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Delhi (India: Day One)

Started: 2010-03-11 09:13:43

Submitted: 2010-03-12 08:09:05

Visibility: World-readable

My plane landed at Indira Gandhi International Airport around 20:50 local time, nearly an hour earlier than the scheduled arrival at 21:45. When I stepped off the plane into the waiting jetway, it took ten steps for the hot, humid, subtropical Delhi night to hit me. I followed my fellow passengers into the terminal to immigration. The immigration officer glanced at my passport and landing card, found my visa, slid the front cover of my passport through the machine reader, stamped my passport, and let me into the country without saying a word.

I waited for what seemed like an eternity for my bag to arrive on baggage claim. With my bags in hand, I walked through the "nothing to declare" customs lane, handed my customs stub to the bored officer seated next to the door, and stepped out into the arrivals gate. I saw a long line of people with signs waiting for people to pick up, but my driver was supposed to be outside the terminal, having declined to pay the Rs. 50 entry fee. (An Indian rupee is worth a bit more than two cents on the exchange markets. Its local purchasing power is several times stronger, but the exchange rate means everything's much cheaper for me.) I surveyed the modest arrivals hall and found an ATM and got my first batch of rupees, then bought a bottle of water and a veg samosa to eat with my nightly dose of my anti-malaria medication. Confident I had finished my objectives inside the airport, I left through exit 2 into the outside world.

When contemplating my twelve-hour overnight layover at Delhi, I thought about staying at the airport, trying to sleep on the waiting chairs, or hunting down the retiring rooms that allegedly existed, but I decided I could have a much better night (thereby accelerating the process of getting used to the new time zone, which would be important for my short one-week stay) by getting a hotel for the night. The hotels close to the airport cost what I'd expect to pay for an airport hotel in the United States. Not only was that much more than I would pay at a budget hotel in the city, it was out of my trip's self-imposed per-diem. (I took the remains of my budget, divided it by the time I'll be in India, and came up with a rough daily budget.) I found the Hotel Marahaja Continental and exchanged e-mail with the hotel to make a reservation.

The hotel was to send a driver to pick me up at the airport at the appropriate time. When I emerged from the airport, into what looked a bit like an odd industrial zone thronged with people waiting to pick people up at the airport, I carefully scanned the signs for my name but found nothing. I saw a pair of stray dogs fighting over food in the street next to the benches where Indians were waiting for the people they were to pick up. I waited a bit to figure out my next move, then wandered around, tried a second pass through the meager line of signs, and gave up and called my hotel at the local pay phone. (This particular "pay phone" was manned by a human who let me dial and talk, then collected my payment.) The hotel said the driver should be there and helpfully informed me that he was wearing a turban. (This did narrow the search space by approximately one-half.) I headed back to the line and found a turbaned man holding a well-printed sign with my name. He led me back to his car, parked in short-term parking behind the buildings, and checked over his shoulder every few seconds to make sure I was still following.

We reached his car and headed out of the parking lot, which involved a long queue of cars waiting to pay for parking; my driver merged aggressively but we spent most of the time stopped and waiting. We drove past the exit where I met my driver and around the arrivals hall to the airport access road. I was glad I wasn't driving; traffic weaved and merged with abandon, and the road itself was potholed and occasionally overrun by piles of rock or sand for road improvements. We merged onto something of an expressway heading north into Delhi and passed the expensive airport hotels, which I was now wondering if I should have reserved instead. The expressway gave out and we continued into Delhi, past empty police roadblocks, people warming themselves at fires next to the street, road construction, and a myriad of rickshaws, bicycles, and other vehicles. Willy's comment that India uses all one's five senses came to mind; I felt the smoke and pollution burning my lungs; I heard car horns warning other drivers; I smelled the fires and exhaust; I saw the squalor of Delhi and its completely alien environment. (There wasn't much to taste just yet.) I reminded myself that if I hadn't wanted an Experience, with a capitol "E", I wouldn't have come to India, so I sat back and enjoyed the ride and the Experience.

The driver stopped in what looked like a tiny alley in front of the name of the hotel on a large vertical neon sign. There was a gaping hole in the street in front of the hotel steps, requiring me to navigate carefully around the side of the hole as I stepped into the lobby. I checked in and headed up to the third floor (not counting the ground floor on which I entered, another artifact of the Raj) to survey room candidates. I saw two rooms and picked the first room; it seemed a bit less scary and featured an actual bath tub, rather than a drain on the floor.

My first hotel room in Delhi
My first hotel room in Delhi

I unpacked what I needed to sleep and finally settled in around midnight, local time. I tried not to remind myself that it was really 11:30 that morning in Colorado, because I knew I needed the sleep.