Woke up hungover and dehydrated yet again. Hangovers are always worse in hot countries because you sweat all your water out in the night and your liver has a nightmare. I usually wake up just as drunk as I went to bed. Got showered and dressed and ate something from the hostel kitchen – I forget the name but it was an Indian wrap and it was astoundingly delicious.
Chatted to this guy from Preston called Sam who apparently knew me from the drunken evening before. He went to great lengths describing his aggressive diarrhoea to me, until he realised that the pretty Spanish-looking girl sitting next to him could, in fact, speak English. At the point he turned on the charm and started detailing his travels, as opposed to the movements of his bowels.
I said goodbye and went to get my train to Agra. Got a tuk tuk for 200 rupees to the train station, which is a rip off but I couldn’t be arsed haggling. Bartering here is strange – 200 rupees is about €2.50, an absolute steal for a 15 minute cab ride back home. However locals pay something like 40 rupees. I’m happy to pay more than locals of course; it feeds the economy and will hopefully one day improve their living conditions. It’s just that I’d rather not be taken for a fool because I am western, and charged 5 times more. So I haggle sometimes, but not too aggressively. It feels somewhat morally vacuous to split hairs over 15 cents.
Being white (or non-India in general, but being white makes you stick out far more) is strange here and, I think, the strangeness is a very important experience. I’ve never truly been a minority before, with the exception being Vietnam and Cuba. Walking through the Delhi train station, I walked like I knew where I was going of course, because you must never look lost lest you want to be hassled by ten thousand swindlers, but it was a dizzying experience. I was the only person there who wasn’t Indian; all sari-wrapped, bustling, suitcase hauling, squatting, chatting, chapatti-chompin’, looking completely at ease. I have found myself keeping an eye out for white people in crowded areas, purely because it means that they are a lost helpless tourist too, and it’s a comfort to know you’re not the only one within a hundred miles who doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.
There was a baggage scanner and a body scanner which was beeping for literally everyone, but there was no guard to frisk people, so the whole thing was entirely redundant. The train was the Goa Express, leaving at 3.30pm. It was already in the station at 3, when I arrived, which made me dubious as to whether it was the right train. I waited until 3.28pm to board, in case it was indeed the wrong train and I was whisked away unwillingly into the depths of India.
My bunk was number 7, and I arrived at it to find six or seven Indian men sitting on it sharing a curry and chatting amiably. They said hello to me and smiled as I scurried into their midst and found a bunk against the window. Someone was already in my bunk and had spilled quite a lot of onion on it, and thankfully he said he would have my bed and I could have his. I used my backpack as a pillow and lay down, gazing out of the window at the explosion that is New Delhi.
As the train moved off, I saw the most abject poverty I’ve ever witnessed in all my life. I saw packs of stray dogs prowling mounds of rotten garbage, rivers cloudy and brown and swimming with old plastic, dry brick houses with crumbled walls and mismatched roofs, no windows, no door, nothing inside except a rug with someone sleeping on it, children stepping through the waste, nothing, not a penny in the world, poor bastards, and yet: the colours. The saris! I was amazed by the dignity of the poorest Indian women as they go about their days, existing in conditions so bad that any Westerner would be dead in a week, and the whole time they are clad in the brightest, gayest blues, pinks, greens, the most savage reds you can imagine, all flecked with silver and gold.
This leads me onto a conversation I had last night: depression in India. I’ve asked a few locals now about depression, and they don’t even seem to know of it as a concept. One guy I asked told me that his brother was sad last week because he lost his job. Another was sad because he had had an argument with his mother. There is none of the empty, hollow dread that pervades Western society. I told my friend Samir last night that everybody out west is sad, despite all the money they have. He couldn’t believe it. He theorised that Indians’ focus on family and religion could be the reason they do not feel sad. This is something I’ll be seeking to discover more about, because it fascinates me.
The train ride was everything you’d expect; rumbling, loud, middling discomfort. There were lots of snacks served by a constant rotation of uniformed young men; tea, chocolate, chapattis, curry, samosas, and more. I’ve been warned not to eat the train food, however. It’s left out a long time and can fuck you up. Travelling across India time goes quick, because there is so much to stare out beyond the window. A billion people, and it shows. There is life and madness everywhere; every town is packed, markets are heaving, cows are everywhere, and pigs, and dogs, and cats, roaming the alleys.
I arrived in Agra at 5.30, and had made friends with my bunk-stealing Indian dudes. I bid them farewell and crossed the station, where I was immediately swept up by a young guy asking where my hostel was. I told him and he sorted me out a tuk tuk, driven by a clueless looking old man with misty eyes. I didn’t trust that he actually knew where my hostel was, so I asked him to call them. He handed me his phone to dial the number, but it didn’t work. So, I had no choice but to take him at his non-English word, and climb in.
He was lying after all, the git. Took me to a touristy-looking area and pulled over and said ‘do you know where your hostel is’, for fuck’s sake. Had to ask a bunch of other tuk tuk drivers before we finally found Big Brother Hostel. And let me tell you: though the photos look very charming, Big Brother hostel is, without doubt, shit. The bedroom I was in was dirty, and had an en suite squat toilet – a big porcelain hole that you poo in – and in the same room as the poo-hole, a shower-cum-wet room. Dysentery central. Brilliant.
There was dust storm as I was arriving, which turned the sky brown, and caused a power cut as I was checking in. Plunged into darkness, we completed the process by torchlight. I slung my bags into my blackened bedroom, and went to eat dinner on the roof; pasta, courtesy of the hostel. I met a few cool people, a few weird people, and ended the evening with a stroll through Agra towards the Taj. It was shut of course, and after a kilometre walk I was greeted with two towering wooden gates that I couldn’t see through, so I received not a peep of the Taj.
Walked home, hung out on the roof a little longer, then went to bed at 9pm, because the Taj Mahal opens at 6am, and people queue up from 5 – only time to get photographs when it isn’t packed with tourists. Three days in, and India does noooot let up.