36 Terrible Hours in India

Author’s note (by Charlie): The following few blogs about our time in India have been a long time coming – it has been seven weeks since my last update, and nearly four months since these events occurred. This is quite simply because it has taken this long to be ready to write about our time there; the hardest part of the trip so far, and by far the worst experiences in our travelling lives. When deciding to document our travels, we wanted to include the good and the bad rather than paint a perfect picture of our overlanding lifestyle. But when it comes down to actually doing that, its quite difficult! Hopefully I am writing them now, long enough after it all happened that I am able to look back and remember the good experiences as well as the bad. It wasn’t all doom and gloom!

Editor’s note (by Chris): Although Charlie has done an excellent job in retelling this tale, and I was all for forgetting the whole thing forever, it doesn’t fully capture the emotions we were feeling at the time. With hindsight, maybe we could have handled the various situations differently, and maybe if they had happened separately they would have been more manageable, but the below is an as honest as possible account of what happened. We have at least tried to learn from our mistakes – since this awful day we now make sure to always carry enough cash before getting fuel, undertake much shorter journeys to reduce the risk of travelling at night, use a dash cam when driving, and test all essential facilities at hotels before agreeing to stay.

Day 172: 07/09/19
Location: Harpur, India
Miles Driven: 193

We had taken an indirect route from Amritsar to Delhi so that we could visit the Rock Garden in Chandigahr. The detour meant that we couldn’t drive along the toll motorway and instead had to drive on smaller, busier, and less-well-tarmac’d roads. It was awful. However it didn’t take long at the Rock Garden to know that the detour had been worth it.

The Rock Garden – Chandigahr
The Rock Garden – Chandigahr

The rock garden is a labyrinth of sculptures made from concrete, china, and random assortments of junk. It was started in 1957, when a man named Nek Chand turned his collection of scrap materials into sculptures and scattered them around a gorge in a forest. The forest was protected land, so he did this illegally. Despite spanning across 12 acres of the forest, somehow the authorities did not notice his work until 1975. The public loved his sculptures, so instead of having them demolished, the government helped to fund Nek to develop the area into an official sculpture garden which today spreads over a whopping 40 acres.

There were lots of little collections of different creatures – all unique with different facial expressions and body shapes
Blissfully unaware of what we had ahead of us

We had a great few hours walking around the garden and we left in good spirits. It had been our favourite attraction so far in India and up there in the top of our whole trip. After brunch in the car park, we left just after midday, and from here our day took a dramatic downwards turn. The 36 hours that followed were the worst of our trip so far.

Our first incident of the journey involved a car pulling out to overtake a truck in his lane, he didn’t look to see if anything (aka our car) was there before he pulled out, so drove his car straight into the side of us. I (Charlie) looked through the wing mirror and thought that the wheel arch trim had been knocked off, so we made the other car pull over and Chris went to give him a big telling off. Not convinced that the guy was going to stay stopped, Chris decided that the best thing to do was to reach through the open window and turn the key off. Very unexpectedly, the key fob completely and utterly disintegrated in his hand – leaving just the metal section of the key in the ignition. To make matters even more embarrassing, Chris then looked back at our car and saw that the wheel trim (and whole side of the car) was undamaged. Sheepishly Chris gave him a few more angry words to keep him baffled and made a hasty retreat back to Natalie.

Back on the road, we were feeling slightly guilty, but were also aware that it wouldn’t have happened if the guy hadn’t driven into us in the first place. We finally got onto a bigger road with less traffic and better tarmac.

A lot of our day was spent driving less than 10mph through road work diversions.

Driving along at around 55mph, we were feet away from a truck in the lane to the left of us, just about to overtake it, when a car on our left pushed its way between us and the truck, trying to overtake both of us at the same time by pulling out in front of us. The gap was way too small to do this, and as he pulled through the gap, the back of his car caught on our bumper. The car spun around 90 degrees and ricocheted from our bumper, to the central reservation, bouncing back again towards us. Now facing towards the central reservation rather than the road ahead, we pushed the car sideways along the road whilst we came to an emergency stop.

It was becoming a more than daily occurrence for us to mentally thank the fact that Natalie has a strong steel bumper, and this was the case once again. Purely down to that, we had managed to do all of this without causing more than a couple of scratches to the car. The other car had a large dent in it, but both the driver and the passenger were completely unharmed.

