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Loyalty schemes: what a time to be alive!

[WARNING: contains sarcasm. #firstworldproblems #getagrip]

Like most mortals these days I have membership of various loyalty schemes: supermarkets, airlines and such. Diligently and routinely offer my credentials when purchasing? Tick. This, of course, is a triumph of human gullibility over the understanding of, say, mathematics. Willingly partaking because getting something for nowt is winning, right?

Hmmm.

Knowingly complicit in this sham I actively avoid seeking out the cost/benefit analysis due to… what exactly? Well, a fondness for not crying because of the futility of existence and a strong aversion to peeking behind the curtain of 21st century capitalism for starters. Depression stalks me all to readily without actually, intellectually confronting, knowing and internalising how little value these scams are.

Did I say schemes? I meant scams. Or was it the other way around?

Slartibartfast: Perhaps I’m old and tired, but I always think the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say “Hang the sense of it” and just keep yourself occupied. […] Science has achieved some wonderful things, I know, but I’d far rather be happy than right any day.
Arthur Dent: And are you?
Slartibartfast: No. That’s where it all falls down, of course.”

Douglas Adams (1979). The hitchhikers guide to the galaxy, published by Pan
Books. Chapter 30, where Arthur Dent and Slartibartfast discuss the possibility of a
greater meaning.

In the last few days though, two organisations – in particular – have twitched the nib on the irkometer to spike the graphs. Step forward Hotels.com and IHG Rewards Club.

But wait! As a regular traveler, surely a well chosen loyalty scheme makes sense? Yes, yes. It sometimes does. Over countless nights/miles/coin spent away from home enough credit has been accrued to claw back an occasional night gratis, er, away from home. Woop – and indeed – woop. Ride that system boy! Live that dream!

… [sigh]

And yet the irking is real. The game is not being played satisfactorily. It flicks the needles not because of the what, but the how.

Consider Hotels.com. They send “exclusive 50% off” stuff for “one day only” on a tediously frequent – pretty much daily – basis. (For brevity, not to mention grammar pedantry, I will omit their use of exclamation marks. Not because they are grammatically wrong, more that the sheer frequency gives me a headache. Like CONSTANTLY being in a “HIGH FIVE!” environment. As Tiggerish as I can be for extended periods, extreme punctuation kills me. Not quite as bad as the forced smiles we are forced to witness at the end of strenuous musical theatre number. Obvs. (I only mention this for context. Still, a kind of PTSD ensues.)) Noted also are the promise that “Lower prices that aren’t available to everyone.” Really? Perhaps a lone goat herder in Mongolia doesn’t qualify during a particular phase of the moon? Maybe ‘that’ death row inmate in some deep south US penal colony on a random Thursday every third leap year? Do tell.

“I remember the day distinctly, it was the only day that year that Allied Carpets were not having a sale.”

Ronnie Corbett

I wouldn’t mind so much but these #superduperdeals – made that hashtag up, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise – are always applying to somewhere I’m not going to.

When I’m not going there.

It’s almost as if the marketers are trying to tempt me to spend money… Imagine!

(My punctuation that one.)

So what has squished my gooseberries today? Some algorithm has robotically noted that I’m off to London this week. True, I dabbled with the idea of making an overnight of it. Cue eMail “offers” and “50% discounts” that are frankly nothing of the sort. Still thinking of going? Aw, feck off. Am just going to leave a screenshot below from earlier this year. You will note the USD – really, USD? – I saved by being in the club.

hotels.com savings galore

Then IHG folk are, if anything, worse.

Bear with'. Rant looming.

If you travel frequently yet sporadically on business, you often get to choose your digs. So choose IHG, right? Lots of choice. Sort of. However, the method of booking may well be dictated by employer/contracts/client. IHG Rewards are only awarded if you book how they want you to. Spending a calendar month at one of the properties are we? Computer says no. Circa zero benefits pal because you didn’t play properly when booking. IE: Your loyalty as a customer is instantly disregarded by a loyalty app.

