If you’ve been to India you can imagine my surprise stepping off of the plane for the first time in the middle of New Delhi. I was all of 20 years old the first time I left my own country.
It was mid may and the air was steamy, heavy, damp. My clothes instantly clung to my body in the open-windowed terminal. My breathing became difficult in air that felt as though it carried a million more microscopic particles per breath.
By the time we hit the street I felt sluggish and slow, but the pace of New Delhi is fast and furious. It’s overwhelming to your senses those first few hours. Everything is going every which way with no semblance of order. The heat slows your ability to process. The smog chokes off the oxygen to your brain. The stench of fuel and garbage causes your eyes to water. The sounds are like a Vegas casino but without the continuity of gaming. Being my first time out of the country it felt like complete chaos.
We zigged and we zagged in our acquired rickshaw. It was white knuckle trip for sure. Several near death misses with ox carts, cows and taxi cabs left my nerves a little on the shaky side. Eventually we did arrive in Pahar Ganj, a cheap, little tourist hold out not too far off of Connaught Place. We checked into a hotel with air conditioning, shooed the various bugs away and got settled.
Over the next week we explored New Delhi on foot, by rickshaw and by bus. I felt as though I had learned more about the world in that one week than in the entire lifetime that had preceded it. One thing I kept coming back to was the pollution. It literally burned your nostrils. The fumes from the exhaust pipes of the hundreds of passing rickshaw, motorcycles and taxi cabs made the city almost unbearable, impossible to breath in. If that weren’t enough at the end of every block was a pile of rubbish sweltering in 100 degree temperatures. It was unreal.
Fast Forward Five Years
I’m a more seasoned traveler now. I don’t arrive in India or New Delhi by plane. I take the local bus system from Kathmandu, Nepal. That’s not the tourist bus system, it’s the local bus system. The difference is we are the only tourists we’ve seen for days and there are multiple connections along our route. As it were, the dialect changes rapidly and the reasonable command of Nepali we depended on the navigate the first part of the trip was pretty useless during the second half. We had some major detours, which looked something like this:
We were on the local bus system for the better part of a week, night and day. It was crowded, every bus but the last one left us squished in some corner nodding off in an up write position. When we saw the opportunity to have the whole back bench of the bus to ourselves for the last 36 hour leg we jumped at it, laid down, stretched out and made for sleep. It took us about 10 minutes to realize why everyone else opted to sit up front. Every bump launched anything in the back seat 2 feet in the air. It didn’t matter, we slept like babies between landings.
It was a cool, late spring morning just after dawn when we arrived at the New Delhi bus terminal torn and ragged. Our sense of accomplishment ran high as we joked quietly and drew silly pictures in each others soot covered faces. On foot and looking for a ride we set off once again for Pahar Ganj, a hotel with air conditioning and some much needed rest and relaxation.
It wasn’t until mid afternoon that the familiar sounds of New Delhi Chaos roused me from my sleep. I had an expectation as to what I would find outside now that the heat of the day had settled in. I went about locating my morning / late afternoon chai and along my walk through the bazaars I noticed something was markedly different. My nostrils didn’t burn and my breath was not heavy. The stench of heaping piles of garbage and rickshaw exhaust was faint under the aroma of spices, food, chai, and that pungent smell that is so indescribable, beautiful and quintessentially Indian.
I had to know what had changed and I went asking. Apparently, while I had been away the first lines of the New Delhi Subway system had come into operation. Delivered three years early and on budget Business Week described the accomplishment as nothing short of a miracle. I started to notice that rickshaws, taxi cabs and buses were wearing a CNG (compressed natural gas) badge. During my absence a mandate from the government required all public transit to utilize CNG technology. While riding one of these fancy new CNG busses I noticed that the trash removal crews were both removing garbage and sorting it for recycling.
In a short five years the city of New Delhi had underwent a monumental turn around. It was almost pleasurable to breath the air. I cant say enough about the government of Vajpayee and the changes that had taken place in New Delhi. It was exactly this: Nothing short of a miracle.
Indian Bazaars says
I just so much enjoyed reading the first half of your post – it made me smile – it is a piece written so well!! We were in Delhi a week ago, a trip made after many years and we thought the same too. Delhi had changed and it was so unusual to travel by the Metro – you knew as you sat there that just above the ground, there was still the hustle and bustle of Chandni Chowk but life was changing in this city.
It’s always nice to see you Indian Bazaars. I can’t say enough good things about Delhi. I really like the city and it’s a model for what is achievable. I’ve spent probably six weeks there total over 5 or 6 different visits and it has been wonderful to watch their progress. We have cities here in the states that could stand to learn a few things from Delhi. I’m glad to hear that you’ve had a similar experience and thank you for your kind words.
David Bennett from Quillcards says
We were in India for two months in February and March of 2010 and spent a week in Delhi.
I too notice how things have changed compared to 1993 when I was there last.
But in Old Delhi there are still people who spend their days waist deep in weeping rubbish tips in the city streets, searching for things to recycle.
And everything around Chandni Chowk is hanging off, burned, broken, or worn out, just like before.
I love the good-natured hive of industry that exists in the middle of this decrepitude. It shows what people will put up with when they have to.
Thanks for stopping by. Delhi as a whole definitely has a long way to go. I look forward to visiting again in the coming years to see how much further they have come. Modernization on the Indian subcontinent is a touchy issue, but credit is due where credit is due. The best thing we can do for anybody is celebrate their achievements that they might make more. Nice to have you here David.
David Bennett from Quillcards says
Yes, India has changed a lot. One other place we were in was Varanasi and just the other day I saw a photograph taken in the 1980s. All the rickshaws in the photo were horse-drawn.