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Walk Day 1: Delhi to Faridabad

The first 5 km of a large-scale walk will tell you a lot about the future state of your body and mind. Within a short time frame, you can finally evaluate the legitimacy of your plans, similar to the first five minutes of an entrance exam. In my case, the starting point I picked for my walk was the India Gate in central Delhi - the Gate was built as a war memorial to commemorate the fallen soldiers of the British Indian army in World War I. I figured it was a good connecting point as any to seven days of plodding.

I drove to the Gate with Sharma, my driver, confidante, and protector. He introduced himself with a gravel growl and looked at me cautiously. His teeth, like the streets of Delhi, were in woeful need of repair. He was a bear of an Indian, but he was my link to the Hindi world that was operating at a frequency well beyond my understanding.

At the gate

At the gate

The watchful gaze of Sharma

The watchful gaze of the Sharma

Introductions and formalities aside, Sharma and I strategized about where to meet. We picked a spot on the map, 10 km southeast of the gate – on the map it was only a couple of inches to march. With one deliberate and hesitant look back, I was off, 10:19 am, a glorious Saturday morning, the Indian sun rising brilliantly over my left-hand shoulder. And at 10:29 my pack got heavy.

I had initially wanted to carry all my supplies with me - sleeping bag, clothes, etc. - but quickly rationalized that this was both unnecessary (I could stow my big bag with Sharma), and stupid (gargantuan efforts are only worth it if you can finish). I also realized I had somehow veered onto the wrong road, and was heading due south, rather than south-east. Asking instructions was fruitless, as there are less Indians in the north who can speak English. My mono-verbiage was volleyed back with blank stares, and looks of incredulity. There is no lack of shyness when a foreigner strides past a local and I quickly found myself in several stare-down competitions. As I tango-danced past a local, our torsos swiveling and eyes locking, I held my eyes steady until our collective fields of vision elapsed, only to have a new dance partner seconds later.

I stopped at a veg restaurant for food, by this time feeling achy, tired, and generally unwell. I tried eating a dosa, but could barely stomach it, visions of biryani stirring in my head, I strode to the counter, and unfurled my Delhi road map. The man at the counter had a pen mark about an inch long under his eye. I pointed to where we were, and made a gesture to the road that would take me all the way to Agra. “Where Mathura Road?” I asked.

“Where do you want to get to sir?” the man replied, not bothering to address my original question. I sighed. This was the question that no one would understand. I picked a landmark close to Mathura Road. “Lotus Temple.” I pointed. The man replied, “I call auto for you.” No, no, I said, I’m walking. The man frowned, his pen mark changing shape. “No walk, too far. You take auto.”

And here in a nutshell was the time/distance relationship that everyone was used to. It was pointless to try to convince this guy it wasn’t far. If 2 kilometers was far, then 200 kilometers was ludicrous. I picked up my weight-sack and left with the door swinging.

I was supposed to meet Sharma in Okhla, which I soon realized was a slum ghetto. I looked through the corrugated shacks but didn’t see him anywhere, so I quickly dialed his number. He answered on the fifth ring. “Hello sir, where are you?” I told him I was in Oklha (finally) and asked here he was. “Under bridge,” he coughed into the phone. It sounded like he had been smoking or just woken up. “OK, where bridge?” I asked. My map had not come with a legend of bridges. “Here,” Sharma replied. I waited for a further explanation, but nothing came. “Where here?” I asked. “Here, bridge.” The conversation continued like this for another 30 seconds, until I asked a local “Bridge?” and again, a look of incredulity, and nothing. I looked down at my phone, Sharma had hung up.

I called him back, then gave the phone to a surprised local, and made a ‘talk’ motion. The man held it to his ear cautiously, and had a brief conversation in Hindi, then hung up. He turned to me. “Your man is waiting at bridge.” It appeared I was stuck in a repetitive Indian time-loop. I gave up and decided to walk in what I thought was the right direction. Ten minutes later I finally saw what looked to be a bridge, and yes, Sharma waving like a long lost relative. Relieved, I unbuckled my anvil, and threw it into the trunk, then did some fancy rearranging. From now on, I would only carry what I absolutely needed. Passport, money, a change of shirt, food, water, basically enough to get by for a night in case I couldn’t find the Sharma.

As I stumbled out of Delhi, the road quickly transformed from a polluted, urban road, to a polluted, rural road. I soon realized it was perfectly acceptable to pull your car over and dispose of your trash by whipping It out the window, letting the animals and weather have its way with it. In the cities, there are sewage canals that mole their ways under the sidewalks, periodically peaking out and unleashing a waft that will level you.

The glorious path to Agra

The glorious path to Agra

I finally came to the beginnings of Faridabad, a footnote of a city of one million next to Delhi’s 14 million. I doubled over and coughed into the sides of the street. My insides felt as polluted as the sewers themselves. I began to question the overall premise of my walk, as well as my health. I pitched my empty bottles of water onto the sides of the road. With no garbage cans, my western sensibility to conserve was out the window.

As I strode into Faridabad, sick, tired, and brimming with a fever, I looked back at the road I had come down. Somewhere behind me was the India Gate, pen-face, the Lotus Temple, and my sanity. I looked at the garbage lining the streets, and threw another empty bottle to the side of the road, watching it join the rest of the filth. This walk was going to be about acceptance of many different sorts. As the people I met gradually accepted my motives, I had to gradually accept the inevitabilities of the Indian way. My empty bottles were a trail behind me, joining the marks of many others. I watched the bottle come to rest next to a pile of animal shit. At least in some places, the marks weren’t man-made.

Total distance covered Day One: 30 kim. Next installment: Day Two - Faridabad Infirmary

130 comments to Walk Day 1: Delhi to Faridabad

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