I didn’t have to go back to Delhi. I had been there before, and I didn’t even like it that much.
I had traveled to the Andaman Islands from Chennai. The natural progression would have been to travel out of the Andaman Islands to Kolkata, in a “grand loop of India” sort of way. But I had other plans.
Independent, free-form travel is not about going where you thought you would go, or where the tourist attractions are. It’s about going where you want to go from where you are currently. You don’t always get to operate this way this at home, so if you don’t do it while you travel, you’re missing an opportunity.
Seeing the world’s tallest/oldest/most religiously/historically significant structures/natural wonders is not my first priority. It’s incidental of the path. I love travel itself – the troubles, the setbacks, the minor victories. The day to day is the thing that makes the best stories and pictures, and having a trouble-free vacation is the last thing on my list.
I went to already-visited Delhi instead of brand-new Kolkata, unsure of what I was going to see in Delhi this time, unsure of what the subsequent stop would be. One thing at a time, I suppose! Better yet, maybe zero things at a time.
Traveling solo involves a lot of goodbyes, especially if you tend to form merry bands with other solo travelers like I do. You run parallel with some great people for a time, then head your separate ways. These goodbyes often have an air of “quitting while you’re ahead”, and the good feelings and correspondence go on for years, regardless of the limited exposure you had to one another at the time.
I said goodbye to Swedish buddies Sara and Christian in Kalipur, North Andaman. They were staying on a day longer than I in the Andamans, so that was that. I had said goodbye to them prior (in Havelock), but this time it was probably more permanent. After departure from Port Blair, they were off to Delhi for a day, then home to Gothenburg to get back to stupid boring things like work.
I said goodbye to Quebecers Bernard and Naella in Port Blair – on the morning of March 26th, we autorickshawed together to Port Blair’s silly little airport, complete with its redundant, nonsensical and inept security practices. Example: each airline has its own metal detector! It’s enough to make you pray for a centralized airline security authority. Bernard and Naella were also headed to Delhi, then north to Rishikesh and other more mountainous parts of India, then Nepal and onward to Indonesia for several months. A yearlong voyage!
So I was again alone. This had happened a few times on this trip, like when… (brace for recap)
- At the very beginning of my trip, my parents (yes, my loving parents) dropped me off, all clean, packed and prepped at the train station in St Louis. I was alone for five hours until old friend Keith picked me up at Union Station in Chicago.
- Keith ran me to O’Hare International Airport, from which I would fly to Mumbai, and I got in line to board my plane to India. I was alone for 45 minutes, until Keith ran my passport back to me, which I had, like a total moron, left in his car. Freakshow!
- Keith handed off my passport and then I found myself alone again for one hour until I boarded my plane, where I met an American puppeteer with a torn ACL that was flying to Bangalore, with whom I was sharing seats.
- The puppeteer connected to a different flight in Abu Dhabi, so I was alone again for five hours of air travel and then seven hours on the ground in Mumbai, where I first set foot in India.
- Kelly, a friend from Kansas City, showed up in Mumbai at 10:00 AM that same morning. We traveled together for 16 days. She left for home from Delhi when her time ran out and I was alone again for a whopping three hours.
- I met a British guy and an Australian girl in line for my flight from Delhi to Goa, and we teamed up for a shared cab to Palolem Beach. I went solo again five days later and went to Panaji, where I spent a shocking 30 hours by my lonesome.
- To end the 30 hours, I struck up a conversation with two Canadian girls in the Panaji internet café. We had dinner together – north Indian-style dinner in the south – a nice break from dosa and idly. But our time was limited – I was booked for the overnight bus to Hampi in Karnataka state, so we said our goodbyes and I was “alone” again for 90 minutes.
- My bunkmate for the overnight bus was Mathieu, a Frenchman from Nantes who became an instant friend. Add Chloe of Antibes upon arrival in Hampi, and we were three strong (strong!) for the next ten days. We split in Kochi, Kerala, and I endured a harrowing 24 hours of solitude. I met Canadians Drew and Stephanie, who shared their beer with me while I blogged and whom I ran into at breakfast the next day. They on the same government bus out of town with me – they got off at Allepey, I continued on solo for four hours to Varkala.
