Authors note: A forewarning – this is a pretty negative account about India. Unfortunately for us, we had very few enjoyable moments during our time there. Our experience is our own, and this account is formed entirely of my own opinions. Many many people visit India and absolutely fall in love with it. It just wasn’t for us.
I am sharing our thoughts, experiences, and opinions not just to rant and complain, but because we always wanted to provide an honest account of our journey. I also feel that to fully comprehend the incident that was our “Delhi Disaster” it is important to know the context, our state of mind, and other influencing factors surrounding it.
Day 185: 20/09/19
Location: New Delhi, India
Miles Driven: 10
It was our fifth day in Delhi, and the day that marked six months since we started our trip. Over the past few days we had got some rest and then walked around some of the city; visiting the Lotus Temple, Indira Ghandi’s house/museum and Lodhi Gardens. We had also met up with my parent’s friends Komal, her husband Dr Rajiv, and their daughter Myra. They had hosted my parents during their trip to Delhi in January 2018. It was brilliant to meet and get to know them over a tasty lunch of South Indian cuisine.
As a whole, India is an overwhelming attack on all of your senses – it is full of colour, people, sights, sounds, smells, and in Delhi this is only amplified even further.
I haven’t yet taken time to properly describe the driving conditions in India. We knew it would be the worst we’d ever encountered, but knowing that fact does not come close to preparing you for the reality. It is very difficult to describe the driving conditions fully because chaos cannot be described in a logical way. Road rules are non-existent. No attention is paid to road markings, signs, lane discipline, which side of the road to drive on, traffic police, speed limits, drink driving limits, right of way, traffic lights, the distinction between pavement and road – the list is endless. Animals and people roam freely along the roads – even the toll expressway to Delhi was used by many as a running track. There are trucks, buses, cars, vans, bicycles, tuk-tuks, cycle rickshaws, motorbikes, mopeds, pedestrians, dogs, cats, ox, goats, chickens, cows and more absolutely everywhere, no matter how big or small the road, all of the time.
Right of way is determined by vehicle size and volume of horn. At the top of the hierarchy is buses which have horns that play musical tunes so loudly you cannot hear yourself think. They do not care what is in their way, they go and stop regardless, and you had better jump out of their way as quickly as possible otherwise you will be sorry. The truck drivers appear to be slightly more aware of what was around them, but by a very small margin.
All of the horns are modified to be louder than factory standard and are used constantly – get out of my way, I’m coming through, I’m overtaking, I’m undertaking, I’m staying where I am. It is every man for himself, with absolutely no consideration of the other vehicles, people, animals, obstacles on the road. Even the sacred cows don’t escape the mayhem – our taxi driver on the way to the Wagah border closing ceremony hit one whilst we were driving down a dual carriageway.
Every tool you have at your disposable – lights, full beams, indicators and horn are used to tell everything else on the road to get out of your way. It is impossible not to use the horn, but at the same time, it is completely pointless because nobody knows which horn belongs to which vehicle. If you are in front, you are in the right, even if you have just crashed into a car to get yourself in front of them. Drivers do not look before pulling out onto a small road, big road, even the highway. They are ahead, so it is the responsibility of the vehicles that are already on the road to move out of their way. Wing mirrors are pointless. Most of the time they have them folded in, but even if they are folded out, the drivers quite simply do not look behind them. We were told this by many different locals. Only worry about what is in front of you, countless people said to us, do not look back.
The only mark on Natalie before we left for the trip was a small chip in the paintwork on the front bumper. This occurred on an off road track in the Lake District back home before we left for this trip. We were coming down a very steep hill, round a very narrow corner; Chris was driving and I was supposed to be directing him to navigate the corner without hitting the low wall in front of the car. I didn’t do a very good job of it, leaving a permanent scar on Natalie reminding me not to let her get so close next time. Other than this though, Natalie was perfect. Chris is the best driver I know. He is exceptionally skilled and in 14 years of driving has never had an accident – until of course we arrived into India.
I am not exaggerating when I say that we had a collision with another vehicle every single time we drove the car in India. Every single journey. Driving required both of us to completely concentrate at every moment. A couple of hours driving in India tired us out to the same extent that driving for 10 hours would in Europe.
