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Mark Bass in India for the first time

There was one other westerner in the Spartan restaurant. I was just contemplating whether or not to strike up conversation when he began talking irately to a naan bread as he savagely ripped it apart. I decided otherwise.

It could have happened to anybody.
The stubborn sachet of Aeroflot thousand island dressing had abruptly succumbed to my seventeenth tug of ever increasing effort and exploded open, sending the entire contents of the little container through the air and onto the right hand side of Maya’s head. The young Finnish girl’s charming smile abruptly disappeared to be replaced by a look of surprised displeasure. I desperately tried to make amends by wiping the pink goo from her auburn locks with a napkin but only succeeded in rubbing it in further. It was hard not to laugh really, however, I respectfully held back the guffaws and instead maintained a sincere look of concern. She didn’t say much for the remaining three hours of the flight and when we got off the plane was gone in a flash.

The airport was a breeze, other than the sudden onslaught of heat, overcrowding and spiteful, golf ball sized, man-eating flies. The clerk at the end of my queue in immigration must have been due a ‘chai-break’, for the line shrunk at twice the speed of the others and I scuttled off happily to beat the rush to the airport bank. Changing money proved pretty straightforward too, although to trade three crisp ten pound notes for a fistful of decaying rupees was an early indication of things to come.

Lonely Planet’s precise data regarding the E.A.T.S. bus (Ex-Servicemen’s Air-link Transport Service) ushered me through the ‘Getting from Airport to City’ dilemma, so despite being continually badgered by tireless taxi ‘pimps’ I managed to get to the city centre for just thirty rupees rather than the four hundred that some tourists were paying.

Eventually, at ten past eight, the seven-thirty service left. This was only after half an hour of motionless engine revving that merely succeeded in clogging the old Leyland with heavy black smoke. The drive into the capital was fairly rapid and distress free, the most overwhelming aspect of it being the colossal swell of humanity pumping through Delhi's arteries which I naively put down to the morning rush hour. I’d soon find out that there are no rush hours in Indian cities, just rush existences.

It was only after stepping from the bus that India really hit me... full in the face! The ferocious heat, perturbing amount of noise and apparent hysteria all struck simultaneously, leaving me thoroughly stupefied. My brain began to malfunction and I totally forgot my countless rehearsals of this daunting moment. As I tried to hoist on my ineptly burdensome backpack, staggering from left to right and back again like a drunk, I noticed that the drop off point was not remotely as it appeared on the map. I should have been able to stroll across the road directly into Pahar Ganj, the street that harboured all the cheap hotels but it simply didn’t exist. Shit! What now?

As I speculated, a shifty looking mob that’d been approaching at speed reached my heels. I span shakily to confront them and their crazed grins. Frantically, I ferreted through the pockets of my sweat soaked jeans for a weapon, finding only a selection of airline ‘souvenirs’. Briefly, I considered ‘lemon wet-wiping’ them to death but then recalled just how long it takes to ‘Tear Along Dotted Line’. (I’d always deemed this an instruction for ants that fancied a little race.)
As the mob surrounded me I established thankfully that they were unarmed and braced myself for trouble.
"Hello, rickshaw!"
"Hello taxi, best price."
"Good rooms, Mister!"
"Hello, hotel?"
"Hello Mister, want banana?" A fruit vendor was trying her luck, too! This peculiar welcome was accompanied by an assortment of pushing, shoving and shrieking at one another.
Scanning the area for a possible saviour, I saw that other travellers who’d also chosen to disembark here were suffering parallel beseigements. Having just arrived from the western world, where we go through life trying to avoid speaking to others, we hadn’t even thought to stick together. These inhibitions would soon be shed.
"Hello Mister!"
"Sweden, England, America?"
"Come, come cheap hotel!"
"Here rickshaw."
"OK., OK., Hotel Vivek, Pahar Ganj." I responded if only to avoid looking insanely dumb. Of the six or seven hotels I’d committed to memory only this one would rematerialise. I knew that the Vivek had been fifth or sixth on my list but just couldn’t pluck the other names from my simmering grey matter.
"Hundred twenty rupees." shouted a thin guy.
"Vivek, sixty." offered another thin guy.
"Eighty." tried thin guy number three.
"Fifteen." And so on.
The dreadfully scrawny guy with the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen won the day with his ‘bid’ of twenty rupees and I shadowed him through a clutch of beggars and touts, all either limb tugging, ear bending or way impeding for the sake of attention. Of course, by the time we’d reached his rusty old cycle-rickshaw (roughly two seconds) he’d upped the fare to thirty anyway!

