The first thing you will notice when in the North of India are the cows. Cows – they are everywhere. Wherever you go, whatever you see, there will be cows. In India, especially in the north of the country, cows are regarded as holy – which means that you won´t find any beef on the menu. It also means that cows can roam the streets without being touched. Don´t get me wrong the locals have their sticks ready in case a cow goes for their fruit stalls. But other than that there is no interfering with them. If a cow blocks the traffic – so be it. The traffic waits. As long as the cow needs to leave the road.
And the love for these animals even goes further. Because of its holiness a lot of Indians will give their first food of the day to the cow on the street. Obviously that´s not enough food for an animal so there a lot of very skinny cows roaming around, eating any kind of rubbish that is lying on the street.
Rubbish – that´s another thing you will notice. Even though the South of India is far from being clean it is still shocking what awaits you in Delhi. Hills of rubbish everywhere while bins are nowhere to be found. I don´t think in all my travels I have seen that much rubbish lying around anywhere.
Last but not least – the beeping traffic. When I was 18 years old and did my driver´s license lessons I remember getting told that you only use the horn when really necessary. Well let me put it this way, in India this rule definitely doesn´t apply. Honking and beeping – nonstop. And I am deadly serious when I say NON STOP. All day, every day – beeping. First, it will drive you insane. But then after a while you will actually get used to it. Even though at times you think that your ears will fall off at any second if this guy won´t stop beeping RIGHT NOW – you will get used to it. It`s just a constant background noise in your day to day life. Well, until you realise how freaking loud it is and you think you might go mad in a second. Then you should get to your room fast and shut the door. Quiet.
Having said all this – I actually really enjoyed Delhi. Due to its reputation of being a shady, chaotic and smelling place where every single foreigner gets robbed it seems that most people just come here to go somewhere else. But when you take it for what it is and somehow embrace the smells, noises, beeping, shouting and simply being the centre of attraction, then you can have some really good moments in this city. Especially once the sun goes down and the nightlights go on. Mike and I stayed in an area called the Main Bazaar. It´s the street where most of the backpackers stay. Ergo the street where most of the hassling and haggling is happening. But once it gets dark this area turns into a street where tourists as well as locals have dinner followed by a few casual Kingfishers, the beer to drink in India. (Well, only really for all the backpackers as it is the cheapest beer available. Locals don´t even touch it.) The great thing about this time of the day is that you can actually get to know the people of Delhi a little. While any conversation in the day always ends up with you being asked to buy something or book a tour or go for a taxi ride, at night you can actually have real conversations. And I have to say, the Indians of the younger generation we got to know over a beer (not only in Delhi but also other place in India) are some of the nicest people I have ever met. They see you walking into the place and come up to you to ask if you want to sit with them and have a chat. And right there, when the absolute craziness around you is getting to you and you are thinking “Why am I travelling again?” you know why exactly you love it so much. Because what could be better than having a few beers with some strangers that will show and explain their world to you – a world that seems so unbelievable different to yours but you now have the opportunity to understand it. That is why travelling is priceless. You come as a stranger and you leave with new understanding and new friends. You also meet some absolute nutcases. Who will tell you why North Korea really is a great country and everyone there is actually really happy. That actually, we should be jealous of them. But hey, it made up half an hour of a heated discussion that ended with him going home, as he couldn´t walk straight anymore. Good times. 😉
But when we thought that that night was fun the next evening definitely topped it. In India you have different types of bars. Those that only sell food and drinks. Those that – next to food and alcohol – have a license for live music. And then there are those which have food, drinks, live music and on top of it all you are allowed to dance. (Oh yes, you understood right, there are bars with live music but hell no, don’t you dare getting up to dance). Just so you know we didn´t have any idea of these different kind of rules when we entered a bar that looked quite cheap from the outside and had a sign up that said “live music tonight”. What happened after that could only be described as one of the weirdest but at the same time funniest nights I have had in India. It looked something like this. We entered the bar and sat down in a little booth facing “the stage” – four women and one men (I am pretty sure he was the guy in charge of them all), as well as four guys with instruments, all crammed in a little space facing us and the other people in the bar. The women were sitting on barstools, the only man singing was standing next to them. And this is how it went: The people drinking in the bar (at that point we were the only foreigners in there – so pretty usual for us really) kept giving the waiters notes of money and told them who of the women they wanted to perform a song. The waiter then brought that money up to the singers and told them whom it was for. (Not that the woman actually put that in her pocket/ sari, no it all went into one bucket and who knows who actually receives it in the end.) Best thing about it: While this chosen woman was now singing her song accompanied by the choir leader, the other girls were just chilling on their phones. Yes, you heard this correctly: They were on stage, looking at