Journey to India

It’s been over three years since I posted to this blog, but I finally found the opportunity and motivation to write again. Around six months ago I was looking at Carbon Based Lifeforms’ concert schedule and was surprised to see that they were playing at a music festival in the Himalayas. I thought it would be an amazing experience so I bought tickets and looked forward to October. Unfortunately, two months ago I received an email from the festival stating it had been cancelled due to “unsolved safety issues”.

As an aside, it’s been an unlucky year for music festivals for me. I was planning on going to Austin Psych Fest which was cancelled due to extreme flooding and monsoon-like weather. Then I was planning on going to a music festival on an island above the Arctic Circle in Norway, but I wasn’t able to go to that either since I had just started a new job at Google. And then this happened.

Well, I decided to go to India anyway.

I woke up at 4 am the day before I was scheduled to leave and realized that I had completely forgotten to get a visa! So I jumped on the Indian e-tourist visa website and was dismayed to learn that you need to apply for a visa at least 4 days in advance. Undeterred, I set the entry date to 4 days in the future and decided I would spend a couple days in Hong Kong (my layover airport) before entering India. To my surprise, less than 12 hours after I applied I received an email that the visa had been granted—and it was valid for entry as early as the next day! I cancelled the extra flight and decided to continue with the original plan, albeit hesitantly because I was worried about being deported due to not applying for the visa 4 days in advance.

This was the first time I had flown on Cathay Pacific. I had heard that it’s a 5-star airline, but I can now say that they well and truly deserve that moniker. Somehow I got an automatic upgrade to “Premium Economy” class. I boarded the aircraft in the separate line for premium customers, bypassing hundreds of people in line for regular economy class. Once onboard, the flight attendants brought orange juice, champagne, and a fancy menu for lunch, dinner, and drinks. Both lunch and dinner were excellent. Who knew that prawns and scallops could be enjoyed at 50,000 ft?

You can start smelling the air pollution before your plane touches down in Delhi. The city is covered in dense smog so you can barely see anything, either.

I arrived at immigration feeling nervous about my visa situation. Especially with the Deportee Room right behind the immigration officers—and a couple worried people waiting inside. Luckily, I passed through without issue. A huge sigh of relief.

Once I got out of the airport it was about 12 am. My train to Agra departed at 6 am, and to save some money I had decided not to book a hotel room. So I had to figure out how to kill 6 hours in the early New Delhi morning. I figured it would be no big deal, I’d find a cool New Delhi bar/lounge and hang out for a few hours. Big mistake. After a bit of googling I realized there’s nothing open in Delhi at 12 am, let alone 3 or 4 am. So I revised my plan and figured I would take the opportunity to check out the tourist attractions while they weren’t so crowded.

I requested an Uber to the Delhi Gate. Immediately after it was confirmed, a heavily accented gentleman starts shouting at me in English, but for all intents and purposes it could have been Chinese. I couldn’t understand a word this guy was saying. Eventually he hangs up and drives for 20 minutes to get to my location. Once he’s there, he calls me up again and it’s the same story. I have no idea what he’s saying, I don’t see his car, and I’d been awake for 24 hours. I cancelled the Uber and decided to take a taxi instead.

Taxi ride into New Delhi
Taxi ride into New Delhi

I figured with the taxi, it’s best to request a well-known destination so I asked the driver to take me to the train station. Once I get there, I see literally hundreds of people laying on the street outside of the station. Inside, there’s a guy with a water hose spraying down the floor and the people, too. I’m standing there awestruck by this whole scene when an authoritative gentleman approaches me and asks to see my ticket. Needless to say, I ignored this guy and proceeded into the station.

