Let’s just dive right into it.
Delhi was the most challenging city I’ve ever visited. Nothing was easy and few things were pleasant. It’s overcrowded. It’s filthy. It lacks the infrastructure necessary to accommodate 22 million inhabitants. This all made for a very sobering first few days in India.
It began, as it so often does, with the arrival. After 23.5 hours in the air, I landed at Indira Gandhi International Airport at 3 a.m. By the time I made my way through customs it was close to 4. It was at about this time that my first frustration with PM Narendra Modi’s ‘demonetization’ policy occurred. 2 weeks prior to my arrival, India announced that the 500 and 2,000 rupee notes were being pulled out of circulation overnight as part of a half-baked scheme to fight corruption and so-called ‘black money’. This meant that an economy that is 90% cash-based was thrown into chaos. Indians suddenly had to exchange their old notes for new ones but – here’s where it gets fun – the government had not printed enough new rupees to satisfy the demand because they figured it’d be easier to keep the policy a secret if the treasury wasn’t fully informed. Of course I was aware of this fact before I departed for India, but I had naïvely assumed that getting cash from an ATM at the airport would be easy. That proved not to be the case.
It took me about an hour to finally get my hands on some rupees to pay for taxi to my hostel. I was fortunately saved by having $20 in my wallet that a man agreed to accept in exchange for 1,000 rupees that he had on him. I didn’t care that it was an absurd exchange rate. I just wanted to get to a bed.
The cash problem would plague me throughout my 16 days in India, but it was in Delhi that the magnitude of the problem was first realized. My first full day in India was largely spent on finding an ATM that worked and then spending 2 hours in line waiting to withdraw the maximum amount allowed of 2,000 rupees (~$30). This fact of life would set one of the main conditions of my stay in that it gave primacy to restaurants, hotels, and services that accepted payment through credit card. The McDonald’s near Arakashan Road became a mainstay of my early days.
The World Health Organization has ranked New Delhi/Delhi as the world’s most polluted city and for good reason. The utter filth of the city was unlike anything I thought possible. Piles of litter were a constant presence on all of Delhi’s streets. It should also be no surprise that a city teeming with vagrants and feral animals would also come with a nauseating stench of urine and feces. The final touch of this infamous pollution was the fetid smog that engulfed the city for much of my stay. Everyday around 5:30-6 p.m., after spending hours breathing in the toxic fumes, my throat would tighten and my voice became scratchy as if I had spent all day chain-smoking. The bag of cough drops that I had brought with me proved to be a stroke of genius.
Before I move onto the positive aspects of my stay in Delhi – and there were some – I need to spend a little time talking about the extreme poverty that is still appallingly prevalent in Delhi and India as a whole. Despite the enormous strides India has made over the past several years in growing its economy and expanding the middle class, India is still a poor country. While hardly surprising, it jarred me into remembering my experiences in Africa and the appreciation I’ve gained for my comfortable life in America. The most distressing example of this extreme poverty and the absence of medical care that often accompanies it was found outside of the Jama Masjid mosque in Old Delhi. There, among the crowded bazaar found just outside the mosque, sat a beggar that was suffering the tertiary stages of syphilis. He quietly sat with crossed legs and out-stretched hands soliciting donations. His nose had long withered away and what was left was a nasal cavity that briefly distracted me from his blinded eyes. The last feature I observed before I carried on was the ivory white patches in his forehead that appeared in places where his skin had been eaten by the bacteria and revealed his skull. This sorry soul was undoubtedly the most ill man I’ve ever seen in my life, and I couldn’t stop thinking of his condition for the rest of my day. I had foolishly thought that the abject misery he was suffering had long been extinguished from the world with the advent of penicillin. But I suppose when many people in the world still struggle to earn $2 a day, medical treatment as basic as antibiotics is still a luxury.
I earlier promised that were positives to my time in Delhi and there were! I met some great people in Delhi. Having done solo backpacking before, I knew how much improved a trip can be by meeting new faces and crafting plans together. In the case of Delhi, the majority of my stay was spent in the company of Corey (Canada), Jack (U.S. by way of Australia), Jeremy (U.S.), Anthony (France), Dora (Croatia), and Zahra and Katie (Canada). Zahra, Katie, and Dora would actually re-appear in Agra later on but I’ll talk about that in another post. With my fellow travelers I ate at a famous restaurant in Old Delhi, visited the Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, Qutub Minar, and India Gate.
Finally, the silver lining I found from my time in Delhi was that if I could manage to handle the conditions found in that city, then I can surely take on the most challenging places the world has to offer. I was pleased that in the face of great culture shock and frustration I was able to stay composed and adapt. This was an attribute I’ve always been aware of possessing, but after spending so much time leisurely backpacking in Europe, I had feared that it had atrophied. Thankfully, it proved to not be the case.