Four years ago Chris Humble spent six weeks travelling around India. What started largely as escapism from a difficult time in his life turned into an extraordinary – and sometimes hilarious – pilgrimage. The very personal blog Chris wrote at the time was only sent to a handful of close friends; with the passage of time and renewal in his life Chris now feels able to share his unabridged story with a wider audience.
I nearly got this massive trip off to a disastrous start. So accustomed am I to travelling light that I casually strolled the length of the platform to board my carriage for the Newcastle to Kings Cross train – the first leg of my journey – leaving my large case at the platform buffet where I’d enjoyed a pre-train coffee. As I was climbing aboard realisation dawned and I hared back for it, optimistically shouting at a station official to ‘hold the train’. I made it, just, and fell panting into my seat. Sackless is what I am – almost literally.
The price of taxis: living and learning
It is 25 kilometres from Delhi airport to downtown. I was informed of this when I queried the quoted taxi fare of £35. I thought for the distance that seemed just about reasonable, only to find later that I had become the classic airport taxi dupe. Wandering towards an assembly of likely looking vehicles (using the word rank would be a stretch, other than as a description of the assembled vehicles’ quality) I was approached by an insistent guy offering me a cab. My rip-off antennae were not fully functioning after an overnight flight so I meekly followed him with only limited protest. Indian people are so pleasant in their manner that you instinctively trust them, and in most cases this is justified, but not on this first occasion. The hotel later said I should have paid 1000 rupees – about 11 quid, and I was informed by others that I could have had one for 300 rupees. C’est la vie; I guess you’re never too old to live and learn.
And so I experienced Delhi traffic for the first time. After about twenty minutes – having recovered from the shock of still being alive – I calmed myself and began to analyse this phenomenon, one which was to fascinate me throughout my three days in India’s capital. Here are the rules of the Indian road:
1 Lane discipline is non-existent; three lanes equals six.
2 Driving across all three (six) lanes in any diagonal or horizontal direction is completely acceptable.
3 Why give a yard when you can give an inch?
4 Give way on roundabouts – to the largest vehicle; direction of its approach immaterial.
5 Indicators are for decorative purposes only.
6 If you are female and riding pillion on a scooter or motorbike it is compulsory to do so side saddle, ideally dressed in a sari of sufficient length to tangle in the wheels.
7 Horn to be used by every vehicle at least six times a minute to announce “I am here and you are in my way”.
The employment of the horn is utterly pointless as everyone is there, they are all in each other’s way, and they are all using the horn! The realisation that they are actually increasing the delay by their driving style clearly has not occurred to them. However, despite the constant cacophony I never heard a raised voice nor saw an aggressive gesture. And, bizarrely, the driving is not so much aggressive as relentlessly persistent. Every available space must be filled with metal. Resisting the temptation to lean your arm out of the window is advisable if you wish to complete the journey with all four limbs complete.
The hotel and exploring
The ‘Game Over’ screen for my involuntary session of Grand Theft Auto coincided with our arrival at the hotel. The taxi driver told me how much tip he wanted, I gave him half his ‘recommendation’ and checked in. Having unpacked, checked the hotel’s facilities, and glanced dubiously at the swimming pool, I set off to explore my immediate surroundings. Somewhat to my surprise, after about a mile I found myself in the very large and British sounding Connaught Place, a square highly westernised by brands such as Starbucks, Nando’s, Gap, etc. Wandering around this area I suddenly started to feel desperately lonely.
As I walked along my gaze rested on a truly enormous national flag wafting in the light breeze on a high pole above the square. A young man passed me and asked if I was admiring the city – or something similar. We fell into conversation as we strolled along. Something about him was immediately captivating. We stopped on a corner and continued to chat. Impulsively – because that is the only way to be when travelling solo – I asked him if he would like to join me for a drink. He readily acquiesced and guided me to a nearby bar where we ordered Kingfisher beer whilst he happily informed me he was a Muslim but that being sociable and helping people was more important than religious rules, and anyway, he liked beer!
At my request he offered all sorts of advice as to how I should spend my two full days in Delhi, and then escorted me to a nearby travel agency that he himself used for business travel. Within half an hour and at a reasonable price I had my Delhi touristic requirements sorted out. I asked him to let me buy him dinner, and he guided me to a nearby restaurant and ordered a marvellous yet ridiculously cheap meal. During the next hour, over our food, this extraordinary, intelligent, insightful, soulful, empathetic and prophetic young man had my jaw on the floor, almost literally.