We pulled over to the other side of the road. The driver immediately claimed that the accident was Chris’ fault because we were behind him – completely disregarding the fact that he had been behind us two seconds earlier before he had made the idiotic decision to overtake us in a minuscule gap. Chris disagreed and surprisingly the driver admitted he was wrong, and started to appear to agree to pay us some money to fix the scratches on the car. Our damage wasn’t huge, and we weren’t necessarily trying to take money from him, but we were trying to make him understand how this was the result of his bad driving. The passenger however had different ideas and was absolutely adamant that the crash was our fault and that they would not give us any money. After five or so minutes it was clear that we would never see eye to eye, so we agreed to disagree and everyone got back into their respective cars. Getting back onto the road, we realised that the crash had done more damage than we initially thought – it had knocked the steering alignment out.

Indian road safety signs

From around 4:30, we started to look for road side hotels for somewhere to stay the night. Two hours later, we’d had no luck and it was starting to get dark. There were multiple hotels on Google Maps, however each time we got to where it was on the map, it was either not there, or permanently closed.

Before leaving, our number one rule had been do not drive in the dark – we didn’t want to do this in any of the countries that we were driving through, but least of all India. By 6:45 it was more or less completely dark. The traffic continued to race down the roads (in both directions on both sides of the roads), either with no lights at all, or with their full beams glaring – either way we were blind to what was in front of us.

Eventually we found a grimy hotel with on-street parking on a extremely busy street. We would never normally have even considered this hotel, however we were desperate. The price was 1600 Rupees (£17.50) a night, 600 Rupees (£6.60) more than we had paid in Amritsar for a nice, clean, modern hotel. We tried to negotiate, but they guy was not having it, and we only managed to knock off 100 rupees. The hotel was a part construction site, everything was filthy, it was ridiculously overpriced, but we had no choice. Before agreeing, we asked whether our car would be safe on the road outside. The response was a very non-committal grunt that did not fill us with any reassurance. There was a guarded underground car park that we could not fit into, and we asked if the guard would keep an eye on our car as well as the other cars throughout the night. The man at reception wanted us to pay upfront, but we told him that we would pay in the morning providing our car had been kept safe. At this point our doubts about the safety of the car were confirmed, the man told us we could not stay at the hotel. We were back to square one.

Now around 7:30, we got back into the car, once again driving in the dark. Luckily there was another hotel just around the corner. It was a four star hotel, and at 2800 Rupees (about £30) very much out of our budget, however we had got to the point where we would pay anything just to have a bed for the night and to not have to drive any further in the dark. Again the parking was on the street, but this time there was a 24 hour security guard outside the hotel who could watch over Natalie for us.

Check-in seemed to take forever. After around half an hour, they demanded the money for the room upfront. We prefer to pay when checking out, but couldn’t deal with another argument, so handed over our card. Another 15 minutes later the receptionist gave up on the card machine that clearly was not working and agreed we could pay in the morning. We still hadn’t completed “check-in”, but we went to the room and told them that they could come to us to finish off the paperwork. The room was damp, dingy, and neither the air conditioning nor Wifi were working. What a great four star hotel this was turning out to be.

The only place the Wifi reached in our hotel room. Manically planning a new route to get us through India as quickly as possible.

Finally settling down for the night, we couldn’t believe how awful the afternoon and evening had been. India was rapidly burning us out and making every effort it could to destroy Natalie in the process. Our original plan had been to spend a month in Nepal during the hotter weather, then come back to India and spend two months exploring the whole country before heading to Myanmar. After just 10 days we were ready to leave the country, and weren’t sure that Natalie would survive much longer. We agreed that our only real bucket list items here were the Taj Mahal, Delhi, and to visit The Scindia School in Gwalior where Chris had done a school exchange during sixth form. So our new plan formed – from Harpur (our current location) we would go to Agra, followed by Gwalior, then we would spend a few days in Delhi before leaving India to go to Nepal for two months rather than one. We reckoned we would be entering Nepal in about a fortnight’s time.

Day 173: 08/09/19
Location: Agra, India
Miles Driven: 152

We slept fairly well, exhausted from the antics of the previous day, and happy with our new plan for the Indian section of our trip. We didn’t have far to drive today, and planned to leave the hotel mid morning, giving us enough time to arrive in Agra mid afternoon, ready to watch the sunset at the Taj Mahal that evening.

At 9:00, just as we were starting to wake up, the doorbell rang. A porter was at the door asking if we wanted breakfast – not particularly. Twenty minutes later, another person was at the door asking if we had a room permit. I had no clue what this was, and as he left, I hung the do not disturb sign on the door so that we could get showered and dressed in peace. A few minutes later I heard two more people come up to our door. They must have turned around when they saw the do not disturb sign as they did not knock. A minute later the phone rang:
“Mam can you pay for the room now please”
“Right this second now? Can’t I pay when we check out in 30 minutes?”
“No, you need to pay right now”

I went down to reception and paid, making a complaint at the numerous door knockings we’d had within the last half an hour. I made it clear that I was not at all happy and asked that we were not to be disturbed again until check out.

