The airplane which left Singapore in the morning landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport. It was cloudy. Looking through the window of the airplane, I could see the smoggy scenery of India.
"I arrived in India..."
I thought. But somehow it didn't feel real. I stood up from my seat, took my laguage and walked out of the airplane. I wanted to smoke.
India was not the place where I was particularly interested in. I wanted to go to India someday for sure. But priority-wise, it was always my fourth or fifth choice. There were other countries I wanted to go first. However I was also thinking like this: If I go to India, the sooner the better.
When I travel foreign countries, I always wonder if my mind is flexible enough to synchronize myself to the country's culture, people, vive etc. Because I think that is important. As you get older, you establish your own value. You establish your own enviroment. And that tends to make you conservative because it is a bit tough to abandond what you already estalished and accept something totally different.
People say India is unique. Some even say it changes your life. It changes your sense of value. I was a bit skeptical about those "India advertisements" by other tourists. But still, I believed India has something that other countries don't have.
So if I go to India, I thought I should go while my mind is still flexible. If I became too conservative, I might reject everything that is different from the things I'm accustomed to. If that happens, the experience becomes facial. I might enjoy the travel, but it can never reach my spirit.
So when I decided to go overseas for the first time in 9 years, I thought of going to India. Yes, 9 years had passed since my last overseas trip.
Scale-wise, Indira Gandhi International Airport looked no different from some regional airport in Japan.
I retrieved my backpack and changed 50 dollars for rupees. Then decided to go out, to see India. I haven't booked any hotel but I knew there is a place called Connaught Place and that is the center of the city. I didn't know how far this Connaught Place is, but it didn't look like I can walk from here. So I needed to find bus or taxi first. I was a bit nervous. I hadn't been to foreign country for 9 years. But I said to myself.
"No worries. Just like the old days."
Until 9 years ago, I was traveling a lot. Yup, just like the old days.
I stepped outside.
Then what I saw was 30 to 40 Indians who were shouting at me. Although I soon understood that they were runners for hotels or taxis, I felt like I was seeing something unreal. The outside air was hazy and dusty. It looked a bit whitish. In this hazy-dusty-white air, they were shouting. Some guys were holding placards, some guys were trying to grab tourists and stop them. They looked desperate. They looked aggressive.
"So this is India..."
I said to myself. I walked through these guys and reached a bus terminal. But I found myself a bit shaken. It seemed I was a bit overwhelmed by what I just saw. I looked around but didn't know where I can ride a taxi or which bus is going to Connaught Place.
I could ask someone. Usually I do that. But if I do it, maybe those guys come to me and surround me again. I didn't want that. I tried to act normal and glanced around for a while but still I had no idea where I should go.
I entered the airport building again and ordered a cup of coffee at a cafe near the entrance. As drinking the coffee, I tried to calm myself and opened a guidebook. According to the book, there is a service called "pre-paid taxi" at the airport. You go to a counter and tell the stuff your destination then pay the price. Then they give you a paper. If you show the papter to taxi driver, they will take you to the destination. That's how pre-paid taxi works, it seemed. So you don't need to worry about being asked outrageous price when you arrived at the destination. I decided to use this service.
I stepped outside again and looked around again. Then I could find a ticket box for pre-paid taxi. I got into the line and told a man in the box that I want to go to Connaught Place.
The man said. 1 dollar was about 50 rupees so 320 rupees means a little more than 6 dollars. I had no idea this was cheap or expensive but at least this service was official so I couldn't complain. I received a pink paper. "320" was written on the paper in handwriting. I walked to a taxi that was parking nearby and showed the paper to the driver, then got into the car.
The black-colored taxi soon started to drive on a single straight road. As the noises of the airport fades away, I started to feel a bit relaxed. The windows of the taxi were opened and cold air was coming in. But I felt like my mind was calming down by the coldness. I had an image that India is a hot place but this January's temperature of Delhi seemed not so different from Tokyo's.
"It's pretty cold, isn't it?"
I asked the driver.
"Yes, very cold. But this few days are unusual. Usualy it's not cold like this."
The driver said. He was 27 years old and from Kolkata. He asked me if I already booked a hotel. I told him I haven't booked a hotel but I know where to go. Then he just said "OK" and didn't say anymore. Instead he grabed his cellphone and started to call somewhere.
OK, now he's calling some hotel...
I thought so. But since he didn't say anything, I kept silence. It seemed no one pick up his call so he started to press different numbers. He repeated this several times. Everytime the car stopped at traffic signals, he changed the numbers. But no one picked up.
After an hour or so, the car stopped and the driver said this is Connaught Place. He asked me about hotel again. I said "I'm fine" and gave him some tip. I was expecting him to be more persistent but after receiving the tip, he just left. Then I realized.
