I awake in bed, where I have spent roughly 16 of the last 24 hours of my own volition, and begin reading the graffiti on the dormitory walls. Of all the hostels I have visited that were basically prisons, this is the most prison-like. A light coat of primer hardly conceals creepy doodles of Mickey Mouse, ambiguous pleas for a feminist revolution in Spanish, and the tags of assorted German street artists. It is eight am, and most of the people in this oddly-pleasant, air-conditioned jail cell are still asleep. I head to the bathroom, and afterward declare I will no longer use it. I have no idea how to use the infamous water hose, which this part of the world employs in lieu of toilet paper, so I will go to the bathroom in some fancy hotel lobby, rather than suffer in my hostel’s bathroom and likely catch a host of fecal-borne diseases. Before I leave, I conceal my water bottle behind a curtain, for fear that someone will mistakenly use it and subject me to four days’ sentence in bed. In such close proximity to others, one must maintain a personal space, even if that space is only 16.9 ounces behind cheap linen drapes.
I spend that afternoon visiting Delhi’s Red Fort and Jamma Masjid, where three separate people try to scam me in the space of ten minutes. This, coupled with the heat, keeps me from straying too far from my safe hostel. As the four days pass, I mostly remain in bed, tapping keys, napping, and pouring myself into Duolingo the way some people throw themselves into horseracing, gambling, or methamphetamines. One day, I spend four hours switching between studying Spanish and Portuguese to the point that the two languages become one Iberian tongue that I cannot speak but can hear distinctly from a mile away, uttered from people, tuk-tuk tires, and rumbling air conditioners. I visit the same restaurant every night, because it has a water cooler out front that the chefs use for cooking. I am determined, despite a week-long sentence in the dirtiest city I have ever seen in my life, to avoid sickness. Especially the world-renowned “Delhi Belly.”
Reunited, and I Feel So Ill
I awake on my fourth day in Delhi, well before the alarm I set to the time my dad is supposed to fly in from Abu Dhabi. I am coughing, heaving, and aching like I have the flu, and I pop into the street to buy some Pulpy Orange, a beverage produced by Minute Maid that tasteless like if Tang had orange pulp added to it. It is the only readily-available beverage with a significant source of vitamin C, so I buy that and a bottle of water to soothe me. It does nothing.
My dad texts me regarding his descent into Delhi airport, and I meet him in Connaught Place for breakfast. I take him to Haldiram’s, a South Indian fast food chain with a menu of safe, hygienic, and delicious breakfast options. We are to check into a hotel for the next two nights before moving on, and I am ready to collapse while my dad wants to see Delhi. The hostel where I had been staying plans on closing for the next couple of days, unbeknownst to me, and so when I return to pick up my things the front door is locked and nobody is around. I knock for a few minutes until one of the nearby shopkeepers reaches out to the owner, who eventually emerges from a side entrance, apologizing and letting me inside to pick up my bag and lock, which has been forcibly removed from the cabinet and still contains a piece of metal used to keep the cabinet closed. In all the confusion I leave my shoes at the hostel, never to be returned. The next few days I will spend solely walking in sandals.
At the new hostel, I fall asleep as my dad does his sightseeing tour of Delhi by tuk-tuk. As I nap, I go through phases of hot and cold, and before long I am wearing my sweatshirt, jeans, and socks to try burning up whatever pathogen wreaks havoc inside me, which I am sure is malaria or dengue fever after a nervous scouring of the almighty Google. I am angry that I am getting sick now, as I had passed four days in bed where I could have fallen ill more conveniently. After a dinner at a hygienic local place near the Paharganj main bazaar, where I have been eating almost every night, I go back to bed with the hope of feeling better in the morning. My dad has paid 3,000 rupees for train tickets to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, and neither one of us wants to waste this money or our remaining time in India.
We wake early in the morning, and despite my sickness hardly alleviating at all I elect to press on and join my father to the Taj Mahal. I am certain, however, that the experience will cause me nothing but pain and I only join my father because I am concerned for his safety, and because I fully reserve the right to say “I told you so.” The main reasons I travel anywhere is for the people, and for the food. Monuments rarely interest me no matter how I try to understand them as accomplishments borne of human toil and the desire to build great things.
The train ride to Agra is, fortunately, air conditioned and the two of us have a sleeper car to ourselves. When we arrive, we brush off tuk-tuk drivers, searching instead for a restaurant. Few appear to be open. We come to a small neighborhood with only an ice cream stand open, and we let a driver approach us there--after a scoop of black currant—and take us to a rather pricey restaurant where he certainly received a small commission of our bill. Business as usual, I suppose.
After our meal, we get to the front gate of the Taj Mahal, after first walking to the incorrect one, and find even more scams, like illegitimate tour guides and exorbitant exchange rates. When we enter, my body is aching so I tell my father to make his rounds, taking pictures and seeing the various Taj Mahal exhibits, while I relax in the shade, on a bench. We follow the same route together when he returns, and then make our way to the exit to find cash and a cold drink.
The tuk-tuk drivers are in full force, swarming in every possible direction, calling to us for a fare. We have no money, but they refuse to accept that. We are followed all the way to the ATM, then we duck into a restaurant for a soda so as to wait out the escalating auto-rickshaw riot. When we emerge, we ask a driver, who is half asleep in the shade, if he will take us to the station for 150 rupees, and he obliges. At the station we slip through security and onto the platform, which has a samosa stand, bench space, and a single cow wandering around searching for the exit. He gets no assistance, but several passersby give him kisses. Our train arrives an hour late.
