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Published: October 13th 2014
To tell you the truth, I was a little scared of India. I was travelling alone too, my comfort zone nowhere in sight after the cushy organised tour I was booked on got cancelled. I flew from Bangkok with the overtly budget IndiGo Airlines
, expecting an overcrowded expiring plane with smoking engines on the outside and cigarette smoke on the inside. It was a pleasant surprise then, when I found a plane that was way newer than anything Easyjet has to offer, and with well dressed (and attractive!) friendly staff to boot. I'm impressed.
My Indian experience also started on the plane, where I assisted a bunch of turban wearing & wickedly bearded Punjabis, who needed help with the English wording on their boarding cards (English being an official language in India, alongside Hindi). Turns out they were from Amritsar, in the North, and play in a band at the Golden Temple there - one of my intended stops. One guy showed me pictures of his family, and gave me a photo of him and his wife, with his son's phone number on the back for me to call when I arrived. Another guy asked me for some mp3's
from my phone (I gave him a few tracks, though I'm doubtful he'll have any interest in Avicii or Foo Fighters). My diary entry here says "I'm pretty sure this is a sign of things to come", and I couldn't have been more right - this was merely the beginning of my descent into the rabbit hole, and is actually a fairly typical encounter in India.
My pre-arranged taxi was waiting for me at the airport, and for this I was thankful as I was completely overwhelmed when I arrived. I knew from experience that my comfort zone would eventually expand, but for the time being it was as if I'd arrived at a weight watcher's convention wearing nothing but a giant cake. Everyone wanted a piece of me. The taxi driver was friendly enough, but spent the entire journey telling me about his sick mother and poor family, angling for an extra 200 rupees (£2). I was only paying £8 for a 40 minute drive, which would have easily cost £30 in London, so I felt like I was robbing him anyway. But when we arrived at my Guest House (Maya's Nest
), my kickass hostess, Asha, snatched
my tip back and shooed the driver away. Apparently £8 was already quite a generous amount for a taxi from the airport.
My guest house felt like a sanctity of peace and quiet, an island amongst the turmoil and poverty outside. And my hostess Asha was an absolutely lovely lady (as was her daughter, Maya). Well educated, well spoken, and well-travelled. We had many a discussion about life in India and its problems. Apparently they have rolling water usage, so everyone gets 1 hour of water per day, at alternating times for different areas. She has pumps and tanks to get as much water as possible during this time. The same can happen with power apparently, though the downtime is less frequent. Asha likes England and Europe, but has a very low opinion of the colonisation, and mostly blames a failing (and corrupted) leftover British democracy for India's problems.
I eventually ventured outside, and I was confused. It's weird like I remember Brasil being, with poverty just screaming from the pot-holed roads, crumbling sidewalks, and dirty buildings. But then I'd come to a mall on the very same road, and one which wouldn't look
out of place in an affluent area of London. Well, aside from the security pat-down from armed guards on the way in. The stark contrast is eye-opening though, and as I walked through the third of three giant malls next to each other - each as large as any Westfield, and each progressively flashier - I couldn't help but dislike it. I don't think there's a Western brand I couldn't find, from Maccas and Starbucks to Zara and Levis. Perhaps it's a patronising Western kind of view, but it just seems like such a sell-out. It's not that I don't want India and Indians to enjoy the same overpriced coffee and such that we can. It's more that I'd prefer it if they did it with their own shops, drawing from their own cultural identity and feeding their own coffers, rather than those of greedy multinationals. It also struck me as a kind of cultural conditioning in process, like seeing a third world country develop before your eyes. For instance, outside the malls were loudspeakers telling people how to act in the malls, like not touching everything in the store, etc. Common sense for anyone from the West, but not
so much here.
I may be in the land of Hindus, but my room-mate at the guest house was a Spanish guy called Jesus. I kid you not. It must be weird to go to a church and have everyone praise your name. Anyway, I also met a nice Brasillian couple, Leean & Vinisus, who I headed out with the next day. I was grateful for the backup, as I timidly set out once again into the madness. What a shock to the system this place is. The buses don't stop for you - we learned to just jump on as they rolled by. The rickshaw ride to Old Delhi after this was similarly action packed, but it only got more amazing as we started walking around. I took a million photos, but I don't think any photo can completely capture the crazy. There's so much going on around you, constantly. People carrying things everywhere - on their heads, on pivoting trollies, on rickshaws. People going places, delivering something, or selling something. Tiny shops litter the roadside and the sidewalk, as well as the middle of the road. You can't walk on the pavement, and have to
Wandering the Old Town
This is a quiet street
contend with traffic the whole way. There's continuous hooting as drivers rely on their sonar system of driving. Crossing the road is an adventure alone, and you sometimes need to climb over traffic locked bicycles just to get anywhere.
We somehow managed to find our way around to do some touristy things, like visiting the Red Fort
, built in the 1600s by a Mughal King. The fort was huge, and must have looked quite spectacular in the day. At the very least, it offered a brief respite from the outside world with its giant gardens and relative serenity. We continued on to visit an impressive giant mosque (Jama Masjid
) with a great view from the top. I remember finding the officials there quite unfriendly though, which was a little disappointing. This is not a dig at Muslims mind you - I found Syrian mosques friendly enough - but it was more surprising as so far I'd found the locals to be exceptionally friendly. Sometimes annoyingly so. They insist that you to take photos of them, with your own camera
. They'll come and say hi for absolutely no reason. Considering the amazing poverty, this is pretty cool. And there's no
mistaking it: This is poverty, and it's quite heart-breaking how some of the people have to get by. For example, at one point we took a cycle rickshaw through the streets for a bit (It's exhausting walking through them!), where our driver had to negotiate traffic jams and masses of people, while cycling 3 people on his un-geared bike for about 30 minutes. His price? £0.80. Unbelievable.
For lunch we went to this quirky little place called Karim's
, which you'd never find without a recommendation. If you blinked you'd easily miss the tiny side alley through all the old town chaos, which opens up into a small quiet courtyard, with giant pots and ovens on one side, a tiny hotel on the other, and a small canteen area in-between. As you can imagine, the curry was outstanding!
The last adventure of the day was to take the underground train, after spotting our return bus stuck in deadlocked traffic. All I can say is that I'm never, ever
, complaining about the London underground again. The queue to get to the ticket offices put the line at a new iPhone launch to shame, albeit in a
An Awesome Lunch Stop
much less orderly manner. But the queue to get through the security check was even bigger! I've never seen a conveyor belt bag scanner jammed so full of bags before, as frantic commuters scramble to get through the metal detector as quickly as possible. Once we actually made it to the platform and train the experience wasn't too dissimilar to London, though slightly more jam packed and frantic, if you can believe that's possible. At least it had air conditioning!
I was completely buggered by the time we made it back to the guest house, and collapsed into bed after setting a 5am alarm for my early morning train to Agra, where the Taj Mahal beckoned.
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