Stay­ing pos­i­tive! My first days in New Del­hi

A semester abroad in New Delhi inevitably comes with challenges; most of them unexpected. In this blog entry, I tell you about my arrival and first days in New Delhi. I share all the things that went wrong, but also how I was generously helped time and time again.

Porträt von Paula.
In my first four Indian days alone, I had to overcome unforseen challenges and learnt a lot. Photo: private

Even before arriving in New Delhi, I knew that this semester abroad would be a big challenge for me. From the sheer size of the city, to cultural differences and of course the heat, all the way to "bucket showers". But, despite many warnings, I could never have predicted all the things that could go wrong in the first few days of a semester abroad - and that it wouldn't be so bad in the end because one often finds helpful people.

A nightmare arrival

To be on the safe side, I had booked a hotel room near the campus before I left. I had deliberately not chosen the cheapest place and had contacted them by email beforehand to make sure everything would go smoothly. So, I was very surprised when I arrived at the after my twelve-hour flight and was told that I could not be offered a room. In that moment I panic, because being stranded in New Delhi without a SIM card is an absolute nightmare scenario for me. I use the hotel WiFi to call the only person I know so far in New Delhi: Vivek. He works in the administration of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and I got his number from a former international student of JNU.

Within 30 minutes, Vivek picks me up from the hotel and sits me down in his living room with a cup of chai and breakfast. We spend the following day going through the JNU registration process: a lengthy procedure that requires about 15 photos, many passport and visa copies, a medical certificate and, last but not least, patience. Most of the administrative staff at the university only speak Hindi. English is an official language in India, but in New Delhi that only applies in younger or academic circles. When I run out of photos to hand in, Vivek remains calm and quickly comes up with a solution: there is a photographer on campus; we will have lunch to tide us over until he opens, and then continue our paperwork marathon, which will take up the next two days.

Obstacles and helpful university staff

I find that despite the complicated administrative procedures and the language barrier, I am treated with great patience and genuine kindness. I have quickly learned that although I am confronted with many unfamiliar situations and sometimes incomprehensible procedures, there is a helpful person at almost every step of the way. At JNU, there is no question that an atithi, which means "any guest" in Hindi, anyone who arrives unexpectedly, on any day at any time, is welcome and taken in.

I am, however, faced with another problem. Before travelling to New Delhi, I was told that I would be able to stay in student accommodation on campus. However, once I arrived, I found out that the university’s vice chancellor had decided to stop providing accommodation for exchange students. Nevertheless, Vivek is determined to get me a place in a hall of residence on campus. We go from office to office, and each time the answer is no.

Stay positive: Perseverance pays off!

At this point I probably would have given up, booked an Airbnb somewhere in Delhi and hoped that after a while I would find a room in the city. After all, there are many parts of South Delhi that you can explore on your own as a female foreigner during the day. The buses aren’t always on time, but they run much more often than what Google Maps would have you believe. So, renting a flat or a room near campus is also a good way to explore the city and be right in the middle of the hustle and bustle. I am surprised that Vivek is relentless in asking. But in fact, almost every no turns into a maybe, and eventually some even turn into a yes. Another important lesson for anyone visiting India: The first answer is always no, but persistence and perseverance will get you further than you think.

After four days in New Delhi, I can move into my dorm room and finally breathe a sigh of relief. I think of the last lesson Vivek imparted on me when I was overwhelmed after a long day of no's and maybes: "Paula, you have to stay positive. Your mindset has to stay positive." I would advise the same to anyone thinking of coming to India: Things may seem impossible, but stay positive and, with patience and perseverance, you will always find a way!

(Published 4 September 2023)