A close, spiritual friend, recalling her adventures in India many moons ago had advised us to “step off the plane in New Delhi, stop and feel the energy”. The only really positive statement that we had really heard about our impending journey.
What could we expect? Is it safe? Would we actually enjoy it? Friends, family and customers were keen to give us their take on what it would be like, but this of course, is only based on things that they may have heard or possibly imagined.
You might be wondering what the first impressions are like, so allow us to take you there…
If you have read our blog “Practicing with Delhi belly”, then you will understand that we were more than ready to leave. Months of doing stuff such as moving house, selling our things, packing up, quitting work, cancelling contracts, notifying the banks and arguing with landlords had led us to the point where we were living in the clothes that we were ready to fly in.
We braced ourselves in anticipation of a culture shock, but more than anything, we were tingling with excitement to explore; The delay in our trip had only added to our eagerness to spread our wings and fly.
After a number of hours(and espresso’s), our gate was called and buzzing with eagerness and caffeine, we boarded our plane.
I suppose that you could say that this was our first taste of India. The plane was full of Indian and British – Indian families either travelling home or travelling to India to visit family.
I say that it was our first taste of India for two reasons. These were two of the Indian characteristics that we had read about a few weeks before flying:
1. I.S.T. – Indian people and foreigners alike laugh about Indian timing. The sort of laid back “we will get there when we get there” approach to life. We read all about the huge train and bus delays that apparently occur for no reason.
As we boarded our flight, we put our luggage in the overhead compartment, sat down and put our seat belts on. The rest of the passengers did the same. But they got up again, changed seats, sat down again, got up again, took luggage down from the overhead compartment, put it in a different compartment, took it down again, took some things out of the luggage, put them back in again and strolled up and down the plane to casually chat with people that they knew.
For a good 45 minutes of this, the flight attendants were frantically trying to usher everyone back to their seats, but of course we missed our flight window and consequently arrived in New Delhi 2 hours late.
2. No queueing – I’m stood waiting for the toilet. There’s an old lady who comes and stands behind me. The two cubicles are occupied. The minute that that latch shows green, the old lady springs to life and is in that toilet before you know it.
It wasn’t until we were about 45 minutes from New Delhi that I was overcome with the feeling of needing to be sick. Stumbling to the toilet nearby, I saw two people coming up to wait behind me (sort of in a queue fashion), but I knew the score after several hours on this plane.
With Sammy acting as my entourage, I pushed my way through to the toilet as she fended them away. Old lady (same one as before) even tried the door to the toilet that she had seen me go into. Little did we know that this was the tip of the iceberg.
Have you ever had to go and make a rail reservation in India? It’s not pretty.
Feel the energy
Stepping off the plane filled us with a tremendous feeling for a number of reasons. It was a great relief to be rid of our fellow passengers, sure, but the smile had crept on to our faces as we both began to realise:
“We are here. We have done it. This is real!”
Much of the time, people talk and fantasise about the things that they fancy doing and they make loose plans, knowing at the back of their minds that they have no intention of actually following it through.
Late 2014, it had felt more like something that we would talk about for years, rather than something that we would do. But here we were. The temperature wasn’t baking; It wasn’t summer time yet, so while it was as warm as a good English summer’s day, it wasn’t unbearable heat.
We waited at the security gate to get our passport stamped by the officer, who consequently issued us with our very first “welcome to India”, followed by a wink and a cheeky smile.
Considerable time was spent trying to find our luggage since we we had to check it as oversized (on account of the fact that they were backpacks). Conscious of the delay of the plane and the time that we had taken to find our bags, we ran to arrivals to see a very bored looking Indian man holding up a sign with our names.
We had read about the infamous Delhi taxi scams before our departure, so thought it would be a good idea to arrange a transfer via the hostel. This ended up costing around Rs100 more than the journey was worth, but after speaking with other travellers later in our journey across India, it was well worth it.
**Tip – Contact your hotel in advance and negotiate a transfer. It could save you a small fortune**
An assault on the senses
Having read the famous quote “Delhi is an assault on the senses”, we were curious to see the arrivals lounge with it’s glamorous high ceilings, polished floor, expensive shops and even a Costa Coffee. We almost scoffed at this description of the city, assuming that we were harder to things than we thought.
Then it hit us. Like a slap in the face.
Or, given that it happened in waves, it was more like repeated slaps to the face and it began with the taxi journey.
The driver was friendly and attempted to make small talk with his very limited English. He told Carl that he has a muslim face and he liked it a lot. To this day, we are not sure what that means. As the conversation ground to a halt, we sped onto the highway from the airport.
We were sat firmly gripping to the seat covers as our driver (along with every other car, lorry, bus, rickshaw, tuk tuk) entered into what can only be described as an intricate vehicular dance.
There were lanes; quite a few of them, but it seemed more like the traffic preferred to avoid them at all costs.
