India, full of surprises…


Thursday 29th May 2008

Wow, ok, it’s been a crazy few days/nights, and I’m struggling to keep track of the dates already!

In brief (who am I kidding?) – I travelled by night bus from Pokhara to Sunauli on Sunday, arriving at the Indian border on Monday morning. Crossing over was a bit bizarre, it was just a dusty road, rammed with traffic, and as I walked I kept passing signs that said “Welcome to India”. I tentatively asked several guards along the way if I shouldn’t get my passport stamped somewhere, but they just kept on waving me through!
I eventually found the immigration office off to one side of the road, but no one was paying them any attention, and hundreds of people were just walking past, so they clearly aren’t too fussed (and after all that drama getting a bloody visa too!).

However I decided I really should try to enter the country legally, to avoid any further hassles encroaching on my beach-time. I asked them to stamp me in, but the guard informed me I had to first go back and get stamped out of Nepal!
It turns out the Nepali immigration office is even harder to find, tucked in a tiny building off the main road, it was quite a search to find it!
But eventually, I did find it, and a rather put-out looking guard grudgingly stamped my passport, and back I went again, All highly amusing!

From there it was a bus to Gorakhpur, and then an overnight train to Delhi. The train was air-conditioned, and surprisingly comfortable, and I was given a top-bunk, which are apparently the best ones, as everyone sits on the lower bunks during the day time and also the upper bunks are supposed to be safer, so they tend to favour women travelling alone.
Lucky me!

I arrived in Delhi around 1pm on Tuesday, and after storing my luggage at the station I popped out for a little exploration. I must say I quite liked Delhi, the little I saw of it, and it wasn’t at all how I’d imagined it. The traffic was fine, and the temperature was hot but quite pleasant. I’ve heard nothing but negative things about India in recent weeks – as hordes of tourists have been driven up to Nepal, all of them complaining about the dirt and noise and traffic and unbearable heat – several people informed me that it was 45 degrees in Delhi already. However it didn’t feel anything like that hot, and the newspapers confirmed my suspicions – 32 actually! I wondered if I had just missed a weird heat-wave in Delhi, or, more likely, if everyone had been massively exaggerating!

Actually, I noticed several other exaggerations too. The lonely planet is FULL of warnings about touts trying to rip you off, taxi drivers asking extortionate fares and all sorts of scams etc. I’d been sort-of mildly concerned about all this deception and worried that as a lone female I might be even more susceptible to these evil con-men and their scams.

However, I found that twice in my wandering a random man would stop out of the blue and ask me where I was going or what I was looking for. I tentatively told them, gripping my bag and fully prepared for all sorts of attempts to rid me of my cash, but both times the men very politely walked me to the correct street/shop etc, and then smiled and bid me goodbye!

After heading back to the New Delhi train station to retrieve my luggage, (which turned out to be rather embarrassing as I’d actually left my luggage at the Delhi Junction station in Old Delhi!), I got a pre-paid tuk-tuk to the airport. The pre-paid system at the stations is extremely fair and saves all hassles of haggling etc. I watched the meter during my little forays into Delhi, and the pre-paid system is just about spot-on what you should be paying, so I felt quite chuffed about that too – No cheating there either!

Then, during my ride to the airport, we stopped at a traffic light and something weird happened. Some kids came over begging, and as usual I said no politely and then tried to ignore them. They were about to give up and try someone else, when a little boy, about 6 or 7, reached in and pinched the back of my hand quite hard. It didn’t really hurt, but it was such a shock that I yelped and rubbed my hand in surprise. The driver looked at me to see what happened, and I just shrugged at him, then another driver sitting across from us who’d seen it, animatedly filled him in on what the kid had done. The driver looked back at me in horror, and mimed it, and then said the hindi equivalent of “Right!” before he switched off the engine and marched off behind the tuk-tuk!

Two other drivers stormed out of their cabs in solidarity, and a couple of seconds later the offending child was brought in front of me for identification. I didn’t say anything, rather afraid of what they might do, as he really hadn’t hurt me at all, but the other driver nodded and agreed he was the one. The driver yelled at him a bit (Hindi equivalent of “Try THAT again Sonny-Jim and you’ll be sorry!”), and then smacked him on the back of the head – not very hard, but still a smack nonetheless.

It was weird, because although obviously I didn’t want them to hit the kid, and I generally don’t believe that violence is ever a useful punishment for violence, he didn’t hit him hard at all – more like a parental warning smack perhaps, and I did think that maybe the kid might just learn not to try and hurt people who don’t give him money next time – a valuable lesson, I think.

However, the kid aside, what surprised me so much was the outrage of the drivers. This may sound weird, but it was as if they were trying to protect me somehow, as if they felt like, ‘once you get in MY cab, you’re MY fare and I WILL look after you!’
The guy seemed so outraged on my behalf, as had the other drivers, who had nothing really to do with it. Maybe it’s a general sense of looking after their livelihood by making sure tourists are happy and will ride tuk-tuks again. But somehow it didn’t feel like that. It was honestly as if they were jumping to defend my honour and virtue, or something equally bizarre.

