Daily Archives: February 16, 2012

Delhi: 18 years later.

As young Josie & Morgan have described in their Dizzy Delhi post , we had a busy time of it in the capital. One of the greatest honours Gilly & I will have on the trip is the opportunity to see our destinations through our kids eyes. When asked, of the maelstrom of the Indian capital to choose the best thing? Josie loved the chipmunks (stripey little Northern Palm Squirrels) and Morgan thought the cycle-rickshaws were cool.

It’s not a new city to me, although the last time I was in Delhi was 1994 as a backpacker with buddy NRJ. So what’s changed? Well, I have, clearly, but Delhi? There’s an Old & New theme here, neatly following the naming of the city. There must be countless obvious changes to the place. Yet there is one thing – from where I blog – that sums it up. Crammed in to a tuk-tuk bouncing up the potholed Qutab Road en route to Lal Qila (The Red Fort) we got slowed by a ox-drawn cart. (“Cowmels” Josie named them due to their characteristic hump.) These weary plodding beasts of burden are as Indian as a an Indian thing, no change there. So our driver starts beeping his horn furiously. Not that we’d pressed him on urgency, it’s just what Delhi drivers do. The reveal came when the Ox-driver – dressed in filthy rags astride a rudimentary battle scarred cart – turns to see what the fuss is. I note that he’s on his mobile phone.

And there it is folks: mobile telephony. No different from Dagenham, Droitwich or Durham: everyone’s got a mobile. Obvious and evident in the sales figures of telecoms companies worldwide. But – for some reason – I simply didn’t expect it to be so omnipresent in India and am embarrassed by my naivety. Wi-fi-tastic, bluetoothed headset-toting, thumb-texting telecoms have pervaded urban India. Of course it has. India is doing it on its own terms (natch) and it’d be a pace outstripping us in auld Europe.
The traffic problem, on the other hand, I did anticipate. This town has got serious congestion issues and a serious brown atmospheric haze to go with it. The middle classes have all got a boxy city-car and the 2-stroke tuk-tuks are everywhere. Buses use their muscle to get through but the outer (one way) ring of Connaught Place was so gridlocked on our first evening we could have walked across the roofs and bonnets of vehicles – 8 crammed lanes worth – to reach our cycle rickshaw on one of the side roads.

To describe Delhi would take an age (and a proper author) so I’ll keep it to a few random observations.

The skies are festooned with urban birds of prey. At times there are hundreds swirling in majestic arcs above. Booted Eagles, Black Kites and surely plenty of other species abound. Presumably due to the rich pickings of waste strewn across the streets and edible live prey everywhere. (Some Indians are quite small.) Unkempt monkeys wander around railings and rooftops. Mangey dogs lounging everywhere, the occasional skinny cat and – of course – “cowmels”.

The 1931 New Delhi is not so new anymore. The sweeping, grand colonial townscape now has a backdrop of angular ultra-modern high-rise buildings, mulit-story billboards and roaring, honking, snarling traffic like many a city.

Old Delhi? Now there’s a different story. If you can stomach it, the bazaars and back alleys of Old Delhi are spellbinding, intimidating (in their own way), oppressive, cramped, jam-packed, often startling but never threatening. My reaction on a first visit to the Chowri Bazaar this week? The craziest place I’ve ever been. Kudos to the small Beers and Mrs B for taking it in their stride. It’s the set of a (Slumdog sequel) movie brought to life. A fictional movie surely? One where people live in filthy cheek by jowl in the name of commerce. Tell me they’re all extras in a grand production and go back to their trailers after the elaborate shoot, yes? No. As we kept having to remind ourselves – aliens air-dropped in from rural Wiltshire – this is how people live in Old Delhi.

