May 2014.

I've bought a campervan as a 60th birthday present to myself, made some curtains and a patchwork quilt, waved goodbye to my family, and set off. My aim is to explore the coastline of Britain, anti clockwise, starting in Kent. I have no idea what will happen.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

More Mumbai

Yesterday I drove around Mumbai - (I didn't drive, you understand, I had a taxi) - and went to look at The Taj Lands End which is the new one north of the main city, at Bandra. It is incredibly smart - I went to look at the shop because the receptionists at the main Taj Palace Hotel in South Mumbai have the most incredibly beautiful saris specially woven in Benares. Someone within the Taj group realised that the old Benares weavers were fading out and need investment, so started this incentive to get them going again. One of the projects is the new sari, and I want one! I was told that The Taj Lands End had them in their shop. They didn't! They did once, but no more. So then I decided to go and look at the area north of Bandra and in particular a trendy hotel favoured by the Bollywood crowd. I wasn't star spotting, but wanted to see the place you understand.

It takes ages to drive anywhere because the roads are so congested (luckily taxis very cheap) and I felt so shocked when I left the slick security and luxury of The Taj to drive, within minutes, through the worst and smelliest slum area - it was just around the corner. Somehow you never quite get used to the devastating contrast of the haves and the have nots...  it quite takes your breath away. People living in corrugated tin boxes, a terrible smell - fish added to the usual slum smell because this was a fishing place - and grubby children and scrawny dogs in narrow alleys. People sleeping, flies buzzing and just the general smell of utter poverty. Then we are in Bandra, one of the richest suburbs, and on the way to Bollywood.
The hotel was ok - slick and Swedish - nice. North Mumbai has such a totally different feel to the tourist/old Raj feel of South Mumbai.There was a young lad in the hotel from Yorkshire - he had combat cut-offs and a flat tweed hat - and was obviously part of a film crew. I wanted to ask him what he was doing but he was talking with someone and then he was gone.
In the afternoon I thought, for something completely different, I would try to find the Banganga Tank - the last surviving sacred bathing tank apparently, dating back hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. To get there we drove through Malabar Hill, the smartest suburb full apartment blocks with shiny marble name plates and private little palaces, government homes, all with security guards with guns and great big gates. Sonia Ghandi I believe lives here somewhere.
It was clever of the taxi driver to find the sacred Banganga Tank, the road leads off Malawar Hill and down a straight narrow lane, impassable for two cars, with people living in tiny little houses on the road and up little alleyways. Their clothes hang on string lines against the wall, not because it's wash day, but because they are aired there and there is no room to hang clothes anywhere else.
We found the tank (see above) and saw people praying on the steps and children and ducks swimming in the thick green water. Buildings have grown up all around the tank. Some children (see pic) were playing 'housie' - bingo - in the shade. I sat with them for a few minutes and then got back in the taxi and we wound our way back to the richness of Malabar Hill.
This is my last day in Mumbai, I am heading for the domestic airport, to fly to dry and barren Bhuj in Gujerat. I might not find internet connection for a day or two.

