I arrive. It's late, almost 10. Its been 23 hours and 4 airports since I left Denver. The transfer I had to make from Midway to O'hare was nothing if not easy. Thanks Chicago. Frankfurt juggled the internationals unnecessarily for my taste, but nothing to get in a fuss over. Air India was divine. I was served some decent vegetarian dal with white rice and a side of kheer on two occasions. They had a few good movies to boot. Still, I'm glad its over.
And finally Delhi. I've slept well on the flight, so I'm not groggy or vacant. The terminal is typical third world; dingy and dank with thickish air that resists inhalation. I follow the signs to immigration. I'm prepared for chaos, but it's smooth. The immigration official stamps my passport languidly and waves me through without a smile. Poor chap. I wonder if he hates his life. I hope not.
I wait 45 minutes for my luggage. After 30, it becomes comical. I smile at a little Indian girl who keeps saying "Come here baggy. Baaaggyyy, come here!" Finally I see my own baggy, grab it and quickly consolidate it with the contents of my short range pack.
Confident and ready, I head for the monitary exchange. I want to get some cash quickly so that I can suss out a prepaid taxi post-haste. According to my sources, prepaid taxis are the bees knees and eliminate the bombardment one may encounter at the hands of Indian taxi drivers just outside the terminal. I want to avoid bombardment at all cost.
At the money exchange, I hit a small snag. The man behind the counter, sporting a slight frown, informs me that they only deal in cash, and that I will need to use the ATM machine outside the main terminal. Great. I head out, stopping to inquire at a booth entitled "Easy Cabs" thinking this might be the prepaid business I've heard so much about. It's not the same, which means it's not government sponsored, but it serves the same function. After a brief exchange I agree to return with cash in hand.
To leave the terminal I don't have to exit the building, but I do need to go up a wide ramp, either side of which has a waste high railing where the family, friends and business partners of arrivals are resting there elbows or holding signs, eagerly watching for loved ones or business associates. This set up also affords these folks the opportunity to gawk at fellows like myself, with my button down wrangler shit, thrift store jeans and gigantic blue back pack.
At the top of the ramp I have 3 options: straight, left and right. I find the ATM almost directly ahead and off to the right of the main exit. I square up in front of the machine, my balance precarious as I haven't bothered to take off the 60 pound pack strapped to my back. I begin to fumble around with my money belt. It's on pretty tight, making things difficult for my fingers to get at. All the while Indian faces watch from just outside; airports, everything is made of glass. I ignore the starring and insert my card, removing it quickly, just like I'm told. I hit the button for English. Then I pause, I'm not sure how many Rupees to get. I try to do the math.
"1 dollar equals 50 Rupees or so, so..."
It's bloody well confusing. I guess and try for 60,000. I don't have 60,000. The machine tells me goodbye. I'm getting flustered. I drop my card and clunk my head on the front of the machine while picking the thing up. The faces outside continue to watch. I feel ridiculous. I chuckle and remind myself to relax. This really is kinda funny. I rub the sore spot on my head, inhale the thick air and start again. After a minute I have it figured out. I now have 6,000 Rupees and am ready to get a taxi.
I look around and reassess. Instead of heading straight back to Easy Cabs, I decide to go to the right of the ramp, following a sign that reads "Prepaid Taxi." It's like a glowing beacon and I drift towards it like a gnat. It has an arrow and everything. Things are working out. How exciting!
While dreamily imagining the ease with which I'm about to get a taxi, I absently step through automatic double doors. Suddenly I'm outside. I'm no longer absent. To the left and directly in front are bare cement walls, to my right 500 or so Indian faces and bodies crammed into and filling the space that must lead to the prepaid taxi stand. I don't want to be outside. An onslaught to my senses begins. Bodies are brushing past on all sides. Eyes stare. Horns honk. I hear languages I don't understand intermingled with arguing and laughter. I smell armpits and petroleum and what could be baking bread. Baking bread? I'm feeling claustrophobic. I panic. I really fucking panic. I do what comes natural, I retreat. I turn around and a man in a khaki uniform stops me at the door. His thick, well groomed mostache tells me he's a cop.
"Where are you going?" He asks sharply. He's also glaring. He's good at glaring. He must practice.
I explain myself in careful English. "I just came out and want to go back to use Easy Cabs."
"Let me see your passport." He extends a demanding hand. He takes a hard look at the document and a hard look at me.
"Ok." He waves me through.
* * * *
I head straight back to where I came from. Another officer asks for my passport at the entrance to the ramp. It's quick however and soon I'm back at Easy Cabs.
