I wrote this blog post more than two years ago, not long after I landed in New Delhi for the first time and I had just started working as an intern with UN ESCAP. Since that time, my perception and opinion of Delhi has changed, but in many ways it has remained the same. With just four short weeks to go until the next group of students arrive in New Delhi under my guidance, I thought it was appropriate to share what my initial reaction was to what I consider to be one of the most incredible (and underrated) cities on the planet. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed reminiscing.
12 Weeks in Delhi.
The best way to describe my perception of Delhi so far was put succinctly by my sister-in-law yesterday evening…
‘Delhi is that it is everything that everyone tells you it is going to be. And the exact opposite’.
We arrived in Delhi on Saturday at lunch time. Our excitement was peaking as we had been chatting away to a ‘Delhiite’ on the plane whilst enjoying a glass of wine and our exit row seats. As we disembarked the plane I was underwhelmed by the heat and smell. Yes, underwhelmed… The impression I had from various sources was that I would be hit with a wall of heat and stench beyond belief and I would be left vomiting on the tarmac into a pile of rubbish. To be honest, it was all rather civilised. We walked through the air bridge and into a large, modern and very clean airport terminal. Not too different from Melbourne, Heathrow or Kuala Lumpur. In fact, the only thing different about this airport was that as we lined up in a queue of mostly men, us females were very quickly ushered to the front and sent on our way leaving scores of young Indian men in snaking lines at the immigration desk.
Our nerves only started to peak when we couldn’t see Sanjeev from our guesthouse that we were expecting to meet at the arrival gates. A few frantic phone calls and apprehensive looks around the airport we found him and his driver outside. We walked the long distance to the car and loaded all of our gear and only had to shoo away one pesky man trying to help out (and subsequently demand money for his ‘services’). Already I was shocked at just how developed this city really is. We drove out of Delhi airport and despite feeling somewhat apprehensive given that we had just piled into a car with two men in a foreign country, we started to take in the sights of this incredible city and hospitable nature of the locals.
As we started to get closer and closer to our guesthouse we became acutely aware of how the scenery around us was changing. This time, it was becoming wealthy. Very wealthy. The houses were grand, the cars were luxury and the malls were extravagant. We finally arrived at a four-story guesthouse on a beautiful street and whilst we still felt quite strange about the whole experience, we also felt at ease. We had not been scammed, somewhat of an achievement according to the guidebooks! Our lunch was ready when we arrived, but we were first ushered into the lounge room to be shown through their son’s Bollywood wedding album. It is this kind of hospitality that I have come to get used to it the last week. Every day we are welcomed by the Nagpal family yet left to go about our day as we choose. Perfect. The guesthouse is everything you imagine an urban Indian home to be in an upper middle-class area. The ceilings are high, the décor is stunning and the rooftop has the most spectacular views over Delhi. You can see more than 180 degrees around and at night the giant red sun sets over the horizon with Qutab Minar ever so slightly in the way yet perfectly positioned. Christiane and I would sit up there and chat until late at night and often try to speak in broken English and Hindi to one of the two housekeepers. They are both from rural India and have left their families to work in the city to send money home. They support their whole families on their income. Whilst it can be difficult to communicate now, we are planning to teach each other their respective languages. I have decided that one of my plans for tomorrow is to buy them a Hindi to English dictionary so that they can practice with the guests. Mrs Nagpal said they are not very educated so it must be a simple dictionary. Despite their lack of education and my considerable amount of education, we are just as hopeless as each other when we can’t figure out what each other means. It always ends in a good laugh and being rescued by Mrs Nagpal who speaks fluent English and can translate.
I probably don’t need to explain what it is like for a westerner to move to a city like Delhi. We have all seen the documentaries, read the books and for some people, vowed never to visit. The thing that I find the hardest to adjust to is that there is always someone to do something for you. Whether it is open a door, drive you, carry your bags, cook you food or bring coffee to your desk. The workforce is set up in such a way that everyone at my end of the social spectrum relies heavily on others around (or ‘beneath’) them. The beauty of it is that it creates jobs and I need to remember this every time someone takes my laundry, or offers me a driver. Granted I am paying money, but at a hotel in Australia you pay your money and fend for yourself all the way. Not here. And it is weird.
This week I have settled into work relatively quickly. My first day I was offered a driver by the Nagpal’s and we picked up one of the other interns on the way. Helene and I had met the night before which made me feel more at ease about getting to work the next day. I didn’t know what to expect but as you can imagine it is very ‘UN-like’. We are away from the main UN estate in Delhi, which is located at a place called ‘Lodi Estate’. I believe the offices there are very formal where as we only have one agency (us) and it is very relaxed. The thought of wearing a suit in this city horrifies me! The actual work content is very similar to what I have done for the last few years and I am happy that I do have skills to offer the team. As is to be expected, there is a very international team. Out of 5 professional UN staff and 4 interns we have Australia (x2), USA/France (x1), Thailand/France (x1), France (x2), Sri Lanka (x1) and India (x2). You can only begin to imagine the accents and cultural differences that I am encountering on a day-to-day basis! Even asking about something very simple can often be challenging as we all try to understand each other. The office epitomises the phrase ‘lost in translation’. I can see how this experience does prepare you to work in a truly international environment. It is very different to Australia and the UK where I have worked previously.
