India Part I / The one where I flew to India with a complete stranger

Two weeks after meeting, Charles and I were stood side by side at Gatwick airport ready to board our fight to India. It was December and I had just left my job as PA to the owner of an advertising agency. I had always wanted to travel through India and saw now as the perfect time. No longer wishing to pursue the role of PA to another industry figure, I would take this time to consider my next career move. Charles had been as keen as I was to escape London over Christmas. When I suggested, on our second meeting, that we head to India, he didn’t hesitate for a moment.

Beyond the flight to Mumbai and the first night in a hotel, we hadn’t made any further plans. Neither of us would take a phone. The year was 2000, so I assume this was due to the exorbitant cost of overseas calls. Internet use was unthinkable. I had packed a second hand copy of a Lonely Planet book I had found at Portobello Market and had already bookmarked places that sounded interesting. On several pages were handwritten notes from the previous owner, mostly recommendations of routes along the west coast. On the flight, we had agreed to spend a short time in Mumbai, travel down the west coast through Goa and then further along to Kerala.

Our plane touched down in India before sunrise. Although the seatbelt signs were still illuminated, the predominantly Indian passengers walked the aisles, hastily collecting bags, rounding up family and friends. I noticed that most of the passengers were travelling in large groups; I figured due to the time of year, many had been visiting relatives in the UK over the festive holiday period. Charles and I waited for the scrum of people to push past us before collecting our bags from the overhead compartments. Most of the Indian passengers spoke with loud voices, trying to be heard over one another as they scooped up babies and relatives and maneuvered their way to the front of the cabin.

There was none of the polite queuing or organisation that is usually expected at international airports. Crowds formed in every area of the relatively small airport and trying to make sense of anything around me required concentration levels that I was finding hard to muster. I hadn’t slept well on the flight. The Indian people were already full of life at such an early hour and I wondered if they woke every morning raring to take on another day. It would surely help the UK economy if the Brits could be so enthusiastic in the morning. The energy of the people around me was something to admire, but it soon became clear that their enthusiasm didn’t match their organisational skills. Attempts to recover our belongings from the arrivals hall became a struggle. Having waited an extraordinary length of time for our suitcases, we finally made our way out of the airport and into the culture shock of a lifetime.

Bustling crowds congregated outside Mumbai airport. The heat, even at that early hour, hit my face hard as the doors opened to the street outside. The smell was like nothing I had experienced before. Wild spices and smog combined in a confusing way that left me unable to decide if I loved or hated it. My long blonde hair and green eyes created a level of inquisitive attention I was unused to. There was a slight feeling of unease as Charles and I pushed through the hundreds of people surrounding the building; workers, commuters, beggars and those trying to sell me everything and anything I didn’t need.

Charles had walked ahead, leaving me to fend off the undesired, predominantly male, attention. This was the first warning sign that perhaps I had chosen the wrong travel partner for such a trip. We walked towards a bus station in an attempt to make our way into central Mumbai. With no signs written in English at the time, I set about asking strangers if they could guide us to the correct bus. For what felt like an hour in the extreme heat, my requests for assistance were mostly ignored, no doubt due to the language barrier. Across the street from the bus station I saw an elegant Indian man wearing a crisp white shirt and chinos. Deciding he was going to be my only hope in making sense of any direction in the chaos, I made my way to where he was standing – not an easy feat in the cat and mouse game between car and pedestrian. His English was fluent and he told us he would also be taking a bus into central Mumbai. He instructed us to follow him. Once on the bus, I squeezed myself into a small gap on an already cramped bench, relieved that soon we would be away from the intensity of the crowds outside the airport.

It became abundantly clear that I hadn’t read a single word about the city of Mumbai before my arrival. Once in the centre, the crowds were infinitely more extreme than I had experienced at the airport and the overwhelming attention had intensified tenfold. It was clear the attention was harmless and simply due to our differences. I was neither intimidated nor frightened, instead excitedly taking in the sensory overload of a city that was like no other I had visited before. The colours surrounding my every turn were visually the most beautiful I had ever seen. The energy of the city was infectious. The food stalls that were now setting up gave off an inviting aroma of varying spices and meats frying on the open topped metal blocks lining the streets.

