Date: 30 April
Location: seat 45, Carriage C4 (upper class), “express” train from Delhi, NCR to Jaipur, Rajasthan.
Notable sightings: So many bare bottoms, thankfully blurred, as the poorest Delhites do their morning business in full view of the speeding train.
Delhi, like Istanbul or Rome, is a city that's had to grow up around its own antique collection, careful always to balance it's precious relics with the space-hungry modern trappings of office blocks, metros, public spaces and shopping strips that seem to blacken and decay as soon as they go up.
Overlaying that foundation, there's the people. The region's population is said to be well over 22 million, roughly the same as all of Australia. And in less than 1% of the space. There are people everywhere and everywhere you feel like you're a source of amusement or potential cash (or frustration) to the locals. You're a marked woman and it's exhausting.
It's not fair to tar old and new Delhis with the same brush. New Delhi, with its shady enclaves and wide roads, feels almost like any other big contemporary city. But you often hear Old Delhi described as 'an assault on the senses' and that's damn right. From the second you step outside, your lungs burn with the hot polluted air, your filthy feet kick up dust, the white sun reflects off sequinned sarees and bight blue tarpaulins, the beeping never stops – buses, cars, tuktuks, rickshaws beep to say 'hello', 'behind you' or 'movvvvvvve' – and you can taste the dust on your morning masala chai. And best we don't discuss the smells.
In Old Delhi, I saw tombs (notably Hermayun's) and mosques (notably the majestic Friday Mosque where the security guards blatantly extort as much money as they can from foreigners for a full body coverup – bringing a whole new meaning to 'cover charge') and temples (notably the Sikh temple of Sisganj Gandwara where we helped make chappathi for the temple's free lunch for the poor). And now I'm escaping.
In our air conditioned chair carriage it's jarring to watch the scenery speed past. There's mile after mile of slums lining the tracks. Rubbish-crusted streams of black-green wind through them, skirting piles of still-burning refuse; pigs, goats, cows and dogs forage; and people, like little ants, clamber through the piles of discarded plastic, fetching water, brushing their teeth, relieving their bowels and bladders. It's full on. If you have a bed to sleep in tonight, do something really nice for someone else today.