their phones, texting away, probably playing videogames. I was actually surprised that no one took a phone call. And in the few seconds they didn´t look on their mobiles they were staring at the crowd. Not smiling like you would probably expect from a band member on stage, no actually staring – obviously mostly at Mike and me, what a surprise. After we got over the initial five minutes of looking at the stage and then looking at each other wondering if this was actually happening we just accepted the craziness of it and ordered two beers. The rest of the night looked something like this: Two terribly drunk Indian fellas joined our table and we started having a whiskey with them. As whiskey isn´t that lovely when drunk warm we added a few ice cubes. And then a few more. After a while the Indians got sat away from us as they apparently were too wasted to sit with western people. Twenty minutes later Mike got told off by one of the two security bouncers standing next to the stage as he was taking a picture of the madness surrounding us. At that point there was a lot of commotion happening at the table next to us. An older Indian fella who literally looked like he was 80 years old got up to do some hip swinging. And that´s when we learned that this bar was a live-music-but-no-dancing-please-bar. So over the next half an hour the bouncer got over to the table telling the old man to sit down. Which he did. Until, the second the bouncer turned around, he got up again swinging away. It was class! And while all this was going on the band on stage was still going strong: The woman who was definitely the favourite of the crowd was singing the Bollywood melodies away while the others looked bored and chilled on their phones. I swear one of the women literally sang one song all night. As you can imagine she didn´t look very happy, even less happy then all the others. And the whiskey was flowing. So were the ice cubes. (Bear that in mind for later…) It is so hard to put all this madness that was happening around us into words. It was just so Indian.
And that is the thing about India. All the things I am trying to describe to you here, all the noises, smells and rubbish, the insane traffic and harassing, the constant staring, the cows and wild dogs roaming the streets, all the culture shocks and pure madness surrounding you 24/7 – it is so difficult to bring across. That is exactly why everyone who has been to India says it`s like nowhere else in the world. If it would be describable it wouldn´t be as mad as it is. It´s just India.
The next day after waking up around noon feeling the whiskey hungover we decided to have a walk to Old Delhi with an old fort and some temples to see. As we were leaving to Agra the next day to see the Taj Mahal it was our last chance to do some sightseeing in Delhi. Oh we had no idea what awaited us. Walking down the road in the (as we thought generally right) direction towards the fort we were surrounded by the usual crazy traffic, beeping and cows. Slowly but surely we realised how we saw less and less tourists until we were the only foreigners on the street. A street that got fuller and fuller. With no fort in sight. We were definitely lost. Which didn´t bother me too much until quite a few people were coming us to us telling us that this area was not safe and we should definitely not be walking around here. Realising that we were actually lost we started to ask for the closest way to the fort. The directions we got leaded us straight into madness. A road so full I can barely describe to you how full. Imagine a road at home full with cars stuck in traffic. There is no moving forward for the cars. But I am sure you will agree with me that there is still available space – between the individual cars, between the cars and the side of the roads, the actual sidewalks. So now imagine all those spaces being filled too – with motorbikes, rickshaws, cows, dogs, people walking with moveable stalls or millions of bags. The street seems pretty full now, doesn´t it? But in India even when a road seems packed there is always still that little bit of space available where you as a simple pedestrian can walk and go your way. You might have to step over rubbish and dogs, move veeery close past the cow with its enormous horns and be prepared for a lot of body contact while squeezing past all the people coming your way. But having said that there is always a way of getting further down the street. Except this street in Old Delhi, the one we were currently walking on. There was NO space. Everything was at a standstill and even us as pedestrians with no bags simply could not find a way to walk down this damn road. It was an absolute surreal situation. And just think of all the beeping and honking happening. (As the common rule in India is: Just beep at the guy in front of you if he isn`t moving. The fact that no one was moving and beeping wouldn´t help anyone didn´t really face them.) So there we were, in the capital of India with a population of more than 9 million people, currently 50 % of them in the road we were stuck in, a constant “BEEEP” in your ears that seems to get louder every minute, you are sweating, it is hot and smelly, cow shit surrounding your feet in Flip Flops – and all you want in this world right now is to move along. But there is just nowhere to go. Welcome, you arrived in Old Delhi! (I am really selling you this city right now, aren´t I?) The next hour we tried to make our way as fast as we could towards the fort – which meant finding little tiny gaps in the traffic and moving along in what seemed snail pace. And even though all this might sound horrible to some of you I have to say I actually found it pretty funny. It was just so out of this world, such a mad situation I had never experienced before. After what seemed like a day but probably only was an hour the traffic somehow got a little bit better and we could see sunlight coming through the gaps of people, cows and cars. Half an hour later we had made it to the fort – which was just about to close. (To be honest, it didn´t bother us too much as no one of us had any energy left.) What a mad place this city was!
