Since returning from India two days ago, I can't help but reflect on my first day there. The first day was where I really experienced the kind of culture shock everyone talks about when traveling to India. I don't like the word culture shock though. I wasn't shocked by Indian culture. I'd prefer to call it something like "other life" shock. Seeing how other people live, not just the culture, shock. Because that's what it really was, and this day is what I have started to describe when someone wants me to pinpoint a particular experience that stands out in my mind.
My trip from the United States to India was not a straight forward one. It involved traveling from Miami on a 15 hour flight to Doha, Qatar, a lay over, and then another 3 hour flight to New Delhi, arriving at 1 am. Now if there is anything that I stress about on trips is getting from the airport to the hotel safely and for whatever reason, most of the flights I've been on to different countries get me landing in that country around midnight. Most of this went easily enough with the Holiday Inn outside the airport arranging to collect me and drive me to the hotel nearby. I wasn't ready to try and navigate finding a taxi/tuk tuk/rickshaw in the middle of the night to a hotel in the center of New Delhi all on my own. Yeah, I'm a chicken! (Or am I???)
After a snooze in my hotel and some great breakfast, I headed over to my next hotel in New Delhi to meet my friend Staesha. Staesha was all about hitting the streets of Delhi ASAP, while I was kind of nervous and more than happy to chill in the hotel room until our tour group got together later. But seeing as Staesha had arrived the day before, and had read Shantaram and had a guidebook on hand, I set off with her to explore for the afternoon.
We headed to the Metro station to take the subway to a market called Chandni Chowk. The metro was just NOT what I was expecting from India. Within Delhi, this metro system kind of puts American ones to shame. It was quite advanced, all the cars had the electrified maps and overhead announcements that you could hear and understand in both Hindi and English. It was super easy. It was clean and safe, and there were no advertisements making a mess like they do in NYC. I was very impressed. Of course, we got a lot of stares on the Metro, but I came to realize, as a Westerner and a white person, that's pretty standard for India. You will be stared at by a lot of people wherever you go.
We hopped off the Metro and got entirely lost. I feel like I'm pretty good about navigating but we just couldn't find the market we were supposed to be going to. A tuk tuk driver stopped us and asked us where we were trying to go and he somehow knew what we were talking about (a blessing I came to realize for our first day, because the rest of our time in India, our drivers did not know where we were going), and dropped us off outside for 100 rupees.
We walked through the Spice market and got our first sights and smells of Delhi. There were various spices all spread out across tables or tarp on the floor. Women and men sat next to them, and children ran around and played in the street. It wasn’t too busy at this point, and we saw lots of dogs wandering around too. Wherever we went, eyes followed us. I’m pretty sure they were wondering what we were doing in this part of town. We turned a corner at the end of the Spice Market and were confronted with a heaving crowd of people, a cacophony of honking, laughter, shouting and talking, and a haze of dust in the air. We had entered the Chandi Chowk Market. This was the India I had been expecting but was also not entirely prepared for.
Staesha and I boldly stepped into the streets, along with like the other thousands of people it seemed, and kind of just kept moving with the swarm of people. I’ll never forget looking up the slight incline in the street and just seeing a thousand more people walking in the road, in all directions. The road was not visible and all I could see were heads and shoulders one after the other, with a haze of dust above them. The streets were narrow, as it was Old Delhi. Or maybe they just seemed that way because they were so packed. Every now and then the heads parted down the middle of the alley and I could see a car trying to come through. This became somewhat of a crazy moment for Staesha and I. While navigating the thousands of people that swarmed through the market, we also had to dodge cars and motorbikes, doing Matrix style bends in order for the car to narrowly miss us and pass by without running us over or driving over our feet. It came naturally to everyone else there, obviously, but for us it was a great source of humor, fear, and shock.
To say we stuck out like a sore thumb is an understatement. India has a population of 1.2 billion people. I swear it felt like 95% of them were in that market that day! But what really struck me in this moment was that we were the only white people there. We attracted a lot of stares, and at times, also some unwanted attention. My friend was groped and then the same man followed us, but luckily we pulled to the side and turned backwards in order to lose him. We could see him looking for us further up, so we skirted around to another alley and were able to lose him entirely. You clearly have to have your wits about you when you are a foreigner. Apart from this unfortunate incident, it was truly remarkable to really feel like a complete and utter minority. As a white female, who has lived in South Africa and the United States, I can recognize my privilege. Completely. I am blessed and privileged and for the most part, have very few worries in the world. So, as of yet, I have never experienced being that completely different in terms of something I have no control over. So being one of two of the only white people I saw for four hours was something entirely new and different for me. And it really made me think about my place in the world.
