Arriving in New Delhi
We reach the hotel somewhere around two in the morning. The drive was eerily peaceful for India, barely any traffic at all. Even having the road all to ourselves as we drive past the row of embassies, the Presidential estate, Parliament. Our driver slows down as he points them out.
Arriving at the Shangri-La Eros Hotel is like arriving at any 5-star hotel in India. Your bags are whisked away before you’ve even gotten out of the car. Your door is opened for you as you step out, greeted by friendly faces. You pass your hand luggage through an X-ray machine and step through a metal detector before you can enter. Standard security protocol.
Checking in to the Shangry La
The lobby is large and grand, but I register slight disappointment. It’s not the ITC. We proceed to the front desk and hand over our passports to check in. There are five of us. My husband, his colleagues and me. At this point I’m so exhausted I find a counter to lean on and allow myself to space out while my husband deals with it. I’m woken up from my standing dream and escorted to the elevator.
My husband is here on a business trip, and so we’re not happy to see that our room is adjacent to a hall that appears to be under construction. Especially since it’s around 3 in the morning now and I can only imagine the shitstorm that will ensue if he gets woken up before his alarm.
But there’s a bigger problem. Our room smells like it has just been painted, sprayed with insecticide, and coated in some other nondescript chemicals belonging to the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) family, which is strange because the room looks perfectly fine. My husband goes downstairs to talk to front desk while I sit in the room, breathing in this Molotov cocktail. I notice a headache sprout somewhere in the middle of my brain and start to spread.
We move to another room on another floor that is smaller than the one before. That smell is definitely still there, although much less so. We accept and get ready for bed. I can’t sleep, but at least my husband is already out. After only a few hours, he is up and leaves for work. I want to join him for breakfast but my morning troll wins (as usual) in telling me to go back to sleep.
The phone wakes me up. Front desk says they will move us to another room, an upgrade, at my husband’s request. I ask to see it first, to be sure, and while this one also has that odd chemical odour to it, neither are as bad as that first room we saw. Or perhaps, we are used to it now. I won’t even notice that my sense of smell has diminished until I’m back in London.
The room is a suite, with a large bedroom, bathroom, living room, marble-top desk, corner sofa, and two TVs. This will do nicely, especially since I plan on working from the room all day while my husband is at the office. I still have all those Hawaii blog posts to write up.
Instead, I spend the day feeling unwell, jet-lagged and exhausted. Tired and nauseous. I order room service and watch several movies on the sofa while covered under two fluffy white bathrobes. I fall asleep. I wake up and wonder how on earth my husband is getting on. But then again, he doesn’t have the option of a sofa or bed tempting him. Just five more minutes…
I realize I’ve slept most of the day, and need to get my act together if I want to sleep through the night. So I do what any sensible person would do, I don my robe and call the lift down to the spa.
I ask for a foot massage, and immediately regret not specifying a woman as I sit in nothing more than a bathrobe on a strange elevated chair usually used for pedicures. He asks if I’d like one, but I decline, not too sure how that would work. I’ve never had a man paint my toenails before. It’s not that I’m against it it’s just new to me and I’m already not 100% comfortable with the situation.
The massage was good, I felt like I needed it. I have bad circulation in my legs and so the sensation is relieving. Especially after nearly nine hours sat upright in economy. The honeymoon perks now over. I head to the jacuzzi and lower myself into the hot water. I feel my chest tighten, which is odd, reminding me of the days when I was a smoker, the same type of wheezy tightness.
My husband returns just as I’m getting dressed, with two colleagues in tow. There is some confusion about what to do. It took two hours to reach the office, they explain, and want to change hotels for a shorter commute. We evaluate our options and I do my best to wipe the I told you so look off my face. Errors like this never happen to me. I try instead to be helpful. I research hotels near their office. All the good ones are fully booked.
We go to the Italian in the hotel for dinner. We share a delicious four-cheese pizza as a starter, it’s crust as thin as a crepe, which I love, but my husband hates. Not enough food, he complains, as he always does when he’s hungry. We order a pasta each for our main. He’s full now and I don’t miss the opportunity to remind him that it’s a good thing we didn’t order the entire menu after all. The pastas are delicious and well made. After a very enjoyable meal, we go for a little walk around the hotel until we remember that we should all get some sleep.
