Monthly Archives: September 2018

Delhi Belhi?

It’s funny how we know stuff to be true. Absolute clarity in our minds. Facts lodged in our brains. Things that just are because, well, we know they are.

Here are some facts then.

  1. 25% of Indian trains are over 2 hours late*
  2. 20% of Indian hotels cost £200+ a night**
  3. On the Delhi Metro you are 100% likely to get pickpocketed***
  4. Brits don’t like spicy food****
  5. Everyone who goes to India get Delhi Belly*****

Boom! Mic’ drop. Glad we’ve cleared that up then. Go back to your lives proceeding safely with the absolute knowledge and certainty that the above is all true.

Happy trails.

Ian

* Based on a sample of 4 separate train journeys taken this September.

  • New Delhi – Kalka (Train #12011 Shabadi Express: 3 hours, on time).
  • Kalka – Shimla (Train #52455 “The Himalayan Queen”:  5.5hours, on time).
  • Chandigarth to Jaipur (Train #12984 Chg Ali Rath Sleeper 10.5 hours, on time).
  • Agra – Harzat Nizamuddin (Delhi South) (Train #12643 Nizamuddin Express: 3 hour journey, train originates from Kerela – 2800km away! It’d already been en route for a day and a half. A DAY AND A HALF! It was miraculously only 2.5hours late.)

Indian train travel is quite the experience. Now that’s a fact. In my many thousands of kilometres travelled across the subcontinent, their punctuality is actually pretty darn good. And it is soooo much more fun than taking the bland aircraft option.

Want more rail facts? Try these.

** Based on a sample of five hotel stays with a per room budget range from £17.00-£200.00

Conclusion? OMG hotels in India are super expensive! No. No they aren’t. But yes, you can spend a lot of money if you really want to.

We went full decandance for 3 days and stayed at the utterly glorious Samode Haveli in Jaipur, Rajasthan. It was a special treat that we awarded ourselves as a holiday within our tour. Were we in LA, Miami, Nice, Hong Kong such a stay would’ve cost £000s/night. Even so, the difference is that this jewel of a place actually feels 5*. Yet I have paid more to stay in a London Premier Inn. Sadly though, in each big Indian city there is a proliferation of giant faceless hotels in outlying compounds. Global brands where you pay western prices for a luxury cell in a fortified complex. Not here.

If you exclude this one anomaly, the average per room for our jaunt is £34.50 which is more representative of Indian “tourist” accommodation. That’s £17/night per person. In fact, we “saved” a hotel night by taking a sleeper train which was £30 – that’s £7.50 each – including agency fees.

*** 11th September 2018. Traveled two stops on the New Delhi metro at rush hour and got pick-pocketed.

I was so busy looking out for the team that I failed to take care of myself. £20 or so gone. Lesson learned: next day it was money belt to the fore.

Context: In 4 trips to India with a duration of some 5 months, spanning 24 years, covering huge swathes of the country it was the first time I experienced any crime. (Although every rickshaw/tuk-tuk/taxi ride has a whiff of tourist rip off I grant you.)

**** It seemed to us that (almost) every time we sat down to order some nosebag, the staff would bobble gently and enquire “spicynotspicy?” When we replied “oooh, spicy please” they’d double check. One can only imagine that lots of delicate flower Western tourists have taught them to err on the side of caution.

Every “spicy” plate of food that was served was richly flavoured, but none was inedibly fiery. (I’ve eaten curry in the UK that melts your face, causes unpleasant sweatiness, coughing and fear of the next visit to the loo. I recommend a loo roll in the fridge with the scrunch and dab technique if you are a victim of nuclear grade chili.) We experienced some revelatory tastes that made veggie meals come alive in ways I’d not dreamed of and brought out the flavours in fresh breads.

***** Delhi Belhi? Wrong. Just wrong dammit. Where are the facts?!

This is just straightforward confirmation bias. Sure, we all know – sometimes only anecdotally – someone who knows someone who turned inside out, but it’s not a dead cert’ by any means.

Annoyingly then, it’s pretty much the first question that people ask when you mention travel to India. “oooOOooh, did you get Delhi Belly?” There is a certainty in the knowledge that you are definitely going to fall really, really ill. No question. Is this because it has its own special name and people can think of nothing else? 

Seriously: GET A GRIP. When you eat in India, other things can happen apart from 100% inevitable diarrhea. I am more suspicious of a UK city centre “world buffet” restaurant than a typical Indian street cafe. I have been REALLY ill from a barbecue restaurant in Camberley (now closed, unsurprisingly) and Mrs B still talks about another BBQ incident that lingered with her for months in 2002 from a solitary dodgy sausage.