We decided to take a bike rickshaw back to our guesthouse as we felt we surely had done enough walking that day. To top of the iceberg of craziness the day had brought, our bike driver insisted on telling us all about his love life and how he handles his girlfriends next to his wife. Oh how I was ready to get back to our room and close the door behind me. As we had to catch the train to Agra the next morning we decided to go for food and then have an early night. Coming back from dinner Mike complained about feeling a bit weak and having a dodgy stomach. I blamed it on the food we just had, assuring him he would feel better in the morning. I couldn´t have been more wrong.
I woke up at midnight. And oh dear I felt bad. My stomach was in a pain I had never felt before. I ran to the toilet and let me put it like this (without going too much into details because let´s be honest here no one really wants to know this in detail) – I was glad we had a toilet AND a bucket in the bathroom. Thinking that at least now the food from last night wasn´t in my body anymore so it couldn´t do much more harm I went back to bed. But it didn´t turn out like I hoped. I woke up again at 1 am, ran to the bathroom and as we say in Germany “Vomited my soul out of me”. This would go on for the rest of the night: I literally woke up every hour and hardly made it to the bathroom. While my dearest boyfriend was sleeping peacefully through it all. To be fair it wouldn´t turn out much better for him. We woke up in the morning and it was his turn to run to the toilet. Then and there we had to accept it: Both of us had gotten sick – a phenomenon known in India as the Delhi Belly. No one knows exactly why but fact is that 80 % of people visiting Delhi get sick. Most people think it is because of Delhi´s very dirty tab water. All the food is prepared with tab water, the plates you are eating from are washed with it, the water coming out of the shower entering your mouth by accident – there are a hundred natural situations where you come in contact with it. And then you can obviously do it like Mike and me and have a night on the whiskeys with lots and lots of ice cubes. Smart. (Okay we don´t actually know what got us sick but if I had to bet I would bet on those lovely little ice cubes.)
Whatever it had triggered it – we were definitely sick. And while most people you meet get sick for one or two days and then naturally get better again we would be sick for a lot longer. Which we obviously didn´t know at that point. What we knew though was – we had to get on a five hours train to Agra. Remember, how I told you that trains need to be booked in advance in India? The day before Mike and I had learned of our previous mistakes and had pre booked our trains – the one going to Agra to see the Taj Mahal as well as the 12 hours overnight journey to Varanasi the night after. How ironic. The one time we finally plan and pre-book – and we get sick. Even though no one of us felt strong enough to even leave the bed we had to get this train. It wasn´t even about the money we would have lost if we didn´t show up for the train ride. No, it was the hassle of finding another empty train when we would feel healthy enough to travel. We didn´t have an option: We had to get on this train. Ever been on a train in India when feeling sick? Not an advisable thing to do. We somehow managed to get a TukTuk to the train station, get on the train, sit down on our seats and survive the journey. I am not even going into detail describing the toilet on the train. I think you might be able to imagine. What an unenjoyable few hours that were. I couldn´t wait to get off, knowing all that would come would be one more TukTuk ride to our pre-booked hostel and that would be it. I could go and lie down. Oh no, that would have been too easy. Instead we got off the train, hardly able to carry our bags, got in a taxi and told our driver the address. We then drove for 15 minutes to the general area of hostels and realised that our driver had no idea where that address was. Another 15 minutes of asking around we finally found it. Standing at reception the hostel owner told us that even though we had made an online booking he had no space for us as he was fully booked. He could put us into another hostel though where he knew the owner. “Is that a private room as well?” we asked. “Yes, same conditions, same price.” So we then got on motorbike taxis, with our bags on our back and got driven to another hostel. At the end of any possible strength left in my body we then wanted to check in our room there. When we got told that this hostel only had dorms. Let me put it this way: I have nothing at all against dorm rooms. I spent hundreds of nights in them. They are great for price and meeting other travellers. But there was no way on this planet that I was about to share another room with six other strangers when all I wanted was to lie in bed, trying to sleep while running to the bathroom every ten minutes. After a short but straight forward discussion the hostel owner realised that these two backpackers standing in front of him were in no mood to argue over a dorm room. I was literally falling apart just standing up while Mike was on the brink of leaving the hostel to go somewhere else. I think that´s when the hostel guy just gave up and gave us a dorm room just for the two of us. And finally, we could lie down. And we didn´t move again for the whole day and night. (Well, except of the bathroom runs obviously.) Hoping with all my heart that the next day we would feel better – as that would be our only chance to see the Taj Mahal. Remember? We had the overnight train booked to Varanasi the upcoming evening. So there was only this one day, these few hours, when we could go and see one of the Seven Wonders of the World – if we felt better or not.
