India Holiday – Day 19: Back to Delhi

Thursday. I am beginning to get used to the days having names again rather than just numbers; on Friday we fly back to London and Monday it’s back to work. How surreal does that seem here from the Oberoi in Agra?

It’s also our last morning in Agra, and for a few minutes the view from the hotel offers more of what I had hoped for: We can see the Taj Mahal right in front of our room and through the fog see that it is bathed in subtle sunlight. It’s a great way to be reminded of what we saw yesterday, although it makes me sad that we can’t go back and relive the experience 🙂

The Oberoi is a luxurious and opulent hotel, but the service does not live up to its architectural grandeur. Breakfast is nearly over before we get our first cup of coffee, and staff in general seem much less engaged than at the Taj Lake Palace – our new benchmark for what fantastic, outstanding customer service is like.

After 3 weeks in India you might think we would have gotten used to the display next to the road, but it is just not so and we spend much of the 5-hour drive to Delhi being amazed at what we see: a heady mix of squalor and luxury that really has to be experienced.

We also see 3 real first-hand examples of how corrupt the system is – if you read my post from a few days ago, you’ll have an idea of how endemic and damaging it is.

First, Mr Prakash points out a traffic police officer climbing into an adjacent lorry, explaining that he’ll be wanting money for something – if not, a ticket will be issued. And sure enough, moments later we see the driver pull out his wallet, count out notes, and hand them over. The police officer leaves the vehicle and walks toward the next in line; I cannot believe my eyes. It is so blatant and open, it’s disgusting!

Next, I notice that the lorry in front of us seems rot be in particularly bad repair (which is saying something!) and that there is no number plate, and suggest to Mr Prakash that the corrupt police must really like that one as they don’t need to make up any charges to get a bribe here. However, he explains that the vehicle most likely is operating under a “pre-paid bribe plan” where the owner pays a monthly fee to the relevant people and in return is left alone, including running red lights, parking wherever he wants, etc. I find it hard to believe, but it’s probably true nevertheless.

Just 10 minutes later we arrive at a toll booth for the highway and just before it a policeman indicates to Mr Prakash that we should pull over. Mr Prakash is asked to come out of the car and the next 5 minutes are spent with the two in vigorous discussion, interspersed with Mr Prakash demonstrating that some feature or other is in order: The fire extinguisher, the first aid kit, the car paperwork, the insurance, the drivers licence, the lights, etc, etc. It is clear that the policeman is looking for something to pin on Mr Prakash, but everything seems in order.

Eventually Mr Prakash returns, and he is not happy: He was fined 600 Rs for two alleged offences: For not having a first aid kit, and for not cooperating with the police. Astonishing: There clearly is a first aid kit in the car (I looked at it myself) and I guess that the only way in which he did not cooperate with the police was that he did not agree to pay a bribe when first approached and instead said that all his papers etc were according to regulation, hence the detailed inspection.

It is of course possible to complain, but the next level of the bureaucracy is also corrupt, all the way up the chain, and even if you find someone who is not then it will take a huge investment of time to follow through on a complaint. It seems hopeless, and it makes me very sad and angry; how can the country ever get out of this vicious corrupt cycle where every official abuses his position of power for personal gain?

As it is Mr Prakash’s responsibility to look after the car for TransIndus, he is also liable to personally pay any fines that result in the car or paperwork not being in order. That seems fair, until you realise that the fine is completely arbitrary and grossly unfair; I think the company ought to be able to make an allowance for this kind of thing rather than penalise their drivers for the police being hopelessly corrupt.

If the TransIndus tipping guideline is any indication, I imagine that the driver is paid relatively little: they suggests a tip of 200 Rs per day for the driver, but 500-1,000 Rs for a local guide. In most locations, I think the driver has been much more valuable than the guides, and tipping them 5 times more seems completely disproportionate to me – I wonder if the suggested tip is proportionate to what they are paid. It reminds me how large the income inequality is in India, and here is a real example.

Suitably chastened, we continue towards The Grand in Delhi, looking forward to meeting the relatives tonight, before we depart for London tomorrow. Unfortunately, the hotel is very far from where they live – the 25km distance will take 1.5-2 hours to traverse and we realise it’s not feasible for us to do so and get back in reasonable time.

