Incredible India

So. India. 

I have to admit that of all the places I’ve been wanting to visit on this trip, India is high up on the list. Something about it appeals – the mysticism, the exoticism, the colours, the vibrancy, the sounds and smells, and of course the food.

But, on the other hand, something also repels – the stories of grinding poverty, the scams, the heat and the dirt and the filth. I’ve known people who have loved it there, and I’ve known people who have hated it there. I’m not entirely sure what I’m attracted to by going there apart from the fact that I simply just want to go and see it for myself.

I’ve crossed the north of the country by train, had the crap scared out of me on the roads, had a taste of the infamous Delhi belly, stayed in a fort, slept under the stars in the desert after riding on a camel, witnessed the early morning pooja rituals on the river Ganges, and watched the sun rise over the Taj Mahal. I’m also pretty sure I was a victim of karma after telling a holy man in Varanasi to fuck off. All of these are stories to tell as I finally get around to the next part of my series of posts about my travels, Incredible India.

Sadly, India turns out to be the most difficult place I will visit on this trip. There are some highs and there a lot of lows, and ultimately I will end up fed up and looking forward to leaving and heading over to Sri Lanka.

I won’t lie – I sum up my five weeks of travelling in India with the following phrase:

Eleven out of ten interactions come with a side serving of ulterior motive.

Maybe it’s just me. My affective barriers are up before I even get there. I’ve spent my last afternoon afternoon in Kathmandu reading about what to expect in India, getting some ideas of where to go and what to do and what order to see various places and cities in. I’ve read up on scams – taxi drivers that will tell you your destination or hotel has closed down and will conveniently know of a place they can take you to, receiving a kickback for doing so; women with babies in their arms begging tourists to buy milk for the infant, only to take you to a shop in which you’ll pay way over the odds for the milk, which will promptly be returned to the shop and for a cut of the profits from the shopkeeper; and being taken to a “government tourist office” to buy tickets, prices for which are, of course, are vastly inflated.

I’ve gone back to my hotel in Kathmandu to get my bags and go to the airport. As I’m waiting for the taxi driver to come, I get a phone call. I recognise the calling code: +91. It’s a call from India. It turns out to be my hotel in Delhi, telling me that the room I’ve booked online is not available and that I will be housed in their sister hotel just around the corner. There isn’t much I can do about it than hope that when I get to the hotel I’ll have a room there anyway. I try not think about it too much and just get on with my journey.

When I arrive in Delhi, I am indeed moved to another hotel. I’m a bit defensive with the hotel staff, suspecting them of scamming me, but the room in the hotel around the corner turns out to be really rather nice, so I let my guard down somewhat. I’ve got really good air conditioning, even though it’s not as hot as I had expected, plus a huge bed, which is always a bonus.

I drop off my bags and take a walk around the streets nearby. I’m close to the Paharganj market district, so I wander around the area. It’s one of the more chaotic markets in the city, crammed with rickshaws, restaurants, stalls, and tourist tat shops. I’m mainly here to stretch my legs – it’s 9 pm, and I’m getting tired. I’ve two more days to explore if I want to, so I head back to the hotel.

Next morning, I’m off to find the Red Fort. It’s hot and sunny, and much warmer than Nepal. I head towards New Delhi first. The streets are wide here – the whole area was built by the British, who wished to establish a more organised part of town than the crowded alleys and bazaars in Old Delhi. I quickly find that I attract attention as I walk around the area. People tag along, asking questions – Where are you from? Oh, the UK! I have a friend from Manchester. Where are you going? My affective barriers are up – I try and speak shortly with them. Who knows what kind of scams they’ll try and foist upon me. I dodge them by heading into a coffee shop and cooling off in the air conditioning.

I wander through a park later, taking pictures of the huge Indian flag fluttering in the wind. A young chap approaches me. Same routine. Where am I from? Where am I going? Oh, he has a friend from [Insert UK city name here]. He follows me, and I start to wonder if I’m being too defensive. He just wants to show me around, aparently. I listen politely, but still don’t really open up. He’s giving me advice on places to go. He suggests we go to a cafe so I can try my first chai tea in India. He pays, so maybe I’m being overly suspicious. He recommends visiting Leh, which at this time of year (early March) is still snow-laden and only accessible by plane. I’m intrigued to hear of snow in India. We leave the cafe and he starts asking about my onward travels. I’ve decided on Jaipur next. I find myself outside a “government tourist office” and I lose it. I am not going in there at all, I tell him. He acts offended. I am annoyed. I walk away. He follows, but gives up chase when I don’t even acknowledge him.

Eleven out of ten interactions come with a side serving of ulterior motive.