Thursday, May 28, 2009

Marigolds and a tricycle: Delhi first impressions

When I arrived in Delhi last night a little before 8 PM the back-of-seat screens in the airplane said the outside air temperature was 37 C, or about 98 F. It is the height of the hot seasons here. The plane was filled with saris, salwar, turbans. I counted three other Caucasians, which was interesting because the "foreign passport holders" line was quite long. We all stumbled off the plane together, through security and an H1N1 check. I waited 45 minutes for my bag, which had been (thoughtfully, I guess) taken off the plane as a "priority" and placed to the side without my knowledge. 

"Trying to confuse you as pleasantly as possible--that's India," said Faith, an old friend I'm staying with here in Delhi. She didn't say this until an hour after I'd landed, though, when we had gotten into a cab that looked like it had been produced around 1968--all rusting navy body and rounded bumpers. I had emerged from the baggage claim to a forest of waving "WELCOME _____" name cards, but there were no blonde curls to be seen. I panicked: Faith and I hadn't set up a meeting plan because the airlines were jerking me around until only an hour before I left for the Hong Kong airport. What's more, I somehow also had neither her phone number nor her address. It was all my fears about arrival in India come to life, but I managed to hold my cool. I got some money; I borrowed a cab driver's cell phone and shamefacedly called the mother of a good friend of mine, who lives in Delhi. But before I had to slink, deeply embarassed, to her house for the night, I saw Faith waving her pale arms out one of the exits. She had sent me an e-mail, too late, telling me that you have to pay to greet guests inside the airport.  

We drove for a half hour through the hot, dusty night to south Delhi, "where all the film stars and politicians keep homes." Faith and her boyfriend, Alim, live there, in a one-room apartment with terrace and open kitchen, simple and small but comfortable. He prepared a late dinner and we drifted off to sleep to the hum of the air cooler, a machine that uses hay, water, and fans to cool the air in a room.

The walk to work this morning, an anti-AIDs/drugs NGO, was a revelation in itself. Everything was new. The women, almost every one in bright saris, taking a morning constitutional or collecting mud in baskets on their heads. The children, playing in the streets-- one particularly bright image a small boy, thin and lithe, on a dustry tricycle with a chain of marigolds around his neck. A cow, as big is our rickshaw, trotting between cars. A pony cart carrying farmers and produce into the city. 

We've spent the morning at the NGO office, drinking chai and trying to plan what has become a distressingly short trip here (what was originally planned between 25-30 days now has to be 18 because of my visa expiration.) For lunch we went upstairs to the rehab, where the patients (all men) greeted Faith genially or slept on their cots in the heat, and ate dahl and rice with our hands. (Okay, they gave me a spoon. One step at a time.) It's only 2 PM, but this morning has already been plenty of education. And this afternoon: Old Delhi.

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