If Hanoi’s Old Quarter was a wave of culture shock, then Old Delhi was a Japanese tsunami. Total destruction. In its wake, 30-some hours after arrival, Addie and I shuddered in our dark little room battling a violent round of food poisoning. There are few things that will bring two people closer together than being ill and helpless together. If I had any dignity left by that point, it died there.
But that’s skipping the part where we tackled Old Delhi, and contracted Delhi Belly in the first place. According to a thousand travel blogs, Old Delhi is the most overwhelming part of India, and the most overwhelming part of Old Delhi is a street called Chandni Chowk. We got there on the metro, a blissfully normal part of the city. We rode in the Ladies-Only carriage, the car at the front of the train labeled with the pink, flowery sign sprinkled with butterflies. Surrounded by a sea of colourful sarees, jingly bangles and dark braids, we hung onto the poles and tried to appear like we knew what we were doing. I thought there would be far more tourists on Chandni Chowk, but we saw no other foreigners. No backpackers, no expats, no completely unprepared tourists, unless you count us. I kept my camera hidden under a shawl when it wasn’t pointed up, and we both gawked at the tiny alleys, the power lines and the vendors. The smell of chai and spices mixed with the smell of burning garbage and cow poop. The number of men vastly outweighed the number of women. We bought cheap sarees and revelled at all the spices available, our noses nearly having tiny seizures at all the different scents they were taking in. Our meal that night was the last Indian food we’d be able to eat until the very last day in the country.
After our food poisoning had rendered us at least five pounds lighter, we caught a short flight to Varanasi, still feeling nauseous and weak. Upon arrival we paid 700 rupees for a pre-paid taxi to the Ghat closest to our guesthouse. A Dutch guy was promptly added to the vehicle, (“No, you can’t split the taxi fare… but there’s free air conditioning!” oh, excellent, what a deal!) and we were on our way in the monsoon rain. There was no drainage in the streets, so within a matter of minutes muddy water had begun to puddle and fill the road. Cycle rickshaws and cows were everywhere and our taxi held down the horn to try and get through them. Our heads rang with dehydrated headaches. They dropped us off 600m away from where we had been promised and despite our protesting, wouldn’t take us any further. 600m isn’t a long way to walk, but in Varanasi in monsoon rain, still feeling sick, with all of your bags between all of the types of traffic –cows included- it’s a bit of a trek.
The driver said his brother would show us the way to our guesthouse. He led us into tiny alleys, so small that when we had to pass cows we were required to squish between the cow and the wall, our bags scraping past. I hopped over a cow while Addie looked infuriated behind me. An Indian woman came to the rescue, tugging on the holy cow’s tail until it moved for her. Very quickly Addie and I were both disoriented; it felt as if we’d taken turns in circles, the alleys were too narrow and intricate to be mapped on my phone and the GPS hadn’t updated, so my escape plan had melted away. I didn’t like any of it. I didn’t trust any of it. We re-joined a main alley, but the next was flooded with muddy, cow-poo filled water. It turns out the Ganges had swollen in the monsoon season, so that the stairs to all the Ghats were flooded and no boats were allowed on the river. I was wearing flip-flops. The man leading us said, “No problem, we’ll take the back way!” Like the way we had come wasn’t “back-alley” enough!? 20 minutes of absolute certainty that we were about to be robbed, and a few stubborn cows later, we arrived at our door. He started the typical business spiel: I’m a tour guide, want a walking tour of Varanasi right now? No? How about tomorrow morning? I am very good. Very nice. It is very good price. No? OK, could you spare some money for leading you here? No. I did not ask you to lead me here, and you took us in circles. We left him on the doorstep, penniless. We would find out the next day that all we needed to do to get where the taxi dropped us off was a single turn: go straight along an alley, turn left. Walk. Took 5 minutes. It’s not that I don’t think his time was worthy of being paid, but I will be the last person to encourage people tricking and guilting other people for their own benefit. If you want money for something, ask. I am a firm believer in verbal and written contracts, sorry… but I’m not sorry at all.
