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First Taste of Delhi

For as long as I can remember, I have dreamt about visiting India. For some reason, I had visions of beautiful marble palaces surrounded by crystal clear water and markets full of brightly colored cloths. The thought of something so different from anything I’d ever seen was what made India so attractive to me. My feelings now about India are very different. Although the romantic view of India I once had is now shattered, I have learnt that a place does not have to be clean and safe to be beautiful. For me, India has its own beauty, one very far from those created in story books or projected in Hollywood movies. Although this opinion about India is now a relatively sophisticated one, it took many months of experiences to develop. Perhaps the most interesting part of my journey was at the beginning, where the terror of culture shock painted a surreal picture of Delhi that captures the differences that are an obvious part of a first impression. Holy Cow! The roads on the way to the Delhi train station were unlike any I had ever seen before. The chaos and the noise were the first things that hit me. There were numerous other shocking things. Firstly, the roads, buildings and everything else were in terrible condition. Big potholes and sections where the car had to fall into ditches to escape blocks of cement were perfectly normal. The wealthier buildings, including houses and businesses were caving in, had broken windows, peeling paint and everything was covered in a strange dust which thickens the air there, coating your nostrils and lungs. The worst, though were the endless shacks and holes in the ground that people lived in, propping up tents and lighting fires to keep warm. Dogs were everywhere; thin and half wild. Cows were roaming at the sides of the roads, surrounded by piles of broken cement and decomposing garbage that is everywhere. Travelling anywhere in India starts as a nightmare. To book train tickets you have to wait in line at the booking office, sometimes for hours after filling in a form noting the train you want. Then, at the top of the line, they may tell you that that train is full or not running, so you have to fill in another form with them pushing you to the side and people pressing and pushing up against you. Booking made, you make your way on the particular day to the station and find your train carriage by the name of the train, where it is going, your class and bunk number (listed on your ticket and confirmed on a printed out sheet somewhere on the platform). The platforms are packed with people curled up in blankets, garbage everywhere and forget about the toilets (many men just whip it out and go right against the wall anyway). Then there are the delays. If your train is only 1 hour late, you can count yourself lucky. We fortunately only waited ¾ of an hour before finding our carriage. We were travelling class 2A (2nd class air conditioned-the air conditioning was not on thank God, but the windows were sealed unlike non-air conditioned, making it a little warmer, although there was no heating). We were heading for Kanpur, a city in Uttar Pradesh known for its high crime rate and high levels of pollution. I had little choice in the matter as I was heading to a conference. If anything, though, this only added to my culture shock. I had finally fallen asleep on my bunk after tossing and turning for a while. It wasn’t easy, either, with the man opposite staring unblinkingly at me. He had finally given up asking me to share his bunk after I had thrown a number of evil glares in his direction, but he continued to stare unabashed as I tried desperately to fall asleep. Finally we arrived in Kanpur. As we pulled into the station, they gave us tea in thermoses and a few biscuits tied in some paper. We then dragged ourselves and luggage to the front of the station and rented an autorickshaw, after serious biding and negotiations between 5 or 6 drivers. After a scary hair-raising journey avoiding cattle, dogs, monkeys, men and women on bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws and cars on the dilapidated road, we made it to the university guest house. Up until now the picture may seem very bleak, but upon entering the guesthouse, my feelings swung to the opposite end of the scale. The guesthouse was beautiful, set around a grass courtyard with peacocks and exotic birds running around and magnificent flowers. We were then led to our rooms. Mine was so nice, with a little heater, two single beds and a shower-not bad! After a quick shower and changing out of the clothes I’d been wearing for the past 3 days, we met in the central dining hall for breakfast. They brought omelette (spicy but nice), toast and jam and cornflakes (which you ate with boiled hot milk, as you can’t trust it otherwise). It wasn’t bad and very cheap-50 Canadian cents! It must have been these moments that kept me going through that period of adjustment. Varanasi It is typical of my first experiences in India. One moment you’re horror struck by the chaos and roughness of something you’ve witnessed and the next you’re marveling at the beauty of a place so different from where you call home. Over the months I began to develop a deep respect for India with its brutal honesty that was both repelling and seductive. Although people may have varying impressions of India, I have never met anybody who hasn’t felt deeply affected as a result of their experiences there.

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