A well spoken emporium

Want a new tricycle rickshaw? Open air factory just there sir, mind the welding torch by your foot, cover your eyes from the arc. Shave? Take a seat by that tree-stump. Used shock absorber for your Hindustani Ambassador (Morris Oxford)? I’m sure there’s a good one in this pile of 50, I’ll just look. Handmade gift bags? 10,000? I’ll just get the porters to stack the bundles on their heads. 20′ steel reinforcing rods for your Grand Design X 100? Mind your back, here comes the pensionable rickshaw wallah with them now. Where in the name of all that is holy have you been? Sorry Meestah Beer, you can’t get the staff. Oh, he’s collapsed. Bananas? 50INR a kilo (tourist rate). Stone carving of your favourite deity? Small, medium or wardrobe size? Flat panel telly? Door handles? Wrapping paper? You name it.

Waitrose? Tesco? Hypermarches? All aboard at that end of the retail spectrum and travel all the way to the other end of the line and then stay onboard until the train reaches the depot then get off – mind the gap – and walk for a bit. Teeny,tiny little cupboards of commerce are where it’s at. This is the breathless, heaving, teeming reality of the Old Delhi bazaars. It’s intoxicating and – if you’re not of the mood – potentially panic inducing.

Then, you reach the gates of the Jama Masjid. This immense red sandstone mosque – it’s courtyard can accommodate 25,000 worshippers – rises up magnificently for the raptors to swirl around its minarets.

School mascot George the Dragon at Jama Masjid.

After taking in the main area of the mosque, we find ourselves climbing one of the minarets (tower) – up the narrowest spiral staircase – to take in the view. The platform at the top is not for the feint hearted. Avoiding toppling down the open stone stairwell, taking care not to lean on the loose railings… now check out that view. We have an Eagle eye view ourselves now. The reduced visibility of the Delhi smog somehow adds to the magic shrouding the Red Fort and the rest of the city in mystery. The soundtrack of traffic and bustling streets wafts its way up. The children are beside themselves with excitement which swells my heart. And scares the whotsits out of Mrs B. Time to carefully descend now folks.

Our visit to Lal Qila (the Red Fort) was tranquil enough. The huge and forlorn Lahore Gate has sandbags outside with machine gun emplacements. Soldiers defending a fort from the outside? Incongruous. I imagine that the Fort is blushing red sandstone with embarrassment. (In fact there is heightened security across the piece in the Delhi after a car bomb the day we arrived. We lose count of the number of times we are scanned and patted down. Of course, this being India, the luggage scanners do nothing like scanning and the metal detecting wands go off but no one really cares. It’s just going through the motions.) Once inside, we revel in the peace away from the throng. Peace that turns out to be short-lived as it’s school picnic day.

Smog = poor visibility even over a mile or so.

J&M are rapidly turned in to celebrities by dint of being white and blonde. Indian personal space does not equate to the western norm and soon the smaller Beers are being photographed left, right and centre. These snappers are mainly youngsters using – yep – phone cameras. The kids pose unselfishly, bemused by such attention from polite impromptu paparazzi. It’s an amusing sight for us (largely ignored) parents. J&M are hustled to line up with the Kumars for a portrait or beckoned to sit next to some too-cool-for-school teens for a snap. Pausing at a shady spot we find ourselves at the centre of a school outing. Slowly, the children line up around us and we get chatting to their teacher. In his class, he has 80 girls. Eighty! 400 students on this trip today, all smiles and good behaviour in their burgundy uniforms. The small Beers fall into a sort of wedding line up situation – “you must be sooo very proud?” – and get to shake hands with lots and lots of schoolgirls until Josie’s arm begins to ache.

The Fort itself has seen better days and its beautiful aqueducts are long since bone dry. These masterpieces of 17th century irrigation-cum-air-con bereft of water seem terribly sad to me. The only place with any water are the “paid WC” where an angry european tourist railed against the bog-wallah. “You charge us 250INR to get in here and now it’s money to use a toilet!?” He has a point: whilst Fort admission is good value at £3.20(UK) we note that the locals tariff is 10INR (12p).