Go figure. (Luckily, the actual, physical staff at said property are more accommodating.)

The scheme is, putting it mildly, fickle. The marketing comms with their impossibly handsome stock-photo models almost goading. Merely applying for their credit card will turn me into a points laden Brad Pitt! OMFG, my instant ubercool lifestyle if I lay my head at X for a night! And so on. Am not usually schmuckish enough to fall for these “deals”. Usually.

Yesterday, I shamefacedly fell for “Our biggest thank you yet” which involved this:  “simply Tweet or Instagram a picture at home or at any IHG hotel using the hashtags #HomeWithIHG, #RewardsOffer and #Ad and including @IHGRewardsClub. Then, visit ihgrewardsclub.com/ClaimMyPoints to get your 5,000 points.”

Dear reader, I avidly pressed buttons, hashtagged photos with verve, sacrificed a rare mammal and – yay! – drank its blood, got a tattoo, licked gravel, electrocuted my plums and undertook several other unprintable rituals. The result? A marketing TRIUMPH for the deities of IHG. Behold (below), 15 people like it. FIFTEEN.

IHG Club Insta

Nice hotel. Lovely staff.

Before I take the rest of the week off, I check my account with puppyish gaiety.

To whit, nothing has happened. Wot no points? And I still don’t look like a film star…

#firstworldproblems – I know

#getagrip – Okay, okay

Only, in both cases above, this is meant to be a fair exchange. Right loyalty schemers? Well, it just isn’t.

Luckily, for the more rational moments – or perhaps whilst on a transit delay having lost the will to live – you can check what’s worth what.

Try: https://thepointsguy.com/ or – loathed by many in the industry – https://www.moneysavingexpert.com

Right where’s that myWaitrose card? After venting my spleen I can feel a pointless drive to town to get a free coffee coming on…

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Please consider other users when using this planet

Contrary to popular belief there is still a lot of space, even in this Isle. For instance, I can walk across fields outside my back door for ages before encountering another homo sapien. Even when there are people around I can choose to zone out in a crowded place.

That said, some folk have a talent – let’s call it that shall we? – for invading ones space. Some road users do it. Some take up extra space on public transport. Some peg out acres of territory on Cornish beaches. Some people are inappropriately LOUD.

So whilst that’s in Blighty, clearly there is a cultural calibration to this. For instance, try traveling in India using British rules of acceptable personal space. You’d go potty within an hour of arriving. Somewhat ironically, in Texas walking within the same wide, corporate corridor as a colleague elicits an “excuse me” from them as if we’d physically bumped into each other. Aren’t they supposed to be a brash bunch? With loads of, y’know, space? (I had to check: no, it’s just a proximity warning mechanism/faux politeness. No reflection on m’corridor walkin’ skills y’hear.) Japan? Crammed and spacious all at once with weapons grade respect/politeness. There are in the region of 7 billion of us, rubbing along is surely a necessary skill.

A skill lost to some.

Allow me to transport you to a splendid indy cafe on the high street in rural Marlborough. This snug establishment serves good coffee and outstanding savoury scoff. The cakes are sublime too. By inclination am a keen supporter of the small business. This particular one offers a tip-top venn of delicious tucker, convenience, natural light, cosy atmosphere and independence.

Nursing a coffee on a autumnal Friday morning, relaxing into the vibe, a happy place away from it all. For a short while before the day’s list of stuff necessitates action. There are less than a dozen patrons, which makes it just-right occupancy: profitable for the proprietor, good service, nice lo-fi buzz. Bliss.

Then it begins.

“WHICHCOFFEEDOYOUWANT? FLATWHITEORSOMETHINGSHORTERI’LLHAVEACAPPUCCINO.”

[Quietly] “Good morning, which coffee did you want?”

