ON THE HIPPIE TRAIL

RETURN TO DELHI

Mandi’s bus station was teeming with people all wanting to go somewhere, including many Ladakhis in dark red chubas, tall hats and curly-toed boots.  Every bus that came in was rushed by a frantic crowd, all attempting to determine its destination by shouting at the driver.  At 10:30 the Simla bus arrived and by the time I had overseen the securing of our bags on the roof all the seats had been taken and we were forced to sit on two wooden crates in the aisle.  It was another bus ride from hell and Janette was relieved to be given a seat at the front by the driver when we stopped for lunch at Bilaspur.  As we climbed towards Simla the temperature gradually dropped and, with every bump and vibration of the bus, my backside grew increasingly tender.  When the engine stopped at our destination at around six o’clock I couldn’t wait to get off but wasn’t prepared for how intensely cold it was going to be.  The slushy snow on the ground had melted and frozen again and the bitter, icy wind cut like a blade.  After calling at one hotel, only to be told that it was full, we were approached by a guy who said that he knew a place, The Marine Hotel, where we would definitely get a room.  We followed him for ages through the slippery streets until, freezing our asses off and with no hotel in sight, Janette’s patience gave out and she began screaming at him.  Having lugged our bags all around the town we gave up on the mythical Marine Hotel, turned our backs on our guide, and headed for the Government Holiday Home where we had been made so very welcome on our previous visit to Simla.  After dumping our bags in the room we trudged out and had dinner in a warm restaurant before slip-sliding back in a heavy snowstorm.  That night we semi-slept, layered in all the clothes we had with us, in our sleeping bags and wrapped in two hotel blankets plus the room’s door curtain.

On awaking we found that six inches of snow had fallen in the night and the temperature was well below zero.  We decided that the most sensible course of action was to take the narrow-gauge mountain train down to Kalka and from there to catch the first train to Delhi.  Annoyingly, the one o’clock train was cancelled because of the snow and we were told that the next departure would be at 5:45pm.  Leaving our bags at the railway station we carefully navigated our way through the meandering, snow-covered streets of the hillside bazaars.  I say carefully, because the new leather soles of our Tibetan boots were completely smooth.  It was like going uphill in skis and on more than one occasion Janette landed on her backside in the snow, much to the amusement of the locals.  We struggled up to the Mall and passed an hour in the post office attempting to send letters back home.  I could never decide whether the desk clerks in Indian post offices were purposely obtrusive or simply incompetent but once again it took a screaming Janette, this time threatening to report them all to the postmaster, to get our business concluded.

The remainder of the day was spent trudging around in the cold trying to avoid being hit by snowballs and lumps of ice.  It is one thing to have a fun snowball fight with a bunch of kids and it is quite another to be picked out as a target by infantile middle-class Indian males of a similar age to me.  After being hit hard on the side of the head by a large lump of ice I was ready to kill the next fucker who even looked like he might be thinking about it.  Luckily we bumped into a family of Tibetans who had seen our boots and wanted to let us know how pleased they were to see us wearing them.  They were sweet, friendly, smiling people and this encounter thawed my anger somewhat.  Descending back to railway station level we had a half-decent meal in a filthy hovel of a restaurant and then went to get the train.  The wooden carriage had wooden benches and wooden window shutters that the icy night air whistled through.  In daylight I am sure the views would have been amazing but the four hours we spent in that rattling packing case were simply cold and uncomfortable.  The Delhi Express was waiting at Kalka Station and we jumped straight on for the eight hour, all night journey to Delhi.

