If you ever pass through India one day and decide to try to visit a few places on the way to somewhere else, know that the airport will be your favorite place in the country. Not when you land, mind you, no I’ve seen plenty of airports and this one is really no different than those all over. But when you leave, that’s when you’ll cherish the airport for the oasis that it is; a welcome calm in a sea of chaos. There is no better cure for the common annoyances of less than helpful airline employees and handsy TSA agents than a few days in Delhi. Add in some jet lag and you’ll find yourself dropping to your knees to kiss the ground of Terminal 1 and its sweet, sweet air conditioned facilities with promises of elsewhere. Sure, you’ll probably have to get past the man who will interrupt your check in process because he is ready to be checked in and what is a line anyways? It’s ok, he’ll tell you dismissively with a wave when you try to reclaim your position at the counter. And you might have an unsettled feeling when a different man cuts to the front of the security line and refuses to let the agents inspect his suitcase because he is in a hurry. But, at the end of the day, it’s worth it because you get to leave and the man with the suitcase isn’t on your flight. So, with the same nuanced perspective of someone dropped into the middle of Times Square and asked to reflect on the United States, I’d say if you want to enjoy India you should probably stay longer than one full day bookended by flights into and out of the country. Alternatively, you could always just read Eat, Pray, Love.
* * *
I had landed in Delhi after 16 hours of traveling. Following a quick stamp in my passport I found my way outside where a man named Birender was waiting for me with a car that would take us into the center of the city. To those that find New York an overwhelming hustle and bustle of people, Delhi is twice as populous as New York City with 16 million people and is one of the most densely populated cities in the world with over 29,000 people per square mile. I was tired getting into the car, but found myself wide awake after being acquainted with the highways of India. Lane markers suggested a two lane highway, yet the road was three cars across. The middle lane was shared by vehicles driving full speed towards one another, weaving in and out to dodge imminent collisions; the outer lanes shared by a committee of cars, tuk tuks, bicyclists, pedestrians and animals. Car horns sounded continuously in the background, not out of frustration but as an audible record of your position on the road as one can only see so much at once. The highways of India were a delicate orchestra of movement and sound with zero room for error; a fact that no doubt contributes to the road fatality per motor vehicle being over ten times as high in India as it is in the United States.
“How long are you spending in India?” Birender asked from the front seat as we stopped at a red light. The truth was, my motivation for my month long trip ahead was to visit Bhutan and you could only enter the country from a few places, India among them. I thought I could check off the Taj Mahal on my way to the main destination. Still, I felt a little foolish for telling people I would only be spending one full day in India. I responded with a less than truthful “a few days,” as a boy came and pressed his face on my window hawking a toy airplane. I shook my head no and he knocked on the window and offered me a small Indian flag instead. I declined again and he frowned as he brought his hand to his mouth gesturing an eating motion before moving to the next car.
A few days were not enough in Birender’s mind and he wanted an explanation. I laid out my plan to get in as much as I could during a full-day tour starting first thing tomorrow and how I had a longer trip to Bhutan that I had hoped would explain the long flight over for such a short stay. Birender was not appeased, but rather quite confused that I was more interested in “seeing a bunch of hills” than a country with so much culture and achievement. I claimed to lament the fact that I didn’t have more time here, but was quietly beginning to curse the lack of alternative entry points to Bhutan.
We arrived at my hotel a short time later. It was located in Connaught Place, a series of three ever larger, circular roadways that surrounded a park in the center. It formerly headquartered the British Raj and is now home to some of the nicer shops and businesses in the city. After checking in, I decided I would venture out and explore the area. My hotel opens to the innermost ring, and it was swarming with people. Before taking ten steps from the building, I was joined by a young man asking to shine my shoes.
“No, thank you.”
“Only 20 rupees, sir.”
The kid looked in his early to late teens and he continued walking with me, taking a couple of seconds between his selling points to see if I had changed my mind. “My bag, it is the same color as your shoes… I’ll shine them nice… Sir… Just 20 rupees, sir… Good price… Brand new.”
Growing inpatient, I said no again and continued walking. He grabbed my arm and pulled on it with one last, “please sir” before leaving. I continued walking for another 15 feet before being joined by another man.
