of urine bows down the air; the flowering smoke of incense blesses it. Scattered across the train platform are men wearing turbans and women clad in bright, glittering saris, many of which have sequins flaring from them or a myriad of tiny mirrors sewn into their rainbow-hued fabric. Almost invisible in the crowd, in the night, are a few Muslim women wearing shapeless black burquas which cover every inch of their bodies except for their hands and a thin slit across their heavily-veiled faces so that only their dark eyes peer through. A man in a formal, Western-style business suit walks past. A large, blood-red tikka dots his forehead. At the end seat in the waiting room rests a legless man whose plastic legs are companionably propped up on the wall next to him. Rich notes from a Bollywood tune spill from someone's radio, almost shimmering like gold through the air.

I am in India.

Immense in both beauty and poverty, it is a country of extremes. There doesn't seem to be much of a middle ground in India, or in people's reactions to it. Half the travelers who visit India love it. The other half hate it. I made up my mind ahead of time that I would love it -- and I do. Nonetheless, it frightens me. Also, it is impossible to see limbless men crawling through the dirt (those amputees not even fortunate enough to have cheap prosthetics) and not feel bad -- sorrow for their sad state, and also guilt for having been born into vastly better conditions. One of these men erratically yells as we walk past, trying to scare us, I suppose. I don't even blame him. There is nothing redeeming about his situation, just poverty and pain. Still. In spite of its negatives, India fascinates me. Whatever else it may or may not be, it certainly is not dull.

In order to give you a better glimpse into my first impression of this country that is a world unto itself, here's my first diary entry copied verbatim (except for tidying the grammar and mechanics, of course).

January 22, 2011

I'm waiting at the train station in Old Delhi. As an aside, the New Delhi train station is located in Old Delhi. There are other train stations as well, but I'm not sure where those are. This train station resides in an impressive red and white brick building. The inside, though, is rather poor, even the interior of the 2nd "upper class" waiting room. The loud speakers blare an endless succession of announcements about delayed trains, canceled trains, and "the course of inconvenience," whatever that might mean. Katie and I have a wait of 5 hours due to our early plane arrival and delayed train departure.

As we first flew into the city, the plane, for a while, flies level with the tawny sunset. Then the wings dip and we lower into a cloud bank. Then the plane dips further still and we descend into darkness.

From the airplane, the city of Delhi below appears as fluid streams of amber lights -- traffic. As Katie and I discover on our taxi ride from New Delhi to Old Delhi, the traffic here is amazing. Anything with the potential for mobility is on the road. There are taxis, personal cars, buses, pedal bikes, motorcycles, pedal rickshaws, and little green-and-yellow vehicles that I first thought were golf carts (but turned out to be electric rickshaws), and a parade of religious floats that is at a complete standstill on the road, causing all the other traffic to back into a jam. Add to all this mix an endless succession of pedestrians jaywalking (really no point for them to cross at an intersection since none of the drivers stop there anyways), road lines that are viewed as the merest suggestions, intersections where as many as 12 lanes of traffic converge without any signals (or apparently any rules), and random cows that step into the chaos unconcerned, along with the sound of every driver lightly honking, and there you have the streets of Delhi.

Oh, I should also mention the families that ride motorcycles. The first one I saw had a man driving it with a woman in a red sari riding sidesaddle behind him and grasping a young girl in a turquoise and pink sari. The girl didn't seem to have any direct contact with the motorcycle itself, just attached by the strength of her mother's grip.

Now at the train station, I am eating butter masala. It's a hot, doughy bread filled with peppers, potatoes, and garlic cloves. I eat it by tearing off bites with my right hand and dipping them in sauce. There's an ochre-coloured spiced sauce and a white, yogurty-looking one that is cool and refreshing.

Everyone here looks at us, especially the men. They stare in a sort of locked gaze, without smiling. I've brought a large, floral scarf with me, which I use to cover my hair. My blue eyes and snowy skin are harder to hide. A lot of times, I like getting extra attention for looking different. It makes me feel special. Here, I'm scared. I talk to Katie in a quiet voice and try not to make eye contact with strangers. Katie feels scared, too. What have I gotten us into?


  1. Ah yes, the staring. It is incessant!! I'm looking forward to following your travels here. Cheers!

  2. Beautiful descriptions here. I can't wait to read more about your time in India. I know the staring would scare me as well, especially with bright red hair and pale pale skin.

  3. Beautifully written! My friend (blonde and blue-eyed like yourself) just visited India, and had to eventually turn down all the requests from folks who wanted to be photographed with her.

    Definitely a unique problem ...