India Travelogue, Day 1: Oxford to Delhi
When I find myself in a strange new place it always feels at least a little surreal. I never know why this is, and you would think that the eight-and-a-half-hour plane ride would have already driven home the point before I landed. Still, somehow I was surprised to find myself almost exactly on the opposite side of the world from my home in Texas.
My flight left London at 9:30 on the morning of the 24th of March. Since it can take an hour or two to get to Heathrow airport from Oxford and my since therefore my bus would be leaving very early in the morning, I had opted to stay up for the entire preceding night, expecting to sleep on the plane. Because of that, I was in a pretty weird state when I arrived at the airport, but my excitement for my upcoming trip overshadowed that.
When I arrived at the gate for my departure, I could already tell this journey would be much different from any of my previous ones. I found myself to be one of the only people in the gate who did not appear to be Indian, by descent or nationality. Although finding oneself in the minority can be intimidating, this just added to the excitement. As I waited to board the plane, I admired what people were wearing. As I would find throughout most of India, the women were predominately wearing traditional saris, full of color, and the men were wearing more of a Western style of dress. Still, even many of the men accented themselves with a colorful array of Sikh turbans.
I flew Jet Airways, a domestic Indian airline that only recently began offering international flights. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was in the end pleasantly surprised. Although I had planned on sleeping through the flight, I was instead distracted by the impressive selection of on-demand movies. Since it was being offered, I decided that I had to watch Gandhi, which I hadn’t seen since eighth grade social studies class. Sadly, my lack of sleep caught up with me soon after Gandhi returned to India from South Africa—where the beginning of the movie takes place—just when the movie was becoming relevant to my journey.
With the exception of a minor medical emergency experienced by the woman sitting next to me (don’t worry—she was okay in the end), the flight passed without major incident, and I was able to relax and prepare myself for my two-week trip. Or, I tried to prepare myself, at least.
Despite my best efforts, India hit me like a brick wall, not when the plane landed, but when I left the dependable and consistent comfortable familiarity of the airport. After finding my baggage and then driver the hotel had sent to pick me up, the driver and I walked through a tunnel where I had my first taste of grinding Indian poverty as we were approached by a line of beggars. When we walked outside, I was surprised to find that even though it was 11:30 at night, it looked almost like late afternoon or early morning, due to the overpowering presence of dust particles in the air, reflecting the lights of the parking lot. I felt closed in, in our own world of dust, only adding to the surreality of the experience.
As my sight penetrated the dust, I saw the parking lot through a filter that subtly removed all of the color in the scene. Although I’m sure the colors were in reality much more varied, all I can remember in retrospect is a dust-covered whiteness, from people’s clothing to the dilapidated cars filling the lot. This was just the beginning, though, and nothing could have actually prepared me for the insanity of driving in India.
When first experienced, Indian roads appear to persist in a state of complete and utter chaos. Cars drive within inches of each other, unfazed and irrespective of the lanes marked on the roads. Small European-looking cars share the road with large and surprisingly elaborately decorated trucks, along with tractors, motorcycles, three-wheel autorickshaws, and animal-drawn carts. The honking never stops, and the whole experience is a symphony of cacophonous sounds and a three-dimensional collage of bright and unexpected colors. I was on the edge of my seat as we weaved in and out of this strange collection of vehicles, occasionally driving around barriers placed strangely in the middle of the road and even running red lights. The experience was intensified by the fact that the driver for some reason wouldn’t let me wear my seatbelt.
After the original shock wore off, though, a pattern emerged. People didn’t honk to say “Get the hell out of my way, asshole!” but rather to say “I’m right next to you. Watch out.” The drivers had evolved an unspoken means of communicating to each other through their horns. In fact, on the back of every truck was painted (in bright colors) variations of the command “Please honk.” It was an elegant system, and vision seemed almost unnecessary for safe driving.
When we arrived at the Hotel Indraprastha—somehow in one piece—the city seemed deserted, in stark contrast to the busy highway nearer the airport, and the crowded Delhi street I would emerge into the next day. It was late, but the hotel was open twenty-four hours a day; although, as I unexpectedly discovered soon after, “twenty-four hours” meant that hotel employees would be sleeping on the floor outside of my door.
I was the first to arrive out of a group that would eventually number six in total. This was somewhat ironic, since I had significantly less traveling experience than anyone else on the trip. It would be another forty-eight hours before our group was complete, but the second arrival, Allison Gilmore, joined me at the hotel after just a few hours later. By that point, though, it was time for bed. India could wait until tomorrow.