I was in India the other week. That’s a phrase I love slipping into casual conversation (or any conversation really).
But, as much as I enjoy having been there, I didn’t love being there. Because I didn’t fit in. At all. I know that the unfamiliarity of new places is one of the chief pleasures of travel. But, for all the times I’ve been in unfamiliar places, nothing quite prepared me for how much of a stranger I would feel in this very strange land.
Perhaps that’s partially due to the fact that — in this case — I was really in two strange lands.
Two sharply contrasting worlds
I was in India for work. That’s another thing I love mentioning — it wasn’t that I wanted to go, I was duty-bound. India needed me. Well, not exactly. The truth is much less grand.
I sometimes do roleplay acting for companies. And this global computer company I happened to be working for needed me to do some roleplaying in Delhi for two days in February. I do like having work, and I also like adventures, so off I went.
Due to the circumstances (ie. the fact that someone else was footing the bill), I was staying at a plush hotel on the outskirts of Delhi. Considering Delhi is 1,500 km2, being on the periphery means that you are at a substantial distance from, well, everything. But especially the India we see in our mind’s eye.
But especially the India we see in our mind’s eye.
Especially because of the luxury level of this hotel.
Old Delhi, and India in general (from my limited experience), are noisy and chaotic; streets rammed with traffic that defies sound judgement, self-preservation, and the laws of physics. Clamouring masses of hard-working peasants scraping by on change we wouldn’t bend over to pick up off the street. Riots were happening in the area while I was there, protesting the caste system, and authorities were shutting off water to parts of the city. People died.
This hotel was insulated from these harsh realities. It had valets, fountains, bottomless buffets, immaculate everything, and complete serenity and officiousness.
In this foreign country I moved in the worlds of extreme wealth and poverty, neither of which I’m used to.
The rock star life
From blowing through the immigration line, to having a man waiting outside the arrivals gate with my name on a sign, ready to shuttle me to my hotel, to getting upgraded at check-in to a massive hotel room (a suite with a corner couch, two large TVs, floor to ceiling windows offering a view of the city), I couldn’t help but feel that there must have been a mistake. This is not how I travel.
However, if I do find myself in these circumstances, I am nothing if not adaptable.
I woke up sans alarm at 7.30 the next morning — which is, for me, a strange hour to be awake. But as I’m now an international business traveler, I thought I’d do what circumstances suggested, and make my way to the Spa Retreat and Wellness Centre (the gym).
Upon arrival, it was immediately clear that I was out of my depth: the gym (which I’d visited briefly the night before) was full of men dressed in moisture-wicking workout clothes and state-of-the-art running shoes jogging on treadmills. Sweating and running. Focused. Silent.
I ‘worked out’ for nine minutes on a machine that seemed to be designed for people who wanted to ice-skate uphill? Not clear, but I didn’t mind, because I was also playing backgammon on the console while doing so. In the yoga room next door, a guy was skipping rope with Rocky-like intensity.
I tried that for a few minutes when he finished. But gave up. Then I did some of those squeeze-your-forearms-together ones, and a couple pull-downs. All told, I probably lasted nearly 15 minutes, messing around in there.
After an obscenely plentiful buffet, a brief work interlude, and another obscenely plentiful buffet, during which I planned out four or five sites to see, I ventured out into Delhi proper.
Navigate the city
After about an hour on the metro, I’d almost made it to the centre of the city. I got off the metro at Qutub Minar. The Qutub Minar is the symbol of Delhi, and a famous religious archaeological site.
This metro stop, it turns out, is not as close to Qutub Minar as you might be led to think by its name. The Qutub Minar itself is actually about 3 km away from the metro stop.
For comparison, the Colosseum metro stop in Rome is literally right across the street from the Colosseum. So, my first step out into Delhi, at the eponymous metro stop to find out that I was literally miles from my destination, caught me off-guard.
Fortunately, a friendly and insistent tuk-tuk driver offered to take me the rest of the way. And for only 40 Rupees! I had concerns about getting taken for more than one ride in a haggling culture, but at about 60 cents, this seemed reasonable.
