I always enjoy that feeling of being thrust back in your seat as you hurtle down a runway, but this time was different. It was not just enjoyable, it was exciting – enough to feel just a little bit giddy and give a little laugh. The trip had begun: I was on my way.
The flight from Palmerston North to Delhi, via Auckland and Bangkok, went smoothly and without incident – for the most part anyway. The only possible exception, perhaps, was the girl sitting directly behind me on the flight to Bangkok. She was a lovely person, I am sure, but seemed to have no problem singing Thai (assumedly) pop songs with considerable gusto and not much intune-ness for hours on end (eg. most of the way to Bankok).
Stepping out of my hotel, onto the street was a bit daunting. Not only is there that very physical experience of walking out of a comfortable air-conditioned space into that blasting wall of hot, but the crossing of the threshold marked a transition from quiet to a mad cacophony, from a semblance of order to seeming chaos. Buses drive by with the doors open, people jumping on and off while in motion, the guy taking fares leans out the window shouting with a fistful of notes, taken from passangers. And it seems direction of travel is not terribly consistent either – a large volume of motorbikes and bicycles heading up the road, opposite to its stream, all the while obnoxiously beeping their horns, as if the rest of the world is the problem.
Joining them, I felt like I was breaking so many rules: walking in front of traffic, crossing a highway, and using the road if it were the footpath.
It was terrifying and thrilling all at the same time.
As I navigated the motorway and its overpasses on foot, I was overwhelmed by the neediness of the people. And perhaps it was not the poverty per se that was overwhelming, but rather the systemic nature of this brokenness: broken roads, broken rules, broken buildings, and broken people. There are so many people leading exceptionally hard lives. It is hard to watch and much easier to look the other way. You realise how privileged you are in a country like NZ.
After a day in Delhi and feeling a bit more confident among the throngs, I explored a couple of back-alleys behind the hotel. I came across this awesome paved, square-type space with a well at the convergence of several streets. With old, multi-storey buildings surrounding the space, it was an enclave of colour – I do love the colours you see here in India – the rich reds, golds, yellows and blues hanging on balconies and lines, a beautiful contrast to the brown-grey of the brick buildings. Tiny shops beneath the residential spaces sell goods and services: A medical centre; “MK Electricians” with a middle aged man sitting in a leather office chair, surrounded by retro electronics parts and tools, taking a break from working on an old iron to chat with a few mates, an old single-speaker radio playing its muffled tune as he leans back and laughs; a convenience store; a fruit-seller; a barber, in the middle of administering a full lather to one client’s face, and several men watch the cricket around a small TV screen; a woman selling ice – a loosing game, I would have thought, in this heat. Little courtyards line the alleys leading to the square. One such courtyard has an old man and an old woman sitting in plastic chairs, silent, drinking; in another young men are talking, negotiating something, one of them looks tired; a mother washing her little children; a man washing clothes, slapping and scrubbing the wet cloth on the concrete beneath a tap that is breaking away from the wall; a man above the courtyard leans on the wrought-iron bannister, talking on the phone; another looking blankly into the square through a tangle of overhead wires. I liked this space because it seemed more like real life than the crazy, hectic main road that I explored yesterday. You could almost feel the unchanged routine, the multigenerational ways of life in the people as they walked, talked, cleaned, and sat in silence. You could sense the community of the place, the rutted maze of alley-ways, marked with illegible names, carrying a sense of belonging. Tomorrow, I would like to go back and photograph it. Hopefully I can find it again.
It was easy to spot Gerwyn, my mate and climbing partner from Christchurch, as I walked out of the hotel, his colourful dreadlocks standing out amongst the teeming crowd. He got here early in the morning, while the air was still crisp (comparitively speaking) in that anticipatory, beginning-of-a-bluebird-day kind way – a great first day of our trip together, I thought.
With gear packing out of the way, we decided to head to the historic Connaught Place in the centre of Delhi. Connaught Place is a large ring-road, a park surrounded by colonial style, multi-story buildings, forming Delhi’s commercial centre. It’s a fascinating place. One of the things that was immediately striking was the fact that the complex featured shops such as Omega, Hugo Boss, Nike, and Gucci, and the footpaths in front of those shops were covered with cow poo and was home to beggars and hecklers. Both inside the shops and on the roads, there was this sense of desperation, a continual bombardment competing for your attention, and demanding your money. Outside, you had people offering you watches, glasses, food, clothing, advice and their services as guides. Inside, you had people wanting to close a deal NOW, like its your last chance and would never again find a deal this good. It was tiring, this continual fending of oneself and pushing others away.
I am tentatively looking at getting a small carpet as a momento for the trip visited the “Grand Cottage Industries Emporium” – a exceptionally grand name, I thought, and a good place for carpets. Inside was an equally grand collection of magnificent rugs and tapestries, all with correspondingly heavy price tags. It is an incredibly sensory experience, this rug shop – that beautifully musky smell of sandalwood burning, the vivid golds, scarlets, and blues of the tapestries on the walls, the soft touch of the woollen-silk carpets that change colour and shade as you view them from different angles, with no sounds other than the gentle hum of the air conditioning. “It’s an investment you’ll never regret”, I was assured, “And you had better purchase it now, before you run out of money and because I 100% guarantee it will be sold when you come back. Very popular, this rug”. It seems that the concept of taking your time to make a decision is not something they are familiar with.