Jama Masjid; A Big Mosque and a little friction.

 

Using Dawid’s offline map, we navigate our way through the winding roads and hustle and bustle of the Chawri Bazaar, spying the red sandstone minarets of the mosque. We head up some 30 odd steps to a main gate, where we see signs telling us not to pay any money for entrance to the mosque, you only have to pay 300 rupees to take in a camera if you are a foreign tourist. As none of us are carrying a camera, we assume we can enter for free.

We take off our shoes, and are asked for money to watch them, then we are asked to hand over our phones. I’m not entirely sure how it happened but upon deciding that one of us will sit outside with our shoes and phones whilst the other two go inside, suddenly we are told we cannot enter at all without paying. There is some sort of communication breakdown; we motion to the sign saying entrance is free, and we show we have no cameras or phones on us and we are point-blank refused entry, a churlish old man holding his hand to my face and shooing us away from the entrance. When we take our money out to pay for the cameras we aren’t carrying, he becomes erratic and shouts at us in Hindi. We leave, confused and a little annoyed, but walk a few minutes around the outside of the mosque to the other gate, where we have a much more pleasant experience. I pay the 300 rupees to avoid any further confrontation, and Vitor shakes his head at me, saying I am soft and I will get ripped off if I always cave in when asked for money, exclaiming that it seems unfair that foreign tourists must pay drastically inflated prices to enter places that are free or a small fraction of the price to those who appear to be native to the country. I feel a twinge of sadness, as I also feel it’s a little unfair, but similarly, I want to see these things and I can afford to pay the money to do so. “It’s the principle of it” Vitor says. I agree, but I’m inclined to think that I’m going to have to tweak some of these principles in order to make life a little bit easier.

Dawid sits outside the gate on a bench with our shoes, phones and our bottled water. I’m given a brightly coloured floor length kaftan thingy, to cover all of my arms and legs. With my bag underneath. it closely resembles a circus tent. Vitor is given a sheet to wrap around his legs, and we step through the gate into an enormous courtyard, one that we’re told can hold 25,000 worshippers.

There are about 250 or so people here at the moment, so we’ve come at a quiet time, and given the scorching heat of the ground on our bare feet, I can see why there aren’t many people walking around. It is unbearably hot and exposed.

In the centre of the courtyard is a square pool, with men washing, ritual ablutions, some even brushing their teeth. Pigeons congregate across the courtyard, flapping and pecking the ground, and black kites circle above. Glistening marble domes along one side of the courtyard house a long prayer area, with great interior arches and a black and white tiled floor. Children lay on the floor, looking at the mosaic-clad ceiling, and men kneel to pray, their foreheads to the ground.

There is a gaudy chandelier, and some young Indian girls in denim jackets and jeans are taking selfies on the steps up to the prayer hall. I marvel at the mix of old traditions and new and old style clothes and technology; the salwar kameez, the burqa, and the skull caps, the kurta, the Adidas trainers, the denim jackets, the iPhones and the selfies…so many selfies. There’s something awkward about seeing men and women looking to their God in prayer just inches away from men and women looking at themselves in their phones.

On the other side of the courtyard, we stand on a raised platform where many people are sitting, laying, talking, sleeping.. We can see the sprawling streets of below, and the Red Fort sitting majestically in the distance. We remember that Dawid is sat outside and we head back out the gate to swap places. Vitor decides to go in again with Dawid, so I sit with my bottle of now very warm water and attempt to plot a route through the streets of Old Delhi to our next point of interest, neglecting to address the fact that Old Delhi in itself is one big point of almost indescribable interest, of endless fascination and awe.

The clouds of yesterday have dissipated and the skies are brilliant blue. We head back down the scorching steps into a maze of streets, with no real direction. Luckily we have nowhere to be and wandering aimlessly for a bit is a luxury we can all afford.

xxx

Welcome, namaste, don’t go outside alone; Delhi metro, auto-rickshaws and my first night in India.

Having acquired a few small notes in currency in the airport, I follow the surprisingly useful yellow signs from the exit at Indira Gandhi Airport to the metro line. Yellow line is the airport line, that’ll take me to New Delhi station and from there I can plan my next move. I’m already a bit hot and bothered, and it’s a few minutes walking in the early morning heat, through seemingly abandoned tunnels and underpasses, with my heavy rucksack on my back and my daypack on the front of my body. The metro feels.. eerie. Unlike London, there are no buskers, no music, and barely any commuters wandering to the platforms and ticket booths. It’s about 10am.