Fortunately, Babita and the other relatives are set on meeting us in spite of the distance and 7 of them agree to come meet us at the hotel, yay 🙂

They arrive at around 7pm and after meeting in our room we all go down to the hotel’s Italian restaurant for dinner. I am surprised to learn that they all think it’s terribly early to eat – normally they start dinner at 8:30 or even 9:30pm and as such are not terribly hungry yet. I show them a small selection of “just” 300 photos from our trip, and afterwards we go around the large hotel lobby to take more pictures of the group – it’s a lot of fun!

Well fed, we return to the room and have a hop-in on the big bed; there is a great atmosphere 🙂

Then around 10 it’s time to say goodbye. I knew that they had arrived at the hotel by car – there is no metro station nearby – but I was astonished to see what car it was; it has to be the smallest car ever! Somehow, they managed to fit both the driver and 7 passengers in there, sitting or lying in multiple layers, and I got to see first-hand just how so many people get into a car. And they were of course smiling and jolly about it – I hope it wasn’t too uncomfortable a ride home!

Sated with impressions and tired from the long day, we finish the packing and dive into bed for our last night in India. Boo hoo!

India Holiday – Day 3

Today, the alarm went off at 7am, to let us start out sightseeing at 9am – necessary to avoid the crowds. Life in Delhi starts late, and ends late – many shops do not open until 10, 11, or even 12. Except the vegetable markets, which are open from 4-10am. Vegetarians need to start early 🙂

Our annoying, patronizing guide met us at the hotel, and we set off. He has a habit of telling “stories” peppered with fairly useless facts, and then repeating in a slightly different way; the effect is eye-wateringly annoying. For example, telling us the name of some long-forgotten dude and then the names of all his kids is not very relevant, nor interesting, nor memorable.

Anyway, we went to a nice Hindu temple , the Laxminarayan, and apparently the only one that Gandhi himself opened. Of course we had to take our shoes off, and inside saw each of the main gods as well as their wives, which are always to the left. Mamta made an offering to Hanuman, whom her father always prayed to as well.

The swastika, so hatefully used by the Nazis, is everywhere, as Hindus have used the symbol for thousands of years, and of course continue to do so in spire of the brief, intense abuse it was subjected to. The profusion of colours used by Hindus is always interesting, and the heavy use of gold, turquoise and garish pink reminded me of the scene from Outsourced where the main character is asked to describe “tacky” 🙂

Outside the temple, our guide did his best to convince us not to go into the mosque on the itinerary, the Jama Masjid. Here also you have to take shoes off, but “they never clean it, it’s very dirty”. Seems hard to believe, and when we looked inside from the steps it looked ok. On the way to the mosque, we went through parts of Old Delhi that are clearly very poor – drug dealers and addicts throng the streets. Of course, these are all muslims. I don’t think our guide like muslims much.

More understandably, he also is not a big fan of the Delhi municipality, which apparently is super corrupt. One thing I did not know is that most government officials – be they MPs, judges, bureaucrats or railway officials – all get government sponsored housing. If you lose your job, you lose your home too, so it’s worth holding on to it at almost any cost!

After not visiting the (frankly very impressive looking) mosque, we went to the Red Fort, a huge edifice that used to be the King’s residence but which got turned into barracks by the Brits after 1857. After a terrorist attack in 2006, visitors can no longer enter the 2km long fort – bummer, as it looked interesting. Apparently the moat outside the huge walls had crocodiles that were fed with the remains of hanged criminals. Hmm.

From the Red fort, we hired bicycle rickshaws to take us on a roundtrip through the (wholesale) shopping district of Chandni Chowk, featuring incredibly narrow streets  And talk about crowds! Huge numbers of people shopping, squatting, eating, talking, bargaining, walking, jostling, trading, cooking in a vast cacophony of humanity – and the shops may be wholesalers but they still look very small, with perhaps 1-3m of frontage each.

It is like ordered chaos: no square foot is unused, there is activity everywhere. And overhead, along the walls and crisscrossing the skies, is the lifeline for modern life: power, phone and data cables. Imagine all the wires in your house, including the ones behind the TV, in a huge, disorderly jumble: that is what it looks like. And in spite of what it looks like, it works most of the time, even during weather – storm, monsoon rains, etc.  Unbelievable.

