New Delhi was dark when my plane touched down on December 28, 2012. All I could see of the Indira Gandhi International Airport was mist, smog, and what might have been banyan trees backlit by the orange glow of streetlamps. Cars scooted along a freeway, red dots and white moving together. I’d slept for maybe thirty-five seconds of the fourteen-hour flight from Newark, and was feeling severely disoriented as we disembarked, achy, constipated, and anxious over my fumbling attempts to fill out the immigration card needed to enter the country. Fortunately, the customs officer proved understanding, if not especially cordial, and helped me fill out my entry card before letting me pass through to baggage claim, where my fellow traveler Chelsea and I both found our bags intact. The airport bathroom had both a working toilet and toilet paper (rare luxuries for a traveler in India). In the lobby, we withdrew rupees from the ATM before meeting Melissa, the third ISA student, and Diia, our director. A native of Hyderabad, Diia is warm, genuine, progressive, fluent in five languages, and has degrees from Canadian and Indian universities. This is her first full semester with ISA, but she clearly has a passion for her work. After a brief introduction, she led Chelsea, Melissa, and me from the heat of the airport into a cool, smoggy pickup zone. Taxis and motorcycles came honking down narrow asphalt strips sandwiched between crowded stretches of paving stones.
Our cab driver spoke little English beyond the word “seatbelt,” an item whose use he encouraged enthusiastically, first verbally, then with an energetic demonstration of India’s traffic laws—or lack thereof. There’s no such thing as horn cursing in India. More like horn small talk, and it’s a lingua franca that’s replaced the more regional dialects of traffic lights, crosswalks, and turn signals. Even the lines on the road appear to be, at best, friendly suggestions. I sat up front and marveled at the driver’s coordination. The roads were a lot clearer than I’d expected, but we still hit the occasional crush. The driver wove deftly between towering lumber trucks and petite government cars, honking all the while to let the world know he was there.
“The roads are never this clear,” Diia explained. “It’s because of the protests. Everyone is on the other side of the city.” She was referring to the city’s response to the tragic death of one of its young women. We’d touched down at the epicenter of India’s impending gender revolution—a shift in social consciousness that’s been a long time coming. Diia did an excellent job keeping us on the safe side of the city, far from the protests.
When we arrived at the hotel, a little colonial establishment tucked deep in the heart of New Delhi, the driver let us out and helped unload our bags, which were quickly whisked inside by a bellhop. Two men sat on the sidewalk outside, tending a small bonfire, and a metal detector guarded the hotel’s door like a stone lion, squawking maniacally whenever someone passed through. Diia and Chelsea set it off, earning not so much as a raised eyebrow from the bellhop, while Melissa and I took the equally appealing and somewhat quieter option of walking around it. That metal detector may be my favorite part of New Delhi.
Inside, we had to present the desk clerk with our passports and make note of our names, nationalities, telephone numbers, and travel plans in a large record book. A government-mandated safety precaution, Diia explained, instituted in recent years in response to threats of terrorism that had ultimately proved insubstantial. The bellhop showed each of us to our rooms. Mine was large, full of dark mahogany furniture, fired clay tiles, and pressed white sheets. A jug of bottled drinking water sat on a desk by the window, along with pots for making coffee and tea. The hot water had a five-minute lifespan, and the sink basin was deep enough to fill and float paper boats in. It’s probably one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed. Drinking tap water isn’t especially safe anywhere in India, so I brushed my teeth and swallowed my anti-malaria pill with the bottled water before surrendering to a disappointingly weak bout of jetlag on one of the hard, white beds.
The ISA orientation materials are full of warnings about monkeys. It would be another few weeks before I’d see my first monkey, but in addition to cars and people, the streets of New Delhi are crowded with crows, pigeons, and dogs. We spotted our first elephant the next day from the cab window on our way to Red Fort, the palace that housed a long string of Moghul emperors, from the benign and inclusive Jahan Shah, to the tyrannical Aurengzeb. The elephant was black, perhaps naturally, perhaps stained by the city smog. (I blew my nose not long after arriving and it came out the color of soot.) A man was riding the elephant down the street. On the other side of the median, men pedaled bicycle wagons heaped high with loads three or four times as tall as themselves, towering crates and refrigerator boxes lashed together with plastic and twine. I spotted a fellow giving a haircut on the side of the road. Others carried sinks and armchairs on their heads.
I’d begun teaching myself to read Devanagari, the script in which Hindi and several other South Asian languages are written, before leaving America, and interrupted our tour of Red Fort (Lal Qila, in Hindi) several times to sound out the words on the “You Are Here” boards posted throughout the complex. It’s not a hard script to learn, almost perfectly phonetic, as opposed to the Roman alphabet, which seems to have assigned sounds to letters with the wanton abandon of a drunk clown throwing darts at a noticeboard. According to Diia, Devanagari means “Letters of the Gods.”
After Red Fort, we visited the memorial grounds where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. We had to remove our shoes to go in, but were allowed to bring our cameras and take pictures. We’d given up trying to not look like tourists, although later in the outdoor crafts market we did purchase some local clothes. I bought two Kashmiri scarves and a shirt for 110 R’s, about 21 USD. When I asked Diia about the scarves, which I got for 750 Rs, she said they probably should have gone for 500, but I’d already talked the seller down from his proposed 1200, and was feeling pleased, not having expected to be any good at bartering. Later, Diia admitted that she probably would have paid 750 for the scarves as well because the artisans come from a region marked by such rampant violence, and such good-looking men. The scarves will make good gifts, but the shirt gets rather mixed reviews. On the upside, the fabric is soft and incredibly light, so that I can wear it comfortably under another shirt even in the tropical heat of Hyderabad. The downside is that I had no choice in the matter because on its own, the fabric is diaphanous and shows everything from my skin tone to my nipples. Worse, when I tried to take off the shirt, I discovered a fatal design flaw. The tailor must be known throughout the land for his sadistic sense of humor. Perhaps his ancestors were even commissioned by some emperor or other to manufacture fishnets and Chinese finger traps. The shirt went on easily enough, but removing it demanded that I engage in a series of Houdini-esque contortions culminating in a large hole torn in the left armpit. A tip to travelers: do not buy anything whose removal requires impromptu modifications.
Our first day in New Delhi lulled me into believing that Indian taxis generally have seatbelts. Silly me! As we prepared to depart for Hyderabad I learned this is not the case. To be fair, the taxi we took from the hotel to the Palam Domestic Airport (next to the Indira Gandhi International terminals) did have seatbelts. They just didn’t have buckles.