The next day we woke up around noon – and felt even worse. Well at least I did. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 feeling the worst, I felt like a 15. But there was no way around it: If I ever wanted to see the Taj Mahal, today was the day. Imagine feeling like the worst you have ever felt, you feel like you can hardly stand up – and then you have to walk in the blistering heat in the middle of hundreds of people. Just to see a freaking building. The choices we make… But I did it. Somehow we made it there, basically because Mike who felt a little better, patiently waited when I had to sit down every five minutes and then made me walk again. And then we saw it. The mighty Taj Mahal. Waiting for the “WOW” moment. And I am sorry to say but it never arrived. Okay I might be biased here, because I literally felt like lying down on the floor and die right there and then, but still, trying to look back on it in a neutral way, I just didn´t find it that great. Don´t get me wrong it is a beautiful building. It really is. A lot of people who went there for sunrise have a completely different view about it as they saw it in a different light with hardly any tourists around. But still, for all the hype that is made over this building in my view it just didn´t stand up to its reputation. Comparing it to Machu Picchu Machu Picchu is miles ahead. Well at least in my view. We walked to the palace, did the little loop through it and out we were again. Walking back to anywhere where I could sit down. When the cutest girl came running towards me and asked for a selfie. I have to stop here a second and explain the Indian selfie phenomenon to you. Wherever you go in India you get asked to take a picture with the person who asks you. All they say is “Selfie?” and once you agree you know you are now going to stand there for a minute, trying to keep a smile on your face while around 37 pictures, excuse me, selfies, are taken – by the person who asks you, by his mate, by his mate´s cousin and whoever might be around. Until that point of our India travels I had never said no to a selfie as I didn´t want to be rude. (Later on I would lose that and say no. Oh yeah, that´s what India does to you.) But even on this day at the Taj Mahal when I really didn´t want to stand for a second longer than necessary I still said yes to the first few people asking us. But as we were walking to the bench I really didn´t want to take one more single picture. And then the little girl was running up to me asking for a selfie. So I said “Yes, but pleeeease, make it quick.” And off she was to run to her mum to get the phone. Only to come running back to say: ”Sorry, only two minutes please.” As her mum had problems turning the phone on. Oh just how cute can you be? After that sentence I would have waited hours for this little girl. Luckily I didn´t have to. We took the picture and a few seconds later I sat down again. One hour after we bought our ticket, we left one of the Seven World Wonders. Not so impressed and still sick as hell.
Which wouldn´t change for the next three days. We somehow survived the one hour TukTuk journey to the train station that night, followed by the two hours delay of our train sitting on our bags at the station with the odd rat running around. The next 12 hours were spent lying on our “bed” in the cabin of our train, trying to avoid visiting the toilet. When we woke up the next morning positions had changed: While I felt better, Mike now felt worse again. (When saying “better” I mean feeling like I might be able to walk 50 metres without feeling like collapsing.) Good job that Varanasi, the city we just had arrived in, is made out of little alleyways which don´t allow any kind of transportation vehicle in them (except a scooter). So in this maze of paths with a million signs but no real directions we had to somehow find our guesthouse – with a massive backpack on our back and one of us weaker than the other. I don´t know how we did it – but we somehow ended up where we were supposed to be. We had paid a fortune to have a room with air condition. (We normally never pay for that but in our state there was no way we were going to sweat in a 30 degrees room while trying to get better.) Then the next issue lay ahead: Food. We hadn´t really eaten anything since we got sick. Which meant our stomachs had shrunk. I never knew how terribly hard it could be to finish a bowl of clear vegetable soup. Really, I´m not kidding. A tiny bowl of clear vegetable soup. I could not for the world of me finish it. Every tiny spoon full hurt my stomach like crazy. I had less than ten spoons – and as I promised myself to have all of the soup I asked the waiter if I could take it away. You should have seen the look on his face. Priceless. Afterwards we spent half of the afternoon lying in bed only to feel worse than we did in the morning. That was when I had enough. This couldn´t go on like this – I felt like death and couldn´t see it getting any better. We were going to go to the doctor. I dragged Mike out of bed and we found a local hospital not too far from our guesthouse. Ever been to a local hospital in India? We paid 10 Cents to see the doctor, explained our symptoms to him while locals where standing all around us watching. He then wrote down five different medicines for each of us – different ones I might add though we had exactly the same problems. We then paid our medicine which only cost us two euros each and out we were again. To this day I have no idea what medicine the doctor prescribed us. But let me tell you – we took it for five days and, hallelujah, we got better.
