Friday, 3 March 2017

#1 The first 48 hours

The first guest house in New Delhi
Feb 28, 2017

 Sufi Shrine
Feb 28, 2017
In a way it seems silly to be using words to describe India. There just aren't enough to give any reader who has not already travelled there an idea of what it is like.

It is a country for the senses. India needs to be smelt, tasted, seen, heard and felt.

It is also a country where time dissolves.

Last time I was in India I came believing all the usual things about westerners coming to find themselves. I hoped I would maybe find myself, whatever that means, or at least find some kind of clarity, but of course I didn't. Finding yourself probably requires a bit more effort than just showing up. There wasn't even much of a culture shock. This time I came not wanting or expecting anything as it was just a stopover on the way to Nepal but soon enough I was under India's spell again.

Travel always makes me aware of luck more so than when at home and it seemed to start immediately when I was seated next to a very interesting Belgium guy on the flight from Auckand to the Gold Coast who had just finished a one year working holiday in New Zealand. He had loved his time in NZ and his positivity was contagious. It wasn't long before my fears of the unknown slowly evaporated and
I felt very lucky to have such good company right from the start of my trip.

Travel also exposes you to the best and worst of humanity. The best started before I even got to India in Australia when a fellow passenger had his water bottle taken off him in customs. He was asking the cafe worker if the bottle of water he had picked up was the cheapest around and the lovely man behind the counter paused for a second and then said, "Just take it. Welcome to Australia." Such a tiny gesture yet so big at the same time. The fellow passenger, who was obviously on a pretty tight budget, walked away with such a big smile.

The worst of humanity I can see in myself. I walk past beggars and feel very little emotion. I think putting up an emotional wall in these situations is my default survival tactic.

The Belgium guy and I had a long stop over in Kuala Lumpur airport. We discovered a movie room and spent the time eating, looking around the airport, using the free WiFi and me trying to get him to teach me some phrases in French. He also told me this past year in New Zealand was the happiest he's ever been and wants to keep travelling for as long as he can.

After he left for the Philippines I still had eight hours to go so I attempted to read my book. I felt very old fashioned as everyone was on some kind of device. In classic Malaysian style there were designated charging stations for devices but none of them worked. I've learnt it's best to embrace this kind of thing as there is nothing you can do. I found it kind of hilarious and entertaining watching everyone test out the power points and then retreat defeated just as I had done hours before hand.

Finally it was my turn to board the plane. The nerves were back and I began to feel uncertain about travelling alone again.

With a few deep breaths and a quick mental pep talk I was on my way to New Delhi, India.

I managed to sleep most of the way and woke up in time to catch a glimpse out the window of a mass of orange light and haze that is Delhi from the sky.

It looked quite beautiful. Tiny clusters of lights were sprinkled amongst the darkness. A hint of the organised chaos we were about to enter.

As soon as I arrived, time did that dissolving thing again. There is never any rush, yet everything seems effortless, and runs like clockwork.

Customs was quick, my bag arrived and a driver from my guest house was there to meet me. 

As I trotted along side him on the way to car I felt a huge sense of relief. Delhi wasn't scary. I'd done this before. The warm, hazy air and traffic noise made me so happy to be back.

In the van I revelled in the feeling of being a passenger in a vehicle in India and surrendering your fate to the powers that be.

The guest house was down a tiny lane in New Delhi with no name and through some large iron gates. Scooters, dogs, rubbish and people were everywhere even at 11.30 at night.

As soon as I arrived the owner of the guest house, Nodi, was out the front to meet me and took me to my room. I was so happy to see a bed but I was not to sleep just yet as Nodi had other ideas. Before I really knew what was happening I was on the back of his scooter and we were heading to a place to get maps. I'd never been on a scooter before and this seemed a strange time for firsts after such a long day but it was fun anyway.

Experience warned me this was probably some kind of deal he had with a friend to make money but I agreed to go as I hardly had the energy to argue.

 A man with a beard and wearing one of those mafia type hats greeted me at shop with 'Tourist Office' on the window. He really did look like some kind of gangster and had a vaguely Italian appearance with a gently curved nose and olive skin but I trusted my gut and didn't feel I was in any danger.

He ushered me into his office and asked me all the usual questions. 

Then he asked me about my plans for India and I told him I had none. In no time at all he had mapped out a train intinerary and I was to meet him at 9.30 for a tour of the city the next morning.

I asked if I could sleep on the itinerary part first as I knew my brain wasn't up to making good decisions and he was very obliging. Later he would tell me this was all part of his sales technique. "You have to make them feel comfortable," he confided. Clever. I am still unsure if taking tourists straight there after they have been travelling all day is part of their sales technique or just that Delhi is a city that never sleeps and everyone is just trying to make a living.

The next morning I woke up very early and was rearing to go. I wandered around the guest house which had an outdoor courtyard and roof top terrace. As I waited for my ride I struck up conversation with a nice Japanese man who was in Delhi for a yoga course. After a short conversation he lit up a ciggarette and the sweet and not unpleasant smell of 'ganja' clouded the courtyard. 

