india diary: first impressions in new delhi
Even with 10,000 miles between you and a twelve-hour time difference apart, some things cannot be mistaken. "I'm really not happy about you traveling to India alone.”
You’ve traveled alone many times before and it’s never been a problem.
“India is different,” she says. “It’s not safe.” Anxiety. Fear. Disappointment. You hear each one in her voice.
When it comes to traveling to India, there’s still a lot that remains uncertain. That uncertainty creates tension and anxiety for some, curiosity and allurement for others. There’s also a lot of places people consider dangerous, even if you’re from there. Still, you want to go.
People tell you things.
India is full of rapists. India is unsafe for women. Why are you going alone? Don’t you have a male friend that can go with you? It’s dangerous to travel there by yourself. You're going to get robbed or worse. You’re going to get sick. Women are treated poorly. People are so poor. Children will beg you for money every day. Aren’t you scared? You should only stay at nice hotels. You should fly everywhere. It's filthy. It's polluted. It's full of criminals. Everyone is trying to cheat you. Everyone is trying to sell you something. You've got to be ON All. The. Time. Why would you ever want to go there?
India is a beautiful country. It's totally safe for women to travel alone; in fact, it’s one of the safest places for solo female travelers. Don’t worry, just be careful. It’s sad to see certain things, but you will learn so much from it. It's rich in culture. It's spiritual. It's an incredible place. The food—I love the food! There’s so much to explore. The people are kind and warm and will welcome you into their homes. You'll want to go back again and again. The history and culture are fascinating. When are you going there?
I can smell it before I see it: that, “something is burning” smell. Before the plane hits the runway, the air thickens. Welcome to New Delhi.
The polluted air stays contained inside the airport terminal, growing more and more stale. I text my mom.
11:53 pm. Made it to India.
We message one another pretty regularly, even when I haven’t just landed in a third world country at midnight. In that moment, I’m nervous and I know she’s even more nervous than I. We are two nervous people nervously texting each other to try and make one another less nervous. Does that help?
In my room, I am fully alone. I need a shower. I need to sleep. I blow my nose and black stuff comes out.
Goodnight, I love you.
Everything happens at once—the sites, the sounds, the smells, the heavy air. It’s stimulation overload. I heard one person describe it as an assault on your senses. Beeping horns that never cease. Cows wandering the streets, defecating anywhere they please. Men selling women's underwear. Street vendors brewing sugary masala chai or deep frying doughy street snacks. People walking around deformed or severely hunchbacked. Legless beggars holding out their palms, propped up against dirty walls. Blind men feeing their way through the crowds. Watch your belongings.
The most difficult thing to witness is the children. They approach you dressed in rags, tugging at your arm and reaching their out to receive money, motioning to their mouths for food. Don’t look.
A young girl comes up beside your rickshaw when you’re stopped at an intersection. She tries to sell you balloons or used pens or string bracelets or a pack of tissues or those small bottles of bubbles—the kind you’d buy at a 99 cent store. Things you don’t need; junk. Try not to look. But you don’t want to ignore her existence because that feels wrong, inhumane. You don’t want to buy anything from her because who really knows where that money goes? You want to do something, but you don’t want to contribute to the system that put her there in the first place. So you sit there and wait for her to leave and half-pretend that she’s not there, like a small ghost. You gently shake your head No in her direction. You feel sad. You feel sick. You’re not even moving.
How long has she been here? How old is she? When did she last eat? Where are her parents? Does she still have parents?
The light turns green.
Somehow, you end up in a spice market. Cinnamon. Cardamom. Turmeric. Curry. Chili. Pepper. Sugar. Salt. Bay leaves. Coriander. More pepper. Everyone coughs. Cough, cough. Another backpacker lends you his scarf. You cover your mouth and nose and breath into it. It helps, barely.
You’re inside a dungy concrete building. It’s kind of dark, but still light enough to see the eyes of the vendors. Their stares catch onto the person with the lightest-colored hair in your group: a blond girl. They look at her, possessed. She holds hands with her boyfriend. Does she notice their gaze?
In the corner of the building, there’s a small staircase. Our backpacker-filled group heads up. First flight. Second. Cough. Still going up. I can’t breathe.
We’re on a rooftop somewhere in Old Delhi, I think. Looking out onto the other rooftops, dirt and grime are everywhere. Decrepit homes. Windowless walls. No privacy. It feels post apocalyptic. Absolute filth. We make it just in time to watch the pink sun suffocate into smog. Melancholic. Beautiful.
You feel excited but uncertain, safe but suspicious. What else?
You are here.
I made it.