I join what I assumed was a queue to buy a token for the metro; it’s more of a huddle of men, pushing and shoving, paying no mind to my presence, which is both a blessing and an annoyance I guess. I ask for New Delhi – one way and pay the equivalent of about 40 pence for a small token, which either touches on a pad or is inserted like a coin at the turnstile. I drop a ten rupee coin at the desk and the huddle of men quickly stand over it, not allowing me to bend down and reach it. I sigh a heavy sigh and head towards the security scanners. The Indian metro has metal detectors and bag xrays similar to those in an airport that you must go through before you can get to a platform. I unload my rucksack, my day pack, my handbag and firmly grasp my phone and my wallet as I am ushered in to a “Women Only” line for a frisking.  I am waved into a curtained room, to stand on a small square platform, arms out, feet apart. The female guard in her beige camo ignores all the alarms as she waves her wand over my clothes; my belt, my lighter and my phone all triggering the beep. She touches my tattoos and runs a finger over my lip piercings without batting an eyelid, and motions me through the curtain. I find my bags all on the conveyer belt, having successfully found their way through the xray machines. I load up again, and head for platform 3. There are a few more people on the platform, it doesn’t feel quite so eerie and deserted, but it stills seems very empty,and I can’t see any women anywhere. I’ve read that the first two carriage spaces on the platform are  for women only and so I head that way, towards some sparkly pink “Women Only” signs, but I wind up boarding a pretty empty carriage about mid way as I spot a young Indian woman sat in it, alone. If she’s comfortable there, then so I am. The carriage is spacious, clean and cool, not at all how I had envisaged it. I wonder what other preconceptions I would have blown away and what else I may be surprised by as my journey went on. Little could I have known what was in store.

As the train makes it’s way towards my destination, we pass over a motorway and I see the chaos below. Cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, bikes, scooters, tractors, vans, cars, buses, just PEOPLE. Fucking loads of ’em. Sleeping in their rickshaws, sleeping on the kerb, sitting on the roadside, children, animals, adults walking along the bit where I would normally expect to see a central reservation. Donkeys, goats, cows, oh god the cows. As we pull into New Delhi station I start feeling a bit queasy. I alight, and have a sudden moment of absolute fear that I am now almost as far away from my comfortable home life in the pub as I have ever been, and I am completely alone in a huge, densely populated country I know very little about. And I’ve barely slept. And I quite clearly have just landed. I may as well have a t-shirt on that says “I’M NEW HERE”.

I decide not to tell the three rickshaw drivers that surround me outside the station where exactly I am going, partly because Nagesh’s advice (from the plane, see previous blog post!) is ringing in my ears, and partly because, as I understand, it could be a bit of a difficult find. Many drivers don’t know new buildings, hidden away buildings or small businesses as there are just SO many roads and shops and businesses around, I ask how much to the nearest landmark, Delite Cinema. It’s a 5 minute walk to my hostel and I’ve got an offline map downloaded on to my phone (maps.me ..a life saver of an app for when you’ve got not data or signal). I’m told it’s 150 rupees which is a good 3 to 4 times what the hostel had told me to pay for a 4km journey.  I walk away from them all, and light a cigarette to catch my nerve and calm myself. It’s hot, I’m exhausted and 150 rupees is about £2. I can’t really argue over £1, can I? (Oh I can, and I will, on many other days…) I take the guy who says he’ll do it for 80.

The next ten minutes are an absolute blur. An assault on my senses, an overload of noise, of incessant, and I mean INCESSANT beeping, of screeching tyres, of shouting, of speeding through traffic, of cutting corners, of narrowly avoiding head on collisions every ten seconds, of bumping into other rickshaws… It’s basically like being on a bumper car with a couple of hundred bumper cars of varying sizes (but many much much larger than yours) all around, and people just strewn about willy nilly in any bit of space that they can fit in to with their cargo..and their cargo maybe other people, plants, trees, metal, wood, food, boxes of..god knows, just stuff. SO. MUCH. STUFF. As we arrive at my destination, I jump out into this melting pot of a place, load up for what I am praying is a short walk, and stomp off in the direction my hostel should be.

I trudge along the makeshift pavement (one of many things I take for granted in the UK- pavements for pedestrians) squeezing through scores of men sat with typewriters doing what can only be very important work, a plethora of small food stands wafting out the most amazing food smells, aromas of cinnamon, saffron, garlic, butter, cumin, incense; interject those mouthwatering smells with stomach-churning wafts of raw sewage and rotting garbage, and by the time I see my hostel doors, I’m not sure if i’m hungry or nauseous or both.

