After 8 years of dreaming, 1 year of saving and about 2 weeks of shitting myself about the fact that I was stepping into the great unknown, I made it to India. I landed Delhi on the 2 September 2016 with stars in my eyes and expectations of sheer chaos. I had this image in my mind that as soon as I walked out of the airport I would be hit by humidity, stench and millions of cars and people all fighting for my business. Not at all what you get, initially that is, instead you walk out and yes the humidity is a trooper and makes its presence known but for the most part the air is clear and the people are minimal. Where was the India I was expecting? That was still coming.
I had booked my first hostel a while before I made it over. I prefer to travel without an itinerary but I would say rather plan your first few days in an unknown country to allow yourself stress free time to acclimatize. I stayed in a hostel called Boribista bookable on Hostelworld which was great! It had a lovely common area, the rooms and bathrooms were clean and also had a rooftop with comfortable couches to hang out at night. I had also made a friend on Couchsurfing so that I had someone trustworthy to show me around and teach me the Indian ways on arrival. Another good tip.
Your first step is then getting from the airport to your hostel. I won’t go into detail about booking your taxi here that is covered in my post about getting around India just know that you can either book a government taxi to which an English speaking driver is preferable or call an Uber. Do the Uber rather. It is more expensive but you avoid the price bargaining or a driver getting lost.
My driver did not speak English and while he claimed he knew exactly where he was going he actually only knew where the area was and not the actual hostel. I found this out the hard way.
The drive was magical though. I was in absolute wonder of the fact that I was finally in India and found immense joy in observing all the tuk-tuks, the crazy driving, the cows in the middle of the road, the way people were dressed, the buildings, etc. What driving should have sent me into panic brought a huge smile on my face because hey, I had made it! This joy soon turned into irritation. By the time we made it to South Extension 1, the area my hostel was in, I realized my driver hadn’t a clue where to go to next. We must have driven SLOWLY, in crazy high levels of humidity and in a black car with no air-conditioning, for about 2 hours looking for the hostel. Eventually, after asking tons of people, someone knew what he was talking about and directed us where to go. Thank GOD! I died a little in that car in that heat. But no matter, I had made it and nothing was going to break my spirit.
What happened over the next few days however did manage to break my spirit quite a lot which is why I am writing this post. I want you to understand that you will most likely go through this as well just power through it because once you do the real magic of India, a magic that cannot be described but only experienced, will reveal itself to you and what you dealt with in your first week will be worth it.
My plan was to spend 3 days in Delhi and then move onto seeing the rest of the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra & Jaipur). On day 2 I met up with my couchsurfing friend who took me around the old part of the city. We tried some traditional South Indian cuisine, visited the Sikh Golden Temple, saw the India Gate, and shopped around a little. After a lovely long day I bid him adieu and made my way back to my hostel with the promise of reconnecting again the next day. That evening though I was jolted awake by the strongest urge to throw up. I ran to the bathroom and pretty much stayed there all night. Yes, you guessed it, I got the good ole Delhi belly. It is a given when you go to India so just pray it happens sooner rather than later so you can quickly get it out the way. Essentially it is a stomach virus you get from consuming contaminated water and it’s a gamble you take with restaurants. Sometimes they wash their food in filtered water sometimes in tap water. I’d obviously eaten at a restaurant specializing in the latter.
Delhi belly will have you man down for at least 2 days. Rather just rest and keep yourself hydrated because trying to fight it while being active in the humidity of India only makes you feel worse. The virus can last anywhere between 2 and 5 days and you will experience vomiting and diarrhea. Eventually though by day 5 I was fed up and went to see a local doctor who gave me medicine that sorted me out in less than a day. Don’t be afraid to go to local doctors! Ask the advice of the staff of where you are staying who is trustworthy and then go see someone. Because Delhi belly is such a common ailment in India it is easy to diagnose and treat. The doctor visit cost me 350 INR and my medicine about 500 INR. It’s a virus so your broad spectrum antibiotics can do nothing against it.
I did however after feeling a little better get back out to explore Delhi on my last day. My driver had suggested taking me to a bazaar as I had mentioned I wanted to buy some traditional attire. Let me tell you one thing, if you are ever interested in training your sales team, then send them to India. The store keepers (a bit more in the cities than the villages) are relentless. They will follow you around the entire store, constantly make suggestions and keep trying to convince you to make a purchase, and once you agree to buy something then they try to convince you to buy more. I hate shopping with a salesman hanging over my shoulder. I get anxious and can’t actually look around. You can try explain this but it will not register. I actually laughed at this situation at the end of my trip. I was so badly ripped off! I had no clue what to expect price wise and was still too timid to fight a price down. I think I spent more in that shop than I would have covering all travel related expenses in India for a week. Another lesson. If you go shopping try have something specific in mind and ask locals what they would expect to pay beforehand.
I then hopped onto a train and made my way into Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. At this stage I did not trust the Indian men. I am normally a very open person which means strangers feel comfortable approaching and talking to me but due to my skepticism I was sure to avoid eye contact and close myself off as obviously as I could. On the train I had met an English couple who I shared a taxi to the Taj Mahal gardens with. These days there are a lot of white travelers in India so if you are feeling unsafe then find one and ask if you can travel with them. I only say white as it means noticeably foreign. You will however learn to trust India and to open yourself up and will be rewarded for it.
