July 02, 2011

notes from the foothills of the himalaya

Wow. India has gotten positively mellow.

Well, relatively speaking. Once - which is to say, the first two times I came here, in 2000 and 2004 - it was a pounding, nonstop, all-out assault on every one of the human senses, including especially those of dignity, decency, propriety and personal space. For travellers it was a destination of constant hassle, a land of lies and scams (some so elegant that they were almost beautiful.) Those moments of transition when I first stepped out of the airport and into India proper - the arena, if you will - remain two of my most searing, powerful travel memories.

This time? I girded my loins, battened my hatches, readied my defenses, and stepped past the airport barriers, and found myself beset by ... nothing. There was no gauntlet of touts or taxi drivers. Nobody noticed or cared. A 21st century train service took me to New Delhi Railway station. There was indeed a vast mass of humanity there, waiting to be security-groped before entering the metro - the metro! Delhi had no metro ten years ago, nor even any hint of one; now it's five times the size of Toronto's. I bypassed them and found an autorickshaw driver, who hardly tried to rip me off at all. We took a six-lane highway past green parks and the airbrushed Red Fort. And I kept thinking: "Am I sure this is India?"

Don't get me wrong. Delhi and its teeming zillions are still a seething, all-consuming vortex of humanity. Step past the gleaming new shopping malls and five-star hotels and you'll find yourself in a twisting warren of narrow alleys and grinding poverty. Once, though, there was almost nothing but those narrow alleys, in which nothing seemed to happen; now they too thrum with activity, as men carry, drag, cycle, and drive immense loads through apertures that seem too small for them. Now droplets and pockets and even corridors of a whole new First World city has erupted from that sea of poverty, while brand-new satellite cities like Gurgaon boom on its outskirts. The infrastructure can't keep pace, as that link attests, but no wonder. It's all happening so fast.

On Thursday night we went to the offices of the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation, and waited only ten minutes past the scheduled departure time, while a family of monkeys frolicked outside. (Cows and monkeys remain common sights in Delhi, but I don't expect to ever again see an elephant right outside the railway station, as I did in 2000.) Then a battered but seaworthy Volvo bus appeared, collected us, and carried us across Delhi's vast cityscape and along a massive under-construction highway to Chandigarh, via a stop at a roadside restaurant/department store that sold nearly-life-size Indian Elvis statues, six-foot-high gold-plated lamps, and a surprisingly decent book selection. A wretchedly bad Bollywood comedy played on the flat-screen TV, and M. (my travelling companion) and I took turns taking refuge in my iPod. I think it was about 2AM when we finally began to ascend into the mountains, towards Manali, where I sit and type.

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