Friday, 27 May 2011


Nearly all marriages in India are ‘arranged’ to some degree. And most people, both young and older, say it is a system that works.We were talking about it today - Nicki, Rosie, Billy (pictured left) and me. We had been walking around Crawford Market and the Fabric Market, and ended up having lunch in a lovely little deli place behind The Taj Hotel.
Nicki went to the engagement breakfast party this morning of her personal trainer’s niece. She had to be there by 8am and it went on for quite a long time -  there were various ceremonies, parading of the couple,  future in-laws introduced formally, and a ring exchanging ceremony.The upshot of it is that after today the couple will be allowed to spend time alone, getting to know each other. They have only met a couple of times before and are getting married in October.  Nicki said she was a very pretty girl – 24 - and he was a bit older. It isn't like a 'child bride' situation any more, and couples don't meet for the first time on their wedding day - parents recognise that girls want an education and they want to work. But usually at 24 the girl will say she thinks it is time... and then the wheels begin to turn - spin. Shrieks of joy from the family and prospective husbands are sought –  age, background, prospects and horoscopes are all crucial.
We went on to The Taj Hotel and visited the jeweller in the shopping arcade who Nicki knows and discussed the subject of marriage with him. “What do you call it,” said Nicki “with modern arranged marriages, when there is some choice in the matter? It isn’t just a short list of one...” “It’s just an arranged marriage... like I had, 23 years ago,” he said, looking perplexed, with the warm smile of a happily married man.  “But of course they can say no.” Ah. They can say no, just not too many times. “My nephew had to say no,” said the jeweller, “ it was most unfortunate. “  Oh? We asked about the technicalities... “Well, she was just very..  heavy,” he said. “Others had turned her down too.” Oh, poor girl. “The trouble is they just get heavier,” he said, slim hipped with his silk tie and diamond ring. The pretty ones are ok - they can afford to be choosy.
Tonight I am staying at The Taj (and what a truly fabulous hotel it is, more of that another time) and, sad creature that I am, dined alone at the Lebanese restaurant, Souk. I had mixed mezzes first followed by something prawny. The waiter pointed at what looked like a piece of over-cooked asparagus sticking out of the pickles dish. “Mind that one,” he said, “very hot.” Thanks. You don’t want to be dining alone when you experiment with pickled green chillies.
There was a young couple on the next table. She was probably... 24? (maybe younger), very attractive,  confidant, wore western dress, and a big sparkler on her ring finger. She spent a lot of time texting. He looked quite unsophisticated, 7 or 8 years older than her and dead nervous, wriggling his feet around the chair legs. When she had finished texting she talked animatedly (in English), jabbing her finger to emphasise what she was saying, and he nodded a lot and spoke very little. She couldn’t finish her dinner and asked for a doggy bag. The waiter brought the bill and put it in front of her, and she passed it to her companion. They are getting to know each other, and I expect they’ll  make a  go of it.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Three days in Mumbai

In Mumbai, with kind Nicki and Grant Elliot in their very comfortable apartment.
I just thought that over the last couple of days I/we have done three things in such total contrast. And that is what always seems so striking about India – the contrasts. On Monday Nicki took Billy & Rosie (also staying at the moment, they have been travelling since February) and me to the Breach Candy Club. It is a bit of a gem in this frenetic, dynamic city that never sleeps... a true old colonial swimming club with an indoor pool, and a vast outdoor one, right on the edge of the Arabian Sea. There are hand-painted loungers and the Ladies Wash Room (changing rooms, showers, loos, oodles of space) made me think of Kenya. Lunch was excellent on a wide first floor verandah overlooking the sea and then we swam in the enormous pool – Rosie and I quite sedately, Billy more acrobatic off the diving boards.
Then yesterday we did a walking tour through Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s ‘official’ slums. Official because it is recognised by the Government, there are streetlamps and schools and hospitals, a million people live here in a space measuring  less than a square mile.
Once a mangrove swamp which dried out and became a vast dump - the town is literally built on rubbish. Some families have lived here for 3 or 4 generations, muslims and hindus together – not always happily.Tiny rooms with whole families living in them – sewing workshops by day, homes by night.
The appeal to residents is that it is slap in the middle of Mumbai, a prime inner city location and rents are cheap. Between two railway stations, the commute in to work is easy.  (There are those who are keen to develop the site.. documentaries made, but will it ever happen?)
In truth it is a square mile of narrow lanes and paths, factories, shops and houses and open sewers. The water supply only comes on for 3 hours a day. Hygiene is marginal and disease is rife – there are 1500 residents per loo.
Many people work in Dhavala in the hundreds of single-room factories that are run by a mafia of businessmen. Turnover is said to be in excess of US$600million. Sewing machines make beautiful dresses, jeans and luggage, we saw wooden shrines made from cheap broken furniture. Some of it is pretty horrifying – not much health & safety – Dickens comes to India. There are stinking tanneries, and potteries with smoking kilns. We saw paint tins being cleaned, hammered back into shape to be sold back to the manufacturers; aluminium melted and turned into transportable bricks to sold to someone further down the line; and every conceivable sort of recycling. Bundles of cardboard cartons, recut and resold. Plastic – cups, bottles, toys, cartons - is chewed up in homemade shredding machines and made into little pellets to be manufactured into cheap toys. Blades spin, fans turn, sparks fly. Small children were carrying huge patched sacks of plastic and sorting through computer parts and broken food mixers. Nothing is wasted.
They are all so quick and busy and smiling – shouting ‘Hi, Good Morning, What’s your name?’ They are proud of their work. We all felt pretty gobsmacked, mincing our way through all the grime – flipflops, big mistake –and really feeling the heat. I heard myself singing  Jim Reeves’ “I hear the sound of distant drums..” at one point – it must have been the hammering of the tin cans – and immediately dived into a shop for more water.
Then today I went up to the new part of town, Bandra Kurla Complex, where Trident have a huge and dazzling hotel. Many banks and corporates are abandoning the old southern part of town, and moving up to the open spaces of BKC, close to the airport. The Trident is a businessman’s hotel  - everything he/she could possibly want is there, and it’s really modern and smart – and about 2km from Dharavi.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Meeting a Maharaja

