The fog and pollution become one as we walk out of the Indira Gandhi International Airport, we’ve been on the road, per say, for about 31 hours. It’s pitch dark outside, the clock reads 6:26 a.m., I am travelling with a 69 year-old professor. We walk outside, I cover my mouth as I am unsure as to how much of the fog is pollution and how much is fog… men crowd over to us offering airport taxi service. We walk past them, our designated driver is no where to be seen, it’s cold outside and we are tired. Assuming our driver is an hour late (because it took us a long time to make it out) we ask some other drivers to call our hotel for us. The men look at the number, and walk away without saying a word, speaking Hindi amongst themselves, I look at the professor, she looks as confused as I probably look. Suddenly the man comes back with a phone and calls the hotel.
“Common madams, you sit there,” another man orders us, “there is safe, sit there.”
I obey, what else are we supposed to do? Lesson number one of India, patience. Patience will unfold all confusion. Some things are inevitable.
Soon a man comes running down the gates, he approaches us showing us the paper that states our names with a big, brown smile, some missing teeth here and there. We say is us, he requests confirmation so we show him our hotel confirmation. As he starts to grab our luggage cart, the man that ordered us to sit starts speaking harshly in Hindi, the men argue until our driver finally searches in his pocket for the sign with our names.
“This is you?” the man asks.
“Yes, this is our driver,” I reply.
“Okay madam,” he says and lets us go.
Our driver starts an apology monologue explaining where he was and what not, I smile at him and start a conversation. We are the ones coming out late, we are the ones waiting at the wrong gate, we are at fault. But we are costumers, and we are in India and we are madams. We must all compromise. Our car is a miniature version of a van, the interiors are old school and the belts are non-functional, the professor holds on to dear life, I am anxious to see the kilometres of slums one is to encounter leaving the airport.
I see nothing. Delhi welcomes me with a mysterious fog, hiding all its beauty and chaos behind fearless clouds that dare touch our humanities. Every now and then we hear the beeping of a rushing car who approaches us without hesitation, the hotel driver swivels left and right. Delhi hides, only to appear in squiggly, narrow paths, where men walk the streets playing ghost with the polluted fog, and rickshaws dance with us, in a hurry, in love, in the city.
We take a left on a small street, with limited passageways that lead to rows of narrow, tall buildings where colourful clothes hang from balconies dripping water on clay flower pots when our car stops suddenly.
“We are here,” our driver says smiling and quickly exiting the car and running around to open the door for the professor.
I look around with fear, India definitely has a different look. I embrace myself and exit the car to find three bellboys running with my bags inside our hotel building. We come in to meet Süraja, a lovely, well dressed and quiet mannered boy.
“Welcome to India madams,” he says with a beautiful smile.
Our hotel is rustic, with incense burning in each floor, and vintage furniture made out of wood and floral stamps. Our toilet is Western style (for which I secretly thank Allah, Krishna and Jesus for) with a small hose and no toilet paper. There’s a pot and a stool inside the shower, and little cup inside the pot. I realize almost four days later that the pot is for using the toilet, its actually more natural to squat down or be in squat position while pooping. It’s a fusion between a Western and an Indian toilet. I use the stool, preparing myself for the time, that sure will come, when I have to squat down into a dark and scary hole on the ground.
“Hot water?” I ask.
“Yes madam,” a small, skinny, dark boy says.
He has a particular look, I am unsure if he finds my short hair or height intimidating, but he seems almost scared. Not scared enough to not wait awkwardly around for a tip though. The bellboys leave us finally and I adventure to try out that hot water. It takes about five minutes to warm up, I wait patiently because it’s cold and I refuse to shower in cold water at this point in my trip, maybe tomorrow… I look around inspecting the bathroom, I find Latinos to be extremely cleaned people, my eyes search for filth. There’s none. It’s quite clean actually. Finally the water comes through, I let it run through my hair and body. I breath and relax. I am here, I am in India. This is it.
It’s okay to be scared really, this is a different part of the world, things work differently. All I have to prepare me are horror stories of gang rapes, extreme poverty mingled with wonder stories of beautiful temples and clothes… I am here for real stories of every day people, every day life. A couple of days later, I realize as I come back in the hotel room how much at home I feel already. There’s no fear left. I’ve taken the metro everywhere, and eaten in restaurants hidden in those narrow passageways with tall, narrow buildings, ridden rickshaws, negotiated prices and learned to be more assertive. I find the sales and service people in the street don’t bother me as much, one to three “No” and they get the point, poor women still follow me out of my hotel building for two blocks pointing at their babies and their mouths pleading for chapati.
Persistence. People in India are persistent, and that’s also okay. They have a living to make, a day to survive for many. I am happy they are persistent, it means they haven’t given up. Regardless of what they are being persistent about… Lesson number two in India is precision. Be precise about what you want, will pay for and when you expect it. Be precise about the way you tourist, or live here, confident in your walk to the metro or the way you refuse a service is received with much better understanding than when you look lost or scared or intimidated.
Only five days here and I walk down the street ignoring the hungry woman and child, walking past the man that pretends he only wants to say “good morning” but once you reciprocate he’ll start a monologue of services and request your attention, skip over the broken and pooped sidewalks, curiously watch while you walk as men and women brush their teeth and shower in communal faucets, secretly desiring to participate in the spiritual rituals that take place in hidden shrines, only to turn left at the end of the street and find a beautifully dressed woman walking your way, and when our eyes meet, she smiles and I reciprocate. We see one another as we are, no other connection needed. India is inevitable in its way, and as a guest you must compromise and enjoy.