INDIA HOLIDAY : part one

INDIA HOLIDAY: Part one

Since my illness in 2010, which seemed to threaten that my travelling days were over, I have managed trips to the States, Iceland, Ireland, Italy and India. See any links? I have no desire to add either Iran or Indonesia to that list.

So here I am, camped out for an afternoon at the Yotel in Heathrow Airport. A chance to refresh, relax and renew before setting off on a 5,000 mile flight. I have the best company: daughter Abby, who is efficiency itself, and, for a literary travelling companion, William Dalrymple, and his City of Djinns. We awaited our call in the Premier Lounge where drink and snacks were available for free.

It’s a nine-hour flight from London to Delhi and India is 5.5 hours in front of GMT. In Business Class the seats convert into a couch and a decent night’s rest was possible. At the point of departure I wound my watch forward to 1 pm in the knowledge that we would arrive at Indira Ghandi airport at 10 the following morning.

To call Delhi’s airport soulless hardly marks it out as different from any other such buildings, but this one was characterless too and yet it claimed to be voted the world’s best airport. The electorate probably consisted of its employees only. It was long and flat-roofed with so little to take the eye. Nothing much seemed to be happening and desk officials treated time with contempt.

Once we were clear of visa and passport control, the next problem was currency. The rupee is a closed currency. If this wasn’t trouble enough, Narendra Modi has made the almost single-minded decision to close banks while he took high denomination notes out of circulation. People have been hoarding money against land and property speculation, a practice he wanted to end. He had allowed a period of ‘grace’ whereby these notes could be surrendered in return for 40 per cent of their face value, but this has caused interminable queues at the city banks. For rural workers, who must use precious work hours in non-productive queueing, the situation was proving calamitous although they agreed with it in principle, just not the procedure.

Anyway, Abby and I made the fortuitous decision to cash £65 of our £200 in readies at the airport. We changed just the right amount as it happened and the £135 we had left was useful towards the end of the trip in that we were advised to tip the touring staff in sterling rather than local currency.  Queueing at the airport for the currency was time expensive but made sense in the long term when we saw the situation at banks everywhere.

It was 4 pm by the time our party was organised for the first coach trip into Delhi. We went to the Birla Temple via the India Gate. Darkness fell out of the sky, giving us a shadowy view of the President’s House and the MP’s housing complex. Gilly, our guide, advised taking a left turn only if we went for a post prandial, but said that we must take care.

Dinner was a buffet – as it was at all hotels – and the choices were wide-ranging and quite adventurous. Various curries dominated but also ratatouille and spaghetti dishes. Indians love their sweets so the dessert bar was made to tempt.

I rolled into bed and slept instantly. But for Abby’s call next morning, I might not have made what was to be one of the highlights of the holiday – a crazy rickshaw ride round old Delhi. The youth in charge was slight but due to riding a bike with NO gears, had developed a pair of thighs that Mr Universe would have been proud of. Up and down the narrow alleys, swooshing out onto major junctions, hanging on for grim life. It was all in there.

Inga, one of our fellow tourists, said she had ‘rickshawed’ all over the planet.

“Vietnam was scary, but this one took main prize” she said.

Gilly warned us that the rickshaw operatives would insist that the ride was 100 rupees each when it was in fact 50 each. He was right and they argued their corner passionately, (80 rupees to the £). Gilly also told us that the rickshaw rides were renowned for their back massaging qualities. I can confirm that this remark was ironic.

We ate at the Chicken Inn. Good food but the kind of place where you never let your credit card out of your sight.

The afternoon was spent at the Mahatma Ghandi Memorial Park. The great man’s wise counsels were posted on tablets mounted all over the park and his final 144 steps from his house to the place of his assassination were marked in concrete. Did you know that Mahatma (which means ‘The great soul’) was a founder member of the British Vegetarian Society?

The Park Hotel was where we stayed our first and final nights and on both occasions, sleep was impossible due to loud wedding/engagement parties. Instead of positioning our party on the side of the building away from the pool, (where the noise would have been more bearable) we were adjacent to it. The hotel rooms vibrated with the music and Abby finished up sleeping on the bathroom floor.

The four-hour drive to Agra next morning on the expressway was not an experience to be savoured. The only break in a bleak landscape was the river Yumuna and its tributaries, many of which had objects of mineral, vegetable and animal form floating in them. Every half mile was a speed bump that reduced my body to a hurting unit and probably shortened the coach’s lifetime by 50,000 miles.

For the first 25 miles of the journey we could see in the distance the newly established town of Nodia, a complex of flats and apartments, nestling against the skyline. Gilly told us that many of the multi-nationals had moved their HQ from Mumbai to Nodia because the rents had become exorbitant.

And so into Agra. It may have the world’s most beautiful building and a world heritage fort which was a breath-taking example of Hindu-Moslemic architecture but Agra, the city of two million crowded souls is, in the considered words of my daughter, a shithole. Where the glorious traffic anarchy and on-street urgency of Delhi was vibrant, this was depressing and without hope. From animals grazing on filthy effluence to children playing street games oblivious to the dangers of speeding traffic… From Gilly telling us that Agra’s reputation as a pickpockets’ paradise was India-wide… From the relentless begging if we even stepped near the coach doorway… Agra is not nice.

So early up (5.30 am) tomorrow for the Taj Mahal. Gilly tells us it’s the only way to avoid Japanese and Chinese tourists who will swamp the site.   TOP LEFT: A marionette show. TOP RIGHT: The royal palace – the King of Jaipur. BOTTOM LEFT: Rug-making in Jaipur. BOTTOM RIGHT: Cows grazing at the edge of the expressway.

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© Alan Combes, 2017. All Rights Reserved

Alan Combes