For the next few days I waited and fretted. Clearly I needed divine help! While reading through one of my stack of books on India, I learned that Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, was called upon to use his little ax when there are obstacles along the path. “Dear Ganesha,” I implored, “when I get to India I will make a special pilgrimage to you, but please, first of all you have got to get me there.” I was due to leave on the 4th February.
On February 3rd, the courier arrived with my visa, passport and all, and I had to restrain myself from kissing him!
From Malaga to Paris and Paris to Delhi, I felt like I was in a dream. I dare say the French wine helped. At one point I looked out of the window when everyone was asleep and below me were snowy mountains: miles and miles of glistening white one peak after another. Somewhere over Pakistan, I fell asleep.
Exiting an airport is always disorienting. I learned from my guidebook that the best way to hire a taxi was to get a pre-paid ticket, which I dutifully did, but I still didn’t know quite how it all worked. “How do I know which one is mine?” I asked. “Just take any one that is black and yellow.”
Well, there were black and yellow ones, and yellow and black ones, and some mostly yellow and some mostly black, and immediately I exited I was surrounded by taxi drivers and touts. My first instinct was to take the first one in line, but before I knew it a young man was convincing me that that one was not the one I wanted and was wheeling my backpack case off towards the back of the line to a much newer taxi. The driver asked me for my ticket. Now, I had been told to hang on to the ticket until we reached my destination, but this driver was insisting that I give it to him straightaway, so just as fast as they were loading up my case, I was unloading it!
In the end, I took the oldest and most rickety open taxi (a sort-of bloated tuk-tuk) I could find. The ceiling was lined with a cork sheet, sagging in most places so that it touched the top of my head. Most uncomfortable. The seats were upholstered in curtain fabric. There was a luminous, multi-coloured plastic god on the dashboard, not one that I recognized. The driver’s clothes looked like they had been deliberately wrinkled after washing and on his head he wore a lurid green baseball hat with the word “Happy” written on it. And little hearts. Happy …? I was ecstatic!
I was actually in India, avoiding midnight cows at top speed, holding on for dear life and loving every second.
On the back of the taxi was written HORN PLEASE in big yellow letters. I soon found out why. There were so many cars on the road that it was hard to believe that it was past midnight. Almost every commercial vehicle had the same Horn Please written on the back and as my taxi dodged the traffic like an old lady with a shopping bag, my driver and every other one was using the horn constantly, not out of aggression, but as a way to let others know that we were passing. In fact, the way horns have always been meant to be used.
The air was so polluted that I had to wrap my scarf around my mouth, but I must have got used to it very quickly because this was the only occasion I felt it necessary to protect myself.
From the cacophony of New Delhi’s highways, we found ourselves in Karol Bagh where my hotel was. I assumed that all I had to do was give the hotel’s address to my driver; unfortunately I had not taken into account the very size of the city (14,000,000 population) and the number of hotels. Not only that but the Karol Bagh area appeared to have been deserted: there were piles of rubbish everywhere, and dogs, but no people to ask. So we just sat in silence, waiting. In the end the driver went off to another hotel to enquire there. Meanwhile I sat in the taxi, with case, feeling … well, a bit vulnerable to tell the truth! But not scared. Not one bit. I was preparing to have the time of my life …
Next: Hotel Perfect