 I met HH Maharaja Gaj Singh II when I was in Jodhpur. The introduction came from a friend in London, Daphne Dormer, who is truly a Certain Woman, and has been working in PR for many years. I met Daphne in the eighties when she did the PR for The Chelsea Gardener on the King’s Road. She is very well connected and has many good friends in India – and she has been incredibly kind and helpful to me over this trip.
 I stayed at the wonderful Bal Samand Palace, one of the royal family’s summer residences which overlooks a beautiful lake, 10km outside  Jodhpur. One of the drivers, Bhoma Ram, was the person who met me at Jodhpur bus station at whatever time it was in the night when I got off the bus from Jaipur after the terrible time getting the ticket, etc. I was dazed and confused and generally pretty exhausted and grubby, getting my case from the luggage bit under the bus and when I looked up there he was, cool as you like, in his grey uniform with a burgundy red beret with a brass vulture cap badge – Rathore uniform.
It was also Bhoma Ram who drove me up to the Umaid Bhawan Palace, part royal residence, part Taj Hotel. It is very grand and the most super-luxe place to stay in Jodhpur and you feel pretty royal arriving with security, turbaned door-men bowing -you get those in lots of smart places, but here there is a huge, elegant portico and red carpet up the steps. The palace sits on a hill overlooking Jodhpur – vast and built in the 1930s in art deco/rajput style out of honey-coloured sandstone and marble, with a 100ft cupola in the middle –and sweeping lawns.
I met the Maharaja, known as Bapji, in a drawing room in the royal apartments and I confess I was a little anxious. He may not be royalty now, but it still feels pretty royal. I waited for a short while – the room is elegant and comfortable, not overly grand, decorated with lovely Indian miniature paintings, family photographs, coffee tables with piles of books stacked with a slide rule. He arrived, escorted by a wildly yapping Jack Russell terrier and a servant, and he could not have been more charming. Everyone says the same – one of those people who makes everyone relaxed, easy to be with. We talked for more than an hour and had a drink and shared a delicious bowl of puffed, spicy grains in a silver bowl.
For much of his early life HH was away from home, apart from holidays, educated in England from  the age of 8 to 22 (he is 63 now). When he came back he had no career as such – and no power, all having gone in a drawn out period after Independance. He obviously had a great time away, and there is a wonderful photograph of the child of the sixties returning home in 1970 – huge crowds gathered to welcome him back. And he has remained immensely popular ever since.
After Independance many of the traditions in India had faded into the background, and the career HH carved has been largely focused on culture. He set up the trust which runs the Mehrangarh Fort and museum (the largest visitor attraction and a definite ‘must see’ in Jodhpur), and highlighting the festivals – Diwali etc.  Five years ago RIFF (The Rajasthan Folk Festival) was launched, to highlight Indian music (not just folk), and Mick Jagger is patron, and the Sufi Festival has taken off too. Sufism is having a great resurgence in India and Sting is the patron.  HH has also developed royal palaces and forts into Heritage hotels over the region.
Two young Englishmen arrived – more frantic barking from the dog – to discuss a Guards’/Eton polo tournament in Jodhpur inDecember. More drinks, more eats, and then we all left. Polo is still huge in India and the royal family are great enthusiasts despite the terrible fall the Yuvraj Shivraj Singh, Bapji’s heir, had in 2005, from which he is slowly recovering.
So, while many a Maharaja has faded into oblivion since losing their royal status – plenty sadly falling prey to the excesses of life – here is one who has not.

