India

Saturday 5 Feb 1994

8:25 am – Approaching Heathrow

Rain in Manchester.  Take-off through a bank of cloud, then… sunshine!  It looks like the Arctic below, snow flurries, not cloud.  Then ten minutes of circling Heathrow and down, with views of the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf, and finally a safe landing and more sunshine.

As for us, this is just the start.  I go deaf due to a continuing and troublesome cold.  J forgot to take her travel sick pill until en route, and therefore feels a bit delicate.  We’re both tired from a largely sleepless night, but the adrenalin is pumping.  Months of planning, talking about, paying for and looking forward to “the holiday”.  Hardly seems real as yet, especially 5 weeks away from work.  J spent last night worrying about Valley school (where she worked as an Occupational Therapist)!  Leaving the house, the cat, the cars, my parents (and the result of my dad’s biopsy on 15th Feb), J’s parents… a rare chance to forget all troubles for a time.

10:00 – Thai Airlines 747, 15 minutes to take-off

The organisation that goes into booking, loading and running a Jumbo is phenomenal!  In these circumstances we made it with remarkable speed and smoothness, the only hitch being J’s camera apparently stuck in self-timer mode when Concorde hove into view.

In international travel you meet all sorts of ‘characters’, seasoned fliers one and all.  The security queue revealed a richly cosmopolitan range of people, all colours, shapes and sizes, a fair number of Sikhs returning to Delhi among them.  One chap we met was flying on the same plane to Bangkok, en route to Phuket.  He’d been to Hong Kong last year and raved about it.  He works in the police force and began his international wanderings by travelling to Brazil as a football referee.

This is my first 747 flight.  Economy (or cattle class as it is sometimes known) isn’t quite as bad as I remember from being sardined into a seat on a chartered 737 to fly to the USA. Perhaps it could do with refurbishment though.  We’re right next to the staff meal serving HQ.  Elsewhere it’s 10 abreast.  the hostesses are lovely – Thai girls, suitably compact, in whatever they call the Thai equivalent of silk saris.

13:50 (UK) 19:20 (Indian)

Food: so-so prawn curry.  Film: Beverly Hillbillies (also so-so) plus Bronx Story with De Niro.  Snowy landscapes below (Alps?)  J tired.  I inflate my neck pillow and do the crossword.  Indian kids crawl along the gangway.  This may be one long bus ride, though it has to be said that bus companies rarely make you fill out detailed disembarkation/ immigration forms!

17:55 (UK) 23:25 (Indian)

An awfully long time later.  We dozed fitfully, ate our sandwiches, read and wondered how Man United got on at QPR.  Now looking forward to landing, having apparently travelled over frozen wastes of Latvia, Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  One nice touch – a spray of orchid to each and every lady and gentleman.

6 Feb  11:50 (Indian)

Phew!  A chance to reflect on last night from our room at the very colonial Oberoi Maidens hotel.

Local time, about 1am:  The airport at Delhi is ever so slightly tawdry and very humid, though that is entirely in keeping with the country.  Air side is, however, sealed off from the vast swathe of people massing beyond in the foyer… and that is very definitely where the real India begins.

We queued at passport control, then escaped lightly in the baggage line, once I had fought for and won a much-prized trolley.  Through the green channel, then the fun began…  we went through the electric doors and suddenly we were part of a vast, heaving throng, people everywhere trying to grab a piece of our action.  A total culture shock that no amount of travel can really prepare you for.

I joined yet another queue to change some traveller’s cheques into rupees while J looked for a taxi.  Somebody pointed to a different bank vending window and told her that that was the “official” bank.  Young boys, stringers for taxis, buses and presumably other forms of transportation (yaks?) pestered us.  Then came the prepaid taxi bureau, a haven of peace and tranquility!  190 rupees and an instruction to hand the ticket at a window outside where we would be given a taxi number.  A soldier smiled a welcome at me as we moved our trolley towards the sea of faces beyond the windows and aircon units.

And then the wall of searing heat hit our faces.  Ignoring touts, we found the office.  Under immense pressure, we were herded into the first taxi along while a young boy pestered us for a few rupees as “porterage fees”.   I passed him a 10 rupee note through the taxi window.  Our cases had been taken from us and were out of sight, hopefully loaded into the boot – though Jean’s rapidly rising anxiety quotient led her to speculate that our luggage was already being separated out and her clothing smoothed down to appear on a market stall the following morning.

Then we realised our mistake: the taxi looked like a Humber Hawk, circa 1964.  It smelled like camel dung and rattled like a milk float.  The driver apparently had one withered arm, but draped his good arm over the steering wheel like he was mauling it. His young accomplice rode shotgun in the passenger seat, holding closed a door that was clearly unwilling to stay shut.

A cursory glance at our ticket and off the driver sped along the middle of roads that were wide and well-lit.  Just as well, since the taxi seemed to have no lights of its own.  Vehicles weaved and criss-crossed without compunction.  I shudder to imagine what it would be like when the roads are busy.  As it was, he took a path that avoided various obstacles in the road and drove onwards for a further 20 minutes before stopping proudly.

“Oberoi?”

“Oberoi Maidens” we replied anxiously, “Old Delhi”

“Near bus station?”

“Yes!”

A subtle pause: “This New Delhi.”

In the back, blood pressure was rising fast.  The driver seemed reluctant to move but somehow we cajoled him to take us to Old Delhi.  After much persuasion, he eventually triggered the engine.  The car puttered reluctantly into life, we drove a hundred yards and then it stalled.  Driver and sidekick raised the bonnet and spent some while arguing the toss about the what to do. J gripped my hand fiercely, and later told me she feared we would be abandoned on the streets and our luggage stolen.

