Arriving in Delhi as naive backpcker

Carried by a motorcade of tuk-tuks through the dark, dusty streets of Delhi looking for a hotel room. Like we were caught up in a surreal Nativity Story interpretation. Arriving in Delhi was our backpacking baptism of fire. THIS was the adventure we wanted… wasn’t it?

Our drivers did their best to help us. Concerned faces, animated conversations suggested our predicament was serious. We reassured each other with nervous smiles.

From the lobby of yet another unpromising looking hotel, we were beckoned enthusiastically. Finally, a room. I don’t recall if we hugged the tuk-tuk drivers. We should have. Without their kindness, arriving in Delhi could have been calamitous.

We were in no position to be fussy, but the room was grotty. The door wouldn’t lock properly.

Graeme, the Bear Grylls of the group, had brought lots of survival ‘essentials’. Julie and I mocked him of course. We’re British. That’s what we do. We didn’t know it then but we’d go on to use every single item he brought. Even making tea using nightlights (candles) to heat the water.

Arriving in Delhi – Makeshift Security

He produced a ball of string. Tying it around the door handle and nearby furniture to provide some security. If there were was a room invasion, this would buy us vital seconds (to do what I’m not sure).

We were exhausted but wired. Unable to sleep. We’d stay in this pit just one night. Find something better in the morning. In daylight.

Our traumatic first 24 hours in India continued when we left the hotel. Carrying backpacks through the streets was a bad idea. Effectively advertising that we had nowhere to go. We may as well have carried a sign: ‘NAIVE YOUNG BACKPACKERS. COME TRY YOUR LUCK’. Women and children surrounded us, begging. Some were genuine. Others distracted us while accomplices tried to take stuff from our backpacks. A Fagin-esque routine.

The destitute were everywhere. Lepers held out ravaged limbs to coax money from passers-by. I reflected on my own fate. How different my life would be had I been born into a society like this, with my traumatic injury.  I would be one of the wretched.

Arriving in Delhi – Extreme Poverty

Seeing extreme poverty first hand was a shock. We became desensitised to it quickly. An emotional coping mechanism I suppose. It’s an unpalatable truth – the poor soon blend into the scenery.

Pavements were booby traps – covered in potholes. Broken paving stones exposed pipes and sewers. Incongruously, lone cows stood idly in the sun. A sight I’d expected to see in rural towns, not downtown Delhi. Men pissed casually in the Street. Road workers, in loincloths and sandals, walked in single file. Filthy. Carrying away dirt, piled high in wicker baskets.

Arriving in Delhi - A Delhi Cow
Arriving in Delhi – look out for the cows

Our sanctuary was a hotel with a garden. Not fancy but at least we weren’t trapped in a room. Here we were shielded from the apparent chaos outside. We planned our next steps.

Arriving in Delhi – Our Hindustan Ambassador

We’d pictured ourselves exploring India on overcrowded trains. Squeezed into seats next to Indian families. Authentic but uncomfortable. For a similar cost, the hotel manager explained, he could arrange something better. Our own car. a Hindustan Ambassador. With driver, a great itinerary and pre-arranged hotels at each location. Julie and I were immediately sold on this option. We didn’t want a repeat of the Mary and Joseph Scenario. Graeme, budget traveller purist, took some convincing (we outvoted him).

Arriving in Delhi - Hindustan Ambassador
Hindustan Ambassador

We set off bouncing around on the sofa-like back seat of our big white car. Yes, we had wussed out on the gritty backpacker experience. Yes, we looked like the spoiled brats of The Raj. But we had learned our lesson. Getting things done as a foreigner on a budget was harder than we expected. And this was bloody good fun!

Arriving in Delhi – Dung Chips

We passed people squatting down in fields making, what appeared to be, mud pies. Moulding them into flat, round, frisbee shapes with their hands. Then stacking them into piles to dry in the sun. ‘Dung Chips’ our driver explained. Fuel. Made from cow shit and straw.

Right there – an exotic discovery like Dung Chips – that was the reason we were travelling.

We drank mostly bottled water and a fizzy soft drink.  For reasons of hygienic production, Lonely Planet advice was to drink only one brand – Limca. Julie mused that one day we’d pass a family toiling in a field. Alternating between making Dung Chips and putting tops on the bottles of Limca.

We’d expected to be targeted by people asking for money. We hadn’t expected to be targetted by amateur photographers. We were stared at like celebrities. People wanted a photo with us. It was funny to begin with. I don’t think we said refused anyone. But it soon became frustrating. Moving around is slow when you’re constantly being papped.

Julie, Graeme and I all had similar colouring – brown hair, pale skin. We were assumed to be brothers and sister. We played along. Culturally, I guess it would have been odd to see a young woman travelling with two young men.

Once out of Dehli, we were frequently run off the road by vehicles overtaking, coming in the opposite direction. The concept of right of way replaced by a terrifying game of chicken.  We gasped as our car dropped down from the sealed road onto the roadside scree. Clouds of thick brown dust billowed as the driver hit the brakes, trying to maintain control. He was calm, relaxed even. We closed our eyes bravely and wondered what other dangers awaited.

Author’s note: our visit to India was in 1990. I’m sure things have changed a lot since then. I’m not sure our experience then was representative even. 

This post is a continuation of my Collision Course series. Go to Part One to pick up the story at the beginning


Hindustan Ambassador image:


  1. Your story resonated with me. I visited in 1978 and had a similar experience to yours in 1990. I also worked in the BC Delhi office in 2007 but was somewhat mollycoddled on that trip. India/Delhi has improved since 1990 and I’d love to go back.

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