(This is posted from Mumbai... from Jodhpur to Jaipur and then to Mumbai)

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Supper on the train to Mumbai

7.10am and approaching Bombay. Sam my brilliant little laptop is on the little table that flaps up between the bench seats. Some hours ago this was the spot where Mr and Mrs Ganoosh had supper. They have just got off at Borivali, and so has Nathalie, a really nice girl from Frankfurt who shared our carriage – the only European I have spoken to in 2 weeks.  Our other companions were a mother and daughter, full house.
We all got on the train at Jaipur at 2pm and Mr Ganoosh barely drew breath!... About their homes in Jaipur and Bombay and London W1 close to Selfridges (actually that one is his sister’s) and their sons in America. And his job (he’s retired now) in the property part of The Times of India, and the state of his health. But he mainly talked about how his country was going down the pan. “America is an honest place, this is not. I am Indian and I say it!” he shouted. “These people are not honest.” 
A man came down the carriage shouting chai, chai with his urn and a column of paper cups. Mrs G wanted a cup and handed over her money. Then Mr G went berserk, shouting at the man. It appeared to be about the level of tea in Mrs G’s cup. It was topped up again, and then again.  The shouting was deafening – only from Mr G, chaiwallah very cool, smiling. (Indian people (men) often get extremely animated, shout and wave their arms, and I think there’s going to be a punch-up any minute... and then notice that the person they are addressing is smiling and nodding. No problem.)
“You see!” said Mr G when he had recovered, “that is exactly what I mean! They are dishonest. They take full price but they only give half a cup. I could have lost that man his job, and I told him so too.
At  9.15pm when  I was thinking I might hook up the middle bunk and take a sleeping pill, crumply carrier bags were brought out from under the seat containing food in plastic pots and bags, paper plates and cutlery. The most amazing  selection of curries and pickles, orange, purple and green,  and all that goes with it: rice, chapattis, little plastic pots of spice and salt were lined up. 
“You see in India,” smiled Mr Ganoosh, “we like to take time over our food, to enjoy it. In America they all eat so fast". (Nathalie and I had ‘Meals on Wheels’ which was good, though not up to Mrs G's standard:  we had curry, dhal, rice, chapattis, pickles - for 65rps, ie less than a pound). Mr G asked our man to bring extra veg curry to go with his meal.  He also  likes extra salt and plenty of (very hot) dried spices to accompany his food. When he had barely started he left the carriage and returned some minutes later with a small pot of oily, dripping vegetable curry. Then he tucked in. “My wife and I like different food. We have been married for 46 years. We fight every day. But we stay married and it is good.”
He ate every scrap of dhal and pickle, it was dripping down his chin and to his elbows. (I offered one of my Sensitive Baby wipes but thank you no, he had tissue.) Then the catering man came back with a box and was sent away with a flea in his ear. I asked Mr G what was in the box..? “The vegetable curry! I ordered it and paid for it, but the man was too slow, I had to get my own.”
After dinner Mr G strolled down the train while Mrs G cleared up the debris. “It’s such a lot of work,” she said. “It’s very tiring and he is very particular, and then the food isn’t right. It’s never right.”  I think I would have kicked him!
Then we got settled for the night. Off to the loo (stainless steel Indian loos preferable to porcelain I think), I popped my pill, and dropped off to the soft moaning sound of Mr G trying his best to get comfortable,but what with the sunburn he got from riding in a rickshaw yesterday, and a very sore hip...

Meeting a Miniaturist

 I have been in Jaipur for two days, and staying at the Diggi Palace Hotel, which is very special. The staff – as they have been everywhere – are just the most helpful and courteous. India is so hospitable and they sure know how to do ‘service’.
Anyway today I move on – by train to Mumbai – and say goodbye to my friends at Diggi. Here are some of them. The one on the left (with the thick glasses!) is a miniaturist and he paints the most beautiful pictures. He has been taught by his father who I haven’t met but who is the sort of in-house priest here at Diggi. They paint with the finest squirrel brush and he is so expert that he can write words on a grain of rice – I have seen them under a magnifying glass – and even on a hair. He sells his paintings here at Diggi and now his whole family are involved. Depending on the intricacy of the painting his family do the easier bits and he just does the finest work. What a talent.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

