When I was twenty-four, my girlfriend of three years announced she was leaving me to go travelling. She’d done this before, shortly after we’d first fallen in love. On that occasion the trip had been booked a long time before and so unsettling did our separation prove, she cut short her wandering by several months. This time was different. Our relationship had been on and off for a year – I was unemployed and feckless – and she wasn’t going away to find herself so much as to lose me.
I made no attempt to hide my bitterness. ‘I’m going to Thailandmalaysiaindonesia,’ she’d tell anyone in earshot, breathlessly excited. ‘That well known amorphous land mass,’ I’d mutter, ‘of a thousand different cultures and languages.’ I often asked her what the difference was between ‘travelling’ and ‘going on a cheap holiday’ and she didn’t answer.
We split up and I decided I’d show her. In September I hooked up with a bunch of anarchist DIY-ers and helped them with a vegetarian café they took on the free festival circuit each summer. In November we found a space in a swank art gallery owned by the Revolutionary Communist party and set up a restaurant. It was a spirited venture, if not one overburdened by business plans. Throughout, I wrote to my ex. The first few letters were accounts of licentiousness and good times, run through with the disingenuously gleeful ‘fuck-yous’ of the newly dumped, but I was unable to keep it up. By the time I wrote to tell her of the restaurant, I was proud of what I’d done and I missed her and I told her so. And then, inspired perhaps by the same flair for the grand and futile gesture that had characterised my involvement in the restaurant, I arranged to fly out to Varanasi to meet her halfway home.
Just before Christmas, I left my start-up business and travelled halfway round the world for love. I borrowed the plane fare from my parents and took another thirty quid – many thousands of rupees – for spending. It would, I reasoned, be enough to get me through to our meeting. This attitude to funds symbolised my whole approach to the trip. My preparations were intentionally sketchy. I wanted my rapprochement with my ex to be meaningful but there was a limit to how far I was prepared to go. I was particularly reluctant to buy into the ethos of the ‘traveller’ and the Thailandmalaysiaindonesia gap-year thinking that had twice taken her away from me. If I was going to experience India, I would do it DIY style, mapless and unhindered by preconception. ‘DON’T GIVE TO BEGGARS!’ suggested a guide book I’d skimmed at the library, ‘IT ONLY ENCOURAGES THEM!’ There was a smug colonial paternalism to the sentiment. If this was the tenor of the available literature, then I was right not to read anything else about the character, custom and practices of my destination.
My outward journey illustrated the promise of this laissez-faire approach. I flew via Moscow, with Aeroflot, in a big old plane that felt like an aircraft hangar with wings, on which Russian men from the popular imagination vaulted over aisles, swigging vodka from the bottle. Touching down in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, we were taken from the plane to a small room and given numbered tickets by a man sat at a desk. Armed guards watched over us as we stood around, confused. Twenty minutes later we were ushered back onto the plane – otherwise unchecked – having surrendered our tickets to the same fella who’d issued them in the first place. When we landed at New Delhi airport, I watched as my fellow passengers stretched their cramped legs and squashed unthinkingly onto a bus to take them to the terminal, a hundred yards away; I chose instead to saunter across the tarmac, independent, open-minded and free. I was having fun. Then I left the upholstered confines of the airport and lost my head.
I had thought that being aware of the phenomenon of culture shock would be enough to inure me from its more extreme manifestations. Forewarned and all that. I was wrong. On the bus from the airport I pressed my nose to the window and was quietly stunned. The road was a crush of camels and cows and rickshaws and autorickshaws and buses and trucks, lined by ranks of armless and legless beggars. There were samosa sellers and magazine sellers and fruit sellers and, by way of garish contrast, billboards advertising soft drinks with ‘LESS THAN 3% JUICE!’. After being dropped off at the concourse of Delhi’s main railway station, I paused to take in my surroundings and was pulled under the waves of a cacophonous eddying crowd. I was carried for long minutes on currents of people, simply unable to influence the direction or speed in which I was moving. Respite came in the form of a marginally less threatening melee centred on a ticket office. It didn’t last. As I arrived at the window, the clerk shut up shop. About to be sucked back into the throng, the fattest man I’d seen in Delhi asked me if I needed a ticket. I said yes and he hustled me to a waiting autorickshaw. Fifteen minutes later I was paying a hundred times the going rate for a train to what I understood to be Varanasi and twice that for a ‘hotel’ that turned out to be a room in a shack up a dark and terrifying alley. The room had an unlockable door and that night I sat on my mattress listening to alien noises and drank myself to sleep on duty-free gin.
