Warning: This article contains graphic images and text that some viewers may find upsetting.
I had heard many tales of travels through India and had heard that it was unlike any other place. At the time I booked my ticket I was ready to move far away from the material world and the petty complaints of so many first-worlders. It was time to get back to basics: just my camera and I!
I have travelled extensively over the past 20 years and have always found that there is a much greater level of happiness in third world countries. I have found that people seem more connected to each other and their environment and I could not wait to embody myself in that way. Honestly, I’m up for almost anything but arriving in Delhi was confronting. It’s an onslaught to the senses in every way; the difficulty of working out how to get a taxi from the airport into Delhi was a good enough indication of how complicated travel would be. I had researched vigorously, though, and it paid off. Delhi airport is known for many corrupt taxi drivers and touts who take advantage of travellers. One must have their wits about them otherwise one might find themselves in quite the pickle!
My first hotel was in the middle of Old Delhi. I was expecting the taxi to drive me directly to the hotel. What I failed to realise was that Old Delhi was built well before cars existed, and hadn’t been fixed to accommodate for them. So my taxi abruptly threw me out on the perimeter of Old Delhi with no explanation. I stood in the middle of the street with no map and no Internet. I was so taken aback from the heat, the smells, and the hundreds of eyes glaring at me and I quickly realised I was far off the tourist track. It was as though the people around me were more shocked I was there than I was. I had two bags: one 80-litre backpack and my large camera bag. In total I had around 35kg strapped to me both front and back. Given the heat and humidity, it was no easy task moving around. I managed to make out a small painted sign on a wall close by with the logo of my hotel on it. Relief surged through me; I couldn’t believe my luck! I made my way through the bemused crowd of people in the markets toward a small opening in the old city wall, which lead into a maze of lanes.
I walked for about 20 minutes following red painted arrows on the walls with the hotel’s logo below. The lanes were like nothing I had ever seen: animals, mud, human & animal faeces, and street food. The other thing that really started to surprise me was that it was a predominantly Muslim area. Old Delhi felt more like what I expect Islamabad to be like. Finally, and drenched in sweat, I staggered upon the stairs to the beautiful Haveli and I was so relieved. The Haveli Dharampura was originally built in 1887 but had recently been restored. It was a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the lanes of Old Delhi. I was momentarily relieved that I had somewhere to rest but at the time I could not wait to get back out to the lanes with my camera.
I woke early on my second day to watch the sunrise from the Haveli roof. Monkeys danced across the rooftops, and an eagle soared above my head. As the sun’s umber appeared along the eastern horizon the mystical sound of the morning prayers echoed from all around me from the many minarets towering out from the mosques.
It was about 7:00am when I stumbled across several thousand men queuing up on Chandni Chowk Rd. It was hard to actually work out what was happening. I followed the line and eventually came to an area where several doctors appeared to be treating some men. I politely asked if I could shoot some photographs while they worked. There were five doctors present: four men and one woman. The woman was sitting on a blanket on the street issuing medications and the men were treating burns, missing limbs, infections, leprosy, and skin disorders. I was overcome with a mixture of emotions and was definitely not prepared to witness such sights and smells. I was also slightly fearful for my own safety, due to the sheer amount of sick people in one space. The doctors were so busy they didn’t really have much time to talk with me but they could see that I was very interested in telling their story. Eventually, I worked up the courage to ask what this was all about.
For thirty-five years, every day including public holidays, these doctors had given up their time to feed and medically tend to approximately five thousand homeless men. On arrival, the first group set up a medical station on the footpath. The sick and wounded queued in two different lines, one for injuries and one for medications. In the other direction, several thousand men queued up in a line spreading about fourteen city blocks along the Chandni Chowk Rd waiting for food. A procession of vans pulled up; one with cups and plates, another with naan bread, another with dhal, and another with water. It was extraordinary that such a small group of people volunteered so selflessly to help so many people in need and for so many years. I asked the man in charge what their NGO was called and he laughed at me and said, “we don’t have time to make an official NGO, we are just here to do what someone has to do.”
I was told that a large group of the people being tended to at the medical station were people who were HIV positive. India currently has the third largest HIV epidemic in the world, which is largely sexually transmitted but is also due to the prevalence of the injection of drugs like heroin. The official statistics are never accurate as so many people in India are never officially diagnosed or treated because of lack of access to health care as well as lack of education on the spread of HIV/AIDs, often due to cultural and religious reasons. Hearing this really affected me, and made me appreciate the work and selflessness of these doctors even more.
I continued to take photos as I took all the information in and eventually came to realise that the line was only filled with men so I asked one of the doctors where the women were. They then invited me to accompany them for the rest of the day, as their next stop was to do the same thing for the women and children, then for the elderly, and then for the dying. As I had to leave for the next leg of my trip I sadly could not follow them. It bugs me to this day that I could not learn more about what these doctors do but I left them knowing I would reconnect with them in the future.
As I was leaving, I couldn’t help shooting the image of the closed McDonalds franchise. What irony as the starving sat in front waiting to be fed.
Delhi was not what I was expecting in any way. My stay there was short but it was incredible and full of surprises. That evening I sat on the rooftop of my hotel absorbing the depth of poverty I witnessed as fathers and sons scattered the rooftops of Delhi flying their kites. Such a contrast to the gore of my morning but in retrospect it left me with hope.
To be continued…