I’ve been in India for a week and don’t really feel able to explain my experiences, but I have to begin somewhere. Let’s go back to my arrival in Delhi one week ago:
I had 3 nights in Delhi. The plan was to overcome jetlag and to see as many sites as possible. I wanted to get a sense of India, a flavor of Delhi and ease myself into this new time zone and tropical climate before I flew to Varanasi the following Monday for my artist residency and face the work I am meant to do in India. I was just going to follow my guidebook and check off the major sites. I wanted to be the consummate tourist for a change but I couldn’t keep my explorer’s instinct suppressed, which often takes me off the well-worn path and out of the comfort zone. I didn’t need much to activate this instinct – I just needed to exit the plane.
My hotel was clean and comfortable with fancy electronics that allowed me to turn on and off the lights and tv and open the shades from bed. I keep the shades closed because the view was of dilapidation and flashing neon signs, and, besides, the buildings across the street were so close the inhabitants could see my whole room. The shower had a huge glass window that opened up to the bedroom – funny! – and an electronic shade if you wanted privacy, or not – funnier!! – You could watch tv while you showered, but couldn’t hear anything – comedy!!! During the day, there was constant horn blowing from outside, which ended around midnight and kicked back up around 6am. Before I left, everyone drilled into me that you cannot and must not drink the water from the tap. So, I invested in a water filtration system so that I didn’t have to struggle to find water while in India, which I am glad I did, because those first few hours on Friday it was difficult to figure out anything much less where to buy bottled water. In retrospect, I could have easily bought it from the hotel, but I was grateful for the self-sufficiency my filtration system provided.
My room included breakfast, India style, and – even though I never tried a “Live Omelette” that they offered (see pic above) – I really enjoyed the buffet of hot food and fruit juices. That first morning, I was heartened by two pots of boiling water for tea and drank plenty and copied the Indians: one sugar cube and a dash of milk. This staved off my brewing headache from withdrawal of American caffeine. However, I was grateful for being cut off because over this past year I was drinking way too much coffee to cope with the stresses of getting my life in order for this trip. Tea is my drink for now.
It seems like everybody on the streets in India has some game for a westerner, which was confirmed on Friday when I exited the New Delhi Airport and walked the main bazar in Paharganj. My hackles get raised even in the United States if someone is so persist to take me on a tour someplace or to sell me something; the “I’m your friend. Don’t worry. I show you around” is another story for another post.
During breakfast that first morning, I scanned my guidebook and made a plan to explore Old Delhi and the neighborhood around my hotel.
First, I would scout out another nearby hotel, Hotel Broadway, which was deeper in Old Delhi and then walk over to see the recommended sites. Hotel Broadway was described by my guidebook as having good food and a must see décor and some nightlife. Perhaps, it’d be a good place for dinner that night? I was advised that hotel food was safe, certainly safer than street food, and I thought I’d try dinner, at least once, somewhere other than my own hotel. Delhi has a good subway system and I’d eventually try it, but not right away. I had no idea of the market rate for a rickshaw and was not ready to negotiate a fair price; so, I decided to walk to the hotel. A mile and a half: I can do that while counting sheep!
I ask my concierge for directions and he gives me a map and a shortcut through a neighboring alley to the main road that leads to a bridge that spans the multiple tracks and warehouses of the New Delhi Railroad Station.
It is 8 am. The city is barely awake. This bridge is a major connection between Paharganj and Daryaganj, two Old Delhi neighborhoods.
The walk across the bridge was like nothing I’ve experienced. A narrow walkway, I quickly learn you walk to your left. The staring, the poverty, the bare feet, the dust …. and then the multiple layers of commerce! People live below the bridge, amongst the moving trains, and not just one or two: it is like a sub-city, a separate city below the one I was in. The bridge is sloped, rickshaws burdened with various materials can’t be pedaled up it and the drivers have to push, sometimes with the help of a companion. Bicycle rickshaws seem to be a main mode of moving material. Cars drive around them, honking. I, then, see paddies of material with hand marks in them spread along the walkway. This is drying dung; I guessed someone’s commodity. I see a series of bundles of freshly spun thread, each the size of an average sized Christmas Wreath, draped all along the handrail, hanging out to dry in the dusty cool winter air, another entrepreneur’s commerce. There must be 40 of these thread bundles spread all along the handrail. I step over a beggar with a wooden leg so I don’t have to step into oncoming traffic. I could write a book about my walk across this bridge, but I need to keep this post going.
