Delhi: First Impressions

I arrive in New Delhi around 9:00 p.m. I have been sitting on a second-rate 767 for the last fourteen hours, so I am glad to leave it. Customs is no big deal, as long as you have an Indian visa, and of course you do or they wouldn’t have let you get on the plane in the first place.

Outside customs is the first real challenge of the trip: obtaining money. At the beginning of November India demonetized its 500 and 1000 rupee notes, which is kind of like the U.S. saying that twenties and fifties are just paper now. So everyone now has to either deposit their cash in a bank, or exchange their old bills for new ones. This has understandably caused a run on bank machines, and most of the ATMs simply don’t have any money in them. Out of order. This is true of two of three ATMs at the airport; the sole remaining ATM, naturally, has a line around the block, so to speak, and a guard with an assault rifle standing beside it.

Fortunately, forewarned by my AirBnB host, I have come prepared with a bunch of American bills to exchange. After twenty-five minutes in line at the currency exchange place, I manage to get some money: $100 worth, or 6,000 rupees, which is the most they’ll hand out to one person at a time. Clearly this is going to be an ongoing issue.

Gandhi-faced bills in hand, I find the manager for the AirBnB waiting for me outside with a sign, and I follow him to a taxi. His name is Raju. He says his English isn’t very good, but it’s about a thousand times better than my Hindi, so English it is, and if you know the word for “farmer,” which he does, I’d say your language skills are in good shape. Raju is of medium height, round face, round build, short hair, mustache and stubble. The driver, whose name I don’t catch and whose face I don’t see until we arrive, has a turban and a beard and speaks no English. In any case, I am more than content to let conversation be and stare out the window.

So: Delhi. First, maybe you’ve heard that the air in Delhi is really bad right now. Like, some of the worst on planet Earth. And there is, in fact, a noticeable haze in the air, like a low-lying fog, except it’s not fog, it’s more like you’re sitting a little too close to a campfire that someone just threw a bunch of plastic bags into. Makes your throat a bit scratchy, after a while.

It probably doesn’t help the pollution that even at ten at night there are a great many cars out, about as many as Denver has during rush hour. (Denverites seriously have no idea how not bad their traffic is.) The taxi I’m in feels like it was built in China circa 1980 – just guessing here – with patterened tan seat covers made probably right here in India, circa 1985. True to mundus inversus British Empire form, the driver’s seated on the right side (i.e. the wrong side) of the vehicle.

Along with the usual sedans and whatnot – nearly all of Asian make, though – there are many more motorcycles and mopeds than in the U.S., driving with a commendably brazen disregard for the probability of crippling accidents. This likewise applies to bicyclists, and with such daily risking of life and limb one begins to see the need for religion. Lanes seem entirely nominal, like just a sort of suggestion that you should feel free to disregard, and there is the usual honking of horns to announce that all need beware, for death and injury are nigh. I also look with some delight at the auto-rickshaws, coneyances I have often heard mentioned but never seen with my own eyes, like something out a gritty noir alternate-reality story. Just one wheel in front! Ha!

There are few lawns, a good number of palm trees, shops close to the streets, plenty of signs of all types. And a surprising number of people about, mostly men, from what I saw. Men driving, men crossing the street in groups, men riding bicycles, lined up outside a bank (at 10 p.m.!), doing something at a juice stand. Do Indians just like to go out at night?

Finally we arrive at the bed and breakfast. I tip the driver too much and head upstairs with Raju. It is, of course, basically someone’s home: specifically, that of Vinod, who is there doing something in the kitchen, a tall gent whose white hair, spectacles, and neat clothing give him the distinguished air of a professor, which for all I know he is. I don’t really know the etiquette here, but I am happy enough to retreat to my room, which is perfectly nice in a dingy, dark, comfortable kind of way.

And here I sit still, typing this on my Bluetooth keyboard and tablet. With luck, I’ll even sleep a little, although I’m now a good twelve hours out of sync with Denver. Tomorrow my aim is to buy a train ticket to Varanasi for Friday. Hopefully I can pay for it with a credit card, because this cash ain’t gonna go far…

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