Off to the Capital: Hope Lost and Found [en]

In 99-00, I spent a year in India. This is a chapter in the journal of my adventures there.

Journey to Delhi

The trip to Delhi was awesome. Madhav picked me up at my hotel at 9 p.m. The train would be leaving at 4.30 a.m. Five of us were going to Delhi and a couple of others were there to see us off. First we ate, and around 11 p.m. we went to the station. And waited!

I have to mention a scene that left me quite shaken. An old man got beaten up by some soldiers in front of my eyes. From what I understood, he was a bit crazy and had said something to the soldiers that they did not like. And there he was, on the floor, with those people kicking at him. Nobody budged. I myself was frozen. Luckily a railway employee arrived and the beating stopped. It ended up with this official taking (dragging) the old man away (after hitting him a couple of times with his stick to make him stand up). I don’t really understand what happened. And what astounds me most is that the soldiers got away with what they had done.

Apart from that incident things went quite smoothly. We found our names on the reservations list – luckily, mine was next to my friends’, otherwise I would never have recognised it, mutilated as it was!

I tasted railway coffee and found it very nice. (I don’t like coffee. This probably explains why I appreciated the drink you can buy under that name in railway stations.)

We got on the train, slept, read, talked, ate, watched the countryside and before I had realized what was happening the 27 hours of journey were behind us and we had arrived in Delhi.

I really enjoyed that journey. As we were five, we had nearly a compartment to ourselves (except the second night). I slept surprisingly well, despite the noise – I guess the train rocked me to sleep. The only drawback in this affair was my painful and persisting tummy-ache.

First contact with Delhi

I spent a day and a half at Madhav’s parents’. A place you could nearly call paradise – and which serves some of the nicest food on earth. The next day I moved into the YWCA hotel where they had helped me obtain a room. Nice place, not too expensive and in the heart of Delhi.

At that moment I was suddenly overcome by the feeling I was perfectly alone in this unknown town – I had even forgotten to take Madhav’s phone number. The stress of the last weeks had been gently adding up and I was feeling quite miserable.

I nevertheless decided to get moving and withdraw money from my bank account, as I was “a little” short on cash (understand: I couldn’t pay my first hotel night). Unfortunately the transfer of money from Pune to Delhi would be long and the bank was about to close. I hunted for an Internet cafe – without success.

As I walked around Connaught Place, I had the impression that every ten metres somebody would jump at me to offer help, assistance, or transport. I’m exaggerating, of course – but just a bit. It was quite scary at first, and I did my best to take the “I Know Where I’m Going” look.

Out of all the undesirable encounters I made during those next days, one surprised me. A young boy who wanted to talk and that I had brushed off like so many others. I bumped into him an hour or so later, and realized that he *really* wasn’t after my money. From what I gathered, this young teenager went to a Hindi medium school, and practiced his English by chatting with people like me. Dreams of studying medicine abroad. Incredible – but true?

In any case, the heat, rickshawallahs and other guides, added to the non-success of my enterprises found me walking into – guess! – a McDonald’s. Would you believe it? It was nice and cool (cold) inside, hassle-free, and I could open my map without attracting ten greedy people around me. I drank an over-expensive Fanta and prepared to face the non-AC world again.

Back at the hotel, I did some planning to cheer myself up – yeah! Let’s go to Amritsar and Dharamsala! – ate a tasteless thali and finally went to bed.

Ill, alone, and pennyless

I had an awful night, waking up alternatively freezing (turn off that noisy fan) or in a bad sweat (switch that noisy fan back on). Each wake-up brought me closer to accepting the evidence I was catching a cold and my sinuses were starting to be in a very nasty state.

One of my zombie expeditions out of my (clean!) bed brought me face-to-face with a giant (5 cm) bug in the bathroom (a cockroach in fact). Even in my sleepwalking state, I managed to open the locked cupboard, catch my camera and take a picture for posterity.

