I am alone and there are hundreds of tourists around me. Wherever I look, beyond the crowd preparing to visit one of the 7 wonders of the world, at each street corner, I see souvenir stands. A guy of about 30 years old, wearing a pair of modern jeans, an orange shirt and a black and navy blue plaid jacket over it approaches and asks if I want to take a tour of the Taj Mahal with him. Not for free however, because he is a tour guide. I refuse without even thinking: ‘I am not giving you any money, I can do it by myself!’. For a few seconds I insist that I am independent, he – that I need a guide.
‘I will leave you alone if you tell me which country you’re from’, he said. After I answer that I come from Romania, he asks: ‘‘Do you know Loredana Groza?’’. I burst into laugther. ‘‘We work on the same show, ‘The Voice of Romania’’ I reply, astonished of such an event. He pulls out his phone and shows me pictures of him and Loredana, from her holidays in India. Then he says he liked me anyway, but now he has an extra reason to show me the Taj Mahal.
I had arrived in India by myself three weeks earlier and was going to meet Roxana, my friend from college. When I landed on the New Delhi airport, after 30 hours of flight, I felt exhausted, with no more reasons to be enthusiastic by my arriving alone at the end of the world. Roxi did not wait for me at the airport thinking it would be proper to receive the ‘Indian baptism’, so I wanted to connect to Wifi and tell her that I had arrived but guess what? I couldn’t.
I headed towards the ATM to withdraw money for the taxi but when I inserted the card I got a big surprise: the ATM was unavailable. I kept calm, thinking I had just found a dysfunctional one. I went to another ATM but the situation was the same. My heart rate began to accelerate at the thought that was 20 dollars all the cash I had with me.
I asked an Indian what was going on. He explained that the Government had blocked all the ATMs in the country that evening. Over night, the 500 and 1000 rupee banknotes had been removed from circulation and this situation created a social and financial chaos across India. The reasons for adopting this measure were to fight corruption and illegal cash possession. The money that the locals had at hand lost their value over night. At the market, restaurants, and other places where daily life happens, the banknotes removed from circulation were not accepted and people had to stand at endless queues to exchange cash with new banknotes. One wants to buy food and one’s money is rejected?!
I exchanged the 20 dollars in rupees, then went to the front of the airport. Scores of taxi drivers were offering rides, drivers from different hotels were welcoming their guests, friends or relatives were hugging their dear ones who had just entered the country. I was determined to ignore any appeal of those around me and walk straight forward looking ahead as if I knew exactly where I was going.
Pollution warmly welcomed me and humidity made the air unbreathable. None of the men present made me feel like I was in danger; however, I was starting to wonder what was I going to do in the middle of the night, with no money, no phone, and alone on the Indian airport.
At the taxicab stand, on my left, I noticed a young Indian woman dressed in European clothes who was wearing a nose piercing in the most feminine way. I started talking to her and asked her to lend me her phone so I could call my friend. Her name was Annie and she spoke English fluently. She advised me not to get into a random taxi but to wait while she found me a safe ride, especially as it would take about an hour to get to the hotel.
After calling for the taxi, she told me she believed in karma and most surely I have done good things in life if she felt the need to make such a gesture. She hugged me and offered me her SIM card from her personal phone, in this way I could use the Internet and make phone calls. She sat with me until I got into the car, then explained the driver in Hindi where I was going.
The taxi driver was a man of about 50, dark-eyed, with a big beard and wearing light-coloured clothes that looked shabby. Because he did not know English at all, I took out the notebook from my backpack and wrote ‘900 rupees’ on the entire page – just to be sure he understood I did not have any extra rupee.
Indian music was rumbling in the car, whose doors would barely close. The darkness seemed darker than ever and the driving speed made me wonder if I should say my prayers or enjoy being a character in my own movie – adventure of horror – I did not know. The more we left New Delhi downtown behind, the more the famous and imposing buildings were disappearing and, in the street lights, lots of people appeared on the middle of the road, accompanied by cows, dogs, garbage, scooters, rickshaws and tuk-tuks.
