After my plane landed, I remember coming down the stairs into the immigration hall. The smell that assailed me was incredible—a mixture of sweat, spices, bidis, tobacco, cheap coffee, urine, marijuana, floor cleaner, perfume, and fuel.
Once I had located my luggage, I headed out of the arrivals gate. I will never forget the sight: a huge crowd, densely packed, leaned into the banisters in front of the gate. All these people, hundreds of them, were men, and all of them wore mustaches and inscrutable expressions. It was after midnight. What were they doing there? They clearly weren’t waiting for friends, loved ones, or clients. They weren’t holding up signs. Who was in charge? This became a defining question in the minutes and hours, days and weeks following my arrival.
I took a two rupee bus driven by an ancient Sikh who looked like a stand-in for Gandalf, complete with the long white beard. With great skill, he kept his ancient vehicle from swerving into the many sleeping cows that lay in the middle of the road. The bus dropped me behind New Delhi railway station by a disused piece of wasteland. It was mid-winter, pitch dark and very cold. The hotel I was headed for lay on the other side of the station, but I didn’t know that then. Like most travelers arriving in a city for the very first time, I was vulnerable and disoriented. On the dirt-strewn ground in front of me, men were standing around burning oil drums in an attempt to keep warm. They surrounded me, smiled and shouted, cajoled and laughed. Then one of them offered to take me to my hotel in his rickshaw and charged me double the regular fare. The men on that piece of wasteland were genuinely alarmed that I had temporarily joined their precarious lives and did their best to guide me safely to my destination, for a modest fee, rather than for my wallet, passport, or neck.
In those first hours in India, a new world—a wonderfully overwhelming montage of light and darkness, chaos and order, of massive, epic sensory overload by exposure to a culture quite different from my own—began to form in my mind. Traveling around the country in the following weeks, I had to improvise often to get where or what I wanted, usually with the help of locals. Almost every encounter, barring those with touts in tourist ghettos, proved to be fascinating and positive.
Six months after that first trip to India, I returned to Asia permanently, continuing my collaboration with the British Library for several more years across India, Thailand, the Philippines, Nepal, Pakistan, and Iran, steadily planting the seeds to my writing career. The travel bug truly got me on a winter’s night in Delhi.