We wake up to an unusual sight. At the press of a button the blinds automatically roll up and we notice that we cannot see a thing out the window. Not a thing. What is this? Fog? George goes to work and so do I. We don’t function without coffee so I order a pot to the room and begin writing the first of my Hawaii honeymoon posts. Around midday I get a text from George: New Delhi has declared a public health emergency. I open the news.
As a former Senior Analyst where my number one skill was my ability to research anything and everything, I start to discover a lot of disturbing facts.
- First, I confirm that there is a public health emergency due to air pollution. That the air is not safe to breathe.
- Second, I note that the schools are closed until further notice to protect the children. But that nothing is being done to protect the adults, not even those working outside all day in construction or standing outside the entrance of the hotel opening and closing car doors.
- Third, I note the severity of the situation. The particulate matter PM 10 is measured at 999, which means it’s actually above that but the instrument only counts as far as 3 digits. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) measure anything above 300 as hazardous, which is the highest category.
- Fourth, I learn that this also happened last year and is a common problem in New Delhi as well as in several other big cities, particularly this time of year. But that on this day, the pollution is 10 times worse here than in Beijing.
- Fifth, I look into what caused it. Mostly crop burning, as well as firecrackers in celebration of Diwali, garbage burning, industrial pollution and to a lesser extent, vehicle emissions.
I read things like, Delhi is a gas chamber. Breathing air here is the equivalent of smoking 50 cigarettes. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, coughing, congestion, hypertension, burning eyes. Risks include aging of the lungs, loss of lung capacity, respiratory diseases, shortened lifespan, lung cancer.
I learn more about this PM, this particulate matter. That 2.5 and 10 relate to the size, micrometers in diameter, where 2.5 is the most dangerous because it is small enough to bypass the lungs and enter the bloodstream. PM results from pollution released directly into the atmosphere, such as from fires, emissions, or construction, as well as chemical reactions that happen between these pollutants. It is carcinogenic, toxic, and indeed life-threatening.
I worry first about my husband who has to travel in the car two hours to the office and two hours back each day. I worry about myself because I get asthma and have no inhaler with me. And I worry about the 20 million residents who are stuck not here, inside this hotel, but outside, breathing in this toxic air, with nowhere else to go.
I realize now that the paint smell that permeates the hotel is what 999 air pollution actually smells like. I had expected a smokier smell, more like burning wood or a gas station maybe, so I’m genuinely shocked to discover that smog at these levels smells of paint fumes, like toxic chemicals, instead.
I spend the day doing more research. I compare the air pollution in New Delhi to Gurugram, where my husband’s office is located, and to Agra, where we planned to go in the weekend to see the Taj Majal. Neither are looking good, both over 300. I wonder if we could even see the Taj Mahal, given how bad the visibility is over here. I realize that it’s irrelevant. The air is too hazardous, carcinogenic, and not worth risking our health or lives over. And so my priority shifts to getting us all home.
I spend most of the afternoon on what’s app coordinating our new flights. I’m on a separate booking, another colleague is flying a different airline. My husband is on the phone with his corporate travel agent, I’m on the phone to BA. We spend a few hours dealing with this. Getting the approvals, figuring out our options. Cancelling the hotel in Agra.
Is it ethical to just leave like that? Is it ethical to stay? How badly are we at risk right now? These are questions we ask ourselves, each other. Nobody wants to risk lung cancer. It’s hard to believe we are in the middle of such an epic problem when just two days ago we had no clue of its existence. We’re literally in the most polluted place on the planet right now. How did this happen? How did this country let this happen?
Finally, our flights home are all confirmed. We will leave Thursday night, two more sleeps. I decide to squeeze in a 30-minute workout. I feel determined. It’s a feeling of strength or motivation I often get after taking a decision or solving a problem. I bend over and walk my hands forward into a plank, I push back into downward dog, back to plank, I press out 10 push-ups, and fold back into downward dog. I lunge. I squat. I do bicycles for my abs. I pretend I’m skipping rope for five minutes. Single jump, double jump, knees up. After I’m showered and dressed, I lay on the bed for an hour feeling incredibly light-headed and sick. I feel like I’m going to throw up. Exercise was truly a bad idea.
