The alarm went off at 6:20am.
By that point the few-days rain that cleansed the New York streets was gone – however, those last moments felt as if we were being purified and renewed for the adventure we were heading into. It was as if the universe was winking at us, whispering: “Come on you guys, shake this city out of your systems and go see the world with an open heart and refreshed from your overproduced lives.”
There we were. On our way to Delhi knowing there was no turning back and that we would come back from a life changing journey.
Twenty hours later, we arrived at the Indira Gandhi International Airport where Kapil- the driver from the volunteer program we signed up for – was holding a paper with our names. We also met Esther – a very nice catholic-Indian girl from Trinidad that’s volunteering for the next 2 weeks at the childcare program in the city.
After running errands at the airport (SIM card, rupees, bottled water) we drove to the town of Faridabad – one hour away from Delhi – passing sacred cows, rickshaws and a not-so-heavy traffic (for what I can remember, as I fell asleep for the majority of the ride).
Faridabad was meant to be our home from arrival until next Sunday as we will be taking part of an orientation week before flying up to the Himalayas where we will be volunteering with monks and Tibetan refugees (more on that later).
We were immediately challenged by our accommodations. It is a 3-story house, with lots of rooms and many beds in each one. Ours had 7, lined up one after the other with skinny hard mattresses. Matt was of course worried about his back (if you don’t know him, this is a theme.) Right outside our room there was a bed with a friendly old Indian man in his underwear chilling out and smiling every time we passed by. When we finally figured out the location of the bathroom, we learned we needed to cross another bedroom where an old Indian lady sleeps and watches Indian telenovelas.
We discovered even more rooms with even more characters and between the jet lag, exhaustion, culture shock and not knowing who to reach out to with questions or requests, a wave of panic came over us.
What are we doing here? We are 36 years old and suddenly sharing a room with 5 other people and surrounded by a bizarre living situation. Our panic was such that we started to reach out to people we know in the country to help us find a cheap/clean place to stay for the duration of orientation. We decided we would sleep there for the night and figure out what to do in the morning once hearing back from our contacts.
As we were getting ready for bed, there was a knock on the door. It was Sarita and she introduced herself as being in charge of orientation.
When she asked us the number of nights we would stay there, she noticed our discomfort and offered us another room – this one for 3 people and already looking better. We didn’t mean to be difficult, but for the first week it was a bit too much to handle, so we happily accepted that other room, invited Esther to stay with us and that’s where we are staying now.
After a good night sleep, we woke up refreshed and with a clear head. The house is growing on us and the people are very nice. There’s even a rooftop where we have breakfast and dinner and where we can see a little bit of the town while enjoying home made dishes prepared by an Indian guy called Mahib. He doesn’t speak much but is really friendly.
That first morning we had some Indian bread filled with chickpeas, onions and a cup of black tea. Then, it was time to go explore Delhi!
We headed to the closest metro station that was a 5-minute walk. When we approached the vending machine to buy the tokens (that are used as tickets) there was a group of about 10 young guys huddled around the kiosk pointing at the screen. We figured, “Hey, that’s nice, these compadres are buying tickets together.” But then, we realized as they were all stabbing at the screen one after another this was waiting in line in India.
Matt confidently said, “I got this,” and joined the group of young Indians – finger and all. Impressively, he managed to get us 3 tokens.
We headed to an area called Connaught Place which Sarita recommended. The middle of the area was called Central Park, funny enough. It made us feel at home.
Around the park there were shops, restaurants and cafes – some were chains and some local. I guess Sarita thought we’d like to do some shopping.
Since we were trying to fight the jet lag, we decided to sit for coffee. We found a nice coffee shop that seems to be like the “Starbucks” of Delhi as it is everywhere.
We ordered and sat down to plan our day.
There were two well-dressed men sitting on the table next to us. One of them started to make conversation with us. He had a pretty good English as he claimed to have spent four years in London living with his British girlfriend and working as a journalist for the Times of India – the Indian equivalent to the New York Times. We were impressed.
Then, he started giving us recommendations of places to go. He also mentioned there was going to be a big protest for Muslim rights the whole week so a lot of places would be closed. The other man didn’t speak a lot but he would participate from time to time.
After some conversation, they mentioned they were moving to a Starbucks nearby to use the WiFi, but that they would be happy to show us where the Tourist Office was, so we could get some ideas for things to do. That’s when it got weird. We’ve read and heard stories about scams where people take you to fake “Tourist Offices” that are actually Travel Agencies to try to get you sign up for things. We calmly and with a smile said “thank you” but that would go our own way.
The guys waited for us to leave and then they got up so we decided to wait at the cafe to make sure they left first. Once we gave it a bit of time, we headed down to the street and started walking towards a market we wanted to check out, until we realized these two guys were following us. What should we do? Should we get in a taxi? Should we confront them? Esther stopped us right there, as the anxiety was building “Guys, stop! Let’s get into the Radisson hotel that’s right here and collect our thoughts.” So we did. We entered the hotel and went straight to the lobby. We sat down, checked the Lonely Planet and decided we would cross Central Park to go to the official Tourist Office to get actual trustworthy recommendations and a map of the zone and then get some traditional Indian food at this famous place that was nearby.
When we arrived to the legitimate Tourist Office, it was closed ironically! We knew we needed to then rely on the guidebooks we brought and the recommendations from Sarita and the other volunteers.
When walking to the restaurant we were approached by so many people offering to take us to the Tourist Office, we pretty quickly became experts to push them away with a firm “No!” They leave you alone eventually. And that’s it. That’s what you do. There’s no need to panic, or run or get on the first plane back home. You simply need to show them you are confident and you know the game.
We had a nice meal at a famous restaurant called Hotel Saravana Bhavan. Hold on! This place looks familiar… After looking at the table mat that includes all their locations, of course they have a franchise in New York – one block away from the apartment I used to live in on the Upper West Side. Delhi was indeed giving us the welcome to the city!
The afternoon was filled with a nice walk around that same area, visiting some Tibetan street markets and taking some nice photos. This place is so photogenic! The streets are filled with interesting people and places.
We took the subway back to Faridabad, feeling accomplished we became street smart that quickly and happy to be calling this place home for the next week.
Lessons learned so far:
– You don’t need to fight for a metro token at the vending machine. After crossing the security check point at the station, there are some windows – and if you are lucky, they get in line over there! If not, you just embrace the same technique of trying to get your ticket somehow.
– The metro is reliable, very clean and efficient. The MTA in New York has a thing or two to learn from this one.
– Yes, it’s true. People approach you all the time trying to scam you or sell you stuff. Just say “No!” and keep walking.