Incredible India had been lurking in my mind as probably the most intimidating country I will visit this year.
I’d heard so much about it, mostly that it can only be described as chaos. I’d heard that India is a roller-coaster of experiences; on the one hand that it’s dirty and dusty, there is extreme poverty, that I’d be constantly approached by people feigning to be my friend only to try to sell me something or direct me into some tourist agency for a commission. I’d heard that things would be difficult, from getting an internet connection to simply traveling around, and that everyone would be trying to rip me off. I’d heard that it would be blazing hot and that I would probably get sick at some time from the food or water. I’d heard that there would be dogs, people, carts, rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, cows and monkeys roaming the streets, horns blaring and trash lining every corner. That India makes Thailand and Vietnam look like first-world, highly developed countries.
On the other hand I’d heard that India is vast and full of hidden gems; that there are incredible experiences waiting in each day; that the people have an immense culture and heritage and welcoming spirit. That India is extraordinary, mysterious, and captivating.
So, when planning my route across the world, it was tempting to skip the big I; to fly over quietly into England and back to Western culture, safety and comfort. After all, time is short, money is limited, I could easily spend the extra time traveling through Europe.
The Flinch strongly suggested that I leave India off the itinerary.
Despite the many reasons why I could have skipped India, I felt I had to go there. After all, it’s the seconded largest country in the world by population with over 1.2 billion people, it’s the seventh largest country by geography, it’s quickly becoming an economic superpower, and it’s the largest democracy in the world. Shirley I had to stop to say I’d been there, to check the box, to not have to explain why I skipped India.
And so India was included in my round-the-world ticket, the last stop in Asia, looming four months into the adventure, an uncomfortable unknown in the distance.
The Flinch did still get a partial victory. In planning my stop in India, I had planned for two weeks, including two travel days, effectively limiting my time to 12 days. 12 days? No problem. Get in there, stay in the big city for a few days, see the important sites, make one or two trips out of town, then hurry back to the airport and escape to a more comfortable place, with India checked off the list.
That was the plan when I landed in New Delhi on June 3, 2012, approximately 20:30, following a four-hour flight from Bangkok.
For perhaps the first time this year, I actually had a little chat with the immigration officer passing through customs. He had a big smile when I approached the desk, and leafing through my passport he glanced up at me, smiling.
“Welcome to India. Is this your first time here?”
I told him it was.
“Welcome. I’m so glad you’re hear. You’re going to love it. Are you with a group or meeting friends?”
I told him I was traveling alone.
“Oh, ok. Well, you’ll be alright. Please enjoy yourself. Welcome to India.”
THUMP THUMP. It was the warmest welcome I can remember. I could see in his eyes and his expression that he was genuinely excited for me.
I’d figured out how to take the train into the city and I’d researched guest houses for the first night. In searching for cheap accommodation, most of the budget options were located in the Main Bazaar, or Pahar Ganj. I knew that this was the center of chaos, but I decided to jump right in and get the shock over with. I’d found what actually looked like a fairly nice place, at a reasonable price, and that would be easy to find: the Shelton Hotel.
After a short train ride I arrived at the New Delhi Train Station and stepped out into the dark heat. From here I checked with a few taxis, but decided that a tuk tuk would be a cheaper option. Ten jolting minutes later I was dropped at the entrance to Main Bazaar, alone with my pack and my faded white San Francisco Giants emblazoned special edition mesh ball cap.
Despite having an idea of what to expect, I don’t think anything can really prepare you for walking through Pahar Ganj at 9:30 PM. The main street of broken pavement and dust isn’t too narrow, but either side is lined with carts and shops, tables of goods and handicrafts, pallets and baskets of produce and stands with strange foods. There are people everywhere in all conditions absorbed in countless activities moving in all directions: vendors, workers, tradesmen, the maimed and impoverished, women and children, barterers and hagglers, wheelers and dealers of all sort. There are dogs everywhere, mostly looking tattered, but not hungry, and occasional cows walking aimlessly (I was disappointed to not see any monkeys on this first jaunt). There are narrow entrances to dark alleyways filled with neon signs and shadowy figures of people and animals. There is an endless stream of cars, rickshaws, tuk tuks, bicycles and other wheeled contraptions, all blaring horns simultaneously, missing each other by inches. There is trash lining the streets and heaped into piles.
All of this is dumped into an enormous mixing bowl and whisked briskly. Then add one wide-eyed white American male who’s been in India for one hour.
As much as you try to look like you’ve been here before, it’s no use.
“We’ve got a first-timer here!” I imagined someone yelling as I entered the bazaar.
In fact my first walk through Pahar Ganj, while shocking for an inexperienced westerner, was fun. I looked a lot of people in the eye and said hello often. Some people smiled back and many didn’t really know what to do, but I felt greeted warmly, if with uncertainty.
Many Indian men also have a particular facial gesture, almost a slight head-bob, a polite half-nod, half-shake. I’ve interpreted it so far as an affirmative expression of reply or acknowledgement, but it’s very distinct. I love it.
The Indian head-fake is to me what the California head-nod is to Indians, which I’m firing at will. As with other cultures – Japan and China in particular – they are not quite sure what to make of it, and frequently look puzzled. But we trade head-fakes and nods, and the message gets through: “What’s up bro.”
After a short walk I arrived at the Hotel Shelton. They show me a pretty nice room, but it’s a bit out of my price range.
Outside the door I’m greeted by Ajay, who seemed there waiting for me. He was a young clever guy who spoke excellent English, befriending me and warning me to beware of unfriendly’s who might take advantage of me. He really seemed the genuine article and to this day I don’t know if he was or not, because he suggested a nearby guest house and told me he didn’t take any commission. I wonder if he did or not.
He takes me to the Bombay Palace, where I meet San jib, in a wife-beater, in a small reception office containing a standing corner desk, a bench, and a faded picture of the past Prime Minister. Rooms are available he tells me, and he’ll have “the boy” show me one.
The boy leads me through a series of dark, musty staircases and corridors to a room with an exterior padlack (which I’ve found is common in India). He slides the bolt and swings the door back, showing me into a murky chamber. A dirty red curtain filters the hall light into the room, glazing its contents in a shadowy red. There is just enough light to see the dark stains on the pillows and mattress. A ceiling fan turns on, circulating the hot and previously stagnant air. The bathroom fromTrainspotters is across the hall.
My thinking is two-fold. First, if I can stay in the worst room of my life the first night in India, I’ll get the shock out of my system and be able to handle anything for the rest of my time. Secondly, this room costs 250 rupees (about $4.50) and aligns with recent and foreseeable cost-slashing tactics. Or, go back out into the wilderness with my pack and Giants cap walking around comparing rooms.
After dropping my gear I took another stroll through the bazaar for a follow-up dose of nonfiction, and also for an internet connection back at the Shelton for 40 rupees an hour. I figured out why the dogs don’t look hungry as a young boy on the street dumped the remainder of an industrial-size pot of some thick bean-chili-curry blob onto the street, which soon attracted the dogs and cows.
Back at the Bombay Palace, with no air conditioning and now taking anti-malaria drugs that can cause sleeplessness and “irregular mental activity,” I spent a hot and restless night in Delhi..