The name itself may incite any number of images. Tigers, perhaps. Maharajahs striding along in a litter in a procession of elephants. Sacred cows tying up traffic while feasting on an island of rubbish. Call centres which frustrate and fray.
Our week away was in India. Probably not the first choice of yours, or most people’s destination list. But we took all the frequent flier miles we had, threw them into the computer, and booked two seats to Delhi (once the in-laws were secured for babysitting). And one mild afternoon we got on an airplane, and flew the red eye to India.
We had booked up what is called ‘The Golden Triangle’ – Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra. Jaipur is one of the largest cities in Rajasthan and famous for the Maharajah’s ‘Pink City’, and Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal, which would be the setting for Alastair’s 50th birthday. We would have two days in Delhi then, and would fly home. Not a lot of time in India, only eight days. Then again, real life can only give you so long a break.
We flew to Delhi after flying all night, and despite having a sleeping pill, 4 glasses of champagne and watching the snoozer ‘Breaking Dawn’, I didn’t really sleep. When we landed we knew we had a 9 hour wait before our first train to Jaipur, so I bought a ‘luxury shower’ package at the airport. The showers were clean and tidy, had all the amenities, and cost me about £3 to use. I call that a bargain. We then took a taxi to the train station (we took rather a lot of trains).
(And click on the photos to embiggen, ’cause they look much cooler that way.)
There are things to know about India. For starters, if you are foreign you will be stared at. A lot. Particularly if you’re a woman, and as a woman you have to cover up and dress conservatively (particularly in Rajasthan). And people will not only ask if they can take a photo with you, they’ll ask if their kids can have a photo with you, which makes you feel self-conscious.
If you are travelling with a man, the Indian men will not really speak to you. Ever. They will even speak about you, but not to you. This suited me fine-Alastair likes to chat, I typically don’t, it worked out well.
India is the kind of place where one street you walk down can smell like heaven. – fried pakoras, coriander, mustard seeds. The next corner you have to cover your nose from the stench of rotting food and waste. And at every large oasis of rubbish, you have the rag pickers trying to salvage.
I was told India is like Marmite-you either love or hate it. I was quietly prepared to be among the haters. Instead, I loved it. It is absolutely remarkable. Traffic has no rules, you can whiz up the wrong way of a one way street if it suits you, and the car horn is used for a variety of messages – ‘Hello!’, ‘Behind you’, ‘Goodbye’, or ‘Hey guess what? I just saw a bird! It was yellow!’ Men driving motorcycles would regularly have a be-sari’ed woman behind him, with two toddlers holding onto her and a newborn in her arms. It scares me to think of driving that way. Life is precious, but life is India could be construed as cheap.
Kids the same age as Nick and Nora were often doing work. Once we saw a young boy about Nick’s age wielding a small sledgehammer, trying to prise out bent nails from a door plank to sell for scrap metal. Back home at that moment, our own young son was sat between his two sisters, his stomach full, freshly bathed, and wearing new Peppa Pig pajamas we had bought him. A world away. He will not know that life by the chance of being born to whom he was, the coincidence of being born where he was, and a large dose of luck.
The kids there were amazing, smiling, keen to say hello. At one point while we walked through a village a cadre of two dozen young kids walked behind us, singing ‘Hello!’ to a tune they all seemed to know. I missed the twins fiercely throughout the journey, and thought of them more than I can admit.
We saw it all-a groom being carried in by a light orchestra as he met his bride for the first time.
Monkeys, snacking on aubergines while sitting on doorsteps.
Camels and elephants pulling carts (which one of our rickshaw drivers called ‘Indian Ferrarris’).
And yes, we saw sacred cows munching rubbish.
The first day there we walked for miles. I blew out the soles and sides of my good walking shoes, and my feet were covered in oozing blisters. We stopped to buy me some flip flops, only hadn’t considered that I am tall for a Western woman. Indian women I absolutely tower over. Thus without any ceremony I found myself buying mens’ shoes, which I simply shrugged off, particularly as they cost a few pounds. Things cost nothing there, particularly felt as we live in a world with such high prices and inflation. A bottle of water cost less than 20p. Five postcards and the stamps to post them all came in at about a pound. Our train tickets – in a first class air conditioned coach- cost £8. An average really tasty meal out – including beer – was less than £10. One of our rickshaw drivers made less per month than we paid in taxes for our airfare (our flights were free due to airmiles, the taxes most certainly were not).
We gained some.
India is hot. Noisy. Crowded. Incredibly crowded. You always assume someone is out to rip you off because many are, and even though many (not all) are, you would try it on too if you were them. Of course you would.
Agra – home of the Taj Mahal – was reached via yet another train. This was the highlight of the trip, a stay in a hotel which is not only 5 star, but rated as one of the single greatest hotel in Asia. Don’t think we stumped up our life savings for it – we have a way of working in our house, which is that if you want something enough some Internet research can achieve it. I finally booked three nights at the hotel at a fraction of their rack rates. Is was to be the poshest hotel we would stay in, as well as the scene of Alastair’s birthday.
There was a mixup at the train station when we arrived, and we were left waiting for a pickup for twenty minutes (we didn’t mind). Finally, a be-robed attendant found us, whisked us into an air conditioned CRV, and apologised profusely. It was the first of many apologies-on our arrival the head manager and 7 of his other managers came out to apologise for the mixup. They then upgraded us to a suite.
Our room was spectacular. Even better, there was a balcony. And even better than that, the balcony overlooked the Taj Mahal, which was only 500 meters away.
We toured the Taj the next day, and it was as beautiful as you would imagine. We then did something unheard of for us – we spent the rest of the stay reading books by the pool and swimming. The staff treated us – two average, boring people – like royalty, and we rang in Alastair’s 50th birthday with a private table for two on a balcony, with the most amazing four course curry we’ve ever eaten.
I swear we need to win the lottery, just to live that kind of life.
We then had a day and a half in Delhi. After riding the train and entertaining the local kids with my iPad and its child-geared content we have on it for the twins (click here if the video is misbehaving below).
we settled in. We had a curry in Connaught Place, and then were due to hit bazaars the last day. Ultimately we only saw one bazaar- something I’d eaten along the way fought back with me, and I spent most of Sunday sleeping and puking so hard I blew blood vessels in my eyes. Delhi was missed by us largely, although it looked fascinating and they were even filming a film at our hotel starring famous Bollywood actors (one of whom insisted on choosing ring tones while sitting near us at the bar. There is very little in life more annoying than hearing someone scroll through all their ringtones).
And so we are home. Older. Substantially poorer. We went through two boxes of Immodium (the illnesses, it hit us twice). We had a brilliant time and will be back to India, absolutely, and with the twins when they’re older. India is – in my opinion – not a place to take young children, not least because of the heat, waste, noise, but because small people like to touch everything, and there are some aspects which are a little less savoury (like the toilets, which let’s just put it this way – it’s a total upper thigh workout).
And now, back to the real world.
At least we have memories of the old.