Varanasi was rife with scams just like these. Women and girls holding babies and empty milk bottles will follow you for what seems like forever, exclaiming that they don’t want money, just milk. Just buy milk for my baby! Sometimes, the baby isn’t even theirs and they’ve borrowed it (like Slumdog Millionaire). The women have an agreement with the shops: you buy the overpriced milk “for the baby”, you leave, and then the woman returns the milk to the store, the store gives her some money, and they pocket the rest. The baby is not involved and does not benefit. There are men at the Ghats (religious buildings on the banks of the river) that will explain cultural customs to you without you prompting them, and then will ask for hefty donations so that the Ghats can continue with their ceremonies, etc… which isn’t true. The Ghats do not ask foreigners for donations. There are men with their faces painted who will “bless” you without asking, and who will paint your face and chant for you if you let them, and then demand 500 rupees for it. Varanasi was just as overwhelming as Delhi, but in its own way. The smell, the heat, the humidity, the monkeys, the cows, the cycle rickshaws…
Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, dating back over 5,000 years. It’s considered the holiest city in India and Hindus go there to bathe in the holy water of the Ganges. They also go there to die –it’s not uncommon to see dead bodies being carried through the alleys, or being burned at the riverside. Addie and I walked through the alleys attempting to get a handle on our surroundings while also looking for non-Indian food; I was still breathing through my mouth to avoid the stench that was triggering food-poisoning remnants. It was sticky and humid and I can’t stress this enough: the cows were everywhere. We learned that the female cows you can shove around a bit, but the bulls you’re not supposed to mess with. Our guesthouse owner took us to the river the next morning as the sun rose and people took “holy baths”. They meditated, prayed and swallowed Ganges water. By the time the Ganges gets to Varanasi, it’s one of the most polluted rivers in the world. But the mood was peaceful, people were quiet, and for the first time since arriving in India, we let our guard down and happily observed everything that was happening. People from all over India come to Varanasi, our guesthouse owner told us it’s something everyone tries to do at least once in their lives. He pointed out people from South India – “their sarees are different, and their skin is much darker”.
But our peace and calm was shattered once he’d left us behind. The scammers trailed us, and we were assaulted with a million things vying for our attention. We were conscious of anyone staring at us, or anyone that was trying to approach us. Later on we haggled with a cycle rickshaw driver to take us to the foreigners’ building at the train station to buy our train tickets to Jaipur. Once we were on our way, the pelting rain returned, soaking us and filling the streets with water up to the store floors. The rickshaw driver parked his “vehicle” and led us toward the train station… but first, more floods to navigate! We hung off the sides of the buildings, hopping from elevated stair, to pipes to rubble to try to avoid stepping in the flood. I laughed the entire time. Not because I was enjoying myself, but because the situation was ridiculous. I was wearing elephant pants, the street was flooded, I was nearly scaling buildings to avoid walking in muddy waters, the traffic and the cows weren’t bothered at all by their watery obstacle and all of this, just to buy a train ticket. To think that back home, we complain when we have to wait for a website to load for more than 10 seconds to buy a plane ticket.
Our trip began to turn around once we’d found the train to Jaipur. We walked purposefully through the train station trying to find our train and the correct carriage. The clouds were dark, there were cows on the tracks (is this cow theme getting through properly?) munching on gross bits and plastic, garbage fluttered passively on the platforms and Indians hauled huge packages of grain and rice onto the cars. Our car was class 2AC, the highest class we could buy on that particular route, meaning it was air-conditioned, there were four beds per “room” (no doors, just curtains) and sheets and pillows were provided. It was supposed to take 14 hours and took more like 23, but I really couldn’t complain. It was one of my smoother journeys in Asia, the only complaint being that we were late, but that’s pretty much a given in Asia. You could see the train tracks flying by underneath the train if you looked down the toilet, and you could hang out of the side and look back to the sleeper class if you wanted to. I doubt anyone would care if you fell out. We watched the countryside roll slowly past our window, the shacks melting into rice fields and jungle, brown rivers and finally, hazy darkness.