A special encounter: meeting an angel
Amir Sheikh is 26 but has the wisdom and perception of a guru three times his age. Very gently but with the purposeful precision of a surgeon he cut deep into my heart, delicately unveiling all the diseases of sadness, despair, regret, hopelessness and self-loathing that currently dwelled there. Then, like a top surgeon, he proceeded to start the repair of each of these ailments. Words and phrases of gentle advice tumbled from his mouth like pearls. The wisdom was extraordinary. I felt that I should be noting down everything he said, and strangely, after the event, I found that I could recall little of it, despite the profound effect it had on me. This is most unlike me as I tend to have a detailed recollection of the spoken word. But somehow this didn’t matter, as I felt the beginnings of healing, and firmly believe that Amir was sent by God to help me at a time of great need. God knew I was making this trip for healing, and He started the process within hours of my arrival. I have always believed in angels; now I had met one. Oh, and for those of you who are wondering, I only had one drink all night….
I do recall that Amir spoke of karma, of love, of prayer, of meditation, of making time for myself on this trip, of there being something better ahead for me. Needless to say Amir and I are now close friends, brothers. We spent the next evening together also, and he has invited me to his parents’ home when I return to Delhi later in the trip. I am truly honoured.
On my way to hotel breakfast from my air-conditioned room the next morning I sniffed, and sniffed again. Is the hotel on fire? I realised immediately that this was the famous Delhi smog, or ‘smoke’ as my iPhone weather app would have it. I found the fact that it had permeated the building rather alarming. When I stumbled outside I decided I would have to buy a face mask to avoid death before lunchtime but by 10.30am it had lifted. I attributed it to vehicle fumes, but found out later that it is predominantly caused by farmers all around the outskirts of the city burning off their fields early every morning after crop harvest. So Apple is right again. ‘Smoke’. Extraordinary.
In a country of many gods surely Mammon is the most worshipped. As I undertook my tourism duties over the next 48 hours I was besieged with requests for information about money. How much had I paid for my trip, for my hotel, for my last taxi.? Did I want someone to take me to such and such a place when I visited Jaipur – cheaply, of course? How about a nicer hotel for me in Agra? Would I like to see Bengal tigers – cheap ones obviously. They all have a friend who can find me a better deal than the one I have.
I’m sure that Delhi is the capital of kickbacks. What was my business? Is it good business? And also, how many wives do I have?! I explained that I’d had three, but only one at a time! They were intrigued by this, and I was advised that “one wife is enough”. I was tempted to revise that to “no wives are enough!” Indians are very inquisitive, in a way that we would find offensive in our culture. Yet it is friendly, and borne from a genuine interest in you.
I’m not going to bore you with detail of the places I visited. Some of them were fascinating, some as dull as ditchwater. A highlight was the backstreets of Old Delhi that I was whizzed through on a rickshaw. Dodging the alarming spaghetti of electric cables hanging from the rooftops and gasping as we missed toddlers and pregnant women by centimetres, and barrows of spices etc were hurriedly wheeled out of our way within a nano second of collision made me feel like I was in a 1970’s James Bond film chase sequence.
The temples and monuments are fascinating, but inevitably the ones that are living and breathing places of worship are so much more vibrant and alive. Ghandi’s tomb is moving, accompanied by a comprehensive exhibition detailing his life in words and photos. But the place that really took my breath was the Baha’i Lotus Temple. The design is wonderful, and the sense of anticipation as you approach culminates in your entrance to the House Of Prayer itself. The spirit of God is in that building, no question of it; I was moved to tears within a minute of entering by the tangible presence of God. I entered just as midday prayers were about to start. I was going to say ‘by chance’ but of course it was nothing of the sort. Of course I couldn’t understand a word of the sung prayers, yet simultaneously I comprehended every utterance.
On my second full day in Delhi I experienced:
- The arrival of the prime minister as my driver was showing me Parliament Square. In typical Indian fashion, without warning, police started to hurl barriers across the roads, and it was only by the experience of my driver Ali that we avoided being boxed in for two hours.
- Lunch in a restaurant refreshingly devoid of tourists, or so I thought until I was seated at a table with an Indian doctor from Rickmansworth!
- Haggling over the price for a Modi jacket which was (extraordinarily) tailor made and delivered to my hotel that evening for the princely sum of 40 quid. The only problem is it was far too small (and I hadn’t had a large lunch!). It appears the measuring guy didn’t do his job properly. It will be at the hotel for my return to Delhi.
- My first ride in a Tuk Tuk (or, as Amir would have it, an Indian helicopter). Apparently there are 30,000 in Delhi alone.
And so I found myself en route to the airport. Mercifully the Saturday morning traffic was a walk in the park compared to the midweek hell I endured on arrival. So goodbye (for now) PCP. Amir assures me this is the acronym for Delhi – Pollution, Corruption, Pollution.
I’d been in India for three days. It felt like a lifetime.
Namaste ‘I bow to the divine in you’