Apologies to those who’ve been ill due to food poisoning, clearly. In 1994 after 2.5 months on the road I got careless and was waylaid for a few days. But for the most part? Follow basic/common sense hygiene practice and get delicious food, great value. I have now accompanied my Mum, sis, wife, kids and two friends around the sub-continent without a loo related blip.

Oddly if I travel to the Lake District, no one asks if I’ve had the shits there.

I have.

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Stamps and Postcards

Now that we live in the future, with electric cars, drones, the internet, Donald Trump and whatnot there are some facets of yesteryear that have been all too readily forgotten.

Standing on The Mall in the famous, curious, ex-British Himalayan town of Shimla you cast your gaze hither and thither viewing architectural features that are more akin to a Victorian England. This is no surprise as that’s exactly what they are. The parade ground on The Ridge is perhaps, Sandhurst or Dartmouth Naval College airdropped onto a mountaintop. The alpine backdrop is dramatic, incongruous, ill fitting the scene in the foreground.

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A walking trail around the town notes and celebrates railway buildings, the post office, churches, a command house, the sanitarium. It’s a uniquely preserved military/government base. It’s certainly a destination for modern Indians who flock here, definitely an escape from the intense, unrelenting heat of the plains to the south and west.

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As the Channel 4 series Indian Summers – set here in 1932 – creator Paul Rutman noted:

“Shimla was an entirely British invention. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Brits who were out there decided to build the town in their own image. It wasn’t a holiday destination; it was a summer retreat, somewhere where people could go to crash out. I would compare it with Ibiza, because in a way it was a party town. The other half of the story is of a town where a lot of work got done, of ruling and administrative stuff.”

Consider this: at its peak, this small, uber remote, twee town was the governmental centre for a fifth of the human race.

All this nostalgia leaves me with a sudden urge to send a postcard.

Standing at Scandal Point, the post office (1883) is but a few steps away. The dilapidated building is open for business. Within seconds – much to my surprise – I have a clutch of stamps in my hand. Then normal “service” resumes and the operative reverses into the back office to retrieve some change. Far be it than a customer counter to have a cash float. In the following lengthy  minutes I watch as she visits various desks and drawers. Ancient cash drawers are accessed and shrugs offered. Eventually we conclude our transaction and I am the proud owner of 56p worth of stamps.

Now, for some picture postcards. (Before you ask, yes, this was queried in the Post Office. No, IndiaPost doesn’t offer such collateral. Now please move along.)

Context: we are in a tourist town, with – apparently – not a single shop that is for anything other than frivolous visitor spend. Yet can I buy a postcard? Of course I can’t. In fact we enjoy a breathless – it’s at altitude – magical mystery tour of this remarkable architectural, cultural relic with a cheery battle cry: “Do you sell postcards?”

And nobody does. And really, why would they these days? It’s a dying, specialist market.

Consider this: in 2018 who do you send a postcard to?

Mum (obvs). Nan. An elderly friend/neighbour. A collector. That particular friend who you’ve a running theme with. And… Forgive me, but nobody else gives a shit. Instagram et al has simply removed the need for them. The kids are likely to be 99.9% unimpressed. We could have purchased any number of selfie-sticks, phone chargers and smartphones on our quest. Of course, it’s not just postcards who’ve been left behind. I spied a specialist camera shop whose facia and staff shared a shabby, forlorn look. I expect they can remember the day when they last sold a canister of 35mm film (to someone who wasn’t a bloody hipster).

We end up – a day and a half later – in a charming bookshop (ironically) 50m from the post office. (Sixth largest publish nation in the world they say, India is the second largest English-language print book publisher with over 9000 publishers. Looking ahead, more than 70 per cent of publishers in India have digitised their content to produce eBook versions. After all, everyone has a smartphone…)

Guess what they sell? Cue an unseemly scrabble to purchase their last remaining books of postcards before an inevitable rush. (As if.)

Settled into a cafe minutes later we are faced with another dilemma. What to write?

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Sweet Lime Sodas for the authour

Pithy, relevant, contextual one liners that are uneditable and solitary. That is the demand of the small blank space on the left. It’s like a Tweet with no reply function and 2 week lag between pressing send and the reader logging in.

“Weather’s here wish you were beautiful.” No.

“oOoooh, I think I left the gas on?” Niche humour, but no: you had to be there.

We end up with the consoling thought that the lovely image on the picture side says it all and simply sign “with much love” or similar.

