In 1998, I flew to India for the first time on my own. I was 20 years old and had been living in Philadelphia for the past four months. In the apartment I lived in with three friends in West Philadelphia, an itinerant drug dealer named Melvin crashed on the couch. We bought cases of Olde English. A 40 oz. broke in the freezer and we left its remains there, the brown-ice crusted shards of glass like moraine deposits.

When I landed in Delhi then, I had an eight-hour layover before moving on to Kolkata, during which I got violently ill. The world unstable and my body twisted within it, unable to find any balance. Perhaps it was something I ate, but I couldn’t help think that it was metaphysical. It was like time travel—my body and mind just couldn’t adjust to the extremes of America and India. Delhi, in my memory, was hung with thick fumes, gray and jittery with traffic. It was a very bad taste in the back of my throat.

How things have changed.

The new Delhi International airport, or T3, is shiny and hung with all kinds of art: murals of India and a giant relief of mudras hanging above the immigration stations. The parking garage was buzzing with new cars. Later, we took the Delhi metro, which gets you basically anywhere you want to go in the city. The women’s only compartments are marked with a flowery pink logo on the platform, but we rode co-ed (a little intense).

Everywhere there are throngs of young people with backpacks, headphones and mobiles — dressed in funny t-shirts and jeans. The epic smog even seems to have cleared up some, allowing for blue skies and puffy clouds. The excitement that I first felt when I visited in 2003 remains, swelling. Delhi’s recent push for the Commonwealth Games making everything here a little cleaner. The future certainly looks bright, but it’s the way that rubs against the ancient that make India so incredible.

Our first morning, we decided to walk from our hotel — located in Sunder Nagar, a fancy gated community in South Delhi — and immediately ran into a crumbling Mughal-era mosque and one of Delhi’s many gates. After crossing a busy and noisy street, we passed through an old wooden gate and suddenly everything seemed to fall away, leaving the cool dusty ground and an old well for washing. The fading green and blue tiles matched perfectly the parrots that nested behind the bricks of the main building. One forgets what ancient really means in America, it felt good to breathe it in–try to wrap one’s imagination around what came so long before. Walking along we happened on the National Gallery of Modern Art and checked out an amazing exhibit tracing the trajectory of modern Indian art from Colonial times. I wanted to write/read a novel about almost every artist listed.

For all it’s glamor and newness, Delhi is still completely overwhelming — in the same way New York is if New York had no traffic laws or cross-walks. Crossing the street here and riding in auto-rickshaws scares the hell out of me. On our first day, we had to try to cross several lanes of head-on traffic on foot, almost had a direct collision in an auto-rickshaw with a van, and saw at least two accidents. One was late at night when a bus clipped a small white car that was backing out, busting out the car’s taillight. It was the car driver’s fault, and after initial impact, the car stopped for a second before turning and zooming away. The bus driver left the bus parked in the middle of the street and came running after the car yelling a string of colorful Delhi expletives. India is the country with the highest number of road accident deaths, and Delhi has the highest in the country. I’m not surprised, but I am terrified.

The sun sets each day between 5:30 and 6 — unchanging throughout the year. This is the hardest time of the day for me, and the hardest thing so far to get used to. In the dark, everything turns hazy and dangerous. I was trying to go hear sunset Sufi singing at the shrine of saint Nizamuddin, but we were delayed leaving the Fulbright orientation and by the time we reached the area, dusk had turned into actual night. The rickshaw dropped us off at the entrance of the neighborhood, which was bustling with people but poorly lit. There were cars and carts pushing us to the sides of the street where crippled beggars huddled and hundreds of men and women in traditional Islamic clothing bustling about. Suddenly we were very, very out of place. This was no Connaught Place with Adidas stores and McDonald’s on every corner. We quickly turned around and headed back. I forgot that feeling of being in a strange place and coming up against these boundaries. The shrine was closed, so I hope to return again.

In general, I have to come up with a strategy to deal with this time of day, not only is this when the jet lag is the worst, I know in Kolkata it’s when the mosquitoes come out. I always get the blues at this time of day and want suddenly to go directly to bed. There is also the fact that women virtually disappear from the streets at this time — so I think part of it is feeling trapped. Hopefully once I’m settled in Kolkata, I can set this time to do some yoga or something — once I get over the hump, everything seems fine again later in the evening.

As I knew it would be, this trip has already been most memorable because of personal connections. Professor and writer Pranav Jani joined us for breakfast on our first day. Pranav, who is living/researching in India for the year with his family, has been a huge supported of Indivisible and was trying to help us get out to Ohio State this Spring. It was great to talk to someone who has been doing what we are about to embark on. He recommended the book Modern India by Sumit Sarkar, as a great text to help put this year in context.

I also attended a wonderful reading at the India International Center — a kindof country club for artists — featuring Hong Kong-based poet Agnes Lam and Indivisible contributor Sudeep Sen. The event was chaired by the very daper Professor Alok Bhalla, who gave a wonderful talk on the concept of the “ethical imagination” in poetry–or the role of the poet in the very grim world of today. It was great to meet Sudeep, who has been very supportive of my poetry as a voracious editor. He and his house guest/collaborator — the Irish painter Janet Pierce — convinced the extremely jet-lagged Robin and I to hang out with them late into the night. Along with a tasty Bloody Mary, an excellent dinner that topped off with delicious fig ice cream, a breathtaking midnight stroll in the Lodhi Gardens — we went back to see Sudeep’s incredible library at his home office for Atlas and Aark Arts Books.

It’s funny how in barely three days, some of my initial thoughts of how my time in India will go have already shifted. I had this fantasy that I would live a Spartan existence here in terms of food and drink — subsisting on fruits and light daals. I figured this move away from the gluttony of my life in San Francisco would allow me to cut back on everything, including drinking. Of course I know that those kinds of changes have nothing to do with place and everything with personal choice, but India is rich with three-hour meals and various pleasures … so my serious life change might have to wait awhile.