I sold off or gave away most of what I owned back then, and put the rest into storage. When I left St. John’s, Newfoundland for Dublin, Ireland in the summer of 2007, working holiday visa in hand, it was with a backpack, a laptop bag, and two small suitcases filled with the gear I’d need to tattoo; my occupation at the time and the way I’ve funded my travels to date.
Flash forward four and a half years and both my luggage and destination look considerably different. The backpack is the same, though its contents have switched up a fair bit. I certainly didn’t have Malaria meds and a UV water sterilizer packed when I was heading off to Ireland. And the two suitcases have been dropped, leaving the laptop bag as my only other piece of luggage. Well, unless you count the motorcycle helmet I’m dragging around in anticipation of the Enfield I’ll pick up in Rishikesh, north of my current location: Delhi, India.
South Delhi to be entirely accurate. I arrived at a guest house here after a ride in a cab that was little more than an auto-rickshaw. Pre-paid for at the airport, the approximately 24 km ride had cost 350 rupees, or around 7 Canadian dollars. My flight arrived in the dead of night, which meant that, as I laid down in the guest house bed that evening, I’d no real idea what would be outside of my window come dawn.
Experiencing any new place or culture for the first time brings with it a wave of uncertainty, at least for me. I tend to over-think things at the best of times, and I worry more than I should about committing some social faux pas or unknowingly offending someone. Traveling as much as I have has made me acutely aware of how little I know of the world and, though I remain eager to step out of my comfort zone and am always hungry to learn of something new, I remain painfully self-conscious of the many remaining gaps in my knowledge. Still, if I never want to be embarrassed, or occasionally feel like an absolute bloody buffoon, I really shouldn’t be traveling.
Actually, that may just be one of the greatest beauties and frustrations of travel – how it makes you question even the most mundane of habits. You’re presented a flurry of alternatives to things you’d always taken for granted as ‘just being this way’, from traffic (lanes? What lanes?) to politics (elections? What elections?) to toilets (seat? What seat?).
Having no real sphere of reference or person more knowledgeable than I to inquire with, I can only speculate as to the rules and reasons for things here, at least for the moment. No amount of guide book reading can prepare for the actual, visceral experience of suddenly being somewhere very foreign. Several months later I may understand why the taps of water in this hostel somehow got reversed overnight or why that goat is wearing a coat. For now, though, I’m oblivious. And as I wander around the dusty back alleys a couple streets up from where my rickshaw driver dropped me off, I wonder if I’m close to the place I’m trying to find or wandering through a slum I’ve no business being in.
I can’t stop myself from trying to figure things out. Though trying to draw any conclusions on day one of my India travels is ridiculous. For instance, wandering around this area, one could assume there’s nothing resembling a sit-down restaurant or coffee shop in all of Delhi. Though, fuck, maybe there isn’t. Further exploration is needed.
An auto-rickshaw driver underestimates how far he is from the corner and slams into it while parking. From the roofs overhead I see children peering down, taking in the scene of the street below, a constant roar of noise, drivers leaning on their horns to let anyone in front of them know they’re about to pass by. A motorcycle roars past, its driver wearing his helmet in a fashion it was entirely not meant to be worn. Another roars past with a woman on the back riding side-saddle and I cringe as my eyes pick up her dangling scarf and the proximity of it to the back tire.
It’s warm here. It’s strange I don’t find that stranger. I just left −5 weather back in Toronto and it’s 20+ here in Delhi.
A thought nags at me – an awareness of how deeply the differences of this place to home run. Beyond the buzz of unknown languages around me and the unfamiliar stale smell that floats through the air of Delhi, there are other, subtler things that leave me feeling very, very far from home. Even the colours; unconsciously my mind seems to register that the palette of the world I am now in is not the same as what I’ve previously known.
I try to quiet my mind and just take the area in but it refuses. It wants to know if that’s actually an open tomb built into the sidewalk. It wants to know why so many booths in this area are selling flowers, these strings of red roses, dew drops clinging to them. What are they for? What is that food? How much does it cost? Where should I stand to eat it? HOW do I eat it? Where can I throw my garbage? Where the fuck can I find a toilet? Is that a bag of poo tied to that fence?
I’m trying to find Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, where Lonely Planet tells me that Qawwali singers gather Thursday evenings to play for the crowd. The shrine lies in the middle of a series of narrow, twisting alleys that remind me of old town Jerusalem and, when I finally stumble upon it, I’m not even certain it’s what I’m looking for. Around the corner from yet another booth selling bootleg DVDS and plastic sandals, a decorated arch opens. Several men around the entrance are taking people’s shoes so they can enter, barefoot. Studying what seems to be some dispute over the location of someone’s sandals, I become wary to leave my hikers here. As I attempt to stuff them into my backpack, I find myself wishing I’d worn something lighter.
I’m in the shrine. I don’t know where I’m going. I’m still not fully aware this is what I was looking for. Honestly, I’d sort of given up 30 or 40 minutes ago and was just wandering for the sake of wandering. I feel drunken with uncertainty as I step through the crowd, heading towards the sound of song.
I HAVE found the Qawwali singers. The area surrounding them is packed. I gently work my way through the crowd, trying to find somewhere to stand where I will not be upsetting the steady flow of pedestrian traffic. Working my way around the back, I finally find a place to sit among the masses.
