He’d been travelling for just over three months but this was his final destination before returning home. The thought made him nauseous. There was not much waiting for him there except the high expectations of parents which he had no idea how to meet. Join the family business, put that degree to good use, make some money and marry a nice girl. No thanks – he thought. Not me, there must be something better. But backpacking his way across a region, supposedly rich with history and opportunity, had done little to shed new light on how to escape his depressingly predictable destiny. As he pondered his predicament he became aware of someone calling him – ‘Ron, Ron’, repeatedly until he finally snapped out of his daydream and turned to see his latest travelling companion, Kris, waving at him a few yards further up the busy street.
‘What is it?’ he grumbled his reply.
‘You need to come here right now and check this out’, said Kris loudly, waving him over theatrically. People were glancing in his direction now, it was embarrassing.
‘Go on then what is it,’ he snapped as he walked over – by now this country held few real surprises for him. Shitty food, people so hard to read, and the dreadfully embarrassing countrymen that seemed to pop up at every tourist attraction and guest house.
‘Look’, said Kris pointing, ‘more beggars than we even saw yesterday. Where do they all come from for god’s sake.’
Ron could see what he meant. There was a fairly big group of them, a dozen perhaps. They looked particularly incongruous in the city’s high-end shopping district. Dirty, and a little threatening, despite the kids they had with them. Babies on laps and filthy toddlers in badly fitting clothes. One of these children even had a Manchester United shirt on. It made Ron want to laugh at the absurdity of it all. They were hanging around by a bus stop with its garish corporate advertising, this one showing a perfect little family grinning as they ate some processed food out of bowls.
Some of the beggars just chatted but others sat and gazed at the passing crowd intently. They had a sign with them – words scrawled on a battered piece of cardboard. Ron could not make out what was written and did not want to stare too long. These people always targeted the foreigners, he was sick of it.
‘Sad eh’, said Kris. ‘I mean surely when you have a load of rich folk or whatever marching about spending a fortune in all these shops, driving nice cars, you shouldn’t still have poverty like this.’
‘I suppose, but it’s been the same everywhere, what do you expect,’ answered Ron, ‘and anyway they’re refugees aren’t they? Come on, this is the main shopping area – we came here to get geared up – what is it you are looking for?’
‘Oh I don’t know – not much good at shopping,’ Kris shrugged. ‘What’s this place good for?’
‘Clothes I would imagine,’ answered Ron, ‘I might get some music or something.’
Kris laughed loudly and some of the locals stared, ‘Music! For goodness sake, who buys music in a shop – even here. Just download it.’
Ron felt humiliated so lashed out, ‘I suppose you’ll just want to buy something for that girlfriend of yours?’ He knew all too well that Kris was on the re-bound.
Kris just glowered and showed him the finger. ‘Very mature,’ Ron muttered.
In the end the two decided to part company and do their own thing for a while. Ron felt relieved. You travel half-way round the world, feeling a little lonely and homesick, then you meet someone from your own country, who seems to be from a similar background, hang out and then quickly discover being with them 24/7 is unbearable. He’d never been concerned about travelling on his own – you meet more people that way – he’d told his worried looking mother, but he had not reckoned on most of them being clowns.
As he made his way up the street, the crowds seemed to get thicker and thicker. They jostled past him but he was used to that. He cut his way through but somehow everyone seem to walk with a purpose, whereas he ambled along and now and again changed direction as something caught his eye. This seemed to cause confusion. No one met his gaze, but he was occasionally pushed and shoved and at one point he had his foot painfully stepped on. He had been told this was the spot in the city for shopping but he was still amazed at how busy it was, despite all that he had heard about the increasingly desperate economic situation. Everyone just seems to shop, he thought to himself. Perhaps it makes them feel better? There were of course many foreign faces like his own; most seemed to stride along with a purpose, like they knew exactly where they were going.
He turned into a small side street to catch his breath. As he made his way down the narrow lane he found himself outside some sort of textiles shop and decided to step inside to get even further away from the hubbub. The small boutique was pleasantly calm inside but he was almost immediately approached by a pushy salesman.
‘What is it you are looking for sir?’ he said, with a forced looking smile on his face. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone? He was sure he was being overcharged wherever he went because of the colour of his skin and he certainly had bought several items he did not need and did not really have room for in his luggage.
‘Well er, mm, you know just looking for something for my mother.’ The words came out before he’d really decided how he was going to respond. It was true, he did need a gift for mum but what on earth was this place going to provide? It was hardly a souvenir shop. There were plenty of textiles shops at home. But the salesman was off – pointing things out and encouraging Ron to rub various materials between his fingers and making admiring noises about the colours.
After what felt like an hour but was actually ten minutes, he finally escaped complete with a red pashmina, gift wrapped. At least it would not take up much room in his bag. Feeling slightly embarrassed by his purchase and his inability to manage even the nicest and most gently spoken shop people he quickly made his way further down the back streets, following several twists and turns. It was not until he was pulling his phone from his pocket to call Kris to find where they were meeting for lunch, as per an earlier plan, that he realised his surroundings looked entirely unfamiliar. Surely he could not have strayed that far from the main shopping precinct? Damn it, he thought, lost again.