- Friends were almost inexplicably instantaneous and plentiful in Varkala. I had too many. After three days of constant interaction, I went solo again for the longest span yet (that is, if I except the Indian nationals on the train that shared food with me and asked why I wasn’t married about a thousand times): 65 hours, from Varkala, through Madurai & Chennai and on to Port Blair of the Andaman Islands. How did I ever survive such isolation?
- Two hours after arrival in Port Blair, I buddied up with Johan of Austria in the nasty government ferry office in Port Blair. Troubles bring travelers together, didn’t you know? On the ferry, Eric of Tokyo and I gabbed away, and more Canadians came into my life upon arrival in Havelock: Riley and Callum. During and just after Holi Festival, our crew expanded dramatically: the lovely Cecilia of Finland, Marie of Denmark, and Sara, Christian, Micke, Mikael, Elsa and Ilda of Sweden (plus additional scuba diving buddies). This made for a 17-day stretch of constant friendship and fun.
- I left Havelock, boarding the ferry to Rangat en route to North Andaman and was once again solo for four hours. French Canadians Bernard, Naella and myself wound up splitting a jeep to Diglipur, and then staying at the same lodgings in Kalipur as well. Sara and Christian joined us a day later.
- Bernard and Naella rode the 12-hour bus to Port Blair with me, and went as far as the Port Blair airport – where we find ourselves at present in this now-lengthy blog entry!
A sum total of 6.25 total days alone over an elapsed 9 weeks of travel – I was never really alone at all (this solo backpacking thing is a fraud)! Am I afraid of being alone? A dependent, anxious backpacker in need of validation? I can confess to a little of that, sure! But making friends and sharing experiences happened naturally, and I liked (and like) it that way.
I flew from Port Blair to Delhi and experienced an additional six hours by myself, which ended on arrival: Cecilia, whom I met on Havelock Island, was there to pick me up from Delhi’s domestic terminal even though my flight was an hour late.
I spent the next six days based out of South Delhi – the wealthy part of the city where backpackers generally don’t end up, barring visits to a few major touristic sites like Qutub Minar.
Though there’s still no shortage of great, cheap food to be eaten on the street and plenty of autorickshaws with competitive fares, there’s also a lot of money and related conspicuous consumption in South Delhi, and it shows itself right alongside the pollution, traffic and poverty that blights the rest of the city.
It’s completely normal to see a high profile business or university with a makeshift dwelling made of scrap corrugated metal and blue plastic tarpaulin out front on the sidewalk, which has probably been there for as long or longer than the business or school. The two coexist as if they had no idea of the others’ presence. Zoning? Forget it. No, really. Force it out of your mind!
Traffic is horrid, and I imagine the level of exhaust that Delhi autorickshaw drivers inhale in the course of their careers shortens their careers by double-digit years. Traffic is so bad that people drive on the wrong side of the road to route around the gridlock. The rich ride in nice cars, tinted windows up even in nice weather. Everyone else is on the bus or an autorickshaw. Walking? Good luck!
One exception to the chaos: Delhi is the first place in India in which I saw drivers stop at a red light, and after around ten weeks of road anarchy, this really shocked me. Of course, every driver in the pack was seriously considering running the red, but something made them stop – and that thing certainly wasn’t traffic police presence, of which I saw very little.
Perhaps the second most secure place I went in all of India was the Select Citywalk, a large South Delhi shopping mall near the Saket metro stop with international (if not higher) prices. We went through three different metal detectors before we settled into a stadium-seating movie theatre, where we paid something like $10 US for a ticket to one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, and not “worst” in a “Troll 2“, “The Singing Forest“, or “The Stuff” sort of way. A real groaner.
What could follow an English-language romantic comedy better than a visit to a bland establishment like the Hard Rock Café? Two twelve-ounce (350 ml) bottles of Kingfisher lager set us back 500 Rupees – $10 US dollars. I had never seen prices like these before in India! This was about four times the usual price I was accustomed to paying. We got out of there after one – get drunk another day!
Sufism: mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God. It consists of a variety of mystical paths that are designed to ascertain the nature of humanity and of God and to facilitate the experience of the presence of divine love and wisdom in the world. (Encyclopedia Brittanica online)
Sounds pretty pleasant! But our experience at the shrine was anything but. Watching tourist shoes at religious sites for inflated prices is a bit of an industry in India, and half the merchants on the route into the shrine wanted to make a few Rupees off us. Sir, sir, madam, madam!
