International airports are pretty much all the same. I step off planes sniffing the air, with an automatic sensory expectation of being able to identify my location. But they all smell similar – like aircon, and the inside of a plastic box. They are all lit to the same circadian-defying ambiance, they all have people running vacuum-cleaners over yellow and blue carpet, they are all navigable by travelator. Or those little beeping carts which imperil the very lives of the disembarked passengers moving slowly between travelators, encumbered by awkwardly overstuffed rolling suitcases and jetlag-depleted responsiveness, to get that one lazy guy to the arrivals hall first. At least he looks like a stupid prick as he rolls past at 30km/h in his tiny ride, like a slightly oversized Tonka truck.
Yep. Pretty much all the same. Same shops, same eyes-dead-bored staff, same broken-down Coke machines. Some have slightly worse negative points, like Manila (where it’s like a giant shed, and you have to pay to go into a leaking, secret upstairs lounge to use the internet); and Nairobi (where not only are there guys walking around with machine guns, but they’re not actually in any sanctioned armed force). But generally, the same, and so it was when I landed at Indira Gandhi Airport in Delhi last night. The Coke machines were Pepsi, and the carpet had some rogue magenta elements, but there was no mistaking it was an international airport. It was only as I progressed down my 27th travelator that I became aware of a very noticeable difference.
This was an airport (and, now that I’m outside, is a city) of men. There weren’t one or two men running vacuum-cleaners over the carpet – there were 20. There were groups of five or six of them sitting along the walkways on the long journey to arrivals. There were at least 100 of them waiting with cardboard signs at the gate to pick up guests. Two of them were there to take me to my hotel, tucked safely inside the green pocket of the diplomatic enclave. I stuck close to the hotel concierge as the chauffeur pushed the baggage trolley ahead of us through groups of men vacuuming, arriving, departing, wandering. They all stared and one licked his lips. Not aggressively, just in a way that made me realise Oh, so it’s not just a media thing. The last time I really felt like this on such a widely uncomfortable scale was walking through the market in Arusha, Tanzania in an ill-advised short skirt in the year 2000.
We followed in the air draft the chauffeur created through the thick night humidity to the carpark and waited next to a grimy underground florist while he brought the car around. I felt sorry for the concierge, straightened in his jacket and tie. I was struggling in my jeans, worn because Hong Kong Airport is like ice. In Delhi, they don’t put so much money into aircon. (Or their Thomas Cook franchise, which, beneath its standard sign, consisted of employees rolling around on broke-down chairs with one arm and foam bulging out of slashed leather, and cupboards with doors swinging off broken hinges. Their rupees appeared to be legal tender though, which is one of the main things, if not the main thing.)
Once the car had pulled around and I’d piled into the back with my bag of steno machine, the chauffeur offered me an ice-cold water from some mysterious boot esky. I was really grateful because on the plane, when served my vegetarian dinner, I assumed the curry contained green beans, one of which I munched into with a combination of hunger and eagerness to show my cultural assimilation. You know it was a green chili right. You just know it. My eyes and nose had been watering for 30,000 feet and 27 travelators, and I was hungry, and I was wearing jeans, but I had iced water, and we were off, past the stray dogs loitering around the carpark entrance and over a series of hundreds of very small speedhumps that necessitated the driver almost completely stopping the car. We were 6km from the diplomatic enclave where my hotel is, but it was an epic 30-minute stop-bump-stop-bump-stop-bump journey through the initial 500 metres.
As with airports, I had also come to Delhi with a stereotypical sensory expectation, that of bombardment, and it was rewarded on the drive to the hotel. Initially I thought it seemed like any other airport transfer, through a flat outer industrial suburb, surrounded by taxis, but I was disabused of that as I noticed every other vehicle on the road was a big-rig truck painted in gypsy style, with coloured ribbons flying around the wheelwells, and no door (see above re not putting much money into aircon). These trucks reminded me a little of the jeepneys in the Philippines, with their unique paintjobs and death-defying ideas about what constitutes a driving technique. The bums of the trucks had Horns Please painted across them, and indeed the road echoed constantly with the sound of horns pleasing. It was baffling to try to figure out the meaning of the cacophany. Do you honk for left, right, move it, go round, what?
But then you know that when you’re overseas, you do become indulgently unconcerned about road rules. In Africa they use the same horn-based traffic system. Sure, some African nations have the highest road toll in the world by a multiplier in the double digits, but still: another country, a driver wearing a hotel cap, and you get almost complete nonchalance on my part. Sure enough, as we very shortly passed our first accident, after ascertaining the involved parties were safely standing away from their crushed vehicles, already lighting up smokes, I almost felt whimsically affirmed. And when we later drove directly through a train crossing that was on the flashing red light, I merely smiled insouciantly. Why not? My driver had used his horn with authority, and that would definitely be sufficient to alert any oncoming locomotives.
It was midnight, but we passed two men taking formal shots of each other under an underpass. I saw another guy walking on top of a doorless petrol tanker parked on the side of the road. Maybe that chili was having some sort of psychedelic peyote effect on me, or maybe just – India.
We trundled past a tuk-tuk station with scores of the little green vehicles scuttling in and out like grubby, battered aluminium insects. This was after I had the idea about the peyote by the way but I think it did still happen.
And then we were in the hotel grounds – a hotel which overtakes the Intercontinental in Seoul, and Hullett House in Hong Kong, and the Windsor in Melbourne, as the most luxurious I’ve stayed in.
Barack Obama stays here when he’s in India. So does Bill Clinton. And that’s an interesting denouement because the last time I stayed in a hotel that had anything to do with Bill Clinton (when I was in Shanghai to transcribe him and other world leaders at an economic summit), it was actually the worst hotel of my life – a complete dive in Pudong where people poked business cards for escorts under the door in the night, where the books were plastic decorations, where the bed appeared to be a deconstructed packing crate.
I like this one better, Bill.
I stayed on an all-lady floor, with lady security staff and lady bellboys.
I won’t mention details here of the job I’m doing, for obvious confidentiality purposes. But I just want to mention that the female counsel are (naturally) wearing saris. You know what that means – THONGS (/flip-flops) in the hearing room! It’s one of my longest-held career dreams to wear thongs to work. I had a taste of it when I used to caption from home in my pyjamas, but these days it’s all stockings and shoes and stricture.
So I told my husband I’m probably going to buy some saris while I’m here and start wearing them to work in Hong Kong, and he told me not to try to circumvent dress standards by pretending to be from another culture. And sure, some people probably WOULD say “But you’re not even Indian”, but I’d be like “Please, I am from the highest caste, with this super-white skin that’s actually whiter than a regular white person and in the right light has translucent properties (not the good kind like Nicole Kidman, just the kind that burns and gets freckles). Namaste, innit!” Because you can’t really tell people what nationality they are these days. It’s not appropriate.
Delhi, Day1: Shoes Today, Thongs Tomorrow?
Delhi, Day2: Nope, Still Shoes. But Some Day, Thongs!
This trip is incredible. Where will we go next, steno machine?