The return trip to the airport at 06.00 that is highly symbolic of the changes to my eyes. Stepping over the sleeping homeless, around the dozing cowmels in the pre-dawn and skipping the puddles of raw sewage, we route-march rucksack laden across the bridge traversing the dozens of tracks at an already bustling New Delhi railway station. Presently, we descend into the bowels of the Airport Express: a clinically clean, world-class, 21st century transit system. (Fee? 100INR. £1.30! Take THAT Heathrow Express.) We are then whisked to the airport in quiet, clean, hermetically sealed air-conditioned comfort: isolated from the real India out there. The new, separating us from the old.

Next stop Kerela.

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“Dizzy Delhi” by Josie & Morgan

George & Rosie meet world traveller Teddy-Ted from Germany at the Red Fort, DelhiDizzy Delhi!!

We arrived in Delhi after a long and sleepless flight! I threw up when we landed and was ill for the rest of the day. I also had jet lag because for me it was 3:00 in the morning but there it was, 8:30 in the morning!!! After we’d got lost and stared at, we got on the train and went to our hotel called ”The Hotel Deluxe” and I went straight to my sofa-bed. After about half an hour we decided that my stomach was probablly needing some plain food, so we headed into town to look at some of the resteraunts in Delhi. We went to Connaught Circus in a ”tuk-tuk” (3 wheeled taxi) and found an Indian restraunt. We shared some food which was hardly plain! Mum and Dad gave me some yummy looking pineapple which I took a big bite out of (big mistake)….AND MY MOUTH EXPLODED!!!!!!!!!!!!! It was so spicy that I had a sore mouth for the rest of the evening. We had an amazing ride home in a cycle-rickshaw with Morgan and me at the back and Mum and Dad at the front. A small, old Indian man was pedalling! (We felt very sorry for him as it looked hard work and Dad was going to offer to peddle for him!)
After a good nights sleep we set off to go sight-seeing. First we caught a tuk-tuk to the Red Fort in Old Delhi on Valentines day where we saw the security with machine guns scanning us before we went in and even George the dragon and Rosie the bear had to be scanned!!! First we looked around the garden area and saw some cool animals which were parrots, eagles, hoppits, (I made that bird up because it hops alot) and best of all… TINY STRIPEY NORTH PALM SQUIRRELS!!! After we’d had our pictures taken about 100 times we realised that we were the only white kids around! Then a school of 400 kids from an Indian girl school came and we walked past them (BIG mistake) They all decided we were different and came up to us and shook our hands and talked to us. After all of them had shook my hand (it felt like it was going to fall off!) we went past the dome to the empty pond where we had a snack (cereal bar) but I didn’t eat all mine so I put it on the bench.

Here's the little chap trying a cereal bar

That’s when this squirrel came and sniffed it. I picked up the bit of cereal bar and broke it into little pieces. It picked up the biggest piece and ran off then another came, and another, and another, until there was none left.
By Josie

Next we went to a gigantic Mosque called Jama Masjid.

It wasn't this busy when we were there!

We had to take our shoes off and carry them in. Inside there was a big pool where people washed their hands and feet. Loads of pigeons were flying and landing on the floor because there was birdseed everywhere. We decided to climb a really big tower and there were thousands of steps to get to the top. My legs got tired after a while. When we got to the top, Mum was very scared because it was so high and you could see the whole of Delhi! There were black eagles surrounding us because it was so high in the air.
In Delhi my favourite thing was riding on the rickshaws.
By Morgan

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First Flight of many: Heathrow to Delhi