Every day we felt a little bit better so we managed to do some of the things everyone goes to the city we were in for: Varanasi – the city with the holy river, the Ganges. We did a boat tour while the sun was rising up in the early morning, watched people perform their daily washing in the river. We saw dead bodies getting burned at the crematorium “Ghat” next to the Ganges, took part in blessing ceremonies and walked around piles of cow shit plastering the tight chaotic alleyways. Varanasi is a mad place. A chaotic and stinking but also so fascinating place. Which after days of lying in bed getting healthier we were more than ready to leave.
As Varanasi is relatively close to the border with Nepal (close in India terms means around six hours), we were going to go to spent 15 days in Nepal before returning to India. New faces, a bit of trekking and mainly some fresh air were calling us. (I couldn´t stop thinking about fresh, cold mountain air. Imagine being in the fullest, dirtiest and smelliest place you have ever been – and all you want to do is go outside for a nice, peaceful short walk. Yeah, you figure.) But our bad luck wasn´t quite over. Booking a bus took two visits at the travel agents as well as a ride to the bus station with a two hours debate there – only to find out we had to wait another three days, as the bus wasn´t running on one day and booked out on the other. It doesn´t sound so bad here now. But believe me, after one week of the worst I have ever felt all I wanted to do is leave this place where I did everything there was to do and all that was left was walk around and oh no, that is something you just don´t want to do in Varanasi. All I wanted to do was get out of there. But there was no way. We had to wait. So we waited. And waited. And waited. And then finally, after what felt so much longer than one week, we were back on the way to the bus station, hoping with everything we had that this bus would actually leave. (Because they don´t necessarily always run. Even though they are supposed to. And you already have a ticket. Oh no.) We saw the bus. We got on the bus. And then, I actually could not believe it, the bus started to drive and we left, oh we finally left Varanasi.
We were on our way to Nepal. Leaving India for a while to get some new energy. And this trip that we expected to last only two weeks would end up being double the time and quadruple of what I could have ever imagined it to be. Nepal would turn out to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life. With me doing things I never thought I would be capable of and memories that will last me a lifetime. And it all started with the drive out of Varanasi. Goodbye India, hello Nepal!
… Some impressions from Delhi…
… Some impressions from the Taj Mahal…
… Some impressions from Varanasi…
2 thoughts on “The madness of North India”
hi ho… Thanks for lovely story… well, sorry for ur dehli-belly.. that was a pretty hard time. Usually, I don’t read blocks… and if, then mostly not until the end… but I read urs until the end 🙂 As it’s nicely written. I’m very lucky, that I belong to the 20%, which never went sick in Dehli… And I had many time the chance… been there 11 times… or elswhere in India (23 visits – 9 states visited)
I really love, how u described all the situations u been in…it brings it really to the point.
Cool, that u did a walk through old-dehli… I love it, becoz it’s really like no where else… it’s so incredible and so strange, but fascinating in the same time… and I like to go every time there, when I ‘m in Dehli…
Wish u safe travels, and hope ur Dehli-belly was once-a-life story..
Hi Martin 🙂 Thanks a lot for your comment! I love hearing back from people who enjoyed reading my blog. Yeah, Delhi was crazy, so hard but so good at the same time. Haven’t been sick again since, so fingers crossed 😉 India is a mad place isn’t it? I wish you all the best and I hope you will read and enjoy my upcoming travel stories as well!