India in 1987 was a much different country than it is today—different, but not necessarily cleaner. Its economy was closed, and the tourist industry, such as it was, catered mostly to hippies looking for cheap weed and spiritual emancipation, preferably from the same dealer. We were exceptions: two backpacking travelers looking to conquer a new country. Of course, if cheap weed and spiritual emancipation happened to find us, who were we to fight karma?
We arrived in Delhi early in the morning, jet-lagged but confident. After a successful sweep through Europe, we felt prepared to engage the chaos of India, the world’s largest democracy. Seasoned amateurs, we eschewed travel agents and tour guides, preferring to find our own way along the crooked path.
Because of India’s currency controls, we couldn’t obtain rupees in advance. We needed to exchange money in an official transaction where the receipt proved compliance with the law. But we’d arrived on a Sunday, and all the banks were closed. That left us with two choices, both of which might have soiled the shorts of less experienced travelers. We could either live like locals—begging for our supper and sleeping on the street—or we could take our chances with the notorious black market.
We opted for the latter choice, but it wasn’t a decision we took lightly. We were good citizens back home. We paid our taxes, fed the meters, and stopped for pedestrians most of the time. We were hardly criminals.
Luckily, the first taxi driver we met volunteered to help. As he tore up the carpets of his cab looking for the right denominations, he revealed a hefty stash—a first-hand lesson in free-market economics. Twenty minutes into our Indian adventure and 10,000 miles from home, we’d already broken the law.
The transaction complete, the driver offered his services as a tour guide, but how could we trust him? A taxi driver who doubles as an illegal money-laundering operation might be capable of anything. Besides, the idea of a tour guide made as much sense to us as a silk bathrobe on a Himalayan expedition. Feeling somewhat vulnerable, we asked the driver just to take us to a modest hotel we’d read about.
Five minutes after the driver zigzagged into the swirling traffic, we began to relax. Five minutes after that, the police pulled us over.
As we shrunk into the fuzzy back seat, our driver engaged the policeman in a heated conversation. We had no idea what they were saying. Palms sweating, we thought of running. Grab the backpacks and hightail it out of there. It seemed foolish, but so did spending our first night in Delhi in jail.
A lull in the argument made us clutch our bags and our sphincters, but apparently, they’d reached an accord. The taxi driver doled out what we later learned was a standard baksheesh (a bribe), and we were underway again. The funny thing was that he apologized to us for the delay.
Fifteen minutes later, we pulled into a hotel, but it wasn’t the one we’d requested. “This hotel is much better!” the driver insisted. “Take a look. If you are not happy, I will remove you for free.” After all he’d been through, we felt we owed him this much and ultimately acquiesced. We paid him after he promised to wait for us.
The lobby was littered with hippies who’d found at least half of what they’d come for. If any of them did in fact find spiritual emancipation, we couldn’t tell through the thick, purple haze that overwhelmed the place. We decided immediately to stick to our original plan, but when we returned the street, our bags sat on the curb and the cab was tooling away.
As our taxi’s dust settled on this road less traveled, we realized that the wheel of karma, greased with rupees, had just rolled over us. We were strangers in a strange land, where one handout washes the other. Black markets and bribes had delivered us from the airport to a waiting bowl of hashish. We picked up our packs and headed back to the lobby. It seemed as good a time as any to start practicing acceptance.
Lessons Learned: Mother India has a history that predates most of Europe. Its exotic ways—sacred cows and painted elephants, for example—will keep your camera clicking. But it’s not a trip for everyone. Even though the country now welcomes tourists with open arms, make sure you still have your wallet after the big hug. India finally has a free market, and it’s a free-for-all.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 5
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 5
Inactivity Guide: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 5
Fun Fraction: 2/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Indira Gandhi International Airport
Native Population: 13,000,000
Normal Attractions: Old City architecture like the Red Fort and Jama Masjid, history, markets, fine exotic dining, and lots of crowds.
Final Point of Interest: Delhi is said to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.