"Wait... didn't I just give him 100 rupees?"
Since I just arrived in India, the value of each bill was still vague to me. I gave him 100 without thinking much but come to think of it, the taxi price was 320. So I gave him about one-third of the whole price as a tip. I felt like I'm an ignorant, naive, newbie tourist. But there was nothing I could do now.
Connaught Place was a busy place. There was a roundabout at the center and the roads coming from several directions were connected to the circle. There was a park inside of the circle and I could see several restaurants and shops outside of the circle. Some buildings were half destroyed and abandoned, creating a dilapidated atmosphere. Constructions were being done at several places . Probably because of the constructions, the air was dusty and hazy.
'Where are the cheap hotels...' I murmured.
There must be an area where I can find cheap hotels but I didn't know where that is. I started to walk along the roundabout. Then an Indian guy who looked like 20s talked to me with a smile.
"Hello. You just arrived in Delhi? Where are you going?"
He started walking with me side by side. 'Man who's this guy?' I thought and kept walking, a bit faster. But he kept following me and kept talking. He said his name is "Lucky". He is now on holidays and has a lot of free time so he's guiding tourists as a volunteer...or at least that's what he said.
"Oh yeah? That's nice."
I answered as thinking how to get rid of this guy. Then another guy appeared and said something to Lucky. It seemed they were friends and they said they "just met" here by chance. 'Yeah, of course.' I thought.
"Where do you want to go?"
Another guy asked me. I told him I am looking for a cheap hotel.
"Then you should go to the Tourist Office."
He said. His suggestion sounds reasonable but I was pretty sure that these guys were framing me in some way. So I didn't feel like following his direction. He kept explaining about the Tourist Office for a while but eventually noticed I wasn't responding much. Then he suddenly said,
"Watashi wa Ochaya de hataraite imasu (I work at a tea-shop)"
It was Japanese. For a second, I thought of answering in Japanese but I decided not to do it. Beucase I thought that's what he wanted. I kept speaking in English. Then he said.
"Why don't we have chai together? There is a shop nearby."
When I heard that, I thought it might be interesting. I didn't trust these guys at all. But drinking chai with local Indians sounded not bad. I was curious. So I asked them where the shop is.
They said and started to walk. I followed. Then they entered an alley. There were only a few people in the alley and all of them were Indian. I walked a bit and asked again where the shop is.
"Over there. You can see it from here."
I looked at where they pointed at. There was a shop indeed. I walked a bit more and peeked at the inside of the shop. I could see 5 or 6 Indians inside. There was also a group of Indians in front of the shop. They were just standing as if they had nothing else to do. I was the only tourist in the alley.
OK, this is as far as I can go... I thought and told them that I changed my mind. Then I said goodbye and left.
Maybe that was just a normal cafe. Whatever they were thinking, maybe it wasn't so malicious. But I just arrived in India and I wasn't sure. I still couldn't determine the borderline that divides danger and safety. I kept walking.
Then another guy started walking with me. He was also a young guy and called himself "Anel". He said he is a student and looked less shady than Lucky and his friend. He also suggested me to go to the Tourist Office. Then he said:
"Watashi wa Ochaya de hataraite imasu (I work at a tea-shop)."
...What is this? I wondered. Maybe these guys were hired by this Ochaya(tea shop)? Or there is something like a manual for Japanese tourists and these guys are just following what was written in the manual? I had no idea. My head started to spin a little bit.
I walked some more but still couldn't find any cheap hotel. I asked several people but everyone tried to take me to different places. I was getting tired. I went back to the roundabout and smoked a cigarette. Then I noticed an old man was also smoking next to me. He looked like a construction worker. Unlike other Indians, he didn't talk to me and wasn't interested in me at all. Maybe this old man could tell me where the cheap hotels are...I thought. I asked him then as I expected, he told me where I should go. According to him, if I walked a bit from here there is a place called "Paharganj" where I can find a lot of cheap hotels.
I walked for a while as following the old man's direction. Then there was indeed a street with a lot of hotels and shops. Thus I could escape from the stormy Connaught Place.
Paharganj, aka "Main Bazaar" was a single street that starts in front of New Delhi station. There were a lot of hotels, restaurants and sourvenir shops along the road, the atomosphere was a bit different from Connaught Place's. With all that happened at Connaught Place, I was still on alert. But seeing a lot of cheap hotels and backpackers walking on the street, I felt like I came to a place where I am somehow accustomed to.
I wanted to put down my backpack first so I entered several hotels near the entrance and asked the price, then took a room in a hotel where two kindly looking middle-aged men were at the counter. They said 350 rupees (about 7 dollars) for a night but I talked the price down to 300 and paid for 2 nights. I entered a room on the second floor and put down my backpack.
