Delhi has quite possibly the most polluted air my lungs have ever inhaled. So it might seem strange for me to say that along the northern route I took in India, Delhi was the place that gave me a breath of fresh air. Metaphorically, of course.
The first sign that I might like Delhi came when I was talking to a fellow Kolkata wedding guest about where I’d be heading after the festivities were over. I mentioned that I planned to have a short stop in Delhi before flying out as I hadn’t heard very great things about the city. Someone overheard and chimed in. “I really like Delhi,” she told me with a gleam in her eyes. I recognized the gleam as the same sparkle I saw when people who love Mexico City told me about it before I went there last summer. It’s a look that says, “I’m in on the secret about how cool this city is, but I am sheepish about telling you because I know so many people hate it.” My destination intuition kicked in, but it was too late to change my schedule.
But I did get to spend a full day and a little more there. I felt more at ease on that day than I’d felt in the previous two weeks in India. Why did I like Delhi? Well it’s partly because of where I’d been before in India. The streets in Delhi were so much cleaner and even when they were dirty, they were not nearly as filthy as Kolkata and Varanasi. People stared so much less. No rickshaw drivers tried to rip me off.
In other words, Delhi was no bullshit. And less cow shit. People had a city edge about them. People were not necessarily friendly, but they were not unfriendly. I even felt a bit of compassion from time to time. Rickshaw drivers and people in the tourism industry didn’t put on a strained smile and an act for me or follow me down the street. It was just, “I want your money and you want to go somewhere. Here’s a reasonable price, let’s go.” When I walked around, I liked not being anyone special to the people of Delhi. Sometimes that’s all you really need.
Would I have liked Delhi if it were not for my previous experiences in the country? Would I have liked it if I’d spent more time there? I’m not entirely sure. But I did in the moment. Much to the disappointment of my skin and respiratory system, I often seem to enjoy crowded, smoggy cities that lean towards modernization but hold on tenaciously to their roots. These types of cities have a unique sense of possibility and the feeling that there is something for everyone if you’re willing to find it. And there are often entertaining idiosyncrasies about such cities; the sense that you never know what you might see happening in the middle of a street on any given day, but you know to always expect something that seems random to your eyes.
These types of cities are often great places to transition; to ease you into a country or help you take baby steps out so your reverse culture shock is not as profound. Delhi was a great place for this.
Both evenings at the hotel I stayed at, the hotel owner and his preteen son ate at the restaurant at the same time as me. They didn’t seem interested in conversation so I talked to the few other guests at the hotel if they were there or buried my head in my book. On the second night, they ate hurriedly and returned later with the son dressed up in white and on his way to somewhere fancy. He was carrying a box of some type of Indian dessert. As I was reading my book and finishing up my dinner, the kid approached me. He smiled kindly and plopped a gooey piece of whatever that was in his dessert box on my plate. It was just one of many small hospitable gestures from the hotel I stayed at where the staff all seemed to go above and beyond to make me feel welcome as a solo female traveler. He said goodbye with a namaste, and returned to his father. They still weren’t chatty with me, but as they lingered before heading off to their event, there was a discernible warmth that had been created by that exchange.
While I was still trying to reconcile overwhelming mixture of sights, sounds, smells and emotions I’d experienced as I prepared to leave India, that lovely little gesture as well as the realness of Delhi as a whole took away a some of the bitter and added a little more sweet.