The next day we walked out of the train station in Jaipur into the usual haggle of persistent tuk-tuk drivers. No, we’re walking. No, go away. No, we don’t need you. No, we can walk. No. No. Thank you but no. It really does not matter how many times you repeat yourself, or how long you can ignore them, it makes no difference. There is nothing you can say that will make them leave you alone, but one tuk-tuk driver asked where we were going and then quoted a price a quarter of what our hostel had said it would cost. “10 rupees!” he said amiably. Suspicious as usual and with only 800m to lug our stuff, we still turned him down. He told us, “No worries. You are not going far. Just follow this road and you turn left.” Clearly he knew exactly where the most popular hostel was. We said thanks and continued on our way. 10 minutes later we ran into him again and struck up conversation. I grabbed his number since he didn’t seem too pushy, and we said bye. His name was Rahul.
Our hostel was fantastic: the shower had a curtain, the bathroom had toilet paper, the air conditioner worked and the rooftop restaurant was stocked full of good, food-poisoning friendly, non-Indian food. We rejoiced. Giddy about our success, sitting on the rooftop as the sun turned the Pink City one shade pinker, the hostel owner came over and asked if we wanted to be extras in an Indian soap opera the next day. Uh, what? I guess so?
We woke up early and spent something like 14 hours on the set of an American-style coffee shop with corny actors and actresses as they played out the crazy dramas of whatever this show was. We’d been brought along with two Irish backpackers, so the producers put Addie and I with them as if we were on coffee dates. We mimed take after take having cheery, silent conversation with them. We mimed drinking. We mimed eating. I drank so much free chai I thought I would explode. Between major costume changes, we sat in the extras room with a gaggle of Indian girls who could not for the life of them stop taking selfies with the tallest white men (the Irish) that they’d ever seen. When the producers left us alone for too long, we got bored and started to explore the rest of the building. There was more than one show being filmed there, and we found an Indian comedy/talk show, like the ones that are meant to look like they were shot live that have a small audience (think Ellen). When the producers of this show found us on the sidelines marvelling at the over-the-top lighting, they asked if we wanted to be part of the “audience” and more or less dragged us onto the set. They booted two Indian extras out of the audience -we felt very bad about this- and put us in their spots. We sat there listening to this Indian comedy talk show, laughing on cue, clapping on cue, the works. I didn’t understand a word that was being said, so once again, I was laughing the entire time at how absurd the situation was. I wondered if anyone who would end up watching this would realize that the two white girls in the audience had not a clue what was being said. The producers from our coffee-shop show came looking for us and got into a rather big row over who got the four white extras. We were told not to wander off again. We felt special but very underpaid.
The next two days we hired Rahul (the tuk-tuk driver) to show us Jaipur. He showed us the Water Temple, took us to fabric factories and jewel factories, to the Monkey Temple and to go see the elephants. Our days started with the usual one-hour stop at his favourite breakfast spot where we ate breakfast or got chai together. He took us out for dinner on a rooftop and afterward we jumped back in the tuk-tuk and he pulled over without warning on the side of a busy street. He came back with three large cold beers. I like this guy.
He then took us to where he was living (stop freaking out, he was cool, this story isn’t going anywhere bad or traumatizing) and they made us mutton and tried to make it as non-spicy as they could. Still pretty fiery. We danced around with all the kids in the house, girls who had drawn their own henna up to their elbows and were so excited to meet us that they didn’t want to go to sleep. Rahul told us that most of the travelers just called him “Ricky” and that he was from Goa. He spends one third of the year in Jaipur, a third of the year in Goa and the last third in the mountains in the north. He’s a tuk-tuk driver in Jaipur, but he’s actually a chef. Loves making French food. Goa is nothing like India, no! Goa is not India. We speak Portuguese! He told us that he had to learn Hindi as a second or third language when he started to work in Jaipur and that he still has an accent, so sometimes the locals treat him differently. Shows how much we know: nothing.
