India 1: First impressions

Twenty-four hours have passed since my passport was stamped into India, and it’s time to distill what I’ve seen so far into a series of witty insights, dodgy comparisons, fatuous overgeneralizations and outright mistakes.

A useful travel skill is not expecting too much out of the places you’re visiting for the first time, as this makes it much easier to be pleasantly surprised by them. (This, for example, is the only way to enjoy the Slovenian coal-mining town of Trbovlje.) For Delhi, this was easier yet: I expected a shithole with absolutely no redeeming qualities, and having now discovered at least three, I’m actually looking forward to the rest of my stay here.

The Expected

India is poor, New Delhi is no exception, and economic pundits who think India will be catching up to China any time soon would do well to go to Shanghai and then compare notes here. It’s not quite as desperate as I was afraid (I’ve yet to see any corpses or people shitting on the street), but beggars and shantytowns abound even more profusely than in my previous benchmark of big-city squalor, Jakarta.

Indian infrastructure is famously bad, and here too Delhi is no exception. Traffic is crazy, with three-wheeled autorickshaws emblazoned with “Horn Please”, sacred cows, clunky old Ambassador cars and crazy bus drivers, jostling for space on unlaned roads. Signage is laughably minimal, traffic lights are rarities and Jakarta’s sweeping elevated expressways shine in their absence. Especially at night, with clouds of dust whistling among the trees, it feels like an unusually busy night back in Chipata, Zambia.

The Unexpected

Delhi is both more flat, more spread out and less congested than I expected: there is so much wasteland and so many derelict buildings that you just don’t get the same sense as in Bangkok or Jakarta that every square inch counts. Then again, I’ve only been in southernmost Delhi and Gurgaon so far, so I fully expect Old Delhi to be much more squished together.

Pollution here is really bad. On Singapore’s PSI index, I have no doubt that every day here is well over 100, although mornings seem to be particularly bad. I woke up today sneezing with a really bad runny nose and a headache, triggered by the double whammy of dryness and pollution — fortunately it seems to be getting better already.

The Positive

After a few too many nasi gorengs, Indian food is excellent. It’s just one of those great cuisines of the world that defies easy description: Khmer cooking can be passably described as “half-Thai, half-Vietnamese”, Korean food is “Japanese with chili and garlic”, but how to describe the country that invented the curry? After a lifetime of eating the stuff only in dedicated restaurants, it still feels weird to actually find myself in a country where it’s eaten three times a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m loving it — and looking forward to my first McMaharaja Burger tomorrow. (I’m planning to go veggie for the first few weeks.)

Indian music (especially the more dancy styles of bhangra) rocks. And so do the babes in Bollywood music videos. (Unfortunately, and less surprisingly, they seem to be a rather rare species in reality.)

Second impressions to come this weekend, after I actually get a chance to see something other than fancy hotels and data centres…



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