As Sad Eyes struggled to negotiate a path through the ensuing pandemonium, I tried to fathom out why I’d come here at all. It was sheer mayhem. Having read so much and been told so much by previous visitors I’d convinced myself that I’d be able to handle the oh so clichéd ‘culture shock’.
I was mistaken. Battling frenziedly to cling on to the curiously forward sloping seat of the oversized tricycle I glanced around apprehensively in utter disbelief and bewilderment.
"This can’t be real!" I hollered at a passing motorist in a Morris Oxford. All the cars were Morris Oxfords. He couldn’t hear me, the cacophony of horn sounding from every bus, taxi, rickshaw, scooter and bullock-cart made sure of that. Was this mandatory? Had Pakistan launched a surprise cruise missile assault on Delhi? Was this the inevitable post-nuclear anarchy? This was my only justification for these crazy scenes. No one could live in this cauldron on a regular daily basis. Could they? I felt sick!
As we arrived at a bazaar that I guessed to be Pahar Ganj, I wondered just why it had taken quite so long. According to the reputedly reliable Lonely Planet the bus should have kicked us off just outside New Delhi railway station which was located, oddly, in Old Delhi across the road from Pahar Ganj. This of course would have made the rickshaw ride needless or at worst a two minute journey. So when it took twenty and involved the crossing of a colossal railway bridge it just didn’t make any sense at all.
It would be nine months before I found the explanation. In the next edition of Lonely Planet’s India was a new section entitled ‘Transport Scams In Delhi’ and under the sub-heading ‘E.A.T.S. Scam ‘ the following passage appeared...

"We’re not suggesting that an organisation with such a venerable name as the Ex-Serviceman’s Air Link Transport Service isn’t operated by honourable people, but they don’t seem to drop foreigners exactly where they should these days. As they near Connaught Place a group of predatory auto-rickshaw wallahs gathers in the wake of the bus. Finally the bus stops and everyone has to get off- into the hands of these rickshaw wallahs. A popular stop (for the drivers, that is!) is Ajmer Gate, the ‘wrong’ side of New Delhi railway station for Pahar Ganj....."

All, at last, had been unravelled.
"Hello Mister!" my thoughts were broken by the grainy voice of Sad Eyes as he slowed to a halt, "Sorry," he croaked, "No hotel." He leapt from his seat and turned to look at me, bearing a face that looked ready to burst into a cascade of tears.
"What?" I boomed, unable to comprehend.
"Hotel Vivek has gone." he declared puffing as though suffering from a severe bout of double- pneumonia.
"Gone. Gone bloody where?" I tried to envisage just how a hotel could have ‘gone’. I’d been right all along... it must have been nuked! All that remained would be an assortment of travellers’ limbs, scorched rucksacks and a few thousand Lonely Planet pages fluttering in the poisoned breeze. Shit! I felt sicker.
"Right, that’s enough!" I thought.

