I awoke from my twisted slumber to turn and see Mt Everest looming on the horizon, high above the clouds and cushioned by the Himalayas. It protruded majestically. It was one of the most stable and strong things I’ve ever seen. Even though it stood far in the distance, it took my breath away. There’s something so incredible about a mountain that stands firmly on the ground with its peak in the clouds. It had the perfect balance of light and shade. It was beautiful. As we neared Delhi I could barely make out the ground through the haze of pollution. It was like a painting washed in sepia. And the closer we got, the browner it became. It was like a mosaic. And I remember thinking how strange that India is the land of colour, and yet as we descended all I could see were browns and greys and dull green earthy tones. It had the wisdom of age. I could feel it before we even hit the ground.
I cleared customs. And as I approached the taxi bay and prepared for the chaos, I was pleasantly surprised. I expected to be hassled and pulled and pushed. Instead four men approached me. Between them they discussed who would take the fare and off I went. I was anxious. I won’t pretend otherwise. But as we bumped along and loud, bouncing Indian music blasted through my bones, I couldn’t help but smile. I was in India. I was finally in it.
We darted along. Weaving in between and around and behind, snaking and curving through incessant horns with blaring impatience. All I could taste was dust; dirt, smog and dust. I wondered how much of it I would consume in my time here. However much it would be, it would be too much.
As we pushed along I noticed there were no gaudy signs. No sleek modern lines. Just a raw and incredibly real – soul. It oozed from the earth, spilling through the cracks where people bathed and lazed and did what they do. They fed from it. It was their life support. These people had their feet planted firmly on the ground, with their heads high in the clouds. Just like Everest. My feet were clean. And soft. And barely weathered at all. And I hadn’t even come close to the clouds. I knew it was evident.
The driver made small talk. I decided he was a little shifty, but he seemed harmless enough. He nattered away as we drove. But it was in silence we pulled up behind a stream of traffic at a standstill. I sat in my little bubble of innocence trying to pretend like I knew where I was going, and what I was doing. Don’t fuck with me. Don’t fuck with me.
I looked outside and saw a woman washing her dishes in parkland, just a few metres away. She was thin and dressed plainly, but very beautiful. I looked at her. She looked at me. There was a moment. I smiled. She smiled. Then I noticed two young boys, playing behind her. Both were naked. Both were simply gorgeous. They ran to the car window waving, eyes wide and staring. I smiled and waved. As I did the older one began gesturing for food and signalling he was hungry. And as he did that, in that one split second, my bubble burst. A layer of my naivety was stripped back. His eyes were so close to mine. His hunger banged on the window and I felt it stab right through me. The taxi driver looked at me. I looked down. I knew he was checking my reaction. He smiled softly. I put my sunglasses back on. I tried to hide the tears. I shouldn’t be here! It makes me feel sick. Poverty. Physically ill. It makes me want to give everything I own away to help these people. It makes me feel like a fraud. It makes me feel guilty. It’s very confronting.
And I hid my tears as we drove along. It occurred to me this was going to challenge me in ways I hadn’t expected. I had been ready for battle with my guard up, guns blazing, ready to fire. But there was no need. My heart was already breaking. And no amount of fire, or guns, or guard, could save it.
As we approached the teeming markets of Karol Bagh my taxi driver pulled to the side of the road and said it would be best if I were to get a rickshaw from here. I looked at him with one eyebrow raised and firmly told him he would drive me all the way to my hotel. He kept scrambling for reasons why not. Again I told him firmly. He turned back around and continued to drive, cursing under his breath at me. There was a lot more horn honking after that. But I kept my energy strong and as we navigated back streets I started looking around trying to imagine myself walking those streets. It looked tough. I hoped I was up to it. Where were all the women? He finally found the hotel. He was pissed at me for making him take me all the way there. Tough shit. I thanked him and looked him in the eye. He was still pissed. I was just relieved to get in the doors.
As dinner-time came around I sauntered up to the ‘rooftop terrace’ which was just a rooftop really. But it was away. It was a haven. It was what I needed for that first night. With no free tables I sat with an older woman. She and two friends had come to India to celebrate their 70th birthdays. Seventy! She was fantastic. We chatted and shared a beer. She told me of her passport and money being stolen the day before. And the two Australians she had met at the embassy who had just been let out of prison in northern India. Two years for drug trafficking and kidnapping. A setup they’d said. She wasn’t so sure. But they’d offered her a room. The kindness of strangers. She laughed. India in a day had taught her great lessons in rediscovering a sense of humour, she said. She told some amazing stories. We ate the most delicious vegetarian curry and she gave me some tips for nearby restaurants and things to do. It was just what I needed to feel refreshed and ready to start exploring tomorrow. Fearful? Yes. Excited? Definitely. Ready? You bet.