I had mixed emotions on the flight from Bangkok to Delhi. I was both excited and anxious as I didn't know much about India, save the requisite things we all learn from the media and textbooks. I've a few friends who were born in India, but none of them talk much about their homeland. I was also relieved to be joining a group. Tours for me are a bit of a vacation - a chance to relax a little while someone else worries about lodging and transportation. And, as a side benefit, it means I get to spend a night or two in a hotels- sometimes even with air conditioning and if I'm lucky, maybe a TV. Now that's livin' right.
Now, if you've been following along for a while, you know I'm no stranger to spending a night or two in an airport. When I made the booking for my tour and the corresponding flight, I couldn't ever get the days to match up (at least in a price effective way). The flight I found arrived late on Sunday night, so I figured I would find a corner somewhere, spend a few hours in the airport and find my way to the starting point of the tour on Monday morning. Simple, right?
My flight touched down in Delhi at 9:15pm. A thick haze caused the bright lights from the terminal buildings and hangars to throw an eerie amber glow to the tarmac. We disembarked the plane via a moveable staircase and waited on the pavement for a bus to collect us. The air was thick and oppressive - it smelled like something was smoldering somewhere nearby.
After a slow ride to the terminal building, we hopped of the bus and entered a small, run-down looking building through what looked to be a fire-escape door guarded by a grumpy looking guy in a military uniform. After a nervous few minutes I finally located my bag from the carousel and set course through the customs area. As you might expect, hundreds of people surrounded the arrival doors. Eyes upon eyes staring you down like a zoo animal. I made my way through the gawkers to a small open area where I could catch my breath and take a look around.
The arrival hall was among the smallest I've ever been in. People were everywhere, yelling, laughing, and barking orders to someone. There were only six shops in the room - all made from old, faded wood. Three of them were closed. A shady-looking bank, an un-official looking money exchange stand and a convenience store were the only options. This is the International arrival hall. This is a huge city. This was the place I was hoping to spend the night in. This was disturbing.
As I've become somewhat adept at the airport stay over, I knew I needed to find my way to the departure area. In every airport I've been in, I have found my solace in the departure hall along with the other weary souls who are waiting for a plane. Delhi's international airport though, is far from every airport. I found out just how much as I looked for the departure hall.
First, the departure and arrival halls are not connected. I had to go outside, and up a set of worn concrete stairs. And, if there were 300 people in the room I just left, there were 900 outside in a space not dissimilar in size. Yellow streetlights depressingly illuminated hundreds of travelers, worried onlookers, taxi drivers, porters, and many, many people who had absolutely no purpose there. Every corner of every building was occupied. Even open expanses of concrete sidewalks were pock-marked with bodies under worn blankets. Faces were staring at me from everywhere. It was truly unnerving. I didn't want to be here too long.
I made my way through the deluge to the entrance of the departure hall. It was at that point I realized a small semblance of order to the chaos. Lines and lines of people with suitcases and backpacks were waiting to get inside. Most of them had a weary, broken look on their faces. They wanted to get inside just as much as I did. Unfortunately, I saw something that pushed my anxiety to another level. A lone guard at the two entrances was slowly checking the passengers for a boarding pass, or some proof of their upcoming flight - likely to prevent exactly what I'm trying to do. Damn.
I noticed I'd attracted the unmoving gaze of several rough-looking guys huddled near a broken down car with its hood up to my left. I found a rare open area and sat down under one of the lights. Options started bouncing through my mind, and I didn't like any of them. I could try sleeping outside with everyone else. I could try getting back into the arrival hall and waiting it out. I could try to call the hotel I'm staying at tomorrow and see if they have a room tonight. It would cost a bit, but it's probably worth it at this point. The x-factor is taking a taxi ride through Delhi in the dark by myself. Not ideal, but what are my alternatives? After about 30 seconds of deliberation, I opted to try to call my hotel and see what was available.
I stepped over a few bodies, crossed the small road and made my way through the masses back to the arrival hall. I found that there are guards at the entrance keeping people from going back in. Damn! However, one of the guards remembered me passing by a few minutes earlier. I told them I needed to get back in to get some cash for a taxi ride, which seemed to be enough to pass the test.
Once inside, I walked to the small bank of phone booths, and found them to be operated by some sort of pre-paid card, and operated by a little man with a red hat. I asked how much it was to use the phone. "Whatever you feel like giving me, sir," he said with a smile. I asked again, and got the same answer. The wrong answer. I was already pissed off at myself for being in this situation, and really didn't want to have to negotiate to use the damn phone in the airport.
I went to the sketchy-looking bank, where I was greeted by a very nice security guard. It's amazing what a smile will do for your psyche. He watched over me while I withdrew some money from the ATM inside the little wooden room. Once finished, I asked the guard if I could wait in the blue chairs I saw up against the wall. I quickly made up a story about needing to wait for a friend arriving in a few hours from London. He smiled and said, "You can wait there all night if you want." Sweet Mary.
