Stepping onto the tile flooring of the airport- maybe I should rephrase that- being shoved forward onto the tile flooring of the airport, made me feel like I had landed on another planet and everything around me was just a dream. However, as I double-checked the sign on the arrival gate and read “Delhi,” reality swept over me and I moved on. Wandering for a few minutes, surrounded by hundreds of people who all seemed perfectly in their element and aggressively pressing on, I found my brother sprawled out in the corner near the exit, behind a plant. Clearly, he was comfortable making himself at home anywhere and as he waited for me to arrive a few hours after his plane landed, his backpack served him well as a pillow as he slept and cuddled his valuables. As chaotic and smelly as the atmosphere felt, we were ready to start our adventure in India, completely unaware of what was to come.
The extreme heat and unfamiliar odor captivated my brother and me as we went through the automatic doors of the arrival area and onto the busy street. Eagerly attempting to keep our upbeat rhythm and smiling faces, we joined the taxi line and waited for our journey to begin. We caught the attention of at least five men ready to hassle and hustle us. In that brief moment, no doubt about our abilities to get where we needed to go clouded our minds; we were travel savvy and ready for anything, for we had done this before, we had taken trains, plains, buses, and ferries without trouble in countries and cultures near and far, familiar and foreign. Excitedly hopping into the steaming taxi, we glanced at each other, our seemingly happy-go-lucky driver, Raj, and the chaotic world around us and knew that we had it in the bag. Calm and self-assured moments like these tend not to last very long, though, when you realize that you and your big brother happen to be the only two naïve individuals in the city of New Delhi on your side. The brief minute of confidence flashed by.
Then there was chaos.
Without warning, Raj #1 (we ended up having a few drivers named Raj) pressed the gas and the wobbly taxi jerked forward; off we went… in the wrong direction. Unfamiliar streets, caked with dust, crowded with as many people as animals- white ox, black cows, brown monkeys, speckled goats, and countless dogs, most stray and all hungry- and lined haphazardly with a combination of unsteady, crumbling structures and stately buildings, overwhelmed our minds and took over our sights. The continuous echoes of honking horns served as a disturbing soundtrack for the bumpy, nauseating ride from the airport and we quickly learned a new and essential skill: to drown out unwanted material produced by keen human senses- as our journey continued, we gained similar talents in regards to our sense of smell too.
Blinkers serve no purpose in India and neither do mirrors; to turn, change lanes, greet a person, scold another, or simply just to fit in, drivers constantly press down on the center of their wheel. The smell came from, well, everything. A mixture of body odor, feces, urine, and sometimes nothing (or everything) in particular, made the atmosphere reek. More often than not, there was a serious lack of proper ventilation, which happened to be true for our first taxi in this hectic region. The windows were broken.
We continued to take in the disturbing scenery as we rode. Our eyes fixed on the sides of the roads, slick and damp with the morning’s downpour, still hot enough to emit steam and covered with feces, stick-thin children, cots, banana stands, and monkeys, and also on the dangerously busy road, clogged with mopeds, recklessly driven and sometimes transporting a family of four. My still optimistic brother told our driver where we wanted to go: Hotel Grand Godwin. Raj had other plans. Our new “friend,” as he insisted on calling himself, however agreeable he may have seemed at the time, had zero intention of giving us the privilege of actually granting us our wishes, and took us for a nice little joy ride in a scolding-hot vehicle with a fixed meter. Stupid tourists. We would later find out that this was just the way things were done; the best way for you to succeed is to figure out what local is trying to screw with you the least, and go with them.
First, he told us the name of our hotel sounded unfamiliar and he would have to stop for directions. The tuk tuk- as the four-person, three-wheeled vehicles are called- stopped outside a storefront with a sign reading, “Government Tourism Office.” Skeptical that a tuk-tuk driver would not know how to get to the best-rated budget hotel on Agoda.com, we questioned his integrity. With a who-do-you-take-me-for puzzled look and a shooing of the hand, he quickly had us cooperating again; we rapidly assumed the roles of two naïve, first-world travelers, trusting too much and thinking too little.