There was no escape from the dangers during traffic. The British may have taught India many things, but how to queue was certainly not one of them. Everyone would cram into any minuscule space available – unless you were touching the bumper of the vehicle in front, another vehicle would force it’s way in the gap. But at least in traffic everything was going slowly, so when something bumped into us it was unlikely to do any damage. The bigger roads allow for more space between vehicles, but were much more dangerous due to the higher speeds at which everyone was driving (although due to the road conditions it was rare to go above 50mph).
Most of our collisions were just small bumps/knocks, but on more than one occasion they resulted in knocking over motorbikes, ripping off bumpers, denting other people’s cars, and spinning cars sideways when they caught on our bumper. Every single collision was the result of someone driving into us because either they didn’t look to see if anything was there, or because they expected us to move out of their way by driving off of the road or into another vehicle on the other side of us. At home, a couple of our accidents would have led to insurance claims, possibly even road closures and police assistance. Not in India. Luckily for us, Natalie is strong, and the other vehicles always came off worse than we did. With the bigger crashes we would stop and speak to the drivers, but they were nearly always completely oblivious that they were at fault, and there was no point in trying to exchange insurance details, or report the incidents to the police – it would have just been a complete waste of time. Stopping and getting out of the car invited the masses of people with nothing better to do to come over and watch us, circling the car, getting closer and closer, prodding and poking the car, trying to open the doors. They were mainly just intrigued, but it felt claustrophobic, intimidating, and unsafe.
Coming from England, where smog is virtually non-existent, it is hard to believe the extent to which it consumes Delhi, even when you can see it with your own eyes. Buildings only a few hundred metres away were almost completely invisible. The air is so thick with smog you can literally feel it in your lungs. It is difficult to breathe properly. Nearly everybody in our hostel had a cough. Within five days of arriving in Delhi, Chris developed a chest infection, and I followed suit a day or two later. We have since read a statistic that the poor air quality in the city causes irreversible damage to 50% of the children that live there, and is estimated to kill 2.5 million people every year.
Another overwhelming aspect of our Indian experience was the people. During the rest of the trip, a stand out consistent factor has been the kindness of strangers. Of course we have met a few unpleasant people, but largely we have been blown away by how friendly and generous people across the world are. Unfortunately for us, our experience in India has been the opposite – we did find genuinely kind and wonderful people, but they were a rare gem, hidden behind countless others who were only interested in us if they gained in some kind of way.
Throughout our trip, we are often asked for selifes and photos. Most often, we will have had a conversation or exchange with someone, and before we part ways, they will ask for a photo (or sometimes we will ask) – no problem whatsoever. Here however, phones would be thrust into our faces by everyone and anyone, demanding “selfie” and then walking away without so much of a “hello” or “thank you”. If we accepted a selfie request, immediately a crowd of at least 5 or 6 would gather, each person wanting multiple photos on their own phone. If we refused, it was met with a more confrontational demand, or a photo being taken regardless. Our patience wore thin very quickly.
Aside from the selfies, people seemed unwilling to help us. It was impossible to ask for directions as you would be directed the wrong way, or told that your intended destination was closed. Yes/No questions are almost always answered with “yes”, as are questions with two options (e.g. “should we park here or there?” “yes”). The people that did offer help did so for a fee. Nothing is done for free. Hotel staff appeared to find our custom inconvenient, taking them away from watching YouTube videos behind reception. We rarely felt welcome, and anything we asked for was never followed through – in Agra it took at 3 hours, 6 phones calls, and 2 trips down to reception just to get a new toilet roll. In a four star hotel. Whenever we raised an issue (such as the WiFi or air conditioning not working), it was met with a smile, a waggle of the head, and us being told there was “no problem sir/mam”. There are countless examples, and unfortunately for the people of India, each one wound us up even more than the last. It was a cultural difference that we just could not understand, and after a while, we gave up trying to.
A simple 5 minute walk to the shop near to our hostel was exhausting – walking along the road (as the pavement was either blocked or missing completely) meant that we developed twitches looking all around us trying to ensure we weren’t about to be run over by the constant stream of beeping traffic coming in every possible direction regardless of which side of the road we walked. At the same time it is imperative that you look where you are walking at all times. Our feet were sweltering in trainers, but the streets are too filthy to walk in flip flops. Ducking every few feet to avoid low hanging electrical wires, we were always watching where we stepped to try to avoid the rubbish, animal poo, open sewers, broken glass, dead animals, scraps of food, and whatever else was littered across the streets. Tuk tuks would stop next to us, wanting us to jump in, even when we had already arrived at our intended location. People would accost us in the street, asking for selfies, or where we were going – trying to convince us that we should go with them to their shop/restaurant/tourist attraction. In the shop you had to fight your way to the counter, using your body to block other people from pushing ahead even whilst you were being served. As we left the shop, children would run towards us, pulling at our legs begging for money, or for some of the food we had just purchased. To add to this, it was fairly hot, and extremely humid – at least 90% humidity every day. Within minutes of being outside we were hot, sweaty, and wanting to go back to the coolness of air conditioning.
