Tag Archives: first impressions

Tackling Delhi Traffic and Defeat in Connaught Place

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.

Vendor outside my Delhi hotel
Vendor outside my Delhi hotel

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.

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Day One: Chapattis, Chips and Polychrome Chaos

Fighting for curry and setting up shop, my first taste of combat and sensory shock.  My first day on the ground brings fear and fascination, exhaustion and new shirt and colour and spice.

I’ll be in this room for the month so I dusted shelves, spread clothes on one and stood books on another. I untied the mosquito net – considerately equipped with holes so I can reach through and swat any bugs – and pushed my bed under the fan.  No sign of mossies last night, mesh on windows looks intact, and I will drape my untorn Bivouac net over the bed frame if needed.  The bathroom “hot” tap is warmest on sunny afternoons – its water comes from a solar panel and tank on the roof.  In the small library I discovered daily print editions of the papers I’d perused online from Auckland, and I met the Ecumenical Christian Centre director (he graciously dismissed the wake-up call last midnight) I’d been emailing for months – wow, I’m really here!

Right now I’m the sole white face, but ECC staff are preparing for the 30 American students to arrive on Thursday.  Women are in colourful saris, men mostly grey shirt-and-trousers uniform, some with a turban.  They swing sickles to cut the grass and sweep with twig-bundle brooms that seem to work well. Some are climbing ladders to clean windows.  I waved to one and he brought his hands together in respectful greeting, almost losing his balance as he let go of the rung. I was about to shower when another began scrubbing at the skylight above.  A maid carried a pile of sheets on her head between rooms.

At breakfast the cooks delivered 4 sausages, 3 eggs, a bowl of porridge, 4 pieces of white toast, butter and jam – no risk of starving here!  I only managed half.  As I left the refectory, staff kids were heading off in the van to school.  At lunch, the workers tucked into rice and vegetarian curry, but I was ushered to a table with a mince dish, boiled cabbage, white bread, packet potato chips, rice, and a symmetrical platter of fresh sliced vegetables.  The care is touching but embarrassing – it made me stand out, I left the veges untouched, not knowing how they were washed, and the staff curry looked yummier!

At dinner, I took a plate of their chapattis and rice, but was also given toast and potato chips again, cooked potatoes and chicken (which seemed kind from the vegetarian Hindu cooks) and warned their food would be too hot for me.  I left the bread and chips untouched and hoped they’d notice that, however clumsily, I was indeed breaking bread, gathering rice and curry with my right hand, and not exploding with the heat!  The water is filtered with a faint chemical taste so is probably fine, but until I see the Americans’ policy, I’ll continue purifying it.

Before dinner I checked email at the “Communication Centre” and started this missive.  Battery and generators maintained the PCs when power cuts interrupted the internet.  Then Jabaraj walked me into Whitefield’s main street and India’s “assault on the senses” attacked  (see my Whitefield shots here).  It’s overwhelming, too much to process, like the “one great blooming, buzzing confusion” that psychologist William James said babies experience, “assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once”, before the infant brain turns down the sensory volume and shoves it all into boxes so we can cope.  I kept one eye on the ground avoiding potholes and litter, several eyes evading push- and motorbikes, cars, trucks, buses – footpaths barely exist.  It took my whole concentration to follow Jabaraj without being hit and, like a toddler, I was terrified of being left behind alone.  Little energy was left to observe the people: some in leather shoes, smart trousers and collared shirt, others barefoot in a lungi waist wrap-around.  Women’s saris were monochrome or multi-hued, pastel or dazzling, like all the spectrum of light swirling around me; plain or floral, striped, chequered or polka-dotted; silver-threaded or begemmed.  A few wore Muslim headscarves.

A large white bullock pulled a cart past churches and shrines.  Behind waste-filled gutters, walls guarded manicured gardens and elegant houses or multi-storey flats.  Overgrown sections in between are littered with tin shacks or tarpaulins – apparently not mini-slums, as I first thought, but temporary abodes of itinerant construction workers on the many building sites.  In a small store stacked floor to ceiling with clothing and trinkets, small statues of gods stood next to Western lingerie: Brahman nudged Bendon.  The proprietor offered me a tiny plastic cup of steaming sweet chai tea, and Jabaraj helped me buy a cool cotton shirt with a retro look.

One hour “in town” was enough.  Drained and bewildered, I stumbled back to the ECC grounds, a tranquil haven of trees, verdant lawns, and fresh air after the churning dust and fumes.  I cleaned out gobs of black from my nostrils.  After my first glimpse of the “bracing, or exhausting, anarchy of Indian streets” (Michael Palin, Himalaya), I can see this country could be bracingly exhilarating, but I was thinking: “two months to survive – what have I got myself into?” and hoping I’d not forgotten to pack anything important – I doubt I’d manage to find and purchase the simplest item.  I felt more positive after a refreshing shower and dinner and more smiles from the staff.

I recalled that night falls fast in the tropics, when it did about 6pm.  More brief power-offs required the headlamp torch from my local NZ hardware store to navigate my room and the two-minute walk to the refectory for dinner.  Reading at night, my bedside light often alternated bright and dim every few seconds, rather like my alternating feelings of fascination and fear about India so far.  The fluctuating power levels mirror my morale.  I switch off the erratic illumination and drift off, soothed by the lullaby of the fan overhead, speeding and slowing, whirring up and whizzing down, now eager, now dismayed.

Bangkok Butterflies and a Bangalore Nocturne

Auckland International Airport, Saturday 6 October. A few stomach butterflies already airborne. As in past flights alone, I was comforted by the words of my namesake three millennia ago, “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” (Psalm 139). Withdrew US$300 against credit card failure, chomped a last beef Big Mac, hugged my parents at the departure gate, and followed the butterflies aloft.