A small part of my brain was surprised, a bigger part found it hilarious and the rest was concentrating on keeping a polite expression on my face.

Nodi took me back to the booking office and again I was ushered into a room and supplied with piping hot chai and some kind of delicious lentil and naan combination for breakfast.

After looking at the itinerary, and making sure Mr Travel Agent knew I was on a budget, he booked a string of trains that would take me around the golden triangle of North India. I decided its best to just let things unfold in this country and accepted his itinerary and price. 

Soon I was in a taxi with two lovely German guys and a kindly looking driver with an unusual looking growth on his left ear that I couldn't stop looking at, honking and swerving our way through New Delhi traffic to the parliament buildings. I won't bore you with all the details about the things we looked at. It was all very touristy and you can easily Google it yourself if you want to know all the main sights of New Delhi.

The most interesting thing was getting to know the German guys and talking to our driver.

He told us the elections are coming up soon. I asked him if people like the current politicians. He laughed and said, "In every country politicians are not good." Classic.

We also visited the Lotus Temple which is exactly what it sounds like. It is a Bahai Faith temple and shaped like a lotus flower. Quite an impressive feat of engineering and design. What was even more impressive was that it was someones job to shush people inside . Hilariously one very studious looking woman took her job so seriously she even shushed a crying baby. Meanwhile a very chirpy sounding bird sang its heart out in the roof and got away with it.

That evening the two German guys left to catch a train to Varanasi and I waited in the office with Mr Travel Agent. He told me I should come experience 'indian nightlife' with him. 

I was already tired but didn't know the way back to my hostel and didn't want to miss out on anything so I agreed. Whilst I was waiting in the office I saw a grey haired western man with a beard looking as bewildered as I imagine I did when I first arrived at the office.

I gave him a polite smile which he took as an invitation for conversation and next thing he was introducing himself as Trevor from Australia and telling me he had found this amazing book. He showed me a coffee table type picture book about India that really wasn't that amazing. Mr Travel Agent informed me that I would be going with him and Trevor to listen to some music tonight.

I told myself that was fine. After all I am here for new experiences and to meet new kinds of people. Well...Trevor certainly was a new kind of person I was to discover later.

After some consideration I have decided to include the next part in the blog because I feel it is important to have authentic truthful accounts of experiences and leaving this part out would be dishonest. Just keep and open mind and remember this is India as you read on. Also...don't worry Mum and Dad. Have faith that you raised me to be sensible.

Once Mr Travel Agent had finished work he invited Trevor and myself upstairs and proceeded to roll a very fat joint.

I had already made it clear I wasn't going to be participating in this particular activity and that was fine with him.

I was very aware of keeping my wits about me and had made a promise to myself I wouldn't do anything that could make me more vulnerable than I already was when travelling alone.

I asked him a little incredulously if people get in trouble for having weed in India as it is still very much illegal.

He replied, "No. Just don't smoke it in public and no one worries."

After a while chatting upstairs and watching card tricks by one of his employees we took a taxi somewhere. I have no idea where we went and could not find it again if my life depended on it.

Mr Travel Agent led Trevor and I down some long winding alley ways lined with stalls selling religious merchandise and arrived at a Sufi* shrine.

*Sufism is a religion. Google it to know more. I had to as well.

Before we left the office, the employee who was showing us card tricks told me he knew things weren't ok for me at home. I can only imagine he meant Mum being sick and told me to listen to the Sufi music and I would feel cold inside and then I would feel better.

I asked him how he knew things weren't ok at home and he just smiled and said he sensed these things and to go enjoy the music.

So I did. Well I tried. I was feeling so exhausted by this stage I couldn't appreciate it properly and Trevor was beginning to get on my nerves. He kept saying how 'devotional' he felt and how spiritual he was. I had really had enough of it all by then and couldn't wait to get home. Something about Trevors story didn't add up but I couldn't figure out what was the truth and I still can't. 

Previously he told me he lost all his money when he first arrived in India in a hotel scam and had only booked his ticket to India one week ago. He had done no preparation at all and didn't understand the money so handed over a large chunk of it in the first hour.

I asked how he had come to see Mr Travel Agent and all he would tell me was that they had a spiritual connection and he was his 'brother.'

Mr Travel Agent then took us back to the office where we had dinner with his staff and he kindly walked me home.

There 'Mama,' Nodi's mother, was waiting for me and she was angry because I was back so late. By this time it was 12am. Mr Travel Agent said some angry words back to her in Hindi and left. It was then that I realised Mr Travel Agent was very short and not as tough as he appeared sat at his desk. Also he was going bald which was why he wore the hat all the time. It appeared to me he had shrunk as the day went on and I saw him in a completely new and vulnerable light. Poor Mr Travel Agent. He also had had a long day and now he was getting yelled at by a scary old Indian woman.

Earlier in the night he had asked to see my right palm. He looked at it and murmered "oh no. I don't want to tell you."

I looked at him in horror.

"What is it?" I asked. "Is it something bad? Please tell me?"

He had wandered out of the room and said over his shoulder, "It's not bad. Just something you need to change. I'll tell you when I'm high." But he never did.

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