After an awesome day splurging on the 5-star hotel in Bangkok, we packed up and went to sleep in our white fluffy bed to prepare for our 8am flight. I was a bundle of nerves as I tried to settle in for the night while I imagined us stepping off the plane in India into hoards of people trying to take advantage of us in one way or another. Concerns expressed to us by friends and family about including India in our travel itinerary were running through my head as was the constant media coverage regarding recent events in India, especially surrounding women. Don’t get me wrong, I was also excited to experience a new place but was trying to mentally prepare for the next 24 hours. John and I both had the same image in our heads about what to expect when we landed. We would get off the plane, immediately begin profusely sweating from the intense heat and find ourselves surrounded by thousands of people before we even got out of the airport terminal. We would struggle to stay together among the people and wild cows until we got to baggage claim where we would either learn that our bags were missing or half our belongings were stolen and then sadly exit the airport to encounter hundreds of tuk-tuk drivers pushing and shoving to get to us in a cloud of New Delhi Dust while we anxiously tried to avoid them, all the while holding our breath to avoid the putrid smell of the city we chose to add to our itinerary. We would then be scammed out of all our rupees before we could make it to PETE, the volunteer organization we would be working with for the first few days in India.
Ok, some of that was a slight exaggeration. I admit I didn’t expect to see cows inside the airport, but the crowds, the pushing and shoving, and the scams weighed heavy on my mind.
What really happened the day of April 25, 2014 is as follows. We awoke at 5am in our white fluffy bed and got dressed in our India attire. For me, that consisted of really loose pants that looked like a skirt and a white linen long sleeve shirt that fit quite loosely and covered my shoulders. For John, it was his usual attire although he made sure to wear pants since we heard pants are more appropriate than shorts for men in India. When we were all decked out, we strolled upstairs to grab our continental breakfast (that we could barely eat because we were both so full from being pigs the day before), and went downstairs to find a taxi waiting for us to take us to the Bangkok airport. We checked in and made it through security without a hitch and arrived at our gate to find that it was already time to get in line to board the plane (an hour ahead of departure). We cruised on in and got situated for a 4 hour flight to New Delhi. We sat next to a nice older couple from California who were returning to India to do a few weeks of traveling only a year after their first visit. They told us they loved India, shared some stories, and of course threw in a story about how sick they got last time they were there. We were given an odd and sketchy looking Indian chicken dish on board and decided there was no time like the present to dive into strange Indian food. The Californian couple refused the meal and ate their granola bars they brought from home. I can’t say we felt great after that meal, but at least we didn’t leave the plane with Delhi belly before we set foot in Delhi.
We landed on time, took a deep breath before exiting the plane, and set off on a mission to find PETE with as little trouble as possible. To our immense surprise, we departed the aircraft to find a nearly deserted airport. It was clean, modern, and no one was pushing us. I can’t say I’ve even been to an airport in the states that was this ridiculously quiet, especially at 11am. We looked at each other and started laughing, thinking, “ahh, this must be the calm before the storm”. We made our way to baggage claim, stopping at a nice food stand to buy a chocolate croissant. Of course John was ecstatic: “Chocolate croissants in India?!” We ate our snack in peace, went through customs and immigration where we held our breath as the officer checked our visa because we were sure after obtaining it about 4 months ago, something would be wrong. Nope, all was well and we crossed into India faster than any country we have been to yet. I was thinking, “hmm is this a joke? Why hasn’t anyone given us a hard time yet?”
Our bags were neatly sitting on a baggage cart waiting for us when we got to the baggage claim and we grabbed them and walked through customs without any problems. Now we would have to leave the comfort and security of the airport to try to find the metro to the slums of Delhi. Quite the chore for day 1 in India, we thought. We looked for exit sign and followed signs for the metro (all conveniently displayed in English) and went out into the world where we were greeted by one tuk-tuk driver, as opposed to hundreds. We told him we did not require his services because we were taking the metro to which he replied, “the metro is broken.” We laughed, said “nice try”, and continued to follow the metro signs as he chuckled a little too. These Indian scammers aren’t half as bad as we expected! We found the metro which seemed utterly deserted as well and approached the counter to try our hand at asking for a ticket to Patel Nagar, the stop we were told was closest to the volunteer organization. We were so happy when a really nice Indian guy, about our age, came up to us and explained what we needed to do in perfect English. We had to buy an airport express ticket and buy a new ticket when we got to the end of the express line. He told us how much we should pay, etc. and waited for us to get our tickets and walked with us to board the metro. What a nice man! He was the nicest, most helpful person we had met in months of traveling. We thanked him and got on the metro that was clean, air conditioned, and ridiculously modern. Where the heck are we?! Are we really in New Delhi?! We giggled the entire 20 minute journey at how nervous we (well, me) had been the day before and how this may have been the easiest arrival we have ever had into a country.
