Amritsar is fairly typical of all the Indian cities I passed through. They were noisy, littered, smelly and crowded with so many people, stray dogs and skinny cows. Children and touts harass you wherever you go, “baksheesh lady” was a common cry, along with men begging me to allow them to show me their uncle’s / father’s / brother’s shop, who was the best jeweller, carpet maker, silk factory, souvenir shop etc. I declined as gracefully as possible, although after a few hours of this it does become very wearing and when the cries become grabs, and the grabs turned into tugs and pulls and being forced to go in a different direction to that I was heading in, my temper started to fray.
The air is thick with sweet scented smoke from roadside fires; spices; fragrant oils and cow dung. Ladies in the streets wear glorious saris in rich jewel-like colours of purple, red and saffron yellow, woven with gold or silver thread despite the filthy conditions of the streets. The noise of horns blasting, people shouting and music playing loudly from street stalls and from within street side shops deafens the senses. India has its own special blend of magic, which is not only seen, but also heard and smelled – all your senses are assaulted when you arrive here.
This is the east – this is what I had imagined and yet it is nothing like my imagination.
A train to Delhi cost around 40p (eight rupees at the time with a student concession), and we were fortunate to get a seat. Wooden slatted and hard as hell, but still a seat. The train was fairly fast and in nine hours we arrived in New Delhi, opting to stay in the old part in Hotel Vishalli for 25 rupees, which included our own bathroom and a European loo and no cockroaches to share it with. What was the catch? Well, probably the price. But with Jon having already fallen foul to the dreaded Delhi belly it was worth it.
Delhi is an exhausting place. The streets are crowded and noisy with whole families living in the streets under tarpaulins. Men defecate and piss openly in the streets and wash outdoors using filthy water in troughs by the roadside; litter is strewn all over the place; mangy dogs; emaciated cows with not a blade of grass in sight and half naked children ran around close to being run over by the incessant traffic. You need to watch your step for goodness knows what you are about to step into. Rickshaws, bicycles, scooters and lorries weave manic routes through the mobs, hands constantly on horns. It is bedlam. And I am shocked and bewildered by it all. The dirt and stench and the poverty are overwhelming.
This is as far removed from my English suburban life as it could be possible.
Whilst in Delhi we visited the Red Fort, one of the city’s main attractions. On the way there we saw street entertainers: dancers, musicians, some saintly looking men reading palms, snake charmers others showing their mongooses and even one person walking on fire and another lying on a bed of nails. The sorts of things you read about or hear about, but are never entirely convinced are true. It was all happening here.
From our hotel room we looked out over market stalls piled with mounds of spices in colours so vibrant they looked like powder paints from an infant’s school – yellows, oranges, reds and green. Cool white yogurt – not at all like the solid creamy Greek style, this was thin and watery and sharp. Curries were in general vegetarian, watery and very hot. Chai-wallas can be found on every corner, calling out “chai! chai! chai!” and pouring steaming tea from a height (called “pulling” the chai), allowing it to cool a bit as it streams into little metal cups. The tea is mixed with condensed milk and often spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, star anise and nutmeg. I never found anyone selling coffee, so for once in my life became a tea drinker. It was very refreshing despite being so sweet.
More stalls were laden with exotic looking fruits and vegetables, others with clothing, cushions decorated with tiny mirrors and many different types of material, crockery and china, kitchen utensils and even vinyl records as found in any market around the world. Alongside the tiny alleys are ramshackle wooden shops selling jewellery, silver bangles and chains, rings with star sapphires or star rubies (but be careful, the scam is to stick a paper star to the bottom of a stone before it is mounted, best to buy the stone and have it mounted yourself).
Other shops sold only incense: joss sticks, brass oil burners, soaps and tiny bottles of concentrated oils including lemon, orange, and queen of the night, jasmine and patchouli. These shops smelled wonderful. Craft shops sold brass-ware: candlesticks, large patterned trays, vases, Buddha figures, star-cut lanterns, hanging musical chimes and other ornaments. Carpenters had sweet smelling sandalwood and camphor shelf units, tables, chairs and exquisitely carved elephants. I was very tempted to buy many wonderful things, but knowing I had to carry everything on my back prevented me from going overboard. And not knowing where I was going next prevented me from shipping goods “home”. A necklace of pretty glass beads that glowed in rich colours in the light, a couple of light cheesecloth tops and a small bottle of lemon oil found their way into my rucksack. The lemon oil especially was useful for dabbing on my wrists and giving the illusion of coolness. (It also helped disguise the disgusting smells too).
One evening we were lucky enough to witness an Indian wedding party passing beneath our hotel window. The bride was dressed in a scarlet red sari with gold thread, and sat on top of an elephant, which was covered in coloured cloths decorated in sequins and gold braid and thousands of tiny sewn in mirrors. The elephant and the bride were led through the streets by relatives, dressed in equally vibrant colours, banging drums and singing loudly and happily as they marched by. I felt privileged to have witnessed this event. And disappointed that I didn’t take any photos.