My hostel has another big body scanner, and I’m greeted at the front desk by a short man exclaiming “THERE’S NO ROOM FOR YOU”. As my heart begins to sink, he smirks and laughs warmly, waving me in. I fill in the first of about a million official forms that I will come to fill in during my time in India, I get a quick tour of the common areas, the smoking terrace and I’m shown to my 8 bed dorm. It’s empty, so I grab that opportunity to shower. I unpack, repack, distribute my cash cleverly so as to be okay should I lose some of it out and about, and have a nap for an hour. When I wake, I head to the terrace to sit in a swinging hammock chair, staring at a sparkly red rickshaw, brightly coloured metal steps leading up to the roof, a table with a couple of ashtrays, luminous stools and chairs and three dogs totter about as the night draws in. A huge monkey darts overhead and the dogs bark, and I wonder how I can even begin to get accustomed to the noise, the ever-present, unrelenting sounds of so much vibrant life going on around me.

I check in on the wi-fi, let everyone at home know I’m safe and well, and after about an hour a group of Italian girls come out for a cigarette. I say hello, and they nod. I attempt to talk to them but they aren’t particularly receptive.I ask where I can get some food and they tell me there is a market nearby but not to go outside alone now as it is dark, and it wouldn’t be safe. I start to wonder what on earth I have let myself in for, and resign myself to bed, hungry and acutely aware that I am very much out on my own now.

 

 

 

 

Taking flight; establishing a coping mechanism for solo travel, and getting a green light.

After what seemed like an eternity waiting, saving, working and researching, the day of my flight finally arrived. I worked a late shift on the Wednesday in the pub which meant several gins and shots before bed, so I woke up early on Thursday 1st September, unsure if the sickness in my belly was due to alcohol or nerves, or both. After a shaky goodbye with Aimee, I jump in my taxi to the station to catch the train to Birmingham. My flight isn’t until 9pm, but I give myself the whole day to travel there, allowing about 5 hours in the airport to begin getting used to feeling alone in the world. Once I’ve checked in my backpack, I head to the airport bar and smoking area to drink a pint of cider and eat a cheese sandwich. I call my mum and my dad, and flick through my Rough Guide, attempting a bit more research into what exactly I will do upon landing in Delhi.

Now, I don’t really consider myself as a sufferer of anxiety or nerves, but I do worry, of course I do. It is perfectly normal to worry about things occasionally, especially pretty big life-changing leaps into an unknown world. I don’t tend to vocalise my concerns all that often, at least not the real ones, but I had been outwardly concerned about where to go first, how to get around, and whether or not I could survive and enjoy a trip out on my own. I remember sitting in the airport lounge with a wave of nausea washing over me, a niggling doubt inside my gut regarding the solo journey I was about to undertake. What if I was on my own the whole time? What if I didn’t make any friends? What if nobody could speak any English and I couldn’t grasp any Hindi or Tamil or Urdu or any of the other 20-something official languages? I know I’m certainly not afraid of being alone, or of flying, or of going somewhere new. I have done all these things a hundred times over, and I would do them a hundred times more, but… when you’re sat in an airport lounge, alone with your life in your bag and nothing or no-one putting any expectations or demands on your time for the forseeable future, with no-one waiting to make sure you’ve arrived safe and sound, with nothing except my own back to think about…all of these things plus a dollop of last night’s beer fear creeping in, it’s no surprise I wound up having little flutters of panic in the hours leading up to my flight.

The best way for me to combat these anxious feelings was to break them up into sections of “bitesize” stress. I’d travelled on a plane before alone. Easy. That’s what I was about to do again. So I can swallow that. Got some previous there, that makes that one easier to cope with. Once on the plane, I’d have 9 hours to panic about where I was going next or how I was going to get there or what it was going to feel like or smell like or sound like..or ..WAIT. NO. Let’s tackle the fear of what to do when we land. I have landed in an alien city before, alone and unsure of where to go, so I know I can do that. I will get through airport security, customs, and then take on the next task.  Brick by brick, little by little. A weird sort of calm began to take hold, one that would be invaluable during my time travelling. Take each little fear bit by bit, block the anxieties in to sections, piece by piece, journey by journey, rather than thinking about them all at once. I soon found I’d conquered ten little fears without even breaking a sweat! Well, not an emotionally driven sweat anyway. The heat, well, that was a whole other level of perspiration there is no preparing for. We’ll come to that soon.

So, armed with my calm demeanor, my little red rucksack (packed to last me a week in the event my backpack got mislaid), my travel purse (a lovely gift from my friend Emma, with clever little compartments for my passport, emergency cards, insurance and medical details) and my genius idea to arrive super early at the airport, I board my flight, with my window seat near the front of the plane.