(My first hotel in India: About 6 dollars for a night)
The room looked like a typical cheap hotel's room. It was small and there was a bed and a small table. There was also a small tube television but the reception was very poor. No hot shower. They said they will bring a bucket of hot water if I needed. I've heard that not having hot water is pretty common in India's cheap hotels so I didn't mind. More than anything, I was happy that I could finally be completely alone.
I rested for a bit in the room but there was still some time until night. I decided to walk around Paharganj.
I stepped outside, walked to the opposite direction of the entrance. Compare to Connaught Place, the road of Paharganj was thinner and seemed to be made for pedestrians, not cars. Some restaurants put some chairs and tables on the road and a lot of make-shift stalls were set up and selling various commodities.
However it's not like you don't see any vehicle on the street. On the contrary, a lot of motorcycles, auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and cars were coming into the street and driving through people. The way they drive was pretty impressive and the concept of trafic lane didn't exist at all here. They were driving through the spots between people or stalls. A motorcycle drives into a narrow alley that was only about 1 meter-width, a car coming out of a narrow side road that looked almost impossible to pass through by cars. And since they kept beeping the horn, the main street of Paharganj which was full of men and vehicles was being wrapped with ceaseless sound of horns.
And men and vehicles were not the only thing that were moving on the street.
There were...cows. Some cows were gathered at an open space. Some cows were aimlessly walking around the street. Indians, tourists, motorcycles and rickshaws were passing through among those cows, kicking up a cloud of dirt, making the beep sounds.
"Beep! ...Beep! ...Beeeep!"
Chaotic, was the only word that I could think of to describe the scene.
I kind of expected to see something like this. Because it was India. I kind of expected this. But seeing something exactly what I expected or something beyond my expectation, I was surprised and moved. The impact even made me wonder if I'm really on the Earth in 2011.
I knew India "used to be" a place like this. Once I read a travel report by a Japanese writer. He wrote about India. He wrote about the chaos that was created by rickshaws, cows and people. The book became my favorite and the most part of my image of India was created by reading this book. But this writer traveled India in 1974. It was almost 40 years ago. So I thought India must have changed a lot since then. After all, it's 21st century now.
But India hasn't changed. Of course they also use internet. Can't say modern technologies hasn't affected their lives at all. But on a primal level, India looked surprisingly the same as the description in the book I read. If the writer see the current India, maybe he would say it has changed. But at least the gap between what I'm seeing now and the image I had was very small.
I never had this feeling when I went to Hong Kong. I never had this feeling when I went to Iceland. The feeling, that I'm truly in a "foreign" country made me feel excited. And I felt Indian culture's toughness and stubbornness.
I walked around Paharganj until it gets dark. I entered a restaurant to have a dinner. I ordered something called panner butter masala curry, nan and chai. It cost 147 rupees. I had an image that the curries in India are very spicy but what I ordered was not so spicy and tasted good. Probably they adjusted the spices for tourists, I thought.
After the dinner, I bought some snack and juice, then went back to the hotel.
It was pretty cold in the room. I felt like drinking coffee so I asked a young guy at the counter. He said it's 20 rupees so I gave him money. Then he went out of the hotel. Maybe he went to a nearby shop or something...I thought and waited him as smoking a cigarette in front of the hotel. After a while, he came back as holding a small paper cup of coffee. The cup was wrapped with a foil. I gave him 10 rupees as a tip. He smiled and haggued me.
He said and left.
I drunk the coffee in the room. A lot of sugar and milk were in and it tasted a bit too sweet. But the warmness made me feel happy.
When I arrived at Connaught Place, I wasn't sure if I could adjust myself to a place like this. But somehow I felt more relaxed now. A lot of people talked to me when I was walking on Paharganj, but I started to feel that I don't need to be alarmed too much. It's not like all the Indians were trying to frame me, of course. Some people tried to sell me some drugs. Some people told me a direction and just left without demanding anything. The guy at a travel bureau on Paharganj tried hard to persuade me to join some tour but when he realized I have no intention of joining it, he suddenly became friendly and we could say good-bye in a friendly manner. I checked my guidebook and found the Tourist Office that Lucky and Anel were talking about. It was really a Tourist Office. Maybe they were also trying to help me without any malicious intention...but the way they acted was... I felt like the sense of right and wrong is becoming vague here.
A grate-like thing was placed above the door of my room. Through the grate, I could directly hear the voices from downstairs and the horn beeping outside.
There were only 2 not-so-clean blankets on the bed so I felt cold in the bed. I put on my jacket and knit cap in the blankets then somehow it became bearable.
My days in India started.