Ron’s ability to get lost was almost legendary. At school he was subject to much teasing from the other boys for being clueless when it came to navigating the busy city that he has spent his whole childhood in.
‘Hey man lost again, ha ha’, they’d call out, if he was ever late for class, before the teacher quietened them down and ordered him shame-faced to his seat. Now, at the age of twenty three, friends, girlfriends and family still teased him about his lack of any sense of direction.
His father had humiliated him in front of his aunties and uncles, brothers and sisters and all those that had gathered to see him off back in the spring, by presenting him with a map and a compass. ‘To help you find your way son’, he laughed and everyone joined in mocking him. Some even clapped.
‘Just follow all the other people who look like you,’ shouted his older brother laughing. He blushed at the memory. A first class computer science graduate and they just sodding laughed. He fumed when he thought of it.
The street he found himself in looked quite depressing on this grey overcast day and the sidewalk was littered with filth, uncollected rubbish, broken glass and dog mess. He looked properly, perhaps for the first time in some minutes, at his surroundings. Boarded-up shop fronts, dwellings with grimy windows and scruffy front entrances, overgrown with weeds. Where the hell was he? This did not look like the city centre! He stared at his cell. Oh great he thought, no signal – again. Why was he not surprised? Either his phone was out of charge or the signal had gone. No google maps then, he grimaced. He was reminded yet again of the joke map his father had presented to him. It was not even of the right bloody country never mind the right city.
He was so busy thinking about whether he could retrace his steps whilst still brooding over his humiliation back home, he did not see the two men approaching him from behind. The first he knew about their presence was when one grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around, the other shouted ‘Ok we’ll have that.’ The phone was snatched from his hand. ‘You rich foreigners don’t need it anyway. You can just buy another.’ Both were young looking – perhaps in their late teens – and one, to Ron’s horror, carried an ugly looking little blade. Ron felt his guts lurch and bile rising in his throat.
‘Money!’ barked the taller of the two while his knife carrying colleague looked nervously about. Ron did not speak but just handed over his money and cards. His hand shook as he held them out and they were snatched from him. And then they were gone. They had fled around the corner so fast he hardly saw them go. Afterwards, he struggled to remember what they had been wearing or their faces. They all looked the same to him anyway. He remembered the glint of the knife though and the thick accent of the taller one who spoke. Those memories visited him in his dreams for a long time after.
It was not until after the meeting with the bored looking police officer, a woman, the successful attempt to reach his distraught parents and on the following day, the wiring of money and the purchase of a cheap phone, that Ron was able to get his stuff together for the trip home. As for Kris – well he lost his number along with his iPhone and he never saw him back at the accommodation. He was a loser anyway and it was not as if he ever tried to contact Ron again.
It was later that evening, while he packed, that he found the pashmina under his bed. It was still in its carefully folded paper gift wrapping, in the bottom of a crumpled plastic shopping bag with little white handles and the store’s logo printed on the side. He’d clutched that bag right through the robbery. He had not even noticed he was carrying it and his assailants seemed to have ignored it also. Funny really he thought. Then he burst into tears sitting down heavily on the side of his hotel bed, putting his head in his hands. The shock of what had happened to him the day before finally hitting him.
God he missed home so much. This country had overwhelmed him, with its crass commercialism, bizarre cultures and behaviours and its misplaced arrogance – particularly towards foreigners. He just wanted to get away. He did not care if it was steeped in shared history and was great for your Christmas shopping. Surely all the hype around it was misplaced. Why did so many come here – even stay? It was beyond him.
Twelve hours later he was heaving his rucksack through the airport, casting his gaze from left to right toward the other side of the arrivals gate to see if he could spot his father’s driver. There he was. Good. Right on time. The heat, noise and smells of home hit him as they left the terminal together.
As he sat in the back seat staring out at all the familiar sights he felt depressed once again. What the hell was he going to do? His trip really had changed nothing. Three countries visited, many new experiences notched up and for what? Maybe his parents were right. All this backpacking, pretending you are poor, when really you could go and dine in the finest restaurant, check into a five star hotel, or just fly home whenever you wanted, really was a waste of time. Worst, it was a lie.
They were now in the city centre, passing the columns and glass of the railway station, less than a mile from his parents’ apartment. The car ground to a halt yet again. The traffic certainly had not improved since he’d left.
‘What’s the hold up now Gopal?’ he asked the driver.
‘Very sorry Mr Rahul sir, there is a cow at the top of the street holding everything up.’
Ron stared into Paharganj – now there is a crowded street, he thought. He could see many western tourists flocking up and down hassled by hawkers and beggars. God, last times he been down there were when he and his school friends used to go and buy fireworks for Diwali. Bloody dreadful place. What made people leave their own comfortable homes to visit such shit holes? He tried to remember the phrase he heard his father use despairingly once, when describing these young visitors to his country. What was it? ‘Development tourists,’ that was it. What a joke.
‘Just drive around, Gopal,’ he instructed the driver. The car slowly edged forward, horns blaring all around. No place like home, he thought. He stared out of the window watching the sun turning orange on the hazy, polluted New Delhi skyline.
About the author
James Georgalakis is the Director of Communications and Impact at the Institute of Development Studies and has spent almost twenty years leading policy communications and support for research impact for NGOs and researchers.