“You won’t walk alone for long here,” the man said, giving voice to a conclusion I was quickly arriving at on my own. He asked where I was from, and what I was looking for, recommending I go to a market down the road for authentic Indian goods. “You can find the stores around here anywhere.” He was right. I had already seen an Adidas store, pizza shops and coffee chains. I thanked him and asked how to get to the center of Connaught Place to visit the park. He pointed me to a gate that had no clear pedestrian path across the busy roadway. With no breaks in the traffic, I worked my way to the middle of a group of people walking across and hoped that the protective layer of locals would stop the oncoming traffic.
A single metal detector greeted visitors at the entrance of the park. In 2008, terrorists had targeted Delhi with a series of synchronized blasts. Two of the five explosions occurred in Connaught Place and two additional devices were defused in the area. One bomb was in the park, while the others were hidden in garbage cans nearby. As a result, all trash bins were removed and the metal detector was installed. As I entered, there was no place for your personal items as one would expect, so I continued through with my phone and camera as the alarm sounded. The lady sitting behind the metal detector looked at me with a blank stare and I slowly made my way into the park without any questions.
I wasn’t overly impressed with the park, a side effect of being spoiled with a few famous parks back home. However, I did find a few moments to myself as I made my way around the grounds. The solace was short lived as I was joined by another young man on my way out. After learning that I was from the U.S., he stated “Obama, Michael Jordan,” a Chicago-centric list of famous Americans that he thought I would enjoy. This was a common refrain of locals when discovering I was an American. It was always Obama, and then one or two other famous Americans. That was it, no real follow up. I could never figure out a good response, which in my mind should be a leading objective of your intro when looking to develop an open conversation with the man you are trying to swindle. I would like to think my first impulse to an Indian tourist in the States wouldn’t be to just say the first famous Indian I can think of (“Ghandi!”), but if it is I’ll remind myself that to do so only promotes uncomfortable eye contact and nervous laughter. The man who had joined me recommended the same market as my previous walking companion. He insisted I follow him to a tuk tuk and claimed to negotiate a fair price with the driver to take me there and back. I had my doubts about the fairness of the negotiated price but decided to try my luck at the market anyways.
The tuk tuk follows the same rules of the road that I had been introduced to on the way in, only without the comfort of a steel cage protecting you from the outside world. Not only is it more vulnerable to passing cars, you are also in an open air cab where the beggars and hawkers have full access to your person without the need to tap on the window. It appeared that the word “no” had little meaning in India, and I quickly became resigned to the fact that I would have to sit there as I was tapped and pulled on at every stop.
The market was located about ten minutes from my hotel off one of the side streets. I was expecting an open air market, but found a three-story building with an armed guard out front. He slowly opened a large wooden door for me as I entered into a dark room filled with rugs. An older gentleman welcomed me while a younger man stood quietly behind him. I was offered a seat and was presented rug after rug, the younger man silent as he pulled them down and carefully laid them across the floor. The elder gentleman described the process of creating them to me in great detail. I feigned interest for a short time while I enjoyed the cool air from the overhead fan. After what I thought was a polite amount of time, I asked if the only thing in the market was rugs. The question was ignored, more rugs were presented and an unrequested, one-sided discussion about price began.
“These would make a great gift for your wife, your girlfriend, your mother. Something for you. The front room. Will be an excellent conversation piece.”
“It’s just rugs here, then?” I asked again.
“This size is around $300. Feel it.” I reached down and felt the rug. “The softness, its texture. You will not find this anywhere else in the world. For you, $275.”
“I’m not going to be buying a rug, unfortunately.”
“If you are paying with cash, we have more room to negotiate.”
I stood up, thanked him and asked again if there were other items for sale. He led me to the next room, filled with jewelry. A new gentleman greeted me there and we began another tortured song and dance. There were eleven rooms, each filled with increasingly unlikely items for purchase. Jewelry led to casual clothing which led to paintings which led to statues and so on. Each room had a man in charge leading the discussions and at least one assistant to fetch the merchandise. Each room culminated in a desperate negotiation between the seller and himself as the absurdly high original price was slashed further and further “just for me.” In one room, I was able to escape by offering a possible return the following day. The man gave me his card and asked for mine in return. He then clarified he meant my credit card with that laugh that says “I’m joking, but maybe I’m not, and you may never get out of this place.”
Time has a way of losing its normal rhythm in periods of deep anguish. I saw the sun again after what my watch said was a couple of hours, hardly an accurate representation of the experience that I had just been through. My tuk tuk driver was still waiting for me outside. Seeing that I emerged empty handed, he suggested a different market to try. I declined without hesitation but, nevertheless, found myself sitting in front of a new market five minutes later. Perhaps my look conveyed more than my words could, as he proceeded on to my hotel after glancing back at me. Once inside, I passed on what seemed to be a risky gamble at the hotel buffet and grabbed a meal bar from my backpack before calling it a night.