From Jodhpur back to Jaipur

I am back in Jaipur after a fantastic 4 days which I will relate soon...
One of the things I am doing in India is finding hotels to go on The Hotel Guru website. I visited hotels and guesthouses in Delhi and in Jodhpur and, when I am here in June volunteering at the children’s home, I will also be looking for ‘the best places to stay’, at differing price brackets.  
The train journey from Jodhpur was fine, a much better train than the one from Delhi, but I had top bunk this time and I couldn’t see out. These trains have 2-tier bunks going the length of the train on one side, and seating (bunks) going across like UK trains on the other side. As we got under way, though it was 9.30am, the lights went out, curtains were drawn, and the a/c was so effective we all had blankets. I felt cold! I read for a bit and dozed, but didn’t really sleep. Below, on the other side of the aisle, people of varying ages – a family - came and went through the curtain. To one side a plump foot with polished nails and an ankle bracelet stuck out - Mama. There was the most incredible noise – someone was snoring like a hog. I could see from my bunk that the girls were awake, playing on their mobiles and Dad had gone down the train...  it was Mama making the deafening noise!
I got down from my bunk in good time and got my case from under their seat and then was stuck in the aisle with it. “Please Mam,” one of the girls said, “come sit with us.” Soon father returned from further down the train. It is often incredibly difficult to understand what people say, as intonation is so different, but we chatted away. The father told me they were returning home to Agra and his elder daughter was a very good dancer. She liked folk and classical dance, not western. He prodded her.. ‘Dance! for this foreign Mam!’( I imagine that’s what he said. )She laughed and refused. I could understand –this was not a large stage on which to perform classical dance, between the two bunks with all of us in there.
So he prodded the younger one (they were 17 and 15) who was curled up under her blanket eating crisps.  After only a little hesitation she got up, set up her mobile phone to accompany her and danced – Bollywood/western music, and a Kylie routine – she was very good. We applauded and then came in to Jaipur and they helped me off the train with my case with a cheery wave.
I wasn’t sure quite where I was going to stay so I got the auto to bring me here to the Diggi Palace Hotel be. I knew I wanted to review this and place sometime...  and I could at least look round it and decide what to do.The auto driver was a lively character and kept trying to take me to other places, ‘just as good, cheaper’ but I said no I want to go to the Diggi Palace. We also looked for a Vodafone shop to sort out why my SMS isn’t working  but he was expecting me to walk across a 6-lane highway to reach Vodafone and I decided it could wait.
At first I thought it was just a nice haveli-style hotel on a large plot down the road from the Rambagh Palace, and a good central location. But I have spent almost two hours talking to Jyotika Singh Diggi, the wife of the Thakur (nobleman, landowner) who owns the place. It is their home and she is truly delightful.  The family would originally have lived on their property about 70km from Jaipur – they have villages and farms – but modern living meant they moved up here and started the hotel in 1990.
Indians are incredibly hospitable, and Jyotika (right, outside the durbar) has been talking to me about the Hindu way of life and their family – and showing me round the property. She’s been explaining about Brahmins and Kshatriyas, Vaishya and Sudras – that’s all the different levels of Hindu society.
They live behind the hotel and there is a huge durbar – where meetings are held with the Thakur - and there are cows and chickens, and stables for the ponies. All in the middle of Jaipur. Polo is huge in Rajasthan. Sadly the traffic has been so dreadful (what did I tell you?) that there have been some accidents on the way to the polo ground at the Rambagh Palace up the road, so all the ponies are stabled up there at the moment.  
AND this is where they host the Jaipur Literary Festival in January which I have heard so much about – William Dalrymple, et al. More of that..

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Briefly in Jaipur, and to Jodhpur

I had just 24hrs in Jaipur as I will be there again soon, and I had places to see in Jodhpur...