Exasperated now, I tried to clamber down aggressively but succeeded only in making myself look a complete fool. One way or another I managed to snag a rucksack strap on the frame of the weird contraption and landed face down in the dust, frighteningly close to something that resembled a human turd. Not having time for a full forensic analysis, I quickly deduced that a dog, or even a large cat could have left it. Oh my God.... tiger shit! Scrambling to my feet, I turned angrily to find Sad Eyes holding an outstretched arm, awaiting payment. By now a large highly amused crowd had gathered. The rest of Delhi was observing from a distance. I desperately wished to be eaten up by the ground... post-haste.
"Parnj." Sad Eyes slurred at me, gesturing towards the tiger shit. I concluded from this that he was actually referring to the road and trying to tell me that he’d at least located Pahar Ganj for me. Grateful for small mercies, I paid him and prayed he’d buy food. Again, only later would I realise that I’d been the victim of another common scam so I shouldn’t have been surprised when, as if by magic, an auto-rickshaw appeared and pulled up perilously close to my toes.
"Hello rickshaw!" the driver yelled above the din.
"Hotel Vivek?" I pleaded sheepishly, noticing that he bore an uncanny affinity to Sad Eyes. Were they related?
"Yes Sir, eighty rupees." Hot, tired and genuinely terrified, I dutifully agreed to be ripped off, after all, it was only a pound or two. ‘Brother of Sad Eyes’ took me around three damn corners and within two minutes I was in the black and white marble-tiled reception of the Hotel Vivek!
Approaching the crowded reception desk of the evidently reincarnated hotel, I became aware of everyone gaping at me with a degree of disbelief. Unkempt wasn’t the word. I looked (and felt) as if I’d been torn limb from limb and reconstructed by a deranged, blind Martian!
"Have you a room, please?" I questioned the guy behind the desk. He looked as though he’d come straight from the set of ‘Starsky and Hutch’, that outdated were his beige flares and glossy black six-inch collared shirt.
"You are wanting room?" he responded as if I’d asked for a pound of onions in a bookshop!
"Well...yes. This is hotel, yes?" I queried looking around the foyer, slightly puzzled by his tone.
"This may be possible... but now you must be waiting. I see first if people are leaving. What is your good name?"
"Sit please, Mark." he waved an armful of jewellery at a nearby sofa. I purchased two bottles of ‘Yes’ mineral water and collapsed into the cushions, altogether drained. I still felt sick.
"Just arrived then, buddy?" asked an American guy dressed in a vulgar pink shirt decorated in orange smiling suns and with yellow flip-flops adorning his deeply tanned feet. I wouldn’t have minded but he asked in the kind of bombastic vein that makes you want to push someone in front of a speeding bus.
"Please go away you silly person." I muttered under my breath (or words of equivalent effect) as I scowled back at him. He went back to narrating heroic tales of travel to a small group of people born very recently.
I rapidly swallowed the first litre of water, although a large amount of it dribbled off my chin onto my already heavily soiled tee shirt. Hot, it wasn’t hot here, it was a furnace! Rivers of sweat flowed down my face from my sodden hair and my armpits rivalled Niagara Falls. For all intents and purposes... I was melting!
I broke open the seal on the second bottle whilst my American pal continued his fables of ever increasing intrepidity. His audience listened in great admiration as he described the day that he vanquished a charging rhino by clubbing it with the crocodile he’d recently arm-wrestled to death. Give me strength!
"What’s your name?" enquired a starry-eyed young girl with a French accent when he eventually paused for a gulp of oxygen.
"Hey, just call me Moon, man."
Well, that did it! I was unable to contain a mid swallow guffaw and proceeded to spray most of the room with a single mouthful of ‘Yes’ and immediately followed it up with one of those interminable choking fits. Suddenly, I’d become a bigger draw than the man claiming to be a planet. Crikey, it was embarrassing.
Clearly ruffled, Moon grunted something about breakfast and led his disciples towards the rooftop restaurant, I assumed.

As you can visualise, by this time I felt like a complete misfit so was nearly overcome with relief when a brace of angels glided into the reception. It was the two young blonde girls I’d surmised to be Swedish who’d been on the same flight as me from Moscow. To my delight they looked as befuddled as myself and acknowledged me with an ‘I can’t believe that just happened ‘ look.
"What took you so long?" I asked, trying unsuccessfully to conceal my faltering voice whilst praying hard for them to recognise me.
"We have been looking in five hotels but none of these are so good so we are coming here. You are on our flight, yes?" the most gorgeous one replied. It was such a wonderful accent that the words sounded like a little song.