Sightseeing for the day ended at noon, with a visit to the Raj Ghat where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated, and where leaders since then have been too. Beautiful grasslands sculpted tastefully, it was interesting.

For lunch, we decided to try our luck at a chain Mamta knew about, called Haldiram. Plenty of variety (all vegetarian of course) and cheap, I had a nice Masala Dosa and Mamta had her usual Papdi Chat and Pani Puri, although she still maintains that Moti Mahal in Southall does it best 🙂

When we spotted a Vodafone shop, we decided to get. SIM for the iPad, to get internet on the road. The waiting in mobile phone shops is bad everywhere, but this one took the prize. We got ticket number 102 in the queue and settled down for a long wait as number 87 was being served. Then 88, 99, 100 – then 107 and 105. Huh?? Mamta’s quick reactions and insistent outburst in Hindi got us to the front of the queue at this point, only to discover that getting a 1-month prepaid sim card requires not just money and patience, but also a passport, proof of address (however temporary) and a spare passport photo. All of which we by a stroke of luck had to hand, so after a further patience-stretching period we got the needed sim card. Maybe it will even start working at some point… Fingers crossed.

Lazy afternoon at the hotel, with Mamta getting a massage and Iain going in the pool. I chickened out and did not go in the pool after discovering that not everything in Delhi is warm – I suspect that the only reason the pool was not frozen solid is ample supplies of anti-freeze 🙂

Today I also sent a thought to my mormor Anna, whose 97th birthday it would have been today.  I miss her.

Off to dinner, then on the road to Jaipur tomorrow morning.

India is still awesome 🙂

India Holiday – Day 2

Today, Mamta had curry for breakfast (Parathas) and thoroughly enjoyed it; I tried more traditional fare as I’m not sure I can do 3 curries a day! The Haze is better than Day 1, but I can still taste the burning tires. Visibility is much better too, we can see perhaps 1000m! Nice temperature of 20C in the morning and 25C in the afternoon, it’s hard to believe it’s nearly Christmas. Nevertheless, the locals are wearing sweaters and jackets and are muttering about winter being very cold.  I guess that when it gets up to 45-48C in summer, 15C in the night is cold-ish 🙂

Off to see the sights with our Delhi guide from TransIndus.

Motorbikes are literally everywhere. Helmets are mandatory, but only for men – there was outcry when it became mandatory for women too a few years ago, so now it’s optional for women who prefer neat hair over life. Which seems to be all of them! Or perhaps it’s the men who prefer their wives looking beautiful?

Parliament is a big round building, and the presidential palace was the viceroy’s until independence in 1947 – and he stayed there for 5 years after independence. There is no right of access to this area for the general public, which is a bit weird, but explains the absence of the usual crowds. Old Ambassador cars are still used by VIPs, and the design has been unchanged forever (just motor upgrades every now and then), and it shows. I think they look rubbish.

Went to the oldest part of New Delhi, which is 2-3,000 years old and saw the Qutub Minar  – a huge brick minaret built over a long period of time, started by Hindus and completed by Muslims. Muslims hacked off the faces of all the ornaments when they took over the rule, sadly, marring the beauty of the surrounding structures.

At Humayun’s Tomb, 160 family members from the same generation are interred, very impressive. It’s a big symmetrical structure with gates, fountains, a big lawn cut into 16 “gardens”.  Here we saw at least a million school kids in colourful uniforms. Very cute and happy 🙂  Interestingly, our guide did not want to enter the monument as Hindus apparently do not want to enter a burial site.

Lunch in nice restaurant near India Gate, and the food was ok. Apparently, the Delhi Golf Club is the most expensive in the world. Sounds unbelievable, but then there is a lot of money as well as a lot of poverty here so perhaps it’s true.

Saw the India Gate war memorial, commemorating the 80,000 soldiers India sent to help during WW1 – they all died, not a single one returned. The monument itself did not look terribly interesting and we only stayed for 2 minutes – we were not allowed to linger.