A man I’d estimate as being around my own age is sitting behind me, a young Japanese child on his lap. Somehow we end up in conversation and I find out he’s a Muslim Indian who’s recently moved back here from Sligo, an even more obscure corner of Ireland than the town of Tralee that I called home during my own time there. The child is his brother’s. He’s excited to find out I’m from Canada, and tells me he’s a massive Leonard Cohen fan. A smile takes over his face.
The music pauses and, as it does, a terrifying sound suddenly echoes from behind me. A woman is screaming in a manner I’ve never before heard. My blood runs cold. My mind reels, wondering what is happening and, more importantly, what I should possibly do about it. What I CAN possibly do about it.
Leonard Cohen fan must have registered the horror on my face. Patiently, he explains it’s spirits. My horror turns abruptly to confusion. After another short explanation, I catch his meaning.
“You mean they’re possessed?” I ask, indicating the stone wall behind us. Now that I’ve realized this is where the sound is coming from, this structure I’d pegged for a tomb, I see fingers poking through the small, patterned gaps in the stonework. In the shadows, I think I see a flash of eyes looking back at me.
Cohen fan nods. My skepticism must have shown on my face because he makes a semi-apologetic smile.
“I know, you do not believe,” he says in an understanding voice. “But we think it’s best for them here. The music calms them.”
My curiosity has been well piqued. I ask if they come here for short periods of time, or if they’re here long-term. It can be both, he explains. Sometimes short, sometimes. . .not.
After another scream, there’s an upset in the crowd behind us and a girl goes flying past, an older woman in near pursuit of her. The woman shoots a hand out, catching the girl by her hair and dragging her to a stop. At first I think thief. But no, this is one of the ‘possessed’.
“Sometimes they get out,” Cohen fan explains.
The girl gets dragged back the way she came. At this point, my mind has stopped trying to make sense of things. At least for the moment. It’s merely taking everything in. Observing.
We stand and begin to make our way out from the shrine. Cohen fan meets up with his family, and offers me some sweets, which I gratefully accept. Goddamn, are they sweet.
I leave after that to make my way back through the twisting lane-ways surrounding the shrine. In retrospect, I wish I’d stayed to talk to Leonard Cohen fan longer. Maybe he could have explained some small part of Delhi to me. Or at least explained why that goat was wearing a coat. But with this being my first day in India, in truth my first time backpacking in a while, I’m still largely overcome by an awkward shyness and I don’t want to assault a stranger with questions.
My feet are filthy. I find a place to the side of the still busy alleys to pull my shoes back on. The feeling of surrealism has now fully kicked in. I find it difficult to form any kind of coherent thought. My mind is abuzz only with questions.
I wander some more up the darkened streets and, entirely by accident, stumble upon what I take to be Humayun’s Tomb (it wasn’t), a Mughal monument that, according to Lonely Planet, inspired the Tag Mahal. An officer on the street informs me I am not allowed to take pictures of it.
I should find an auto-rickshaw home now. A few stop but quote prices far too high so I keep walking. However, as the buildings begin to die out and the street becomes darker and darker, a local stops to advise me that I shouldn’t walk this way.
“I think it’s best if you go back to your hotel,” he advises.
I don’t know if he’s being overly concerned or just giving me solid advice. Not having any way to be certain, I decide to listen.
I backtrack to find an auto-rickshaw that gives me a fair enough price. After the usual series of stops to ask locals for directions, we locate the neighbourhood that I’m staying in. I get him to drop me off near a small walk-in restaurant (they DO exist after all). It’s been a long time since I ate.
A man greets me and hands me a menu, asking what I’d like. I order a simple chicken curry with some naan. He lets me know it will be about 10 minutes and finds a seat for me.
The restaurant is little more than a small hallway, though it’s much cleaner than other places I’ve seen around. In the corner near my chair is a small group of balloons tied to a rock on the floor. One reads, ‘Grand Opening’. My eyes move over the crowd gathered here. Curiously, I note that no one seems to have any food.
That’s rectified a few moments later as people begin to get served. Still, although there were about 20 people there before me, mine is the third meal to come out. As the man who greeted me sets it down on the table I politely ask if I pay now or after I eat.
“No, you don’t pay,” he corrects me. “Is complimentary. Today is our first day.”
This isn’t helping my feeling of surrealism.
I finish the curry, which is nothing short of amazing, and gather my plates together. I hand the dishes to him and make certain I’ve understood.
“Are you sure?” I ask. “I don’t pay you anything?”
He’s sure. He gets me to sign a guestbook before I leave. I am guest number 26.
It only takes me two tries to find someone who can direct me back to the guest house. I’m picking up that asking for directions through the winding streets and complexes of Delhi is common fare.
I sit down at the dining room table to write this down; these snapshots of my first impression of Delhi. My concentration is torn from my journal, however, as one of the young daughters at the guest house begins to sings ‘Gun Gun Guna’ while she makes black tea. I have, of late, become a massive fan of the Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan and the song the girl is singing is from his latest movie, Agneepath, which I have just watched several days prior in Toronto. I have the song on my phone and, when I begin playing it, the daughter comes out into the room wide-eyed with surprise.
For a short while, we dance together.
Afterwards, finally, I lie down in bed. I try to write more but begin to nod off, my pen dragging across the paper. It is not until the next day, once I’ve moved to a cheaper hostel in another part of Delhi, that I will find the time to get all of this down.
This, my first impression of Delhi – this assault on my senses. This flurry of questions. This wave of uncertainty. My mind tries to form opinions but I stop it. It’s too soon. Because tomorrow my experience could be entirely different – tomorrow could be all discount back-packers and Indian sky-scrapers. I don’t know.
We can know only by experiencing.