Carried by a motorcade of tuk-tuks through the dark, dusty streets of Delhi looking for a hotel room. It was like we were caught up in a surreal Nativity Story interpretation. THIS was the adventure we wanted… wasn’t it?
Our drivers did their best to help us. Concerned faces, animated conversations suggested our predicament was serious. We reassured each other with nervous smiles.
From the lobby of yet another unpromising looking hotel, we were enthusiastically beckoned. Finally, a room. I don’t recall if we hugged the tuk-tuk drivers in thanks. We should have. Without their kindness, how would we have survived this backpacking baptism of fire?
We were in no position to be fussy, but the room was grotty. The door wouldn’t lock properly.
Graeme, the Bear Grylls of the group, had packed lots of survival essentials. Julie and I mocked him of course. (We’re British. That’s what we do). We didn’t know it then but we’d go on to use every single item he brought. Even making tea using nightlights (candles) to heat the water.
He produced a ball of string. Tying it around the door handle and nearby furniture to provide some security. If there were was a room invasion, this would buy us vital seconds (to do what I’m not sure).
We were exhausted but wired. Unable to sleep. We’d stay in this pit just one night. Find something better in the morning. In daylight.
Our traumatic first 24 hours in India continued when we left the hotel. Carrying our backpacks was a bad idea. Effectively advertising that we had nowhere to go. We may as well have carried a sign: ‘NAIVE YOUNG BACKPACKERS. COME TRY YOUR LUCK’. Women and children surrounded us, begging. Some were genuine. Others distracted us while accomplices tried to take stuff from our backpacks. A Fagin-esque routine.
The destitute were everywhere. Lepers held out ravaged limbs to coax money from passers-by. I couldn’t help but reflect on my own fate. Had I been born into a society like this, with my traumatic injury, life would be very different. I’d be one of the wretched.
Seeing extreme poverty first hand was a shock. We became desensitised to it quickly; an emotional coping mechanism I suppose. It’s an unpalatable truth – the poor soon blend into the scenery.
Pavements were booby traps – covered in potholes. Broken paving stones exposed pipes and sewers. Incongruously, lone cows stood idly in the sun. A sight I’d expected to see in rural towns, not downtown Delhi. Men pissed nonchalantly in the Street. Road workers, in loincloths and sandals, walked in single file. Filthy. Carrying away dirt, piled high in wicker baskets.
Our sanctuary was a hotel with a garden. Nothing fancy but at least we weren’t trapped in a room. Shielded from the apparent chaos outside, we planned our next steps.
We’d pictured ourselves exploring India on overcrowded trains. Squeezed my in seats next to Indian families. Authentic but uncomfortable. For a similar cost, the hotel manager explained, he could arrange something better. Our own car. a Hindustan Ambassador with driver, a great itinerary, and hotels pre-arranged at each location. Julie and I were sold. We didn’t want a repeat of the Mary and Joseph Scenario. Graeme, the budget traveller purist, took some convincing (we outvoted him).
We set off bouncing around on the sofa-like back seat of our big white car. Yes we had wussed out on the gritty traveller experience. Yes we looked like spoiled brats from the days of The Raj. But we had learned our lesson. Getting things done as a foreigner on a budget was harder than expected. And this was bloody good fun!
We passed people squatting down in fields making, what appeared to be, mud pies. Moulding them into flat, round, frisbee shapes with their hands. Then stacking them into piles to dry in the sun. ‘Dung Chips’ our driver explained. Fuel. Made of a mixture of cow shit and straw.
Right there – an exotic discovery like Dung Chips – that was the reason we were travelling.
We drank mostly bottled water and a fizzy soft drink. For reasons of hygienic production, Lonely Planet advice was to drink only one brand – Limca. Julie mused that one day we’d pass a family toiling in a field. Alternating between making Dung Chips and putting tops on the bottles of Limca.
We’d expected to be targeted by people asking for money. We hadn’t expected to be a target for amateur photographers. Like celebrities, people wanted a photo with us. I don’t think we said no to anyone but it was frustrating trying to move around.
Julie, Graeme and I all had similar colouring – brown hair, pale skin. We were assumed to be brothers and sister. We played along. I guess culturally it would have been odd to see a young woman travelling with two young men.
Once out of Dehli, we were frequently run off the road by vehicles overtaking, coming in the opposite direction. The concept of right of way replaced by a game of chicken. Bigger vehicles usually the winner. We gasped as our car dropped down from the sealed road onto the roadside scree. Clouds of thick brown dust billowed as the driver hit the brakes, trying to maintain control. He was calm, relaxed even. We mostly had our eyes closed.
Author’s note: our visit to India was in 1990. I’m sure things have changed a lot since then. I’m not sure our experience then was representative even.