Being so close to Agra we had to take the opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal taking a train to get there which took around 4 hours, unfortunately it was so full we stood the entire way. Once there we managed to book into a tourist bungalow with huge rooms and wonderful ceiling fans. The following day we walked the 7 kilometres to the mausoleum passing several shanty shacks and malnourished children along the route. The contrast between what lies outside the grounds of the Taj and the beauty within was shocking.
Without doubt, the Taj Mahal ranks as amongst the most perfect buildings in the world, flawlessly proportionate, built entirely out of marble. Intended to be a commemoration of the memory of Shah Jahan’s beloved wife in reality it is his gift to the entire human race.
Returning to Delhi for one more night we then decided to head on south to Bombay (now known as Mumbai). The train left at 10:47 a.m. and was horribly crowded. For more than eight hours we either stood or crouched on the aisle before managing to get a wooden bench seat for the remainder of the thirty hour journey. Until then we were being hassled at every stop. Guards would board the train and insist on going through our rucksacks. Clothing and personal items were strewn around the floor – and we desperately grabbed things before other hands removed them! It was very tiring, tense and annoying. Stories of European travellers being dragged off Indian trains were beginning to seem more than likely. I am not sure which of us was more grateful to the other for being a travelling companion. More solo men disappear than women, so Jon was more than happy to be accompanied by a female.
We are totally exhausted from the journey by the time we reach Bombay the following evening. Stepping out onto the platform was like hitting a wall – the air was so thick I could taste it on my tongue. Delhi had been dry and comfortably warm during the day though bitterly cold at night. Here the climate is typical tropical with monsoon rains and extreme heat and humidity. We find a cheap hotel (Carlton) near to the Gateway to India (below) and close to the Hotel Ritz, but certainly not of the same calibre. In the high-ceiling box room the blades of the ceiling fans spin lackadaisically, supposedly cooling us, the occupants, but not the air itself. I can’t say they kept me cool and the clack-clacking noise would have disturbed my sleep had I not been so bone-tired.
Every time I step outdoors my skin is coated in a film of moisture and my hair plastered to my neck and forehead. I am so badly bitten by mosquitoes that my arms are swollen and red. My sleep is disturbed by the relentless itching and I have to pour cool water over myself in the middle of the night using the bucket style shower to get any relief. My nerves are shattered from the constant bombardment of beggars and men constantly wanting my attention.
I am beginning to hate India.
We are spending several days here in Bombay before going our separate ways – visiting shipping offices and getting yellow fever vaccinations, necessary for onward journeys. We took a trip out to Santa Cruz and visited Juhu beach where you can have elephant rides on the beach instead of donkey rides. We had intended to stay there for a few days and relax, but the dirty beach was strewn with litter and possibly sewage and so full of screaming children, courting couples and rowdy adolescents that it was not at all the peaceful refuge we had expected so we decided to return to Bombay where we stayed for one night in the Rex Hotel before returning to the Carlton.
I did not find Bombay as pleasant as Delhi. It appeared to be more hostile to Europeans, more aggressive and intolerant. Where in Delhi the people spoke to you politely (even when hassling you) here they shouted and spat. I was becoming increasingly nervous of having to travel on to Goa and Madras (Chennai) on my own in order to catch a ship to Singapore. Talking to other travellers we met in the hotel and at the railway station did nothing to dispel my worries. One young and very pregnant Australian girl was virtually camped out at the station, meeting every train from Delhi to see if her boyfriend was on it. It transpired that during one of the frequent searches by the guards on route he had disappeared from the train. She didn’t know where this happened as it was in the middle of the night and she was unable to see a station sign on the platform. She was now becoming frantic, as she had to shortly fly back to Australia to have her baby, and had no idea where he was.
Her story made me reconsider my plan to go across India and on to Australia on my own. If I disappeared I wouldn’t even be missed by anyone until my family at home realised that I hadn’t been in touch for a while. They would have no idea of where or when I went missing. Postcards and letters from home were very infrequent and only possible if I knew a Poste Restante where I could pick them up from, and who knows how long my letters were taking to get there. If only I could bump into Graham and Diane again and join them. But sadly we had drifted apart once more.
Reluctantly, I abandoned my plans to continue to Australia and went into a shipping office to purchase a ticket to Durban, South Africa with Jon. I had a cousin who lived and worked in Johannesburg so it would be fun to visit him and hopefully, one day in the future, I would reach my original destination. Australia.
We departed from Bombay at 11 p.m. on a Lloyd Triestino cruiseliner (an Italian liner). Destination: Karachi, Mombasa and Durban.
And that led to a whole different adventure…