Arriving at 7:30am, an hour late, at New Delhi railway station, we immediately jumped into a trishaw and asked the guy to take us to the Eagle Hotel.  It felt good to be in the familiar streets of Old Delhi, like somehow coming home.  Although I knew from experience that the fare should have been 1Rupee from the station to the hotel I was too tired to argue when, on arrival, I was asked politely for twice that amount.  The rickshaw-wallah looked hungry and no doubt had an equally hungry family to feed.  We staggered into the familiar reception area to find the manager fast asleep across two, pushed-together, chairs.  I woke him up and he informed us that, although there wasn’t a room available immediately, one would become vacant in a couple of hours.  We left our bags and had a fried egg breakfast in the downstairs ‘Esspresso Coffee Bar’.  The waiter was, rather unbelievably, dirtier and slower than he had been the last time we were there.  He had the look of a man who was losing all momentum and would grind to a complete halt in the not-too-distant future.  The atmosphere was too depressing, even the flies seemed half asleep, so we hung around in the white-tiled lobby of the Eagle until a room was vacated and we could move our bags in.  Room 20 on the third floor, at 12Rupees a night, was bigger than the one we’d occupied on our previous stay but still about as basic as you could get.  It was sparsely furnished with two charpoys and a low table but at least this time there was a window that looked out across the rooftops and down to the street.

It was the 19th December and, with Christmas only six days away, we felt sure that there would be mail for us at the American Express office in Connaught Place.  Walking the familiar chaotic route through the insanely overcrowded streets of Delhi 6 and into New Delhi we were surprised and a little disappointed that the weather was grey and cold.  Not anything like as cold as in the hills but not as warm as I had been dreaming about.  No wonder there was a mass freak exodus to the beaches of Goa.  On arrival at the Am Ex we were handed a pile of Xmas cards and letters from family and friends.  Rather than sit in the Central Park we took them over to the overpriced Indian Coffee House where, over a treat of veg cutlets and chips we caught up on news from home.  Janette had received a letter from her mother which said that Barclays Bank had sent a telegram to the Bank Of India authorising them to issue the replacement traveller’s cheques so that was our next port of call.

Not surprisingly, but very disappointingly, the Bank Of India denied all knowledge of the telegram but said that they would send a telegram to Barclays and would definitely have the problem sorted out in two days.  Past experience left us loathe to believe them so we hedged our bets and sent our own telegram to Janette’s mum asking her to transfer £50 to us via the American Express office.  There was nothing else we could do.  So, remembering the Furry Freak Brothers twisted words of wisdom that, ‘dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope’, we headed back to the labyrinthine inner soul of Delhi, on a mission.

At a pottery shop, with it’s red earthenware goods stacked in precarious piles and a varied selection of clay chillums laid out a pavement level, I enquired of the shopkeeper if he knew where I could buy some charas.  He nodded and called a teenage boy from the back of the shop.  Following him a short distance along the street and then plunging into a dark alley, we were led into a tiny barber’s shop.  The barber, a diminutive, grey-haired old Muslim stopped in the middle of shaving a guy, wiped his cut-throat razor on a rag and informed me that his charas came from Kashmir.  ‘Kashmir charas verrry good, verrrry strong’, he grinned.  ‘I sell you one tola’.  And he did.  Leaving the shop was more difficult than arriving as an excited crowd had gathered to watch me buy my dope from the local barber and we had to push our way through to get back to the street.  Before our guide left us he smiled proudly and whispered, ‘That man… biggest dealer in Old Delhi’.  We made our way back to the Eagle for a cold shower and a smoke.

As darkness began to fall we took to the streets again and wandered slow-motion Kashmir stoned through the now, fairground-like, bazaar to the Sikh restaurant we’d frequented on our previous visit.  The cuisine was as excellent as we had remembered but unfortunately our waiter was a man on a big tip mission.  His constant pestering had the opposite to the desired effect and, after paying the bill, when his back was turned, we sidled out.

With a day to pass before returning to the bank, the next morning was spent in bed, wasted.  At around 12:30 I floated up the road and bought fruit and a clay pot of creamy yoghurt which we ate for breakfast.  Showered and dressed we drifted up to New Delhi and browsed the shops and tourist stalls where Janette bought a beautiful blue dress for twenty-five Rupees.  The stallholder told her that it was his first sale of the day and therefore very lucky.  (Market trader spiel – the same everywhere).  Still, a bit of good luck would have been very welcome.  The rest of the day passed in a haze of sweet hash smoke and over-consumption of food and drink topped off with an evening meal of mattar paneer, dahl-fry and chappattis.  On our return to the hotel I bought a large yellow papaya and a selection of nuts and dried fruit for a muesli-type breakfast.