…Just kidding. I handed the guy my ticket, and he looks it over and explains that my train has been cancelled. What I should do is head over to the ticket office (which is in another building, but close by), and they’ll give me a full refund and help me book another train to Agra. He points me in the direction of the ticket office and walks away. I’m still standing there dumbfounded and he turns around and says, “OK, I’ll show you.” He leads me away from the station to a taxi, which is when I started to realize that things were amiss. The guy explains the situation to the taxi driver and the taxi driver responds with a price of 500 rupees (which is what the 30 minute ride from the airport cost). The guy says “500, no. It must be 400” and the taxi driver says OK. I jump in the cab and once we’d left the station, ask the driver to let me out. The driver says “No, very dangerous around here, Hindu-Muslim violence here.” After years of indoctrination as an American I’m terrified at the mere mention of religious violence, so I decide it’s better to stay in the taxi and see where I end up. We end up at a travel agency a couple km from the train station, and some guy comes out. Before he can say anything I pay the cab driver his 500 and start walking away. Then a third guy follows me and explains how dangerous it is for me as a foreigner to be walking around here. He says, “It’s not about the money, it’s dangerous for you, there’s mafia around here. See those people in the motorcycle? Mafia!”

Well, I decided to venture forth into this dangerous territory anyway. I pass by piles of garbage, people sleeping on the sidewalk, and packs of wild dogs, but there’s no sign of mafia activity or religious violence. Eventually I get to Connaught Place, which I had figured to be the center of activity in New Delhi. Surely something would be open in Connaught Place.

Nope. Turns out, Connaught Place is completely dead at 2 in the morning. I still had 4 hours to kill at this point, so with no other options, I figured I’d just roam around for awhile. Honestly, walking around Connaught Place was pretty frightening, especially with thoughts of kidnapping and terrorism fresh in my mind. There’s packs of wild dogs roaming around, barking and wheezing due to the pollution. There’s rats and mice crawling over everything, mostly staying in the shadows but sometimes scurrying into the open. There’s dogs sleeping on top of cars. There’s hundreds of dogs and people sleeping on the sidewalks. Even the on-duty security guards are sleeping on the sidewalks at 3 am, presumably unbeknownst to their employers. There are the largest swarms of flies you’ve ever seen under the street lights. And there’s all these closed western stores and restaurants, like H&M and McDonalds.

Dogs sleeping in Connaught Place at 3am
Dogs sleeping in Connaught Place at 3am

At around 3:30 I’m drenched in sweat and I finally find the one place that’s open, a convenience store called Twenty Four Hours. I buy some desperately-needed water and sit down outside of the store, where a group of rowdy old Indians are also hanging out. I’m sitting there trying to figure out what to do for the next two and a half hours when three girls approach me and say they’ve seen me before. Not being in the mood, I say that’s impossible and they walk away. Then a guy comes up to me and keeps asking, “Enjoy? Enjoy? Enjoy?”, and finally after about 30 seconds completes the question: “Enjoy… sex?”. I say no and he leaves. Then about 5 minutes later, another guy starts trying to strike up a conversation with me. I’m sitting there trying to end the conversation any way I can. He finally becomes much more direct with his questions and I explain that I’m not interested.

Luckily at this point my googling strikes gold, and I discover that there’s an executive lounge at the train station open 24/7. I request an Uber (which again immediately tries to call me for some reason) and leave Connaught Place without being abducted or murdered.

The lounge was fantastic, a true oasis in the desert. Free tea, coffee, wifi—exactly what I needed at that point. After booking all of my accommodations for the rest of the trip, I glance at the clock and realize I only have 10 minutes left before my train leaves, so I grab my stuff and run over to platform 1. It boggles the mind that there are hundreds of people waiting outside that can’t afford the $3 to spend a couple hours in there.

The contrast between rich and poor in India was even more apparent from my Executive Class window. I’ve seen things like this before in Thailand and elsewhere but the scale in India was unprecedented. We passed by hundreds of people taking a shit on the train tracks. Most of the buildings I saw were falling apart and practically built on top of each other, and none of them were fully enclosed. We passed by trains that were so crowded, people were literally hanging onto the doors outside of the train. Meanwhile I’m sitting here in the EC car with people wearing suits and gold watches working on their MacBooks… the contrast was stark for sure.

Eventually breakfast was served: an omelette with toast and corn flakes doused in hot milk. I assume it was warm because it was milk solids hydrated with boiled water. The train lived up to its reputation as the “second fastest in India”: shortly after I had finished eating, we arrived in Agra.