It began before we had even left the airport.
Sitting in the movie lounge of Kuala Lumpur International Airport waiting for our flight, we were watching a film up on one of the pair of big screen TVs. Behind us a group of gentleman were in loud conversation, playing videos at full volume on a selection of devices and generally acting as if there wasn’t about 15 other people in the room. Eventually they moved on to some other section of the entire airport they had at their disposal.
Little did we know that this is apparently par for the course if you are on your way to India. Boarding our flight, it was a cacophony of voices and electronic devices. Before take off, passengers constantly got up and moved around until the air hostesses settled them all into their seats. Once the no electronics sign was turned off, it was a no-holds barred few hours of every man for himself as far as volume went. Watching a video on your iPad? Play it full volume. Kids got a game? Let them play at full volume. You get the idea – it was the noisiest flight we had ever been on.
Eventually landing came and with the adrenaline rush that comes from heading into a new country we were on Indian soil. We had e-visas ready – of course even those should have warned us about what was come in India, the questions asked on the application were exhaustive, even to the point of the occupations of my parents. Despite just a couple of people being ahead of us in the queue it was still a reasonably long wait to get through, but get through we did and we were unleashed. Our hotel had sent a driver to pick us up from Exit 5, so we headed there and looked around, but to no avail. We tried to go back into the airport to get some wifi, only to be told that once we had exited we were not permitted to return, even though the guard had watched us step just metres outside. We wandered to other gates and eventually found our man at Exit 4. This is pretty much a microsm of India, nothing ever goes quite as you expect it to.
It was night time when we arrived, but when a country is filled with over a billion people it is going to have its fair share of night owls. Large groups of men stood on the corners of intersections, no women. The half an hour of driving to the hotel gave us a preview of the driving to expect from the country. If there is a gap, it is your obligation as an Indian driver to feel that gap as quickly as possible. Road markings were mere suggestions and the horn is used so frequently that it verges on useless – it is a cacophony of beeping and semi-musical tones from trucks. The horn use is probably one of the most frustrating things about the country, just adding noise with little purpose. For example, if you are sitting at a set of lights and it turns green, everybody in the mass of vehicles will start honking – this isn’t notification to a lazy driver, they just do it as a matter of fact. More on the roads later.
We arrived at our hotel and thankfully all seemed good. The room was nice and we were finally able to rest our heads and sleep. It was a strange thought knowing that the whole of India was right outside our window.
I’m writing a lot of words here, but it is necessary to set the mood. We really did no planning for this trip, we booked flights and booked a hotel for five nights in Delhi and that was hit. That reality kind of hit in the morning when we woke up and thought, now what? We headed upstairs to a rooftop restaurant at our hotel to brave our first breakfast and there talked to some ladies who were able to give us some advice on how to do the city of Delhi as we tossed up between auto rickshaws, private drivers and public transport. Packing some extra breakfast treats as lunch, lest we have to find a trustworthy restaurant while out, we eventually decided on a driver to take us around and get our bearings.
My first advice to anyone travelling to India would be to know what you want to see or do, stick to that plan and be authoritative. As a tourist, there is a perception that all you want to do is see monuments, so our driver talked me into a monument straight away, a mosque nearby, with the excuse that the traffic was bad in the direction we wanted to go. It might have been true, it might have been false, but you can’t help the feeling you are never getting the full story – generally if the driver/tour guide/tour booker suggests something they are getting a cut. On the car ride I had a real sense of ‘What the hell have I done?’ Chancey could sense it and reassured me. I gazed wide eyed at the general chaos all around. India is certainly dynamic, everybody looks like they are involved in some kind of business. At the mosque we paid a fee to take in a camera (which seems to be a common thing) and donned some long sleeves in the form of colourful pieces of fabric – oh another piece of advice, if you are going sight seeing, make sure you wear long sleeves! A man helped me put on mine, I thought he was part of the staff, but then he started to follow me into the mosque and starting telling me facts about it – oh shit, I’ve got myself a guide. I told him “no, no guide” and he shuffled off. Unfortunately most acts of kindness would lead to something like that occuring. We did a quick look around the mosque.