The thermometre’s verdict in the morning left no doubt. I stopped measuring at 38.9 C (something like 102 F) and inquired about a doctor at the reception. Payment was to be made in cash, which meant I had to run to my bank first. And I was really not in a state to go out alone – I didn’t quite fancy the idea of fainting in a rickshaw or on the pavement.

I waited a couple of miserable hours in the hotel lounge, feeling physically and mentally at the very lowest.

Finally I rang up the teacher of my Rishikesh Hindi course. It was the only number I had in Delhi (though the woman I had been introduced to at the YWCA would certainly have helped me if it had come to that). I knew that Nicola, the Swiss student organizing the course, was coming to Delhi – and I hoped he would be there already.

He was. That saved me. He lent me some money (at that moment I did not know that I would have to wait for a whole week before seeing my own money) and took me to the doctor’s (no, it was neither malaria nor meningitis!). Then we ate and went money hunting in the afternoon, another piece of fun.

Money hunting

The Swiss money transferred to my Indian account had not yet arrived, so it was impossible for me to get any cash, even by going through the complicated procedure of withdrawing money from the New Delhi branch of the bank while having an account in Pune (which involves faxing checks and sample signatures).

We bounced from bank to bank trying to find a place where I could get cash using my VISA credit card. Without success: we ended up in the bank we had started with…

I found an Internet cafe at last, costing about four times the price I pay in Pune – but at least I could communicate with the rest of the world.

Delhi; August 20

After a rather peaceful night and a useless trip to the medical centre in the morning (they had misread my lab results!) I went out money hunting again, with no more success than the day before. That was to become a habit in the next few days – the money hunting and the lack of success.

I found a place where I could withdraw cash with my credit card – and the reply (“funds insufficient”) left me disillusioned. Especially that the man in charge wanted Rs. 100 to try again with a lower amount…

Rishikesh; August 23

Before going back to my hotel I spent Rs. 125 in the Internet cafe to send a couple of desperate e-mails (to my parents – where they on holiday? Had they forgotten to pay my VISA bills? – and to VISA – who never reply anyway). It wasn’t wasted money. In my chatroom, I bumped into a chat pal’s friend whose mother was living in Delhi.

I spent the evening watching TV at the hotel and talking away with some South Indian Singaporeans.

Morning. Another unsuccessful visit to my bank. But at least things got moving: we managed to find out that the money was stuck at the Bombay Treasury, “because the account information given by the Swiss bank for the transfer was incomplete”. You bet.

In any case, I was told that the money should be arriving by the beginning of the next week.

After another lunch with Nicola, (how nice it is to be able to speak with somebody of your own culture!), I called this chat pal’s mother in Delhi. She had rung me up the previous evening in reply to my e-mail, and had invited me to drop in. I took the bus to go there (alone!); half an hour’s journey.

I spent a really nice evening, talking, eating, and walking around in a green park. Having been married to a diplomat, she had travelled in an impressive number of countries.

Bus to Rishikesh for the week-end

The following day, departure for Rishikesh with Nicola. He was going up there for a couple of days to arrange the last details before the students’ arrival, and had invited me to join him.

Before we left we were lucky enough to take part in a puja that was given for the second birthday of our Hindi teachers’ daughter, Ekta. That was my first contact with “religious stuff” in India itself. I used up a whole film of slides while Nicola took notes – a real journalistic operation…

As we were walking down to the bus which would take us to the ITDC Depot, Nicola did comment on the fact that I attracted a little more attention than him alone… It was nice to hear somebody admit at last that I was a particularly “visible” foreigner.

We got to the ITDC Depot, ate a very greasy and not too tasty aloo parantha, fought our way through people who desperately wanted us to climb into busses to various destinations, and caught one to Haridwar (larger town not too far from Rishikesh – we could get another bus there).

