DELHI — Is it possible to spend your birthday with 18 million people and feel very alone? Yes, if you turn 59 in Delhi as I did yesterday, the second-most populated city in India can feel very lonely. Fortunately, I was saved by a kind Polish woman and her equally kind German boyfriend. Throw in a few of their friends from around the world, and I had a birthday for the ages.
I felt a lot younger than 59 although a sunburned face from an ill-fated safari Friday in Kumily made me look 69.
Delhi is as crazy and noisy as I’ve heard but a recent heat wave left town and it was mercifully cool when I landed at 10:30 a.m. It didn’t take long for Delhi’s famed scam artists to introduce themselves to me. A cab driver tried pushing me past the pre-paid taxi stand and charge me 780 rupees ($13) to my hotel. I didn’t even say no thank you. I just grabbed back my voucher and went to the taxi stand where I got a taxi for 400 ($7). When I told my new cabbie another one wanted 780, he got out of his taxi stand seat and said, “WHO?” I thought he was going to mistakenly shoot an innocent bystander next to me.
My hotel is in Old Delhi which shouldn’t be confused with New Delhi which is the administrative and government center the British built in the early 1900s. New Delhi is lined with white, ornate architecture and huge official-looking buildings where long ago the Indians moved out numerous statues of British dignitaries. Old Delhi is lined with grime, dust, cheap retail stores, construction, wild probably rabid dogs, crazy drivers and cheap hotels you can’t tell from scruffy garages.
My hotel was an absolute mystery to my baffled cab driver. He asked directions about six times, from auto rickshaw drivers who pointed him in opposite directions to vendors selling dodgy samosas from filthy street stalls. After 30 minutes going up and down the same dirty street, screeching past rickshaws and terrified dogs, we finally found C-Spot Hotel. It’s a single door under a vertical sign which could’ve said the Bates Motel and I wouldn’t have cared.
The hotel is fine and, at $20, is probably expensive for India. And this AirBnB was not someone’s house. It was a cheap hotel with a tiny front desk where a bevy of men in checked shirts hover over you like lampreys. The room is spacious and clean but one of the minions had to turn on the water for the toilet to flush and he had to be notified 10 minutes in advance to turn on the hot water.
I didn’t care. I threw my bags on the bed and went birthday shopping. Delhi’s auto rickshaw drivers are all connected with different retail shops. Walking the streets as a foreigner is like walking through a series of TV ads. Carpet shop here. Ceramics there. Spices over here.
The famed State Emporium where every state’s crafts are under one roof was closed so I went to Cottage Industries on a mission. I quickly settled on a gorgeous silk painting of a Hindu king being paraded through a street in Rajasthan in the 1500s. It has stone inlay, a cloth background and a gold frame. The old merchant wanted $175 and in a spirited negotiation session that had other merchants hovering around to watch, I got him down to $125. It was Sunday, dead and tourism is down, particularly since the rape-murder of the Canadian woman in 2012. I wanted to pamper myself.
(I’m writing this on a train platform waiting to go to the Taj Mahal. A kid in his early 20s standing right in front of a trash can drops an empty nut bag right on the ground. The lack of environmental awareness outside the West remains one of the most startling observations from my travels. Since I began traveling overseas in 1978, their collective consciousness has not changed.)
I found out the hard way that Delhi’s traffic is a cluster fuck. I took one of Delhi’s glittering subways (In the filth that is Delhi, the shiny, air-conditioned Metro stands out like a tuxedo in a Salvation Army.) to Hauz Khas station and an auto rickshaw to Hauz Khas Village, one of South Delhi’s nightlife areas. With about a mile to go, I could hear the beating music ahead. I could see Delhi’s wall of humanity walking toward it as if in a procession. And they kept walking past us. The rickshaw couldn’t move. I stepped out and saw nothing but red taillights ahead. The driver, as dispirited as I was, pointed to me, then the road and flicked the back of his hand toward it as if to say, “It’s better if you walk.”
So I walked. And walked. And walked. I walked at least a kilometer which is a kilometer more than any rickshaw had moved in 30 minutes. Hauz Khas is a glittery, ultra-modern complex chock-a-block with bars and restaurants all emblazoned with neon signs and more lighting than Yankee Stadium. Doormen stood in front of some of the more tony restaurants. This is the new India. It’s where the world’s second-fastest growing economy shows its wealth in its signage and real estate while 60 percent of the people in Mumbai, its largest city, still live in slums.