Rahul told us to go to Pushkar because it’s really fucking great, so fucking great, so we obliged and found where all the tourists were. Pushkar is a small holy town with the best food we found in India, but also the starkest contrast: the town itself is mostly just tourist stalls and market places selling trinkets, where backpackers stroll the alleys in skimpy clothes, but fifty feet away, the small lake is lined with holy Ghats, and Indians take holy baths. With such a conservative society where we felt uncomfortable if our knees showed, it was shocking to see Indian women with their tops off in the Ghats.
The holy towns, like Varanasi or Pushkar, have two obvious similarities: you can only find beer on the black market, and the streets are ruled by cows. The cows do whatever the hell they want. Pushkar was the only town where we felt comfortable and safe enough to wander around when it got dark, so we did and ran into a festival. I still don’t really know what they were celebrating and I still don’t understand how their eardrums are intact. Small trucks drove along the street with huge speakers blasting electronic music. The trucks were filled with shirtless male teenagers having a dance party. Sometimes the trucks were trailed with a gaggle of grooving Indians (more boys than girls). Water was thrown everywhere and bright pink dyed powder (like the Holi Festival) was being chucked in all directions. The music was so loud it hurt and the ground shook – or maybe I’m getting old? Camels dressed in tassels and flowers were led along the streets between the electro-trucks. It was a very odd combination of what you’d expect from Rajasthan (camels and dyed powder), and a modern day rave… but I suppose it was suitable for Pushkar, which has this contrast built right into it: Holy Ghats neighbouring tourist stalls.
We’d purchased night bus tickets to head back to Old Delhi. I was very nervous about it, because you really have to rate night buses on a relative scale… and if you’ve never been on a night bus, you have no scale. Chances are your expectations are a little bit high. I was worried about Addie, so I started to tell her all my night bus horror stories to lower her expectations. The night bus in Colombia that was freezing cold, had the ceiling window open, blasted Spanish music and had “sit-up” seats. The night bus that broke down 6 times on the way from Cambodia into Laos. The night bus that wouldn’t stop for me to go pee so when the driver stopped for a smoke break, I ran across a highway in the dark, barefoot in the rain and peed outside a 7-11. I warned that we should sleep in a way that ensures that if anyone tries to grab our small bags, it’ll wake us up… so maybe curl ourselves around it. Tie the strap to your wrist, sleep with the zippers aimed at your chest. Put your passport down your shirt. I’ve had decent experiences in Vietnam, but my rule is that I never board a night bus in Asia expecting to have a hiccup-less journey and this was no different. I felt responsible for every wrong thing that happened to us in India, because I was the reason we were there to begin with. I had insisted we go to India. In hindsight we should have tackled Nepal… but no matter, because it was my idea and I was hellbent on India, everything that India hurled at us, I wanted to take responsibility for. So we boarded this bus with rock-bottom expectations and proceeded to be absolutely shocked.
First, we climbed into our compartment and slid the tinted glass door shut. Then we closed the curtains. Our own private compartment with a working door and a curtain? No one would even be able to tell we weren’t locals. We could put our bags against the window and no one would be able to get them. The bus still hadn’t been turned on yet but we were the only people on it. It was hot and sticky, the sweat starting to drip off of us. We were pretty happy –this was the most “secure” night bus situation I’d ever seen. The engine turned on, the AC blasted into our faces and we looked at each other, said nothing, and started laughing hysterically. It’s funny how happy something so simple can make you. We left 7 minutes early and arrived in Delhi 1 hour early (unheard of). We bounced around but we slept enough. It was the most fantastic night bus I’d ever taken.
Back at the same hostel we’d lived through our food poisoning in we met an American girl who’d just come from living abroad in Chiang Mai, so we tagged along with her for the next two days, exploring the places we’d missed in Delhi when we first got to India… and then the Taj Mahal.
