Returning to the Madness - Delhi, Round 2

delhi airport arrivals

Four years ago I’d have called it unlikely that I’d ever return to Delhi. Good riddance, I thought as I flew clear of the smoggy haze beneath. My only slight regret was missing the Taj Mahal (‘only’ a two hour drive away), but that could be ticked off on an in-and-out subsequent visit, were I to visit India again, before pressing onwards to nicer cities. 

And yet… here we go again. 

It’s Round 2 in Delhi. The Cricket World Cup tempted me back to the country, England had a game in Delhi at the perfect time, the Taj Mahal frustration (I was too sick to visit last time) lingered, and perhaps time, as it tends to, had softened the edges of my first stay in the capital. 


Second First Impressions

As noted in my piece after arriving in Georgia, we only have a finite window upon arriving at a new destination in which to make true observations. After that our mind sorts itself out and settles into even the wildest new circumstances into which we might have dropped it.

In that spirit, before the window draws closed, here are my (sort-of) initial thoughts on Delhi.  

Everyone Looks

If you’re white, you’re obviously not ‘blending in’ here. In some places though – Bangkok or Tokyo, for example – the locals basically just ignore you. Their eyes pass right over. 

That doesn’t happen in Delhi. Everyone looks. You can be walking down a street with hundreds of people around and the eyes of everyone coming the other way will still find yours. 

I’d completely forgotten this and felt more than a little self-conscious the first day or so. Funnily though, it’s actually something you get used to fairly quickly. There’s no malice in it, nor any real meaning. It should neither stroke nor dent your ego. You’re merely a curiosity, anywhere outside of the most touristic sites in the city. 


Your Reception

There are plenty of stereotypes out there about how Indians treat foreigners. I’d wager the two most common are that they’re very friendly and welcoming, and that they bother you constantly. 

You’ll note that the two are in conflict with each other. They also both happen to be true. 

In a country of over 1.2 billion people, it’s almost as if stereotypes are useless. Even more so than in other countries, in fact, thanks to India’s especially enormous internal cultural differences. 

Plenty of people come up to you for a chat. Plenty of people stare at you for a little longer than you’d like. Some people just want to introduce themselves and shake your hand. Some people pretty clearly dislike you, and will unabashedly talk about you to someone else. 

I can say Indians approach you more than other people. I can’t say they’re especially nicer or nastier than any other people. 


The Colours

If there’s one stereotype that is true, it’s that India is incredibly colourful. It’s not necessarily the first thing that strikes you upon arriving, but it might be the first nice thing. 

In Western countries we largely default to safe colours, and colour ‘schemes’. You can forget about that here. Look around and you’ll find every colour represented somewhere – in the vehicles, the buildings, and most definitely in the clothing. 

They’re not trying to be ‘colourful’; to ‘express’ themselves. It’s simply the way things are, and it’s all the more wonderful for that. 


The Madness

I’ve travelled plenty in Asia, whose cities are on a scale – not always necessarily of sheer size, but certainly of density – that dwarfs those in the West. Delhi is the loudest, busiest, most polluted city I’ve visited. Manila, Hanoi, Bangkok, Shanghai – you name it, I guarantee it pales in comparison. 

This is something I knew logically from my first visit. But you forget the sheer scale of the madness until you’re back in the thick of it. 

We all like to think of our own major cities as being big and loud and all the rest. Forget it. The busiest street in London or New York doesn’t come close to an average street in a Delhi suburb. The beeping of the horns is quite literally constant. Together with the engines of the hundreds and hundreds of cars and tuk-tuks and scooters surrounding you or passing at any one time it creates a cacophonous din. 

The foot traffic, by comparison, is relatively light in most of the city (this is a terrible city for pedestrians – few of the pavements outside of the immediate centre are actually walkable). Until, that is, you go to a pedestrian area – likely a market – in which case you’re immediately packed in tight and close. 


The Air

Not unrelated to the previous point, Delhi also happens to have the worst air quality I’ve experienced. 

That constant traffic is typically passing along streets not designed for such volume, and thick smog fills the roads and lingers over them. 

At least during the day you can’t tell how thick it is. At night the headlights are obscured through the haze and you realise full well what you’ve been breathing in. 

Then there’s the fact that Delhi is simply a dirty city. I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s unclean (though it certainly is). I mean that there’s a literal layer of dirt over everything – pavements, roads, vehicles, and anything else that happens to be outside. 

Add the two together and I’ve no idea how anyone lives past seventy. I’ve been here three days and each morning have woken up with nose and throat full of mucus and phlegm. A cough is also coming along nicely.  


The Scale of It

Delhi is massive. Absolutely enormously huge. 

My rule of thumb for how big a city actually feels is the Google Maps Test. At first glance every city looks pretty big on Google Maps. Spend a few days somewhere though, and run a few searches as you potter around, and you’ll soon gauge the true scale. 

Somewhere like Barcelona, you realise it’s not such a big place after all. Walking from A to B, even if they look far apart, will usually take around 30 minutes; perhaps 45 if you’re really going a distance. A metro trip might take 20 minutes.

Delhi is the opposite end of the scale. You can look at a map and think two places don’t really look so far apart. Then you check and it’d take you an hour and a half to walk. If two places look like they’re literally right next to each other, that’s probably half an hour. 

Describing a city as ‘sprawling’ is so common as to be basically meaningless. But it’s more apt to some places than others. A city can be very big, but have lots of distinct areas; a number of mini ‘centres’. Others just go on and on and on with almost all of it looking much like the rest. Delhi very much falls into the latter category. 



modi poster in india

Modi is everywhere here. He’s on almost every bus stop, massive billboards beside the highways, and always grey-bearded and bespectacled with an almost identical fatherly smile. 

It’s Propaganda 101, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it in a democratic country. My thoughts in fact went straight to the Stalin Museum, which I visited recently

In short, and to put it delicately, Modi seems like he’s settling in for the long haul.


Looking Ahead

We all have utterly unique experiences in every place we visit. Two people can go to the same city and one person’s heaven will be another’s hell. Unless you’re a professional travel blogger, of course, in which case every place is heaven. 

As the title suggests, these are very much my own observations, with even less of a grounding in fact than most of my writing. I’ll be back on-and-off throughout this trip with more thoughts on actually new places; entire new states, in fact, which – in India – almost count as different countries. Stay tuned, and bear with me, dear reader. 

My new novel – What Money Can’t Buy – is out now on Amazon. It’s available in both eBook and paperback formats, and you can find it here in the UK, here in the US, or on your own local Amazon site.

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