Overtaking, undertaking, cutting up traffic, speeding, stopping dead in the middle of the highway for a chat, swerving past the guy who thought it would be a good idea to bring his bull-powered cart down there, nearly causing a traffic pile-up because a small herd of cows has wandered on to the road.
All of this, we later learned, is perfectly normal.
Did we mention the beeping? Lorries, busses and other larger objects have a hand-written sign on the back saying “horn please”. I guess the point of this is to alert them of your presence when overtaking. People also use their horn to express road rage, which I suppose is something that occurs universally. The question, though, is this:
When the cacophony of horns maintains itself at such a high volume, what is the point of beeping in the first place? No one will hear you!
The highway was pretty normal looking by all accounts, but without any warning, we jerked to the left down a narrow slip road (under taking a guy pulling a cart full of concrete bags). This was more like the Delhi that we had read about.
In the UK, middle class families with 2.4 children tend to prefer the Range Rover Vogue to transport their hummus and tender stem broccoli artefacts from waitrose to their driveway.
In Delhi, a battered, scooter with questionable road legality will do. We saw a family of 5 on one scooter – so impressive that they might have well formed a human pyramid. Look to the left and there are just 2 people on a scooter….but wait….they are also carrying 3 live goats like they are bags of shopping.
We have to keep looking to the left, because if you look to the right, all you can see is an endless row of men urinating by the road side. So many, in fact, that we assumed that they were going for some sort of guinness world record.
Down the more narrow streets, the bazaars are alive. The mass of people prevented our vehicle from moving for some time, which gave the local beggars ample opportunity to scrape at our windows like a scene out of a zombie film. We are not making light of the poverty in India, but this was our first experience of it and it was genuinely intimidating. We are also certain that many of the people crowding the car were not beggars, but people just trying to get in on the action.
We made a move past small bazaar shops selling everything. Scattered in between were food stalls cooking up all sorts, crowded with locals sat on plastic chairs (we soon learned that the love of the plastic chair is almost as strong as their love of masala or cricket. It just isn’t talked about).
We admired the bizarre bazaar with curiosity as our vehicle was routinely ground to a halt not only from pedestrians, but also the open zoo. Stray cats, dogs, monkeys, chickens and the much respected cow. Some of the cows had been blinged up with paint and decoration. If we didn’t have any background on the Hindu religion, we might have thought that Tim Westwood had done an Indian series of “pimp my cattle”.
Our taxi ground to a halt one final time. We had reached our destination. Did the driver take the opportunity to rip us off with a “driver tip”? You bet your Indian arse he did.
We left the air-conditioned comfort of our taxi and opened the door.
The first smell that hits you is the pollution, with so many vehicles on the road you might as well be sucking at an exhaust pipe. You instantly notice the haze in the air that this has created over time and my god, you taste it in the back of your throat.
Then the wind changes.
You get a bouquet of human wee with notes of animal excrement and raw sewage. A nose of decaying food and burning plastic (from the small fires created as an attempt to dispose of rubbish).
Then the wind changes.
Then the wind changes.
And your stomach trembles with excitement with the aroma passing from the food stalls which are cooking up curry for thali, roasting nuts, frying up little sweets or grilling kebabs over hot coals.
Then the wind ch….oh….the wee again.
We assumed that the local population knew that we were new in town since everyone was eyeballing us. I mean EVERYONE (at least it felt that way). Quite why, we are still not too sure, but it was unnerving to say the least.
Rich business men (not getting hassled by beggars like we were) rubbing shoulders with chai wallahs and all walks of life in between. Men wearing handkerchiefs on their heads in such a range of different styles that we might write a blog entitled “how to wear a handkerchief 14 different ways – your new Indian style”. Women wearing the most beautifully coloured Sarees, carrying huge baskets of fruit and vegetables on their heads like it was just a stylish hat. Kurta pyjama seemed to be the norm for most Indian men, and for others, a long piece of cloth seemed to wrap around their lower half to form a pair of what looked like make-shift shorts.
They were still staring. Some people smiled back, some people seemed to laugh at us, some people looked like they didn’t want us there, some people looked like they were happy to see us, some people looked curious and some people…..some people were blatant perverts.
Being careful not to startle the large cow that was blocking the alleyway, we stepped over the trickle of piss that ran from the local outdoor urinal (which was basically the wall in the alleyway that we were to be staying), left turn at the fella who would later serve us mind-boggling chai, step quietly past the old man that lives in a chiselled out bit of wall with a curtain across it (he’s sort of made himself a little bed area, but his toes stick out into the alleyway), and then you have arrived.
The fat pug and the tattered sign on the door confirmed that we had reached our destination and we were relieved to be there. Read our mini post about Kuldeep and friends hostel.
So what about you? Ever been to New Delhi? What was your first experience like?
Please share your stories with us.
Thank you for reading
~The Vagabond Beans~