I seem to be easing my way into the swing of life here. I get up early and have my breakfast downstairs. I take an auto rickshaw for 40 rupees which I negotiate by saying “metre or 40!!”. I know I should be paying 30 but baby steps… (by the time I edited this and posted it I was struggling to get an auto rickshaw for 50 rupees, petrol prices have risen, but I doubt this is to blame). I am going to start walking once the weather cools down. For lunch, we go to a college a few hundred metres and one major road crossing away. Just going to get lunch makes you break out in a sweat – a combination of playing chicken (with buses, cars, auto rickshaws, the occasional donkey, motorbikes and bicycles), the super hot curry and the walk in the heat of the day circa 35 degrees. My lunch is 40 rupees and is a thali set. I have stopped asking for rice now as I don’t need so much food. One thing that strikes me as both ironic and heart-breaking is the food wastage. As people who have money, we are served gigantic meals while young women beg in the street whilst holding their naked, gaunt and sick babies.
I try to avoid coming home any later than 6pm when I am alone. The area I live in is fine to walk around and in fact, many of the houses on my street have their own 24-hour security guards who give me great comfort. Once you venture further without some kind of transportation then the streets can become quite confronting. Scores of men sitting around fires, families asleep under tarps on the side of the road and a city where no one would flinch if you screamed can be nerve wracking.
Fortunately, staying in a guest house means there are always people around and it offers a sense of security. On one hand, it is a safe place to stay, on the other it serves as ‘rent-a-friend’. On Saturday night Sanjeev (the son of Mrs Nagpal, Sanjeev and his wife live on the second floor) and his wife took me and another guest who they have known for many years to an Indian classical dance show at the Old Fort. The stage was set up in front of a beautifully lit, ancient building and scores of expats, tourists and 'cultured' (wealthy) Indian’s came to watch. As with anything here such as going to a mall, catching the metro or going to a movie we were required to be scanned on our way through. Security was lax there, we didn’t have to put our bags through an x-ray machine! That evening when we arrived back at the guest house we all had dinner together and then I went to bed around 11pm after drinking a cool beer. My side-kick/wing-woman/sister-in-law left on Friday night and I had already noticed a significant difference in how I was feeling about Delhi. But nights like that where I was taken under the wing of the family at the guest house, at no cost, makes me feel comfortable in this crazy city.
When you read the Lonely Planet guide or any westerner’s blog, there is always the obligatory mention of being scammed whilst in Delhi. Other than paying foreigner prices for auto’s and anything else you can haggle for, I have managed to avoid any major scams. The only time we came close was whilst looking for the government tourist office in Janpath which is in central New Delhi. We asked the auto driver to take us there and as per the Lonely Planet we were taken to a private company which was a tiny hole in the wall down a back street. Now, I am not expert but my impression thus far of government extravagance told me that we were in the wrong place. Using our intuition, we decided to not go in and walk towards another major road. Of course, we were intercepted by a local promising that he was ‘selling us nothing’ and ‘just talking’. Trying not to be ride we pointed to the monolithic gates next to us and asked what was behind them, ‘ah the Imperial Hotel’, he tells us whilst diverting back to asking us where we were going. We gave in and told him we were looking for the government tourist office. He reassured us he knew exactly the direction to point us in and we duly followed his lead. After walking through a string of backstreets, which were concerningly empty, another ‘kind’ gentlemen pointed us towards a different agent, just two doors from the one our other new friend told us to go to. This time, we actually went it. It wasn’t until I took his business card that we realised that we had dodged a bullet. This was not 88 Janpath! Despite the government tourist office actually being closed that day after all (once we found it!) we found a nice bar and had some mega hot chilli veggies and a cold beer. Across the road, we found shopping heaven and we spent the afternoon haggling to save 20 rupees on a 100 rupees t-shirt. Sometimes seems silly, but it is the thrill of getting the merchant down in price.
As you can see in this one blog, Delhi is a city of contrast. The rich and the poor, the hungry and the indulged. It is chaotic, it is dirty and at times it is scary. But I love this city already. There is so much life, so much history and so much culture that we do not encounter in Australia. It makes me sad to think that often we don’t welcome Indian’s in Australia the way I have been welcomed here.
I am sure by next week I will have some more ramblings for you from this wonderful city. Until then, hug your loved ones and tell them how you feel. You never know when you may end up a world away and wishing you could do that every day.