One noticeable thing about these busses is that their frequency is rather high – every half-hour or so. You don’t have to book (even though it is a five-hour-plus journey). You simply get on the bus and then buy your ticket. In fact, if I had to compare I would say the Indian bus system is closer to the Swiss rail than is the Indian rail (which in some ways reminds me of taking the plane).

The journey was nice (I’m starting to like travelling here!). I must say I was glad to have a male companion with whom to swap places when my Indian (male) neighbour started squashing up next to me more and more. By the way, this same neighbour, (by then Nicola’s neighbour, and very impressed by his Hindi!) wanted us to help him get a job in Switzerland (!), and of course invited us to stay at his home in Haridwar…

I forgot to mention one little detail: by the time we had got on the bus and it was starting to creep out of the station, we realized we had both forgotten our newly bought bottle of chilled mineral water. Talk of bad luck! We decided we would survive the next three hours without water, but that we would avoid digging into my thirstifying Indian snacks.

We finally arrived at Haridwar, having found some water, eaten part of my snacks, talked our lives away and enjoyed the beautiful countryside (especially at sunset). I also had the great honour to receive an Indian baptism when the man in front of me was suddenly sick and I was not quick enough to shut my window in time… but it was just a drop or two, nothing deadly.

Night had fallen. We got off the bus, brushed away a couple of touts who wanted to get us into this or that hotel, and walked for about thirty seconds. Suddenly Nicola spotted a bus for Rishikesh. It was leaving! We ran after it like madmen and jumped into it “on the move”. Common thing in India, where busses seldom come to a complete stop, but I hadn’t done it yet.

The crowd in the bus was obviously less urban than in the previous one – and it was more crowded. The journey lasted three quarters of an hour. I spent that time heavily compressed between my two neighbours (sides) and my rucksack (front). I could also mention that being at the very back of the bus (seats with the less leg-space) and being for the least of non-standard height and leg-length in India, I was quite happy when we finally got out of the bus.

Although I may seem to make this bus journey look like a terror ride (amidst sick, drunken or “interested” people), I really did enjoy it. The fact that I was not alone helped: I am getting used to being very defensive with strangers (Delhi…), and travelling with somebody allowed me to relax and be more “myself”. A great relief. And as I have already said, there is nothing like being able to talk with a friend from your own culture after three weeks spent “alone” in an alien country.

A pleasant day in Rishikesh

If in Pune and Delhi the monsoon seemed to be reaching an end, in Rishikesh it was absolutely pouring. We took a rickshaw and sprinted the last hundred metres to the hotel under buckets of water.

We had a nice meal and slept in an equally nice room, lined with cedar wood (at least that is what my still ill nose identified it as) and provided with a noiseless fan as well as a non-functional TV set.

Rishikesh; August 25

I woke up late and spent some time outside, fascinated by a group of monkeys on the hotel walls just in front of our room – my first “wild” monkeys. I was to see a lot more in the village.

Nicola fixed the accommodation details for the arrival of the rest of the party, and we spent a good part of the day wandering abound Rishikesh. What a change from the India I had seen until then! Being in a holy place, there was of course an incredible concentration of “sadhus”, more or less authentic (even a couple of white-skinned ones). But that was not all the difference. The “normal” people were different too. It is hard to explain in what way. More traditional looking, maybe? I think that what I saw there was closer to what I had expected to see coming to India – even if it is a tourist place (for Indians).

The attitude of people was much more pleasant. In the centre of Delhi, I already mentioned it was impossible to walk ten metres without being hassled. In Rishikesh, either people didn’t seem to care about our presence, or if they did, they would in most cases simply stare at us in astonishment.

We stopped a few minutes on a ghat, watching people dip themselves in the Ganga. The river was muddy brown and the current very strong. People bathing would hang on to chains to avoid being carried away by the current.

As I mentioned, the monsoon had not reached an end in the mountains, and we spent the greatest part of a rainy afternoon writing and resting in our pleasantly smelling room.