I received the invitation from Aga, a pretty young Polish woman I met in Varkala while waiting for my meditation session. She told me to meet her and her friends at a bar/restaurant called Summer House. I saw nothing. I asked a stocky doorman with a wispy moustache, a perfect haircut and a black blazer.
“It’s not here,” he said. “It’s in Arzblvtra Village,” or something like that. I didn’t have a clue. All I knew was it was a kilometer away. I had him repeat it three times before I finally had him spell out Aurobindo Market.
A desperate tuktuk driver took a cursing John Henderson against the grain where he dropped me off in the back of a dark parking lot. It was the back end of a bunch of cheap storefronts, none of which looked anything close to a place educated expats would hang out. A guy manning a snack cart pointed me around the corner where I saw “SUMMER HOUSE” lighting up a three-story building with beautiful people hanging out of the open-air bar. As I walked up, I saw a tall white guy who said, “You must be John.” Dave was Aga’s boyfriend whom I recognized on her Facebook page.
Aga was talking to an Asian woman and gave me a big birthday hug. “Your beers are waiting for you,” she said. Bottles of Kingfisher beer were lined up on a table where I sat with Dave, Aga and Walia, their Indian friend. All were in their late 20s. David and Aga have been in Delhi a year and a half, meeting one week after she arrived. David is from Dusseldorf and works for an online grocery outfit. He likes Delhi a little more than Aga who told me when we met, “Every two or three weeks you have to get out of Delhi.”
David said he really likes Delhi. It has softened him.
“In Germany, everything is just GO, GO GO!” he said. “Here everything takes a while. Before, I’d get so agitated. Now, I’m like, ‘Well, OK.’ I’m more patient.”
Walia is from one of the upper middle-class castes. I could tell. He went to an international school and has a “love marriage.” That’s what Indians call marriages that aren’t arranged. Yes, they still exist but with the higher economy and better education for women now, “Women have more say in the matter,” he said, with more respect than some Italians I’ve met.
Aga arranges wedding that can last up to five days, which is longer than some marriages I knew about in Las Vegas. Just as they did before the British arrived, Indian families still set up children with families of similar economic backgrounds. The caste system in India is caste in stone.
The expat community here is real strong. A lot of people I met were on six-month internships with various computer or software companies. I met a posse of them at a house party not far from the Summer House. A Frenchwoman named Fiori has her birthday on the 30th and we had a duel celebration. A tall Indian with a highly stylized haircut asked me, “You just turned 25? Congratulations! Another one said, “I think it was 21.” Do I owe these people money? Why are they being so nice?
I liked this group.
The apartment was small but decorated in kind of college Indian style. A carpet with a Hindu deity hung on the wall along with framed Bollywood posters. Tall plants gave the place some life. Fiori has been in Delhi five years. “So the plants have grown with me,” she said.
A Mexican named Javier was ending his six-month internship and was about ready to embark on an Asia tour.
“I’ve had a soft, easy life for six months,” he said. “It’s time I got back to the real world.”
Easy life? Has he ever taken a rickshaw around here?
On both ends of a coffee table were plastic cups lined up in formation, all a quarter filled with rum. A ping pong ball sat in a nearby cup of water. Javier and Francesco, a small, wiry Italian from Bologna with impeccable English, invited Aga and I to play what they called Indian rum pong. The game is as old as U.S. college education. It’s played in every fraternity and scruffy apartment on every college campus. If you bounce a ping pong ball in your opponent’s cup, he must chug whatever’s in the glass. If you bounce it in, both opponents drink. I haven’t played the game since … well, I’d never played. I actually worked weekends during my frat days, always arriving when the games long since ended and the beer too warm and putrid to look at, let alone chug.
My three earlier beers apparently hadn’t kicked in enough to affect my aim as I landed about four balls right into cups. The winner landed with such a splash, the cup spilled all over Francesco. Aga and I celebrated with a fist bump that traverses hemispheric borders.
I could live in Delhi if not for the weather. It’s in a cool spell now. The temperature didn’t top 75 yesterday. But Aga says in April to June it’s broiling. It’s dry but broiling, reaching 120 degrees some days.
“You take a shower and before you walk out of your house you need another shower,” she said. David added, “The poor who have no A-C soak towels in water and sleep with them over their heads.”
Soft life? God, I miss Rome.