I awoke as we passed over Tiblisi. Something brushed against my arm causing me to rouse with a start. Lifting the blindfold from my eyes the map on the screen ahead of me showed a graphic of a wee plane passing 11km overhead of the nation Georgia, 2000+ miles from home. Groggily I noted that we were making 616mph ground speed and tried to go back to sleep with intermittent success. The next time I checked we were passing just (a few hundred klicks) north of Kandahar: I made a bunch of my fist and saluted Lt Col Bates who was only minutes flying time from our position.
I wasn’t the only one awake. Gilly was some distance down the aisle stretching her limbs, Morgan was watching another movie and Josie had curled up across 2 seats having been awake for most of the night. The back row of an Airbus A340 isn’t the ideal place to spend the night – granted – but I was exhausted and somewhat taken aback that the rest of the Beers seemed not to require sleep. The phrase “they’ll pay for this when we arrive in Delhi” wandered across my mind and – upsetting – was spot on as we’ll see. (Spoiler alert: nothing too dramatic, just a teeny life lesson.) None of this bothered the New Delhi resident alongside me who was sound asleep before the aircraft doors were closed at Heathrow and didn’t stir until breakfast was served in Indian airspace. For the record. the ability to perch on a chicken’s lip and fall profoundly asleep – apparently an Indian competence – is a trait/skill of which I am mildly envious. A scan across the cabin showed snoozers draped across the furniture in all kinds of unlikely positions, whilst the Beers were wide awake along with other westerners watching movies.
Talking of staring mindlessly at screens… On the Friday before we left, I had to finish up with corporate life for 3 months, so was in the office pre-dawn quietly boxing off the to-do list. Pausing for breakfast in the staff restaurant with a key international operative – J – a legal secretary – who I hadn’t spoken to in months – wandered up and said “Oooh, lucky you” – or words to that effect. How does she know we’re off? Then a moment later, a european business manager tells me he’s “not jealous” [sarcastically] and I wonder how on earth he knows. Then I get a cryptic 2 word text from a petrolhead friend 100miles away “you’re famous”. Perplexed. Across the morning a bunch of people who I don’t regularly communicate with at work make various travel comments. It transpires that the Gruppenfurher had sent a text in to the Radio 2 (national) breakfast show. Presenter Mr Evans had included us in the 08.00 “Q: What are you up to this weekend” slot – A: “The Beers are going around the world!” – and said DJ took great delight in in taking the mickey out of our surname. So much for a stealthy getaway. After getting over that, much toing and froing ensued but work was done. Saturday and Sunday happened too and soon we were on our way to Heathrow with our swift yet safe chauffeur. (Thanks D!)
When you embark upon a milestone endeavour, it’s interesting to note other stuff going on around you. So our departure historically coincides with a Six Nations game being called off due to an iced pitch (with Ireland minutes from taking on France), Whitney Houston’s early bath (at 48) and thre Greeks failing to do a bailout deal. Oh wait, that last one could put us in all sorts of dates couldn’t it?
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Back to the skies. The joy – I’ll think of a better term later – of a round-the-world-ticket is that it fills the cheap seats for the airlines. We boarded VS300 – Lady Luck the legend on her nose, Virgin logo on her tail – at Heathrow by the front door and turned right. Then we walked on, and on, and on. Several postcodes later – quite possibly in Hounslow – we arrived at our seats. A very busy flight indeed, made mildly amusing by the usual shenanigans of folk who can’t seem to simply sit in their assigned seat. It’s of perennial fascination how the public can’t rattle along with the slick systems there to make it all work at 37,000 feet. There’s the tray returner – once you’ve finished your meal be sure to take the tray back to the galley straight away! – and the aforementioned seat movers. Of a different ilk are the meandering bargers. The latter are those who cannot walk up the aisle without bumping into people: makes me tetchy when I’m trying to kip. Personal space anyone? Anyone?
Still, it was a smooth trip and a gentle landing on time in hazy Delhi. Upon which, Josie May legged it to the small room at the back of the cabin and promptly threw up. EVERYONE has made some rueful remark about Delhi-Belly and – we reasoned – we’re bound to get a little tummy upset or three. It’s just that you would have thought that it would take more than wheels kissing the tarmac of the runway to trigger it!? Poor dear, she was wiped out… making for a stressful journey to the hotel.
Ah well, it’s not as if we’re going to be travelling for 3 months or anything is it? Is it? Oh, wait…

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