Feb 2, 2010
Overcast and smoggy, about 70°F with a cool breeze
This city overwhelms me. Last night, we drove in gigantic vans from the airport to our hotel. There were no lanes; vehicles went whichever way they wanted, ignoring minor accidents and the importance of sane and safe driving. It felt like Mario Kart, except with millions of people and cars and no chances to come back after dying. That drive is Delhi. This was another early morning with a 6am prayer bell that blared for half an hour. I tried to go back to sleep, but the sound of a man vomiting, children screaming, dogs barking, and the omnipresent pigeons kept me up. At nine, Swaffie came into my room and told me that he had tried to wander this morning, got about five minutes into his walk, and realized that being alone was not safe. At ten, we met as a group and decided what to do: David recommended seeing the city center, Connaught Place, which he described as a Boston Commons-style hub with shopping and a lovely park. Someone said something about it being the Champs-Elysees of India.
Clay, Brenna, Matt, Liz, Zypy, Swaffie and I set out to find some lunch and see the city. Not ten feet from our hotel was a gigantic water buffalo. We walked past a building and it contained the chaos of hundreds of people packed into an altogether too small space. They were clapping and screaming, but it didn’t sound angry. People were sleeping on the sidewalks and alleyways near our hotel, which are all being chopped up for some unknown purpose. I mistakenly chose to wear flip flops and spent all day dodging the broken concrete, piles of human shit, and broken glass. The second anyone saw us, they would begin to talk to us. One child followed us for several blocks asking “Money? Money?” We were given instructions by the owner of the hotel to Connaught Place, and told be very careful when interacting with Delhi natives.
Walking there was a completely indescribable experience. Culture shock does not even touch the way I felt when I walked past a man peeing in an area near the bus stop designated as an “open air” public restroom. There is no way to safely cross a street. The cars, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, buses, and bikes never stop for pedestrians and will come within inches of you. The sidewalks were completely covered with people sleeping or selling things, or just standing, and there were areas on either side of the street for walking or for bicycle-powered rickshaws. The river of raw sewage in Koh Tao looked civilized in comparison to the ubiquitous puddles, streams, and piles of raw sewage here. We got to the outer circle of the city center, and stopped at a vegetarian restaurant. The food was quite delicious, and the owners seemed delighted to have seven Americans paying seven American-sized bills. I’ve been warned that restaurants often take old water bottles and refill them with when tap water in order to save money and charge people more, so I did a little experiment. Our water bottles had been sealed. When we finished the first one, it was whisked away in seconds, and passed back to the kitchen. The second water bottle I made sure to finish, then I crushed it a bit and ripped the seal off (the labels actually had instructions to crush the bottles once finished). Nobody touched it until the end of the meal.
After lunch, we walked into the inner circle of Connaught Place. While I wasn’t shocked, the description given by David was completely wrong. It was a gigantic circle of pseudo-western shopping and a huge but barren park in the middle. We began to walk around but soon realized that seven people were way too many to navigate smoothly. We split into groups, and Matt and I walked off. There was no a single item in any of the stores I could imagine myself buying and hauling all the way around the world for the next two and a half months. I really wanted a silk scarf to wear as a skirt or a bathing suit cover-up, and I walked into one store. The scarves were pretty, but not of quality silk, and the owner followed me around the whole time. He began to pull them out of packages. “Pretty, right? 750 rupee.” I had already made my decision not to buy them, and thanked him and tried to walk out of the store. Matt was getting antsy and I wasn’t that into the scarves. “Okay, okay!” he said. “200 rupee!” He pulled out five more. I extracted myself from the situation and walked outside.
The original group of seven had made plans to meet after an hour in the park, and probably thirty minutes had passed, so I asked Matt if maybe he wanted to just go sit in the park and wait. He proposed that we go a little further. On one of the side streets, there was a huge crowd of hundreds of people gathered for some unknown reason. We were curious, but decided it was better not to be the only white people in a large and anxious group of Indians. After passing the street, we didn’t see any more signs of this strange gathering. I wanted so badly to leave the crowded streets and go sit under a tree, but we had to push on because there was only one very inconvenient entrance to the park on the very other side of the inner circle. As we neared the entrance, a man began following Matt and I very closely. We walked a bit faster in order to escape him, and ended up directly in front of a shoe shiner. “Shoe shine?” He asked. Matt stopped walking (first mistake), and turned to refuse the offer (second mistake). I was still looking at the man who had been following us. We were about to walk away when out of the corner of my eye I saw something plop by Matt’s feet. The man who was following us had intentionally thrown human feces onto Matt’s shoe!