After much deliberation some change was made and the driver tried the engine.  On about the fourth attempt the engine rumbled and off we went again through an endless series of back streets, dingy roads lines with tumbledown buildings, company hoardings, people warming themselves on impromptu bonfires and braziers, and roundabouts with unintelligible signs.

“Old Delhi soon?” we asked.

“Yes, yes,” the driver, clearly irritated.

And finally, there was the sign: Oberoi Maidens, a white stuccoed Raj palace of a hotel with palms and a grand entrance foyer.  Like everything in India, it is just a little bit shabby, but somehow that adds to the fun.  And at that time it could have been tin huts and we would have been just as happy to be there!

“Thank god for that,” says J.  We hurl a note at the driver, grab our luggage and run to the hotel.

The room is large, en suite and basic.  We collapse and unwind.  Jet lag and the nightmarish journey around Delhi take their toll.

Awoken around 10am by a call: somebody wanting room 207.  We are in 307.  I had a shower and felt much refreshed, though we were still somewhat disorientated. Breakfast on the Garden Terrace.  Continental and not bad. Remembered to take malaria tablets too.

We wandered out of the hotel, not sure where to go.  A trishaw driver, persistent to the last, persuaded us to let him take us on a tour of Old Delhi for two or three hours.  An excellent decision, this time!  The tuk-tuk (as they call them in Bangkok) is right in the heat of the action.  The fumes are thick and the atmosphere heavy but we feel safe.

He takes us firstly to the Mutiny Memorial, a dedication in ugly brick to those who died in the 1857 mutiny, built on a hill over a park.  We then go past sacred white cows, a spice market, an old tyre market, a bird market and much much more to the Hindu Laxmi Narayan temple.  Everything, but everything is done on the streets here.  Men piss against walls, beggars beg, dealers deal, people cook and eat, even sleep despite the noise and heat – the whole life in microcosm.  The traffic, even on a Sunday, never lets up.  That we didn’t see an accident is a minor miracle.  India seems like you see it on TV, only much more so – the bustle bustles everywhere!

At the Hindu temple, we are sternly warned not to buy anything.  We give up our shoes and walk into the temple, a sandy red and gold confection.  One thing I hadn’t previously known: the swastika is a revered symbol to Hindus, as is the “Aryan Civilisation”.  Strange that the Nazis, with their thieving magpie approach to developing cod philosophies, should choose these symbols to adopt.  The Hindu gods are revealed to us – pure white with colour marble and alabaster: the elephant god Ganesh, Hanuman the monkey god, Lord Krishna, Shiva and others.  The idolatry reminds me strongly of Catholic churches with icons of Madonna and child.  It reminds J of Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre, with sections devoted to each Christian church.  We have red dye placed on our foreheads and necklaces of flowers strewn around us.

Avoiding requests for baksis, we find our driver and go on to the Sikh temple.  As a Sikh himself, he tells us that Sikhs are much kinder to their own than other religions.  The temple itself is a big white building with a golden dome.  Again we give u our shoes in favour of golden head-dresses, then view the spectacle of thousands being fed for free.  This is a service performed every day through donations for any Sikh, rich or poor.  People wait to clean the dishes too.  Everybody volunteers!  We go on to pass through the temple itself.  Musicians play in front of the shrine, which is a flower-lined bed encrusted with gold. It is a bed for the Sikh holy book.  Our driver then photographs us in front of the pool of holy water, said to cure all disease.  Finally we are presented with a paste that all visitors eat.  It is made of wheat, sugar and water.

On we go to the tourist office for general information and a trip to two shops.  the first is government-run and fixed price.  It has everything – silk rugs, an amazing array of silk clothes, hand-painted boxes, wooden carvings, everything you can think of and then some.  We announce that we are “only looking”, despite the best endeavours of the staff to sell us their wares.  The driver then takes us to a second shop, smaller and more intense.  J is interested in some blue silk with which to make a dress.  We finally pull ourselves away, though J knows how much she wants to pay and thinks it will be cheaper than Bangkok  £8 a metre for best quality raw silk?

The driver takes us past the red fort and a lively and colourful Sunday market, en route for our hotel, but the change in his mood is self-evident.  Gone is the enthusiasm, and gone for one simple reason: we did not buy any goods on which he would have earned a cut.  He is terminally disappointed, in spite of receiving the agreed fee for his services.  I remember outside the Hindu temple a snake charmer and a tired-looking cobra, which seems indicative of how things work here, and the mood of our driver.  But it is a 24 hour culture – only the cows rest.  The crows never give up.

A large and expensive beer at the hotel, a rest and J feels up to sampling the “peppermint pool”.  Sadly this is empty and closed for maintenance.  A copy of the Times of India nearby declares the local favourite TV programme to be ‘Yes Minister’.

J is amused by the pool regulations, which declare, for example, that “servants of members are not permitted to sit by the pool.”  I’ll try to remember that, and also the rule about persons with infectious skin diseases and respiratory conditions.

The sun sets over this grand old palace.  We prepare for Monday’s action.

21:00

Dined on the restaurant’s buffet at the hotel.  Only mistake was starting too early before it had warmed up sufficiently.  Not bad but we’ll have better.

7 Feb 1994

5:35am on the Shadabdi Express

The respective body clocks shot to pieces, we managed precious little sleep.  This will catch up on us, but no problem getting up to get to the station thanks to our guide and driver.  Pettitts Tours have us feeling truly well-organised.  Arriving at the station was a

J is worried about tipping.  India moves forward by greased palms, so you need a constant supply of 5, 10 and 20 Rupee notes to tip the constant attention of guides, drivers, porters and anyone else who can perform a service for you.

We seem to be relatively secure – J with her money belt and me with my pouch.  It’s supposed to go around the neck but looks stupid.  I’m wearing it on my right hip like a credit-car toting gunslinger!

TBC…

 

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