Having been to Bali in ’82, Morocco in ’89 and ’00 and Turkey earlier in ’01, I felt I was ready to tackle the Big one…India. How wrong could I be…
It was 2001 and my flight was booked for September 16th. On September 11th, the world changed overnight. Anyone wishing to fly East, beyond Europe, was now flying over potential ‘Enemy Territory’ and the World’s leaders were all grappling with the consequences of what had just happened in New York. Airline companies, more than most, were trying to adjust to a changed world. So, it was with a sinking heart and a high level of resignation, that I turned up at Heathrow Airport on the 16th.
I’ll probably never fully understand how I was able to board a flight that had officially been canceled, let alone how I got through an Airport in complete chaos and peppered with armed Police and Soldiers. And how, to my utter amazement, I was also rushed through a nominal security check and asked if I would mind carrying my own luggage out to the plane. The very opposite of what should have been happening considering the circumstances. The reason? It was simply a case of being in the right place and talking to the right person at the right time…completely by chance. As I was trying to fathom the complete chaos around the check-in area, I happened to turn to a women with a high-viz jacket on and an ID badge round her neck. She looked like she was in Hell and I sympathised with her plight. She asked me where I was hoping to travel to and when I said “India”, she grabbed my arm and my smooth transit through Heathrow began. Extraordinary. I think she was at breaking point. Having probably spent the previous few days, going round the Airport telling people that they couldn’t go to the places they wanted to go to. She must have seen in me someone, at last, that she could actually help, and by breaking all the rules, get me on a flight to Delhi. I like to think she had a moment of catharsis…a brief moment in which she could do the opposite of what she was tasked with doing and actually get someone somewhere they wanted to be. I can’t thank her enough.
A somewhat auspicious start to a trip that was to contain even more drama.
Within minutes of my arrival, I was hoodwinked by the official Tourist Taxi Booking service, into taking a Taxi that had no intention of taking me to my Hotel of choice but to another of his choice. As it turned out, it was a nice Hotel at the same price. So no damage done…so far. Then at around midnight, I got a call from someone who said he was an official[that word again], Tourist Agent and could he help me with my travel arrangements. I said I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep and that all my travel plan’s were in place, Thank You. The next morning after breakfast, there he was in person. He was charming, had lived in London and felt unthreatening… To cut a long story short, he somehow persuaded me to spend 75% of my 3 week budget on 10 days with my own driver and any choice of Hotel at my chosen destination, all in. Needless to say, that’s not exactly how things worked out.
Within 24hrs of setting off, we arrived in the outskirts of Mandi, on our way to Shimla. Again, long story short, I ended up being stripped to my underpants whilst a knife was held at my throat. I really thought I was a goner…but I survived. Right at the end of my trip, in the stunning village of Kausani, overlooking a long stretch of the Himalaya’s, I became,suddenly, very ill. After 24hrs of excessive illness, effecting just about every part of my body [I’ll spare you the gruesome details], I was discovered sprawled-out on my bedroom floor by a cleaner, who immediately sent for a Doctor. Again, I survived.
It took me about a year to recover from that trip..’.to the country I never want to set foot in again’. Then something strange happened. I couldn’t stop thinking about India and as time has passed, it’s become the one place I really want to go back to. It really got under my skin and all I remember now is it’s outstanding beauty and extraordinary cultural life. Maybe, just maybe…