HERE WE GO! She’s off! A quick text to my loved ones and I’m up in the sky, admiring the lights of late night Birmingham as we soar into the dark. My seat is next to an elderly Indian couple, Seema and Nagesh. An hour into the flight and we get our dinner; paneer and vegetables, lentils, curd and kheer, an Indian rice pudding. Seema watches as I pick at my food, and we strike up a conversation about Indian cuisine, something I thought I was perhaps somewhat familiar with, but I soon learned I knew pretty much nothing about. At all. We share my mints as our ears pop, and she tells me of her time in Europe visiting her son in Germany, her daughter in England and spending time in Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. Nagesh side-eyes me the majority of the conversation. He is frail, and I wonder perhaps if his English isn’t so good or if he is just used to letting his wife do all the talking. 🙂

As the trays are cleared away, the cabin is plunged into darkness and I realise that being 4 1/2 hours ahead, it’s now about 3 am Indian time, so dozing off seems the next logical move. Seema and Nagesh snore away, and I flick through the in-flight entertainment,not particularly interested in anything. I nod off for about 2 hours, until I’m awoken by a sudden burst of blinding light shining through my window. At first I thought there was a green light on the wing of the plane, and then, as I start to rouse, I realise I’m staring at the most beautiful moon. The sky is clear, not a cloud to be seen, and the light from the moon bathes the plane in this ethereal brilliant green, blue and turquoise hue. Green is my favourite colour, it brings me calm and, emotionally, I associate it with safety. Needless to say, I am calm, collected and smiling from ear to ear at what felt like getting a personal green light, a go ahead from the universe as everyone else slept soundly. It wasn’t so easy to capture through the window as I’d hoped but these pictures, not filtered or edited in any way, still bring me calm.

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We’re woken up at about 8am Indian time by a small breakfast of fruit and an egg free banana muffin. Seema and I talk about my trip and my plans in Delhi. She looks shocked when I say I am travelling completely alone and I have nobody to meet when I land. Nagesh, having not said a word to me the entire flight, stares me dead in the eye and whispers hoarsely “don’t trust anybody. ANYBODY”. I laugh nervously, and turn to watch our descent into Delhi out of the window; the sky no longer a blueish green ocean of calm, but a cloudy grey haze. It’s murky and stuffy as I step off the plane and head to collect my bag.

I spend roughly an hour in the airport, getting changed, then collecting currency and breaking the large notes (at that time 500 and 1000 rupee notes) into smaller notes, buying water and cigarettes. (I soon regret not buying snacks) I dabble with the idea of a prepaid taxi to my hostel but figure I might as well chuck myself in at the deep end and learn to get around as cheaply as possible. I’d booked my first 3 nights in a hostel in New Delhi (or so I thought…) called Stops. Like many hostels and hotels, they had emailed to suggest the easiest way to travel to them from the city’s main transport hubs. From the airport, I understand, I can take a dedicated airport metro line right into the centre of New Delhi, and then take a rickshaw to the hostel. Easy peasy! Maybe. Again, I’ve done a metro, and a rickshaw and a taxi before, I’ve carried my huge rucksack through bustling cities and dingey underpasses and I’ve lugged my whole life in a bag on London Underground Central Line during rush hour, so I know about crowds and stifling air in a metal tube in a tunnel below the surface of the earth. I’ve got this.

Haven’t I?

:-/

Oh what to do, when the world insists on turning unequivocally, with little regard for my longing for it to stop?

December is upon us, and this morning I awoke, wondering if there would be a better time to document my experiences of 2016 than this day. Is there ever a better time than today? Like many of us, I am a fan of tomorrow. Diet? Tomorrow. Travel? Tomorrow. Self improvement? Why today? The schedule for the day that follows is just as barren! I love ya, tomorrow, you’re only a day away.

This year, more so than the 30 previous in my life, feels somewhat worthy of ennobling. It has been a little different in many ways, almost every moment of it has seen me more present and more involved in just living than ever before, and I’m petrified that I’m going to forget every detail as the days go by so let’s jump straight in at the bit where I did the thing so many of us dream of doing but never really get around to.

I’d been having one of those years. The early months of 2016 had been a sort of gloopy trickle of bad luck and disappointment. Some of these ill feelings I had likely encouraged, some I didn’t deserve, some I tried to stave off and some I wholly facilitated. March came around. It’s early in the year to be thinking “this year is terrible”, but, then it is also quarter of the year been and gone. Another winter is on the way out, another summer on the horizon. All I could see as I looked forward were my days falling away in much the same way as they had always done, a miasma of mostly comfortable routine, of work, of study, of commuting and small talk. I was restless. I was unhappy. Truly glum. Stuck.

