Part I: Delhi
I’ve been in India for a week now, and I have to say – save one night with my good friend Jasdeep – it’s been a bit of a disaster. While sitting on the roof of the crudely-named ‘Lord Of The Drinks’ bar in Delhi, knocking back cheap Indian whisky with Jas was obviously a most excellent way of spending time, the rest of my adventures across Delhi and Jaipur have been arduous to say the least.
This is the first time on my entire round-the-world trip where I’ve been completely and utterly shocked by how incorrect my predictions had been about a prospective destination. Sure, Tahiti was surprisingly bleak, and Easter Island surprisingly mindblowing, but India has just totally undone me. I mean, let’s be realistic; we all know India is a developing nation, and struggling with a population of over 1bn while attempting to put together a viable nationwide infrastructure for even the simplest facilities is a huge undertaking, but I have to admit I did not expect it to be at such an early stage of development.
Because of it’s purportedly rapid ascent through the gears of infrastructural advancement, people often refer to India as one of the select few countries that fall under the category of ‘second world’ – which I’ve always seen as a bit of a vague catch-all or a cop-out. As far as I can tell, it simply defines a country as ‘not as technologically or infrastructurally advanced as the first world, but with enough industry, democracy and, say, paved roads, to not be considered third world’.
It’s because people are now afraid of saying the now-apparently-insulting ‘third world’ that this new category has been clumsily wedged into modern Western parlance. And India, for me, will always sit at the pinnacle of this wave of pretentious revisionism – it is the nuclear warhead at the tip of the rocket of righteousness. In Western eyes, I’ve always found that India rests in this bizarre bubble of worship, and any criticism of it is often called out as racism. There’s an undeniable cult of India. People gaze upon its grand expanses of natural beauty and its enviable ancient religious aesthetics with unrivaled awe, and so they should; India is a vast nation of hundreds if not thousands of different cuisines, languages, religions and landscapes. Yet at times I feel some people go a step too far and mistake quantity with quality.
The number of people I’ve met here (or people who have been here in the past) who choose to unequivocally praise every aspect of this complicated, confusing nation is staggering to me. It’s total nonsense; India’s social, economic and infrastructural problems are numerous and vast, and it’s utterly ridiculous to pretend they’re not. Why would you even attempt to simplify such a complex place into ‘it is good’? Is it your guilt over the British Raj or some other unspoken bollocks? All this attitude does is serve to make you look like you’re either an idiot or are so wrapped up in your new-found ‘spirituality’ that you choose to see past the hoards of people shitting in the street. Which is ironic considering how many of said people talk of feeling ‘enlightened’. Enlightened to what? Believing only what you want to believe?
India is so intense that it retrospectively makes Japan feel about as exciting as Eastbourne. Stepping out of the extremely delayed plane onto Indira Gandhi Airport tarmac, I was hit by the most suffocatingly thick mist of smog and sadness. Delhi is an absolute assault on the senses, the most notable being smell. Spend more than a few hours there and you’ll have your own personal cloud of exhaust fumes and human excrement buried deep inside your sinuses, because, I’m afraid to say, Delhi is a godforsaken shithole. The most foul-smelling, eye-wateringly stuffy and unfriendly city I have ever been to, even its long list of pristine temples and shrines are not even close to compensating for the mountains of shit you have to put up with. And I mean that literally; after getting an Uber from the airport to my hostel, I stepped out to a dude just squatting right there in front of me, next to a dead dog and an overflowing sewer. On the street. Then just pulled up his pants and walked away.
I mean – and this is the first time I’m gonna use this word without censoring it on this blog – what the fuck. Just shitting in the street? What kind of developing nation is this? Something I found particularly amusing was that I then walked past a news kiosk with a magazine that referred to an interview in which some Indian celebrity was quoted as saying ‘I find it insulting that India is referred to as a developing nation. It is developed’. Yeah sure mate, you keep believing that.
Entering the hostel, I was hit by a wave of ferocious air-conditioning, which was sweet relief from the 41 degree heat outside. After a night there, I attempted to head out the next morning to explore, but, as all guidebooks and fellow travelers will tell you, this is not really a ‘thing people do’ in Delhi. Aside from the absolutely brutal heat, the roads are also insane deathtraps, and the people of Delhi are pretty interesting. Or should I say ‘interested’. They are absolutely fascinated by Westerners, whether just to intently stare at, or to scam money out of. You step out of your hostel and ten people will come straight up to you with their shitty little auto-rickshaws, screaming ‘Where you going?! Where you going?!’. At first it seems the logical option is just to wave at them in a ‘no thanks’ gesture, or to politely decline. But by the time you get to even the end of the street, you’re practically elbowing them out the way and screaming things at them that you never thought you were capable of. To some of the more persistent ones who will not take ‘no’ as an answer, you have to just shout at them, or swear at them, and they’ll get the idea. Or maybe that’s just me.
