Cover photo courtesy of McKay Savage from London, UK [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
The plane journey to Delhi was horrible. There was a god-awful Adam Sandler movie, the usual unappealing sludge masquerading as food and a colossal middle-aged man next to me who coughed, snored, scratched and farted his way through the entire flight. Even worse than all that though, was the ice-cold moment it suddenly struck me what a huge mistake I was making. What the hell was I doing flying to India? This unexpected moment of clarity exposed all my previous talk of character-building’ as little more than naivety. Who exactly had I been kidding?
Not that this would be my first time exploring a foreign land. By this point I had two years of English teaching under my belt, my first twelve months spent in Qatar’s capital city Doha, while my second contract took me to Slovakia’s main metropolis Bratislava. But while both experiences had provided ample travelling opportunities, this would be my first indefinite period out on the open road. I could go wherever I wanted whenever I pleased! It was exciting for sure, but now, my mind racing at forty thousand feet, also nerve-wracking. As such, I spent the remainder of the flight in a state of half-sleep dreaming up all kinds of dismal scenarios. The highlights of which included losing my passport, having my wallet stolen and a dodgy curry followed by a crippling case of diarrhoea. Thankfully my mid-air meltdown turned out to be little more than a temporary panic attack. Beginning our gentle descent into Delhi, my heartbeat stabilised and slowly but surely I formed a steely resolve, mentally preparing myself for the coming hours.
Moving into the arrivals hall at Indira Gandhi International and I scanned the landscape, backpack slung over my sleep-deprived shoulders. Thankfully and just as planned, I was met by a friendly face and a reassuringly firm handshake. “Welcome to hell” he said in a lilting Scottish accent. “Let’s grab a taxi”.
I’d first met Allan a few months prior, standing in the visa queue at The Indian Embassy in Edinburgh. What began as time-killing small talk eventually led to coffee at The Film House where we chatted about our travelling aspirations before exchanging email addresses. “Drop me a line, maybe we can meet up over there’’ I said, taking one last gulp of my Latte. I hadn’t expected anything to actually come of it, so was pleasantly surprised when a week or so before departure Allan got in touch to say he’d meet me at the airport.
From the bustling chaos of arrivals we made our way to the prepaid taxi rank to request a chariot into the city. Our destination was Paharganj, a teeming market street in Central Delhi, a backpacker’s haven of budget hotels and dirt-cheap eateries. The guy behind the taxi counter sat chewing on a gnarled pencil, monitoring our approach with an expression of mild disinterest. “Paharganj? Umm… four hundred Rupees”. “What?” spluttered Allan, “no way, I’ve done this trip for two hundred”. “No sir, two hundred not possible” replied the man, his head jerking from side to side. “350!” he continued, in a tone that insinuated he was doing us a big favour.
Allan laughed, rolling his eyes; “no thanks” and suddenly we were walking away. I was just about to concede that I really didn’t mind paying three quid for a forty-minute taxi ride when a now desperate voice called after us. “Ok… Ok… no problem two hundred, for you special price!” “Thank you” replied Allan, sounding not at all grateful, and so the curtain fell on my first lesson in haggling with the natives.
Step 1: Await ludicrous quote.
Step 2: Produce a condescending laugh.
Step 3: Half the quote.
Step 4: Walk off.
Step 5: Allow yourself to be called back before getting in the taxi for a reasonable price.
We were still paying too much of course, but it remained a victory of sorts and its moral-of-the-story conclusion set me in good stead for the coming months.
Any inner tranquility I thought I’d amassed since meeting Allan disintegrated a few minutes later, as we hurtled down the motorway like a greyhound out of the starting blocks. Fumbling desperately for a seatbelt that wasn’t there, I glanced around trying to take everything in. The experience could only be described as a real-life episode of Wacky Races, although a spin with Dick Dastardly himself may well have been a safer proposition. We overtook, undertook, cut up and narrowly avoided collision with a number of blurred vehicles, our mute driver ignoring the lane system and making up his own rules. I use the word rules in the loosest possible sense, as the only prerequisites I could establish were the following:
a) The bigger vehicle always has the right of way.
b) You must honk your horn continually, regardless of the situation.
This moronic honking was an all-engulfing ritual that reverberated around Delhi twenty-four seven, making enough of a racket to give you a permanent headache. Painted onto the back of most heavy goods vehicles was the request please using horn, which amusing grammatical errors aside, seemed like a wholly unnecessary dose of encouragement.
Weaving in and out of various lanes at high speed, we zoomed past trucks, taxis, rickshaws, bicycles, homemade vehicles, cows, pigs and other miscellaneous cattle. These spaced-out animals sat slumped at the side of the road, eyes glazed, chewing on garbage. I watched in disbelief as the odd motorbike whizzed by, whole families perched precariously on the back like badly stacked tin cans. One such machine came so close to crashing into us, it audibly skimmed the side of our taxi.