Despite nearly killing us almost constantly, the driver was quite friendly. He even offered to take me to a souvenir shop he knows, where I could do some shopping. And he wouldn’t even charge me a waiting fee!
Though I’d never been to India before, the reality of this situation was immediately apparent: he wasn’t doing me a favour, he was trying to shake more money out of me at the shop, which he would receive a kickback from.
I let him knew that I was onto this streetwise hustle and — since he offered so nicely — that I would oblige. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but we had spent ten minutes in Delhi traffic together, so who was I to deny him his request?
Fifteen minutes of polite refusals at the shop, and I left with nothing but a pashmina. At the next shop he took me to, I didn’t buy anything — so despite the fact that I kept ending up at touristy souvenir shops, some sort of learning curve was certainly in place.
Finally, he dropped me off at the QM, and I enjoyed a good hour walking around. Then it was time for the next stop on my busy agenda.
To my dismay I was told that the places I wanted to go were closed or closing. We finally settled on a destination that wasn’t too far or too closed, though in the heat of the deal, I failed to register that his 350 Rupee price was about 11x what I’d paid for my last ride.
As we headed off, he suggested I make a quick stop at a souvenir shop. He wouldn’t even charge me a waiting fee…
I protested. But he assured me that it was absolutely no problem for him. I seethed. We went back to the exact same shop I had bought the pashmina at. I didn’t get out. He was annoyed at my lack of cooperation. I was furious.
He took me to another souvenir shop. I explained that ‘I knew what he was doing, but would indulge him (I was annoyed. He was overcharging me. He didn’t take me where I wanted to go, but still: why wouldn’t I be polite. I couldn’t think of a reason).
Inside the shop, I dithered over buying a suit. Kind of expensive, probably poor quality, but ..maybe it would be worth it? Besides, it could be delivered to my hotel in five hours. An offer too good to be true, and yet, I was tempted.
But I made it out after half an hour of hemming and hawing. My driver, barely containing his rage that I had spent so long inside and yet not made a purchase, said he wasn’t going to take me anywhere. (He claimed it was because the traffic was too bad, and it was rush hour).
He took me to the metro instead. By this time I was openly arguing with him. I was furious. So was he. He had overcharged me from the off, not taken me anywhere I wanted to go, caused me to waste my time, and so on. For his part, he just kept asking for a dollar. Almost chanting.
That was a moment of great disconnect. Despite my plain fury, he couldn’t see me as anything other than someone who could give him money. Same for the other driver; my “Ahhh, I see the tourist hustle you’re running here” acknowledgments didn’t change the circumstances.
I’m not great at being firm, forceful, or borderline rude when the situation calls for it. I know that because these were situations that called for that type of behavior and I didn’t deliver.
Fortunately, that frustrating day was capped off with a pretty special evening. An improviser friend of mine was in town from Atlanta, and he’d been invited to a Hindu wedding, and I also got invited. So I made my way out to the end of a mettro line, down a dark industrial road towards a big white glowing tent, illuminated by fairy lights. There was live music, colorful dresses, singing, parades, exotic foods, and a brief window stop into a fantastic celebration (plus a chance to catch up with my friend JStar).
It was a positive final note on a thoroughly mediocre day.
The next day went better. I hit up the city, choosing a manageable agenda, negotiating rides much more firmly and I managed to see some cool stuff, including street markets and temples in the heart of Old Delhi.
And I realized that first day was an acclimatization day. In fact, for just about every trip the first day is for you to find your footing.
But, if you only have two days, that’s half the trip. It made sense to me why people tend to go to places like India for a month or more. To give them time to figure things out, and pace themselves for their siteseeing and the like.
For me, I got a type of vertigo yoyoing between lavish buffets and pressed shirts and the noisy chaos of the city itself. Plus, the tip I casually put on my room service bill was probably a week’s wages for those tuk-tuk drivers. It was confusing to be straddling those two worlds.
Plus, the fact that I probably enjoyed staying in that fancy hotel more than wandering through the chaotic noise of downtown Delhi, well that says more about me than I’d like to hear.