“TWOCOFFEESDOYOUWANTAFLATWHITE?I’VEORDEREDACAPPUCCINO.”

[Engaged, patiently and cheerfully] “So that was one flat white and one cappuccino?”

[Irked.]“YES!?ANDI’MORDERINGPOACHEDEGGSDOYOUWANTBREAKFAST?”

I start. Before the first syllable of the above skirmish. It might be the caffeine. A quick self-inventory. Coffee, smartphone (silent), breathing in-out, haven’t farted, sat in solo-booth in far corner. Personal sitrep in a word? Unobtrusive. At this point I make a mental effort to analyse the sounds I can hear. There are tunes from the sound system – good volume balance between audibility of music/artist and easily spoken over – and several chats in progress. Traffic passes the window, but is barely a whisper. I can see lips moving around my neighbour tables and hear the gentle hubbub of voices. But these customers are choosing to converse quietly.

Ahhh, I get it: the breakfast partner of our foghorn customer is deaf?

Yet, somehow, I don’t think she is. The stream of noisy consciousness thus far wasn’t exclusively for the benefit of them. Our customer is stood at the counter loudly and plummily blurting a broadcast loud enough to fill a drill hall.

Am aware my chimp has moved it’s DEFCON setting up a notch without being asked. I sense it’s not alone in this now somehow more confined space.

The foghorn carries on. Am no longer ascertaining the details as it’s just a torrent of  posh noise with the occasional “DAHHHLING” thrown in. Apparently it’s a complex food order, despite the concise menu. I can no longer concentrate on my own serenity either. My chimp – helpfully? – considers standing up and yelling – by which I mean properly slowly, big jaw movement, shouting – “S….T…F…U.!

Luckily (?) my British human intervenes and I sit stock still.

Yes, yes, yes: quite the Victor Meldrew these days aren’t we Mister Beer?

Very probably.

When the verbal conflict of the order is over I am in mind of Stephen Fry’s unforgettable General Melchett. What might that character’s offspring/family have been like?

Momentarily a lovely atmosphere washes back in like a gentle tide. As quickly it’s gone as a new, now tete-a-tete, tirade begins. Be grateful that the gory details of this individual’s family’s complex medical issues are not repeated here. A whole cafe of people now know about them. Ewwww. Driven through a sense of repulsion, my Welsh underdog/inverted snob wanders into mind: I thought the toffs had stronger genes than us mongrels? Oh dear, my Celtic chimp is turning this into class war.

Then, a minor miracle of traffic wardenery.

[Stands up violently] “IHAVETOMOVETHEBLOODYCARBECAUSETHEBUGGAHSWILLSTINGYO….”

[Exit stage right, slamming door behind.]

And with that dear reader, the noise is gone.

I stand up and proclaim “Praise be! … Praise be for the meter maids of Marlborough town!” The cafe bursts into spontaneous applause.

Well, that last bit didn’t happen. But we all quietly felt it. Being a real man, a true Brit, I drained my cup and left before the posh PA system returned. Discretion being the better part of valour and all that.

Am sure Brexit will sort all this out.

pooh-4c

 

 

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Travel: Is it worth it?

Downloaded the BBC Sounds app. I listened with great interest to “Lynne Truss on travel: Is it worth it?” (from Radio 4. (Trusst – sorry – me it’s better than the mediagasm that the news programmes are having over Brexit today).

The first episode is a one-to-one is with Geoff Dyer who writes beautifully on – among other things – travel matters as befits a man who has spent much of his life on the move. (A man with a “wandering eye.”) With a smiling nod to my last post on criss-crossing, I note he’s from Cheltenham where we lived for almost a decade. Eloquent and with “a wagging tail” he referred to Annie Dillard who wrote;

“We are here on the planet only once and might as well get a feel for the place.”

Lovely.

Of course, I knew my own answer to the question in the headline before listening but it was heartening and fascinating to hear the take of another as if in conversation. And he put it better than I ever could.