Another day, another visit to the bank and yet another excuse.  This time we were informed that a Telex had been sent to England and that a reply was expected later in the day or possibly the next day.  If it hadn’t been for the fact that we were stoned all the time the screw-up over the money would have been unbearable.  Funds were now so low that we were now unable to travel too far from Delhi in case the cash came through.  We had enough to live on for a couple of weeks but no money to get us home, and home was a very long way away.  We treated ourselves to a strawberry milkshake each in Keventers and wandered back to the friendly buzz of Old Delhi.  Taking Qutab Road we passed New Delhi Railway Station and stopped on the bridge to buy two blankets from a guy squatting amidst his wares.  This was something we should have thought about buying earlier as it doubled as a wrap-around coat as well as a warm addition to our bedding.  That evening, in a cheap vegetarian restaurant, we bumped into a long, blonde-haired and bearded Canadian guy who we had first met outside the American Express office in Amsterdam all those weeks ago.  He was looking for an overland bus returning to Europe and had found a couple of possibilities parked up in Connaught Place that were advertising seats available.

The next two days were spent in frustration and disappointment as no progress was made whatsoever.  Not even Janette bursting into tears in the manager’s office could sort out our financial problems and the constant hassling was getting us both down.  We needed a break.  At New Delhi Railway Station I made reservations for the Taj Express leaving at 7.15 on the morning of the 23rd.  We would spend Christmas in Agra, optimistically telling ourselves that, by the time we returned to Delhi, the bank would have finally replaced the stolen traveller’s cheques and the £50 from Janette’s mum would be waiting for us at the Am Ex.

Unfortunately we never made it.  It was well past eight o’clock by the time we got out of bed.  But we checked out of the hotel anyway and took a trishaw to the station in the hope that there we would be an alternative train.  As the next departure wasn’t until 7.30pm we dumped our bags amongst the piles of parcels, bundles and bags in the left luggage office and took off to do a little souvenir shopping.  In a backstreet perfumery an over-enthusiastic salesmen smeared us in a selection of essential oils and we haggled over cheap trinkets in the Sunday market on Janpath.  In Connaught Place Park we sat in the weak winter sun eating Choconut ice-cream and watching the shoeshine wallahs, head massagers and ear cleaners as they plied their trade.

As we ate an early evening meal in a restaurant across from the station Janette began feeling increasingly unwell and wasn’t too disappointed to discover that, due to the railway workers strike, the train was running sixteen hours late.  We would travel in the morning when, hopefully, Janette would be feeling a little better.  I checked us into the Ajay Guest House in Pahar Ganj, which was just around the corner from the station.  I knocked down the price of the room from 15 to 12 Rupees and we had an early night.

At 5.30 we were awoke to the sound of water being noisily hand-pumped by someone with a loud, chesty, phlegm-rattling cough.  Neither of us had slept particularly well.  Janette was hot and feverish and suffering from diarrhoea while I had a sore throat and cough that I felt sure I could be rid of if only I could get warm.  As we walked to the station in the perishing cold we passed the human bundles that lived on the streets – whole families huddled together – some already awake and lighting pathetic little fires of garbage.  The station itself was also packed with waking humans and the queue for reservations seemed interminable.  With only four people in front of me the reservations window closed – the Taj Express was full.  Before I had time to digest this fact the man immediately in front informed me that we could catch the alternative Punjab Mail at 7.30am but we would have to travel unreserved.  We didn’t seem to have much choice so we sat on the platform until the train chugged in and the insane rush began.  I physically fought my way through the bodies until I was in the carriage but Janette had become wedged in the doorway.  As a stray pair of hands from an unknown male took advantage of her predicament and began to explore her body she totally freaked and began screaming and kicking out at all around her.  Taken by surprise, the guys nearby helped ease her into the carriage and passed her bags over to me.  After hearing all the commotion the guard then arrived and, seeing Janette so distressed, kindly offered us his seat for the duration of the journey.

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