This post is part of a series of articles written while I was in India
Delhi. August 19, 2016.
I have just landed. Just the time to pick up my bag and to go to the visa delivery service and I’m already climbing into a pre-paid cab.
My driver, Abhi, welcomes me with a large, warm smile, which the locals are well-known for. He salutes me and lets me know we are ready to go with a simple nod.
We are now riding at walking pace. The traffic is particularly dense. The 50 minute-ride to the hotel where I will stay the first three days seems endless. After 20 minutes, we finally reach the city centre.
Delhi reminds me off many other cities I have visited. Outside, touc-touc, truck and car drivers never give way and seem to be missing every opportunity to crash into each other until helmetless riders come under their fire for zipping through traffic.
Chaos is happening just here, in front of my eyes.
Everybody stops, eventually. The drivers will only take the road again after exchanging words.
Nothing wrong there. I have seen this happen many times in the past.
But the unsteady feeling I’m starting to get comes from elsewhere and it’s pretty harsh.
Just before me, the street appears as a rundown theatre and its setting brings a disconcerting sense of human misery and loss.
Trash heaps pile up on the pavement. Cows sleep right in the middle of the roadway. Up above the streets, massive bridges are set but have yet to be completed, while underneath, dozens of families take refuge in makeshift dwellings.
I’m checking the time. 35 minutes have passed since we left the airport. We are still riding at walking pace.
Abhi is doing his best to converse with me in what I’d call “rough” English, curious to know where I am from and why I’m here.
I simply provide monosyllabic answers and nod. His questions do not deter me from staring at the street scenery.
Everywhere, men, women, children and elderly people ramble in the hope of finding some odd jobs that will allow them to survive a day, maybe a week.
I can’t help but stare at them.
A man is walking alongside our car. I make eye contact with him. He must be in his sixties or seventies. It’s hard to say.
All I know is that he seems intrigued when he sees me. I come to the conclusion that white women travelling alone might not be that common around here.
After a few seconds, we are still staring at each other. The guy is standing still now and it seems like the weight of the whole world is on his shoulders. But as I’m about to look away, the expression on his face suddenly changes. Out of the blue, his eyes brighten up and his lips spread into a wide smile. It is one of those warm and generous smiles that overcome our fears and make you feel welcome.
I smile back, shyly.
I look a little further away. In the background, kids are playing in a rusty car hulk and are laughing out loud as if life only belonged to them.
That’s what India is about, after all: The capacity to make something from nothing.
The poverty is still disconcerting, though. For an Occidental like me who has taken ease and comfort for granted, the social inequality and deprivation those people face is breathtaking.
I had been warned.
A few months before, a friend of mine told me that the first few days would be the most difficult ones. “You’ll only have one idea in mind,” he said. “Turning back and booking the next flight to London. But if you decide to stay, believe me, you will really enjoy your trip.”
I’m keeping faith.
In the meantime, I’m catching sight of the 5-star hotel where the wedding festivities will take place. The place strangely contrasts with the street scenery I glimpsed at earlier on and I’m suddenly seized with a sort of vertigo.