I returned to the room to find Chris was also unhappy – there was no water, and the toilet wouldn’t flush (an essential in India if you catch my drift!). Chris went down to reception to complain and came back with a member of staff who checked our bathroom. He turned on the tap, no water came out. “No problem sir, your water is working fine”. Chris and the guy argued for a few minutes about whether or not the water was working, turning off and on the tap that had absolutely no water coming out of it. Giving up, Chris asked the guy to go with him back down to reception to request a refund. Chris left the room, but the guy stayed, smiling at me standing on the other side of my room in my pyjamas. “Selfie?” he asked. Despite having witnessed my complaint earlier and now Chris’ complaint about the water, he was completely oblivious to our anger (we had passed annoyance by this point). The selfie request was the tip of the iceberg for me, and I shouted at him to get out of our room and let me get dressed.

Whilst Chris was at reception, I got dressed and packed up our things. This was lucky – Chris came back into the room: “We got a refund. We need to leave right now”. Manically grabbing our stuff, he explained what had happened…

The hotel receptionist’s English did not go as far as understanding Chris’ request for a refund (well so he claimed), so Chris picked up some cash lying on the desk and motioned that we wanted some of our money back. This he understood but refused. In the meantime, Mr Selfie had joined them, saw what was going on, seemed to understand immediately and sympathetically handed a huge wad of cash to Chris – around three times more than we had paid for the room. Chris, trying to be fair and level headed, counted out enough cash that covered around half of what we paid for the room, pocketed that, gave back the remaining cash and walked away – running quickly back up to the room, knowing that we would now need to make a sharp exit as not all of the staff seemed to agree with the refund.

Two staff from the hotel, the man from reception and an older man we presumed to be some kind of manager were waiting for us at our door when we left the room (just to add to the ridiculousness of the whole situation, they had been respecting the do not disturb sign rather than knocking on the door). They demanded “their” money back, following us down the stairs. Chris took the stuff to the car, and I held back for a second, shouting at the men explaining exactly why we were so angry: this is supposed to be a four star hotel. We have had no air conditioning, no WiFi, no water, hassle all morning. We deserve a full refund, and yet we are taking a partial one. We are leaving now and if you are not happy about that you can call the police. They stopped following me as I walked down the stairs, not willing to take this argument onto the street. I jumped into Natalie and we sped away in the wrong direction, having to loop back past the hotel two minutes later.

Safely away from the hotel, we looked for somewhere to pull over so that we could sort the car out a bit (we had crammed everything onto the back seats rather than putting it away properly) and also to have some breakfast. It didn’t take long before we spotted an area to the side of the road that we could pull into. Pulling over, suddenly there was an almighty thud, we came to a complete stop and the front of the car tipped forwards. Chris went to see what had happened. The front left wheel had fallen in a huge hole hidden by bushes. The front left of the car was sitting on the chassis and the rear right hand wheel was in the air. Unconvinced we were going to get ourselves out, he put on a brave face, and hoped the traction control would get us out. Mud splattered everywhere – Chris had forgotten to close his door! It had worked though, we were out of the hole, for the small price of spending the next half hour cleaning mud from the inside of the car.

The hole
…and the mud!
Off-roading tip: do not leave the door open when driving through mud!

Pulling away from our breakfast stop, it was now time to look for fuel – we typically start looking for a petrol station when we have half a tank to avoid any mishaps, however in the chaos that is India, we had forgotten to do this and needed to find somewhere pretty quick. Luckily there was a petrol station only a couple of miles down the road. We needed a full tank, but didn’t have enough cash for that, so we showed them our credit cards and checked that they would accept them. They confidently said yes, and showed us their card machine to prove it. The pump must have been one of the slowest in the world, taking at least twenty minutes to fill our tank. As we waited, the crowds of people who have nothing better to do than watch white people buy diesel started to surround the car. Just as the last drop went in, I counted 13 people standing in front of our car, and could see at least another eight in the rear camera.

Whilst we were filling up, the crowds gathered – people literally just came to watch us fill our car with diesel.

