For my first day I’d decided to go around on my own and navigate the train system to visit some of the tourist sites in Delhi.
100 feet from my guest house I was approached by Jack, a good-looking, fast-talking young Indian. He asked me things like what is my country and where I was going. Despite trying to wrap it up, he lingered along my way to the train station. Finally he persuaded me to go into a tourist agency for a free map and who knows whatever.
I walked into a rather nice office where I was greeted by Imran, who sat me at his desk and called up a chai for me. I hesitantly drank it, still concerned about the quality of water. Later I would realize that the water for chai is generally boiled and safe to drink.
Imran spent about an hour and a half breaking down my 12 days in India with tourist trips, guest houses and site-seeing. He was quite a salesman; I actually wanted to simply book the entire trip with him and be done with everything, rather than have to research each trip and accommodation and everything else on my own. Even after scaling back to the super-budget itinerary, I was still hesitant to pull the trigger and spend the dough.
I left a very disappointed Imran to head to the train station. While the trains are efficient and easy to navigate, I’ll just say things are pretty pushy. At every stop a crowd gathers inside the train and on the platform in anticipation. As soon as the doors open, the crowd on the outside immediately begins forcibly jamming themselves into the car through oncoming traffic. Leaving the car is like swimming upstream, and you literally have to battle your way through. In one instance a westerner standing next to me wasn’t having it, and refusing to yield pushed his way through, nearly getting into a fistfight with a young Indian man. Patience and waiting for your turn are not common in India, I’ve learned.
I found my stop rather easily, but that would be the last easy part of the day. I spent the next several hours wandering around in 113 degrees, the sun beating down ruthlessly, seeking out the nearby sites. I managed to find the India Gate, the President’s house and the Parliament House, but only at great cost of sweat and frustration with tuk tuk drivers, who each seemed to be trying to rip me off. One guy quoted me a price and then asked for triple that after dropping me off; another took me to the National Museum and left me there, only to discover that it was closed on Mondays, which he surely knew.
I did finally get a driver that was honest and helpful. An old Sikh man with a white beard and turban took me where I needed to go and gave me some helpful advice. I would learn that the Sikh men tend to be very trustworthy and genuine, which has held true.
I arrived back at the Palace rather exhausted and a bit frustrated, but believing it was all part of the experience and that things would turn around. In fact, I was approached by a few different tenants in the guest house who I became friends with, one group of Indian guys and another fellow from Iraq.
That night I got a message from Shonali, the Indian journalist who had been my classmate in Jen’s cooking academy. She told me she had a close friend from journalism school, Meera, who lives in Delhi, and insisted that I get in touch with her.
I called Meera in the morning and told her about my experience the day before. Sensing I’d had a tough go, she offered to have her favorite driver come and pick me up and take me around Delhi for the day.
Soon after Jitender arrived at my guest house in his motor rickshaw (tuk tuk) ready to rock.
Jitender is a young, good-looking, well-dressed Indian man with nerves of steel. Shortly after taking off from the Bombay Palace we were smashing through traffic in the streets of Delhi.
India is crazier than Vietnam is crazier than Thailand is crazier than Malaysia. Singapore is just civilized. There are no traffic signals. There are governing lines or boundaries. There is no defensive driving. The only law is the natural law: what a man can do, and what a man can’t do. At least in an auto-rickshaw, which turns out to be quite a bit.
Jitender knows every square inch of his green steel beauty, he has the turning radius down to a precision science and weaves through obstacles with laserpoint accuracy. From the back seat I can see a rectangular cutout of Jitender’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. With a menacing scowl he surveys the field, perpetually scanning, making an average of 2.5 decisions per second and executing brilliant tactical maneuvers, often prompting concerns and audible gasps from the back seat. It’s all business baby.
We went around all day, stopping at the Old Fort, Humayan’s Tomb, Qutab Minar, the Lotus Temple, and the Lodhi Garden. We had lunch, stopped for chai and pulled off toward the end of the day for a “health juice,” which I drank hesitantly (Jitender has two a day). We had a splendid time together, as Jitender joined me at all the sites taking pictures on his mobile phone, posing with a neutral yet confident expression. Despite a manageable language barrier, we chatted the whole time and learned about each other. He told me about getting married recently (February 23), his family, education and friends. I told him about my home and family, my journey around the world and the Green Bay Packers. By the end of the day we were certified homeboys.
After all day navigating the chaos of Delhi, with the traffic and trash, the searing heat, the horns of hell, the crowds, the pushing, the dirt and dust, the noise and the smells….suddenly it began to rain, and fairly heavy for a good 15 minutes. Ji and I waited it out in the Green Machine, and when it finally stopped, we walked into the Lodhi Garden, a park in the middle of Delhi.
Walking into the garden, the horns faded into the distance. There was no trash and there was no pushing. The rain had cooled the ground and the air, which was crisp and fresh. The clouds were just breaking, revealing the sun setting into the dusk behind the ruins of ancient mosques. The open fields of green grass unfolded into flower beds, sculpted hedges and lush forests. People came out with their kids and dogs, exercising, talking, walking, playing cricket and just sitting on the grass. It was like we’d entered into another place in another time.
It was the first time I saw the beauty of India.
After about an hour in the garden we finally met up with Meera. We’d actually been talking throughout day through Jitenter, adjusting plans and meeting times until it finally came together. Meera walked me through the other side of the park describing some of the important historical features, conspicuously leaving the dates out, telling me about journalism school with Shonali, her job, her time in Delhi, where she is from but how she’s not really from there.
On the other side of the park Jitender was waiting. He drove us to a street corner from where we walked to a hidden sixth-floor south-Indian restaurant, behind a hidden alley in a hidden neighborhood that I wouldn’t have found living six months in Delhi. I can only say again, life is better when you have someone to help you out and show you around. Meera was incredibly kind and made me feel glad to be in India. We drove past the parliament square again, lit by moonlight, a far different scene than at 2:00 PM and 115 F. Jitender finally dropped me off at the end of a day that had begun to shape my understanding of a world far different than any I’ve ever known.