May 10, 2014 by lucyhames
I arrive in Delhi after a missed flight, 7 hour car drive through Nepal and a final flight with Sarah and once again I am flying solo. I leave the airport on the hunt for a taxi that wont rip me off by biblical proportions, but armed with an easy currency exchange rate at least I know what a tenner is. I am immediately struck by the heat here, must be about 35 degrees and on the ride I get my first glimpse of the insane traffic, crazy driving, horn beeping and overwhelming pollution that is India. By the time I arrive at Moustache Hostel I am soaked in sweat and have the horrible feeling that I have forgotten something big, like how to travel solo.
I dump my stuff and as luck would have it immediately meet some cool travel peeps. They are a mixed bunch at all different stages of their overall trips and time in India. I have arrived here with little to zero planning and I know from experience that other travellers are the single best source of route info and tips so you can make a plan. Whilst we all get stuck in to the travel talk my head starts to pound and I’m not sure if its the heat, dehydration, tiredness or the fact that I am already in the first throws of the ‘wtf am I doing’? phase….
It’s only 7 months since I flew home from my last 10 month trip but it amazes me how soft I have become in that short space of time. 7 months ago I could have taken on the world but right now I can barely leave the security of this hostel, its all just a bit overwhelming. The talk is all about timing, apparently these are possibly the worst 2 months to be in the part of India that I am hoping to cover. Everyone, including locals appear to be heading from the South to the North. Rajasthan is set to hit 50 degrees and the South is shutting up shop to escape the heat pre monsoon. This is very worrying for me, I have no plans to head North and the lack of people going south means I could be spending a lot of time on my own. As my head gets worse and first days panic starts to set in, I make 3 very important moves. Firstly I get on the comms with travel bestie Alice, I explain my fears and the difficulties of timing and between us we arrive at a next move and a much needed big deep breath. Secondly I buy 4 litres of water and neck it, and thirdly I get in an tuk-tuk and face the big bad Delhi.
There is no doubt about it, this is most definitely a culture shock, especially coming from super friendly lovely Nepal. I love the shock but its immediate attack on all the senses is intense. We fly through the streets in an open tuk-tuk the breeze life saving, no rules, utter chaos, horns beeping incessantly, near misses, dirt, pollution, cows, flies, poverty, naked children asleep in the rubble, basically everything you no doubt imagine India to be and more. I am already searching for beauty here and although I imagine it’s not so easy to find, I hope it exists either in the people or the land. So far my experience with locals has been for them to try to scam me and take me to places I don’t want to go. They are aggressive with it to and I am yet to see anyone smile. I am on edge and whilst I tick off the site-seeing I am struck by how few tourists I come across, how few backpackers appear to be in this part of the world. Fortunately I meet a top guy who arrived the same day as me and its great to have someone to voice all this to and to know I am not entirely on my own.
Getting to Delhi is pretty easy, getting out of it is a logistical nightmare. I end up overstaying my time in Delhi by 150% and its not because I love the place. I do however start to have a good time here, as always largely down to the travellers. We get the metro to the Red Fort and everyone lines up in an orderly fashion for the spot where the door will open. We are mid-pack. The doors open and I have seriously never seen anything like it. My feet don’t touch the ground. Locals dive into the train like its the last one off an exploding planet. Some men are at a 180 degree dive for the seats, it’s brilliant and unexpected based on the orderly queuing. There are ‘women only’ carriages on the metro and trains, that should give you an idea of what travelling as a woman is like in this part of the world. I never once use them which should give you an idea of what I am like as a traveller. I get stared at a lot and asked for a photo but I guess that’s not so different to home.
We visit Old Delhi and it’s insane. There are cows in the streets, bikes and rickshaws. The traffic is beyond central London proportions and the heat and dirt oppressing. The colours though are stunning, the sari shops, the fruit, the spices, the bikes and I feel very very far from home. We see the free food stands where so many people wait their turn to be fed and we see and hear the worshipping that is such a huge part of life here. There are three main religions here. Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims make up most of Delhi’s population. They appear to live harmoniously and there are clear areas of the city for each religion. It’s so interesting to see both the religious buildings and its people and I visit the biggest Mosque in India. It is surrounded by the disabled and the poor including such tiny naked children, it’s a harsh reality here and something you can’t ignore. This is a challenge to my emotions and is uncomfortable to witness, but I’m guessing there is much more to come. I think Delhi as a first stop is a ballsy choice but it definitely throws you into the deep end and of course that’s what it’s all about, the only question is, will I sink or swim?
After some successful Internet jiggerypokery, tonnes more chat and 4 days of a headache, I manage to book a train to my next stop…the Taj. I arrive at the station, it’s about 40 degrees and my pack is too heavy. The need to cover up in India (for women shoulders and knees must be covered) means I am sweating buckets. Just being at a train station in India is an experience in itself and Delhi station is pretty mental. So many people cover the platforms, sitting or lying down. It amazes me how much time is spent on the filthy floors and how clean everyone’s clothes are. There’s a lot of noise and a lot of luggage. It’s seriously hectic. Straight away though it dawns on me that this is organised chaos for the locals and this is something that is compounded during the rest of my time here. I have no idea which platform I get my train from, I am the only tourist in this packed station and no one will help me when I ask, they just stare. I go from platform to platform on the verge of tears…how hard does this all have to be. I try to remind myself that I have done all this before, faced and beaten the challenges of a new scary country, but right now that feels like a different me. Eventually I spot my train and jump on with only a minute to spare. I am in an aircon carriage with bunk beds so I lie on my pack and catch my breath. As people constantly walk by opening the curtain to see the foreigner I decide to change tact, to smile at them and say hi, I am out of Delhi and I finally smell the sweet smell of travelling solo success.
