Dry and monstrously big, India’s capital city houses over twelve million people who, despite sprawling over 570 square miles at the apex of the Indo-Gangetic plain, still seem stacked on top of one another. The New Delhi train depot served as my introduction to the city and my most uncomfortable experience in India: thousands of people milling around the dusty platforms, spitting phlegm despite signs discouraging the practice (hello H1N1/SARS/bird flu/regular flu!), kids running around in tiny t-shirts and no underwear, pulverized fecal matter rising with the clouds of dust as trains pulled into the station. I was afraid to lick my lips. At the station, I was conspicuously foreign, which for me is unsettling in chaotic environments like this, and I was stared at more than at any time on my journey. One guy came up to me with a gob of amber wax at the end of a stick and offered to clean my ears for me. I responded in Spanish, and he retreated with a grin that said, “What the hell is this muhfuka speaking?”
Unlike Mumbai, where I stayed with a friend I already knew who doubled as a translator and had easy access to transportation, Delhi meant the renewed adventure of traveling solo. And while I met many interesting people and had numerous profound conversations via that friend, it’s always when I’m alone that I meet the most surprising people. North India was not short on surprises. In fact, during my five days there, I met:
Willy and Ula, an inspiring middle-aged German couple I met on the train from Delhi to Agra. With their grown children off raising families, Willy and Ula had already trekked through Latin America for a month with rudimentary Spanish before traipsing off to India with rudimentary English. They had been taken advantage of by the staff of their hotel and were trying to cope with thickly-accented Indian English by the time we met. I decided to ask if my CouchSurfing host could help them once we got to Agra. It turned out to be the best decision I could make.
Rajat, a no-limit soldier stationed at one of the many military installations in heavily-fortified Agra. Soft-spoken and sharp-featured, he commanded respect from his on-base inferiors to the off-base touts and rickshaw drivers swarming around us at the station. He met us with the names and phone numbers of a couple hotels in town and before taking me back to his place to grab a shower (this was post-14-hour train ride from Mumbai), he made sure Willy and Ula were safely tucked away in a hotel and that we had decently-priced transport to the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort the next day. The consummate CouchSurfing host, Rajat introduced me to Tulsi Mulethi tea and the Hindu tenet of present-focused living. ‘Preciate ya, brother.
Jag, the film and television director who grew up in Australia to Indian parents and brought her cross-cultural perspective back from Oz. Our paths crossed at another CouchSurfer’s house in Delhi and I knew we’d be hanging hard once I saw her large eyes and wide smile. We got our grub on at a frou-frou restaurant on Delhi’s periphery, then our club on at a crowded nightspot a few barrios over. It was just a day in Delhi, but memorable nonetheless.
Tino and Tony, dance instructors imported from abroad to establish the Indian National Ballet who happened to be crashing one floor down in my central Delhi guesthouse. Tino, a hip-hop and jazz teacher from the Canary Islands who spoke English with a British accent and black American idioms, sat pulling his hair out over a girl in Mumbai who had turned him out. Tony, a fellow Southerner, whipped up some slammin’ gumbo and garlic pasta using recipes he had learned from his ex-wife. Tino and I sat and sulked (in Spanish) in their apartment because it was Diwali—the biggest Hindu holiday—and salsa night had been cancelled. Family holidays always suck when you’re on vacation.
I was honored to have this diverse group of miscreants and ne’er-do-wells cross my path. It’s the type of interaction that makes traveling alone worthwhile; I’d never have met any of them had I been rolling with one of my peeps. And I’d be six friends short.
And watch the Magic Carpet Maker waterproof one of India’s famous rugs at the carpet factory in Agra. Sorry about the sideways video, folks. Just turn ya head.