I visited the children’s home in Jaipur and they were wonderful. It was lunch time when I went and afterwards we played – Lego and cats cradle. I am going to volunteer there when they get back from their summer holiday in Goa at the end of May- so I plan to be with them for most of June.
I travelled from Jaipur to Jodhpur by bus – a Volvo A/C Luxury bus. The journey itself was ok – 7 hours instead of the scheduled 5, and hair-raising at times – I read my Kindle most of the way, finished The White Tiger (brilliant) and started The Far Pavilions. But getting on to the bus was awful.
For a start the auto which picked me up at the children’s home kept stopping,trying to pick up extra fares. He only succeeded once (we took a young man and his granny a short distance) which was just as well as my suitcase and I took up most of the passenger space and it was boiling hot. I just didn’t feel the driver had his mind on the job and the nearly 1.5hrs I had allowed to cross town (I had been told ‘allow plenty of time to buy your ticket..’) was dwindling. Then he dropped me across a very busy road from the bus station with my suitcase and it’s terrifying crossing the traffic – only me, no one else seems to look left or right.
Where is the Volvo A/C Luxury bus to Jodhpur? Blank. And again. Blank. Over there. Three windows, one says Enquiries and two say Tickets and all are six deep with shouting people waving slips of paper and money, it’s 3.15pm. I was redirected from one window to the next, still dragging suitcase. You need a slip of paper. There are no slips of paper. I found one. I start needing to go to the loo, not badly but I must go before I get on the bus. (Good thing: you hardly need to pee when it’s so hot.) Nice man leant me his spiral bound pad about water resources to lean on to fill in form: name, destination, time of train, age.. (why? Is it India, or is it me?) Jostle, push.
Let’s move to the next window my friend says. I can tell the next window people aren’t pleased but stick with my friend, and new people come pushing forward and stick their slips of paper and money past our faces and through the bars of the kiosk. I’m getting really worried now, it’s 3.45. Please, I say to one man ( I could see his slip of paper and he’s buying a ticket for 2 days time)  my bus leaves at 4pm.. Blank. My friend from the water board has now his ticket and I thank him for his help. More people push in. And then.. a new friend. I’m not sure where he’s come from but he’s at the head of the queue.  When is your bus? 4 o’clock, I wail. Please, you go in front of me. Bless him. I have a ticket, find the bus. Where’s the loo? It’s 3.55.
 I put my case on the bus – and run. 10rps for the loo. No, this one’s torn. Oh PLEASE! I find another.. Oh my god, that loo was awful. And one of the many things that has struck me about gap yearing 35 years after your first one, is how those holeintheground loos don’t get any easier. .. I will spare you the details. Is it my knees? I think it’s my hamstrings.  I must do daily hamstring stretches and see if things improve. I felt pretty miserable, but SO relieved to make it on to the bus. I fell into my seat, groping in my bag for the squirty hygienic handwash and there, next to me, was my nice friend from the water board. 

Friday, 13 May 2011

Dogs in Delhi

I suppose it isn’t surprising that if dogs resemble their owners they also reflect their surroundings. Dogs are everywhere in Delhi. Street dogs are wily scavangers but they must also get fed because they look surprisingly well. When I got up early last week to go to do the Old Delhi bicycle tour the street dogs in Shanti Niketan were all playing in the street at 6am. I wish I had got a photograph – they looked so fit and well and I thought I definitely detected a bygone strain of foxhound!  With a terrier head. By the time I returned in the afternoon they had all disappeared to snooze in shadows, or under cars, until the evening. Some street dogs are lucky and get adopted,  like the ones at the wonderful Lutyens Bungalow where I stayed before leaving for Jaipur which were strays from the nearby Lodi Gardens and are now living the good life.
Inside the leafy enclaves ‘owned’ dogs go walkies with their servants. Owning  a dog is a matter of status and most of them I have seen are too fat. Whereever there is a market, in a residential  area, with a grocery shop, a chemist, a taxi rank, there will also be a shop selling pet food. Pedigree dog food does very well here! In Shanti Niketan I saw two plump beagles parading around a residential square on shiny red leads looking very smug.
In the city centre dogs are on every street corner, leaner and grubbier, but certainly not lost. They cross the busiest roads and seem to know exactly where they are going. Some do look pretty terrible. In the heat of the day, if there’s a shrub big enough to offer shade, on the edge of a park or the central reservation of a multi-lane highway, there is likely to be a dog asleep underneath it. In Khan Market large, plump, dirty old dogs snooze in rows in the shade of the covered cut-throughs and look like old men waiting for the barber shop to open.