After a never-ending one-hour ride we got to the outskirts of Delhi. I couldn’t have known if it was the outskirts, but the terrible way in which each alley emerged from around the corner made me wonder what the hell was I doing there. For the locals, it was a party-like atmosphere, the music melange was shaking-up the windows of the hotels and hostels in the area – where there were windows.
I called Roxi and she came to ‘pick me up’ from the front of the hotel. When she saw me as white as a sheet she thought something happened to me. I paid the driver for the ride and said a very firm ‘Namaste’. To my surprise, he only took 800 rupees and handed me back the other 100.
After I saw Roxi I met with Maria, a young Romanian girl who was living in India at the time, who became one of my best friends after the experience I had there. Her father had asked me to give her a package from Romania and so we’ve met. Maria was trusting and lent me some money that evening.
3 weeks later I went to the Taj Mahal alone because Roxana wanted to remain in New Delhi to shop for those waiting for her home.
I arrived at Taj after a 4-hour journey from New Delhi, on a train with no windows, only some iron bars. All the travellers were men and the cram of the trains in Indian movies coincides with reality or at least I travelled in similar conditions. The trains are so long they seem endless.
Being the only woman in the train all eyes were on me; however, people looked curiously at a European feminine face. When the ticket collector came I started to negotiate the trip with him. I wanted to experience something I had never done before, not in Romania, nor elsewhere. The man gave up and let me travel for free. I sat down on a chair by the window and covered my head with the enormous scarf I was carrying with me, because at that speed I felt my mind was being blown off under the shawl.
At one point, 3 boys started to talk to me. Mathew, Eby and their friend asked me where I was going. From one thing to another, I found out they were working in the sanitary field in Delhi and were on a trip to Kerala, where one of them lived. They told me about Kerala, which was Heaven on Earth and insisted that on my next trip to India I’d better get to that South corner where I shall find nature as far as the eye can see. We took pictures together. I asked them not to post any on Facebook because I didn’t want my mother to see on the Internet that I was alone on a train with 3 strangers. When I was getting ready to get off, they said they wanted to give me a souvenir. So they took out a book from their bag and handed it over to me. The book was ‘My life’ by A.P.J Abdul Kalam, the 11th President of India. It was about the character leaving home at 23 years old, the age when I moved to Bucharest. I was surprised and I hugged them, then we promised each other that we would keep in touch.
After I got down on the platform, I looked left and right to find a tuk-tuk to take me to the Taj Mahal.
After I learned that the tour guide knew Loredana, I started to trust him and accepted to let him take me on the promised tour. When I entered the gate I saw a huge queue of hundreds of people. There were only four more hours until the train that was to take me back to Delhi, where I would take the plane to Romania, there were still four more hours. Knowing I was in a hurry, Ali, the tour guide, told the bodyguards that I was a good friend from Romania and so I passed before everyone else. I felt bad because I had not done anything like that before. Nevertheless, I got over the shame and enjoyed what I saw inside.
The Taj Mahal was spectacular. With every step closer, the building grew in size and when reached entirely it displayed its elegance in an impressive way. I knew from previous research that based on the light outside, the building changed its nuances. Visiting at noon, I visually embraced a white Taj Mahal.
The symmetry of the building, the fine marble and the gardens around were amazing and after we had visited the building we sat on a bench to listen to the love story which had led to it’s construction.
Ali was a good narrator. The famous Mausoleum of India was erected in 1631 out of Emperor Mogul’s love, for his wife, Shah Jahan. She had died giving birth to their 14th child, thus, from sorrow and love for the one who gave life to the heirs, the most grand mausoleum in the world was built.
To erect such a monument so as to become one of the ‘wonders of the world’, it took 22 years and over 20,000 workers from all around the world. Legend says that the materials were brought from all over Asia with the help of 1,000 elephants.