The pedestrian-filled alleys finally snaked their way to the main shrine we had come to see. We stood in the far corner, listening to a sole Sufi singing unaccompanied, crystal-clear (and pleasantly unornamented) qawwali. The attention of the worshipers quickly turned from their relationship with God to their relationship with their cellphone cameras – Cecilia and I were the only western tourists there, and we didn’t fit in.
Playing “weird outsider” for Indian cameras is nothing new, but the situation got much worse.
Locals formed a semi-circle around us at about a 1.5 meter radius, said nothing, and STARED. Up and down. They didn’t tell us to leave. They just stood there with open mouths and eyes like dinner plates. It didn’t feel inherently aggressive, but was it? We didn’t know. We had to move, and did – right next to the trash can, where we figured no one would bother us. Nope – they followed, and number of people raking us their eyes doubled. Time to leave. We had to push our way through the perimeter of zombies. The qawwali continued as if nothing had happened.
We hadn’t done anything wrong. Our shoes were off. Cecilia’s shoulders were covered. I didn’t take any more pictures than anyone else. Our voices were low. We didn’t even go into the mausoleum. All we wanted to do was bear witness, and we figured Sufi Islam would be open to that (and maybe it is) – but the shrine’s visitors and faithful made us so uncomfortable that we couldn’t stay another second.
We were both really disappointed. Once again, we found that harassment was at its apex at the holier sites in India. It feels racist. It feels backward. Our skin is whiter than the others, so we get treated like outsiders. “They’re just curious” is not an alibi by which I can abide.
Cecilia was finishing up living/schooling in Delhi for three months – next up was several weeks of travel. To get down to fighting weight, she needed to ship a box of clothes and non-essentials home to Finland. But how to do it? A trip to the post office, of course!
How bad could it be? Well, really bad. This is INDIA we’re talking about – the land of unposted, ever-changing rules, where sometimes things simply ARE NOT POSSIBLE. One might think that as Delhi is the capital city, and as South Delhi is the most monied area of the capital city, that mailing a package home would be relatively simple. This could not be further from the truth.
By this point, both Cecilia and I had over two months’ experience in India, and could often smell Indian trouble before it hit. This was no exception – we knew a simple task wasn’t always simple, and enlisted the help of her schoolmate Sreeraj for our mission. He owned a car, had a fairly good idea of where the post office was, had some packing materials, and (bonus) speaks Hindi.
We arrived at the post office – sealed, clearly-labeled box in hand. Ready to ship? Not a chance. A man in his 60s/70s approached us and informed that we were doing it wrong – our sealed, clearly-labeled box would never ship internationally.
Why? No idea. Sreeraj took over communications. From what he learned, we had to go across the street to a nearby market, to talk to some man in a non-post-office-affiliated shop about something – some sort of special stamp, or special tape, or special something that would make the package fit to ship. Cryptic!
We found nothing of the sort, and no help. Were we on a fool’s errand? Would the box never ship? Not if Sreeraj had anything to say about it.
“Stay here, I’ll be right back!” team leader Sreeraj announced with a flash in his eye. He ran off up the market. Cecilia and I sat nervously for nearly an hour – the post office was closing soon, and who knew how long this task would take!
Finally, he returned, toting what didn’t look like shipping supplies:
- White fabric
- Red sealing wax
Was this happening? Oh yes it was. Per Sreeraj’s instruction, we wrapped the box in white fabric, lit a candle, and melted the red sealing wax along the seams of the fabric, pressing coins against it to assure adherence. Welcome to the modern middle ages.
By the end of the task, it had taken three people from three continents three hours to ship one box.
Delhi days had drawn to a close. Where would we go?
Cecilia hadn’t found time to see the Taj Mahal due to her schedule and had preexisting plans to head to Agra after her term came to a close at IIFT. I had been to Agra two months prior and wasn’t that interested, but it was only one day in Agra, right? I can do that, sure!
So then – let’s return to Agra, the Indian city I hated more than any other. The city where all the rickshaw drivers tried to scam us in bigger, bolder ways than ever before, and where Indian tourist hell lives and breathes thanks to a certain turnip-shaped white marble edifice that’s only worth about 90 minutes of touristic time. I guess there are a few reasons not to go back to Agra…
But bollocks to good logic – next stop, Agra again!