To Jaipur

When you travel alone you have to get someone else to take the pictures. Here is one of me with Harvinder Singh Bindra, my taxi driver friend. He has driven me several times from guesthouse to market, and back and forth to where I have been based in Delhi - with friends in Shanti Niketan . One morning he took me on a tour of the major Delhi sites – the President’s House, etc.
With friends in Shanti Niketan, Harvinder Bindra says I am a well connected person. And  he is too – the contacts list on his mobile is brimming with people who he drives regularly - journalists and businessmen and people who work in the High Commission. We have great talks as he weaves his way through the Delhi traffic  in his beloved Ambassador taxi  (“You just sit there on my flying sofa!”), about India, Delhi, life and the stars – he is an enthusiastic student of astrology. Today, having driven me to Delhi Cantt station for the train to Jaipur, he was going to go home because it is too hot to work and he’ll go to the swimming pool. Later when it is cooler, he will go out again to work around Khan Market which is his patch. Venus had a hand in this planning too, but I couldn’t quite understand that part.
He kindly stayed with me on the station as we got there so early and he was worried how I would climb aboard with all my luggage as the train only stops for 2 minutes. Delhi Cantt is not the main New Delhi station but crowded commuter trains came and went, some had people sitting on the top (“Some trains are powered by diesel and some are electric,” HSB said, “those are the diesel ones – if they were electric those men would be dead.”). People dressed for work jump down from the platform, cross the line, and jump up the other side and one man was actually at work, picking litter  from the track into a huge sack which he will sell.
It is a very long platform and we set off in good time to be waiting where carriage G13 might stop, asking people along the way. He judged it perfectly (where the pic is taken) and now I am well on the way to Jaipur (a 4.5hr trip).  I am an A/C 3 tier passenger, so it’s air conditioned and I am the bottom bunk of 3.  My bunk was  occupied when I got on but with a few signs we sorted that and he moved to top bunk.  If the middle one was in use it would flap down from under the top one and I wouldn’t be able to sit up. 
The Orient Express it is not, in fact it’s really dirty. But as I was incapable of finding my way round the website, and had to ask a friend to book my ticket and he put me down as 60 (! which I am not) I am travelling (with OAP  concession), the 293km journey for the princely sum of 4.50 (gbp, still haven’t found the pound sign). So can ’t complain! My prayer as I boarded the train that I wouldn’t need the loo has been answered.
Outside it looks incredibly hot! Parched white land, mostly cultivated, scrubby trees and a range of hills behind. We have passed through several villages and a couple of small towns and I have seen several buffalo and a camel. A constant stream of people come through selling food and water but I have refrained. My neighbour had breakfast which looked like two fish fingers but was pink inside with some chips. Now we have just been slowly through Bandikui Junction which had food stalls much more like the ones I imagine – but the train didn’t stop. ETA Jaipur 3.30pm.
(This post is now two days old,. I am now in Jodhpur.)

