I wasn’t prepared for the scene that greeted us at New Delhi airport that night. The flight from Bangkok had been short and comfortable, but had also involved the usual hassle of reaching the airport, going through endless security, and then waiting in the departure lounge for over an hour with, in my case, an ever so slightly heightened sense of panic.
I’m usually an easy-going kind of traveller. I make it a point of arriving at the airport at least two hours before any flight, going through the immigration and security procedures without further procrastination. Then I usually get excruciatingly bored while waiting for something interesting to happen. Crosswords, books, stuff to proof read or even an episode or two of television sci-fi help while away the pre-departure ennui, but this also usually occurs in a fairly relaxed manner, making it an altogether not completely unbearable experience.
The hours before this particular flight had been more difficult to deal with than usual. My bowels were still red raw, recovering from the belligerent onslaught of green Thai curries. And I thought it would be the land of curries, chilli and really dirty toilets that would pose the biggest gastrointestinal challenge I would face on this trip, and not the country before it on my travel itinerary.
I was going to enter India with a big minus already next to my large intestine. In fact the same could be said for my stomach, liver, kidneys and even my bloody appendix. My head was also still buzzing from Thai hospitality, quite possibly from all the formaldehyde additives in the beer. My current physiological deficiencies, however, were nothing compared to the apprehension I felt about our destination.
I was scared of India. Shit scared.
It would be the toughest country on the tour for all sorts of reasons, but first and foremost was the fact I had absolutely no idea of what to expect.
It had taken me a while to learn that travelling in exotic countries is never what you think it should be. No matter how many travel books and documentary series are absorbed before a trip, it really doesn’t make a difference, especially when it comes to India, a country which is completely bereft of anything that could be categorized as ‘Normal’, at least by me.
There were several dozen heavily armed and turbaned Indian soldiers waiting for us after we had cleared Indian customs and were making our way into the arrival lounge of the airport. They motioned for us hurry along and exit via the big double doors that separated us from the rest the country. The doors swung open and we were welcomed by a sight one doesn’t usually attribute to an airport. There were beggars waiting beyond the barrier and they quickly mobbed us with outstretched palms, having caught sight and identified us as Rich-Foreigners-With-Cash. They tugged at our sleeves and wailed miserably. An old toothless woman led the charge, lifting back the woollen blanket that obscured most of her face to reveal a battered mass of burnt and scabby wrinkled skin. Small children with scruffy hair that reminded me of Rob Smith of The Cure joined the tussle to get money from the freshly arriving foreigners and soon there was an entire swarm of people around us.
‘Welcome to India’, I though as I pulled myself free of the begging hands and helped Meg do the same. We barged our way through the whimpering vagrants, swinging our backpacks from side to side with a little more gusto than usual, making them think twice before taking up pursuit. There were more people beyond the herd of vagabonds, mostly older men dressed in army green anoraks shoving each other out of the way in order to reach those who had just arrived at the airport. The heavy coats reminded me that it was winter in India, which explained the strange attire for the locals. It also explained why I was only sweating lightly, and had not yet collapsed in a miserable heap of heat exhaustion upon the mere realisation that we were now in New Delhi. This was undeniably so and as we continued to walk through the masses in an attempt to make our next move, I could see that some of the other anoraked men hanging around the back of the hall were spitting on the floor and urinating in the corner.
We stopped a little further away and scanned the begging, spitting, barging and urinating masses for a sign with my name on it. The hotel we had booked for the next two days had conveniently included an airport pickup in the price, but I wasn’t entirely convinced anything of the sort had actually been organized. Meanwhile, an argument had broken out near us. An airport official was busy berating a lowly baggage handler for some blunder and a short discussion followed, punctuated by a surprising amount of violence. The manager seemed to round off each sentence by punching his employee squarely in the face. The hapless attendant cowered before his superior, with his hands help up defensively in an attempt to allay further punctuation. The manager finished his side of the argument by kicking the employee in the arse as he attempted to flee in order to correct whatever he messed up in the first place.
‘Welcome to India’, I repeated to myself. We continued to look around the building, not daring to even considering going outside into the dusty night. Luckily, we were rescued a short time later when a small, balding and scruffy-looking man entered the airport building holding up a makeshift sign that consisted of a torn envelope with my name written almost illegibly on it. My facial expression must have given me away, as the man immediately came over and shook my hand before I had even uttered a single word.
