When in Delhi

I recently embarked on my very first trip to India to continue my work in language research. In Boston, I boarded the massive Delta plane with zero expectations and few preconceived notions. I was clueless and nervous, with a suitcase packed with (most importantly) Febreeze, Pepto, Tums, band-aids, peanut butter, beef jerky, fruit snacks, applesauce, apple juice, dried fruit, nuts, sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, makeup removing wipes, and every other personal hygiene product I could fit into my suitcase.

I expected India to be less than sanitary, but I didn’t expect my nostrils to be assaulted with the smell of smoke in my terminal, deep within the walls of the airport. It only worsened as we stepped out into 3AM Delhi, the sky a hazy orange with dust particles floating in midair and the look of a slow-burning fire on the horizon.

My own personal mission during my week in Delhi wasn’t only to complete my research—I knew I’d be able to do that. My single focus, my guiding principle so to speak, was to make it home without a single instance of Delhi Belly. For the first 24+ hours in Delhi, I didn’t leave my room except for team meetings. I hadn’t had a hot meal since my departing Delta flight from Boston days before, and I was living off of a combination of peanut butter and granola, combined with my suitcase apple juice, drank from my own plastic cups with my own plastic straws.

By day 3, I was absolutely dying for something other than food from my suitcase. Something about my prepackaged foods that had been sitting in my suitcase for days was no longer appetizing, and it was time to risk it all for something that had actually been cooked. As the week progressed, I ate a total of three foods from my hotel’s restaurant: garlic naan, plain pasta with garlic and oil, and French fries, a post-dial session tradition. I broke my own no-soda rule so that I could safely drink some caffeine, and I indulged in a glass of red wine every night. I figured the alcohol from the wine would kill any Delhi Belly bacteria, anyway.

During my time in India, I’m disappointed to report that I barely left my hotel…. but I will say that it’s surprising the snapshot of a culture that you can capture from a fifth-floor vantage point in the middle of a bustling city. From my hotel alone, I could see the gorgeous Kalka Mandir, the elegant Lotus Temple, Delhi’s fast-paced metro system, a packed outdoor shopping center, and a small shantytown. While I worked, I watched. I listened, and, whenever I got the chance, I asked the hoteliers and taxi drivers about their India.

Here’s what I learned. In India, there’s a clash of civilizations. There’s the booming population, with a growing workforce of 150 million. There’s a new middle class forming in a land of extreme rich and poor. There’s a push for technology and innovation, with an increase in education for millions of young Indians. However, India wasn’t—and isn’t—ready for this population explosion. They simply don’t have the infrastructure to support their growth, and you can see the strain of this unbridled expansion at every turn.

There’s constantly traffic, cows in the middle of the highway, mansions next to lean-tos, five-star hotels without clean water, and air so heavy with pollution that even the cleanest hotels were infiltrated by its dust, smoke, and fragrance. I actually forgot what clean air smelled like until I got home and smelled some of my clothes that I wore in India. I nearly gagged at the mix of strong perfumes and the now-familiar smell of pollution. Outside my window (my five-star window), every single morning I watched a young man emerge from his family’s tarp-covered home and sweep the nearby area with a leaf-covered branch, bending a full 90 degrees. I was fascinated by his determination to rid his home of the dust that permeates every corner of this city.

India traffic...literally 24 hours a day.

India traffic…literally 24 hours a day.

Here’s an illustration, in case you think I’m exaggerating about the air quality. After our second research session, we ate dinner outside as a group at the hotel’s main restaurant. When we ate outdoors, we were within the hotel’s high fortress-like walls, sitting fully covered by the building’s overhang. Anyway, that night I was bitten by at least 5 mosquitos. I wasn’t particularly worried about malaria, but these bites were painful and extremely itchy, so I decided to use my DEET wipes on any exposed skin (particularly the tops of my feet where I was assaulted by skeeters) before eating outside the next night. Thankfully, the DEET wipes worked and I wasn’t bitten once during dinner.

Afterwards and bite-free, I went back to my hotel room and showered before my redeye flight. I was getting dressed in my travel uniform of a t-shirt, yoga pants, and sneakers when I noticed: the tops of my feet were black. Not black like when you wear flip-flops to a concert—black like the inside of a fireplace after a fire. The wipes must have left a sticky residue on my feet that collected all of the debris from the air. It took me at least 5 wipes and another trip to the shower to wash India away.

The Indian people themselves were kind, gentle, considerate, and incredibly hospitable. The women were elegant, intelligent, and finding their way in this new Indian economy. The men were chivalrous, genuine, and incredibly aware of the changing world around them.

As a culture, as humans, they were nothing short of exceptional. But as a country, as a destination, India has some major work to do. India has forever been on my bucket list, with daydreams conjuring images of intricate saris, elephant rides, crowded bazaars, and white marble. The reality included the saris and plenty of crowds, but the bazaars made tourists into targets and the white marble was covered in dust.

India has been replaced by another destination or two on my list, but I haven’t given up on the country or the culture. Asthmatics and germaphobes, beware. Families and white-bread American tourists, take care. Culture-fanatics and history-buffs, good luck and bring Pepto and pepper spray.