Once over the bridge, the concierge told me to just “Go straight” and “Hotel Broadway will be on your left.” Seemed straight forward, right? Nope.
I crossed the bridge and confronted an intersection like none I have ever experienced before: There is no “straight.” First, every square meter is occupied or seems to have a dedicated use. The intersection is like an open space, like a turn about, and like Brownian motion, all at the same time. There seems to be different levels of commerce, circling the intersection, each with their own set of customers. The traffic: Oh, Most Holy of Chaos Theory – the traffic! It wasn’t moving fast but it was constant and varied. To cross the street you had to move with it, in between buses and tukktukkes, behind cycle rickshaws, in front of autos of every kind. Each type used it’s own ergonomics, all weaving together to my eyes in a non-linear patterns of a dynamical system … or just plain old chaos. The humans seemed to know what they were doing. There was no shouting, just honking, lots and lots of honking. I look at my guidebook map and compare it to the map my concierge gave me and they are NOT the same. I tell myself they are complimentary. Ha! I found out later that there really aren’t accurate street maps for Delhi (or for Varanasi for that matter! more on this point later!) I think: “You better move, Sam. This is not a place to stand still. Move. Learn quickly. Move … but at their pace.” More and more commerce, packed together, none of which I would use or even know how to purchase and, if I tried, they’d sell it to me at 10 times the price. I mean I wouldn’t even be able to communicate with them. Then, the food: food was being cooked everywhere: open fires, boiling pots, steam.
Anyway, I reformulated my plan and steeled my resolve to find this hotel. My guidebook indicated that Hotel Broadway was right next to Jama Masjid, a magnificent mosque and the largest in India. I decide to head toward this, and build my exploration from there. Things are so crowded in these intersections that I can’t really make out landmarks or inlets of roads until I am right on top of them. I pick my route, which is sort of “straight.” Oh yeah, did I mention: There are no street signs. And, I might as well tell you, now, my guidebook was mismarked.
I am through the intersection and have committed to this road to the Mosque. The road is well marked on both maps, but I can’t be sure that I am actually on the right one. I see no other westerner, and think this is the road less traveled and that in fact – even I! –appreciate that most would or probably should stay away from here. I move forward with the idea that most of what I am seeing is just common, everyday life for these people. It is just new for me. Although I generally feel a display of confidence is helpful both outwardly and inwardly, I dropped any vestige of the New York braggadocio of “I’m here. This is my space. Back the f*ck off” That was not going to work here, and, besides drawing too much attention, it is a sign of fear. I cultivate a sense of observation with a touch of vigilance and attention with an emphasis on perception rather than judgment. “let’s see how long this attitude lasts,” I think. I am still ultra-conscious of trying to find the natural rhythm of the street, of the culture. I try to adjust to the city’s pace, I try to find the base level of energy and behavior.
“Uhg…” I stand out so much, I just don’t fit in, I am out of place and unprepared for this. Like I said earlier, I realize that much of what I am seeing is just routine life for everyone around me and if I stay long enough, I, too, will know what is just normal. I think, “yes, but what if someone decides to address my alien nature and they don’t like it, or some event happens that is actually shocking or surprising to the people around me!?” This is fear: I let it wash through me and realize focusing on abstract contingencies is not helpful. I make it through the intersection and I start down the road I think leads to the Jama Masjid. I am stunned by a cognitive shift:
“You do not fight this, Sam. You flow. You perceive. No judgments, because you don’t know what you are looking at. Your judgments are rooted in your own guilt and shame: let the fear come; let it pass. Deal with each moment as it comes. Any surprises will be met as it happens and let yourself know what to do. This is about acceptance.”
I walk and try to differentiate the sights, sounds and people. There are clearly distinct jobs and activities being performed. There is an informal corridor of stationary people and objects at a certain distance between the buildings and the traffic – kind of where the curb would be – it seems like people are in there living rooms, cooking-cleaning-washing-conversing, just living. Maybe some are selling food – this is their commercial business? – but I couldn’t be sure. There are punctuations in the rhythm of the street: a man brushed his teeth and spits into a water-filled gutter, and I step over; another man scrapes up garbage and puts it in a cart that’s scaled for a hobbit and overflowing with street scraps and hilarious because of its diminutive size is out of proportion to the amount of garbage all around (maybe he was cleaning the front of his house); and, there were meetings of acquaintances – the spoken language was beyond me, but the body language was familiar (smiles and open handed gestures are universal); and, then there was a circle of men watching two dogs battle – really battle, a no joke battle – these dogs were fierce, and one was clearly loosing (they were in the “red zone,” as the Dog Whisper says).