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Old Delhi on a bike

It's hard to believe - but true - after all my jitterings about the traffic in Delhi, that I should brave its perils on a bike this morning. A party of six of us met our guide, Thomas, at 6.30am before it was too hot and set off  around Old Delhi. Delhi By Cycle was started by a Dutchman (naturally!) though Thomas is American.This is a brilliant way of seeing the old part of the city (in fact the only way as the  lanes are so narrow) and, while we had our moments on the outskirts of the old part, crossing a few major intersections, most of the route was only tricky because it was so narrow and there were bullock-carts and motorbikes to negotiate. Overhead there is a mind-boggling web of electric wires and cables festooned from the sides of buildings and from poles. People add to the web, and extend it, and the sight of it would make your toes curl, but it seems to work.
(I realise I have not been clever with photos, next time I will attempt to crop pic before inserting, and get someone to take one of me so you know I was there.)
The Route picture (top) is a bit misleading because in fact most of the time the lanes are narrow and the buildings  high either side. Old havelis, once smart Mughal merchant houses with narrow fronts opening up with courtyards behind, are not so smart any more and home to lots of people and their small businesses - shoe repairs, sewing, etc. Everyone is really busy - pushing hand carts piled high with goodness knows what - one I peddled round was being pulled/pushed by about four men and had a 10ft stack of bolts of 'work wear', the stitching had burst on one of the bolts so I could see inside. It was impossible to stop and take photographs as we would have caused a monumental traffic jam - another one! And we looked touristy enough on our orange bikes.
We went through the meat market - lots of men rushing about with what looked like most of a cow on their backs but it can't have been, must have been a buffalo - and the flower market and the incredible spice market. Khari Baoli. Climbing up the dark stone stairs to look down (see above) we walked over a thin carpet of crunchy seeds and the smell of marsalas and chilli had us all gagging for air when we reached the top! There are walls either side except for the last narrow flight where the there was no rail on the inside, just a long drop. "Watch out," Thomas said, "it's along way down there. There used to be a handrail but it was a bit shaky and people leant on it and it was more scary - I think it's better this way." I think he's right. 'Health & safety' must numb the senses - there is absolutely none here. I'm sure wits are sharper here. On the way back down we saw the handrail lying on the floor - a wormy, splintered thing with a few severed spindles - someone must have leant too hard.
We stopped for a chai break, and then sped down Chandni Chowk, the main drag and the heart of Old Delhi, to the Red Fort (see pic, Thomas in orange). Then back into the narrow lanes to Karims (famous in Delhi, this branch would be hard to find without help) for a wonderful breakfast of rosti, dhal and slow-cooked goat.
We returned at 10am to where we started where the old fortress wall stands beside the Dallas-style mirrored Delhi Stock Exchange building. By now the place was heaving, more heaving, with traffic and people and livestock. A smartly-dressed traffic policeman waved his arm and blew a whistle but his efforts were futile. I felt so pleased to have done the tour, and quite relieved to hand the bike back all in one piece.
If in Delhi, I really recommend Delhi Bycycle - mine was called the Shah Jahan Tour and there are others.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Day One Delhi

It's six o'clock and I got here at 11am after a perfectly comfortable but pretty much sleepless night flight with Virgin Atlantic. I left my sunglasses at home and could have really done with a pair as I crept around Duty  Free at Terminal 3 in a soggy heap of misery having torn myself away and said goodbye to everyone - and friends and family  being so nice and wishing me well. I lost sight of the intrepid traveller for a moment there.

Arriving in Delhi brought me back to life with a jump, as everyone who has been here said it would.  I found my luggage and the currency exchange place and the pre-paid taxi booth. And then out of the aircon and into the heat - actually not too bad at all, only 32c - and found bay 35 with my black and yellow Ambassador cab with it's door that didn't quite shut and which was largely held together with gaffer tape, and and off we leapt.

I am the first to admit that I am an appalling backseat driver and would, as a rule, much rather drive than be driven. But perhaps not here.. it's a close call but I think I am better off clinging on, eyes shut. And anyway I was rendered pretty speechless. To drive is to  race, and everyone is determined to win -darting, diving, hooting - I was going to say shouting, but that's not true, shouting would make you lose focus. There are building works everywhere so this adds to the general crescendo.

It's perhaps the variety of the vehicles that makes it so exciting..(!) Lorries, buses, shiny new cars, very old gaffered cars, bicycle rickshaws, auto-tooks (3-wheelered, open-sided, one seat for the driver, two behind - 4 or 5 people inside), and bicycles. Bicycles with one person aboard, often two, perhaps a sleeping child across the knees. At the most alarming intersection we waited at this morning - all eyes staring forward, engines revving, the lights about to turn green - a very elderly gentleman with a woollen hat suddenly appeared from left view, not looking to the left or right, peddling an equally ancient bicycle and towing a casually constructed wooden trailer with two vast sheets of ply wood strapped on top. I shut my eyes - and when I opened them again  he was still proceeding very slowly across the traffic and everyone somehow missed him.

I have since been on two more taxi rides - one to lunch and one back, taking in a look at Fabindia (very good, mainly clothes/ fabrics), and looked round a guesthouse called Jacaranda - and  I barely batted an eyelid. (Not true, said for effect, eyelids were tight shut.)

Lunch, with Geeta (who has a travel consultancy Joint Adventures) at her daughter Ratika's house, was delicious - rice, dahl, aubergine, yoghurt and the most delicious relish of mango, mint and garlic. Now I have settled in to my very comfortable room in a friend's apartment, and I am resting.