I have always loved dreaming about future trips and countries I want to visit. Ever since I was a kid, I loved flipping through the pages of the World Atlas (Google Earth came out when I was about 16 and I’ve spent hours looking up hoods in LA during one of my rap-crazes moments).
India, however, was never on my list. For me it was terra incognito, in that my knowledge about the country’s history and culture was limited to standardized curries of mostly Bangladeshi-run Indian restaurants in the UK, alongside Slumdog Millionaire, of course, and the image that the Economist and other neo-liberal publishers of the Western World create. Plus, it’s a long-distance flight, so I always had in mind places like Brazil or Argentina that just have this irresistible Latin appeal.
The decision to go was pretty spontaneous. I was stuck after graduation from my university and a particularly devastating breakup that still haunts me, looking for a job in the highly competitive market of strategy consulting in London. Everything was pretty hopeless. On one such rainy day, I Skyped my friend who was interning in India and I thought that I should go and get some work experience in one of the BRIC countries myself to improve my job prospects.
This friend of mine, named Greg, is a Russian guy who I knew from Moscow where I grew up. He speaks fluent Hindi and at the time was working for a company in Delhi and one of their services was to help foreigners like me to find an internship in one of the NGOs for a certain fee. I chose microfinance and got to the interviews for free, because of Greg’s help. He also wanted some new experiences and we applied together. Eventually, one of the microfinance institutions, with over a hundred offices in Delhi and NCR, ‘reserved us a spot’.
Two days before leaving London, I got a call from Airbnb, where I also applied for an internship. It was an offer. The deal was now or never. For reasons unknown to me, I said no. The next day after the phone call, I was watching Louis Malle’s 1969 documentary about Calcutta, as a preparation for the trip and painfully reflecting on what I had done. In my head I had images of a comfortable office job in an exciting startup that was growing really fast, such an opportunity doesn’t come to you often and would have head-started my career in London. An office with a fussball table, charming coworkers, a salary that would buy you trendy sneakers, a boss who went to every rock concert and met all the musicians. Maybe it would have fulfilled my childhood dreams and I could have bought a huge plasma TV. The possibilities are endless, right?
On the screen though, there was chaos and poverty on Calcutta’s streets. Beggars with disfigured bodies, forgotten old people struggling with rice porridge in a shelter, tons of garbage, cows… The feeling of unfulfilled life grew bigger within myself with every minute back then.
Nevertheless, through Moscow, where my Dad was celebrating his half a century anniversary I flew to Delhi. And had to encounter another barrier on the way to India. My parents were shocked about my decision and tried their best to talk me out of it. It got to the point where I got annoyed and refused to talk about it anymore. My mom was really worried about me getting food poisoning or hepatitis or getting bitten by a rabies-infected feral dog or whatnot and the fact that I went completely unprepared healthwise, i.e. without any vaccinations. So after some more family drama, I got a massive bag with various medicines and my parents drove me to the airport.
Going ahead of myself, I want to say that India can be potentially dangerous for your health, for instance one of my friends who studies there got typhoid, twice over the period of one year, and it is not a pleasant experience. Though, I was lucky and did not even vomit once, which I think is unheard of among the travelling community and is a source of pride up until these days. So have no fear, but be smart about where you eat. Give yourself sometime to get accustomed to the spices and enjoy the wonderful street food, just pick places where you like the vendor and avoid dhabas with a big PEPSI sign, as a rule they are rather unreliable.
When I arrived in Delhi, I moved in with Greg and two other graduates from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies in London). They became my guides to this incredibly diverse subcontinent.
I arrived late, we ordered McDonalds home delivery and went to bed. The next day, despite an annoying fever that I had, Greg and his girlfriend took me around the city. I remember we left the house and Greg told me before crossing a busy road: ‘Denis, in India, you just cross’, and disappeared into the traffic. I had no other choice, but to dive into the buzz.
We went to Chandni Chowk, which was probably not a good idea for the first day. Of course it was amazing, because I had my first cup of chai, saw the Red Fort, the biggest crowd I’ve ever encountered (at that point in life), but my passport got stolen. On the first day. Obviously it was my own mistake, because I left it in the back pocket of my bag (with my wallet, which thank God, wasn’t taken). Don’t do it kids, it wastes a lot of your precious time, but makes you forget about your responsibilities and rights as a citizen. No identity - no association. I quite liked finally getting rid of my national identity, even if for a short time.
We had two weeks before the start of the internship and went to the south after celebrating the New Year in one of the house parties in the posh New Friends Colony, where we ended up through a Mexican guy who worked in the UN.
Here India started reminding me of my homeland, especially after a conversation with a guy of my age, who had had far too many protein shakes and was trying to convince me that I should come back to Russia and become a corruptionist, because he is enjoying himself in this role in India. His swine-faced friend who didn’t say a word throughout this long discussion symbolized my confusion. This turned out to be the best New Year party I’ve ever been to, Old Monk rum mixed with Litchi juice and heated Bollywood style dancing really made it.