Am looking forward to the forthcoming brace of episodes in lieu of any actual traveling…

BBC Sounds? It works for me, but check out this delicious Twitter exchange.

Jenny Eclair BBC Sounds

W1A: life imitating art? Or the other way around?

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Criss-crossing our paths

First born has recently returned from a trip with the Rangers* to Marlborough Massachusetts and locale. A child no longer.

Part geek, part concerned parent, part on-call taxi service I tracked the progress of her transatlantic flight as it made landfall heading to LHR.

(Several ways of doing this these days on the internets. I tend toward the easy to use – yet mind boggling – https://www.flightradar24.com/. Easy to use? Just search for the flight by it’s call-sign (VS12/VIR12E on this occasion) and watch it make progress. Mind boggling? You can lose hours just randomly tracking flights to/from obscure locations just by clicking on the iccle aircraft avatars. Also, zoom out: so very many planes. I’ve heard it said that at any one moment these days, there are over a million people airborne. What a time to be alive. (Yes, a great work avoidance device too. Also, have you seen – OMaG – https://www.vesselfinder.com/?! My day wasted, right there…))

Criss-crossing #1

First up, the trip involved a spot of NYC which is where we were (en famille) this time 12 months ago. Lovely for Josie to find her way around Manhattan without Mom & Pop weighing her down. Riding the Staten Island ferry, mooching around Central Park. Cool.

Criss-crossing #2

As their Dreamliner (Flight VS12) made it’s into British airspace I noticed it went plumb overhead Auntie Susan’s pad in Mumbles, Wales. A beautiful clear autumn morn, where the locals wondered what a giant white hand icon was doing hovering above them. (The bluey line across the image shows the aircraft routing.)

VS12 routing

VS12 routing over The Mumbles and Wiltshire

Criss-crossing #3

Then the flight made a direct run across Wiltshire. Where Josie was following on the screen map – they are very good on the 787 – and took a photo out of the biiig window purportedly of Marlborough. Can you see us waving back?

Marlborough

That be Marlborough that be I reckon

Meanwhile, yours truly was leaning out of the loft window taking a photo of her.

VS12

Wot no zoom? VS12

Criss-crossing #4

As the flight was transferred to the guidance of the LHR tower it’s routing took it over Surrey (ultimately taking a big u-turn over the City of Laaaandun for a Westerly final approach to Heathrow). I even took a wee screenshot and clumsily annotated it:

Screenshot

Screenshot.

Where:

  1. the hospital Josie joined the human race in September 2001: Frimley Park maternity unit
  2. the house we lived in then: 1 Cromwell Road, Camberley
  3. the flight she was currently on October 2018.

17 years ago, carrying a bundle of joy from 1 to 2 I didn’t pause to think she’d be passing by the front door. Especially not at 10,000′ clocking 330knots.

Criss-crossing our paths we jolly well go.

*Rangers? Bigger, tougher, more angsty, less manageable Girl Guides.

 

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Time to watch Blade Runner again

Like all science fiction fans, I am partial to a bit of Dick. That said, it was the stunning Ridley Scott neo-noir cinematic realisation of the future in the 1982 movie Blade Runner that shaped, nay, warped my teenage mind, not the 1968 text. To teenage Ian, the film is how the century ahead would be: the night-time skyscape – and it was always night-time – seared my impressionable brain with a vision. Fast forward to 2018 and whilst androids are not yet dreaming of electric sheep, this evening, for a moment, I feel like I have been transported.

There are detail differences between Scott’s classic and this Dubai night: it is dry here for starters and the sky is not filled with autonomous giant led-screen blimp drones (more’s the pity). As for the presence of “skin jobs” – that’s replicants or synthetic humans to you- the jury is still out because I have seen a few sights. I feel very much the stranger in a strange land with some impossible looking specimens of the human race thronging the Dubai Mall.

