India for the first time. Where do I start? For any intrepid world explorer, or simple backpacker such as myself, India is the essential place to visit. At least once, if not several times considering just how big the country is and how much there is to see there. But for me in 1999, it was somewhere I hadn’t originally considered going and only put it in the itinerary after hearing from friends what an amazing place it was.
In fact, as a young boy of 3 I had briefly stopped at New Delhi Airport as a plane got refuelled on the way back from Europe to Australia. No, I don’t remember it at all. I do remember that the cleaning staff there had taken away our sandwiches though, although that’s more something that my mum told me than a real memory.
Outside the airport, into India, is really only something you can vaguely imagine if you’ve never been to the most astounding country on Earth. India is astounding, baffling, shocking, brilliant, horrid, confronting inspirational and more all on each and every day that you are there.
With a little trepidation, a little excitement and a whole bunch of feelings it was harder to categorise I got off the plane in New Delhi. I had met a couple of other backpackers heading into India for the first time on the plane and we banded together to find us a taxi and place to stay. My plan was to stay at the ‘Delhi Tourist Camp’, I think it was. Not smack in the centre of town, but in a good position and not too pricey.
I remember the airport being very ramshackle. Bits of the ceiling removed, the electric works being well exposed to all the passengers. Baggage took ages to arrive, and then we exited the airport to see thousands of people behind a wire fence waiting for the arrival of loved ones. It was honestly an unexpected and challenging sight as your first real taste of a country, especially at about 11pm at night.
The prepaid taxi booth was useful though, eliminating the need to bargain with the taxi drivers at the airport, the hardest place in the world to get a fair deal. Nevertheless, getting to the Tourist Camp was no easy task, because the driver was keen to stop at every second hotel we passed. Eventually though we got there and checked in.
And a little hungry and thirsty, we went for a walk down the street to see what we could find. Our main aim was to find some bottled water. And we did, the road was well-lit, but straight away we had to deal with the poverty of India. We had to walk around dozens of people sleeping on the footpath. To be faced with poverty like that is never easy, and if ever does become easy for me then I’d be thinking there was something wrong with me, and this was perhaps my first real exposure tp poverty like that.
The next day I had decided to move on from Delhi. I knew it was a hell of a place, and I would leave exploring it mostly for my return before I flew out. This meant the Delhi railway station and booking some tickets to my next destination, which I had decided was Chandigarh.
There is a special room upstairs somewhere in the bowels of the station where foreigners go to book tickets in advance. It’s got basic air conditioning (although it was not hot at this stage, early March) and seats and initially seems really busy and little confusing, but compared with lining up at the ticket booths at stations, it’s a picnic.
My train was booked for the evening, around 7pm departure. So, with the friends I’d met on the plane – friends whose names I can’t even remember today (such is the backpacking life!) I spent some time in Delhi, mostly around Connaught Place. They were doing some shopping, we had a couple of meals, got a feel for the place without seeing anything amazing or particularly touristy. Before I knew it, I was on the platform waiting for my train.
I sat there waiting and heard the announcement ‘the train from Calcutta to Delhi has been delayed by 33 hours’ or something to that affect. What’s a guy to think? I knew the trains were delayed more often than not, but that was one hell of a delay. My train was on time, I had a comfortable seat in first class. Or was it second class Air-con? There are so many variations on classes on trains in India.
The thing was – now I was on my own in India for the first time. Arriving at 10.30pm at night I had to organise my auto-rickshaw to my hotel and barter for a good price on my own. Well, I had to do it all, right? Every traveller to India has to take that leap at some point.
And to be honest, I think I must have had a bit of traveller’s fatigue by this point, because I did very little about town in Chandigarh besides sleep in, eat, walk about and… play cricket. I took one lousy photo! I looked for a rose garden or something, but didn’t find it, but I did pass a group of kids having cricket practice and I joined in. I think I sort of forced myself on them there. Still, it was enjoyable.
I also spent a bit of time working out my next move. It’s strange – even though I had the Lonely Planet I was not good at planning where to go and what I would see, I was lost flicking backwards and forwards through the pages. I decided the best plan of attack was to make it to Amritsar, and that from Chandigarh I needed to take the bus rather than train to get there. I wanted to see the Golden Temple.
Looking at the times though, it was a long trip and I didn’t really want to take an overnight bus or train journey so much, so I decided to break the trip in a town called Jalandhar. I took a local bus, packed to the hilt and not with the most comfortable seats, but I was in early so a least I had a seat. On the bus I met a young man from Jalandhar called Manus. We chatted, although he didn’t have much English (compared to my zero Hindi) but we managed to communicate.
I must admit I was also terrible back then orientating myself in a city, and when the bus arrived I had little idea where I was. Manus offered a place in house to stay, and although I wasn’t initially that keen, I accepted. This was the very first time I had been taken in by locals in my travelling, but it wouldn’t be the last. I will never forget this.
His parents’ house was pretty decent I think for the city, with dark rooms around a courtyard. Living spaces became sleeping spaces at night, it was basic and humble, but the generosity of the family was such that you’d hardly notice. I was there probably three nights. I met all of Manu’s friends and half of Jalandhar and played an awful lot of cricket too!
I was taken from temple to temple as well (Hindu temples) and probably blessed a number of times. It seemed half the town came out and played cricket in different spots, and I was asked to play, and then when I was out they wouldn’t let me hand the bat to the next batsman insisting I had another go! I had been a deer in the headlights over my first few days in India, and now what I was experiencing was the most humbling and rich experience of the five weeks I’d been away from home.
I was taken from house to house to house to meet so many people, none of whom I can remember, but I do remember Manu and his family. I always will. Ever since this experience, I have found that somehow when feeling a bit lost in a place, I always manage to land on my feet so to speak.
As for Amritsar, Manu said I shouldn’t go there as it was too dangerous. As for the transport, he insisted that bus was much safer than train, that I would surely get robbed on the train. I did lose the independence to make a few decisions there. But I don’t think it mattered that much. Instead, I was booked onto an overnight bus to Delhi connecting to another to Jaipur as my next destination. Outside the bus we took a lot of photos in front of it. Not a local bus, but a ‘VIP’ bus.
But, that’s for next week because I’ve already written a lot of words! India – it confronts, astounds and amazes!
Don’t forget, more of my writings on the brilliance of India including pics and travel tips can be found here on Amazon – Short Journeys – India