The market we found ourselves in is called the Chandni Chowk and was actually established by the same emperor who built the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan. Built in the 17th century, it is one of the oldest and busiest markets in all of India. Many famous and historic buildings are located within and around the Chandni Chowk, including the Jama Masjid Mosque, the Gudwara Sikh Temple and the Red Fort. It is difficult for buses to get around these areas as the lanes are so narrow. The Chandni Chowk sells basically everything from spices and food to fabrics, saris and stationary. I think we found ourselves in the food section, with no way of knowing how to navigate elsewhere. If you ever travel to Delhi or India in general, this is definitely a market you should see. I will never forget how busy and chaotic it was. Maybe because it was the day before Holi we were there on a particularly busy day with the thousands taking to the market to buy their colored powders and water guns. I have a sneaky suspicion its pretty busy all the time. It is a sight to behold and an experience like no other I have had.
Getting back from the market was another experience itself. I think as the day wore on, our jetlag and the sheer chaos of a market the day before a big celebration had worn us out. I was ready to eat, nap, and relax. Trying to find a driver back to the metro station was not that difficult. Trying to find one who knew where to go, was a whole other story. We finally found someone who said he knew where to go, and was very very happy to have us as his customers. He basically showed us off to every single person he knew, taking us around Old Delhi, stopping to chat to friends and family, wishing them a Happy Holi. Naïve tourists we were, we thought this was just making our way back to the metro. It only dawned on me about 30 minutes later that we surely hadn’t walked this far away, and that we should have gotten there by now. I pulled out my Google maps and noticed we were headed in the completely opposite direction. PANIC AND FEAR! I put on my angry voice, pointed to my watch and loudly said “METRO” a few times, and stopped smiling. God knows where we were really going, whether he was just taking his chances with an impromptu tour of Delhi and showing off to his friends and trying to make money, I didn’t want to take my chances. It was my first day in India and while I had possibly been naïve in the beginning, the naivety had passed and I wanted to make it back to my hotel and enjoy the rest of my trip.
Our driver firmly got the message when any attempt to take us somewhere else was met with me pointing at my watch and firmly saying METRO over and over again, no smiles, laughing, and my RB face on to the max. I kept checking we were heading in the right direction by referring to my Google maps too. When we finally made it near enough to the Metro to get out, we paid him the 200 rupees we had agreed upon 45 minutes ago, and told him very firmly no when he asked for 400 and then 300. I am well aware that an extra 100 rupees is peanuts to me, but we did not ask for all the extra bells and whistles to this tuk tuk ride, and I am not about giving him the impression that you can do this to all tourists. Plus an agreement is an agreement.
I was very relieved to get to the metro station and inside the relative quiet and coolness of it. Of course, we encountered another problem. We did not have small change, the machines wouldn’t take our notes that were small change, nor would it give back change when it ate our big notes, and none of the ticket counters were open, nor would the small little refreshment shop exchange notes for us. PANIC! After 30 minutes we finally got help from a worker at the metro station who had been exchanging money into the machines. I felt kind of bad because he tried to decorate me with green powder at first, and I was really stressed at this point and told him not to touch me and he walked away. Woops that it was the same guy who I actually needed to help me in the first place. After we paid for our metro tickets I obliged to a selfie with him and we wished each other Happy Holi. The metro ride passed peacefully, and after a thrilling dash across the road to our hotel, I was ready to pass out in bed and call it a night.
I will genuinely never forget my first day in India. It passed quickly and chaotically, with me being naïve to over cautious, to enthralled and over-stimulated. The noise, the smells, the chaos, the hustle and bustle, the complete and utter onslaught of difference all at once. It’s only two weeks after my trip to India that can I actually reflect on my time there. It was too stimulating and sensory overload for me to really understand how I felt about India, while I was there. Now that I’m home, safely, peacefully and quietly, I can reflect on it. What an adventure, what an experience, and what a life! It was like no other place I have ever travelled to, and it taught me a lot. Most of which I don’t think I can put into words. Ill try one day, but right now I cant. Regardless, if you really want to experience the world, and truly live it, see it, learn from it… go to India! Everyone needs to do it at least once.
P.s. Sorry Mom and Dad, if you are reading this – didn’t want to tell you all these things as they happened because I knew you would freak out!