What really made it strikingly as if it t’were Ridley Scott himself directing my evening is the evidence in video below.

VIDEO: https://youtu.be/V0E-1vlIa3A

Okay, okay, the music is not Vangelis, but it is a dramatic soundtrack playing in stunning hi-fi around a giant artificial desert lake (in a desert) as thousands gawp to the heavens at the monumental Burj Khalifa lit up in truly spectacular fashion.

Then it strikes me: I am at once astounded, transported and dismayed.

Astounded? How could you not be by the stunning precision visual display and vast scale of the illumination. The animation made incredible use of the building as a canvas with great sound to boot.

Transported? I genuinely felt like a pre-pubsecant again for a second and gasped to catch my breath. How so? Because it was – for a fleeting moment – like being back inside the Blade Runner universe of my youth. I was dizzied by the sensation.

Then… Dismayed? Because it’s a bloody advert.

Dear reader, my reverie bubble was well and truly popped as the brilliance of the production revealed itself to be a promotion for a (Chinese) smartphone. Paradoxically, this makes it all the more Blade Runner-esque because the floating screens of that fictional future were little more than giant billboards (moodily ignored in the movie by the troubled anti-hero Deckard).

If you do get to see the video above, you’ll hear my disdain which I found impossible to keep to myself. You may also – rightly – accuse me of being a bit slow on the uptake. I was so away with the fairies that it took me a good few seconds to cotton on to the message. Ridiculous, because there is surely no more commercial a place on earth than here? I finished recording at that point. (What a rubbish cameraman I’d make, judgmental, fickle, easily bored.) This means that you are not treated to the whoopin an a hollerin that follows the conclusion of the AV show. You are also spared the sound of a forty nine year old curmudgeon exclaim an audible holier-than-thou tut. Again, ridonculous because it’s all a sponsored show right? I’ve not paid an entry fee. The backers are entitled to push their message: they’ve paid for it. Kudos too to the production company: you know your stuff.

The future is here, that much is clear. It’s just that I’m not cool with it [sigh].

Ho hum, better watch Blade Runner again. One of the seven versions…

PS: Another witness has made a longer video which captures the crowd response: https://youtu.be/K-gho8ltsHo I also note Samsung have also used the building this year for their S-whatevs launch. So this advertising thing works then, because I’ve just shared a video or two. D’oh!

PPS: BladeRunner is REAL in Dubai. Just not as you might expect. Click here.

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Small World Take 4: Dubai John

My first time in the middle east: Dubai.

A new client, new programme, new timings, their schedule (where we are unexpectedly helping out due to sharp turn in circumstance). We were supposed to go out last night following class to do our research work, but a number of the team couldn’t make it, so we re-scheduled for tonight at the last second.

We take a car to the hotel, idle in traffic, wait an extended time for one of the party to freshen up and then – purely when the whole mini-caravan is ready – ship out with a stroll to the venue. A research trip it most definitely is. (Admittedly it might appear more like air-quotation and theatrical wink “research.” Like “testing” the “all you can eat” buffet. Or seriously exploring if “Happy Hour” really is enough to make one cheerful.) So here we are in the fully-paid-up-bonkers – in so many ways – Dubai Mall in the name of work. We wander discreetly among the hoards with firm mission, strong intent but sans schedule.

Presently we corral at the plush sofas on the gently rarefied concourse near to the Burberry store to compare notes on luxury brand performances, our interpretations, reflections and conclusions.

Recap

Effectively, then, you find me sat on a random couch, outside a place I’d usually not visit, at a random time, in a random place on – to me – a new, random continent.

Within seconds of taking the weight off, I arise, take all of 10 steps forward, tap a fella on the shoulder and as he turns I quietly say…

“Small world eh John?”

“Mister Beer… Let me introduce you to _____ _______ from _______.”

My experience of John? Always the calm, collected character, with that wholly admirable grasp of situations. Understated and measured. Cool. So naturally he greets me like we saw each other last Tuesday and swiftly includes me in conversation with his client nary skipping a beat.

