Tuesday, March 06, 2007
Mum and Dad’s Big Indian Adventure: Part One
Mum and Dad: First day of their Big Indian Adventure
I have just had a fabulous 3 weeks with Mum and Dad, travelling around India from Delhi to Gwalior, Jaipur to Ahmedabad and Mamallapuram to Vellore. I have been having so much fun that I haven’t had a chance to write anything on my blog for weeks. Also, it must be confessed, despite being nearer 40 than college age, I had an essay crisis, so any writing to be done had to be in the context of International primary care and not telling joyful tales of guides called Ram and unlit camels coming towards us on the wrong side of the dual carriageway. Finally, at 0713 this morning after a non-stop marathon of writing during the night, which has the distinct advantage of being so much cooler than the day, I sent in my essay, a mere 7 days overdue. So now, I can settle down and tell you all about Mum and Dad’s Big Indian Adventure.
I left you last at Hotel Singh, awaiting their arrival. Shortly later, I went to the airport to pick them up with our driver for the week ahead who was called Ajay and utterly adorable. He only spoke Hindi at first, and my only Hindi phrase is hum shakakari hai, which means, I am a vegetarian. Not very useful for giving directions, but it did lead me to discover early on that Ajay was full shakahari (vegan) – and also learned the slightly more truthful phrase hum masahari hai, which means, I am a non-vegetarian. Actually I discovered that he spoke fluent pidgin English, which I too have learnt since being here, so, much to the amusement of my parents who could neither understand him nor make themselves understood, we had lengthy conversations, both sounding like Peter Sellers.
After meeting M & D at the airport, looking as everyone does on arrival, slightly shell-shocked and ruffled, we went straight to the hotel. The next morning, it was clear the Rain Goddess had arrived. I woke to the unmistakable and unseasonal sound of wet tyres rolling along wet tarmac.
It’s amazing, we really should market Mum to sub-Saharan Africa and other drought-prone areas, because, regardless of how long it is since they saw a molecule of water dropping from the sky, as soon as Mum arrives anywhere it pours. Every holiday she has taken is punctuated by expletives from her and gasps of astonishment from the locals who say things like, “It hasn’t rained in July in the desert before in living memory.” Luckily, it didn’t last long and apart from a downpour in Udaipur (another drought-prone area, in fact a few years ago the lake dried up completely) the weather was lovely.
Delhi is a strange introduction to India. It’s oddly soulless compared to other places, but in some ways, not being as full frontal as, say Mumbai or Chennai, makes it a little easier on novice initiates. The most Indian thing about it of course is the traffic, which astonished Mum and Dad from the beginning. Ajay, knew how wide his car was to the millimetre (I think he had whiskers attached to the front) so he would weave into tiny gaps between buses and lorries without breaking pace, honking indignantly, as if it was his right of way to make a fifteenth lane amidst standing traffic. Mum spent a lot of time clutching the seat in front of her whenever a dog/cow/goat/person/rickshaw sauntered across his path as if they were going for a stroll in a meadow, but Ajay, with the enthusiasm, if not the skill of Ayrton Senna, missed them all. It seems at first, as one’s head reels from the cacophony of horns, hooters, whistles, bells and other peepi-peepi devices, as if no one is paying any attention to the noise, which seems a reasonable tactic for preservation of sanity, but actually, it causes a barely perceptible, but definite drift to the left.
Through the amazement of Mum and Dad I was reacquainted with the hilarity of cyclists coming towards you through thick lanes of traffic, of camels and elephants on the road with no headlights, of mopeds carrying whole families including furniture, of rickshaws bulging with schoolchildren, of buses carrying as many people outside as English buses carry inside and the hair-raising experience of being inside a vehicle in the midst of this chaos. Dad had the most brilliant idea. He is hoping to introduce in parliament at the first opportunity a bill proposing that anyone who is convicted of road rage in the UK has to come to India, at their own expense, and spend a week driving around Delhi. They will either die of apoplexy in the first day or learn inner tranquility for survival.
On day one, mindful of the lure of Indian handicrafts and shopping opportunities, Mum said very firmly that she wasn’t going to make any purchases until she had “got her eye in”. Very sensible, I agreed, it’s easy to be taken for a ride in the first days when you’ve got no idea of the real price of things. Dad had no such reservations. His day’s tally was one briefcase, one shawl, one emerald and diamond ring, one wallet and 24 handkerchiefs. His shopping continued at roughly the same pace throughout the trip.
In Delhi, we saw many and varied sites. We started at India Gate and then drove up to Raisana Hill, where British architects Sir Edward Lutyens and Herbert Baker, instructed to design a new capital for India in 1911, built, in my view, quite heavy neo-classical administrative buildings. They are stretched out in uncharacterististic spaciousness amidst elegant Mughal style gardens, with rows of Ambassador cars parked in front of the Embassy, which amused me.
Your Ambassador, Ambassador.
Monsieur Ambassador, with this Ambassador you are really spoiling us. etc etc
Of course the buildings turned out to be extortionate to build and the British only got a few years out of them. However, whilst occupying them, they employed 340 gardeners of whom 50, apparently, were bird scarers. This job is still available for the ambitious in India today. We saw some in the gardens of the more lavish hotels we visited. Usually, the post involved walking round and round languidly waving a white flag about, which the pigeons ignored. One, who was obviously high up in the ranks of Bird Scaredom, had a catapult.
My favourite site in Delhi was the beautiful octagonal tomb of Isa Khan. He was an Afghan nobleman involved in Sher Shah's coup which resulted in the interruption of the Mughal dynasty for over a decade. Ironically, it is in the gardens where the Mughal he helped displace, Humayan, the second great moghul and grandfather of the Taj creator, Shah Jehan, also has a tomb. Humayan's tomb is much grander and heavier and was built by his favourite (!) wife. Isa Khan's tomb was built many years before the Taj but has the same lightness about it. Humayan's barber also has a tomb in the same complex.
We left Delhi after two days, having stayed in on of my favourite hotels of the trip, mainly because I had a bed the size of my whole room at RUHSA and of a delicious softness. Also, the room service menu was joyous. On the front it said:
For room service ring 7. For delayed service (if any) ring 14 or 9.
I was very tempted to ring 14 when I couldn’t decide if I wanted a sandwich or not. I thought maybe by the time it arrived I would be hungry, but then I wouldn’t really care if it didn’t come at all.
After Delhi we moved onto Agra, which is basically a shit heap so we stayed in our poshest hotel of the whole trip, the Trident Hilton. It was really quite posh, but there was still an Indian flavour, as demonstrated by the fourteen year old receptionist who said when I came in dressed in a Salwar Kameez - "Oh! You look really strange in Indian Dress."
I suggested he might need to polish up his welcoming repartee for the sake of improved customer relations.
Posted by Arabella Onslow