We’re speeding through the dark sky, roughly somewhere over Russia, when Alex suddenly turns to me.
“Oh darling, it’s midnight in India! Happy New Year!”
He grins and lifts up his little plastic glass of red wine to clink mine.
“Happy New Year to you too sweetheart! Cheers!”
We continue munching on our surprisingly tasty plane-food while watching the requisite in-flight movies and I feel a little thrill; whatever else happens in 2017, I’ve started it in one of the best possible ways – with my sweetheart husband while travelling to one of my favourite places in the world. India, I’m on my way!
Next morning the cool fog rouses me despite intense jet-lag; we’ve been travelling through several airports for the past seventeen hours and according to my exhausted body it’s about 1 am. However, in India, it’s nearly 7 am so, wearily, my husband and I hop into the battered old taxi and head towards Paharganj, Delhi’s infamous back-packing hot-spot where we’ll stay one night to recover from our travels.
It’s funny, no matter how many times I’ve been to this mystifying, maddening, magical country, it gets me every time. It’s incredibly hard to describe the energy of India, but I know I’m not alone when I say that it has a mysterious charm that gets inside you and tugs at your heart, sometimes gently, sometimes roughly. As if bewitched by the land, once you’ve been, it’s impossible to get it entirely out of your system afterwards, however hard you may try.
If I stay away too long I get an intense urge to return, a craving that niggles and pesters until I’m finally back and yet, I can’t handle this tough lady for too long – after several months here I have to get away again to process and absorb the inevitable life-lessons she’s pounded into me during my stay.
But enough philosophising – right now it’s been ten months since my previous visit and eighteen months since I last wandered among the hectic cities of the north, a region that could be considered an entirely different country to its southerly sister, Kerala (my last port of call).
My husband is from Jaipur you see, that dry dusty fort-bearing metropolis. They call it the Pink City but it’s not pink, it’s rusty orange. But that’s India for you in a nutshell.
New Delhi the capital, however, is our arrival spot, a place that has never fully gained my trust or affection. The majority of people here are too hardened by their environment. Never mind us whiteys even my husband dislikes dealing with Delhi-ites, they try to screw him for every possible rupee. And he’s one them. A fellow country man, who speaks their bloody language!
No, while Delhi has its charm and a fair share of delightful kind-hearted souls that I’ve been lucky enough to meet, it remains outside of my affections. Paharganj, meanwhile, is a collection-point for all the of the most intense of India’s many characteristics – noise, pollution, chaos, dirt – all of it squished into one tiny area, designed to freak out the newbies who’ve never before experienced life outside of their squeaky clean western world, and to remind the oldies of the dirt and squalor that IS life for many natives living on India’s lowest rung of the ladder.
Too many times I have eaten street food in this area and reacted violently, the mildest being cramps and explosive poop. Oh my darlings, get used to the toilet-talk, in India you lose inhibitions for unpleasant bodily functions like you lose a tan once home from holidays – slowly at first, then rapidly and without even noticing.
On a quest for a relatively cheap hotel we end up in a dingy place that cries out for a proper scrubbing with plenty of bleach. The bedsheets are clammy and sport several (hopefully) old stains while our thick blanket is worryingly grimy. And there’s no sheet to put between me and it. Budget travel in India is always a shock to the system at first, but my bank balance is resolute so we’ll just have to make do.
I’m guessing it doesn’t sound too enticing right now; you’re probably wondering where’s all that charm and allure when so far all I’ve done is complain about the low levels of hygiene and the icky risks of street food.
Well that’s just the initiation stage as India forces us to open (in my case re-open) our pudgy pampered minds, stripping away the spotless, boring, neat and tidy sheen of the west.
Life is never neat and tidy, life is messy. And India sweeps this mess right in your face as you stroll past, getting dust up your nose and dirt on your clothes. She cuts right across you in traffic forcing you to swerve, almost ramming into the bus next to you.
And, throughout it all, she offers a soul-stirring vibrancy; a beating heart the size of Jupiter pulsating throughout the chaos; an incredible energy that makes everything back home seem cold and empty and grey.
Coming to India is a chance to shed your old beliefs and rigid behaviours for an open mind and a relaxed and curious attitude (and often some comfy, colourful hippie clothes… if you’re so inclined).
She teaches tough love but it is real love and the challenge is to develop a core of strength through the struggles without losing a soft kind open heart.
Thankfully, I’m being gently eased back in. We manage to get a spare sheet and they do provide towel (a plus since we forgot to bring any) while the piece de resistance is when I shower after a much-needed snooze and there is deliciously hot water on tap that comes directly from the shower head. No bucket showers just yet then!
I’m already appreciating things that I take hugely for granted back home, including the blessing of a hot tasty meal, as I indulge in some amazing street food that evening.
Of course it may result in some uncomfortable bathroom visits later but, as I savour the incredible flavours and sauces, accompanied by a dissonant melody of car horns and the myriad shapes and colours of life dancing past, I realize I’m willing to take my chances.
India, you old tease, it’s good to be back!