The next day, down to my last few rupees, I asked about food and was given directions to Connaught Place, a circular square at the heart of old Imperial Delhi. I hadn’t eaten since Aeroflot’s imaginative interpretation of macaroni cheese and was looking forward to a meal that would see me through to Varanasi. Arriving in the square, I was approached by a fella who introduced himself as Santos, pointed at my dilapidated baseball boots and offered to stitch them. This seemed like a good idea. I sat on a patch of grass, shoeless, looking at various restaurants across the square, and another fella came at me from behind and began poking my ears with something sharp – ’your ears very dirty. I clean.’ Just as I was beginning to wonder if I could afford this attention – let alone this attention and a meal – a third enterprising street merchant administered a shoulder prodding he referred to as a massage. The transactions ended with me unable to pay all three traders. I promised to look up Santos on my return to Delhi – at some unspecified future date – and left Connaught Place without having bought any food.
Later that afternoon, I waited three hours at Old Delhi station. My ticket was for a cattle truck full of peasants. Some, thinking I was a voyeur, were openly hostile: ‘This Third Class. You shouldn’t be here. You should be in First Class.’ Others were more friendly. At a stop just outside Allahabad, the carriage filled with people handing out portions of rice on banana leaves. Hungrily, I helped myself. That’s very nice of them, I thought. Ten minutes later, the carriage filled with the same people asking for payment. I offered all I had on me – 20p in pounds sterling – but my assurances about its real value were rebuffed and negotiations were fraught. At which point some of the peasants took pity on me and had a whip round for my food. Eight hours later, I arrived at Moghul Sera railway station, as far as my ticket took me. It was three in the morning and I was twenty miles from Varanasi; I hadn’t eaten in 48 hours and I was cold and weary to the bone. Delirious, too. Unable to buy a ticket for the last leg of my journey, I walked into an office of the transport police and tried to sell my camera. A sergeant called Ashok took pity on me and gave me an armed escort to Varanasi, rifle-butting a paying customer off his bunk on the next train through. In Varanasi he paid for a rickshaw and I made him a present of half a tube of Colgate by way of thanks. ‘Here,’ I said. ‘You clean teeth. Like this.’ He looked perplexed.
I arrived in Varanasi at dawn and was reunited with my girlfriend. Whereas New Delhi was organised humankind as an impossibly vivid conflation of the what-if, the unlikely and the what-the- fuck, Varanasi’s was a more restorative bustle, full of narrow back streets and ambling cows. We sat on flat roofs, or wandered down to the Ghats. I played chess in the street with the locals. When prompted to sign guest books I wrote ‘Charlie Hill, Restaurateur’ with a flourish. There was a kite festival. Billboards advertising toothpaste; many, many shops selling toothpaste. I began, for the first time since arriving in Delhi, to relax. My girlfriend and I spoke fondly to each other and I even imagined myself capable of engaging with the psychological, emotional and cognitive dissonance of the trip. But no. That would have to wait. One evening, as we sat on the roof of our guest house, watching kites, listening to the sounds of the Ganges and being gently buffeted by perfumed wafts of incense and diesel, she said it might be a nice idea if we got married. I demurred. Travelling halfway round the world for love was one thing, but there was a limit to how far I was prepared to go.
The exchange marked a sudden return to an earlier, less harmonious register of our relationship. The next day I began to shit myself, just in time for Christmas. When I could once again pass solids, we went to Pushkar in Rajastan and Pokhara in Nepal. In Pushkar my girlfriend insisted we took photos by a holy lake where photography was banned. Word got back to our hotel and we were buzzed by angry waiters. A monkey ate my thali. On the way back from Nepal we stayed in New Delhi for a week. I tried and failed to find Santos. My girlfriend suggested we go to see the Taj Mahal, eighty kilometres away, in Agra. ‘I don’t want to go and see the Taj Mahal,’ I said, ‘why would I want to go and see the Taj Mahal? Everyone goes to see the Taj Mahal.’ We travelled home separately and went through the motions, living together for two months before she ran off with a fella from work. Later that year they got married and my restaurant went out of business.
Charlie Hill is a critically acclaimed novelist and short story writer
from Birmingham. He also writes the odd poem. You can fuind out more about his work at charliehill.org.uk