We go down to Shang for dinner just after nine. We note the haziness of the room. Columns of smoke illuminated under the spotlights. We enjoy another fantastic meal. We opt for a set menu that includes unlimited dim sum and an incredible variety of mains. The seabass is very fresh and delicious. I love the Sichuan and seaweed spice over the long green beans. Our egg fried rice is prepared before us in a hot stone bowl.
Wednesday morning comes, our second to last day. It already feels like an eternity. My husband is coughing often now. His eyes are bloodshot. He is trying to remain calm but I can see his panic. He feels responsible for bringing us all here. And he hates getting sick. Our complaints about London’s polluted tube and all the people who still commute to work no matter how sick they are, coughing and spreading their flu, seems like fresh air to us now.
I decide to write a blog post about this crazy place. An Open Letter to New Delhi, I call it. Because I feel like I should say something. Nobody told me anything. It seems nobody really knows about it. Everyone is just carrying on like normal over here. I see people still going for jogs even though the health advice explicitly says do not exercise outdoors, or go outdoors at all. Did they not read it? Do they not know? Do they not care? I can’t work it out. But I decide to say something.
Wednesday night we go for dinner at Tamra. It’s a beautiful live buffet with four cuisines, Italian, South Asian, Indian and Japanese. I go straight to the Indian station and bring back plates of chaat, black daal, chicken tikka, lamb curry, and garlic naan. The buffet is fantastic, the food is cooked on the spot and everything we taste is delicious. We underestimated it when we chose the Italian and Chinese restaurants the previous two nights. The Shangri-La doesn’t have a dedicated Indian restaurant and we weren’t in the mood for a buffet. But as far as buffets go, it’s top notch.
Obviously, dinner time is the highlight of each day for me. Between getting over jet lag, discovering the pollution situation, and figuring out what to do about it, I haven’t been as productive as I’d hoped.
Thursday is the final day. I pack my bags. I put all my husband’s things in one place so he can pack quickly when he returns and not forget anything. I write. I read. I watch TV. I take my Fujifilm X-T20 mirrorless camera out from the safe and go for a walk around the hotel, taking these photos. One last walk around the hotel. I haven’t left since I arrived. I went outside just once when I was given a tour of the spa, gym and outside swimming pool. The pool looks beautiful but I’m not into smog-bathing.
I don’t wait for my husband to return for dinner and eat by myself in the room. I’m not feeling well. No one is. I barely did any work. I just want to go home. Our taxi is booked for midnight. Our flight is at 03:20. The airport is crowded. You have to have your boarding pass printed in order to get inside the airport. This is an odd rule they enforce strictly. There is a different immigration line for First or Business Class passengers. The line is exceptionally long, it takes us over an hour to get through. Hardly a coincidence.
We board the plane and lift off towards London like passengers in a lifeboat sailing away from the Titanic. New Delhi is a sinking ship. But unlike the Titanic, this ship is sinking much slower. Lives are being lost, but the majority can be saved. The hole can be patched. The water can be thrown out. The ship can sail into the future.
I don’t live in Delhi. I was always going to leave their ship, sinking or not. My husband came for work, and I came along for tourism. For the food, the culture, the Taj Mahal. I’m a food and travel blogger. Despite four days stuck inside the hotel, and as these photos show, not a bad place at all to be ‘stuck’ in, I didn’t only see the Shangri-La. I saw a massive national and international problem. I saw a health hazard for 20 million people and counting. I saw pollution on a scale that is unacceptable in 2017. I saw a complete disregard for human lives and our environment. I saw crimes against humanity.
Upon my return I was talking to a friend, saying how stupid we are as humans. How we have to see things with our own eyes to take them seriously. Only seeing is believing. We know there is pollution, we know we produce too much waste, we know about climate change and global warming. And what do we do about?
It takes me a trip to New Delhi, a first-hand experience, to share my story and look to raise awareness. Does that mean then that I have to physically go on a whale-watching boat tour, happen to see a whale cough up a giant ball of plastic before washing up on the shore, see a man run over and slice through the length of its belly with a giant machete as tons of plastic spills out from its guts, before I stop and say, hey! My god! Did you know about the pollution of the seas?
Join a cause
Say something. Do something. Change comes from us and only us. It sounds corny, but it’s incredibly true. Only when the people demand it, are governments forced to do something about it. So demand it. Help spread the word about it. Just whatever you do, don’t ignore it. Don’t contribute to it. Don’t think you can get away with it.