Frankly, our guide is weird; he is annoyingly patronizing and clearly wanted to get rid of us. He seemed unsure of where to take us, and suggested we have two half-days of sightseeing when our programme clearly calls for two whole days.  In the end, we got half a day: from 10am to 2:30pm, including lunch. When Mamta asked if we could spare 2 minutes for Iain to see a snake charmer, he said “no, they are everywhere”. We haven’t seen another one since, but hopefully will…

Returned to the hotel for a nap, then went to Connaught Place for shopping and dinner. It’s a huge, mad place, with designer shops next to… not-designer-holes-in-the-wall.  It seems odd that there is no effort to patch the pavement, wash the walls, and generally clear out the sewage and garbage, even right outside high-prestige shops. It definitely makes for a high-contrast experience.

Had dinner and cocktail at a restaurant until we remembered not to eat ice! It is normally made from unfiltered, potentially dangerous tap water – hopefully there will be no Delhi Belly tomorrow! I had the most awesome Mutton Dosa though, and we then took an autorickshaw back to the hotel. Iain thought that ride was the best part of the day 🙂

When relaxing, Iain is reading Hunger Games, I am reading the gripping Daemon, and Mamta is playing Candy Crush. I like holidays 🙂

 

India Holiday – Day 1: Delhi

What a day! We checked in early to enjoy the full experience of the Virgin Clubhouse in Heathrow – and had a haircut and pork belly for dinner, all included in the Upper Class experience. What a difference to “normal” air travel, and a great start to our holiday 🙂  I am sure Iain will look with disdain at flying any other way now – the experience with free food, huge comfortable lounges and a seat that turns into an actual bed with duvet and pillow is indeed hard to beat!

One in New Delhi, the first thing we noticed is the fog . Haze. Smog. According to the forecast, it is meant to be sunny, but it is just hazy to perhaps 200m visibility. Brown, smelly soup that tastes of burnt tires is how Iain describes it, and it’s spot on.

On the streets, it is much like the India I know: busy, busy, busy, and loads of garbage everywhere you look. But everyone being so nice and friendly too, it’s definitely not a “hostile” kind of busy.

The Metropolitan is a very nice hotel, but not quite as well organized as hoped. They didn’t know that we needed to sleep 3 people and I hope that is not a sign of things to come – but they quickly sorted that out, thankfully.

After a short nap, dinner in the local Indian restaurant was great; our first curry. I had Tikka Masala, and enjoyed it hugely 🙂

Then off to see the relatives in Old Delhi, where Mamta’s dad Mahavir was born and grew up. Subzi Mandi is a part of town that looks and feels quite different from what we saw in New Delhi: narrow streets, throngs of people, market stalls with fresh produce everywhere, and shops specializing in everything from shoelaces to… Well, you name it. A huge, busy mass of humanity describes it well, I think!

The relatives were lovely; we met about 20 of them I think and there were super friendly, really enjoyed meeting them. We risked having some chawel (rice), and hope it will be ok – it certainly was well tasty! Got to speak to Ricky, who spent 8 months in London until May and really wants to go back – works as a programmer for Tata Consulting on the Lloyds TSB web site. Super nice guy 🙂

A long discussion later and then a trip to the streets – for everyone! – to find a data SIM for the iPhone so we can have Internet. It is possible to get this, even at 9pm on a Sunday, but the cards apparently take 5-6 days to get activated! That is a while and I will try to find a Vodafone shop tomorrow and see if I have more luck. Until then, we cut one of Ricky’s SIM cards to fit the iPhone, so now have a local phone number, yay 🙂

We also got presents – a really nice shirt, tie, cufflinks and handkerchief for me, and lots of stuff for Mamta and Aruna. Iain got a big basket of sweets that I’m sure he’ll enjoy. Oh, and money too! Definitely too much! And finally, we all got a red dot on the forehead, Indian style.

I learned a few Hindi words, which I have now forgotten 🙁 and learned about greetings for elders, kids, etc. Bottom line is that a) it is complicated, b) the family helps out with directions, c) it involves touching of legs, feet and hair in particular ways, and d) everyone ends up having a laugh. Clearly the rituals are important, but everyone is understanding of n00bs too 🙂

Now back at the hotel, relaxing. We decided to get a couple of half bottles of whiskey to both try some new ones and to give a little help to the digestive system, and tonight tried the Balvennie whiskey. Yum, I’m sure it will help.

Oh, and there were at least 5 power cuts just today! That is a bit scary, particularly when you are in the lift, but I suppose we’ll get used to it.  The locals don’t seem to notice 🙂

Big day tomorrow, can’t wait to see more of the city t I have to think of as the Big Stink 🙂