Input phase completed. We march up to the Scandal Point postbox and deposit a clutch of ‘cards. They clunk to the bottom of a seemingly empty receptacle. Immediate questions: when will they arrive? Will they arrive at all? Writing this some days later: where are they now I wonder…

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Wish you were here.

X

The Beers

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Apps for India

During this trip to India I’ve lost track of the number of apps that I’ve used. On reflection, pretty much my first act on emerging from Arrivals was to buy an Airtel – local mobile’ provider – SIM.

So with data safely in hand we have Google Maps, GMail to keep up with business/reservations, GooglePhotos, Facebook, WordPress (Blog), WhatsApp for our little travelling circus plus keeping in touch with the offspring and Granny Pat. Dammit, I even used the device as – hold something solid folks – a phone. Y’know, for like, talking.

In 1994 we traversed the subcontinent armed solely with a copy of The Lonely Planet guide to India.

But in these enlightened times, our evening unfolds thus:

Where are we eating? Let’s have a look on TripAdvisor.in. (Some great overly picky reviews on there BTW.) At the restaurant “How was your dinner?” My dear Mr Patel at the Jaipur Hawk View bar. Fear not sir, I will write a nice review. Thanks for your card and asking me to do it. Yes, I heard you the first time. No, no, I won’t forget. Then, how are we getting home? Abdul Najim has given me his card and we SMS him as we pay the bill (where we could use an app to settle up). He’s then magically waiting outside. (Damn right he is, we pay multiple rates of local punters and I sense we’ve made his financial day/week with our clueless haggling. Although it grates when he enquires “when you are leaving?” and then informs that it’s an appropriate time for a giant tip. 10/10 for chutzpah. Minus several out of ten for rubbing your customers noses in it.)

Our train travel is digital too, albeit slightly less successfully.

Foreigners book travel on Cleartrip and I have an account on IRCTC which we could use to show the ticket inspectors. (Feedback on those apps: once your tickets are issued, they don’t auto update with any train schedule changes, which kinda negates the point of an app right? Might as well carry a paper copy and be done with it.)

And the above are merely a flavour of a (digital) foreigner about town. What of the locals?

A quick Google – obvs – reveals a plethora of “The top X killer apps for the mobile Indian.” Yet instead of considering them technically/functionally, I am struck by what it says about the present/future. In the UK we seem to have fallen for Amazon et al. Yet here the lack of infrastructure blocks adoption of some click-to-physical activities. Such as a nationwide delivery service to usurp the postman. (For now.) I am quietly bewildered with the way in which India has leapfrogged/dispensed with/ignored/bypassed stuff we grapple with in Europe.

Paying for stuff. Why visit the bank or carry cash when you can use an app? You’ll be needing a UPI squire. 

Food. Get it delivered via the Zomato app or book a table. Uber your ride.

Landline? Hundreds of millions of people here have ever had one. And never will. They don’t need to use the phone as a telephone either: use it for VoiceOverIP. IE: Calling via the web on WhatsApp/FB Messenger et al.

The “Top 50…” app listings by category includes camera, entertainment, productivity and then a whole bunch of stuff that I’m unsure what they are for… The fact is everyone has a mobile. The tuk-tuk pilot blaring his horn – normal Indian business – as the seemingly prehistoric loping bullock cart ahead baulks us.

There’s something momentarily surreal about the scene as the ‘cart driver in filthy overall, barefoot, red turban skew-if turns and we see that he’s on a call. Probably to his (Indian) stock broker.

What kind of phones can people afford? Smartphones everywhere. Every flavour except iPhone unless you’re a) a tourist or b) showing off your bling/excess disposable income or c) both.

Finally, there’s the ubiquitous, overt and covert selfie culture. The blonde team members were stopped and asked how many times for a photo? In 2012 it turned our son into an 8 year old rock star, it’s even more established now. I am curious to imagine the “holiday snaps” conversation. “Who’s the big bald fellow?” “Oh, just some random white guy.” Then there are all the no-permission selfies a la paparazzi. Annoying, but only as a buttoned up Brit. Indians and their relationship with personal space is, to put it mildly, different.

I feel like a mere amateur with the technology. And that’s coming from a guy who – in a former life – was a technical trainer for the world’s (then) biggest PC manufacturer.

India marches on regardless with us trailing in their wake…

Or am I just, well, old?

 

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Shri Ram Hotel: BREAK FAST * LUNCH * DINNER

For Pat & Susan

Break. Fast. Yet mostly lunch. (But I had dinner there three years ago it turns out.)

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Monday. Jaipur.