I have a pleasant exchange with the female attendant who gives me a receipt and directions to the taxi stand. I do as I was told. I make a left at the top of the ramp instead of a right, away from the side of the building where all those people and all that noise were congregating. As I'm leaving I notice the prepaid taxi stand. It's inside, near where I'm about to exit, the very place I didn't look earlier. Figures. I go through another set of automatic double doors and am again outside, but this time on the opposite side of the building. Easy Cabs is nowhere to be seen. With receipt in hand I ask several people, many of whom want me to use their taxi service. It takes 10 minutes, but I finally find what I'm now referring to in my head as Moderately Difficult Cabs. The cabbie doesn't speak any English. The receipt says his name is Mr. Charles.
"Hello." I say. "5 Nyaya Marg, Chanakyapuri please."
"Chanakyapuri?" He asks.
I nod in the affirmative. He quickly confers with a colleague.
While he's busy getting the directions down I look over the cab. It looks like one of those 1985 Toyota mini vans with the box shape and pointed snouts, only shrunk down to about half the size, as though someone put this thing through the wash and forgot it wasn't supposed to be sent through the dryer. I also note that the steering wheel is on the right hand side, remnants of British colonialism I suppose.
It appears Mr. Charles has got things figured out. I opted to use the prepaid cab because I don't want a hassle. I'm not looking for a story. I get both. We depart from the airport in the truly mini van, horn blowing and jockeying for position among the hundreds of other vehicles all trying to get somewhere in Delhi.
The main highway is a three lane nightmare with no shoulder. The road is butt up against the cement dividers on either side, at the base of which are dull yellow lights that constantly blink, running in a pattern against the flow of traffic; I'm reminded of the runway where the plane landed. All at once the blinking stops and the road becomes dirt, as if the infrastructure here got fed up and decided to simply walk away. The bumps are jarring. This smooths out after the road condenses down to one lane, and we fight another car for position. We get close but never collide. I think I can smell the other drivers shampoo as we pass.
All at once we spill out onto what appears to be an average city street. New Delhi I presume. The traffic shows no signs of letting up however, in fact, it gets heavier. I've never seen so many cars and I've never seen so many cars making so many dangerous maneuvers; except perhaps in a fantastical movie chase where lots of people are dying. Vehicles weave and thread themselves between one another as though their paths were preordained. It's like watching thousands of lovers dance. And honk. Man, do they honk. I let the scene wash over me. I'm really enjoying myself.
Eventually the traffic thins out and we appear to be in a suburb of sorts, albeit overgrown with fauna, and in place of lawns there are instead high, white plastered walls. I can feel the youth hostel getting closer, my eyelids are feeling heavy in the anticipation of a soft place to lie down.
The taxi jerks left and pulls to a curb. Mr. Charles puts one finger in the air, letting me know to wait a minute as he steps out. What the hell? I've heard stories of cabbies pulling this kind of business, any moment I expect him to return with a man who is going to tell me my hotel is closed or that he is on the phone with reception and they have double booked my reservation, that I'll need to stay somewhere else; they'll have a swell alternative already chosen no doubt.
I'm not disappointed. A moment later Mr. Charles returns with a man who needs a shave, his wispy hair pulled back into a tight pony tail. To my surprise however, the man is genuinely helpful. He reassures me that he has given us accurate directions, and that should something dodgy happen, I am to instruct Mr. Charles to the local police, who will help me get to my destination. I thank him and we are off again.
Another 2 inquires and 15 minutes later we are in front of the hostel. I'm relieved. The man at the guard post eyes me suspiciously, posturing in his blue uniform, but allows me to sign in without further difficulty.
I trudge up the marble steps, find the reception area and wait another 20 minuets while a fellow is checked in ahead of me. Even in my bleary state, it is not lost on me that it will take this long for me to go through the same process. I smile and accept the situation.
It passes quickly enough and soon I'm knocking to get into the dormitory style room I've been assigned. An effete Indian man with squinting eyes opens the door and bids me to enter quickly. It's nearly midnight. I feel a little bad. 3 of the 4 beds are occupied, all by dark huddled bodies trying to fend off the harsh florescent light that has been clicked on for my benefit. I've been assigned to bed 4. The gentleman who ushered me inside is in bed 4 and lets me know that I'm welcome to use bed 2. I don't argue.
I find my spot. The mattress is bare except for a thick white cover and hard pillow. Despite the steady flow of air emitted by a clamorous fan, the room is warm. Nearly 80 degrees I would guess. No need for covers. The light is clicked off. I strip down to my boxers, plop onto the mattress and sigh. I'm here. I'm in India.