The lights have a yellow glow -- no, it’s not a glow, it’s a halo -- and here we are hurtling across empty roads through this low, wide city in a tiny hatchback without seatbelts. The windows are down and it’s hot; the air is so thick you could chew it, little granules of pollution and dust getting caught in the teeth, making tiny crunching sounds when you bite down. We are in New Delhi and it's night -- and I’ve never been in Asia before. I suppose I’m looking for difference and I’m trying to find it everywhere.
Before the car, though, there was the smell. “Like a campfire,” I will tell people. “It smells like the whole place is burning down.” It’s a mix of diesel fuel, the exhaust of too many cars, desert dust from Rajasthan, cooking fires from the slums, and the waste industrial sprawl that rings the city. It’s some of the world’s dirtiest air, and yet that smell becomes the unforgettable signifier of place, so I keep taking deep breaths of it. The way the smell hits the nose means “arrival” and “not home.”
The hatchback hurtles past what looks like a graveyard of abandoned skyscrapers. A cell phone rings on the dashboard and the driver adjusts the volume of the radio -- up, not down -- as he screams what must be "hello" into the phone. The car's speakers lack bass and a woman's voice sings high and chirpy, like a bird song coming down a wire.
The Best-Laid Plans
For a little background on what led to this car adventure (and adventure to India in general): It's 2009. I’m in a Barnes & Noble staring at rows of Lonely Planets. I’ve just read Michael Ondaatje’s “Running in the Family” -- an account of his family’s life in Sri Lanka -- and so I pull the travel guide about Sri Lanka off the shelf. My pulse ticks up several clicks. I feel that little unclenching in the gut that’s familiar to any addict on the cusp of satisfaction. Yes, Sri Lanka seems nice: Buddhism, ancient temples, elephants, curries, remote beaches, jungle-clad mountains. Then I look up and spot a book that’s four times as thick as the one I’m currently holding. It says “India” in big white letters and is at least a thousand pages long.
I text my partner and say, “We are going to India” -- despite never once having had the inclination to travel there before. He's shocked, but agrees.
Almost immediately, the preparation begins. I join online communities and find contacts inside the country for our visas. I seek out novels by Indian authors and become familiar with the oft-shared traveler wisdom: don’t eat anything that’s not piping hot; don’t touch food that’s garnished with herbs or lettuce or chutney; hand sanitize with skin-cracking frequency. We get the vaccines and the malaria pills. We buy the underwear that’s sold at camping stores for men and women going on long-term treks -- the kind that doesn’t need to be washed. We purchase an electric wand that sterilizes drinking water with ultraviolet light. We pack the electrolyte powders and the antibiotics and all of that. Despite all precautions on my part, I can’t be convinced that we’ve done enough.
Getting Lost and Found in Delhi
As we make our way in that hatchback through New Delhi to the hotel, I laugh -- it finally occurs to me that we are on the other side of the globe, and the thought is simultaneously unsettling and thrilling. Our driver has taken so many turns that my normally reliable sense of direction is substantially thrown. I keep hoping to glimpse some ancient building, some Mughal monument, and though I know that much of this city was planned by Edwin Lutyens in the early 20th century, I’m wondering where everything is hiding. It seems that there are endless straight avenues leading into other straight avenues, tall trees on all sides. I swear there’s no city here, that the 10 million people and countless others streaming into this nation’s capital must have disappeared.
As if on cue, though, the streets grow narrow and the hatchback diverts into lanes lit by string lights and others crowded with tarp-wrapped parcels and -- over there -- isn’t that the Red Fort? It is, it is. The car stops and suddenly we're told that we’ve reached our destination, and it’s like all of those missing millions of people have manifested from thin air. We are stared at as we exit the white hatchback, as the small driver takes our massive bags out of the trunk. We are stared at as we watch a fire that seems to be fueled by a pile of paper or books, as we watch the goats at the edges of the pile chew through the reams, as small children kick a ball around the goats, as old men in their lunghi’s sit in that flared-knee squat at the still more distant perimeter.