Routine had been and always is, thankfully, punctuated with wonderful friends, with beautiful days, joy, happiness, laughter. Whether shared or alone, I do partake in these blissful days often, I really do. Around this time though, Spring 2016, these joyful days felt as though they had been getting further and further apart, the time between smiling felt almost eternal. There were little adventures to the city, late nights with the dearest friends discussing life and love, delicious food with delicious people, walks in the fields, library days…but all the while, like most people I expect, I had this bubbling sensation in my gut that…well, maybe time is running out? Maybe I am wasting my life? Maybe I could or should be doing something more than I do, things that I wanted to do, for myself or for others? My mood, accompanying the English weather with its frivolous disregard for my wellbeing, had spiralled into a consuming hopelessness and self-doubt. My days were increasingly an exercise in complaining and self-pity. I was looking up from my indulgent pit feeling like the sides of the rut were unconquerable. The world I spent hours gazing at from my kitchen window seemed bland and unforgiving, turning unequivocally, not at all heeding my longing for it to just pause for one brief moment to allow me to catch my breath.

“I just need some time” I thought. Every single day.

“But time is relative” I would retort. (Battling my own thoughts daily was just another surefire sign that it was time for a change or a rest). “Time’s a concept I impose on myself, we impose on ourselves as humans”. I had a dream one night that time was a tangerine, every day I peeled it and gave the segments to those around me in the morning, I squeezed it, juiced it, and before breakfast time, I’m left with just the pith and the rind of my own tangerine, which someone wants to grate for a cake.

I often feel I don’t have enough of time, and yet I tell myself it is abundant. There are many days left in which I can fall in love, I can call my mother, I can get a real job, I can see the world…

Many days. I have plenty of time. Don’t I? Hmm.

“Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see, when you’re young, you’re a kid, you’ve got time. You got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years here, a couple of years there, it doesn’t matter, you know. The older you get, you say “Jesus, how much I got? I got 35 summers left.” Think about it. 35 summers….”.

With my ever-decreasing number of summers in mind, the overwhelming urge to escape everything and everyone I know finally took hold, and I just let it happen. After several years of suppressing the urge to run away, of flitting between jobs, people and studying, trying to fill the gap in my soul with gin, late nights and pursuing aspirations that weren’t actually my own, I booked a one-way flight.

I’d been looking at train tickets, to travel from Oxfordshire to Cumbria to visit my loved ones, train tickets to take me about 250 miles north. As always, I resent the expense. At over £100 for a return, I often find myself delaying my visits home, I certainly don’t visit as often as I’d like. £100 is a lot of money. I found myself looking to see if it would be cheaper to fly to Manchester, and whilst browsing domestic flights on Skyscanner I playfully clicked the option to show me flights from London to “Everywhere”. How far I could fly for £100? Certainly to Europe and back, probably two or three times. Turkey, Tunisia, oh Dubai, only £160! Thailand? £280 one way.. I’ve already been there.  New Delhi. £270. All that way. To India. I’d daydreamed of India many a time. Of bustling cities, of beaches and markets, of rickshaws and street food, of Bollywood, of camel safaris, snake charmers and overcrowded trains.

So, it happened. A couple of clicks and it was booked.  Thursday 1st September 2016, one way from Birmingham to New Delhi. I submitted my payment and awaited an email to confirm my ticket. I’d given myself 6 months or so to save up some money for what would undoubtedly be the trip of a lifetime. On the morning of the flight, I awoke, a bag of nerves, packed, repacked… I hopped in a taxi after some emotional phone calls and boarded my flight, having nowhere specific to go, no-one awaiting me, no need to be anywhere at all for the coming 12 weeks.

 

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Over a series of posts in the next few months or so, I’ll try to convey a little of how it all unfolded, from biking in the Kullu Valley, waking up in the Himalayas, hunting for a grave of a long-lost relative in Dalhousie, to cremation at the burning ghats in Varanasi, tears at the Taj Mahal, cocktails, cows and crows on beaches of Goa and the tea plantations of Munnar, and everything in between. Perhaps you’ll read my tales, perhaps you won’t. If I’ve learned anything from my travel experiences, this time around and in the past, it’s that I travel for me and I tell stories for me, no-one else.

It sure is fun if someone else comes along for the ride, though.

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