I wound my way around the ever-changing crowd, and found an open space in the second row of chairs. There were probably 50 seats in total, and about 40 of them were occupied. The tile floor around the chairs was frighteningly dirty. Tracks from carts and luggage wheels were fused into the faded patterns. I had to do a little searching before I found a seat I felt like I could actually sit in. The blue cloth was faded, worn and in some places rotting away. Every one of them was stained with sweat and God knows what else. But, given the options I sat down carefully, trying not to let any skin touch anything.
I spent the next 8.5 hours in that chair. I didn't move. Not to eat, to drink, to go to the bathroom or to stretch. Not even when I saw two mice scurrying along the wall. I also didn't sleep. There was really no way. The place was packed, and people were walking in front, behind and around me. I had my big backpack between my legs, and my laptop bag in a bear hug. And, the crowd never seemed to dissipate. Instead, it just changed faces while it ebbed and flowed.
I had a lot of time to think that night. I tried to figure out how I ended up in this situation. Was saving 50 bucks worth this? Probably not. But who knew? I've become fairly good at making calculated risks on this trip. At this juncture though, I was on the short end of the stick. I made some assumptions. Which, I know, is dumb. I had assumed that the international airport in Delhi would be large and fairly modern as it is located in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. This would be wrong on all counts.
When the sun started to throw some light into the windows behind me at around 7:00 or so, I ventured out to the "pre-paid taxi" stand, and gave them the address to the hotel. After watching a near fist-fight break out between two taxi drivers over my fare, I boarded a piece of crap black and yellow "vehicle" with loose doors and no carpeting on the floors. I didn't really care though, as I was elated to get out of the airport.
The drive was an adventure. As anyone who has been to India can attest, your first exposure to Indian driving is akin to being one of the ducks in a carnival's shooting gallery. Speed up, slow down. Stomp on the gas, stand on the brakes. Bicycles spinning by on the left. Gassy motorcycles buzzing to the right. A tuk-tuk heading straight for us. Three taxis on our ass, crowing and hollering at us. 20 minutes into the ride I was ready to hit someone in the face. I've not seen chaos like this since Cairo, and even that had a limited sense of order.
As we turned down a narrow set of streets, the early morning sun cast long shadows on the still-closed shops. I saw two or three cows - yes cows - roaming the streets like stray dogs. A white one and two beige models with small horns plodded through a few square meters of weeds and trash between two dirty buildings. They didn't have any harnesses or brands on them. They were just wandering. I found out later that as cows are sacred animals here, they are just left to roam. Sacred or not, it was damn bizarre.
After a couple of u-turns, I discovered my driver had no idea where we were going. He stopped to ask directions four times, receiving short-tempered shakes of the head on each. On the fifth, he apparently had enough information to make a few turns, and I spotted the sign of the hotel out of the corner of my eye.
I presented myself to the front desk, but the time being 7:30 in the morning, my room wasn't ready yet. I made myself at home on the nice leather sofa in the lobby, and after about an hour and a half, was shown up to my room. I wish I could accurately describe for you what it was like to have a room to myself after my little ordeal. It was like stepping into a piece of heaven with two twin beds. Air conditioning, television, bathroom. Amazing! I vowed to myself I would never leave.
After a little nap, I got adventurous and went for a walk. Not the brightest of ideas, taking a walk in a seedy part of town at 2:00 in the afternoon. But, as we left for Agra the next day, it was about my only chance to see what Delhi was all about.
The air outside was oppressive - a thick blanket smothering my face. You can feel it crawling on your skin. The incessant honks of passing taxis and tuk tuks pierced my ears. I walked up the street, and headed to the left. The main road was just wide enough for two cars to pass without knocking mirrors. There were no sidewalks - just strips of uneven, rock-filled dirt lining each side of the old, broken streets. Worn black power lines sagged overhead from every corner of every building, gently swaying in the hot afternoon sun.
I think the best description is one I'll steal from my dad - it's an assault on your senses. Every piece of you is hit at once. Taxis whizzing by, honking like geese. Tuk tuks buzzing like huge bumblebees, spewing burnt oil. Bicycles weaving in and out of traffic and between pedestrians. Every inch of the roadside packed with people. Derelict cars clogging up the narrow passageways. Old wooden carts left along the side of the road. Women in bright saris spreading out colorful fruit baskets on the ground. Shopkeepers shouting from the entrances of their stores. Cows eating trash and wandering aimlessly with absent eyes. And it never stops. Every corner, every side street and every block is the same.
After about an hour, I just couldn't take any more. It was too much. Too many people, too much chaos. I made it back to the solace of my room, where I cranked on the air, and flipped the TV to HBO. Then the power went out.
My first day in India. Not a promising start.