Express to Delhi
Aboard the express to Delhi, we are placed in a cabin with a young man who is just about to end his 30-hour train journey to Delhi with us. A university student, Viswanath is required to take his exams in the capital, which either means booking an expensive flight months in advance, or taking the train. He comes from a middle-class family, so taking the train is the only feasible option. He studies computers, a growing industry in India. Once he gets his degree, he hopes to land a job in the major tech hub of Bangalore, closer to his home in Andhra Pradesh. I get his number and friend him on LinkedIn. In a week I will message him and he will tell me that his exam was rescheduled, and so he had to travel the 30 hours back home, only to come back to Delhi on another train in September. I wish him the best of luck, whenever he finally gets to take his exam.
We also meet Vamsi, another man on the Delhi express, a paisano of Viswanath’s from Andhra Pradesh. Officially supposed to be sitting in coach, he is too chatty and social to stay where he is assigned. Not to mention, coach does not have air conditioning, so I cannot blame him for sneaking into the half-empty luxury car for some cool air after over a day of traveling halfway across India. Much of his family is in coach, including his grandmother who needs surgery in Delhi and has to make this terribly long trip, rife with delays, for her operation.
Inevitably, my MSNBC-junkie father stirs the pot by asking our new friends’ opinions about India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and a playful game of “whose head-of-state is more corrupt” ensues. Vamsi begins ranting about the state of education in his country, my dad parries with talk of who-knows-what, and as the volume increases I regret not buying popcorn before boarding the train. As someone who has, more than once, been silenced by dissenting parties after yelling my opinions on public transportation, I know what is coming.
Vamsi begins praising American education, and the fact that it is offered to all. In his country, a good education only comes with money and he believes Mr. Modi is to blame. As he is ranting, a well-groomed, light-skinned Delhiite from across the aisle makes a thousand “tsh-tsh-tsh” sounds, flailing his arms to get Vamsi’s attention. I try to stifle my laughter as now-yelling Vamsi rants, oblivious to the Delhi Man.
What happens next is fascinating. As the man across the aisle gets Vamsi’s attention, he begins scolding him, in Hindi, about respecting Modi and his leadership. If you do not know about the politics of Indian language and culture, allow me first to give you a small crash course--which I hope is not in anyway misguided by my outsider-ness--on this matter. Modi, the current PM, speaks Hindi, and comes from the largely Hindi-speaking North-Central part of the country. He can also speak the northern Indian language of Gujarati, and English which has become the lingua franca of India. This has come to be since the country literally has nearly a thousand indigenous languages, and while Modi can speak English, he prefers not to use it. Hindi and English are the only official languages of India, and so it is not uncommon to find people who can speak one of the two, but only have a high-school-foreign-language-level understanding of the other. Now back to our two main characters.
Vamsi is a native Telugu speaker, and can manage English incredibly well. In his part of south India, Telugu is widely spoken. However, a college education and the use of English to communicate with people who speak other Indian languages (most commonly Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, Hindi, and Banjara) has given him impressive English ability. That said, his Hindi ability is lacking as a South Indian, and while he can understand someone speaking to him in Hindi, he cannot speak it himself. The man across the aisle, similarly, can understand English, but struggles to speak it well.
In short, what we have are two people who can understand one another, but must communicate using two separate languages at once. As a linguaphile, I sit wide-eyed in rapt stillness. The reader should note that I do not speak Hindi, but that the language colloquially uses so many loan words from English that I can tell exactly what is going on in this argument at every major twist and turn. The man across the aisle disagrees with Vamsi, and implores him to shut up and respect his prime minister. Vamsi retreats, arguing he was only discussing the issues of education in the country and that the only reason corruption came up was because my father brought up Donald Trump. The man across the aisle does not see this as grounds to let Vamsi off the hook.
My short time in India has demonstrated many beautiful parts of that country, and much of that beauty stems from that nation’s diversity. As the world’s largest democracy, facilitated by speakers of hundreds of different languages spread across a billion people, challenges are inevitable. In any democracy, the minority often gets left behind, and India is a country of thousands of different ethnic, religious, lingual, and so many other potential minorities. Perhaps what I see is an oversimplification of the issue, but my time on the train back to Delhi revealed a minority being left behind, and a group of Modi supporters refusing to believe this is the case.
It is late in the evening when we arrive at New Delhi station. It is late, and though I have not grown tired of Indian food, we have an early-morning flight and would rather grab some fast food at McDonald’s and turn in early. In Delhi, where cattle wander the streets safely in the Hindu-majority city, McDonald’s does not serve cheeseburgers. Instead, they serve a variety of vegetarian sandwiches composed of paneer, corn, and potatoes, along with chicken McNuggets. I order the corn-and-cheese Maharaja Mac, the local iteration of the Big Mac, and I am in heaven. I have made two claims regarding Indian food in my life:
In the morning, we begin the trek back to the airport. We must first board the metro, then catch a bus to the domestic terminal, as we are first to fly to Kolkata then to Dhaka, Bangladesh. At the airport, I am asked for the credit card I used to book my flights, a procedure that I have never undergone at an airport. Unfortunately, the card number I used to purchase the ticket had been compromised back in Slovenia, and the card has been long-shredded. As a result, I have to offer another deposit which, up until the publication of this piece, has still yet to be returned to me. Who could have predicted that the biggest scam I would face would be in the airport, at the hand of a legitimate airline? If you come to lovely, beautiful, delicious India as a Westerner, leave the pearls at home and find something cheaper to clutch—like a stress ball—when everything goes wrong and you are shocked by the very Indianity of it all.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.