Originally posted on my website – www.projectawe.com/awe-inspiring
For those who know me, this blog will hopefully act as a digital bridge. A rickety, impassable bridge, possibly bound with twine and built with bamboo but a bridge none-the-less. A bridge on which we can stand, on opposite banks, to wave and shout our comings and goings, our happiness and our heart-aches. I intend to use this bridge as a documentary of my experiences over the next 18 months and I hope you will all indulge me in this outlet for my musings and keep me updated with home life to help make the bridge feel a little smaller than it really is.
For those who don’t know me, let me offer some context. You may have found this blog through my website www.projectawe.com. Projectawe is now on tour. My lady, Hanna, and I have embarked on an adventure of Tolkien-esque proportions. I was going to call it “There and Back Again: A Nobheads Tale” in the hope that Peter Jackson will fall apart at the seams and hire me on the spot when I turn up at his house with a CV written entirely in Elvish. I’ve decided to go less ‘plagiarisey’ and call it ‘The Best International Blog and Learning Experience’ (The B.I.B.L.E.)
Our route is as follows:
India>Malaysia>Hong Kong>Thailand>Cambodia>Vietnam>Laos>Singapore>Bali>New Zealand (for around a year)>Canada/USA/South America (if we make it).
This is subject to change if we go “full hippy” and get stuck in an Ashram that houses baby elephants on a conservation beach where you can buy beer for 10p a pint and build an orphanage/school/dog sanctuary out of Gange’s clay.
So please, join us on our adventure.
Chapter 1: India
Day One – Smogasboard
In the weeks running up to coming to India I have been fervently checking the weather forecast for Delhi. We haven’t planned a long stay here but, as it was the first stop, it has been my marker not only for India but for my whole trip. In my mind, if it’s sunny in Delhi then it’s sunny everywhere for the next 6 months. For weeks i’ve seen cartoon sun’s with happy faces, sometimes playing coy and peering out from behind a little white cloud, but always there with a smile. Yesterday I checked the forecast and saw one large brownish cloud. No smiley sun. Just this fart for the eyes and a “Warning – Heavy Smog”.
I know all about smog, I did GCSE Geography. I know the worst effected place in the world for smog circa 2005 was Mexico City. I know it knocks about 15 years off your life if you permanently reside in a smoggy city. I know it’s a bitch to hang your washing in. And now I know it chokes everything. It constricts every sense. Your lungs tighten, your nostrils crust with blackness and the haze blinds you and blocks the sun. There is a thick, dry, heavy slump to the air that seems to dull you. It is exhausting. It is not what I was expecting.
The first step out of Delhi International Airport is a tale of anxiety. An anxiety perpetuated by those who have gone before me and forewarned me of the instant culture shock I should expect. This step will set the pace for my journey into the wonderful, colourful, awe-inspiring, hilarious, terrifying and at times devastating world of India.
I had mentally prepared. Keep your head down and watch your bags. Keep your head down and watch your bags. Keep your head down and “Sir! You come with me!”. What? Wait, no sorry. Wait… Why is he grabbing?.. Wait… what?
There is no preparation for the sheer volume of rickshaw (aka Tuk-Tuk) and taxi driver’s clawing each other back to grab the spoils, beyond making sure you have an airport pick up. Our driver even had to fight through the crowd, brandishing his ‘Hanna Leadbeater’ sign to grab our bags and beckon us to follow him at a pace that didn’t suit the time of morning. The time is important to note because we stepped out at around 5am into the mayhem and Delhi was already awake and working. I cannot comprehend a midday arrival. Dazed and barely awake, I know that no amount of swotting up on Lonely Planet or warnings from friends could have helped Hanna and I orientate ourselves amid the chaos. If you ever fly to Delhi, book a pick-up.
The drive to the home stay we had booked was at once exhilarating and disquieting. Indian roads have only one rule, similar to the golden rule of ski-slopes. Make sure you don’t crash into anything in front of you and don’t worry about what is behind. If they are following the rule they should be avoiding you. The result is a darting and weaving obstacle course of potholes and people, where traffic lights, speed bumps, roundabouts and car lanes are just a suggestion and car-horns are used liberally as a noisy but generally accepted request to move over. The ride was exhilarating as both the first step of my journey and my first real experience of a culture that is more foreign to me than any I have experienced. Equally, it was disquieting as the poverty in Delhi is profound and instantly thrust upon you. Malnourished homeless sleep in piles of litter. Open sewers spill onto the roads. Entire shanty towns stretch back into the smog, filled with tents made from scrap and waste. Families live on roundabouts and central reservations. Dogs, cows and goats, coated with mange, forage in upturned bins.
The need appears on such a massive scale that it is difficult to take it all in at once. I know that it won’t be easy to accept the level of poverty in India but getting beyond it in order to experience everything India has to offer a traveller is an imperative myself and Hanna must strive for.
After settling at our home stay and catching up on a few hours sleep, Hanna and I decided to brave our first walk into the relatively small town centre of Saket, a small section of the huge, sprawling city of Delhi. We were ready to see the sights (spoiler: smog), smell the smells (spoiler: shit) and hear the car horns and rickshaw put-put engines. We found ourselves a little lost and overwhelmed so, in need of a few things, we jumped in a rickshaw with a map in hand and asked for the shopping centre that our home stay host had recommended nearby.
The mall put English shopping centres to shame. It was spectacular, pristine and incredibly well air-conditioned. There seems to be no middle ground. The very poor line the steps outside the mall and beg amongst a thrum of mopeds and rickshaws and a hum of urine and faeces. Anyone wishing to enter must pass a security (read: wealth) check. Either you can afford to walk around in this mall or you can’t. The extremities in such close proximity of effluence and affluence are astounding.
Naturally wanting to experience the culture we threw ourselves into a local culinary sensation. It was a particularly spicy Pizza Hut. Our fear of Delhi belly may have informed the choice. We rounded the evening off with our first night-time rickshaw through the heart of Delhi as local children lit fireworks and the city lit up with the glow of encroaching Diwali. This is the exact point that the magic of India hit me. Despite warnings in handbooks to be careful of Tuk-Tuk drivers who sometimes take you where you don’t want to go, such as a friends hotel or a shop that offers them commission, I lost myself in the gentle bumps of the road and the buzz of the city. I sat for the first time in the eye of the storm and let go of the control and the anxiety that had gripped me all day. I saw all of the smiles and celebrations. Locals waved at us and giggled if we waved back. The scent was now of incense and roadside braziers. The city washed over me. We could have been driving anywhere and I would have loved it. This must be the secret to India; keep your head about you, yes, but go with the flow. I fear in the coming weeks I may try to rationalise chaos and frustrate myself. I must continue to remind myself to loosen up.
Day one over with no sign of Delhi belly. I consider this a success.
I saw a man pee on a dog when we got back to the home stay. Don’t tell Hanna.