A Very Different Place
Trip Start Jul 20, 2013
7Trip End Aug 15, 2013
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My arrival card was wrong too, I hadn't entered in an Indian phone number.
"I don't know one."
"...ok... May I borrow a pen?"
I could hear the Pakistani man chuckle as he too struggled with the form. I wrote down my old US number and returned the form to the officer. Giving a vague head swivel and surprising warm smile, he stamped my visa and sent me through.
"Welcome to India" - Large sign post
I now had about six or seven hours to kill until catching an overnight train from Old Delhi Station. From what I'd heard, Delhi wasn't a very pleasant city in which to wander while heavily laden with baggage. I wanted to sit down at some airport restaurant and get my bearings but aside from a pair of duty free shops selling nothing I was interested in, there wasn't much to do here.
I took a deep breath and walked out into the taxi/bus plaza expecting to be hit by a wall of scamming touts. It was quiet and orderly, no hassle in sight. An ATM run was the first thing on my agenda... my card worked fine in Nepal but errored enough in Taiwan to make me nervous. Luckily the Indian bank was in a good mood and the rupees poured out. I ninja-swiped them into my wallet. Not surprisingly they were all huge 1k-rupee bills, undoubtedly useless anywhere because nowhere I'd be shopping would have such change. I found a coffee kiosk and apologized several times for using a 1,000rp bill on a 30rp beverage, figuring an airport establishment would be a better place to break large amounts of cash than whatever street vendor I'd end up eating dinner from in Delhi.
Too hot and hungry to think, I ordered the iced coffee. The cold water it was mixed with was a fairly big food poisoning no-no, but by the time I realized what I was probably drinking, half the coffee was finished. It wound up being fine, probably because it came processed out of a Nescafe machine.
I made my way to the Airport Express metro train and was again shocked at how peaceful, modern and clean everything was. The airport metro was immaculate and looked not a day old. I'm pretty sure it was the same exact train I rode in Hong Kong. I set down my back and relaxed, watching as each underground station blew past.
About two stations in, the train rose out of the ground onto an elevated track and I got my first glimpse of India from the ground. The sky was muddy yellow. Crows flew around delapidated concrete housing projects that looked abandoned but no doubt weren't. I found the automated station announcer next to impossible to understand, the Nepali English accent being quite a bit straighter than this unfamiliar sing-songy train robot. After a smooth hour long ride, I made out an announcement I was almost dreading:
"We have now arrived at New Delhi Station. Please alight to the left exit."
The airport and its transport might've been all new and polished for good first impressions but I knew the comfort zone ended here. I grabbed my bag and made for the station exit.
This must've been a completely separate station from the regular Delhi Metro as again, it was too empty and orderly. I saw a Starbucks-looking storefront at the base of the stairs and sat down for a few last breaths of calm. I was also starving and their samosas looked clean and tasty. After two samosas and a chai it was time to move on. I ascended the escalator and exited the station portal, mental guns ablaze.
There was a very wide, chaotic road between this airport express station and the real New Delhi train station with no obvious crossing visible. Buses and rickshaws careened by, street vendors - more destitute-looking than those in Kathmandu - sold their snacks and knickknacks but knew I didn't want any. It looked like there were a lot of homeless people hanging out around here too. I wasn't sure if this was the norm or not.
At a break in the traffic I jammed across the street to the main railway station plaza. Again there were more exceptionally shabby-looking street vendors, more homelessness and poverty, neither of which I minded as it was reality here. What did in fact creep me out a bit was the lack of women. This was a crowded area and every last person out here was a man.
I found the entry to the main metro station and descended into a mass of humanity shoving through a barely functional X-ray scanner and metal detector. Before going down to the platform, I moved aside and, trying not to look too lost, pulled out a map I'd picked up at the airport and looked for a good place to kill the next hour or three. A dot in a roundabout marked "The Beer Cafe" sounded good and I made my way down to the train.
The Delhi metro didn't necessary feel more crowded than Taipei's or Hong Kong's at peak hour but there was a very perceptible edge to the crowd. The train was a lot louder, there was far more pushing and shoving and a general feeling of greater chaos. Being built relatively recently however, it was probably cleaner than the system in LA.
We approached the first station. I realized I wasn't holding a rail and raised my arm to grab one, bracing for the exiting horde's pushing. I was too late. In one of my more vivid mental images from this trip, my grasping hand flew away from the hand rail as I was shoved hopelessly off the train. I got back into line for reboarding. This wound up happening after every single stop.
While briefly in line I realized someone was trying to talk to me.
Random Stranger: "Where are you from?"