Either way, I bailed on Delhi as soon as I could. That city is the shame of India. I went to Akshardham Temple which was pretty cool, but the queues combining came to 3 hours of standing around, shouting at queue-jumpers and sweating until I was at -100% body fat. I went back to the hostel, cruised across town in another luxury Uber, then got on a bus to Jaipur.
Part II: Jaipur
Disaster struck as soon as I arrived in Jaipur; within about 5 minutes of stepping off them bus, I knew I would hate it just as much as Delhi. It’s cooler than Delhi, it’s quieter than Delhi, and it’s less intense than Delhi, but by the rest of the world’s standards it’s still absolutely batshit insane. Rather than being just spoken to by everyone on the street, I actually had people grabbing me as I walked past, pulling my shirt, stepping into my path and holding my forearms to try and stop me, all while spending most of my waking hours jumping over puddles of raw sewage and dodging suicidal motorbike drivers as the careen onto the pavement to avoid the emaciated dirt-encrusted cows that rule the streets. Contrary to the theory that Jaipur is more palatable than Delhi, it’s still absolutely filthy. And the city’s claim of being the ‘Pink City’ is absolute bullshit; without meaning to sound incredibly middle-class, it’s not pink, it’s terracotta.
On the first day, I got up in the morning, headed to the (admittedly amazing) Jantar Mantar observatory, then to the Amer Fort, Jal Mahal, Hawa Mahal and City Palace. And then it was 11am and I realised I’d exhausted the entirety of what Jaipur’s tourist board could offer me. So I headed back to the hostel and realised something needed to change. Something about India was really not working for me. Well actually it was many things about India that were not working for me. So I took a big risk. I booked a trip to Ladakh, extending my time in India by two weeks. Come Wednesday I’m flying up to 4,000m, surrounding myself with mountains, monasteries and buddhists and basically living as a hermit for 12 days to finish off my intense round-the-world trip. Sounds good to me.
However, this meant I was now going to be in India for longer than the UK government suggest you should stay in India without vaccinations. So after much research and deliberation I headed to Jaipur Hospital to ask what the situation was, as hospitals in India seem to be lagging well behind the email age. I was told that I could come back the next day and they’d sort it for me, for £3 per vaccination! That’s insanely cheap compared to the UK, where you’d be spending well over £100 on the same thing. I left the hospital very cheerful, but then began my walk home, during which I saw some of the most bizarre shit I’ve ever seen in such a brief period of time. Here we go.
I turned onto the main road, where I saw a man driving a camel-and-cart backwards down the street. I don’t mean he was going up the wrong side of the road either, I mean he was literally reversing a camel up the road. Just turn the goddamn thing round, man. Next block, a row of guys chatting to each other while synchronously shitting in a ditch. I skipped past them as fast as I could, to turn the corner and see a perfectly working public toilet that they could quite easily have been using. A dog then bolted inside and after much splashing and canine panic, it emerged with a live pigeon in its mouth and proceeded to rip its wings off by shaking it violently in its jaws. I crossed the road and entered a small market where a man with polio went scooting past, dragging his ass through the dirt faster than I was walking, then darted into the bank I was about to withdraw money from. I went inside and saw that the ATM wasn’t working, so I turned to the bank clerk to ask if I could withdraw money via him, to the sight of said bank clerk sitting behind the desk with a full-face crash helmet on. I asked him about the money and he addressed me totally normally, muffled through the helmet as if nothing was unusual about him sitting in a bank looking like he was expecting a mortar shell. After being told I couldn’t get the money, I left and went past a number of small shops containing people preparing meat with gigantic cleavers. One of them chucked a big leg of meat out into the dirt of the pavement, a couple inches from a pile of burning feces. I assumed he was discarding it, but then proceeded to follow it out of the shop and begin preparing it actually on the pavement, inadvertently rolling it around in the shit and dirt before chucking it back on the pile with the other meat. If there was ever an advert for not eating from untrustworthy food sources in India, that was it. I walked past to see that they also had a pile of sheep heads with the corresponding pile of sheep brains next to them, dangling off the edge of the table, and a few of the little things had thrown themselves off the side completely, where a small chicken was pecking at them. Godspeed Dr Chicken, I assume you’re next for being rolled around in the dirt. I made haste across the road, but suddenly a middle-aged man sat in a plastic school chair in the central reservation stopped me and asked where I was from. I said London, and he went off on the most baffling tangent about how Indians named London; apparently the UK didn’t have a name for