The first time I came to India I could hardly wait to leave. Two months of traveling alone through South India had tested every bit of my nerve and patience. Then, upon returning home, I found myself desperately wanting to go back. This same story has been repeated by almost every traveler I have ever met. Even the most seasoned travelers are tested in India and despite all the hardships and frustration, there is an irresistible pull to this country that keeps us coming back.
It would take over 30 hours for Rachel and I to reach Delhi and when the plane finally touched down upon the runway, it was officially my 31st birthday. Our first impressions were of an airport far nicer than I had expected. Everything was very clean and orderly with no mass of people or putrid smell. Our taxi carried us down a tree-lined avenue bordered by elaborate hotels and the decadent Presidential Estate. This was not the India I had known and I was left a little dumbstruck. But soon we were leaving the wide boulevards behind and entering the Paharganj area which straddles Old and New Delhi. Though the streets were pretty quiet at 3am, our surroundings suggested that we truly were on the other side of the world.
A few hours later, we awoke to find Paharganj bustling with activity. The horns were beeping, the streets were crowded, and the rickshaw drivers were out and waiting. We caught a ride to Old Delhi through a more typical scene of Indian streets. I could hardly stop watching Rachel’s face to see her expressions as we passed burning trash heaps, ox-driven carts, and scavenging beggars. Our rickshaw weaved in and out of frantic traffic and soon we arrived at one of Delhi’s star attractions.
The Red Fort is an impressive sight with red sandstone walls that extend for 2 km varying in height from 18 to 33 meters. Shah Jahan began construction of the massive fort in 1638 and it was completed ten years later. The Red Fort dates from the very peak of Mughal power and today it serves both foreign and Indian tourists alike. One such group was made up of young Indian girls from Kerala who, upon seeing Rachel, immediately asked to have their photos taken with her. Though I had experienced this countless times with the men, I had not anticipated the way Indian women would respond to Rachel. She was a little shocked at first, but quickly embraced her own celebrity. One family even rushed up and handed her their baby in hopes of getting a photo. This curiosity and fascination with Western tourists is very common in India and in just our first few hours, we had already posed for countless photos.
We left the Red Fort planning to explore Old Delhi and hired the services of a friendly 18-year old rickshaw driver. He gave us a tour of the narrow, crowded streets, including the spice market where our senses were assaulted by the medley of intense and pungent odors. We had heard much about this area and just how crazy it would be. But as we explored the shop-lined streets, both on foot and in rickshaw, I saw little that would set Old Delhi apart from many cities I have seen in India. There was the same strong smells, dirty streets, mangy dogs, and staring eyes. Yet, with all the horror stories of Delhi I’ve heard over the years, I expected far worse. We saw few beggars, squatters, and just a few street kids. The sewers were mostly covered and much of the city had been repaired in preparation for the Commonwealth Games. Traffic was still horrific by our standards, but nothing like the stand-stills I saw in Hyderabad. The men even seem to prefer the public urinals to just pissing on the street. Generally, I was surprised by Delhi’s more “modern” tendencies, but don’t allow yourself to be fooled. Get comfortable for one moment and India is sure to come along and slap you in the face.
India is an infinitely complex and fascinating country and I wish I were able to capture it all in words. So much is happening around you all the time. It seems everywhere you look there is something incredible to see. Most of it is so unfathomable to us that I wonder if anyone would believe my descriptions. Yet, it is all so real here and these people are living it everyday. People like myself walk the streets, snap some photos, and record our observations. But for our rickshaw driver who sleeps behind the Red Fort and pedals passengers for dollars a day; or the shopkeeper who was scooping the ashes from his burned-out shop; for them this is all very real. There is no escaping the harsh realities of India. Even from the sanctuary of our room, one cannot ignore the incessant honking or choking diesel fumes. You can only come to accept these things as part of daily life.
Amidst the smoke and squalor and the stench and heat, there is a beauty to India that exists in its people. It is found in those precious moments when a simple smile or unflinching curiosity captures your attention. You find it in the innocent nature of a child who stares spellbound at your alien skin. You see it in the faces of uniform-clad schoolchildren who giggle while they ask your name. You feel it in the warm embrace of a helping hand or the wisdom of an ancient man. It is the beauty of two cultures colliding in a shared moment of awe and fascination. It is the realization that there exists a common bond even between people whose lives are so different. It is those instances that remind us all that no matter what the color of our skin or the country we call home, the money in our pockets or the faith in our heart, we are all but pawns in the chess game of life, subject to the same pleasure, passion and pain.