Then, Cow – moo; goat – bah; dog – wait!? After less than 24 hours in Delhi, I’m already accustomed to emaciated, skeletal dogs, roaming in oblivion to their human neighbors. But, something is wrong: this one is running too fast, it is a disturbance against the baseline that even I, the newcomer, could see. The street is crowded: people, commerce, cars, bicycles, rickshaws, garbage, rubble, holes. The dog races towards me, but my unconscious, my amygdala, reads the situation before my conscious brain can adjust. The dog doesn’t see me. He has other worries. Then, the answer: a handful of children with sticks chasing, beating, the dog. My fight, flight or freeze response is not triggered; my adrenaline held in reserve. A child races from the other side of the street to out flank the dog. The dog dodges a bicycle ricksaw and zig-zags around a stick that was whipped by a seasoned thrower of 8 years old. The dog dashes in front of me, dodges another stick and spots the flanking maneuver of the child, makes an abrupt turn and speeds off down the road right past me in the direction I had just come. The children stop chase. I continue my gate of a westerner, as if undisturbed. This is not about me.
I walk on. I can’t imagine a Hotel of any kind would be around here. But, what do I know… I keep walking as if I belong, and I keep all maps and cameras hidden. I reach a subway station that marks my halfway point to the mosque. The building is drab, run down and dust-covered, like all the other buildings except for a Metro insignia you could barely make out from under the dust. I duck in to check my map, because there is an intersection ahead and if it is like the first one, I didn’t want to wander around hunting for the road I was going to take. The only people inside are armed police manning a metal detector. I ask them for directions, show them my map, make no pretense to speak Hindi; they make no attempt to speak English. No help, no communication: they point me back in the direction from where I came. I ignore them.
I pocket my guidebook, exit the Metro with purpose, enter the intersection and keep walking toward where I think my road is. It is hard to see where road and buildings meet. There is a turn-about in the center of this intersection that is clogged with bicycle rickshaws, some empty, some with a driver lounging on top. No one asks me if I want a ride and what this tells me is that I am not in an area where fares are picked up. There are zero westerners. The stares: I was told it was common for Indians to stare at westerners because we look so strange … or something…. Anyway, I know I am out of place, they know I am out of place. This is becoming a long post so I will revisit my ideas about exploration vs. getting lost, adventure vs. danger, mental map vs. true topology another time. However, I will summarize the importance of these distinctions by saying this is the most extreme and foreign place I have ever been. I’m not afraid, per se, it is just that I am out of my element and I feel inadequately prepared. I pick my direction and walk, adjusting my posture and pace, trying to find the new currents around me. I breathe. I smell decay. I breathe and smell the beauty of spice and fragrance. I sigh and taste an air that says, “You are not home.” I feel the ambiguity of a major threshold and move forward.
Through the intersection: the next street is narrower than before; it’s crowded with traffic. I walk. Everyone ignores me and I fall in line with the pedestrians and follow their lead around broken steps, open fires, makeshift platforms, sleeping dogs, a cripple. The buildings are high; above are a jumble of crisscrossing electrical wires of all sizes that acts as a sunshade. I flow with the traffic. The pedestrians walk in single file. I follow. I see a spire of the mosque. I block out the phrase “heading in the right direction” because this will only set up an expectation to be knocked down. Ahh … there is the mosque straight ahead. I see it and it is huge. It is like a fortress.
There is a modern day fence surrounding the mosque. I am clearly at the back where there is no public entrance. From my map I see there is a road that circumnavigates the whole building. “Hotel Broadway” should be to the right. I turn and I come upon a mound of birds in a swarm of excitement. What I have not mentioned yet is that I frequently notice birds of prey and scavengers circling over Delhi, and I sometimes see them swooping through markets or perched upon a crumbling building. My first few hours in Delhi I noted that these bird are much too close, much closer than I am used to. So, I turn the corner and there is this mound of birds, big birds – scavengers, birds of prey – and tiny birds trying to penetrate the melee. The feather ball rises and the object of the ruckus falls. It is a string of meat about the volume of three loaves of bread attached end to end by thin threads – nothing recognizable. I am at the edge of the competition and my amygdala immediately turns me away. The feather ball drops again and suddenly dissipates in a frenzy. A vulture bates and takes off right over me. I feel the turbulence of launch and flinch.
Ok: that’s enough for now… Stay tuned for:
Finding Hotel Broadway
Being taken for a ride