This Is India
A funny thing about traveling is that it takes your mind some time to sync with your body and grasp the fact that you're in a new location. You know that feeling when you wake up from a deep sleep, thinking you're in your own bed back home, and then you open your eyes and try to figure out where the hell you are?
I don't think it gets any weirder than to wake up in a room that looks like a dungeon, next to a complete stranger, get off the bed and hear that splashy sound as you find yourself standing in the middle of a swimming pool.
"What?" Lara said in response to my puzzled stare and the confused look on my face. Slowly everything came together and I realized where I was. "Nothing… Let's go eat something." I replied quickly, not wanting to come out as some weirdo.
As I had promised Sharon, the waitress I knew from back home, I went to her room to tell her to come with us. She shared her room with a girl who had the audacity to tell me that she didn't think my name suits me and that I should replace it.
So, me, Lara, Sharon, and that girl who wants to change my name went down to the 'Main-Bazaar' road to grab something to eat. We were searching for a decent looking Dhaba.
Now, a Dhaba is a word you're going to hear from me a lot, so I think I owe you some explanation. A Dhaba is a cheap version of an Indian restaurant. It serves local cuisine and can be found anywhere, from busy cities to deserted mountain roads. You usually find yourself eating tali with your filthy, bare hands, next to an entire village. The food is somewhat questionable (don't expect to find any health department certifications) and might cause some hyper bowel movement, but then again, that can also happen after eating in a fancy restaurant. This is India. To my taste, Dhabas serves the best homemade Indian food you can find and it comes with the authentic experience of real interaction with the locals. (Check out the comments below for a more accurate/bookish terminology. Although, from my personal experience, tourists and locals use this term in a broader way).
"I, a poor backpacker, take you, Dhaba, to be my lawfully wedded restaurant, to have and to dine, from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. And if I keep coming back – it will."
The girls and I walked into a relatively empty Dhaba. This is never a good sign for a place that serves food in general, and a very bad sign for a place that serves food in India, in particular. Still, we really needed to eat something before we could take another step.
Another bit of friendly advice from back home was to avoid eating anything "heavy" upon my arrival in Delhi. "Give your stomach some time to slowly accustom itself to the local food." And also, not to eat big meals before long drives; "because you don't know how your body will react to it." Nobody wants to have awkward side effects on his twelve hour bus drive to Manali – No, siree!
I decided to stick to dry food until I reached a place I wanted to stay for more than a few hours. So I went for the safe choice and ordered a plain toast with some butter on the side. Lara ordered a Müesli with her constant request for pineapple, which of course never came.
We sat there, trying to detach ourselves from all the commotion of the 'Main-Bazaar', when I suddenly felt something moving near my leg. I looked down and saw a big gray cat running under the table. "What a funny looking cat," I thought to myself out loud. "That's not a cat, it's a rat." Lara said apathetically, like it was one of those things you usually see in restaurants. It made me squeamish, to say the least, but since no one was jumping up and down in horror, I decided to play it cool. (And I thought, I'll join the rat race when I get a real job.)
It was one of many situations that happened during this trip that could never happen back home without causing some serious trauma, the kind of trauma that would lead to a phobia, followed by years of psychotherapy. However, when you're traveling alone you don't have the luxury of obsessing over every little (or unbelievably massive) thing.
Traveling solo means that you are, in fact, well and truly alone. The people that you meet on your trip are not your friends and family from home. Even if your relationship with them is exceptionally good, you can't expect them to behave and be there for you like you would expect your loved ones to do. As bad and scary as it might sound, I found it to be very empowering. As they say, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. (And what kills you, makes your mother stronger. Na…just kidding.)
"Been dazed and confused for so long it's not true. Wanted a ticket, never bargained for you. (although, I should have). Lots of people talkin', few of them know (English) Soul of a tourist was created below, yeah.
Afterwards, we went back to the 'Hare-Rama' to take a shower for the third time, just so we could go back out again and get drenched to bone. We were so sweaty you could mistake us for being out in a storm. Walking around with that sweatshirt on was terrible, but I was dreading those penetrating stares and furtive strokes. Nothing that the sweatshirt didn't prevent, actually. Sharon was walking half-naked and it didn't seem to bother her much.
This time it was just me, Sharon and the girl who wanted to change my name. We were out looking for the famous Charlie. Charlie was an Indian travel agent, or as I saw him, my ticket out of Delhi, was known by all the backpackers for his low-cost tickets. We knew his agency was supposed to be somewhere on the 'Main-Bazaar road', we just didn't know exactly where.
The 'Main-Bazaar road' is crowded, loud, and overwhelming; it's like a perfect-storm attack on your senses. Which is why it was so easy for us to miss the huge sign that said:
We started to ask the locals on the street for directions, but they only seemed interested in trying to sell us every unnecessary object you can imagine.
"Is there anyone who's actually seen Charlie and isn't just trying to sell us stuff?"
When we finally found someone who claimed he knew where Charlie's agency was, he dragged us through half the 'Main-Bazaar' to some fancy false agency. They actually had the nerve to say, when we asked where Charlie was, that he wasn't there at the moment but will come back shortly, after we purchase the bus tickets. For Sharon it was the "Hare-Rama scam" all over again.
As it turns out, Charlie's agency is no bigger than a chemical toilet booth that he shared with a leather bag seller. When we got there, we saw a bunch of other backpackers sitting inside, packed like sardines. There was another backpacker sitting on his lap and calling him 'daddy'. (I'm pretty sure he wasn't her daddy.)
Charlie looked like a pleasant, old hippie. He sold us the bus tickets to Manali and told us to be back there with all of our luggage on 16:30 sharp. I was pretty psyched about getting the tickets and just needed to buy a few things before the long drive that awaited us.
Sharon went back to her room to rest before the ride, but the girl who doesn't like names wanted to join me. I was not ready at all to walk out there on my own, so that was great by me.
We started walking farther and farther on the 'Main-Bazaar road', looking for the shops we needed when the girl with the name issue suddenly said: "You know what? I'm really tired. I think I'm gonna go back to my room to rest a bit. Catch you later."
Before I had the chance to say anything, she just disappeared, leaving me all alone on the 'Main-Bazaar road', not knowing where I was or how to get back to the 'Hare-Rama,' on my first day in India.
A street salesman came up to me with his merchandise and asked: "You want buying something, Madam?" "Yes, do you have anything for a panic attack?"