In 1997, I went to India for the first time. I had known lots of people who had been there, or who had India (usually accompanied by Nepal) on the top of their travel “to-go” list. I never did. A terminal fear of swing bridges means I have never planned on going to Nepal and trekking through the Himalayas. After spending time in Thailand as a student, and later travelling through the rest of south east Asia, I felt as if I had already had the third-class-train/washing-from-the-well/sleeping-under-mosquito-nets-on-the-floor/buddhist-enlightenment developing country experience that so many look for in India. That was well out of my system by the time I got to India … if it had ever been there. I was therefore a little nervous about what I would find in India, and how I would react. I felt like a novice traveller, setting out for the first time, squeamish, uncertain, fearful. I knew I needed to be prepared for culture shock, and so perhaps was over-preparing myself by imagining the worst.
It was a business trip for several weeks, travelling from Delhi north to Chandigarh, then to Ahmedabad and Mumbai. It was mid-October and the heat of the summer had eased and the temperatures were mild. I had a day to look around Delhi and adjust to the time change before I was thrust into the round of business meetings. I had had the opportunity to organise a day trip to Agra and the Taj Mahal. But I had declined. At the time it seemed likely that I would visit India many times, and I planned to take my husband and visit that most romantic of monuments together on another trip.
I waited for the culture shock to hit. But India felt strangely familiar. It was like an Indian Vietnam. The noise, the crowds and the chaos were all similar. The colour wasn’t. Lacking the Vietnamese green rice fields, still India is the most colourful place I’ve ever been. I spent the entire time wishing desperately that I could wear a sari. The colours were so vibrant, and the women wore them with a collective grace and beauty I have not seen since. I can still see clearly the slim graceful woman working on the roads in her emerald green sari, and the woman in the earthy brown and yellow patterned shalwar kameez carrying a large clay pot on her head. Unfortunately I was a shy photographer, and these pictures reside solely in my head.
I read the Indian newspapers. The language was a quirky, old-style English, which made me smile. I wish I had brought examples home with me. I was particularly thrilled when I found, in the classifieds, pages and pages of advertisements that read “Wanted: A Suitable Boy.” Vikram Seth’s novel came to life before me.
The food was wonderful. A friend who had lived in India had recommended eating only freshly prepared vegetarian food, and drinks without ice, poured directly from the bottle. I have always loved bread, to the detriment of my waistline, and the naan bread I ate each meal was soft and delicious, usually accompanied by my favourite dish, a tomato stuffed with paneer (cottage cheese) and a curried gravy. My friend’s advice served me well, and it was only towards the end of my trip, when I accepted a glass of Sprite and sipped it to realise it had ice, that my digestive system faltered. The next six hours were not ones I’d care to repeat.
I travelled by car, train and aeroplane in India. The cars were the old, trusty Ambassador taxis. Air-conditioning was an open window.
I took the early morning train to Chandigarh, and apart from a tragic story already told elsewhere, I really have only one memory of the trip. Bums. Lots of bums. Along the train tracks, the poor, the slum dwellers, perform their morning ablutions. The lack of privacy would destroy us, but these people have no other choice.
I travelled onwards from Chandigarh on Indian Airlines, heading for Ahmedabad. The one thing you don’t want to hear on Indian Airlines is “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking. We are experiencing engine trouble …” I heard it. The plane flew to New Delhi where, as luck would have it, a ground staff strike was in progress. The official we were instructed to follow to the terminal vanished as soon as we were inside. Nine hours of confusion began. In the melee of the information office, I observed the Indian style of queuing. Step One. Don’t queue. Step Two. Get to the front of mob, and don’t move once you’re there, until you have the answer you want. Step Three. Don’t stop talking, as someone else in the queue will start when you are foolishly taking a breath, and then you are lost and have to start all over again. Step Four. Get enough people agreeing with you, and nodding their heads at the same time for emphasis. Step Five. Get a tall foreigner in your group too, indicating need for priority treatment. Oh wait, that was me. Step Five. Get angry, and you will get answers. After I joined in the hijacking of a baggage cart with some of my fellow passengers to retrieve our forlorn pile of baggage from the tarmac of New Delhi International Airport, I finally found myself on another plane for Ahmedabad.
On arrival I found my suitcase had arrived too. Amidst all the bustle and noise and chaos of the airport that day, with airport management struggling to cope, and airline management staffing the check-in counters, everything still actually worked. Even my hotel had figured out which flight I was on and sent a driver to meet me. India works. In its own unique way.
I never did get to Agra and the Taj Mahal. It’s still on our long list of places to visit before we die.