After an intoxicating morning at the Amber Fort with it’s mind boggling designs, raison d’etre and sheer scale we are wilted. Then there was the amazing Hinglish, witty, knowledge rich, rapid-fire delivery from our guide (who made us all cry). Need I mention it was also melty-hot. Without a bye nor leave Gilly stepped in and stepped it up a gear by deftly navigating the handicrafts emporium and easing our driver away from the regular tourist orbit. We make for a more local eatery.

How on earth we are in need of sustenance after our decadent breakfast and this climate is a minor mystery. After much persuasion we are deposited outside the Shri Ram Hotel. Persuasion? Don’t think that you get to choose destinations when you have a driver in India. Nope. They know what you want, what’s best and – side order of cynicism, table two – where they get a little kick back from. Us paying customers calling the shots is gently against the playbook here. Also, unlike anything in Europe, the kitchen at this august establishment is outside, up front, on show. You have to walk through it to sit inside. And what an inside!

Hygiene certificate? Health and safety? Try another universe.

Neat-niks? Clean freaks? Look away NOW.

With some amusement we are ushered to white upright dining chairs with their clear protective plastic on. I say white, I say clear, I mean the very definition of grubby. (Who knows when the day to remove the covers will be?! What an occasion.) The menus, the plastic tablecloths all look like they’ve spent 30 years being handled by clumsy old skool car mechanics. The whole place has the kind of patina that wouldn’t shame the underside of a motorway flyover. Only with dining furniture. At least the haphazard electrics – seemingly installed by a cack-handed surrealist – manage not to self-combust as the fan whirls overhead.

In essence? Loving it. It’s bloody brilliant.

Outside, er, in the kitchen… Is this what hipsters call street food? The gas-fuelled, charcoal topped burner is like an angry scale model volcano, the tandoor gently rumbling like a jet awaiting take off and radiating a mirage of heat. We’ve ordered various veggie curries, fried rice and a selection of tandoori breads. I shoot the (hot) breeze with the cheery kitchen staff and oggle at their cookery as traffic noisily passes.

The ingredients seem CGI enhanced. Their freshness evident, their colours vibrant. The fellas – they are all fellas – swing into action. (We were denied several choices on the extensive menu and I twig that’s because they simply don’t have the fresh supplies. I wish more UK restaurants operated thus.) Even writing here I have started salivating again. As the pans heat, the ghee splashes in and the veggies join them. I wish you could’ve smelt it. Bugger. Am hungry AGAIN.

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Ask a traveller what’s grand about Indian food you might well get a seemingly odd answer.

“Bread.”

Bread?” [you ask.]

“Bread.”

Without knocking the UK food and curry industry, there is something extra special about an almost too hot to eat butter naan straight out of the tandoor on an Indian roadside. I note with a smile we are all eating ravenously, appreciatively, unselfconsciously. The restaurateur is highly concerned about the mains: “it’ll be too spicy!” he exclaims with a head bobble. It isn’t. It’s flavoursome. He’s a lovely, warm chap with an easy smile and appears to be wearing clothes that haven’t been washed, well, ever. His industrious team seem to be having the time of their lives too. We eat a little more. He arrives again with more fresh, hot bread.

He hands it to me. No, no, not the plate. He hands me the bread.

‘Scuse fingers I think with a chuckle.

(Medic! A germaphobe has fainted at table three! Bring the jumbo vat of extra-strong hand sanitiser.)

We pay. It’s 1426IRP. For four. Fifteen quid with a tip.

I then realise that three or so years ago I randomly walked in here with my Mum and sister. We stayed in a hotel nearby, went for a stroll and – via an Indian wedding – ended up here by following our noses. By the power of Gilly we are somehow delivered here again at random. Jaipur is massive by the way. What are the chances?

Although these small world things keep happening to us… again and again… oh, and again.

So, Shri Ram Hotel. Highly recommended for a good value lunch if you’re passing.

 

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Old Delhi 2018 – (still) every kind of nuts.

These days when you fly into New Delhi, it’s likely on a spanking 21st century airliner and you are ushered into a modern terminal on arrival. With only mild disorientation you get your eVisa okayed and it’s identikit duty-free all the way to the baggage carousel. All very international and none the better for it.

You have the option of the metro – 21st century airport express – but we opted for a complimentary airport pickup because a) duh, complimentary and b) I’m too lazy to walk the last 400m from the Metro station to our digs.

Annnnd let the games begin. Gently at first.