After being captivated by the story, it was hard for me to sober up to leave. Ali offered to take me to the station. I had my fears concerning such adventures, but I accepted to get on the motorcycle with a stranger, in a country where traffic rules are constantly violated. I had a feeling of peace that everything going to be fine. In fact, I had had this feeling during my whole time in India.
Our conversation took different paths. Ali flirted with me all the way, jokingly asking me to marry him, between the revved engine sounds in the traffic and a lower volume of noise when we were stopped for a few minutes. It was my second marriage proposal in India. The first one was in Jaisalmer, where I would have married Padam and become the ‘Princess of the Desert’, as he had a desert trip business there. Both times I was amused because they had a gentle way of explaining that my love would develop in time and it was not necessary to be in love before marriage.
I arrived late at the station, so I ran to a counter to buy a return ticket to Delhi. When I got on the train my feet softened. It was the most luxurious train I had ever seen. I was speechless. I realised that my ticket did not even cover a tiny percentage of the real price of a trip on such a train, so it was clearly a mistake. I walked from one wagon to another hoping I would find one with conditions less luxurious. The ticket exceeded the amount I had counting also the money for the taxi that was going to take us to the airport that evening. I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t the same situation as in the morning when I had negotiated with the ticket collector and arrived to Agra for free. I realised any negotiation was out of question this time as the train was full of rich tourists.
I sat down and the ticket collector came. When I handed him my ticket for which I had paid almost nothing, he said politely: ‘You do not have money for the ticket, you will have to get off at the first station where the train stops!’. I tried to explain that I was supposed to get to the airport in a few hours and I couldn’t miss the plane home, but he insisted I would have to get off at the first stop.
I only had enough money to eat that evening, plus an amount for the taxi that was going to take us to the airport. I felt desperate but I knew I had to react calmly to find a solution. I looked straight into the ticket collector’s eyes and said: ‘Here’s a hypothetical situation. Imagine that your daughter is in a country where the Government have blocked all ATMs. The tourists, along with the locals, have very little cash and can’t pay with the card anywhere. Your daughter is on a train, unable to pay the total amount for the ticket, but it’s vital that she gets to the airport to catch the plane’’. I made him step into my parents’ shoes. After looking at me for a few seconds, he gently told me to give him the amount I had on me.
It was the second time that day that I was dying of shame. Thoughts of blame crossed my mind that I was not careful enough and had got onto the wrong train. But I had no other option. My return home was at stake.
When they began to offer foods and drinks to all travellers I refused because I felt I had already received enough. ‘At least have a dessert, a tea or a glass of juice!’, they said. I did’t accept anything.
After the most luxurious and shameful journey of my life, I arrived in Delhi. When I asked a guy where the metro station was, he said he was going in the same direction and we could go together on a tuk-tuk. On the way, he told me he was working in a multinational and thanks to his job he travelled a lot outside the country. Then we talked about Steve Jobs and his trip to India. When we arrived at the destination, he paid the tuk-tuk and went on his way home.
It’s been years now since I’ve been paying for everything, rent, bills, trips, books and any other object or experience that comes my way. That day, however, I understood that sometimes it is good to accept help.
In the evening, when I met Roxi, I felt overwhelmed and changed. The 23rd of November had been a perfect day. Although everything had been at the limit, things fell into place very well. Since then, I felt much more stronger than before. I understood that things come towards me only when I allow them to. When I accept to let pride go and let myself be helped instead, I realised that I had a much more adventurous spirit than I imagined and when one travels, places and people can be truly hospitable, beyond any prejudice that might lay there in the beginning.
On the airplane, on my way to Romania, all the memories of my entire trip were running through my mind – how I survived at a time when ATMs created problems all over India, how I learned to appreciate every bite of food and got rid of the stomach aches after 5 years of dealing with them, how I managed to communicate with people through signs or speaking a bad English to obtain food or directions and how I slept in the desert, where I felt I could embrace the stars – (that’s how close they seemed).