this can't be real.
03.03.2013 - 03.06.2013
After several days on a beach in Goa with the fabulous Yann, whom I'd met in Ooty, I was ready for the final leg of my trip in India: Delhi. Given all of the media frenzy surrounding the recent attacks and rapes in the capitol, was I understandably nervous about my time there. Fortunately, Tuomas, my Finnish hiking buddy I'd met in Nepal, emailed me about a week prior and said he would meet me in Delhi. Excellent- a guy to accompany me in this city notorious for hateful and violent acts against women. And to make it better, I adored him. And what made it perfect was that his flight got in a couple hours after mine did. I flew from Goa and waited for his flight from Nepal to get in. I perched myself at a counter that faced the international arrival gate and got myself a horrifically over-sugared and overpriced latte and waited. I was so excited to see him, explore the city with him, see what there was to see. Not only did I not have to be nervous or worry about finding a safe (and probably expensive) place, but I would get to have more fun because he would be there.
As I was waiting, a girl stopped in front of me. She spoke with a thick Asian accent and asked me if I'd booked a place. I hadn't, I told her- I was waiting for my friend, who had been to Delhi before and knew some areas with good budget accommodation. She asked if she could share a taxi with us to the same area and maybe help her find a place, as the places she had called from the airport (that she'd found on the airport map) were out of her price range. Turns out the places in her price range would not have a spare rupee to spend on advertising on an airport map. So of course, I said yes, and she went off to retrieve her luggage from the luggage storing area. Tuomas arrived and it was great to see him. We wandered around a little looking for Lydia, who was nowhere to be found. We found her outside on a bench, near nothing- how she expected us to find her, I have no idea. She had with her two things: a small, floppy, half-filled backpack- (the kind a grade school child would have) and an old-lady grocery cart. And what was in the cart but a comforter, still in its plastic, zipped case, fresh from the store. Anyway, find her we did, and we hopped on a bus to Pahar Ganj, the area for budget travelers. I'd heard that traveling alone in this area was not an intelligent choice, but I was fine with it because Tuomas was by my side. We went from place to place, winding our way through the narrow passageways with secret doors and shops that appeared out of nowhere, with Lydia rolling her cart over dead rats and open sewers. We established a routine: Tuomas and I would be happy with the price, the lock, and the bathroom, and Lydia would not be, so we'd continue on. Her anxiety was contagious, and I was getting ready to say goodbye to her. Finally, Tuomas and I settled on a place that was $7/ night. We dropped our stuff off and walked (rolled) around more to find a place for Lydia. I didn't necessarily mind, but I only had a few days with Tuomas and didn't feel like spending any more of that time looking for a place that fit Lydia's criteria (at MOST $10/ night, safe, and clean)- a place which didn't exist.
After wandering around for another 30 minutes or so, we ran into a group of Japanese tourists who pointed us in the direction of a place that had been recommended by this or that guidebook. In the lobby, Tuomas and I made smalltalk with the owner and oogled his fish tank. The owner closed his eyes and waved his hands in front of him, and said: "Don't try to bargain with me. I have a set price that is the same for everyone. So don't waste my time or yours." I liked him. Lydia went to check out the room and, shockingly, returned with deeper breaths. SOLD. She started to try to ask a question, but in her flustered mixture of excitement, relief and rudimentary understanding of English and social cues, the owner started to get agitated and thought she was trying to bargain with him. So he started to raise his voice and she did the same, thinking he was just as excited to have a customer as she was to have a room to stay in. This battle went back and forth for a while until he looked at me incredulously and asked me where I found her. She lugged her cart up the stairs and came back down to have dinner with us. On our way out, I asked her if she had a guidebook. She looked at the ones offered on the counter of the hostel, picked up a Korean guidebook and flipped through it, and then said she'd grab one after dinner. When I asked her if she spoke Korean, she looked at me like I was a racist who couldn't tell one Asian from another. I was too annoyed to argue with her.
We had dinner together at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the chaos of the Delhi street. Throughout our dinner, everything began to crystalize. Lydia, from China, had never been outside of China, had no Chinese guidebook, no command of the English language, no plan, no itinerary, no day to be back in China. What she did have, however, was an intense fear of everything and a cart that was like a big neon sign, telling everyone that she was clueless.
After dinner, Lydia asked us to bring her up to her room. She asked us to sit down on her bed (the room was really nice, definitely worth the $10). She told us (me) how she had arrived in Delhi the night before around midnight. She had slept at the airport and then took a taxi to the same area where we found ourselves now and had felt understandably threatened when a group of men stared and began walking towards her. Then she told me this was at 5 o'clock in the morning. In the dark. Alone. In Delhi. To be a savvy traveler, we all have to start somewhere, and I respected that she was starting here. But really? Had she done no research before leaving China? What was she thinking, traveling around any major city at 5am with her luggage? As I listened to her story, Tuomas patiently and quietly, laid down on the bed and proceeded to fall asleep. It took us about 45 minutes to get out of the room.
The next morning, we left our place at 5.55am to pick her up on our way to the train station. We were headed to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, and agreed to let her come with us to the station. But, I told her, Tuomas and I are going to the Taj Mahal alone. I assured her that she would be fine, that it just takes some time to adjust, and that other travelers were like us and willing to help if she needed it. On our way in a rickshaw, we passed a nice-looking park, which was dark and misty as the sun rose. "Ohh, beautiful. I will spend the morning there." There's no way she couldn't see all of the homeless men who were sleeping there. This was exhausting. I had to instruct her to get 3 teas and slowly drink them at the station before leaving to go anywhere that was well-lit and full of women.
Tuomas and I had to run to catch the express to Agra. We waved goodbye and said we'd see her for dinner.
We never heard from her again. I can laugh about it now, about the absurdity of it all. But I still wonder, months later, if she is okay. If she had run away from home. If she had found what she was looking for.