When we eventually RV with our chap – of course there are 2 meetings points with the same id number about 200m apart – he ushers us to a careworn (aka beaten-to-shit) Maruti-Suzuki micro-van. We fill it, crank up the A/C and head towards town. It’s my 4th visit and I note that, if anything, the traffic has got worse. A growing (westernising?) economy and booming middle class = more cars. So very many. Luckily everyone ignores all road markings and traffic rules, not to mention laws of physics. We ooze into non existent spaces, swerve onrushing trucks/cars/buses/tuk-tuks/motorcycles/yak-carts, cheerfully straddle white lines, give way to no one and all the while beep the horn like a frustrated morse’ radio operator.
I have written about this at length some years ago, still feels current: click here.

On this trip we have a twist: 2 India virgins. So naturally we ditch the bags at the hotel, grab two auto rickshaws (tuk-tuks) and head for Old Delhi proper. The simple act of crossing the bridge from DB Gupta Rd over the New Delhi Rail Station tracks into Chawri Bazaar is like pressing the crazy button on a time machine.

Away team, adjust phaser craziness settings to “batshit”.

It’s so difficult to make the fully paid-up bonkers appear in words don’t you think? Photos aren’t terribly helpful either, because the circus-like, festival intensity requires all senses to be engaged. (I am also a mediocre photographer at best.) Intellectually, y’know that there are 1.2 billion souls in India today. But somehow y’don’t expect them to all be on the same street as you. On a Tuesday lunchtime.

After some time – “jack knifed cow, mahousive snarl up on Chandi Chwok guvnah” – we de-tuk, er, tuk-tuk, tuk at the Jama Masjid. The biggest mosque in India is impressive and offers a great vantage point. We head up the steps to take it in, take a break and reset. At which point our blonder travelling companions are transformed: instant rock star status. Every dude with a smartphone – IE: that’ll be pretty much every bloke then – wants a selfie. Some ask, some just do, many gawp.

Personal space? India? Ha! Forget it. (But not in a bad way.)

It’s just gone noon, it’s post monsoon and it’s a humid thir-tee-five. Here come the bloke only half afl… (Oops, sorry, but it is Madness here.) The stone floor of the mosque courtyard area is difficult to walk on barefoot. Had we a frying pan it’d fry an egg on it. September now and each massive block has spent months soaking up the summer heat. The European brain is easily addled in these conditions. (Jet-lag is no help.) We need to get a perspective and opt to climb the Minaret. Rapidly, our newbies are noticing the (expected) lack of safety measures. It is always surprising even though you know it to be the case. The appropriate response is to simultaneously laugh manically and pay careful attention to every step as you attempt not to fall to your death.

The reward for such great bravery (!) and sweaty climbing is a clinging to the flimsy railing panorama of the jumbled, disordered, architectural dogs-dinner that is Old Delhi. With a stiff, warm wind blowing visibility is pretty good (for here) and the notorious haze is lifted. The Red Fort main gate has a proud Indian flag filled with the breeze. (In winter the fug is thick and you can hardly make out the imposing ramparts a scant few hundred metres away.)

From up here you soak it all in spying comically haphazard electricity cables, gridlocked traffic, crumbling rooftops, soaring Black Kites, litter strewn alleyways, bazaars with countless shops, stalls and – of course – people. Add to that the soundtrack: the cacaphony of engines and horns is like a toothache that never quite goes away in this town.

It can’t possibly all function can it? Yep, here it is happening all day every day. I return – now, 3 years later – and the buzz is still turned up to 11 on the dial. I find myself imagining if it’s real at all: it’s akin to a hyper-realistic immersive theme park ride. Surely nowhere on earth is this intense?

Old Delhi just is.

As if to prove this to ourselves we then get stuck in a bicycle rickshaw traffic jam. We edge along and – yes – it would’ve been quicker to walk. But the raised seat of these torturous, inefficient contraptions is a perfect vantage point to take it all in. These jalopies are not used purely by tourists. It’s part of the regular transport… System is not the right word. Let’s say ecosystem, okay? (As I only partly understand how they work too.)

Presently we reach the spice market and it takes our breath away. IE: involuntary spluttering and coughing as the aroma a thousand of chilli catch your throat. Piled displays of nuts, masala, ground spices, sack upon sacks of chillis. We climb up and around the building, boggling at its dilapidation and shocking condition. The locals flow around us making spicy business, porters trolleys stacked high with colourful and spicy ingredients, others with sacks on their heads barrelling down slippery dark stairwells in flip-flops.

Suitably bamboozled we throw in the towel and head for the metro for a supposed easier ride back to base.

Delhi Metro 2018 : Cheap, fast, air-conditioned and – it turns out – with highly efficient pickpockets.