‘Welcome to India, Sir’, said our taxi driver, who was also rugged-up in an army green anorak as if he had just come in from a snowstorm. He grabbed my backpack and heaved it upon his head, and while completely ignoring my female travelling companion, he led the way to his battered old taxi parked at an outrageous angle in the middle of the car park. Not that anyone cared about that.
The air outside was thick with dust and smoke, making any attempt at breathing an almost impossible luxury. The air reeked of urine and other unspeakable things. There was a cow in a nearby bus stop and a long row of cloth-wrapped corpses lined the footpath leading to it.
They were, of course, not corpses, but were in fact dozens of homeless people sleeping in the streets, their entire bodies wrapped tightly in dirty woollen blankets and huddling together for warmth. Not dozens. Hundreds, stretching as far as the eye could see through the thick toxic smog which made my eyes water. I gave up trying to comprehend or compare this scene with anything I’d ever witnessed and concentrated on the conversation our little taxi driver (whose name was Raj) was attempting to initiate.
‘You like cricket?’ asked Raj after we had gotten past the usual dumb-tourist-post-arrival questions like ‘Where you from?’, ‘First time in India?’ and ‘You want some Hashish?’
The question took me by surprise – the bit about my favourite sport, not the grass – and I had to admit that Yes, I did in fact like cricket.
‘Ricky Ponting!’ shouted the driver enthusiastically in response to my acknowledgement of a conversational topic we had in common, as if that explained everything there was to know about the current state of the Australian national squad and anything else. Our conversation about cricket filled a few minutes and the driver elaborated about his recent experiences and preferences in a very serious manner as he swung his taxi recklessly through the mayhem of thick New Delhi traffic.
The main road leading from the airport to the centre of the city was under heavy construction, but that hadn’t stopped our driver from using it, speeding dangerously through the tangle of building materials, fences and construction workers busy forging a long row of concrete pylons which would eventually support a new monorail link into the city.
Our small car swerved and bumped in a ridiculous way, and we grabbed anything we could to steady ourselves in the back seat. The scenery that flashed past our windows was a confusion of thick plumes of dust and smoke, construction workers welding and hammering bits of the monorail together, concrete mixers depositing their cargos into large vats, and cranes heaving large bundles of pipes, timber and pallets of building materials onto the road.
Our driver slalomed through the whole lot with the abandon of someone wheeling a shopping trolley through an empty supermarket. It was like flying a Cessna through a densely populated thunderstorm. The plane ride over the Nazca lines in Peru was a doddle compared to this. I tried to keep my mind on our current predicament by returning to the conversation at hand.
‘You like cricket too?’ I asked despite being completely aware that much was bloody obvious.
‘Oh yes, Sir, I’m particularly fond of the twenty-twenty, Sir. It’s very nice to watch, only action hitting, Sir.’ The driver pronounced his ‘w’ as a ‘v’, making the conversation rather comical, and despite our life-threatening mode of transportation, I was determined to see the funny side of things. Raj was referring to a relatively new form of the game, the development of which I had completely missed while living in the belligerently cricket-free zone of mainland Europe. In the T-20 format, each side is given only twenty overs in which to score as many runs as possible, resulting in only action hitting.
‘I haven’t seen this form of the game before’, and I explained to Raj that cricket wasn’t particularly popular in Berlin.
‘Excuse me, sir, but what is favourite sport in Germany?’ asked Raj, completely baffled that there could be anything in the world but cricket.
‘Football’, I answered quietly.
‘Manchester United!’, shouted the driver as he looked back at me happily for a reaction.
‘Er… truck’, I stammered pointing ahead of us as if I’d seen a ghost. Raj looked ahead and yanked the car out of the way of an oncoming truck carrying large cement blocks and also narrowly avoided the large oncoming bus that was in the process of overtaking the truck.
‘Yes’, I agreed eagerly, ‘Manchester United.’ Hoping that this would relax the driver and encourage him to actually keep looking at the dirt road he was driving on. This seemed to do the trick and I took the advantage and went on the offensive, leaning forward and telling the driver absolutely everything I knew about football. To my relief, I had found his weakness and kept talking non-stop until we cleared the construction site and finally made our way through the dusty centre of New Delhi’s night-time streets. I was exhausted by the time we reached the hotel, but very happy to still be alive. Raj sweetly explained the taxi had been paid for by the hotel, but would we mind terribly giving him a big tip, as he has to feed his family, pay for petrol and so on. I sweetly told him to go away quickly, but not in so many words.