* * *
I received a call from the front desk at 6:00am letting me know my ride was here for the day. I ventured downstairs and asked the man sitting on the couch if he was my driver. I guessed from the look on his face that I had insulted the man who would be my guide by thinking he was a lowly driver. He asked me to call him JP. He had a beginner’s beer gut and a diamond stud in each ear. JP gave his background with great pride, explaining that he carried on the tradition of his royal heritage for 16 generations by working in holistic medicine, astrology and the ministry of tourism since its inception.
“Is it REE-an or Ryan?” he inquired.
I answered with Ryan, yet would be called REE-an the entire day. JP naturally talked loudly and the over emphasis on the REE was a seemingly small irritant that would turn into nails on a chalkboard by the end of the day.
JP was pro-India to the point of blatant disregard for objectivity. Driving through thick haze that blocked out the sun, a phenomenon that leads one’s iPhone weather app to state “smoke” where one would normally see “partly cloudy,” or “snow,” I asked him if it was always this hazy. JP insisted that this was not due to pollution but rather common fog or mist. It was unlike any fog or mist I had ever seen.
About 30 minutes later, JP looked up from the Times of India newspaper he was reading. I was sitting behind him and could see Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton staring back at me from the paper. They had both had big nights on Super Tuesday and JP wanted me to explain the phenomenon that was Donald Trump. He had never heard of him and was curious on his positions. I claimed that, yes, he had been winning but only in a race for one party’s nomination, something that he surely would not actually win and that he was, for lack of a better term, a joke. This was when I thought it was more of a slapstick comedy joke and less of a sick and twisted Farrelly brothers joke. He asked for an example of what I meant and I talked about the first thing that came to mind, his proposed ban on Muslim immigration.
JP grew quiet for a few minutes and then asked me if Americans think Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis were the same. This seemed to be a dangerously loaded question, so I paused before answering.
“I’m not sure I could visually tell the difference between the three, but obviously most Americans know there is a difference. I actually don’t know much about Bangladesh, but I know Pakistan and India are enemies.”
JP pondered my response for a moment before replying, “Do you know why Muslims behead people, REE-an?”
I could think of very few other topics that I wanted to be discussing, but I had no choice in the matter. I was treated to a ten minute lecture about JP’s thoughts on jihad and the four levels of paradise and how a country can’t survive with a Muslim population over 20%. I caught the driver’s eye in the rearview mirror around minute three and couldn’t tell if he was equally uncomfortable with the sudden shift of conversation or if he was confirming that dark part of my brain that was convinced I was in the act of being kidnapped. Throughout his rant, JP was getting visibly more agitated, at one point demanding I move behind the driver so he could see me better before finally concluding with a pseudo apology conditioned with his assertion that I needed to hear a more truthful, less sugarcoated version of the religion. I looked at my watch and noted that there was only three and a half hours to go before we arrived in Agra. JP was quiet for a minute before looking out of the window and saying “beautiful country isn’t it, REE-an?”
We arrived at the Taj Mahal around 10:00am. Cars were forced to park about 100 yards from the entrance and there were camels and shuttles that would take you the short distance for a price. JP directed us to the camel ride. It felt like a cheap carnival attraction; a slow, bumpy two-minute ride to the ticket counter, people casually walking past us on both sides of the path. At the end, the driver of the camel turned around and stared at me as he rubbed his two fingers and thumb together unnecessarily close to my face to request a tip. It was a gesture I would see time and again throughout the day. It would follow a demonstration of stonecutting when a worker called me over and gave me a small unused stone. “A gift for you,” he said while rubbing his fingers together for cash. Later, as we left a mosque that required us to remove our shoes, a man stood beside our shoes, untouched from where we had left them. His hand outstretched, he said “for protection of your shoes.” By that point, I was annoyed with both JP and the constant barrage of tips, so I pointed towards JP to let the man know where to find his rupees.
Outside of the gates to the Taj Mahal, JP directed me to wait by a tree while he purchased our tickets. During that time a young man with a camera came up to me. “Where are you from? Let me take your picture.” I told him no and then heard his camera click. “Look at this great shot.” I was standing in front of a tree outside of the entrance to the Taj Mahal. It was a terrible shot. “I go with you inside and take professional photo. Good price.” I didn’t acknowledge him and he returned to a group of about ten other people with cameras. Another man beside him lifted his iPhone, pointed it at me and took another picture.