Charles and I walked through the main streets before turning off into the smaller side alleys to get a closer look at the world hiding behind the central shopping areas. It was a city clearly struggling with extreme poverty, despair in the many faces that watched closely as we walked by. Children surrounded our path with hands stretched out, begging for any sum of money or goods we may have that could help them. A small boy with torn, filthy clothing was the most persistent of the young crowd that followed as we walked slowly through the streets. He explained, in a few basic English words, that his sister had been attacked with acid and that he needed more help than the others. He pointed to a girl sitting quietly next to a mountain of debris from a nearby building. Her face was motionless and her scars clearly visible, even from the distance where we were standing. He beckoned her to come over. As she slowly made her way to us, the damage from the acid that had covered the entire left side of her body was so raw that I could not control the tears that began streaming down my face. A beautiful deep brown right eye contrasted with the clear blue left one. The erosion of the skin on her arms had not yet healed and yellow puss was visibly seeping from her wounds. I handed over the rupees I had in my bag to the boy. An English speaking man walked past and encouraged us to walk with him from the back streets, returning to the main roads that now seemed even more crowded. We were not to give any more money, he said. The children were often part of a system set up by gangs and were unlikely to benefit from whatever currency they returned with each day. He explained that many children had been intentionally doused with acid, or their limbs amputated. The gangs controlled them.

Previously sheltered from knowledge of this level of abuse, I found it hard to be in the city. To see the reality of what was happening to the hundreds of street children we passed that morning. Charles seemed strangely unaffected, his words that we ‘should be very Colonial and ignore these people’ jarred me. I knew I couldn’t stay with him. I wanted to experience the true India, not tourist spots and the Four Seasons. It was clear in my mind that I would go forward alone, but first I needed the assistance of a partner, no matter how useless, to get me out of the city.

We both wanted to leave Mumbai that afternoon rather than stay for the night. It was agreed that we would travel by train the 15 hours to Goa after we had stopped for something to eat. Over lunch in a packed restaurant, we made further plans for our next destination. Opening the guidebook, I closed my eyes and struck down on a map of Goa with the tip of a pencil. The led marking had determined our next stop. Before embarking on this trip, Charles and I had been confident that it would be simple to navigate our way around, with friendly locals helping us if we needed guidance. Naivety was apparently a theme for this trip and our assumptions were quickly proven wrong.

I found that everything took three times as long as planned, from ordering food to simple directions. What should have taken thirty minutes to reach the main train station took us almost three hours. Wrong turns, misunderstandings and a general lack of any navigational skills between us meant our arrival at the station was closer to sundown than the mid-afternoon we had hoped for.

We reached Victoria Terminus at sunset. The building itself was more beautiful than I had expected, its imposing size and Gothic architecture allowed me to see another side of the city. I would have only remembered Mumbai for its filthy streets and poverty had we not seen this striking building and surrounding area. Once inside the station, we explained to one of the many helpful railway staff that we intended to travel to Goa. We were hurriedly directed to a platform where a train would be leaving within minutes. The trains were infrequent, particularly in the evening, so we could feel the urgency and began to run through the station. It felt like a scene from a movie, seeing the main characters run for a departing train. The light from the late afternoon sun penetrated thick clouds of steam rising from the engines of the huge aged trains. As the train pulled out of the station without us on board, the staff encouraged us to throw our bags through the open doorway of the last carriage and pull ourselves up from the platform. I had never taken such a risk, jumping onto a moving train, but remember the adrenaline rushing through my body as I was pulled inside by a fellow passenger. The next 15 hours would be spent on a train with no doors, slats for windows and the piercing sound of heavy steel as the ageing joints of the train rubbed together with every turn of the wheels.

On boarding the train, we had been led to a carriage that had, in part, been unofficially reserved for non-Indian travellers. On one side, three Israeli men played cards, their huge bags taking up much of the space on the adjoining seats. Close by, a Danish couple quietly rested against one another, looking drained from what I imagined to be months in the country.

People moved throughout the train continuously. Although we stopped at only a handful of stations on the route to Goa, such was the level of movement within the carriage, it felt as if new passengers were boarding at regular intervals. The carriages were filthy, dust and dirt having built up on the dated propeller fans that hung from the ceiling. It was impossible to escape the unbearable smell of stale urine that emitted from the holes in the floor that acted as toilets. Saloon style doors were the only things to conceal passengers as they used the small areas in each carriage that had been loosely labelled as bathrooms. The heat from the day would only have made the smell worse, so it was a small positive that we were travelling overnight.

The long benches throughout the carriages were hung on two levels, creating a bunkbed effect. I took a top bunk, deciding that I would be less exposed to the disruption caused by passengers walking through the train. With the open doorways, window frames without glass and thick layers of dust on the fans that were now at eye level, I’m unsure there would have been a bunk level that was preferable to the other. I was exhausted, but it was impossible to sleep. The Israeli travellers were now drinking from large bottles of whiskey, becoming more animated by the minute. Families of Indians, most that had boarded the train in Mumbai, were loudly talking amongst themselves and showed no sign that they intended to rest overnight. With part of my bag placed under my head, I tried to switch off from the clamorous surroundings and hoped to sleep for at least an hour or two before sunrise.