I cannot say with any certainty what I was looking for on that first trip, but here is what you might find upon landing in India for the first time:
Walking along the broken sidewalks of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi means being carried along by the human tide. Same goes for the metro. Same goes for everywhere. Tattoos, in particular, are liable to be reached out and touched. Smile, keep walking -- there is no harm meant in any of it.
Every car ride will feel like a gamble with death. All drivers play a game of chicken with one another. Car horns stand in for turn signals.
While walking on the Rajpath in search of India Gate, a man may appear in a turban, holding a small wicker basket. From this basket springs a cobra, from his pocket a small flute. It is hot and sweaty, but run away, kicking dirt up, realizing that you’re laughing like a child for the first time in years and that feels good.
Everyone will want to know where you come from and will want you to know that they have a cousin or uncle or friend there. If one is in Varanasi and the inquisitor discovers one is American, the conversation will inevitably lead to Goldie Hawn.
The seemingly well-meaning tour guide from your hotel will spend all afternoon taking you to temples and through twisting lanes to the windows of traditional silk shops. He will explain hidden things you’re sure you wouldn’t discover otherwise. Then he will abandon you in a claustrophobic silk shop owned by his uncle. You’ll feel compelled to buy some scarves made from very little actual silk.
There are no lines -- everything is a crowd. The ones who shout the loudest and muscle their way to the front are served first.
You’ll see the sunrise over the Ganges or the sunset over the Indian Ocean and you’ll be sure nowhere else on earth is as beautiful and perfect as this place you’re in right now -- and that will be the point, after all.
Beating a Fast Retreat
I’ve been back to India since that first trip – twice, in fact. I’ve found places to love -- quiet ones and loud ones. I’ve seen the Himalayas and lit incense in Bodhgaya and prayed with the Dalai Lama and taken pictures with groups of rowdy drunk teenagers in Haridwar and laid in a hotel room in mid-May -- the peak of India’s blazing summer -- praying that the power cut would end and the rattling air-conditioner would come back to life. I’m deeply in love with this place and its name escapes my mouth with a frequency that, I’m sure, irritates everyone I know.
That first time, though, it hurt. After three weeks, India beat me. Picture this: It was five in the morning in Mumbai and I’ve been up all night partying with Bollywood extras and ex-pat friends. We drank fortified Kingfisher Strong and the room was a cloud of cigarette smoke. Maybe I was thinking, “There’s a story here.” Maybe I wasn’t thinking at all.
I took my bags and left for my flight to Sikkim, where I planned to do a 12-day trek to Goecha La, near the base camp of Kachenzunga, the world’s third-highest mountain. I was ready to leave urban India behind -- to leave all urban things behind, actually -- and walk for days. All of the car horns and hassling touts and chaos and late nights were proving too much. I wanted no mechanical sounds, just heavy breaths and heavy backpacks and rhododendron forests and snow-capped peaks all around.
But upon arriving at the airport, the agent informed me that I was checking in too late. The flight time had changed and I hadn’t received the notification because I’d provided a foreign phone number upon booking my flight. She’d be happy to reschedule me on the next available flight, likely within the next day or two.
“That won’t be necessary,” I said.
“I’m sorry, sir?”
“You can just book me on a flight back to New York.”
“I’d like you to change my ticket. To JFK, please.”
The rest of the transaction took place in near silence.
Dawn had just broken and I slept in a hotel in the slums, a trash bonfire burning across the street. The windows and door to the room didn’t lock, and after checking me in, the hotel’s owner offered me hash and MDMA and girls and boys. I declined, and instead tied my luggage to my legs in some empty gesture at securing my belongings. I washed down a sleeping pill and prayed that the flight home would come faster than time seemed capable of moving.
I think it was raining when I arrived home the next day. I remember thinking that New York -- that day -- was so perfectly quiet and clean, that the order and the rhythm was right.
“Just wait,” a friend said. “India’s like this little thing that gets lodged in your brain and you won’t be able to stop thinking about it. You’ll go back.”
Six months later, he was right.