All in all we were worn down almost to breaking point, ready to leave, and apprehensive as to what curveball the country could throw at us next. We were glad to have been, but also very glad that we would soon be leaving. Or so we thought.
Before we left Delhi (and headed to Nepal) we wanted to visit Old Delhi and The Red Fort. But first, we had an appointment at the Land Rover delearship’s service department to get our tracking done as our countless crashes had knocked it askew.
Chris insisted on overseeing the work as it was being done, so can bear witness to the fact that three people were working on the car non stop to get the tracking done. With an extra seven people ducking in and out periodically to “help”. There were no complications, and yet somehow, for reasons we cannot identify, the thirty minute job took seven hours. Paying took another thirty minutes. Our card was accepted on the first attempt, but multiple pieces of paper had to be signed, put into envelopes, taken out of envelopes, taken into different offices: one faff after another. As we left, we were once again faced with driving in the dark in India. We briefly considered leaving Natalie at the dealership, getting a taxi back to the hostel, and collecting her the next morning, but it was only a couple of miles away. How much can go wrong in two miles we thought. Turns out, the answer is a lot.
0.2 miles from the hostel, we missed our turning and took the next road that according to the map would led us “home”. The road was busy, narrow, and unlit (pretty standard even though we were in the middle of the country’s capital city). Following it round, we came to a very low barrier. It was easily under 2 metres, and with Natalie at 2.5m high, there was no chance we could get through. We stopped, resulting in the cars behind us to block us in, stopping themselves mere inches away from our back bumper. We couldn’t go forwards, and we couldn’t go backwards. We put the car into reverse and beeped then horn, but nobody would move to let us free. The next few minutes involved a lot of shouting, beeping, swearing. The drivers and passengers of the cars behind us kept repeating that we should go forwards, we would fit under the barrier “no problem”, never mind that there was nearly a metre difference between the top of the barrier and the top of our car. Eventually we forced our way onto the other side of the road, not being given enough space to turn around properly, we had to reverse all the way back to the next turn off.
There was suddenly an almighty crunch. We had reversed straight into a tall tree that was slap bang in the middle of the road, so central to the car that it was invisible in the wing mirrors. Chris got out to inspect the damage – although not a lot could be seen in the pitch black. This gave all of the cars around us the opportunity to once again block us in. A lot more shouting, beeping, swearing and screaming ensued before we could finally turn the car around, and drive the short distance back to the hostel.
Back at the hostel, we looked at the door properly for the first time. The tree had hit the spare wheel, which had pushed into the door – smashing the rear window completely, denting the door inwards to the extent that it would no longer close, and bending the table that was attached to the door. Our roof box was also damaged – the hinges snapped and catches broken meaning that it was no longer water tight and not lockable. We have since discovered that it also possibly twisted the rear body of the car. We realised this the first time we got fuel after the accident – the filler cap wouldn’t open, and it needed to be adjusted to get it to close again afterwards. Luckily, there was only the smallest amount of damage to our setup in the back.
We know that we should have been grateful that it wasn’t worse – we weren’t injured, and neither was anyone else. It is just a door. It is just a very very squashed door. But we were too angry and upset to think like this. Angry at ourselves for not getting a taxi and driving back in the daylight. Angry at every single driver in India for their dangerous, inconsiderate, and terrible driving. Angry that we had no one to blame but ourselves. Angry that this one wrong turn would mean that we would not be leaving India the day after tomorrow. Angry that we now had to source and fit a new back door for Natalie – in a country where Land Rover Discovery II’s have never been sold. Angry at how much money we would have to spend importing the parts to fix it. Angry that this horrible horrible country had worn us down to breaking point. Angry that we had let it do so.
Somehow, we forced ourselves to walk to a shop to buy a couple of rolls of cling film and then wrapped up the window as best as we could in case it rained. After that we went to bed, and stayed there for 3 full days before we could face looking at our Delhi Disaster again. Happy six month anniversary of our trip of a lifetime.