After going through the ‘Onions in a bookshop’ routine with Huggy Bear, introductions confirmed that they were indeed from Sweden... Orebro to be precise. I pretended I’d heard of it.
Why is it that all bloody Scandinavians are so outrageously stunning? I know it’s a very frequent, if not boring observation, but it’s one hundred percent true. Very rarely have I seen a Scandinavian wearing cosmetics. They simply convey this beautiful, healthy looking glow accompanied by a welcoming smile and always a champion body to correspond. Wonderful people. So, I ask myself, how is it that a region brimming with such gorgeous specimens holds the highest rate of suicide in the world? Very strange. My own theory, based only on the facts, is that all the ugly people must simply kill themselves. Obvious, really!
Anna, Petra and I compared notes on our Indian initiations and of course found them to be remarkably alike. It made me feel a whole lot better about things. For the next hour or so we chatted idly about where we wanted to visit and our expectations whilst waiting patiently for other backpackers to check out. Seeing Moon departing would have been nice, I thought. Alas, he didn’t.

At last, Huggy came wandering over and told me that there was only one single room available and did I want it for one hundred and fifty rupees. With Anna and Petra looking on I felt obliged to haggle.
"One hundred and thirty? " I tried hesitantly, not sure what to expect.
"OK." came the all-to-quick reply. Shit, I’d been done again!
"Follow. Bring." Huggy commanded, casting a gold-clad finger directly at Petra’s rucksack. I grabbed mine from behind the sofa, much to his vexation, bade a farewell to the girls and hastened obediently after him. I following him up a couple of dusky, forbidding staircases to the second floor and to the end of an even darker corridor where he showed me into the room. As the battered wooden door to the room swung open with a creak and a thud, I caught my first glimpse of budget hotel rooms in India.
Aaaargh! The shock threw me back across the corridor as though struck by a giant 100,000 volt cattle prod. Prison! H.M.P. Vivek! The cell consisted of grubby-grey concrete walls (four, fortunately), a plain concrete floor and a solid wooden ironing board which had a dejected looking mattress strategically placed upon it to make it look like a bed. Hanging from the cobweb strewn ceiling was a dead dog....
Sorry, just kidding!
Hanging from the ceiling from electrical wires was the front end of a Spitfire, cunningly masqueraded as a cooling fan.
"Nice." I said to Huggy and took the room.
Throwing down my backpack, I wandered abjectly to the glassless, barred void in the concrete and took in the view. The room overlooked inner-city slums inhabited by ten thousand screaming children, twenty thousand rabid dogs, three thousand undernourished cows and a snorting camel.
Accepting my fate, I tried to look on the bright side....
There wasn’t one.

For a time, I don’t know how long, I simply sprawled on the ironing board in a kind of fear induced stupor, utterly numb and utterly horrified. How do these people exist? Why do they bother? What had I allowed myself to get into? Had I died and gone directly to hell without passing Goa? How could I engineer my way out of this one and avoid being called a big girl’s blouse? Where’s the loo?
Scared and miserable, I felt sicker than ever.
After a couple of hours stewing in my cell I ventured downstairs to the in-house travel agents, knowing I had to get out of Delhi... pronto. For no other reason than it sounded nice, ‘the Pink City’, I chose to head for Jaipur. The man in the office assured me that it would be to my advantage to travel there on the Super Deluxe bus service the following morning. The ticket set me back a cool two hundred rupees against the one hundred and twenty quoted in the guide book. I guess I’d been done again.

It was around midday by now and the temperature was skyrocketing. It felt like fifty degrees Celsius with an escorting humidity of at least ninety percent so I chose to retire for a spell. It had been a lengthy stretch since I’d slept. I tried to calculate just how long but was suddenly too drowsy to bother. Within minutes of my swimming head finding the concrete pillow I was off into a world of banana selling tigers in yellow flip-flops.
Five hours later I woke to the sound of the daily hustle and bustle that is Pahar Ganj. Didn’t it ever quieten down? Searching through my luggage for my Nick Hornby novel I realised I’d brought with me a great deal of wholly impractical items (well, I’d never been to hell before) including a thick blanket, jacket, pair of Doctor Martens and Travel Scrabble!
Finding the book, I settled down to the concluding few chapters, which I’d been so much maligned for trying to read on the airline. The cabin crew had been sympathetic to those passengers who wished to sleep and my regular convulsions of raucous laughter were beginning to offend them. I agreed to put down the book as I’d already embarrassed myself when failing to secure the toilet door correctly and it had cruelly swung open, unveiling myself in mid grimace to the entire cabin staff! Oh, and there was the Thousand Island dressing incident too, of course!

