My first morning in the hostel, I awake at 5am as Sanne, a short Dutch girl with big eyes and wet hair is frantically packing up her rucksack to leave. She arrived late at night, solo, and is joining a group trip today visiting India’s Golden Triangle, the nickname given to the typical tourist route India consisting of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. I start to wonder if I should have booked on something like that, as I still have this sicky feeling in my belly, a feeling indicating that it is going to take me until about lunch time to work up the courage to go outside alone.
If you recall from my last post, my first hostel, Stops Delhi, is situated on the corner of Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest and busiest market districts of Delhi. It is intimidatingly busy, the streets are awash with animals, people, litter, dung, discarded food, these little bowl things made of leaves, bottles, rubble, bricks, sacks of..well anything and everything, and vehicles of all shapes and sizes competing for a space in the commotion. There is an airport style metal detector at the door on the way into the hostel, which made me feel safe and unsafe simultaneously, and a liquor shop a few doors down, a furore of weathered men with stern faces, shiftily buying bottles of rum and whisky. Everything feels a million miles away from anything I’ve ever experienced in Europe, and from South East Asia. I could compare it to some parts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, but with regards to my comfort zone, I was certainly as far removed from the sleepy market town in Oxfordshire I had left not 48 hours before as I had ever been. In trying to work up the courage to go exploring I am also wondering, with only one more night booked here, where I am going to go next? If I am moving on tomorrow, is there too much to see in Delhi in this one day? What sights should I definitely go and visit and which could I miss out if I’m pushed for time? How I will get to the places I decide I want to see today, but also how will I get to whichever city I’m going to next, wherever that may be? Arrgh!
“Enjoy your time in India and be safe” Sanne whispers, as she tiptoes out of the dorm. I already feel like I’m saying goodbye to a friend, even though we’d spent, oooh, about 14 minutes talking last night, maximum. Travelling sure does intensify a whole bunch of everyday situations and feelings. You forge plenty of instant connections with people and places, some superficial, some genuine but all seem completely and utterly necessary at the time. India, as I had read a hundred times over, can especially be an absolute rollercoaster of emotions, gifting you with the highest highs and the lowest lows in quick succession. In meeting another solo female traveller on my first night to having her leave me not 8 hours later, I had already been so pleased and so disappointed already. And oh man, there are so many more examples of these yo-yo emotions to come!
The pressure of making my mind up about what to do with the day drives me back under the bedsheets, and I stay there a little longer. I’m awoken about 8am by the rumble in my tummy, reminding me that I went to bed hungry last night, and I hear Dawid, a young Polish guy in the bed below mine get up and shower. There’s a free breakfast somewhere with my name on it, so I get up and dressed, the bathroom a little dingy but spacious and clean, not at all like the horror story hostel bathrooms you so often hear about. Deciding what to wear whilst travelling in India was a bit of a chore. There are no end of articles and blog posts dedicated to advice on dressing respectfully in a foreign country; cultural awareness, keeping cool and clean, recommending comfortable and safe attire for wandering in the cities, what to wear in a mosque, in a sikh temple, at the Taj Mahal, what footwear for climbing mountains, most comfortable clothes for flying in, for 22 hour bus journeys etc etc. I read a whole bunch of them, and despite this, I always felt over or underdressed. You’ll see what I mean as time goes on. I’ve covered my shoulders, and I’ve got long pants on too. I put flipflops on today. “Comfy for a wander around the city, when I eventually have the courage to go outside” I thought. That was a mistake. Filthy, filthy, filthy feet.
I head out of the dorm into a brightly painted corridor, down a few stairs, past a water dispenser, filling up my bottle as I go. The hostel kittens are lazing on a colourful arrangement of oversized floor cushions in the common area, there’s the obligatory guitar, a tv, some playing cards, Uno and various copies of the Lonely Planet India from all over the globe on a sideboard, and a couple of computers set up for internet access. A couple more steps down out of the common room, and I make my way into the kitchen. I am greeted by two young Indian men, both with floppy fringes, and bare feet; one is cooking eggs to order, the other just casually leaning and watching, a very common pastime in India it seems. Every cupboard in the kitchen is a bold primary colour in contrast to the white walls. There are two sinks, and three kettles on the other counter top, all boiling away for teas and coffees. A large square table in the centre of the kitchen hosts two other travellers, all silently tucking into their breakfasts. The table is loaded with bananas, cornflakes, bread, butter and jam, and metal jugs; one of cold milk, which happens to be warm, and one of warm milk, which is even warmer still. “Hey” I mumble, as I sit down. “Hey” they reply, not looking up from their phones or their cornflakes. I fill up on bananas and cereal, wash my plate and head out for a cigarette, and to plot a route on my phone to a nearby landmark. It is warm, 29°C, a dry heat. It’s dusty, and the air is thick with traffic pollution. The sounds and pungent smells of a couple of million people and animals getting on with their lives is drifting over the high walls into the open courtyard, and it’s all a little disorientating, intimidating and I’m procrastinating…
Half an hour passes.
Come on Charlotte, time to just go outside. Just go. Out. Up we get…
At this point, the door opens and Vitor comes out, a tall, dark haired guy in a Brazilian football shirt and shorts, so I sit right back down, hopeful that he will be friendly and not just another Hey-er. “How are you doing?” he asks, looking right at me. An open question! Score. We chat a little about our journey here and he offers me a small greenish-brown rolled leaf, tied at one end with a piece of string. I’m not entirely convinced he’s not offering me drugs, and I sit uncomfortably, wanting to be open to his generosity but at the same time thinking that this guy could be offering me pretty much anything in the world right now. The last thing I want in this sweatbox of potholes, of hidden alleyways, with these animals, these cows with sharp horns roaming the streets, dudes with snakes in their pockets jumping out on you from between parked rickshaws..the absolute last thing I want is to be any kind of high. I decline, and watch as he lights it up, then tells me excitedly, that he bought a whole packet for about 5 rupees, that’s about 6pence. He shows me the little foil pack. “It’s just tobacco” he assures me, and offers me a drag. I try it, it tastes funny, not unlike rolling tobacco just a bit more…leafy. “These are called beedi” he says, “it’s so cheap here to smoke! They sell them everywhere in the street”. My plans to quit smoking are slowly going out of the window, as I cling to the social interaction it provides, but I’m not converted to beedi just yet. We talk some more. He got here yesterday. He went to The Red Fort in the afternoon and today, he’s meeting up with Dawid, the guy from my room, and they’re going to find Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India. He invites me along. I am beyond happy to accept the invitation, and we arrange to meet in 10 minutes at the reception area.
20 minutes later, we head out into the streets, making the usual standard getting-to-know-you chit chat along the way. Dawid is from Poland, early 20’s, another one in a football shirt, travelling alone for a few weeks, having a break from his call centre job that he loves. He has a pretty solid plan, trains and hostels booked for the next week or so. He’s enthusiastic, and smiley and I like him instantly, especially after I spot his Rhymesayers tattoo. I’ve never met anyone that loved Aesop Rock and I honestly didn’t think I would meet someone that did in Delhi.
Vitor is a lawyer from Brazil, travelling alone for a few months, with plans to go to the north and spend some time with Buddhist monks in Dharamshala. He is confident and openly, brazenly inquisitive about anything and everything, and my initial awkwardness with him in the smoking area has dissolved. He is enthralled by the complexities and multitude of religions and religious sites in India, and as the three of us traipse along, following our noses to a degree and sticking out like sore thumbs, I feel safe, happy and way calmer and less worried about being alone already.