I know that all sounds rather strange, and I really don’t mean in any way to condone the hitting of children, but there was something so terribly chivalrous about the gesture, it honestly made me smile as we tootled our way onwards to the airport. Perhaps it’s because I’m a woman travelling alone and they felt the need to look out for me, but whatever it was, it was very sweet, although misguided, and made me feel really perfectly safe in Delhi.

So, that weird little anecdote out of the way, I spent the night at the Delhi domestic airport, because

a) I had to check in at 3am, so it seemed silly to pay for a hotel room if I wasn’t really going to use it much,

b) because I don’t have an alarm clock and the cheap guest houses tend not to have a wake-up service, and

c) because I really didn’t think it would be at all sensible to wander around looking for a cab at 3am, despite all the very polite and chivalrous gentlemen apparently inhabiting Delhi!
So, I kipped on and off on the chairs in the departure lounge, drank coffee and hung about, until eventually my rather delayed flight took off for Chennai (formerly Madras).

I arrived around 9.30am in the morning (on Wednesday, I think!) and once again checked my luggage into storage. I wandered around Chennai killing a few hours until my flight to Singapore, which left at midnight. (Chennai was a bit hotter than Delhi, and had a lot less charm).

I realised rather surprisingly that I haven’t actually slept in an proper bed since Saturday, (Sunday night I was on a bus, Monday a train, Tuesday airport lounge, Wednesday plane etc).

So, more adventures soon, but I’ll leave you with one last impression – my first ride on an Indian metro. The Chennai metro trains are electric, unlike the longer distance ones which are apparently broad-gauge (whatever that means) but I think they’re diesel.
The metro carriage was at least double the width of a standard London carriage, and had a ladies only compartment, which again struck me as terribly polite and genteel (as well as having a women’s helpline stencilled on the wall, which I thought was nice). Inside the ladies carriage I discovered that all the women here wear strings of white flowers in their hair, that have a really distinct smell like lily-of-the-valley. I was expecting the train to be hot, sweaty, smelly and dirty, yet once again, India surprised me!
There were fans all along the ceiling, and open doors and windows, so that a refreshingly cool breeze washed over me, and wafted the lovely scent of the flowers about the carriage – quite unlike anything I could have imagined!

Perhaps I’ve simply been really fortunate in my first few days here, or maybe other travellers had scared me a bit with all their horror stories. I don’t know – somehow the India I’m seeing doesn’t fit with everyone else’s. Perhaps it’s because I’m so used to Nepal, and the little things don’t bother me as much as they do other people, or maybe I’m just being really naive. Perhaps everyone here IS out to scam me and cheat me and take all my money, but I seem to be drifting through oblivious to it, like Jimmy Stewart in Harvey (perhaps I shall get myself an imaginary bunny to keep me company!). Maybe it’s the lack of sleep too, but all I’ve seen is polite people trying to help me, and the lovely scent of flowers and generally I think I’m going to like India very much.

So, onwards to Malaysia next, but I’m not quite done with India yet, – it intrigues me, so I’ll be back for more later on!

tons of love to you all
xxxxxxx
Maya (who’s re-discovered chivalry, honour, and virtue in the strangest place!)

PS – I wrote this yesterday, but have now landed in Singapore and taken a bus on through to Malaysia.

I have to tell you yet another funny story. While queueing to check-in for my flight in Chennai, I was one of the only people with just the one bag (my trusty travelling rucksack). Almost everyone else in the queue was Indian, and apparently each and every one of them was travelling with the entire contents of a mid-sized apartment. Literally everyone had huge great boxes filled with stuff, in addition to several large suitcases.

As it was a budget cheapo flight, they were being very strict with the 20kg weight allowance, and more and more people were being turned away to go and pay for excess baggage. as we edged our way closer to the desk, past people frantically unpacking boxes and throwing out things in an effort to reduce their weight limit, the two guys in front of me started to get extremely nervous. They had at least 7 large suitcases and boxes between them, and were clearly not getting even half of it onto the flight without paying a small fortune.

They noticed that I only had the one rucksack, and was travelling light, so after a whispered conversation, they turned to me and asked if I would check in some of their stuff for them!

Yeah. Sure. On a flight from India to SINGAPORE.

Can’t see anything going wrong with that plan….

I literally laughed in their faces, and said no, and couldn’t believe how shocked they were that I’d actually said no. They thought I was incredibly rude and kept trying to convince me – as if I would EVER check in a complete stranger’s suitcases at the airport, flying to a country that has the death penalty for drug smuggling, just to do them a favour!

Morons.

Anyhow, I’m finally resting in Melacca after an exhausting few days of travelling, which is so far very nice and clean and quiet, the perfect place to shower and relax before moving on the the next few destinations! I’m extremely excited about getting a decent night’s sleep in an actual bed tonight too!

Now, time for a stiff gin and tonic……

xxxxx

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