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With the kids in 2012

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Taxi from Shimla.

Booking a car – how hard can it be?

Our India travel plans included a wonderfully convoluted train ride up the mountain to Shimla on the splendid Himalyan Queen. At 5 and a bit hours, you can travel more quickly, but that’s hardly the point. Also it’s world-famous, iconic, written about.

Bu what of getting out-of-town?

From the UK it was a head scratcher trying to link up the travel arrangements between Shimla and Jaipur. Eventually we opted to book a direct train from the nearest railhead: the state capital Chandigarth. The bit in between Shimla and there we’d source on site. How hard can it be? In answer to that seemingly rhetorical question, what follows is firstly the answer but secondly, quite by accident, a blow-by-blow account of how India, um, happens. (You’re here now, relax, get a cuppa, read on. I’ll wait.)

Step one: need established, find a suitable supplier. The desk at our hotel were laughably uncommunicative. With sketchy wi-fi and dodgy shop fronts to choose from we are at a loss. A coffee stop – behold the interwebs: with wifi! – sees us settle on a highly rated vendor. Google maps says they are less than 6 minutes walk away. I can even eyeball their building as indicated on my phone: it’s in direct line of sight.

Step two: make contact. We use their web form to contact them because a mobile connection is not so easy. They respond! Perfect. We say we’ll be there “toot sweet” and drain our drinks.

Step three: find the office. Have you seen Shimla?

IMG_20180915_140532.jpgAfter walking back and forth we twig that their Google Maps location is akin to saying 1 The Mall in London. Because for the uninitiated it looks neat and has cache. (Shimla, with its layers of British Raj history has “The Mall” as its main street don’tchaknow.)

Imagine traipsing up to Buckingham Palace and expecting to find a travel desk. Exactly.

[Aside: will Amazon et al ever crack India? Because it’s OMfG difficult to find places even when you have an address and can apparently eyeball the building.]

Step four: call them. After exchanging eMails we make wholly unsatisfactory telephone contact like this.

“Hello?”

Hello?

[Click] repeat X4 or so.

Step five: get directions. Now I get some people aren’t gifted in the explaining where they are and how to reach them department. But then, they wouldn’t choose to run a travel agency, right? Wrong.

We have graduated to using an Indian mobile now and – when finally we speak – are instructed really, really vaguely until I reach way point. Call – another way point. Call… until we are outside a very, very shabby shack. You have probably seen it perched on the hillside in the above piccy. The banner outside has a close-enough travel company name, with the correct office address: 202. We go in. There’s a suitably marked, filthy office door: 202. I push on in with a cheery smile.

Step six: contact. The two bewildered ladies in the ante office respond to my hopeful “hi, we just spoke?” with a nonchalant shrug and a point to the boss man next door. In these parts hierarchy/sexism/jobsworthiness/don’t ask me – delete as appropriate – is still a thing and I simply carry on. Himself smiles warmly, invites our party to sit in his dingy den and listens patiently as I explain our need (duplicating the eMails. After all, you can’t over communicate, right?).

Step seven: establish trust. Although the surroundings look dubious, he immediately corrects me about our Chandigarth loco’ departure time. The train has been brought forward by 70 minutes to 19.40! Gadzooks: so lucky we found you sir. (Both Indian rail booking apps I use show my 20.50 booking as current and correct. Try to make a fresh booking howevs’ and the “confirmed” train time doesn’t exist. IE: We’d have definitely missed that train had we not met this fella. I check later and our booking is still valid: it’s just the train time that’s changed… It is also the LAST train of the day anywhere.) He seems cool with our car requirements which are, in short, thusly: a chunky, well maintained whip with a well schooled driver that we are definitely not going to die in.

Step eight: get the right deal. We anti-haggle. IE: Caving quickly and weedily agreeing on 4,000IRP for the 120k (4 hour) journey. (It was 2500IRP for a wee car. But there’s 4 of us. And we’re, ahem, grown ups. With luggage. A seventeen year old Suzuki Alto is not going to cut it. We’re not in Borneo now.)

Step nine: sort the paperwork. He fills out a totally normal – yet to us olde worlde – 3ply carbon copy chit. Longhand. We both sign it.

All the while my mobile phone keeps ringing with an unknown Indian number and I dismiss each call. How annoying! I even answer one call: “hello?” “Hello?”

Step ten: shake on it. We pay 1000IRP deposit, shake hands all round and cheerily wave goodbye. Palpable relief all round on our side. Good work team, a job well done.