Back to Delhi: Deluxe bus and shoe-shine boys

For the journey home we planned to catch a Deluxe bus from Haridwar (the type of bus we intended to pack the other students into). Unfortunately we had about an hour to wait. We had enough water with us this time, but we were both longing for fresh fruit.

The bus departure area is quite busy and tiring for the poor foreigner (beggars and touts). Hunting for bananas was not much better. After a couple of “baksheesh, baksheesh!” we hastily bought some bananas (said Nicola: “too many!”) and made a beeline for the bus station’s waiting area.

No sooner had we taken a seat that I began to feel painfully visible. A couple of young “Shoe-shine! Shoe-shine!” and beggars had spotted us.

As Nicola had “shineable” shoes the situation was quite bad. After a couple of “abhi nahin”, “bilkul nahin”, “bas!” and “kuch nahin”, one of them finally accepted a banana to leave us in peace. I turned into an automatic banana distributor for a minute or two, as we were swarmed by beggars and shoe-shiners who had suddenly changed their mind on the acceptability of the banana as baksheesh. A bit over half our stock disappeared into various stomachs. The remaining bananas were deftly stuffed back into my rucksack. Finished! Kele ho gaye!

Just as we were enjoying our dearly bought freedom, two more boys arrived to try to “shine” Nicola’s shoes. They had missed the banana distribution and Nicola felt a bit sorry for them. “OK, let them do it (Rs. 5), like that it is done!”

They grabbed a shoe each and set to work. Payment time. Between the two of us we managed to gather enough of our precious change to give half of the price to each. But to our astonishment, the money I put into the smaller one’s hand simply trickled into the elder one’s, and off he went!

The small boy simply stood there, forlorn, waiting and mumbling, expecting his pay. None of Nicola’s explanations (in Hindi of course) that his “bhai” had got the money would make him budge.

He vaguely said something about being hit. OK. One case of common racket. We decided to give him a chance, remembering too that the sum of money involved was not much in absolute, and gave him Rs. 5. To be kept out of the other one’s view, as was clearly said!

But then, the first thing he did was run up to the elder boy and hand the money over to him. It all looked like a perfect plan to cheat soft-hearted people like us!

Well… If we had lost five rupees, we had at least gained a little wisdom…

The Deluxe coach was indeed a pleasure. Fans that turned on when the bus stopped (stopping which caused the refreshing wind caused by the speed of travel to disappear). Music including a couple of my favourite Hindi songs. Seats that allowed you to doze off without getting killed at each bump. Add to that a very “select” crowd of Indians (no lubricious looks or sickly-sweet hellos from those guys…). We also fancied imagining the driver had probably had a little more sleep or training than in the “normal” busses.

But apart from all that, “Deluxe” in India has little to do with what you would expect of the same label in Europe. Old, rumpled and half-clean (?) seat-covers (remember that most Indians put oil in their hair!), dirty windows, dirty luggage shelves, screeching music (playing too fast and going on and off at irregular intervals – no wonder westerners can’t stand Hindi music!), dare-devil driving (Haridwar to Delhi in less than five hours!) and no extra frills… In fact, AC and non-AC make more difference here than normal, Deluxe, first or second class.

Some thoughts about India

During these last days with Nicola we had many occasions to talk about India and reflect upon the differences with the west. I have mentioned (or will mention) some of them in my “culture shock” section, but there are a couple of little details I want to mention now. Particularly because I am getting so used to them that they are starting to be normal to me. I won’t pretend I’ve “understood” India. This is just where my thoughts lead me.

For example, take the number of “sirs” and “madams” an innocent foreigner is served by the average Indian employee. A couple in each sentence for the very severe cases.

Another example is fans hanging from every ceiling. Windows and doors that are not “outside-tight”. Dust everywhere. Buildings more or less ramshackle. Things that never look quite finished. Clothes that are never quite clean. Scorching heat. The gaze of people as you pass by…

One conclusion we arrived to – not a very original one, I’m afraid! – is that India is a world of contrasts and extremes, often to be seen side by side. You will see people living in slums next door to big banks and expensive restaurants.