11 hours to Bangkok with Thai air, “smooth as silk”. Videos on the Thai king and Buddhist history, key phrases from the Thai language game. A tip for visitors to Bangkok airport: don’t drop your tickets on the floor while heaving luggage off the carousel. The guard won’t let you back in. You’ll spend the next near-midnight hour chasing round the facilities, chatting up the staff, chafing at their English, till the dozenth grasps your plight, so you can re-enter the luggage area, scour the naked lino with growing disappointment, flag down a friendly taxi salesperson to translate for the cleaning lady, who reaches deeply into her bin and – better than any rabbit from a seedy conjurer’s hat – draws out your creased tickets. I tried to keep smiling and practising “thank you” from that in-flight Thai game. Though in principle, as one official said, it shouldn’t be necessary as it’s all electronic…

A night of luxury in the Bangkok Novotel, with the grandest hotel foyer I’ve seen – outclassing my usual backpackers’ digs. Three books in the bedside drawer: a Gideon’s Bible, “What the Buddha taught” and “A Constitution for Living: Buddhist principles for a fruitful and harmonious life”. Through my window a highway flanked with billboards beckoned towards the city. But I’d been warned of travellers who taxied quickly into town, to rush hour-crawl back – with un-harmonious and unfruitful sentiments – as their plane taxied for take-off.

So a day of countdown in the airport, that no man’s land between worlds. Breakfast was instant noodles from my room’s “minibar”. Lunch with the Bangkok Post over spicy mushroom and crab soup. Vietnamese vege wraps for tea. Boarded the flight, and spent two hours on the ground for repairs. Next to me sat a young Bangalorean, visiting home from his IT job in Taiwan – one of India’s new global tech successes. After a 3 ½ hour flight, we touched down about 11:30pm in Bangalore, India!

Less light and advertising from the sky than more Easterly Asian cities I’ve seen. Airport signs in three scripts: curly circly Kannada, straighter-lined washing-on-a-clothesline Hindi, and English. After Bangkok’s airport (completed last year), you’d hardly call this an international airport (to be fair, it’s to be retired next year). No air bridge to the terminal, but steep stairs to an old bus. Flashing Christmas-tree-like lights framed the elephant god Ganesh above the driver’s head as the bus coughed and bumped along to the terminal building. Stained walls, loose wiring. A slight scrum at the baggage claim. Passport check at a bulky cathode ray computer screen, less high-tech than high time for retirement, certainly not the cutting edge IT I’d expected in India’s IT capital. A short queue past customs, and it was time to face India.

After the two-hour delay I feared I might be stranded at midnight. I ventured into the foyer and saw only eager transport and accommodation touts. No ATM in sight, so squeezed back through a row of plastic chairs to change US$50 to Rupees, officially unobtainable outside India. Later realised I’d been too flustered to count them. My plane seat-mate lent his cell phone to ring my course director, who told me to go out further. Slipped back through the seats, and an official told me off – that line of chairs demarked pre- and post-customs areas. The official (or not – too dazed to tell) insisted I go through customs. I protested – I already had! He changed tack, grabbed my trolley. I held on. We push-pulled it out together as he wheedled for a tip. Seldom have I felt more grateful than when I spotted a slim man with a big ECC sign. The pseudo-official chappie vanished.

Jabaraj chaperoned me through the chaotic parking-lot, into the jeep, and we were off. No seatbelt for the front passenger (me). The driver tooted and flashed headlights before swerving to overtake. Excitement and exhaustion anaesthetised my fear. Streets were dark, many lights dead. We wove past hopeful hitchhikers, shadowy pedestrians, clusters of stray dogs, small temples or shrines through the gloom. 15 minutes later we reached the suburb of Whitefield, turned and bumped down a dirt road and the iron gates of the Ecumenical Christian Centre (ECC) loomed out of the dark. The guard emerged from his gatehouse, swung them open, and we entered the compound. Walked for ever down a corridor of empty bedrooms, shadows receding as Jabaraj flicked on cold fluorescent lights, past two open courtyards, and arrived at my room. Jabaraj opened the heavy door, assured me it was boltable and guards were on duty, promised to return at 8 in the morning to take me to breakfast, and left me alone in the building.

I shot the bolt and turned to inspect my room. Spacious and tidy, walls painted cream. On two walls (a corner room) were windows with bars and insect mesh, frames painted blue and turquoise. I drew the burgundy curtains to shut out the foreign night. White mosquito nets shrouded the twin beds. Two cane chairs and a desk, with reading lamp, vase of artificial flowers and carafe of water. Rummaged in my bag, found the pot of medicaments, dropped in a Puritab. Watched it slowly fizz through the amber glass. Paint was peeling on concrete shelves; their deep recesses reminded me of Roman catacomb graves. Empty except for a candle, matches, and cake of Medimix Ayurvedic soap, with “a unique formulation of 18 herbs”, recalling KFC’s secret herbs and spices. Tiled concrete floor, swept clean. In the corner, two towels and a few coat hangers dangled from a wooden frame. The bathroom had big plastic buckets and a cold shower. Washed my feet under the tap labelled “hot” – it wasn’t. Cleaned my teeth, rinsing mouth and brush in a cup of the purified water – my tablet didn’t leave much taste.

It was 23°C on landing, down from the 28°C night in Bangkok, and there was an overhead fan, so I had a cool night and even put one blanket on, but didn’t sleep much. Fluttering with adrenaline, my butterflies hadn’t all landed yet, and like Prospero’s enchanted isle the air was full of noises, sounds, and strange sweet airs: dogs whining and barking outside the compound, chanting or singing – perhaps a distant temple or wedding music, a train horn, airplanes; nearby were loud crickets and the calls of unknown birds.