Thursday, May 22, 2008

holy cows!

First off, I'm sorry for the lack of photos in this update. Thing is, for most of the past 24 hours I've been scared stiff and feeling more like a foreigner than I've ever felt in my life. Popping out a camera... it just wasn't an option.

Culture shock.

Such culture shock, it's unbelievable. I'm just catching my breath now. From the moment you touch down at Indira Gandhi International Airport, India slams you.

I've been to thirty-some countries (forty?). I think of myself as a confident traveler, a veteran. Nothing could have prepared me for this.

India is home to 1,130,000,000 people. About 13 million of them live in Delhi. Apparently they were all at the airport.

My plane touches down at 9pm. What a terrible time for a flight to land. 3am, fine, just spoon your backpack and catch a few nods in the airport, and attack the city at dawn. 5pm, no problem, plenty of hours before the grues come to get you. But 9pm? Awful. You won't get out of the airport 'til 10:30pm, for sure. So I'm arriving in a foreign city at 10:30pm without a place to sleep.

The airport is packed. I don't know if I've ever seen such a crowd. It was like a soccer riot. What is everyone doing at the airport?

I once saw a panel of foreign journalists talking about their views on America. One of the panel questions: What bothers you most about America's (mis)understandings of your country? I don't know why exactly, but I remember the Indian journalist's response well: "You know, a bill in congress was just criticized because it would 'only' help 10% of India. 10% of India! Do you realize that 10% of India is 130 million people [sic]? American's just don't understand how many people are in my country."

Walking out of the airport, pre-paid cab fare ticket in my hand, I thought of that quote. The airport wasn't any more packed than anything here. Delhi is bustling. It's unreal. Shoulder to shoulder, bumper to bumper, horns and smells and yells and sights all piling on top of each other in a messy massive mound. It was like the first scene in some dark sci-fi movie.

The cabbie asks where I'm going.
"New Delhi train station."
"Have hotel?"
"A friend's meeting me there. I'm staying with him."
"I know good hotel."
"I'm staying with my friend."

You don't tell a cabbie you're going to a budget backpacker area. You don't tell a cabbie you don't have a room yet. You don't tell a cabbie anything. They're all looking for kickbacks, taking you to places that will charge you double and split the kick with them. According to my map, Paharganj is a 5 minute walk from the train station, and it's a backpacker area. Gotta play defense.

The first car ride was vertigo. Black cab, black cars, black night. Bright lights and horns everywhere. It's like some morbid trickster, the Joker, switched the brakes and the horns on all the cars. Gotham City. Every time I thought "I would be slamming on the brakes now," HOOOOOOONK! Nonstop. Honking in the distance. People everywhere. Sometimes it was downright fun, ignoring lanes and bumping bumpers like MarioKart, but then out of the darkness between the lights, you'd see a guy on a bike in the highway, or a cow, and you think you're going to hit them, kill them. HOOOOONK HONK HONK. Suddenly it's very macabre again. So many people, and horns, and lights. Cows and bikes and people.

I get out at the train station, start walking west. How do you cross a street here? Rules mean nothing. There are no signs. I find a group of people peering out, not blinking, waiting for their move. I join them. We make it across the street one lane at a time, Frogger style. But scary. A couple of them just dashed. Ran for their lives. There are people everywhere. Some stare at me, unapologetic. Beggars tug on my sleeves. Touts are beelining, "Hey boss!" "Hello mister!" "Sir! Sir!" Ignore them, keep walking. One follows me for blocks. Blocks. "I know good place, sir. Where you from? Hot water, clean room." Keep going. The smells are dizzying, piled up. Where are the hotels?! They must be in these tiny alleys, squeezing past honking motos, rickshaws, cows. I find one. Rooms are 350 rupees. I offer 250. 300, fine. It's disgusting. Fine.

India just flattened me. I fell asleep in my clothes.

When I wake up, it's like a bad hangover. You feel gross. Did last night... was that for real? But the sun's up, and everyone feels better when it's light. It's raining! Thank Vishnu it's raining! It's like streets are being flushed. The streets are being flushed. The temperature drops degrees. Fewer people outdoors.

Still too scared to walk around, really. I duck into an internet cafe for an hour. 15 rupees.

Rupees? Are we serious? Maybe you noticed that video games are on my mind - grues, Frogger, MarioKart - and I think that's why. Rupees? The green ones are worth one, blue's 5, red's 20. Every video game uses either credits (futuristic), gold (dungeons and dragons style), or rupees. How pathetic is this! How uncultured! Rupees are the currency used by more people than dollars, pounds, euros, yen. And here I am, giggling like an idiot every time I have to pay for anything. Like I'm going to get out my brown pouch and hand little gems to the shopkeep. Damn you, Zelda.

Actually, when I was paying the 15 rupees (40 cents) for the internet cafe, it kinda put me in a good mood. The rain had stopped, the sun was shining a bit, there were fewer people in the street, and I'm paying rupees. For the first time, I think, I appreciated the novelty. I'm standing in an alley in Delhi. Don't think I stopped being scared - not at all - but at least some appreciation, some wonder, joined the party. That page in my travel journal is filled with "this is okay," "this is good," "good!" Good.

I admit I'm still a little jittery, but I'm hungry, and I'm going to go explore a bit. Aloo gooooobi, where aaaaare you?

I've never been anywhere like Delhi. It's unbelievable. For better or worse, it's unbelievable.


Anonymous said...

best writing yet.

Anonymous said...

great writing i really wanted to read on

from he who is now a semi-regular in the trib i love/i hate column

Anonymous said...

Fabulous blog. If it doesn't get better, just leave. You won't notice the $ in a year. Hope you're safe and well.


Jake Cooper said...

Aww, thanks guys. Feeling MUCH better, but also leaving Delhi. But India's growing on my like a beard.

I'll try to post today, but...

Being here is a little like being a jellyfish in a riptide. You can struggle to go this way or that a little, but the current takes you where the current takes you. No use getting all upset or exhausted. Just hang on to your money belt and flow.

Hopefully I'll find myself near another internet cafe soon enough, camera and connector thingy in hand.

Joshua said...

I meant to say that the writing was so good pictures would have detracted from my visualization.

Anonymous said...

Who's bbb?


Jake Cooper said...

That's Mrs. Berry.

I'm not sure exactly why 3 B's, though. Beth Berry, Bluff 873? 873 is their address, on Bluff. Or maybe the extra B is for BYOBB...

(Simpsons joke - don't worry about it, Mom.)

Anonymous said...

fyi, the third B is from her maiden name...