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Don’t Chicken out of India

‘How much is a taxi to Andheri Station?’ I asked. The man at the taxi office wanted to charge me 120 Rupees, but I was having none of it. My guidebook said it should be around forty Rupees and I suspected a rip off.
I had just arrived at the airport in Bombay (or Mumbai as it is now officially called) after flying in from London. I thought I would be tired after the long flight but I wasn’t. So I made my way out of the airport and, having endured the pointless red tape that is so typical for India, I went in search for cheap transport to the nearest station – Andheri.

I really didn’t want to haggle about the taxi fare in front of all the queuing Indians. It was too early for that. I walked over to the nearby rickshaws and ended up paying Rs80 for the short ride. A driver that refuses to use the meter is nothing unusual in India and this particular one had easy prey in a new-arrival like me. Oh well, it was only a pound.

Once out of the rickshaw I made my way through stalls and traders to the ticket office. This was when it really hit me. You are in India! The smells, the dirt, the sounds, the beggars and unknown language; it was so exciting and so frightening.  

I was very cautious to keep my luggage in sight all the time, my backpack and a small rucksack. The ticket office at the station was simple but at least the signs were in English as well as Hindi. This isn’t always the case and you will often have a bit of a problem finding the right platform. The ticket into the centre of Bombay cost a pittance (9 Rs) and soon I sat in a carriage with open doors among a crowd of Indians commuting into town. Having landed at around nine in the morning, I had all day to get myself sorted. If you can, try and do the same. This way you will have time to explore and find a hotel to your liking, rather than having to accept the first offer of a shady hello-my-friend person on the street. 

If you are on an organised trip you won’t have to think of that, of course. But if you go backpacking like I did you better now where you want to go from the airport and how to get there. There are a number of guidebooks that all offer excellent advice. I used A Rough Guide to India.

At this point I have to say a word about the helpfulness of Indians. It is undeniably true that in most cases you will be expected to give money for every service or favour, even if you didn’t want it! But there are exceptions to the rule, especially among more affluent Indians who don’t need your money and are proud of this fact. I had asked a few people on the train, ‘How many stops to Central Station?’, when one passenger handed me a piece of paper on which he had been writing. It turned out he had written a list of all stations the train would pass on its way to Mumbai Central, just for me. I read through it and by the time I looked up to thank the young man, he had gone.

One thing you will have to get used to in India is that they have their own rules for queuing. The same applies to getting information, making reservation and buying tickets at the station. It can take a long time and you may well be told to ‘come back

 tomorrow’. I was lucky. I found myself a very well English speaking guide who helped me get what I needed for planning my onward journey. He than spent the rest of the day guiding me to a hotel, showing me different sites and I also took him for a meal. Of course he expected a tip for it and I was willing to pay him handsomely. I found it a blessing to have someone introduce me to this most foreign of places and for him I was a blessing too – I probably gave him more than he normally earned in a month.

I won’t tell you about my hotel, because it was overpriced and the staff unfriendly – typical for hotels in Mumbai, though you will find much better examples else where in India.

Don’t expect the kind of hospitality you would expect at home. While some Indian hotel owners are lovely, there is, unfortunately, also a large number who seemingly have never heard of hospitality. So when they need to see your passport on check-in, a formality required under some law or other from 1950-something, they may well just bark at you ‘Passport!’ Similarly don’t expect a ‘thank you’ when you hand over your money. If you stick to places recommended in your guidebook however, you will probably be able to avoid most of these.

On that first night a strange mood overcame me. I had been out of my hotel to get some food for the next day’s coach journey and I admit I hated Bombay. I hated the strange smells, or should I say stinks, I hated the dirt, the noise outside, in short everything I had found so exciting earlier that day. I decided to either go straight back onto the plane or to spend all my time in Goa with other western tourists. It was that bad. Many tourists who travel alone experience this. I think it’s the strangeness of the place and the loneliness that can overcome you. However, consider that on arrival in India, you are likely to see the worst side of it first: large, dirty, stinking, overcrowded cities. It’s the same whatever city you fly into. Don’t let this put you off. I promise you will have a fabulous time once you are on your train or coach to a smaller place and maybe you can even join some other tourists.

I felt very different as soon as I woke up the next day, fresh and looking forward to new adventures. I walked through the already hot streets, pass dirty stalls, street vendors and through the dense traffic to the bus station. Things only got better from there. I took a coach to the Rajasthani city of Udaipur and from there explored other popular places around Rajasthan. I also saw the Himalayas and eventually ended my trip with a week in Goa, before returning to Bombay for the flight home. The city didn’t look any prettier, but it was a lot less frightening and I felt a lot more confident.

On my travels I heard plenty of stories of people who went straight back on the plane after they got their first impression of India, which is normally Delhi or Mumbai. I can only say, don’t. Outside the large cities you will discover the real India. People will share food with you on the train, you will find real hospitality, hotel owners who actually care about you and, of course, you will meet other tourists to share and spent time with. Enjoy your time!

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