Matt hadn’t seen this, and shoe shiner immediately tapped him on the shoulder. “Very smelly. What did you step in?” he said, pointing to the gigantic pile of crap on the top of his sneaker. Matt looked down, completely stunned. The shiner grabbed Matt’s foot and began cleaning it. Even hopping on one foot, Matt tried desperately to tug away. Eventually, he gave in and was led over to the shoe shining station. I should have been more helpful and sympathetic, but I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to do anything useful. The shoe was cleaned, and the amiable shoe shiner offer Matt a great deal: “750 Rupee!” (seems to be the go-to price)Claiming he didn’t have this much cash on him, Matt pushed 50 Rupees (about a dollar) and a handful of Thai coins at the man, and together we hurried away from the huge audience that had been sharing my mirth.
Despite the humor, I was feeling very uncomfortable because we were attracting a lot of attention. I had taken care to be very low key. I was wearing long, loose pants and a long sleeved, high necked shirt. I noticed that there are very few women out, and if they are out, they are almost always with a significant other or a group of men. Wherever I went, everyone looked at me. The men would leer, and often follow me very closely, or try to talk to me. At one point, four men were following through the streets. I stopped to let them pass, and they stopped and sort of boxed Matt and me in. We slipped out, and tried unsuccessfully to walk away. We walked into the park, and they walked into the park. They followed us along the path, getting increasingly close. Eventually Matt made a very clever move: he stopped as if to make a turn, they preemptively turned to follow us, and we walked off in the other direction.
The park was filled with cuddling couples and hoards of single creeping men. Entrance was tightly monitored with a security guard and a metal detector. Matt and I would sit down, but there would always be a few guys who would come and sit near us, and occasionally bother us. At one point, an emissary from a large group of men came and sat down right next to me, while laughing uncontrollably with his friends. Finally, it was the meeting time but we couldn’t find any of the others. We found out later that they weren’t allowed inside the parks because they had cameras. As we waited, we noticed the absolutely coolest thing about the park: the gigantic pigeon-vultures (I don’t know what they’re called), with three or four foot wingspans. They would swoop and pick up gigantic sticks to build their gigantic nests in the hidden corners of Delhi. There were also tons and tons of normal pigeons, which were fed corn out of huge dishes just outside of the park. After about half an hour of waiting, we again began to attract too much attention just standing around. We walked back through the shitty streets and the beggars and the vendors and returned to our hotel to our deliciously protected bubble.
Later, around 8:30 pm
I once had a nightmare in which the sewage infrastructure in the United States broke down, and people began using the bathroom indiscriminately and everywhere. Sick and dying bodies were laying everywhere from all the illness that had spread because we had contaminated our water. For some reason, the inappropriate disposal of human waste just haunts me. When you walk outside of the hotel in Delhi, the smell of smoke from burning garbage and feces hits you immediately and I can’t believe there isn’t a better way.
All over the city, there are public service signs. “Make Delhi a Younger City! Exercise Daily!” “Keep Delhi Green and Clean!” The trash cans say “Use Me!” The bus stops say “Women are equal!” And a huge sign of a child scooping up poop and putting in the trash can. Maybe it is just the part of town we’re in, but I can’t help thinking that this problem is too big for helpful cartoons. These signs are useless without some sort of systemic change.
What scares me the most is that people can get used to this. India’s poverty rate is just over a quarter of the population. It’s not the world’s most impoverished nation by any measure. And though I now live in a place with clean water and excellent sanitation, the United States is not immune to disaster. Impoverished Indians and privileged Americans are identical save for the circumstances of birth. Recent events have indicated that we live on a precipice of privilege; one catastrophe and everything we hold up as examples of our superiority will be gone.
We are fragile.
Cities cannot be the answer. Crowding as many people as possible into as small a space as possible is not how we should live. Living gently does not mean living in high density so we can let the rest of the earth become overgrown and claim that is pristine. Dreams of high rise buildings and shiny public transportation as the future are fine so long as we can guarantee everyone an apartment with a view. But we can’t. When large numbers of people are concentrated in one place, the resources not readily available in that location must be shipped in, ensuring that there will always be large deficits of something. The necessity of buying the products in high demand but low supply will always ensure a rigid hierarchy in a highly populated area. Instead, there should be distributive living where small groups inhabit a space and use the resources of that particular area. This diversification of habitation will ensure there the types of unavailable resources throughout the world will be varied, and there won’t be one certain type of resource that needs to be shipped in large quantities.