Before long, darkness was descending on the city and I thought I’d light up the naked bulb that protruded perpendicularly from the far wall. I’d assumed, perhaps naively, that this bulb would operate from the bank of five switches near the door and that another of these would operate the obsolete propeller but wasn’t too keen to take advantage of this facility, sure that it would nosedive onto the bed and reduce me to small portions.
Click, click, click, click, click.. nothing. Great! Not wishing to look like a big softie, I decided not to bother complaining. Resigned to using torchlight, I strung up my mosquito net from the defunct ceiling fan, scrambled beneath it and recommenced my reading courtesy of Duracell. As night plunged into Delhi I could hear the hungry mossies humming indignantly as they probed the net in vain. Little did I know.
In true mossie style they were hatching a wily scheme...
Half a dozen pages later, without warning and with a ting, a clunk and a muffled cheer from somewhere down the corridor, the bulb lit up and the propeller above began to whirr painfully. Before I could react in way at all, the mossie net had been hauled up and away to it’s eternal destiny, tightly entangled around the blades of the old fan! Totally astonished, I sprang up and turned off the rotor before it exploded into flames. I was too slow to save the net, it was a write-off. Then it dawned on me. It was the end of a bloody power cut! Shit! I cursed my dimwittedness.

Now that there was some reasonable light in the room, I delved into my bag, fished out the Lonely Planet and thumbed through it for a nearby restaurant. I selected the Lords Cafe as it didn’t look too far away and made my way down to the front door. Stepping into the still teeming bazaar, I turned right and focused all my effort into looking straight ahead, trying not to see the chaos and the poverty that encompassed me. ‘Keep going, keep going, don’t look at the beggars’, I urged myself determinedly, trying to maintain a steady breathing pattern. Then I saw it on the right. Only a few more steps. I pushed myself harder and with a huge sigh of relief shoved open the door and fell inside panting heavily.
"Phew, made it." I declared proudly to the surprised waiter, "Bottle of water, please." I gasped, slumping into a vacant seat.
"Where you stay? " he enquired, intrigued by my condition.
"Vivek." I replied softly.
"Ah, next door." he laughed, "Very good, you new in India I am thinking." He’d undoubtedly seen this kind of fearfulness before and that warmed me enormously, even enough to feel like eating.
He handed me a menu, handwritten and encased in plastic. I chose a vegetable thali as I’d learnt that this was what all travellers ate in India, mainly because of the value for money. Besides, I didn’t fancy ‘minister soup’! One slightly off-putting message on the menu read ‘Thalis can be eaten only once’ and I inferred that this meant that they don’t refill the dishes as is customary in many establishments. At least that’s what I hoped it meant. Already I was enjoying this Indian English, predicting that it would be a lot of fun in the coming months.
There was one other westerner in the Spartan restaurant. I was just contemplating whether or not to strike up conversation when he began talking irately to a naan bread as he savagely ripped it apart. I decided otherwise.
The food arrived after about twenty minutes and consisted of two spicy vegetable dishes, a couple of sauces, a mountain of rice, three chapattis, two puppadums and a scary looking globule of white stuff that turned out to be plain yoghurt... I think. The meal was delicious, filling and marvellous value for money at a mere seventy pence. Other than an initial, tentative sample I left the scary globule.
Following my first sortie into genuine Indian food, I withdrew to my suite and slept like a dead tree, a log masterfully felled by that merciless lumberjack that is one’s first day in India.

© Mark 2002
email: "Mark Bass"
the whole thing

This is the first chapter of a completed manuscipt called 'Adverse Camber' on Mark's journey through India.
More Travel here in Hacktreks

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