I still remember driving through Agra and seeing its poverty caused devastation as something so beautiful. I was almost the only person I knew that actually liked Agra and I was later crapped out by a local for seeing poverty as beautiful but I couldn’t help it. It just felt like although there were these very prevalent issues the people still tried to make the most of it. There was rubbish everywhere, street animals for days, the buildings were falling apart, people on the street, and untrimmed space invading tress wedged between all the buildings. It just made me think of simpler living and integrated co-existence, a concept which the first world has yet to understand.
The taxi dropped me off at my hostel, a really cool chain of hostels all over India called Zostel. Check them out! Always good fun and a lot of focus by the head office into creating area specific unique experiences. You can read up about my experiences with this chain in another post. Ironically in blistering heat and humidity the hostel was hosting a bonfire. However, the bonfire, music and flowing drinks got everyone into a great mood and an awesome party followed.
It is recommended that you get to the Taj Mahal just before sunrise to avoid mass crowds. In summer this meant a 5am wake up call. The hostel has a 24 hour reception and the front desk will help you call a taxi and negotiate your price to ensure you reach the Taj in time. Talk about service!
What happened after was my first real freak out in India. After visiting the Taj I had decided to hire a taxi for the day who would also act as my guide. The drivers are always looking to do this as they can then just charge you a day rate. You will argue but once you both agree to a price the driver will treat you like absolute royalty. India is all about service and hospitality. They very much understand the value of a happy customer who has received beyond average service. The driver had decided that out first stop was to the be the Agra Fort. Oh em gee! Now remember I am still battling Delhi belly at this stage and Agra was sitting at a 95% humidity that day so I was in no mood to people.
The driver parked across the road from the fort so I had to navigate the chaotic Agra roads. A point to this, Agra has road rules but no one abides to them, worse so than anywhere I traveled to in India. The driving in India is a crazy system of first come first serve and not a ‘cool I will wait for you to cross’ type of thing but more like a ‘oh ok you are passing in front of me so I will slow down a little and swerve if necessary’, this swerve then means that the driver next to you has to read this and respond accordingly. That, I think, is why the hooting is non-stop. The horns are warnings of where you are. What boggles my brain is that a single driver can read the various horns, filter out which affects him and react back with his driving and hooting. Feeling terrible, urging to take all my clothes off and a constant car horn in my ear I make the terrifying road crossing. Insider tip; just put your arm out indicating the cars to stop and walk, it is the only way you will cross a street, waiting will get you nowhere. Feeling safer at the entrance of the fort I am then bombarded by people. I’m a bit claustrophobic so crowds have never amused me and this was at least 6 men in my space yelling louder and louder over one another for either a taxi or a guide. I would politely say no but no is not an answer. Taxi, guide, guide, guide, taxi, taxi, guide, madam, taxi, guide, madam, madam, guide, guide, taxi,… Yeah, I lost it. I threw my hands up and screamed for everyone to leave me the fuck alone over and over. I caused a massive scene and everyone ran away from me in horror. Was actually quite funny to witness. I then ran to my taxi and asked the driver to take me where there weren’t a lot of people. A garden or park of some form. He took me to the Taj gardens where I sat in tears for about an hour trying to process what had just happened and calm myself down. It was at this point that I wanted out of India. I had made a huge mistake and was planning how to get out.
Needless to say I asked the driver to just take me back to my hostel afterwards where I could hide. He managed however to convince me to go to a marble factory before heading back. Since Agra is famous for its marble art I agreed. It was a very interesting experience and thank goodness I finally had a shop owner who accepted my ‘I’m just looking’ response and left me alone.
Still feeling defeated I decided that I would not let this get the better of me, that I would give India another chance and prevail forward.
I was then back on the train heading to Jaipur. Though I had managed to feel a little better in Agra the being active there brought my Delhi belly back with a vengeance. A less humid space and a better together city I still struggled to spend longer than 2 hours out. I had tried to push myself but my body wasn’t having it. And here again you deal with the hounding salesmen. You are not a human being to these people only a bank. Laughable really since I was traveling on the Rand which thanks to our dear old president was worth almost nothing. I did learn though that headphones help. They will still try to get your visual attention but it’s easier to brush them off this way than if they had the power of their voice.
After Jaipur I headed off to Haridwar to join up the next day with a group that I had booked a 4 day trek tour with. I was in such a panic because I will still feeling miserable and after how sick I got after just 2 hours of being out in Jaipur I was almost sure I wasn’t going to be physically up for a multi-day trek. This was where I went to see the doctor. I had booked a private hotel room this time around as I really needed a space by myself away from the chaos to recover. And boy did that work wonders! The combination of sleep, MacDonalds (which at this stage was the only food I could trust as healthy), and medicine sorted me out one time shoe shine. I spent 4 days trekking the Himalayas where I realized that I had been going about India wrong. That I should embrace the difference and open myself up to the people. Everything changed for me after this. This was the start of my love affair with India.