A patchwork of first impressions: angry lost drivers and clunky ambassadors, Sikh chants and honking, striving to keep up morale and washing up in McDonald’s.
I arrived in India on Friday 2 March and appreciated Bangalore’s new international airport, all clean glass and trouble-free, unlike the grubby confusion I faced in 2007 at the interim retired air force base which had clearly been in the wars. I walked outside the terminal at 11:30pm local time, 2am by my body clock, and straight up to a smiling man holding a sign “Dr David Titheridge”. Less cheering for a dog-fearer was the sight and sound of many strays. I saw none in KL. The midnight drive was again surreal, but less of a shock than my first night in India five years ago (read about it here).
I slept in for a couple of days, stowed my suitcase with computer under the college principal’s bed – he’s a Kiwi from my home town – and packed up a cardboard box with mosquito net and forbidden scissors to check in with SpiceJet. Bangalore airport had the highest security I’ve seen yet – only passengers can enter the building. From the air, before smog dimmed the view, the landscape resembled the patchwork quilt of NZ’s Canterbury plains, with smaller, less rectangular patches, and very red soil.
I was bracing myself for an assault of touts at New Delhi airport. Terminal signs warn to only use official providers and to discourage unauthorized individuals. I was delighted to see a Police Prepaid Taxi booth opposite the luggage claim, where you can book and pay, and the driver can be tracked in case of complaints. Outside the terminal, no hassles either. It almost seemed too easy.
My taxi-van driver spoke no English, did not smile, picked up his equally unfriendly mate outside the airport, apparently didn’t know the central street I wanted, and seemed to be quite angry. Pointing at my map didn’t help: it seems scale maps are a western invention that other cultures don’t relate too. Several people, mostly from the south, had warned me that northerners were harder, more intense and less helpful, and this seemed to confirm it. Fortunately it wasn’t representative, and in the end we did arrive. Since then I’ve encountered many smiling faces, welcoming enquiries of “your country, sir?”, and no more cold indifference than in any big city.
After memories of eye-stinging, throat-choking, nose-clogging Bangalore fumes in 2007, Delhi traffic has been a pleasant surprise. Some years ago, all public transport was converted to CNG, and the recent underground has reduced congestion. I’ve seldom found breathing unpleasant, though the nose is still a little sooty by the end of the day and it’s not a good place for a headache. Road signs may order “Peace: no honking”, but horns are tooted briefly before overtaking and turning, and jammed on at the slightest slowdown or obstruction, producing a continuous cacophony. Crossing roads reminds me of the classic computer game Frogger. Pedestrian crossing stripes seem purely cosmetic.
The old city is chock-a-block with cycle rickshaws for eco-friendly, suspenseful but suspensionless juddering rides which are not good after a big meal. Curvaceous black Ambassador Classics are proudly polished by their drivers. The same model has been around for half a century or more. Writer Shashi Tharoor describes Ambassadors as “wasteful of steel and gas, overpriced and overweight, with a steering mechanism like an ox cart’s and a frame like a tank” and says foreigners were amazed they had two-year waiting lists right up to the 1990s. “What they didn’t realise is that if they had to drive on Indian roads in Indian traffic conditions, they’d have preferred Ambassadors, too.”
Ambassadors seemed most popular in New Delhi’s diplomatic district where I’m staying, with the presidential quarters just a few minutes’ walk away. The upside: it’s a safe area with high police presence, and very quiet. All I hear at night is muffled chanting from the adjacent Sikh temple, plus occasional scratching and cooing from pigeons on my air con unit. The downside: there are few or no shops, internet cafes or restaurants.
On my first evening in Delhi, I headed out in search of food. Tired and mildly dehydrated, I stumbled around the dimly-lit, broken-up streets, dodging stray dogs, recumbent figures, piles of litter and open drains, asking myself how a country can let the center of its capital be such a mess. I found my way to Connaught Place, the British-built shopping hub between the old and new cities. The white walls and columns were stained red with splotches of spit from the spices wrapped in betel leaf that many people chew. A Japanese health expert once thought half the population had TB.
The curving colonnades of Connaught Place were inspired by Bath’s Royal Crescent, or, said one book, the outside archways of the Colosseum. I felt like a bewildered barbarian hauled in to be hacked apart in the hostile metropolis. The concentric arcades spun around me and every direction looked the same in the dark.
I’d hoped for a pukka curry on my first Delhi night, but felt too weary to risk dark local joints up alleys away from the ring of commercial lights, so I ended up in defeat: two combos at McDonald’s. At least it was a veggie burger and spicy paneer cheese. Guards wielded metal-detectors at the door. As those old arcade games would say, my shield energy was dangerously low, my defensive shell more like a cheap Toyota than a diplomatic tank. I lurched out and down the stairs beneath the nearest Metro sign and fled through the night toward my hotel bed.