Unfortunately, colliding with other vehicles wasn’t my only concern, as I felt certain it was only a matter of time before we killed a pedestrian. I could only watch in horror as young boys, suited businessmen and hobbling pensioners idly meandered across the road, seemingly unconcerned that their lives could end at any moment. Finally, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief when congestion brought us to a temporary stop and I had a chance to scrutinize our dubious surroundings.
The traffic stood back-to-back with the honking having now risen to an almost ear-shattering level. Sweat trickled down my forehead in competing streams. In search of some oxygen, I rolled down the window, a soon-to-be-realized blunder. Within twenty seconds a small boy had appeared. He was dirty, visibly undernourished and dressed in rags. The poor guy couldn’t have been a day older than ten and had the saddest looking eyes I’d ever seen. Clutched firmly in his grubby little hand was a pack of blue pens. “Only 50 Rupees sir” he said, eyeballing me forlornly.
“No thanks” I replied with a sympathetic smile. Pretty well off in the pen department, I could only lament the fact that he wasn’t selling something to aid me through my current ordeal. A bottle of Whiskey would have been just dandy. “Please sir…” he persevered, “…no mama no papa. Poor me sir… poor me!” I looked away, and sensing he was losing me, the kid brought out the big guns. “No mama no papa. Pooooor me sir… pooooor me!” he whined.
Without making any kind of conscious decision, I found my hand wandering down to the money belt strapped around my waist beneath my T-shirt. “No” said Allan gently, placing his hand on my arm. The boy was no fool though and knew he’d made an impact. And so he turned the dramatics up another notch, repeating the “poor me” line yet again, but this time putting in an Oscar-winning performance that involved the wringing of his hands and those damn eyes reaching a whole new level of despondency.
Seconds later the taxi pulled away and I was off the hook. I watched glumly as he faded into the distance, all the while those eyes remained locked into mine, right until he was out of sight and swallowed amid a sea of metal and dust. Feeling crappy, I scolded myself for not giving him the equivalent of sixty pence for his pens. Later of course I learned more about the street kids of Delhi, how they’re sent out by pimp-like characters to collect money, more often than not to fund drug addictions and prostitution. Nine times out of ten the children see next to nothing of the cash they bust a gut begging for. If only I could have given him some fruit, a chocolate bar, anything that would have brightened his day up a little.
Leaving the death-mobile for the equally chaotic flow of Paharganj was like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. I had never seen so many people crammed into one space and it made Saturday afternoon on London’s Oxford Street look like a leisurely stroll in the park. With the sun mercilessly beating down on us, we slowly picked our way through the crowds, edging further and further into the cauldron. Before long we were set upon by feverish vendors, so-called tour guides and other entrepreneurs, all of whom appeared desperate to sell us anything that wasn’t nailed to the ground. “Yes please!!!” “Come my shop”. “You want Kashmir?” “Hello internet!”. “Beautiful things”. “This way for cheap”. “Which country?”
They were relentless, with the more persistent offenders even chasing after us and blocking our way. Nevertheless we battled on, our eyes fixed on a sign in the distance. A beacon of hope, our promised oasis, I focused hard on those words for all I was worth, determined to get through the madness intact. We passed cripples, beggars, filthy flea-ridden dogs and collections of street urchins who tugged at our arms and legs with impish smiles. Then to our delight the crowds thinned out for a stretch, and at last we we’d arrived at The Hare Krishna Guest House!
Safely ensconced in its dimly lit lobby, we threw off our rucksacks and flopped out on a pair of plastic chairs. Catching my breath, I gazed up at the ceiling, monitoring the progress of an enormous beetle as it scuttled towards a network of spider webs and certain death. “You want room?” deduced the fiercely intelligent receptionist. I laughed out loud for the first time since stepping off the plane and briefly considered telling him that no, in actual fact we were looking to purchase twenty kilos of snow for the ski slope we were building next door.
After another round of tedious negotiations (“Yes sir 250 one night is special price”), it was with some trepidation that I turned the key to the door of my room. To say my expectations had been low would be an understatement, so I was very relieved indeed to be met by a small, basic but clean room happily free of street touts and pen-selling children. The bed itself was comically slight, with all the comfort of an antique ironing board, while nearby stood a rickety wooden table with a beer-mat wedged beneath one of its gnarled legs.
Drained from the exertions of the flight, dicing with death on Delhi’s roads and dodging the street predators, I was asleep on said ironing board the moment my head touched what the receptionist would have insisted was a pillow.