Getting through passport control at Delhi International Airport was a surprisingly smooth process. Extracting money from one of the cash machines in the terminal was a little more time consuming but we were certainly quicker than the guy in front of us. He seemed to be at it for ages, like someone new to an office environment trying to figure out how the photocopier worked.
With a huge wad of rupees in our pockets we entered the departure hall and spotted a bunch of guys all holding up signs with people’s names on them. With a certain feeling of relief, we spotted one with Clare’s name on it. ‘Our driver’ greeted us warmly, took our bags and escorted us to his car.
Before long we were immersed in the morning peak-hour traffic en route to the place we were staying. Although it was sunny and a pleasant twenty degrees, the air was thick and hazy with pollution and I soon felt it begin to accumulate at the back of my throat. Apparently the air quality was much better than it had been over the last few weeks when pollution levels were more than eleven times greater than what is considered safe by the World Health Organisation.
At this time of year, during the cooler months when the air is more still, pollution in Delhi is at its worst. The burning of residue from crops in neighbouring farmlands contributes to around a quarter of pollution levels. The rest of it comes from diesel vehicle emissions, coal-burning power plants and construction dust. It is noticeably unpleasant to breathe the air and I saw quite a few locals were wearing face masks. It did nothing to alleviate initial anxieties I’d had before arriving in India about the possibility of getting sick. Just about everyone I’d spoken to had said that catching some kind of bug in India is almost an expected part of the experience.
The roads were busy with all kinds of cars, buses, auto-rickshaws, trucks, bicycles and scooters, all weaving in and around each other and tooting their horns continuously. Even on six lane roads the traffic was thick and congested yet still moved, in slow increments, everyone moving forward, jostling for space. There were people everywhere along the roads, sweeping footpaths, trimming edges, selling things, carrying loads, congregating in groups or generally wandering about. It was a constant and colourful spectacle of people going about their daily business.
Clare had arranged some time ago to stay with a family friend who had moved from Geneva to Delhi three years ago as part of her job with the World Health Organisation. She has a large ground-floor apartment in the Sunder Nagar colony of Delhi. There was always a guard at the front gate and he would greet us and open the gate for us whenever we approached.
After resting the first day we were a bit more adventurous on the next and after an appointment at a health clinic for some top-up travel vaccinations, we visited Humayun’s Tomb, not far from where we were staying.
The tomb was built during the reign of the Mughals from Central Asia who had an extensive empire across much of India and surrounding countries prior to British rule. It is a huge structure, built for Mughal Emperor Humayun and commissioned by his wife. Constructed of red sandstone and white marble, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. We were lucky to visit at a time when the site was relatively uncrowded. There were a few school groups and mainly Indian visitors. We wandered around the extensive surrounding gardens and admired the grandeur and harmonious symmetry of a building that would, more than sixty years after it was built, provide inspiration for the Taj Mahal.
The next day we travelled by cycle-rickshaw through the streets of the Old City and explored the spice market. It was crowded, busy, exotic, dirty and colourful. The air was thick with the smell of spice and sounds of traffic and trade. In only a few hours I felt as if I had been caught up in an intense whirlpool of Delhi-related imagery and sound and then, almost just as suddenly, we were back in the relatively normal environment where we were staying.
On our fourth day in Delhi I couldn’t get out of bed. I was fatigued, had cold shivers and body aches and before long I was throwing up. There are very few times in my life that I can remember being so intensely sick and bed-ridden. We were due to fly to Kathmandu the following day so we had to postpone the booking. Thankfully, by the next morning, the worst of it had passed although I still didn’t feel up to travelling. I decided to have an extra day of rest and so we planned to fly to Kathmandu the day after.