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I was a twenty-year old Westerner with a desire to prove myself as some kind of worldly and brilliant adventurer, so naturally I'd set off to India with no plan in mind. To this day, I don't regret the decision – I learnt something from it (I hope). Shortly after touching down in Delhi, I immediately felt like I was in way over my head - picked up by a taxi after my late night arrival, told by the driver that the street my hotel was on had been closed due to concerns over public safety, and whisked off to a tourist office that could perhaps help me set things straight.
The small office bore a government sign out the front, and the walls inside were lined with framed 'Incredible India' posters. I was greeted by a six foot four Sikh, with arms as thick as my chest. He had someone brew me a cup of chai, and sat me down outside while he walked back into the office to call my hotel, and see what could be done. 'Jeeze', I thought, 'this is some real quality service'. Marveling at India's tourist infrastructure, I sparked a cigarette, and felt a little more at ease – soon I'd have somewhere to shower, and pass out for a few hours.
My enormous friend returned a short while later, saying that the hotel I'd booked would be unreachable, but that he knew of one not too far away that could put me up for the night – free of charge. Thanking him profusely, I hopped back in the taxi, and was whisked off to the spot.
I woke early the next morning, and gathered myself for the day ahead. Once down in the lobby, the guy behind the counter asked me brightly where I was going today. I shrugged. Honestly, looking out the glass front onto the street, it struck me that I actually had no idea whereabouts in Delhi I was. He said it was no problem, and that he'd organize a driver to set me on the right track. I'll be damned if the whole universe wasn't conspiring in my favor.
Sitting on the front steps, having a smoke (India really amped up my nicotine addiction at the time) and attracting many bewildered stares from locals, I felt a deep sense of the strangeness of my surroundings. A white face stands out, especially on a nameless street in Delhi. Soon enough, a rickshaw rolled up nearby, and an old gypsy of a man emerged from the displaced dust.
"Hello, my friend!"
Several gold teeth flashed as he grinned widely at me, and motioned to the rickshaw. Stubbing out my smoke, I climbed obligingly into the back.
We zipped along the early morning street, lined with people setting up their stalls for the day. Stray dogs roamed through the crowd, and pale sunlight filtered through the haze overhead. To my surprise, he pulled up in front of the tourist office from the night before.
"Here! You make plan, my friend!"
He gave me another roguish grin, and I nodded slowly in response. A short while later, I was sitting in the office with another cup of chai clasped in my hands, being asked where I wanted to go in India. Over the course of the next hour or so, me and a bearded man by the name of Raj plotted out everywhere I was interested in visiting – Varanasi, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, and of course Kashmir. I was told by this smiling, helpful devil that it would be no trouble to arrange my accommodation, transport, and meals right then and there - no trouble at all. Gazing around me, at the very official-looking government posters and ministry of tourism signs, I shrugged – why not, what was the worst that could happen?