There’s no preparing for the sensory assault that awaits the incoming traveller at New Delhi airport. As the doors swing open to the arrival terminal, you find yourself simultaneously confronted with a wall of noise and of heat, even in the middle of the night. Hawkers and taxi drivers flood the building, bustling and yelling over each other to drum up business. Welcome to India: the most beautiful, painful, frustrating and life-affirming places you will ever be lucky enough to visit.
When I told people I planned to spend six weeks travelling with my girlfriend to India, the reactions were incredibly polarising. People were either cheerily supportive or bluntly disparaging. “Aren’t you worried you’ll get gang-raped?” one soon-to-be-former acquaintance sneered at me.
Perhaps I could have picked an easier destination for my first attempt at backpacking; somewhere English was more frequently spoken and the path was a little better-trodden but having recently graduated from uni, I was desperate to get out and see the “real world”. And India is nothing if not “real”. Backpacker hostels are few and far between and you’d be hard pressed to find the party bus atmosphere of your more typical gringo-trail spots, but for the brave traveller there are rewards that far make up for the challenges.
You could call me naive for rocking up to a developing country without either a Lonely Planet or local currency to my name. An ATM at the airport quickly solved the first problem but the second would have me kicking myself for the impulsive decision to leave the bulky backpacker’s bible at home while packing. I soon found that without something to point to as I asked for help, people quickly developed selective hearing, opting to offer to take you to their friend’s “tourist office” instead.
In India, never expect the truth from people who stand to gain from your ignorance. A disastrous attempt to navigate New Delhi railway station led to a man in an official-looking uniform ushering us into a conveniently placed rickshaw. In a cramped and faded office full of photos of Princess Di, we found ourselves drinking sugar-laden chai tea and handing over credit cards for vastly inflated train tickets to Agra. An important lesson had been learned; we were going to have to toughen up if we were going to last the trip with enough money to get home.
None-the-less we were soon on our way south in a second-class carriage, where a kind travelling salesman offered us daal and roti freshly made by his wife that morning. “No visit to India would be complete without at least one journey by rail”, he told us. “Best train system in the world, absolutely.”
Once a monument to colonial power, now battered by overcrowding and corruption, the country’s trains are a great place to see what life is really like for the people who live here, even if it’s just a glimpse of the packed commuter trains from your slower, safer cross-country route. Anyone who has ever complained about their journey to work gets a serious reality check. Those jokes about people sitting on the roof are not an exaggeration.
In a nation with over a billion people and only precarious law and order, there’s a delicate balance that stops the whole country simmering into chaos. To survive in India, a traveller must quickly learn to adjust their pace of life, slow down and take life as they find it. Trains may leave one, two or three hours behind schedule, your taxi may be stuck in traffic because there’s a cow in the road. Deal with it.
If I achieved anything during my six weeks here, perhaps it was the small assimilation that allowed me to let go of my constant expectations and judgments enough to just enjoy myself.