Step eleven: WTaF?! On the doorstep, meet the original travel agent who you were on the phone to in the first place. As I emerge last, a young lady and her oppo are already talking to Lucy. Turns out they were the travel people we’d been eMailing and talking to all along and had come to find us (too bloody late). They’d beeen phoning and phoning and phon…

Interim punchline:

We’ve just walked into a random travel agency in a shack and booked a totally providence free cab in a case of surreal mistaken identity.

Step twelve: hastily apologise to original ‘agent and move on abashed.

Step thirteen: find bar, buy beer and try to figure out how that all happened.

Mitigation.

  1. Phone and eMail lady really didn’t communicate effectively – dammit use your company name instead of just repeatedly saying “hello?” Fail.
  2. The travel office we booked at shared the same address as on Google,
  3. Dude in travel office didn’t bat an eyelid, was super helpful and corrected our mistaken train departure time,
  4. Why the hell didn’t she just meet us in the first place and…
  5. er, at least we have a ride, right?

Step fourteen: karma. Later on we are nipping into a bar for that cheeky sundowner when we bump into the same travel guy! His main office is mere steps in the other direction from the cafe we first set off from on the taxi odessey. Okay, okay it’s a small town but still…

Step fifteen: take the journey. Will let you know how that works out?! What could possibly go wrong on a 4 hour trip down a mountain road that’s partially under construction and suffered terribly from landslides in the recent monsoon in a country where driving is – at best – hair raising.

Spolier alert: we made it.

In next weeks episode: the saga of buying four stamps and a postcard. No, am not kidding…

PS: 4000IRP is about forty quid.

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Pink City Rickshaw Co.

We arrived on the mail sleeper from Chandigarth, some 10 hours north of Jaipur. The train pulls into the station at 06.20 and we’re groggy from 17 hours travel. To be fair sleep came deeply albeit fitfully with the lurching of the carriage, the comings and goings of fellow passengers and the movie/doppler sound effect of an air horn as a train roared past in the opposite direction.

Rewind a few months.

From Travel HQ – my shed – this morning was imagined thus: arrive Rajasthan first thing, dump bags at lodgings and head out on a pre-breakfast tour? Then we could check in and recover. Days later, mulling over said plan (when I should be working) chewing on a pen in the shed, Radio 4’s “from our own correspondent” gently filled the air. The BBC India contributor told a tale of a social enterprise where 200 folk from low income households own and manage their own business.
It’s a tour company in Jaipur: the Pink City Rickshaw Co. I quietly break off my pen top with a molar. A quick eMail, a response, a plan is hatched.

Back to this morning.

We transit to the Samode Haveli – more of which anon – and flop messily on their delightful outdoor sofas away from the world with the sounds of parakeets and copious twittering birds to lull us. Oh eight hundred, our rides arrive on schedule and we’re off on silent e-rickshaws piloted by, wait for it, ladies.
Did I not mention that? It’s a big deal? Ohhh yessss, it’s a biiiiig deal. Huge. Ladies driving rickshaws! That’s a man’s business for sure round these parts. So these are courageous folk, breaking boundaries, facing prejudice, making good. Our hosts were both Mums. They were warm, cheerfully diffident in the face of openly sneering men, enthusiastic and – for once a spot on use of the term – empowered. The whole business works by charging a handsome tariff which then goes to paying off the rickshaw loan, paying a decent crust to the drivers and being a profitable enterprise to do good stuff. Their website is high end tourist friendly, their marketing deftly targeted, their look’n’feel enticing.

http://www.pinkcityrickshawcompany.com/
In case you’re wondering, we’d recommend in heartbeat. More than that, Gilly & Lucy used some beautiful language in describing their experience of the ladies (over and above the tour itself). Brave, friendly, considerate, inspiring and – again – empowered. We all felt rather emotional at what these people are achieving.
Oh and it was a 2 hour “wake up with Jaipur” itinerary in case you want to look it up. Am not going to describe it here. You had to be there. Here are some photos:

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They liked us too on Facebook.
And having patronised them – I think you understand my use of the word here – we know that the money spent gets split equitably. Often as a tourist you know you’re paying over the odds right? In this case it felt like a privilege to help out.

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The great Wiltshire sock cull 2018

For Charlie.

It’s important to have goals in life. It’s important to have perspective. Live on the edge a little. A frisson of danger, a pinch of excitement, verve… elan! It makes it all, well, worth it, yes?

So dear reader, to our Friday tale.

We open on a scene with your authour confronting the smalls drawer intent on packing a rucksack for a jaunt to India. His face is subtly twisted by the following realisation: he has excess formal socks.