The next few steps did expose us to Indian life a bit more because we switched from the fancy express line to the regular metro line, which was, in fact, very crowded. We had to figure out how to exit, buy a new ticket, and board the next line. The crowds were still not nearly as bad as we expected and it was not a difficult process to figure out. We experienced the first of our Indian stares, which we would become quite accustomed to over the course of the next few weeks. After purchasing our ticket, we got onto our next metro train and cruised on down to Patel Nagar. I stayed with John but I could have taken the “women’s only” side of the train if I had felt uncomfortable. Stares from the men on the metro could have made me feel uneasy, but it was obvious they were interested in two foreigners (especially one with a massive beard) and not intending to do harm.
We got off the metro and were immediately enveloped by the hot, dusty air. We saw crazy traffic made up of auto rickshaws, bicycle tuk-tuks, cars, busses, and yes, cows. Trash was strewn about in the streets and we noticed a good deal of the trash was made up of mini plastic cups which we later found out were chai cups people get from little stands and then discard into the streets. Men were hawking loogies in every direction, homeless beggars were scattered in the mix, and the smells were intense. All our senses were on overload. Allowing ourselves only about 5 minutes to process these new observations, we then began to bargain with an autorickshaw driver to take us to a landmark: Subhash Jewelers. Within seconds, we had a crowd of six curious Indian men trying to figure out where exactly we wanted to go. Luckily, we found a man who knew the place and we were off. We picked up a nice Indian woman along the way and arrived unscathed. The volunteer location was actually walking distance from the metro, but we were simply following the instructions we were given from Shiva, the co-founder of the organization. After wandering around semi-aimlessly in the dusty streets (our instructions simply ended at, “Subhash Jewelers is your landmark”) while people gawked at us (tourists certainly do not frequent this area of New Delhi; i.e. the area directly outside the slums), we finally found a man who waved us upstairs to PETE.
We walked up several very interesting sets of concrete stairs, some of which were sprinkled with some sort of fecal matter, and entered the nice apartment/office to find John and Laxmi, two PETE employees, and Antoine and Lisa, two volunteers from France. Laxmi and John had to head out for the day, but we spent some time talking with Antoine and Lisa trying to understand what our role would be during the next few days in the slums. To our surprise, the tasks were less organized than we hoped, but we planned to dive right in the next day and go on a slum walk with Laxmi to learn the ropes. Antoine and Lisa told us where we could get some awesome chow mein that fed both of us for 50 cents, which we enjoyed before venturing out for our first walk around the neighborhood. We found a weekly market going on right below the flat, full of Indian women in beautiful saris. The market was unlike any markets in Southeast Asia and appeared to be the place where the locals shop for anything they need including food, shoes, clothes, bathroom rugs, and other home decor.
Once we made it through the markets, we stumbled upon a small grocery store and decided to buy some snacks. Up to this point, we had yet to contact our families to let them know we had arrived safely. So, we went across the street to a restaurant that advertised their free wifi. We bought some naan in exchange for the wifi password and John bravely decided to try a strange drink the man recommended. Based on his reaction, this had to be the worst drink John had ever tried. It was some sort of spicy juice with strange crunchy balls floating on top. Needless to say, I decided that I would pass on the drink. After writing a few emails, we returned to the flat, nearly getting lost in the maze of streets. We had the nice, air conditioned flat to ourselves because Shiva was in the mountains at the second volunteer location. After a day of taking it all in, we went to sleep in a shared twin bed looking forward to whatever tomorrow would bring when we would enter the slums for the first time.