It is the end of my second full day in New Delhi. Anjali and I lost 48 hours on the way here, between loooong flights and changing time zones. It is “Winter” here which means I sweat a fair amount during the day, and it is pleasantly cool at night. The pollution here is far more noticeable than when we were here nearly five years ago. The sky is only clear directly above, everywhere else is hazy, and the sun is orange or red the first and last third of its journey during the day. Currently my nose is on constant drip from allergies, whether due to the pollution or some green thing (which there are a lot of in this area full of parks, even if they are all covered in dust) I don’t know.
We are staying in Panchsheel Enclave with our friends Michael and Susan and their children. We almost didn’t make it to their home when we arrived from the airport. It was 1am by the time we made it through Immigration and got our baggage. In the sea of drivers waiting outside the airport holding up people’s names we saw no sign of our names, or the driver that was supposed to be sent for us. We realized that we had foolishly forgotten to write down Michael and Susan’s phone number or address before we left Portland. I figured we would have to re-enter the airport, find a phone, make a last-minute reservation at a hotel and take a pre-paid taxi there, or be taken for a ride by some unscrupulous cabbie hanging outside the airport to a dodgy hotel of his choice where he would make a fat commission at our expense. That’s how things work here. Fortunately while I stood attempting to guard far too much luggage filled with gifts for friends and relatives in India (far too much to really “guard” given all the people I was surrounded by who could have easily grabbed a stray bag) Anjali made four or more attempts at wading through the sea of drivers to find ours, and she finally returned with one bearing a “Miss Anjali” sign. When we got to his cab he placed one suitcase on its side on the roof, and one standing up, braced only by a maaaybe four-inch high railing. It looked very precarious, and when Anjali asked if he was going to be tying it he shook his head and simply said, “Safety Driver.” The long drive to Susan and Michael’s found me straining my head out the back to make sure there was no suitcase bouncing along the highway behind us. Every bump and jump had me reflexively tense up, thinking that that was the bounce which would send the luggage flying. I was reminded of how Indian driving works when there were two trucks in the two lanes ahead of us, and the cab driver decided to create a third lane between the two trucks while they appeared to be veering in towards us. Fortunately there was one seatbelt for Anjali, which is one seatbelt in a cab than there normally are. Let’s not even talk about auto rickshaws, one of which we saw flipped upside down, surrounded by people, and stopping all traffic on the highway today. The luggage made it safely to Susan and Michael’s along with us.
Michael teaches at the Embassy School, and we joined him today for some “educational tourism” assisting his efforts at an NGO school where he volunteers. We led Indian kindergarteners and first-graders in sing-alongs such as “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and “The Wheels on the Bus” in an attempt at teaching them some English. I did a lot of singing in front of a class of the cutest kids, to the point where I managed to strain my voice. Later we went to the Nizamuddin Dargah, the mausoleum of Delhi’s most famous sufi saint, to join with the worshippers in listening to Qawwali singers and musicians under the moon, while sitting on the marble courtyard outside the mausoleum. Incredibly beautiful and very emotional for both Anjali and myself.
I was a little overwhelmed at the prospect of another forty-five days in India today. We were targeted by many different groups of beggars at many places throughout the city. We were confronted with people with real deformities, as well as a man who had his child’s arm done up in what appeared to be barbecue sauce, along with dozens of small children, and their mothers. There is a sea of need here, and no response to the outstretched hands changes the over-all situation.
There are far more Western travelers in Delhi than when we were here five years ago. We saw lots of Americans and Europeans in neighborhoods where we never saw them before. It is hard for Anjali to adjust after a lifetime of visiting Delhi and seeing no one but Indians. She is also stunned by the rampant commercialism and consumerism, which she feels is far beyond what we saw on our last trip. I’m stunned by fancy nightclubs (that we have not yet visited) that charge $60 a couple. Are clubs in NYC even that expensive? Not the ones I have been to.
There are small signs of Christmas here and there. Plastic Christmas trees in some fancy clothing stores, and piped-in shopping music that mixes in strange versions of Christmas songs with American top-40 and Bollywood hits.