The flight to Delhi was in itself a bizarre experience – we all got a brand new spanking Singapore Airlines aircraft, where I promptly learnt first-hand of Indians' love for trying to bring around 5 large pieces of ‘hand luggage' on-board and then try and squash it, at any cost, into those little overhead bins that are designed to only take about 65lb's each. It was funny to watch but as they continued to dwindle, repeated flight announcements slowly got narkier as we continued to be delayed by one suddenly rising from their seat as if about to deliver a message from above, only to re-open the bin and try squash some extra duty-free in, or someone else suddenly deciding that this was an optimal time to go and change baby's nappy in the toilet. With almost perfect precision, everyone was seated just long enough for us to immediately push back and begin the flight. I knew fine well that this could now, if other travellers were to be believed, be the last safe meal I'd be eating for 14 days so I awaited the dinner service with baited breath, determined to savour and enjoy every last morsel. I drank beer on the flight too with what would normally be considered reckless abandon – wasn't beer more or less outlawed in India? Best to play it safe I reckoned, and stock myself up on beer now while simultaneously making myself less apprehensive about what ‘treats' awaited me in Delhi. But, only four and a half hours into the flight, we were descending from the sky once again, heading straight for New Delhi.
Coming out into the arrivals section, I saw my name on a tatty white sheet of paper being held by a small, grubby-looking man wearing some pretty filthy clothes (This seems to be the exception however I note, as every other driver was attired more as you'd expect). At first I didn't believe this but unfortunately it was definitely true – this was to be my driver. He led me away from the crowds and out into the ‘car park' I suppose you'd call it. Palm trees leaped up out of the tarmac like they were standing their ground against the invasion of the car park; on the contrary however, cars just seemed to use them as bumpers to know when they'd driver far enough into a space – more disturbingly, at their bottom sat barely-dressed men either lying on the ground or half-heartedly approaching tourists for money, others just standing around looking completely dazed and confused as if they'd just been planted their by a passing UFO. Similarly, dogs stood around looking like they too had just been dropped out of the sky in this foreign land – some of them looked mad, some confused, some angry. As airport car parks go, this one was particularly hairy and scary and a had a whole experience-a-genuine-slum-in-four-car-spaces feel to it. Of course what my wordless driver didn't tell me was that in terms of seeing a slum, the best was yet to come – there was plenty more where I was staying. I should emphasise right from the off though that most travellers I've met since Delhi have stayed a maximum of 48 hours in the place, leaving as soon as possible for other more civilised parts of India.
As we turned onto a pock-marked road, the headlights illuminating swarms of mosquito's along the road, the driver cut the engine and we pulled over. For all the good it's done me in the past, I still said a few silent prayers that we'd slightly more of a drive to go. We did as it turned out, the driver just had an important subject to announce before we continued;
‘So you pay for drive in hotel' he suddenly shot out with, surprising me greatly since he'd given me the impression he had no English for the journey to date.
‘Yeah, grand' I casually replied, not really caring for this sudden outburst.
‘So…we continue, but first, some tips for the driver' he said, smiling away to himself all of a sudden and making me furious at the same time. What a ridiculous scam – most tourists obviously arrive with 500 or 1000 rupee notes and this little ‘act' means most people, if they didn't like the suggestion would tell him to shove it but I presume a majority of people similarly probably fall for this and hand over the smallest note they have, which could be anything from 100 onwards. I, on the other hand, was determined from the outset not to give him much, if anything, especially in light of his new-found ability to speak English when he wanted some money. Nevertheless, I dug around in my pockets, as he continued grinning staring out at the pock-marked road ahead. What he didn't know was I'd gotten a lot of my Indian currency in small notes and had put a few in a pocket for just such a situation. I fished around and around, looking curious as if my money seemed to have disappeared. Finally, I pulled out a 20 rupee note by complete chance and handed it over.
‘Right, 20, that's it, let's keep going now'.
We continued in silence, the ability to speak English seemingly gone once again in light of my minimal donation (equating to about 30 cent in Euro).
The hostel itself was absolutely nothing like its website description and pictures. Incidentally, the one thing I didn't do when I reached the ‘Smyle Inn' was actually smile at all; there was no air conditioning in the room even though the pictures and description led one to believe there was (I don't mind no air conditioning when I'm not expecting it), the staff were pretty angry most of the time and the guy seemingly in charge of the internet was bordering on the abusive – one afternoon when I'd accidentally spent a whole hour and five minutes on the internet (there was a one hour limit, although there's no signs to tell you that), the guy came stomping up the stairs obviously having watched me on the cameras downstairs and pretty much demanded I get off that second unless I wanted to pay an additional 10 rupees to use it; even though of course, there was nobody else either using it or wanting to use it. The only humorous (albeit, worrisome) part of the whole experience is the ‘free breakfast' every morning which always consisted of a banana, cereal, either an omelette or some French toast and a hot drink. The funny thing was, every day the hot drink would differ significantly in taste – one morning it tasted a little like tea, the next more orange, the next day more like hot water and chemicals. In a way I suppose, it sort of symbolised what I thought of Delhi – a place I just couldn't possibly understand no matter how hard I tried.
Out on the streets meanwhile, things were chaotic at best. To get to and from my hostel, one had to pass through a filthy alleyway littered with rubbish and usually one or two nearly naked men just sitting there, the foul sickly stench of urine filling your nose as you walked through, no matter how quick you walked through. One evening while returning home from the lunacy of the main street, I went to walk through my alleyway only to be confronted instead by a man sitting on the edge of the tarmac, undergarments off, squatting down and beginning what I would consider in public to be quite an unpleasant act. I just walked through as quickly as I could but no matter what you do, the madness was completely inescapable – I saw a handful of people merrily relieving themselves on the streets during my time, the swarms of flies and insects was truly like something from a charity ad back in Ireland, the sickly stench of urine clashing with the smells of street vendors food was something I don't think my nose can forget for some time and some of the people; beggars sitting out on the streets holding out deformed hands begging for money that you just couldn't dare give lest you be swarmed by a million of them and looted, many so thin it looked like their skin was almost like an elastic band at breaking point holding their ribs in.
Meanwhile I read in the papers over here that the ‘famous' Shah Rukh Khan was detained for a few hours in Newark airport nearly causing a national scandal, the two wealthiest brothers in India, the Ambani's, are having a very public and malicious argument over a gas field known as ‘KG D6' and the cricket dominated every headline in between – life goes on in spite of the extremely unpleasant situation in Delhi, the people so hungry they're dying right in front of you on the street, the smack of urine as I endeavoured to get to my hostel, so on; actually started to make me angry more than anything – what's wrong with this place? The Government somehow finds the money to build a (by any standard) modern, clean and comfortable airport terminal, a new express train line right out to the airport, but can't find a way to solve things a bit closer to home first? What would be better – a few minutes in an appropriate, modest airport and a few days in a welcoming, inviting city where you don't feel under pressure and guilty for living a ‘privileged life' all the time or the way it is now, a few minutes in a modern, clean airport terminal but a few days that very few tourists are even willing to last out – the majority of people I've met since then elected to escape and go to south India far earlier than they'd planned. I wonder…
Now onto the good news…
The posts are coming thick and fast here on You Love Thatsh; in a few days (around the 1st) I'll post my thoughts on Goa, then in the next post after that I'll address God's Own Country, Kerala and God's Own Laxative, Indian Railways and how you too can end up using surgical masks for unintended purposes in India if you're not careful (that'll be around the 3rd). Then the next day, the 4th, we'll talk about Chennai and getting ready for the journey back to Europe before finishing on the 5th or so, with a special post on the whole trip. See you then!