Sunday, June 22, 2008

Adventures in India: Land of the Bazaar

Everything has gone as well as can be expected so far. Actually it's been quite easy, and all my fears have been unfounded. Everyone has been very nice and the touts haven't bothered me too much. They are so polite when they try to scam you. You end up saying things like "No, thank you sir, I would not like to give you a large sum of money to guide my to the station, but thank you for your concern." I haven't slept since Monday, but that's nothing I didn't expect. It is VERY hot and humid here, probably 105F at least.

The most harrowing experience that I expect to have for the entire trip happened, of all places, in the Amsterdam airport. There was a long line waiting to get into the gate about an hour before the Delhi flight. They were interrogating everyone, looking for smugglers or troublemakers I suppose. When it was my turn, a skinhead looking Hollander asked me all kinds of questions about what I was doing. He was pretty rough. He wanted to know everything about what I did and why I am going to India and why I am travelling alone. I answered the best I could. He said "You look very nervous, why is that?" It was right out of a movie (we have ways of making you talk...) I told him that I am always nervous because I have so much stress on the job. He grilled me about that for a while. I started to feel dizzy and actually felt like I was going to faint. It was a very weird feeling that I have had only on very rare occasions when I feel completely freaked out. I actually started to black out. He said that he would have to see his boss about me. I was ready to sit down or I thought I would fall down. That probably wouldn't look too good right now, I was thinking. Then he came back and told me that I was OK to go. Then I just went into the gate and sat down until I felt better. Man, that was really a weird thing to happen.

Oddly enough, I feel completely at ease in India and am really enjoying it. It is very much like Guatemala, but more so. I've got to learn to look to the right instead of left when crossing a road (they drive on the other side), and to use my right hand for everything.

The flight to Delhi was fine (except for having to watch "The Mummy"). I called the Sunny Guesthouse, a hotel recommended in my guidebook, from the airport. "Do not believe what anyone tells you, we are open," the manager told me. I caught a taxi outside the airport, gave the driver the name of the hotel, and headed out at midnight. We drove for 45 minutes, then stopped in front of an "official" tourist information office. "Please come inside for free information and maps of Delhi," the driver says. I had read before leaving about the various scams that the taxi drivers use to get you into their "friend's" hotel, where they receive a commission (which is added to your bill by doubling the price). I told him that I would wait in the cab, and please take me to the Sunny Guesthouse. He went inside and two people came out who tried for 20 minutes to convince me to stay at a hotel just down the street. In the end, I told them that I was meeting someone at the Sunny Guesthouse. I actually expected them to say, "Yes sir, I spoke to your friend and he told me that he would meet you at my hotel," but instead, with a look of defeat, he told the driver to take me where I wanted to go. About a block away he dropped me off outside the hotel, and I went inside. I could have simply walked, but they have the advantage: you're in a strange city in the middle of the night, you don't know where you are, and you're very disorientated. This happens to everyone, and most people end up giving in. Some pay a hundred dollars for their first night in Delhi. Fortunately, this was to be the only time on my trip that I felt like I was being taken advantage of. Nearly all Indians deal honestly, although sometimes aggressively, with tourists.

It turned out to be a good backpacker's hotel. I got a cheap single room: 3 1/2 feet by 6 1/2 feet, with a naked bulb, a fan, a 1/2" thin mattress and a hard pillow. I, of course, wouldn't have it any other way. There is a rooftop area with tables and everybody hangs out up there. It is great to be travelling again. I had breakfast at the hotel with a group of Europeans that were going home today. One girl from London hitchhiked all over Tibet and said it was the highlight of her trip. Two other guys from Holland had brought their mountain bikes and biked from Leh in the north to Delhi. I hooked up today with Ben from England and we walked all over the town today. We got train tickets and cokes and ice cream. We'll hit the museum of modern art this afternoon.

I've got a train ticket for tomorrow night in a sleeper car. That will be a first. I'll be in Dehra Dun in the Himalayas by Saturday morning. It should be nice and cool up there. Hope to do some trekking, some mountain sightseeing, who knows, maybe go hang-gliding with the Dalai Lama. I have heard that he is on a world tour now. If not, then I'll head up to Dharamsala and try to see him. If he's out of town, I'll just check out the Tibetan community up there.

It is true -- The cows of India just wander around wherever they feel like, especially in the roads. They'd probably let them wander into the hotels and restaurants if they had a mind to do so. They're kind of like high-school kids after school is over who don't really have anywhere to go, so they just hang around. If I saw a cow with baggy pants and a Walkman, I wouldn't be surprised.

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