Thursday, 4 February 2010

Goodbye Palolem; hello Delhi!

Three days in the hippy-dippy touristville of Palolem is more than enough for me. Indian culture here is obliterated by the pizza-choffing, beer-swilling, weed-smoking silly trouser brigade and I’m itching to get back into the thick of things. Despite the stories of harassment, smog and general unpleasantries, I’m secretly looking forward to what Delhi has to offer me.

I dump my rucksack at the side of the road, sit on it, un-stick the sweaty shirt from my back, whip out my book and, in the shade of fat cows grazing on plastic bags, I read as I wait for the bus. Rickshaw drivers congregate, all too keen to tell me that the bus is going to be hours; I have time on my side so I’m happy to wait.

Half an hour later and 25 rupees lighter and I’m sat on the ‘ladies only’ seat on the one-hour bus to Madgoan. Leaving Palolem in a hazy cloud of dust and smoke, we set off at the national speed limit of ‘break-neck’.

As we hurtle through the Goan countryside that I haven’t had chance to explore, I realize just what lies beyond the coco huts of Palolem. The countryside is lush with green fields and banana palms; water stagnates in pools, flows freely in rivers or nurtures crops. Inevitably, locals wash in the pools; further up-stream, men relieve themselves.

We pass by a shambolic concrete block. A sign on the wall advertises the Indian version of the RSPCA; in front of the sign, a man beats a cow with a stick. The stench of stagnant water and the putrid flesh of a dead cow mixes with incense and spicy sweat and hovers about us like a smog that no amount of window-opening manages to dissipate.

On the bus, wailing Indian music blares whilst the conductor, attempting to be heard above the din, hangs out of the bus by his fingertips yelling MADGOOOAAAA, MADGOOOAAAA at the top of his lungs to any unsuspecting passers-by.

We come to an abrupt halt and the bus suddenly fills with the irredescence of saris and the gentle clinking and sparkling of gold bangles. A little old lady is carefully placed in the seat next to me. She is tiny, each limb barely half the size of mine, her leathery skin is blackened by the sun and her wizened face is puckered up into a toothless smile. Life has been hard to her. Dressed in a flimsy nylon sari and clutching at a dirty cloth, she is fragile, vulnerable and utterly beautiful.

Two hours later and we are edging towards the outskirts of town, creeping along the all-too-obvious socioeconomic path. On the furthest reaches of town are makeshift tents: a sea of blue tarpaulin pulled over upright sticks. Here, on patches of no-man’s land and on the edge of the road people eek out an existence under a tarpaulin they call home. From here we pass small square brick homes packed tightly together with tiny alleyways of filth barely separating them. The people who live here are reasonably prosporous in that they have stalls set up along the road selling fruit, spare tyres, cycle helmets, chai…whatever passing drivers are willing to pay for.

The road widens and the small brick homes give way to apartment blocks and glass-windowed shops. There are offices, small park areas, large churches and bus shelters. The middle class live here enjoying the luxuries that the people we’ve just passed merely dream of.

Our journey then leads us down residential streets. Here the houses are set back from the road, showing off their pristine gardens. Each house is brightly painted with intricate balconies adorned with flowers. Large gates open up to long driveways where posh cars pose effortlessly: here the Indian upper-classes live.

My one-hour bus journey takes two hours and I arrive hot and sweaty, just in time to jump on another bus to the airport. From here, it’s a one hour flight to Mumbai, a one-hour wait on the flight for re-fueling, an additional one-hour delay on the Tarmac due to us being at the back of the take-off queue and a two-hour flight to Delhi.

At 11:30pm I step off the plane and into thick reddish smog. My asthmatic lungs automatically tighten, desperate to keep the bad air out, and I can feel a wheeze kicking in before I’ve taken my first breath. What's more I’m still inside the terminal building!

My rucksack arrives and I load it onto a trolley, making sure to attach it in preparation for porter theft. I take a deep breath, keep my fingers crossed that they’ll be a driver waiting on the other side and brace myself for being pounced upon by a motley crew of untrustworthy rickshaw drivers and porters wanting to rip me off.

I walk through into arrivals expecting the worst but I’m left dumbstruck. There is no pouncing or tugging or yelling or porters grabbing my bags. In fact, arrivals is perfectly serene with a handful of drivers trying to find their passengers by waving mis-spelt names about on pieces of paper at all who walk through the arrivals door.

I find my driver and he helps me with my bags. We hop in the car, pay the parking fee, go under the barrier and promptly get stuck in a traffic jam: it’s midnight and there’s a line of lorries all beautifully painted with hand written signs on their behinds asking other roadusers to ‘use horn’. My driver gives up on Tarmac and takes off down the dirt road that has yet to be surfaced, overtaking all the traffic before trying to weasel his way in to the line when the dirt road runs out. Every time he stops at a junction, he opens his door and gobs a stream of phlegm onto the ground.

The traffic clears and we’re free to drive. I notice how clean and modern this area of Delhi is and I’m surprised: no cows walking the streets, no rubbish piles, no pot holes, no stench. This wasn’t what I was expecting at all.

Then we swerve and take a road to the left and suddenly we’re in Old Delhi. The Tarmac disappears and we stumble over massive pot-holes, rubbish piles up, packs of un-loved mangy dogs limp and whimper pathetically, stopping occasionally to scratch fleas, and my nostrils are greeted with a familiar stench. On the makeshift pavements, rickshaw drivers have pulled up their rickshaws for the night. Some sleep on the rickshaw seats; others huddle in blankets just below. For these drivers their rickshaw is everything to them: it’s their business, their home and their only means of survival.

I arrive at Hotel Le Roi exactly 12 hours after I got on my first bus in Palolem. My hotel is just off the main bazaar, in the throng of old Delhi and well away from the sterility of New Delhi. Hotel ‘the king’ as it is called, is posh by my standards and despite being weary and in desperate need of a good bed, I can’t help but drift off into a sleep tinged with guilt at the poverty I’d witnessed in just one day.