London, so they asked their overseas subjects to submit prospective names for it, all of which were rejected. Then, after this happened (which it didn’t), India stepped forward (which they didn’t), and said ‘what about London’ because ‘London’ means ‘dick’ in Hindi (which it doesn’t) and they were tired of the UK always asking India for names for things (which they weren’t), and so the name London is just one big Indian in-joke (which it isn’t). I told him that I’m pretty sure the name London long predates the British Raj, and can be traced back to at least the Roman name Londinium. He didn’t understand me so I left. As I got to the other side, a tuk-tuk driver asked where I was going, as they always do – nothing weird here. But then after he sped off, I bumped into him again about a kilometre down the road. I started walking past him from behind, and just as his face came into view, I realised he was chugging a massive bottle of whisky. In an exaggerated upward sweep, he shook the last few drops out into his mouth, then chucked the glass bottle into the gutter where it smashed and showered shards all over my feet, and zigzagged his way down the thankfully-wide avenue, almost hitting a one-eyed man who was sat cross-legged in the middle of the road. While contemplating how incredibly lucky I was for not having gotten into that particular tuk-tuk, a man shouted at me from across the street – ‘Ey! Ey! Marijuana?!’. Way to be subtle about it dude. Not only was he shouting it at me across 6 lanes of traffic, but it was also the middle of the day. I feel his conspicuous dealing technique may not go down so well in other countries. He’d be first for the old cane (and maybe a little hanging) in Singapore, I tell you that. In India, you often see guys at the side of the road with giant churning cog-laden machines that they feed sugar cane into to produce sugar juice, and next to Mr Marijuana was one of these guys. Just as he was halfway through his third rendition of ‘Ey! Ey! Marij-‘ a large fragment of sugar cane came bolting out of side of the mechanism and slapped him upside the face. He shot to his feet and ran at the sugar man, who proceeded to also just… run. He left his machine running and just sprinted off into the distance, drug dealer in tow. I decided it’d be better to get a taxi home, so I jumped in the nearest one and headed back.
Next day I turned up to the hospital nice and early for my jabs. The receptionist told me to sit in the waiting room, which I did for 40 minutes. Halfway through, a surgeon, complete with blood-stained scrubs, approached me – a dude sat in the corner wearing sunglasses and listening to music – and said ‘Hello! Are you doctor?’. ‘Huh? Am I a doctor? No, of course not’. He shook his head with a bizarrely huge grin on his face and walked off. The nurse came in and said ‘The doctor is refusing to give you the vaccinations’. What?! Why?! ‘We don’t have them here. Go to the government hospital’. For God’s sake, fine. As I stormed out of the exit, the surgeon ran to the door behind me and waved me off with a hearty ‘Farewell doctor man!’.
I wound my way across town to the government hospital and… in all honesty the scenes were difficult to put into words. It was the most depressing, disturbing hospital you could ever hope to see. I felt like a less helpful Florence Nightingale after the Charge of the Light Brigade. It was absolute chaos; a mix of dried and fresh blood on the floor, dead people being wheeled around on gurneys, hundreds and hundreds of people crammed into a tiny waiting room, and the smell of rotting flesh mixed with vomit. I’ve never seen anything like it. With my sleeve covering my mouth and nose, I waded through the sea of people before arriving at the reception desk. Surprise! He spoke no English. He then led me to a different guy in a different building. That guy then led me to another building, then another, then another. Then after wandering around for over an hour, dodging the strangely-located queue of elderly male amputees in the ‘mother and child’ department, I found a guy who spoke perfect English. An Islamic man with a gigantic beard, I asked where I could get these jabs from. He walked me all the way across the neighbourhood to a totally different building, and led me to a small door and said ‘vaccinations are done in here! But it’s closed today’. I almost had a heart attack.
Part III: Agra
I have nothing to say about Agra. It’s very dull, impoverished, hot and ugly. The Taj Mahal was undoubtedly impressive close up, but that’s about all this city has going for it. The famous ‘Red Fort’ was absolute shite, and I’m glad I didn’t pay anything to get in (take that you bastards – how dare you charge £0.15 for Indians and £5 for foreigners). However, you might not know this (because photos are strictly forbidden inside), but the interior of the Taj Mahal is totally bland. It has pretty much nothing in it. It’s a mausoleum, so naturally it has a couple of graves in it, but the walls are just plain, smooth marble, and is fairly small. It’s also tiny, so in 42 degree weather with seemingly the entire population of Uttar Pradesh crammed into it, it became the most intolerable little sweatbox imaginable.
Also directly across the street from my hostel is the Jalma Leprosy Colony.
No, I’m not joking.