The people’s attitude is also quite paradoxical.

Indians will often be very friendly, polite and helpful – but how “genuine” is their friendliness? Are they simply doing their duty by giving you a hand? You can find yourself being helped to a certain point and then almost dumped on the side of the road as if you suddenly didn’t exist any more.

The famous Indian hospitality has an ambiguous side to it too. People are bound to offer you shelter and accept you, as it is their duty. The way it is done can seem strange to us. I may be wrong, but I have the impression that in Switzerland the host would always tend to tell the guest to stay longer, to the point where the latter will refuse to be a burden any longer and leave – in a way, making it the guest’s decision to put an end to the hospitality. I admit I might be a little idealistic here.

Individualism is another of those paradoxical topics. The west is supposed to be individualistic and self-centred, but I have come upon a few “Indian” attitudes which seem to me more individualistic than the corresponding western ones.

For example, you are expected to fight for yourself more often than in Switzerland, where lots of people will always coax you into taking your place. At the counter, in the bus, anywhere in life. You are supposed to make your own place and ask for yourself. Seldom will one wait for you to take your turn if you do not take it yourself, or ask you what you need. When I say this, it sounds wrong – people keep asking me to take a seat and tell them what I want. But in Switzerland nobody would ever go past somebody who is obviously waiting at a counter. Nor would somebody be left at a counter without being invited to make his inquiry. The rules are different here. You are supposed to talk first.

While I’m at it, there are common ideas that I’ve heard over and over again propounded by Indian residents. About marriage, family, and domestic help as a sort of social structure, a help to the individual. They certainly have truth in them. But they do not seem to make the lacking social services and infrastructure unnecessary.

What about all the miserable people in the streets? Do they have no family to take care of them? Or do they all belong to family-gangs of beggars?

Of course, I know things are not that simple.

A couple of days in Delhi

Let’s get back to our travels after this little digression.

On our return to Delhi we booked the next trip with a private company (not a very good idea, as we were going to see). It all looked perfect – maybe a little too much!

We went to our Hindi teachers’ place (I had to pick up some of my stuff there). There had been a water shortage since morning, and they were also experiencing a rather long power-failure. Poor Nicola was dying for a shower, so we went back to my hotel to deposit my luggage before eating, and I smuggled him into my room for a quick bath – such a relief after a day’s travel.

I spent a good part of the evening washing my laundry (with soap, for a change). Imagine my dismay, when the next morning, once my clean washing was hanging all around the room to dry, the dhobi came knocking on my door!

I went money hunting again and this time met with success. At 1 a.m., I had withdrawn money from my Pune account and managed to get cash using my VISA. Hurray!

After an expensive meal at the Embassy hotel (both Nicola and I felt we needed a treat and I was longing for some chicken) we got a couple of details fixed for the Swiss students’ arrival.

When I look back at the last week it seems I spent all my time money hunting and wandering around Connaught Place with Nicola. I had a rather good time on the whole – but to be honest I must say it was due more to Nicola’s presence and to our conversations than to Delhi itself. That might very well be the detail that counts!

Rishikesh; August 29

On Thursday (the next day) I went sightseeing. Finding myself in an AC bus with a bunch of other (mostly white) tourists was quite a new experience to me.

The guide took us to most of the “tourist spots” in Delhi: Humayun’s Tomb, the astronomical sundial, Qutab Minar, Birla Mandir, Lal Qila, Baha’i Temple, Gandhi and Nehru’s memorials, ityadi, ityadi…

Travelling in an AC coach gave me a queer feeling of distance with the town. We would stop, rush through a curtain of everythingwallahs, listen to the guide’s speech, click a few pictures and retreat into the cool dustless bus, already hot and sticky from our 20 minutes of contact with the “real” world…

Switching from hot to cold all the time is awfully tiring – punishment for the use of AC.