New Delhi: Sensory Overload

The time has come – I have to write about India.  Despite my enormous lack of free time to do so, it’s on my mind like never before, a mental escape from this whirlwind of art and school.  Time to dive into memories.  If you were on the expedition and notice something I may have forgotten or remembered incorrectly, tell me… I don’t want to forget a thing.  

March 31st, 2011

Tap, tap.  Scraaaaatch.  Scrape.  Tap, tap… thunk. 

I awoke with a start, staring wildly around the room in momentary confusion.  The single sheet adorning my bed fluttered gently under the breeze of the fan and air conditioning, the soft light of dawn seeping from the edges of the curtained window- a window which someone, or something, seemed to be attempting to enter.  I scanned the dark room for Sam, wondering if she’d heard it too, but her bed lay empty, the white sheets crumpled to one side, the pillow still imprinted where she had slept.  A series of scraping noises continued to sound from behind the curtains.  I cautiously rose from the bed, tiptoeing across the warm hardwood floor to slip a few fingers between the curtains, peer through the cracks.  The round, yellow eye of a pigeon stared back, only inches away.  Both the bird and myself jumped in surprise, the pigeon clucking in panic and fluttering awkwardly off its perch into an alleyway of decaying yellow walls, barred windows, littered streets.  The sky glowed pink in the light of dawn, rows of birds lining windowsills and rooftops, a distant roar of traffic noise barely audible through the window.  The glass had already begun to emanate heat, an intimidating reminder of the world outside it.  Good morning, Delhi.

I found Sam in the bright landing outside our room, curled into the corner of a couch with her journal.  Despite the sleeplessness that had plagued her all night, her blue eyes sparkled with remarkable alertness and enthusiasm.  “I’m just bad at sleeping, it’s no big deal,” she cheerfully reassured me.  Sunlight bathed the room under a giant glass ceiling.  Birds soared through the morning sky above, landing and taking off again, their feet spread above us like starfish stuck to the walls of an aquarium.  We watched them, their moving shadows flitting across the walls and floor.

After some time absorbing the tranquility of early morning, Zach wandered in barefoot, wide-eyed with jet lag, taking a seat on the floor across from us.  We ordered breakfast and the heat intensified. The landing, feeling like an outdoor patio under the constant motion of birds and ambient noise of screeching, honking traffic, was filled with the echoing clinks of dishes and teacups, shiny breakfast trays balanced precariously upon a tiny coffee table.  Megan joined us soon afterwards, sleepy but ready to make the most of the day.  We sat crowded around our breakfast, exchanging the types of basic questions that total strangers do, sharing our food like close friends.  By the time we had finished, Jon had emerged from his hotel room, and everyone was ready to head into the chaos of New Delhi.  Knowing nothing about it, we got a map from the hotel receptionist, who vaguely circled some tourist attractions and pointed us in what may have been the right direction, and set out onto the street.

Emerging into the already blistering heat, we made our way to the metro, a sweeping train track towering over the busy street.  The road was alive with life and chaos: businessmen rushed between beautifully dressed women in colorful saris, armed guards and children.  Cars, rickshaws, bicycles and auto-rickshaws wove in and out of seemingly unimportant lanes, honking and screeching to abrupt stops.  Our arrival at the metro was one of immense confusion as we proceeded to be pushed aside by locals who actually knew what they were doing, hopelessly staring at our vague tourist map, unable to communicate with the ticket vendor.  Finally, when we couldn’t possibly be making more of a touristy scene, a young woman came to our rescue, providing clear instructions in excellent English.  Thank goodness for kind strangers!  After that, we had boarded the metro in no time.  Sam, Megan and I were directed to the women’s car, far more spacious than the mens’, full of elegant, sparkling Indian women in elaborate dress, who didn’t stare often and smiled kindly when they did.  A glance at the men’s compartment, however, revealed a sardine can full of stares.  We were thankful for the couple minutes of relative calm as the train sped through the heart of New Delhi, eventually stopping near the Parliament building.

Knowing neither where to go or where to begin, we shuffled out of the metro into the heat of the day, following a sidewalk along a large, official-looking road almost completely devoid of traffic.  Neatly manicured gardens and parks lined the street, filled with blossoming flowers and trees; ahead of us towered the intricate red walls of the Parliament Building.  Aside from the gardens and government structure, however, there didn’t seem to be much to see.  Instead, we turned towards the India Gate, a very official-looking monument that did very little for us besides attract an alarming amount of unwanted attention (or normal amount, perhaps, as we would later learn).  After Megan was seized and forcibly henna tattooed by a local henna vendor, we fled the touristy area as quickly as possible… and stood facing a 5-lane highway full of the most chaotic traffic patterns we had ever seen.  As I sit writing this nearly 3 months after the expedition itself, I must add that Sam and I still reminisce about “that time the boys made us cross that road” as the single most life-threatening moment of our entire experience in India.  I’d rather face a crevasse-filled glacier any day; that road was terrifying.  Safely on the other side, however, we found ourselves outside the National Museum of Modern Art, whose quiet, air-conditioned galleries were a welcome break from the sweltering heat.  Again, we were struck by how natural it seemed that we should all be experiencing this together, how it seemed we had knew each other well yet it had only been a day.

Suddenly hungry, our exit from the museum coincided fortuitously with the meeting of some friendly auto-rickshaw drivers.  While I had previously (and naively) vowed to myself to never set foot in one of those dangerously swerving contraptions, it was immediately obvious that missing out on the fun of auto-rickshaws would be missing an integral part of the entire Indian experience.  Hiring the drivers for the rest of the day at the reasonable price of about $2.25 each, we enthusiastically piled into the vehicles and entered the chaos of Delhi’s traffic systems.  From there the afternoon passed effortlessly at the hands of our experienced tour guides, who shuttled us first to eat lunch at the Lodi Gardens, then to see the gardens themselves, then to the place of Ghandi’s death, and finally to the largest Hindu temple in India.  Battling jet lag with the stimulation of non-stop activity, that day will likely go down in my personal history as the most action-packed day of sightseeing I will ever experience.

Later that night we congregated, exhausted, around the same tiny coffee table we’d had breakfast at.  Nighttime’s dark blue filtered down from the glass ceiling above, leaving us to find space on the floor by dim lamplight to meet some newly arrived members of our expedition.  Seth, a quiet, lanky Texan (recently turned 21), was joined by Andrew, a young schoolteacher from Ohio.  With them was Eleanor (who I always called Ellie), a bright-eyed young woman from Baltimore living as a yoga student in India.  As our attempts to convey the exhausting adventures of the day faded to tired mumbling, we retreated one by one to our rooms, resting up for the adventure ahead.


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