The hostel owner was awesome, making us chai and trying out new omelette recipes on us (he wants to open an omelette stand, and they are so good). We paid $4CAD for an Uber to take us the 50 minute ride to the airport and then I hugged Addie and watched her go through the Passport line while I waited another hour for a plane headed back to Moscow, and then Zurich.
The reason that it’s taken me so long to write about India is that I had a huge dilemma about how to portray my feelings about it. I was scared about coming off as a huge privileged brat. India is a different animal, as most travel blogs and written experiences will agree. India is certainly not for everyone, so bear with me.
One of the reasons I love traveling so much is meeting awesome local people. While a person can prefer mountains over the beach, rain over humid heat and snow over the desert, I believe that your visit to a foreign country and your impression of that country is shaped not by the landscape or climate, but by the people that you interact with. This has been an overwhelming theme in all of my travels: I remember people just as much or more than the landscapes. There are over a billion people in India and I think that the vast, vast majority of them are good people. Unfortunately, I think there is also a culture in India that encourages the exploitation of foreigners for money –that’s not a secret. You can Google “most common scams in India”, and all sorts of mean scenarios come up. You can’t blame people for doing this when foreigners don’t know any better and fall for it. You can’t blame people for doing this when it’s their way of feeding their families. The places we visited were primarily tourist hot spots, and I think our experience would’ve been much different if we had gone to places that were more rural. The places we went are used to tourists and they are used to taking advantage of them. I understand the brattiness that I am now in serious danger of exuding if I start to badmouth a country: oh, I see, so this girl has the privilege of taking time off work, and now she’s complaining that not everyone treated her like a princess? That’s adorable… adorably irritating. I am very thankful and grateful for this opportunity, and yes, it is a privilege, but the chances I’m going back to major tourists hubs in India are zero, entirely because we were more often than not, treated like objects that leak money. The selfies people took with us without permission, when they rotated men standing beside us while they all got their shot, the begging, the guy that tailed us all the way to our hostel and insisted we come out for drinks with him, the guy in the lobby who kept asking if we would come back and marry him, the scamming, the charging us twice as much for tuk-tuk trips as locals simply because we’re foreign. This is pretty common throughout Asia, but the degree of it present in India was a magnitude higher than anything else I’d ever seen. There was not a single instance of kindness that we experienced from a person that we hadn’t been paying, and I think that is really, really sad. It would be dishonest to anyone reading this not to mention this: your experience of India’s hotspots will very much depend on how much money you’re going to spend. If you have a guide, all of a sudden, like magic, the scammers stay away from you. It was a very exhausting phenomenon, because it links goodness to money. If someone offered us something good, we were suspicious of them trying to con us into paying for it later. I don’t want to have to pay someone to be nice and treat me with respect. I just want people to be nice to each other, even if the only reward is… no rupees. The kindness that I’ve seen from locals around the world has sometimes had me questioning why Canadians are the ones known for their good demeanours. I don’t know many Canadians that would offer 8 filthy backpackers in a hotel lobby a place to stay in their home, when their home is only two rooms, but yet that’s exactly what happened in Turkmenistan. Or that lovely French woman who saw me pouting outside of a closed campsite with my bike, near Versailles, who let me stay with her for two nights and cooked me dinner, just because. India was unpleasant and difficult for me because it was very hard to discern between the good people, and people who just wanted money. I don’t like deception, and I found an alarming amount of that in India.
The next time you see someone hauling a backpack around looking a little lost, offer to help them out. Maybe they are only in this country for 24 hours. Maybe having a conversation with them will shape their entire impression of your country. Even if it’s just asking where they are from and if they know the best way to get where they want to go. You don’t have to volunteer your house, or take them out for dinner. Just say hi and tell them to have a good day. Maybe they don’t need your help - they’ve got an app for that, I’m sure of it. They’ve got a map for that, a book for this, they’ve got TripAdvisor to tell them where the best place to get ice cream is. But it means so much more coming from someone who just happened to be standing next to you waiting for the bus.
Kindness doesn’t, and shouldn’t, cost anything.
Cheers from Vancouver, Canada.