Me: "Lalala, is that the wind?"
Stranger: "Where are you from?""
"Oh! Sorry, America."
He walked away and I got back on the train.
The next stop was mine. I bounded out, this time doing some pushing and shoving myself as was clearly the norm here, and started what I hoped would be a short wander to this mythical beer cafe.
Outside the station, there was no roundabout, shopping plaza, or anything else that looked like what I saw on the map. I'd gotten the station names switched and exited in the wrong place. Not wanting to brave the metro hordes again so soon though I started wandering about anyway. This looked like - and was - the government district. The boulevards were wide and planned, lined with unwelcoming concrete hotels and offices all set in quite a bit from the road and fairly heavily guarded. There were a few other random backpackers about to I had to be near something worthwhile. Unfortunately I never found a good landmark and turned back north, hoping to retrace my Metro journey on foot.
The heat and weight of the backpack were starting to hit me, I needed air conditioning soon. After a mostly dull 20-ish minute walk, I wound up in a huge roundabout lined with colonial buildings and bazaars wafting with spice. This was were I originally wanted to be in the first place. I never found the beer cafe, but did find another branch of the same coffee chain I'd munched at in the airport express station. I rested here for a good hour, chowing down on a prepackaged sandwich and yet another cup of chai.
Strength restored, I decided it was now time to hunt down the station from which my train would leave later. The Old Delhi Station wasn't the same as the New Delhi Station, but they looked close enough on the map and were only one or two metro stops apart if walking failed. I mapped out my route and left the coffee shop, only to be confounded by the sheer scale of this huge roundabout, too large and developed to see across.
"4th left out of the roundabout, 4th left..." I wound up being off by one but signs pointing to New Delhi station reassured me. I continued walking up this boulevard, now planning to get back on the Metro at New Delhi and ride it the rest of the way. Before long I passed through a cluster of parked taxis. A black-turbaned and well dressed driver shouted a sale at me. I ignored him which I guess pissed him off.
A couple minutes later he chased me down in a rickshaw with some force in his voice.
Fine. I stopped and turned to him.
"I don't know why you ignore me, I am trying to help you. Where are you going?"
"Old Delhi Station."
"This rickshaw will take you for 150rp, please."
"It's okay, I'll walk."
I turned away. He raised his voice again. Now I was getting a bit pissed too.
"SIR. Excuse me. I know what happened to you, you went to the tourist office and they tried to scam you. Look, if you try to walk to Old Delhi Station, you will never find it. Sir, you are going the wrong way."
"It's okay, my train is not til 11pm, I am okay with a walk."
Not a block ahead was a massive sign marking the New Delhi station entrance, I wouldn't get lost and there was still sunlight left. I gave the tout a cold shoulder and continued on my way. He tisk-tisked to the rickshaw wallah.
This wound up being the other side of the station and to get to the metro, I'd have to cross the tracks. The station security were warm and helpful, pointing me to the pedestrian bridge and even leading me part of the way there.
I ascended the mildly confusing bridge and paused for a moment to watch the trains go to and fro. There were a lot of trains. I had a small "wow, I'm really here" moment beholding the movement of the massive decaying rail hub around me.
Exiting the bridge and walking toward the metro, a group of very skinny uniformed high school students passed me and stared all googly-eyed. They pointed to my back and laughed hysterically about something. Who knows what, maybe my cargo load.
A few minutes and shoves later and I was outside the much more charming but equally chaotic Old Delhi station, a British colonial building. I still had maybe two hours to kill and grabbed a vegetarian thali from the relatively modern railway canteen restaurant. It was absolutely delicious.
"The chapati, you must rip it," instructed the smiling clerk.
Following this and the day's [lost count] chai, I boarded my train. There were two other men in my A/C-3rd class berth compartment, one didn't say much but the other spoke English. He was some marketing person at a large Indian multinational and was en-route to the same city as me, Jodhpur, for a business trip. He'd also spent some time living in the US and we talked for some time about international travel.
Making small talk: "I've always wanted to visit India."
"Yes. This is a very different place from the rest of the world."
I kept that in mind as I went to bed.
...only to be woken up in the middle of the night by a confused elderly couple. It was obvious I'd mistakingly taken their bed. I showed them my ticket and read the berth number.
"This is B1. B2, next car." a bystander chimed in. Oops. I apologized and made my way out. They were very nice about it.
In the next car I found two men in my bed having a midnight feast. Employing Taiwan-standard "You're in my seat, here's my ticket." protocol, they firmly told me to chill out and wait. I was tired and didn't want to.
"The top bunk is free, is that okay?"
Why not. I climbed up and passed out.