See the pigeons? Pigeons are sacred are in India, so they get fed everywhere. Yep, in a city with massive hygiene problems the flying rats are sacred. We left the mosque and headed down to the carpark to find our driver. I was kind of interested in a fort nearby, but the driver said “You will see a better fort in Agra!” and so we didn’t go there. There’s a weird dynamic between the tourists and the drivers there. They hold themselves as authorities and in some cases are, but always have suspicious motives, so it is an exhausting mental game that has to be played. We asked to go and see the Lotus Temple. It was a drive across town so we got to see plenty of the city floating past the windows on the way – and really that is the best way to see it all, at a distance. Arriving at the temple, we had our bag of snacks and water but got turned away at the gate so we had to return to our driver and leave that behind before moving in. The gardens around the Lotus Temple are nice and it kind of looks like the Sydney Opera House before it blooms. I thought the birds in the gardens sounded nice, until Chancey informed me they were speakers. Hmmm. Lovely gardens they may be, but you are not allowed on to the grass or among them at all. Instead we had to follow the procession of people along the brick path to the temple. Arriving there we were given bags to put our shoes in, and we took a moment just to absorb everything for a second. But India has this way of closing in on you as soon as you stop moving. We were resting against a column when two men started taking photos of Chancey, I didn’t notice at first, but her instincts were wired and she moved further behind me away from the cameras. But the men moved closer, camera still out. We got up and had to move away from this creepiness. Unfortunately this is something that any woman coming to India will experience, particularly from the young men. They have very little respect or ideas of boundaries. To them Chancey was just an object to be photographed.
We decided to give going inside the temple a miss and instead moved on out of the gardens. Next on our list to see was Lodhi Gardens. And I am pleased to say that we finally found respite and refuge from the chaos. We should have known it was good – because the man who booked our driver for the day said it wasn’t worth seeing. Of course it was also free, which meant he did not get a cut. This was our favourite part of Delhi, breathing with the oxygen of the plant life and with a nice network of paths and monuments to see, all without getting hassled constantly.
It was very peaceful walking between all the old structures and we were able to explore at our own pace. Couples laughed on park benches, groups of young people played and danced on the grass and for a brief moment, India seemed like a good idea. We sat on the grass and ate our packed lunch, only briefly being interrupted by one man selling some kind of lunch snack and one stray, but polite, dog. We had to return to face the streets again, and decided on seeing the nearby Khan market. This is the most upper end of the markets of Delhi and again it was peaceful and kind of redeeming for the place. It wasn’t your bargain end shopping and most of the items had a hefty price tag even by Western standards, but it was a bit of fun. Our driver toured us around the political part of town, where all the palaces and government type buildings are. Here the streets were wide, the gardens well tended and the rubbish cleaned up. We passed some of the sights including the India Gate, reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe. Our driver asked if we wanted to see a textile market, and lured into a false sense of security after a few positive experiences we said yes. When we pulled up we could tell it wasn’t really a market. We asked where the entrance to the market was, looking for an alleyway or something. He pointed to a door and sure enough it was just a shop where he was getting a cut from to bring tourists. We walked in briefly, turned on our heels and walked out, and our driver gave us that kind of strange smiling look of ‘Oh well, worth a try right?’ These encounters sound innocent enough and almost kind of charming in their own strange Indian way, but I’ll use that word exhausting again. It is exhausting trying to discern truth from stories. We retreated to our hotel to shower and rest before some dinner. Our room felt a bit like a bunker, not only because of its position at slightly-lower-than-street-level but also because it gave us a chance to regroup before heading out again. We went back up to the rooftop restaurant for dinner. Looking down on the street from four stories up was kind of relaxing, almost like watching a fish tank with all the constant motion. Dinner arrived and it was fantastic, genuinely good food – and the Coca Cola was ice cold, finally! So there you have it, that is just one day in India…phew.