Delhi. You know what to expect, but then it’s always a little different. A slap in the face. The air. It took me a few hours to come to terms with it. Everything’s opposite. You go to the subway to catch some air, you go inside to freshen up.
New Delhi Railway Station. I’ll be staying somewhere here, on the other side of the tracks. How does one get over. Everyone’s talking to me. I don’t want a cab. Or a rickshaw. Or my shoes cleaned.
The first days you’ve got no intuition on peoples’ character. You’re either too trusting or entirely distrusting. Everyone around is either a good Samaritan or a bastard trying to lure money out of you sooner or later. This changes.
Some guy walks with me through half the main bazaar. He’s friendly. My hostel’s here somewhere. It’s chaotic. It’s what I wanted. There’s people, food, trash, cars, bikes, cows, stray dogs and shit everywhere.
We reach the hostel. Would’ve missed it if the guy hadn’t shown me the sign. Says he’ll wait for me, go help me get other things done. I get cautious. He’s a nice guy, but this isn’t gonna be a free lunch in the end. Bye mister.
I step inside the hostel in keen anticipation of a place to lay my head for a moment.
Dark room. An abandoned reception, three mattresses on the floor, two of which have motionless bodies on them. Another man sits on a chair in the corner. I let out a greeting hello to announce myself. Not much of a response, one of the bodies simply mumbled something in acknowledgment. I knew it’s too early in the morning for check in, so any place to rest would really do.
“Where is the common room?” I ask into the dark.
“Eh common room here,” responds the body.
Right. No place to rest.
The man in the corner is the first to show an interest in me. I sit next to him. He’s from Bangalore, came to do some business up north in Delhi. He’s talkative, a bit too much maybe. But then again, who here isn’t, except the receptionist.
A while later he invites me to go out for breakfast, he knows a great place nearby. I ate not long ago. Well what about tea then? Yeah, I could have tea. We go.
Outside the madness of the Delhi’s Paharganj district reappears. This time I have a guide though.
We swim through the current of the street with confidence, evading bike, cow and curious onlookers. I lose my sense of direction within minutes. I am entirely in the hands of my south Indian guide.
He introduces himself as Nash, though his real name is something longer, more Indian sounding, which I can’t remember anymore. Probably why he gave me the Nash option. Keep it simple for the clueless white man. Nash it is.
I ask Nash if the breakfast place has safe food, you know, we westerners gotta be careful. Nash confidently assures me that it is. I guess I believe it.
“Well what about street food, that can’t be safe, right?” I continue the discussion, “That’s the one piece of advice I got from everyone – even Indians – on what not to eat.”
Nash responds with a long and loud “bullshit man!” He looks into my eyes and adds: “This is Delhi, man, you gotta eat the street food here. The best street food in India is here in Delhi, how can you not eat it?”
Whatever bit of certainty I had about this strange place around me, it was gone by now.
We take a few more corners. Nash suddenly stops, eyes looking to the upper level of the building in front of us.
“Ah, the place is closed, man.”
The street was buzzing, but the one part of it we wanted wasn’t. Shame.
“Never mind,” Nash goes on, “let’s just grab a tea here”, he says, pointing to the nearest tea vendor on the street. These people had a bicycle with a stall attached to the back, featuring a large pot boiling water, milk and spices together into the drink which keeps India united – chai.
It was still however made on the street. This brought my anxiety back along with a flood of questions and some unconvincing answers. Was it ok since it was boiled? Was boiling enough to kill the bacteria in Delhi water? I don’t know. I wasn’t an expert in physics, biology or India survival. I mean, it probably is ok, but wouldn’t it be pretty stupid to break the one rule I thought I knew about India within a few hours of landing here? I have no fucking clue.
I drank the tea. Sometimes you gotta let go, I guess. Back at the hostel I dug through my bag to find the bottle of liquor I brought from home to disinfect my stomach when needed. I took a large sip in some pretentious hope that it would be good for me.
What’s going on, man? I’ve only arrived, reached the hostel and went out for tea, these are all basic things which shouldn’t drive me mad. Chill out a little.
That’s exactly what I’ve dreamed of all morning, chilling out a little. The receptionist was functioning now and let me move into the dorm upstairs, where I found a colourful mixture of sleeping backpackers.
Shower. I gotta take a shower. My little moment of peace.
I get my towel and walk into the bathroom, where about five shower and toilet cubicles were lined up next to each other. I walked into the middle one, it wasn’t that dirty, and found my oasis. My first shower. The sweat from the journey and those few mysterious hours in this city was leaving my body. This was what I needed.
As I stood there in my moment of momentary peace, a fellow backpacker ran into the cubicle next to mine. The sound of violent vomiting came roaring through the bathroom, crashing my serenity into empathic misery. It hurt. It hurt to hear what this person was going through.
The madness wasn’t over, it won’t be for a while. This suffering is mine. It is mine in spirit today, in body tomorrow. It is the inescapable destiny of the path that I have chosen to walk.
I raise my head and arms to the sky somewhere above in one desperate attempt to communicate. Through the sound of the shower running and a backpacker throwing up, a voice from the sky responds to me, saying:
“This is Delhi, motherfucker. Welcome.”
(Cover photo courtesy of Peter Garnhum)