After 5 hours I arrive in Agra, it’s a dump. I find a hostel, it’s a dump. It’s a thousand degrees hotter than Delhi and I am just not feeling it. Fortunately I am here for one night only for one reason only and I meet up with 2 Dutch girls to share the experience with. I set my alarm for 5am and I’m still awake when it goes off due to mozzies and heat. We head off on the walk to see the Taj Mahal. I am pretty excited and I really need to see something beautiful to lift my spirits. After a comprehensive search of bags we are through the gates and just after sunrise I prepare myself to see yet another wonder of the world. For me the best thing about this particular wonder of the world is that you don’t get to see it at all until you are through the arch and its right there in front of you, so the impact is all the greater. As I walk through the arch I catch my breath. It really is a stunning sight. My stomach flips and I am so so grateful to have this feeling again. The feeling when you see something awe inspiring and beautiful and the warmth spreads through my entire body. I know that I am lucky right now, that I am seeing something very special and very rare. There are so many descriptions of the Taj and had I not seen it I wouldn’t have understood the accuracy of them. It is so perfect and genius in its design and it has such a dream like quality it’s hard to see it as real. It’s one of the most romantic sights that I have seen and was built for love. We all know I am a romantic of 19th century proportions.
‘The Taj Mahal rises above the banks of the river like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time’ Rabindranath Tagore
‘It appears like a perfect pearl on an azure ground. The effect is such I have never experienced from any work of art’ British Painter Hodges
‘The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs and makes sun and moon shed tears from their eyes’ Shah Jahan
We finish up early at the Taj and my train isn’t until 5.30pm so we have serious time to kill. We decide to do it in style and head to the poshest hotel we can find. We drag out our drinks for 4 hours and I can’t help but think how different travelling through India would be with money, how you could avoid the harder things and just see the beautiful. It’s nice to taste this for a short while.
I get to the train station super early (and a little tipsy), to give myself plenty of time to find the train and the right carriage. There’s no comms but 4 hours later I am still there in the dark, hoping that it will turn up at some point. I drop my guard for only a matter of minutes before I notice that my train has pulled in 4 platforms away, no idea how long it’s been there, no way I can make it up the steps and over in time, no way I am missing it. Only one option, run across the tracks. So with flip flops on and 25kgs of bags I scramble down to the rat infested tracks and back up onto the platform in a sort of camo roll kind of way four times, then I leg it all the way along the train searching for my carriage. It’s all kinds of chaos but I run on just as it starts to pull away. I feel like I am in a movie…it’s pretty cool. I am shattered though so it’s head down once more but not fully because there is no way you know when you will arrive at your destination so I set my alarm for 5 hours later and hope for the best.
I arrive in Jaipur Rajasthan at 2.30am. This is not ideal EVER. To avoid worrying my Dad too much I won’t go into much detail but its is probably the most uneasy and outright scared I have felt during any of my travels, but I go with my instincts and I make it to my hostel in one piece way too wired to sleep. The roller coaster is definitely on the move and as morning comes I have my second up of the trip. There are very few hostels in India, they are mainly guesthouses, but here in this rare hostel I meet a great crew and my trepidation starts to ease and I start to open myself up to what India can give me. I set out to Jaipur Old city and not for the first time I notice the physical contact between men here. Men of all ages walk the streets holding hands or with their arms round each other, they hug and touch each others faces, always smiling to each other. It’s really really sweet. It takes me a while to understand this display but I arrive at the thought that because there is no physical contact between men and women pre-marriage, this is how men fulfil that basic human need. I understand this because I am a massively physical affection fan. I can’t imagine a life without it, to be honest I could do with a hug right now. People seem really close here and it feels very different to the harshness of Delhi. As I roam the old city I am stopped a number of times and asked for a ‘snappy’ photo, I say no to the men but if its a family I give in. Heaven knows how many random Indian people have a picture of me.
We head off to the Amber Fort and it’s spectacular. It’s the first time I feel like I am in the real India. Elephants and camels roam the streets and the magnificent fort takes you back in time. I love it here and I start to get excited about the rest of my trip. I am also starting to ‘get it’ a bit more,the people,the culture, the stares, the apprehension of local people and how to get by here.
Due to overspending my time in Delhi I feel like I have to keep the momentum going, which is hard when you meet good people. Fortunately one of the guys is also ready to hit the road so the next day we are once again at a train station awaiting a delayed train. Now I am more relaxed I am determined to interact with the locals to get the most out of the country, and a station platform is perfect for that, no one’s going anywhere yet. So me and my buddy make an effort to smile and take photos. unfortunately our camera batteries die and I am left pulling faces at the kids. When you just look at someone, they stare coldly back, if however you give them your biggest wattage smile, you might be lucky. We were, and all of a sudden the atmosphere has changed. It’s like a switch and I wish I has pressed it earlier. On the train I sit next to Abid a 23 year old Hindu and we have a good chat. He is working as an Engineer in Mumbai. It’s hard for guys to meet girls in this field as 98% of students are men. I was lucky enough to see what a student night is like at these Universities (on a lap top) and although it looks like ridiculous fun, it is just guys. Abid has until he is 28 to get married or he is officially on the shelf. It’s the same for the girls, but not many people get to that age single. Abid has been away from his family for 6 months and wonders if they will recognise him now he has grown a moustache. We exchange details and say we will keep in touch. Things are definitely on the up. I feel like I have been in India for a month already and I know that this happens when you are so far out of your comfort zone every minute feels like an hour. Travelling is my answer to slowing down time, and that is a huge gift. Sink or swim? Right now I am swimming but I am clinging on to a rubber ring with one hand.
To be continued….