When I found out in the Peace Corps I was moving back to India, I felt the usual thrill and adrenaline always associated with the prospect of living in such a beautifully chaotic place. As I had spent two years in Paraguay listening to Indian music, watching Indian movies, and cooking Indian dishes from scratch (much to the confusion of my neighbors and friends- is she American or Asian?), I dreamed about all of my experiences there and the incredible places I had felt a part of. Varanasi- one of the most spiritually charged and ancient places I’ve ever visited. Calcutta- the city of utter madness, and some of the best kathi rolls you’ll ever find. Bodhgaya, which holds the tree where it is said the Buddha was enlightened- and one of the best 16 mile treks I’ve ever taken. Dharamsala- home to my Tibetan family and the most incredible experience of my life. There seems to be no end to fabulous places in this jewel of a country.
Yet as I received my assignment for the Clinton fellowship, I was given the opportunity to live in Delhi. Delhi? The city of smog, crowds, and endless traffic? So hot in the summers you look as if you climbed out of a giant swimming pool every day? Home to hundreds of cheap hostels that are always accompanied by shady swindlers looking to rip off the average backpacker? I gritted my teeth, smiled, and bore it. Living in Delhi may not have been the most exotic of places, but at least it was in India.
But now that I’ve been living in Delhi over the course of this fellowship, my perception of this city has entirely changed. My initial impressions of Delhi (which were carried out cumulatively within a 10 day period) are completely the opposite of what I feel now. I love this city. There’s a vibrancy to this place that I never realized before. There’s no limit to life here- a million things to eat, people to meet, markets to get lost for hours in, cultural monuments, endless concerts, incredible culture, and a touch of materialism that’s enough to get any American through her slight Western nostalgic cravings (Forever 21? We’ve got it. Starbucks? Yep. Hard Rock Café? 3D Cinemas? Bowling? Sushi? Check, check, and check. If Chipotle opened a chain here, I’d never leave). Perhaps it’s because I spent two years living under a rock in Paraguay, where the most lively place in my town was a hamburger joint, but I greatly appreciate the myriad of experiences this place offers me.
Unfortunately, Delhi has a less than stellar reputation globally. While discussing this with Indian friends and colleagues, they seem to be a little ashamed of the perception of their city. “Is the traffic as bad in the United States as it is here?” is a question I am commonly asked, usually while sitting in hours of clogged up highways where you can witness rickshaw-wallahs stop their engines in the middle of the road and hop out to buy cigarettes on the road-side. Safety for women is also a common topic of conversation, considering a scandal that hit the world stage last year where an Indian woman was tragically and repeatedly raped on a bus. And with the level of pollution here, I am often reprimanded to wear a mask or cover my face with a scarf while riding down the street.
Yet I’ve gotten so comfortable living here. With good common sense and a heightened sense of awareness, I’ve been able to navigate Delhi without once feeling threatened or unsafe.* I haven’t been subject to petty thievery or harassment (knock on wood), and I’ve always been accompanied by hordes of caring Indian colleagues or friends who make sure I feel comfortable no matter where I am. The traffic can be a bit annoying at times, but just takes a dose of patience and a smile. There’s plenty of smog to go around here, but it comes and goes. Plus, the Delhi metro really is worthy of major boasting. Sorry NYC Subway, you just pale in comparison.
The rest of this place dazzles me. I’ve never felt so connected to a city before, and I’ve lived in quite a few of them, including Los Angeles and New York. There’s something marvelous about this place that I can’t quite describe. So many unique pockets to explore, so many different languages and customs, something in the air that’s spicy and explosive. Life is never dull here; there’s always a new adventure around the corner, and I have the ability to step out of my own front door and witness fascinating events where I’m constantly learning something new. It’s a kind of spontaneity I love, but where I can return back to the cocoon of comfort any time I choose. Or perhaps the magic in the air here really is just my comfort, and that is the true definition of feeling at home.
* Note: Delhi, as well as many other mega-cities around the world, can absolutely be a dangerous place. Visitors and travelers should approach this city with a heightened sense of self-awareness at ALL times. For first-timers, please consult a guidebook or any other form of ‘Delhi-411′ information to mitigate your risks of being in any potentially unsafe positions. But with a few simple steps to counter any prospective danger, count on an unforgettable experience!