I couldn’t sleep a wink on the plane. Everytime I ordered a beer, the stewardess brought three. I vowed to fly Air India more often. I was sat beside Bill, an ex-hippy turned salesman who was returning to India for the first time since the 60’s. We drank Heineken and discussed his trip from rural Sussex to India and back, in a old Land Rover. 1966 was a different time, different world. I have long been interested in the old hippy trail and Bill brought it to life for me. Adding a real sense of adventure and endeavour, an inspirational flight.
Many people, people whom opinions I respect, had told me to be prepared for Delhi airport. The chaos and hassle are legendary. My pack was the first off the belt and I wandered out to be greeted by an empty arrivals hall and pan pipe music. Whats the big deal?
Things changed rapidly as I entered my taxi. It had the appearance of a mis-shaped bean tin and was surely made up of several different cars, glued together. It was 40 degrees and yet my driver wore a thick shirt and jacket, the bean tin seemed to retain heat well and after a couple of minutes, I was sitting in a pool of beery sweat, praying for at least a gentle breeze.
As we left the airport, the driver stopped on the motorway hard shoulder and two men jumped over the rails. One swapped with the driver and the other, who was wearing a bandit style hankerchief over his face, jumped into the passenger seat. Hold up? The bandit then started to tell me the history of Delhi airport and we drove off into the dusty haze. I’ve learned from experience that most things should be taken lightly when travelling and not all bandits are necessarily bad people.
The heat was incredible. We were stuck in what appeared to be an evil traffic snake, that ended at the horizon and showed no sign of life. Sweat poured off me, I was worried that I may wilt. The pollution was intense and I felt like my brain was floating in diesel. I could taste the smog, burnt plastic and lead. I turned to see a green bus, spewing out black toxic fumes, proudly emblazoned on the side was the message, ‘CNG worlds largest eco bus company’.
The ride was now hotting up, we moved at a steady, slug-like pace. I was confronted by the abject poverty of a slum, something that I would have to get used to. I watched ladies working on building sites, carrying large rocks on there heads. Work that would normally be done by machines in other parts of the world.
My driver seemed to enjoy the game chicken, with anything. Walls, scooters, pedestrians, buses. I was so out of it on fumes, I found it all quite exciting.
I watched Bollywood film stars whizz by my window, this is insane, the centre for the communist party of india, another planet really, a man tried to sell me a large black whip or a cheeseboard as cows chomped on rubbish, there are no rules in India. I have never enjoyed rules anyway.
I could see urban eagles soaring in the sky. At first I was surprised to see an eagle in a big city, turns out they are everywhere and have kept me awake on many occasions.
After what seemed like hours, we arrived at Paharganj. I tipped my driver, mainly for getting me there alive. The road was closed, so I walked for half an hour through Delhi. There are no real pavements, well there are, but people are either living on them, sleeping on them or using them in some creative way (peeing). I bounced of traffic and stumbled over piles of rubbish. I wondered regularly, ‘what the hell is going on here?’, ‘where am I?’ and ‘what exactly am I doing here?’
I finally reached Paharganj and it looked like a bomb had recently gone off. There were piles of concrete and twisted metal in the streets and the drains seemed to be running only above ground. The streets were alive with noise, energy and spitting. I have never seen such a sight and rarely smelt such an interesting concoction of odours (ranging from sandalwood to dead things). Life and activity was everywhere, in everything. Did I mention that everyone seemed to be peeing?
I checked into a hotel, lay down and closed my eyes. If this was the journey from the airport, what had I let myself in for?