Bass in India for the first time
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.
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 Mayas head. The young
Finnish girls 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 didnt 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
Lonely Planets precise data regarding the E.A.T.S. bus (Ex-Servicemens
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
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. Id 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 didnt exist. Shit! What now?
As I speculated, a shifty looking mob thatd 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.
(Id always deemed this an instruction for ants that fancied a
As the mob surrounded me I established thankfully that they were unarmed
and braced myself for trouble.
"Hello taxi, best price."
"Good rooms, Mister!"
"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
whod 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 hadnt even thought to stick
together. These inhibitions would soon be shed.
"Sweden, England, America?"
"Come, come cheap hotel!"
"OK., OK., Hotel Vivek, Pahar Ganj." I responded if only to
avoid looking insanely dumb. Of the six or seven hotels Id committed
to memory only this one would rematerialise. I knew that the Vivek had
been fifth or sixth on my list but just couldnt 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 Ive 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 wed reached his rusty old cycle-rickshaw (roughly two
seconds) hed upped the fare to thirty anyway!
As Sad Eyes struggled to negotiate a path through the ensuing pandemonium,
I tried to fathom out why Id come here at all. It was sheer mayhem.
Having read so much and been told so much by previous visitors Id
convinced myself that Id be able to handle the oh so clichéd
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 cant be real!" I hollered at a passing motorist
in a Morris Oxford. All the cars were Morris Oxfords. He couldnt
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 didnt make any
sense at all.
It would be nine months before I found the explanation. In the next
edition of Lonely Planets India was a new section entitled Transport
Scams In Delhi and under the sub-heading E.A.T.S. Scam
the following passage appeared...
not suggesting that an organisation with such a venerable name as the
Ex-Servicemans Air Link Transport Service isnt operated
by honourable people, but they dont 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. Id 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, thats 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 hed at least located Pahar Ganj for
me. Grateful for small mercies, I paid him and prayed hed buy
food. Again, only later would I realise that Id been the victim
of another common scam so I shouldnt 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 wasnt the word. I looked (and felt) as if Id 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 hed 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 Id 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 wouldnt 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
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 wasnt 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 hed recently arm-wrestled
to death. Give me strength!
"Whats 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, Id 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 Id surmised to be
Swedish whod been on the same flight as me from Moscow. To my
delight they looked as befuddled as myself and acknowledged me with
an I cant 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
"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 Id heard of it.
Why is it that all bloody Scandinavians are so outrageously stunning?
I know its a very frequent, if not boring observation, but its
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 didnt.
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
"OK." came the all-to-quick reply. Shit, Id been done
"Follow. Bring." Huggy commanded, casting a gold-clad finger
directly at Petras 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 wasnt one.
For a time, I dont 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 girls blouse? Wheres 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
Id 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 Id 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. Didnt it ever quieten down? Searching through
my luggage for my Nick Hornby novel I realised Id brought with
me a great deal of wholly impractical items (well, Id 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
Id 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 Id 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 Id
light up the naked bulb that protruded perpendicularly from the far
wall. Id 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 wasnt 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 its
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
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 didnt 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, dont 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
"Phew, made it." I declared proudly to the surprised waiter,
"Bottle of water, please." I gasped, slumping into a vacant
"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." Hed 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 Id learnt that this was what all travellers ate in India,
mainly because of the value for money. Besides, I didnt 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 dont refill the dishes as is customary in many
establishments. At least thats 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
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 ones 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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