I am aware that this doesn’t even qualify for a sneer of “first world problems.” It’s pond-life levels of decadence. This is not worthy of a hashtag. If it were a medal – in the “things to do with your time awards” – it wouldn’t even figure unless EVERYONE else had been disqualified on an obscure legal technicality. Even then it would only be awarded Cardboard at best. Awarded in a deep hole dug out to fashion an inverse of the podium. You’d just see the top of my lonely head as the proper official’s third cousin – who was in the venue only to sweep up – bestowed my award by lying down and reaching out into the abyss after I coughed a lot to make it awkward for him to ignore me.

You might say: ah, Ian’s self employed, it’s Friday and he’s not going to start anything meaningful at this hour. You’d be right.

I know what your thinking. Socks! So very many socks. How come?! In the racy lifestyle I’ve been leading these days, a week in Runcorn has been a regular feature. Imagine a four hour M6 slog Sunday night unpacking at your weekday digs only to discover: you’ve forgotten your socks.

I’ve stared down the barrel of that bleak puppy. Let me tell you it’s a dark place*.

Twice.

It’s a wonder I’m not a more bitterer man than I am.

Anyhow, back to the scene…


We cut to an overhead shot of a jumbled mass of all black socks bursting forth.

[Pro-tip: only buy black ankle socks chaps and you’ll never have a mismatching crisis.]

Worse still, there are a pack and a half of fresh-uns peeking out.

Spur of the moment: “They’ll have to go.”

And with that all the previously enjoyed work socks are going to the clothing bank. BOOM! This is how he’s rolling on a September Friday.

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24 socks

[FIN. Roll credits.]

Aside: now what with this being the 21st century and all, if you visit the M&S Outlet/ Primarni you can only buy fellas ankle height hosiery in packs of a level billion. What a time to be alive! (Let’s willfully ignore the obvious question: how on earth can they retail a sock-stack for £3 and make a margin? They pay factory workers in a hot country a living wage right? Right? Please don’t judge me. I needed socks, they sold them, I bought them.)

So I’m taking the new socks to India? Tsk. Awwww. Noooo. I’ve a bunch of shoe-liner-sports socks for that. I know, I k now. Who would’ve imagined life would be so crazy.

India footwear packing list v3.7:

  • Skate shoes (with liner socks)
  • Flip Flops.

We fly Monday. Hmmm. Does that give me time to tackle my tee shirt drawer?


Footnote: this entry needs a better title. Can anyone offer a sock based pun?

I’ll start “Socks is life” or “Nothing succeeds like sockcess”…


*Knowing you’ve no socks. Not Runcorn.

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New Delhi revisited

“We’d like to go to India.”

“Er, okaaay?”

“We’d like you to take us.”

“Let me think about it. [Half a heartbeat later.] Cool, when are we going?”

In a week or so as it turns out. Flights, trains, hotels, visas* all booked. 1994, 2012, 2015 have seen trips to New Delhi. The latter and former saw Jaipur & Agra too. This time a northerly turn is included in the plan: Simla. Different this time also is the smaller Beers are staying in Blighty whilst India newbies and longtime friends the Taylors are onboard. Well, they’re the driving force.

Rucksack unearthed and then a pause to ponder: how will it have changed?

In 2015 my brain had a memory that did not account for the actual passage of time in the intervening years. Of course every man and their yak has a mobile phone. Of course. But my narrative didn’t have that factored in so I was blown away by the proliferation of web connected devices. Daft really. Embarrassing even. And look at all these cars! Oh wait, there we go again…

This time then, I wonder, what will be different?

I’ve seen it described that Old Delhi is a time travel town where you can zip between the centuries by turning your head. On one side of the alleyway, ancient tradition, the other cutting edge 21st century. That’s been my experience. Child free in 2018, I fancy a visit to some bars/cafes where the locals hang out to catch a whiff of modern India in conversation. But equally am determined to avoid Guccified malls. I want to show our friends India as it’s been for generations juxtaposed with tomorrow.

Frankly, I’m also anxious as tour guide. Let’s see what transpires shall we?

*Visas are $100 per pers’. A ker-ching for the Indian government in granting us entry using their new “streamlined” process (which was anything but). And then you end up paying X times the local ticket fee to enter attractions.

EG: “The entry fees of fatehpur sikri is Rs. 40.0 per person Indian Visitor and citizen of SAARC and BIMSTEC countries, 550.0 per person Other Foreign Visitor.”

So that’s a mere X 13 premium simply for being foreign. Yes, we can afford it, but $100 and then being clearly fleeced smarts a little.

Does that happen in Europe? (At least officially.)

 

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