We arrived in Delhi at dusk, the plane sinking through what we were sure was a heavy plume of fog. A car from the guesthouse waited for us, a luxury we afforded ourselves when the prospect of chumming the waters of an airport taxi-stand on our first night in India seemed too bleak.
We were shaky, anxious, a little gun-shy. India was a legendary travel beast, a basilisk in the deeps, a white whale out on the horizon. Far-away looks gathered in the eyes of weary travellers when they described India, as though trespassing its borders would require weapons of old, the Golden Fleece maybe, a medusa’s head as the case warranted. People described a vacation in India the way they described serving in the Vietnam war. It was difficult to separate fact from fiction, self-aggrandizement from harsh truth, actual difference in culture and language and life from fatted, imperialist visions of a mystical, spiritual theme park for wealthy, spiritually-inclined adventure tourists. We drove out from the airport, into New Delhi, with our eyes as open as we could make them. I could feel my pupils dilating.
It was cacophony, at first, a blast of sound and sight and smell. Everything was so loud and so bright and so strong that it washed into me in a wave of synaesthesia, of tastes trickling into my ears, of smells passing through my eyes, of sounds running across my tongue. Honks and wheels and shouts. Hindi, Bengali, English. Animal noises: the cow goes moo, the goat goes baa. The smell of spices, the smell of flames, the smell of people. At the side of a busy street I saw a cow, wreathed in flame, its horns buried into an incinerating mound of refuse, ferreting scraps of food from the embers.
I tried not to exotify, to blow this country out in my mind, to smooth it out, but anticipation turned the saturation dial in my mind. I had grown used to the colour schemes of Thailand and Laos, had grown used to hearing tonal languages, had become accustomed to certain quirks of architecture and flavour and manner. Inasmuch as one can grow comfortable on the road, can acclimate to the locality as simply the way the world works, I had done it, much as I had done in Korea, and years before in Canada. I was in a land of new again.
Of course, we had been travelling and living in eastern Asia for two years, and even when confronted by something new, it was new in a genre of new in which we had already read several other works. It was new of a similar shape, of a similar kind: a new that could be slotted into working schemas. Now we had actual new, and it showed on our faces.
There is no greater danger to your sanity than looking like a rube in a foreign place. Rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers, restaurateurs, pickpockets: everybody can smell naivety. Everyone knows the shape of a wide eye. We were first-timers in this country, even as we told people that we weren’t, and it showed. We were freshman. We were babes in the woods. People called out to us everywhere we went, followed us in the streets, all but physically threw us into stores and restaurants and taxis. We could not have looked more dumbstruck or childish. We might as well be wearing clothing made of sewn-together rupee notes.
Flying into one of the busiest cities in the country and keeping to our curmudgeonly budget did not, of course, help our acclimation to our new destination. Our hotel was buried deep within an alley filled with public urinals, off a main street regularly plied by enormous trucks and tiny rickshaws alike. We weren’t used to Indian street names, and regularly grew lost, once wandering deep into midday traffic alongside hundreds of cars and cattle and carriages. Moo. Honk. Shout. Honk. Hooooooonk. The air was grey, and we were being followed by the most pitiful pickpocket I had ever seen, who would regularly and forlornly reach towards my wallet with absolutely no élan or delicacy.
This was not a sustainable pattern. Two days in and we felt ragged, worn-down, shaggy and gross and bitter. We needed beauty to balance out the ballast, we needed serenity to counterweight chaos – we just weren’t skilled at finding it yet. We weren’t familiar with the local depositories and distributors of pleasantness.
We booked a driver and blasted around the city for a tour, scampering through the grounds of enormous temples as people busied themselves in preparation for Diwali. Lights hung from enormous domes, people began to splay decorations and powders and incense. Scrambling across the grounds of forts and ruins and half-build monuments, we passed women in a gradient of saris, families gathering for picnics or walks, dozens of people on dates and taking time off with friends. People sold cotton candy and ice cream and clattering little electronic toys. Kites flew, people lived, and the city became a city to us.
When we calmed down, India became a real place, and not some overhyped Other-land from stories and whispers. The food was familiar and delicious, and absurdly cheap. The people, when they did not run businesses geared towards acquiring your money, were pleasant and attempted to be helpful. The places, when they were not wedged deep within the busiest parts of the city, the smoggiest and cloggiest recesses of traffic and congestion, were beautiful and calm. Even the tourist track began to show itself as much like that of the rest of the world, and we were strangely comforted by the familiar walk through an overstuffed textile shop staffed by zealous and intense salesmen.
Surprises still laid in wait for us, bumps in the road, tragedies in the shadows. Bus rides and forgotten maps and stomach bugs. Go-nowhere rickshaws. Sludgy skies. Unexpected requests for tips. The collapse of the world economy. Giant, exploding space monsters. Hitler’s ghost. We were buoyed by our meagre successes, but it still felt like Delhi had won, and the flame of self-doubt had been kindled.
We were in India, but we had no idea how long we would last. This could be our greatest challenge, our greatest triumph, our greatest trip. It could just as easily be our greatest defeat, a vortex of money and time followed by an early bail-out flight with our tails tucked between our legs, with nothing to show for our journey but a host of terrifying intestinal parasites. We had arrived, but how long could we stay? Would we stumble and fall, or find our legs and remember how to walk?