We handed over our card to pay the 6000 Rupee (£65) bill – “No sir, we do not accept foreign cards”. The conversation about paying by card (including showing them our cards) before we started filling up was completely forgotten. We tried both our Visa and Mastercard credit cards in the card machine multiple times – neither worked. We showed them that we only had 2000 Rupees in cash and asked them what we should do. They looked at us, smiled, and waggled their heads. We tried our cards again. When they didn’t work, we asked what we should do. They looked at us, smiled, and waggled their heads. This cycle went on for at least another 10 minutes – in the meantime more crowds were gathering around the car and people were starting to lean on the car too. We asked where an ATM was, or if they had another card machine we could use, they looked at us, smiled, and waggled their heads. These people who when we arrived could speak English very well, had suddenly become mute. Eventually we got back in the car, now losing our patience with the situation, and turned the engine on. A guy came up to the window and said that there was another fuel station of the same company two kilometres down the road, so we should go there to see if our cards would work there. Finally somebody had made a suggestion, so off we went. Suddenly the mute found their voices again, shouting and chasing after the car. We explained again what we were doing (even though they had been right next to us when the suggestion had been made) and drove away.

Two kilometres later, there was no fuel station. We decided to drive until we found an ATM, get out some more cash, and drive back to pay. Not ideal, but we didn’t really know what else we could do.

We were driving less than 10 minutes when out of the blue, a car that was in the “hard shoulder” (aka left lane of the dual carriageway) pulled out into the middle of the road, facing the central reservation, and stopped dead. Between us and the car was a motorbike. Chris slammed on the brakes, pulling us to an emergency stop and miraculously not only did the bike manage to stop before hitting the car, we managed to stop inches away from the bike. What on earth was this crazy driver doing?!

We quickly discovered that the crazy driver was an unmarked police car, and they had pulled out into the road like this to pull us over. They wanted us to stop in the left lane and get out of the car. We were not happy about this – it was a dual carriageway and most of the cars, trucks, and buses were driving at around 70mph in the lane that we were stopped in! We asked if we could pull over somewhere safer, and they said no, assuring us that it was safe where we were. Chris was having none of it and pulled away, hazards on, driving 10mph to the nearest safe place we could find – a patch of mud to the side of the road.

Getting out of the car to speak with the police, Chris submerged his foot into ankle high mud. Remembering our muddy mayhem in Morocco, we didn’t fancy staying there, so he drove further away from the road, down the small hill, into what looked like the driveway of a small house with a large garden.

For the next three hours we discussed back and forth with the police about the 6000 Rupees. We showed them the cash we had, we showed them the cards we had, we asked to be taken to an ATM, we asked if we could pay in dollars. We were told no, and that we needed to go back to the petrol station. We explained that there wasn’t any point in going back because we still don’t have Indian credit cards or an additional 4000 Rupees. They told us to wait five minutes. We waited, waited some more, and then had exactly the same conversation again.

There was now five police officers with two cars and one motorbike, all blocking the entrance to the driveway so that we couldn’t get back onto the main road. Somehow we seemed to manage to convince them to lead us to an ATM, so we turned the engine back on, sped up the muddy hill and back onto the road. “Stop sir, you need to wait here five minutes.” It was getting on and we wanted to get to Agra, still another couple of hours away, before dark. We were also back to being parked on the dual carriageway in a completely unsafe position. We told them we weren’t going to stop there and wanted to be taken to an ATM. They agreed but then didn’t get into their cars to do this. After five or so minutes we started driving away very slowly, hazards flashing, shouting through the window that we wanted them to take us to an ATM. They got the message, drove in front of us, and our police convoy began.

200 yards down the road, our police convoy ended. The police pulled over “Stop sir, you need to wait here five minutes.” We were done waiting. We carried on driving, at the same speed, hazards still flashing, repeating through the window “ATM ATM ATM”.

This time the police followed us, but for some reason they kept their distance – keeping at least 200 metres behind us, even when we came to a stop in a traffic jam. Once through to the other side of the traffic, they completely disappeared. We carried on driving, turning off at the next town. There were plenty of ATMs, but they all were closed – in India the ATM is always in a little room next to the bank, but today (possibly because it was a Sunday, who knows), both the doors to the ATMs and the banks had their shutters down.

We’d ran out of options. There appeared to be nowhere to get cash, nobody had given us any alternative solutions, the police had disappeared, and we still had to drive most of the way to Agra before sundown. We didn’t intend to steal a full tank of fuel, but not knowing what else we could do, we kept on driving, arriving at our hotel just after sunset.

Getting into the lift to go to our room, an Australian man marvelled at the beautiful sunset he had just seen over the Taj Mahal – you should have been here earlier, he said, it was the best sunset of the week, absolutely amazing. Of course he didn’t know he was rubbing salt into our wounds – the final nail in the coffin of the worst 36 hours of the trip.

The end of the day – view of the Taj Mahal from our hotel. We ordered a Dominos and hoped for a better day tomorrow.

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