The security at the Taj Mahal was a step above the park. Armed guards patted us down as we went through metal detectors. A guard found my chewing gum and asked me to remove it. I took it out and heard JP’s grating voice behind me, “REE-an, I told you no edibles.” The guards seemed overly concerned about a pack of gum and were asking me questions I couldn’t understand. I tried to throw it away, but was stopped. JP took it and started discussing the matter with the guards. I would find out that they were arguing whether I should have to rent a locker and store it until we came out. For all of his faults, JP was able to get us out of the chewing gum jam successfully and we made our way through the gate to the Taj Mahal.
It had been about 24 hours since I arrived in the country and to this point there was very little that I could claim to have enjoyed. My senses had been overwhelmed with extreme overcrowding, shocking levels of filth and aggressive societal norms. It’s a lot to take in. The contrast of walking through the gateway and seeing the sprawling gardens with the immaculate white dome of the Taj Mahal in the distance was incredible. And it was this moment that really summed up my visit in a nutshell. India is a country of extreme contrast and hierarchy. An $800 million monument neatly separated by gates from a city in poverty; a city that, in turn, provided a stark contrast of its own to those in the slums. It’s a country that can leave you in awe of both its beauty and its ugliness. True to a degree anywhere, to be sure, but never have I seen the lines drawn more dramatically than I did in India.
JP was himself a man of contrasts. He was someone who had preached against the evils of Islam on the ride to Agra and casually claimed that Muslims were the only people living in slums, but gushed about the beauty of the jewel of Muslim art that was the Taj Mahal. He also spoke to the incredible influences that Muslim leaders had throughout the country’s history during our tour. He would boast about his family’s position in society while mocking those that he had encouraged me to generously tip not long before.
JP and I continued our day tour together as he ensured no photo op was missed, shooing away locals trying to get photos of their own. “Here, REE-an, sit where Princess Diana sat in front of the Taj Mahal,” he said pushing away the man who had snapped my picture earlier and a guest he had successfully conned. After leaving the Taj Mahal, JP and I strolled through the grounds of the Agra Fort as he told me of its importance under the Mughal dynasty. We made our away to the Ghost City of Fatehpur Sikri and took in its architectural grandeur on the outskirts of the city. It was here that I was asked by multiple strangers, appearing to be Indian, to take pictures with them. JP explained that being able to visit places within their own country that drew tourists from around the world was a status symbol in its own right and the picture would offer proof that they had shared the space with foreigners to their neighbors.
It was a long day with JP. While he was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of the country and the sites we would see, he was also loud, obnoxious and demeaning. He would drown out other guides with the volume of his voice and physically move people out of our way as we visited landmarks. He didn’t seem to notice the constant looks of shock and repulsion that those around us would give both him and me, but I did, and it was an uncomfortable association to be grouped with him. It would be a tough day if just for JP, but there was also a heavy sadness for the general human condition in India that is hard to forget as you drive from one beautiful structure to another that made the day all the more difficult. On the way back to Delhi that evening, I was grateful for the opportunity to have visited the country, but felt no desire to stay longer. In fact, I shuddered when I remembered that I considered staying a few more days to squeeze in some extra sightseeing. I eagerly awaited the next morning and my departure.
* * *
So there I found myself in Terminal 1, after a very short visit in India, taking in the small wonders of the airport. There was no more precious sound than the automated voice whispering sweet nothings from the overhead intercom to the airport at large, but mainly directed to me, that yes, it was true, I would be going far away today. This was as close as I came to a spiritual moment in India. I hear that’s a common experience for people that visit the country, but if you’re passing through on your way to somewhere else and book a day tour with a bigot, you likely won’t find one. I sat at my gate waiting for my flight to Bagdogdra, a town in the Bengal jungle of northeast India where I would be driven to the border of Bhutan, when a large group of red-robed monks rolled their luggage over to my row of seats in the waiting area. One of them sported a pair of Mario Batali’s signature orange crocs. He gave me an exaggerated nod with a big smile that didn’t leave his face until he sat in the seat across from me. He rolled his suitcase closer to him and pulled out an iPhone, lifting it up at arm’s length. His smile reappeared just before snapping a selfie. I laughed to myself and could think of no better way to begin a journey into a country known for its gross domestic happiness.