John: you’ve not lost it.

Especially since we consider the facts. I last saw John around five years ago for a quiet early Tuesday curry in Rusholme, Manchester, planet England (near where he resides). We worked together at the turn of the century and stayed in touch for many years.

We converse for a few moments, with John informing his dinner partner that I have recently been to India of late and am in the UK as infrequently as he is. (The other side of John: social media stalker.) We agree to – genuinely – catch up and that’s it: I go back to my team, John & co take a table at a nearby restaurant.

Whilst this seems an unlikely story, let me tell you: this kind of thing happens more often than you think…

New Zealand

New York

Kanazawa (Japan)

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Dubai. It’s just not Delhi is it?

Coming up to 24hours in the UAE and I can’t help noticing it’s most definitely Dubai.

I mean obvs, it’s not Delhi. But seeing as that was the last long haul city I visited earlier this month… it is, therefore, an accidental yardstick. Even if this is a work trip. I have had the luxury of a day to normalise after arriving in the small hours. Unfortunately, this has had the unintended effect of rocking me on my heels.

img_20181020_0016521

The view as I entered the hotel last night

If you’ve not been here, then a written description is going to fall short. As a scene setter how about we take the following ingredients:

  • 1 X Las Vegas – scale, desert climate, sheer chutzpah. (Discard the gambling.)
  • 1 X Emirate – muslim heritage, laws, huge oil wealth, middle eastern culture and a taste for bling
  • A big bunch of apparently every flavour of extreme architecture mankind can currently muster, with some radical, comic-book structures. (Like CGI of an alien, technologically utopian planet from a Marvel movie.) A Shanghai/Manhattan/Singapore mashup.
  • 1 X blind eye: for the origins/conditions of labour that built it all, means of electricity generation, the amount of pollution and waste. (Where does all the water come from?Where does all the sewage go?)

Mix well, leave to marinade against the backdrop of whatever meandering trajectory the global economy is heading on.

Wandering is a great way to learn a new place, don’t-cha-think? I have walked and walked today. In 35C? Well, outside it may have been, but the Dubai Mall and walkways to the metro are all air-conditioned. (Plus the desert heat is less oppressive; now it’s late October. Bearable, even at midday.) From the chilled metro carriages raised above the city sprawl we barrel along a full 25km to Dubai Marina. Huge roads pass beneath us. So very many cars. So many high end motahs: Rolls’, Lambos’, Ferrari’, McLarens and – heavens – even the occasional Porsche. Ringed by vast condos, the marina itself is filled with glistening motor-yachts. Pausing for a delicious Lebanese lunch, I get a mini-lecture from the proprietor about the evils of sugar in Pepsi. (Imagine if it was beer I washed the shwarma down with!?) I stand at the head of the carriage on the return trip – no driver to block the view – and boggle at the cityscape as it envelops our train. (Have seen Tomorrowland with Clooney?)

The overhead corridor to Dubai Mall is hundreds of metres from the station. It is cool, wide and thronging. If you kneel at the temple of retail, this place is surely a global shrine judging by the vast number of disciples herein. Outside – 8PM – the Dubai Fountain dances to pulsating music with light and the backdrop of the Burj Khalifa. (The structure manages to look impossibly tall and unimposing at once. It will visually rhyme with the coming-soon Dubai Creek Tower which is similarly nuts. Dial crazy settings to batshit.) How many thousand marched in London today against Brexit? Well, many thousands marched here too, firm in their intent to oooh-ahh at fountains, get dinner and buy expensive impractical shoes.

Rocked on my heels then by jetlag, arid heat, scale, unhindered consumerism, architectural egotism and conspicuous wealth. Worlds away from Delhi in one direction. A world away from rural Wiltshire in the other.

Hey ho, off to work tomorrow. How long before this all feels normal?

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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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