2: taken for a ride, ticket to deride,
crap it all city
It is the mark of someone who considers themselves a seasoned traveller (i.e. an insufferable know it all) that they will insist that Delhi is great, a city of real character, somewhere that rewards perseverance, etc, etc. Bollocks: it is a polluted dump, devoid of charm and interest, unless you count being hassled to the point where you want to kill people as an experience. In fairness, I suppose the atmosphere also counts an experience. Downtown is even worse than the airport and the air is so filthy that you may as well smoke; anything under 40 cigarettes a day isn't going make any difference. All this means that, for the uninitiated, it is a brilliant place to start a year's travel. For an absolute culture shock London - Delhi is up there with the best - and, after Delhi nowhere else will ever seem that bad.
For this reason, I spent my Delhi days in a daze. We stayed in a hotel in Connaught place, an area which looks a bit like Notting Hill might after a nuclear war. The bed in our room appeared to have absorbed much of the dust from the air and the bathroom was a gastro-intestinal disorder waiting to happen. The food wasn't bad, but as many of Britain's Indian immigrants come from this state, it is remarkably similar to what you would find at home, with the notable of absence of that jewel in the crown of Anglo-Indian cuisine, the chicken tikka masala.
taken for a ride.
Probably the only thing that a traveller really must do in Delhi is get ripped off. This is so that when you meet other travellers and talk about Delhi, you can trade your near identikit rip off stories. For our swizz we went into a travel agent where we ordered train tickets to Jaipur and then to Agra and then to Darjeeling, the last of which is several thousand kilometres away. They were very expensive, but, hey, we were being ripped off.
The following day, it turned out that we had a car and driver because the trains between Delhi and Jaipur weren't working. Well, they were, but if you really want to know whether the trains are working or not, you should go to a train station, not a travel agent claiming to be an official ticket seller. Looking at this conversely, I'm sure it must all be equally confusing for Indian tourists - when they go into London travel agents and get pretty much exactly what they pay for.
So chauffeured (albeit in some sort of baby Fiat), we toured India's 'golden triangle,' an appellation doubtless coined by the first tout who realised that 500% mark ups are routinely achievable. The triangle's vertices are Delhi (polluted and horrible), Jaipur (polluted, with nice architecture and good forts) and Agra (polluted and horrible, with the world's greatest monument to love).
Our driver was a polite and deferential man, except when it came to trying to get us to stay at hotels or go to shops run by his mates, when he became an irritatingly insistent man. He was in his 60s and, despite his advancing years was keen to showcase his driving skills at every opportunity, usually by overtaking on blind bends when military convoys or petrol tankers were coming the other way. Jane, my girlfriend who has a healthy fear of death, was terrified the first few times. But she eventually gave up being sacred (no-one can maintain that level of terror all the time) and resigned herself to the fact that the entire country drives like a 17-year old in a stolen Porsche.
I cannot claim to have much enjoyed my time in the golden triangle. Sure the forts were fine, but after seeing six in one day, I'd lost all interest. I also enjoyed the spiced chai (and its theatrical method of preparation), the roadside samosas, and, err..well, it was nice and sunny.
I suppose, though, I ought to say something about the Taj. Sitting as it does above Agra's grey and poisoned river, its location literally stinks, but it is very nice. A 17th century Murghal Prince built it for his dead wife. As this was back when having several dozen wives was the norm amongst royalty, she must have been quite a fox. Foreigners have to pay something like twenty times what Indians pay. This causes a lot grumbling amongst travelling types who don't like to pay much for anything. Though when you consider that most travellers are on RTW tickets that cost more than the average Indian lives on in a year, it's really not so bad. It is fun to point this out to travellers: as people who are tight-fisted as hell but like to think of themselves as PC and caring, they really hate you for it.
Surprisingly the thing I found most interesting during our whistle-stop tour of tourist India was a visit to a fabric workshop. You know all those bedspreads with little elephants on them? And how you look at the label and it says 'handmade' and you think 'what crap.' Well each elephant really is hand-blocked on individually. In any other country, I'd have been pretty sure that there was a vast, automated factory out back and the handblocking was for show. But as a country with a billion poor people Indian industry its western counterpart reflected in poverty's funhouse mirror. Everything is labour intensive. If you can pay someone to do it, it's not worth buying a machine.
ticket to deride
Five minutes after our soi-disant Schumaccher deposited us at Agra Station, we discovered the nature of our travel agent's duplicity. Our tickets were not first class, nor IIA IIB nor II Standard. They were II unreserved, the untouchables of the ticket world. What this means in practice is that you will not be able to get into what is nominally your carriage.
we spent the first three hours of our journey in what appeared to be
a disused or possibly even partially burnt-out canteen car. This we
shared with a number of heavily moustachioed military personnel of varying
degrees of shiftiness. They all had big guns and liked staring at Jane's
tits. Perhaps because of this, Jane - displaying the resolution that
only women can in matters of comfort - decided that our circumstances
weren't a realistic option for the remaining 1600km of our journey.
She found a pair of ticket inspectors and looked pathetic and even went
a bit weepy until they let her upgrade from disused catering to 2A.
Indian ticket bureaucracy being what it is, I was well impressed when
she reappeared with a pair of reissued tickets that appeared to have
been rubber stamped no less than twenty times.
tea & swastikas
High in the West Bengal Hills, Darjeeling is a town of considerable charm, with an architecture that combines Victorian England, Wooden Wild West and Buddhism. As it was chilly and tourism was way down due to some local trouble, it had the feel of an out of season ski resort; from our hotel balcony there were fabulous views across to the snowcaps of Kanchenjunga, once thought to be the highest mountain in the world. It is hard to believe that it is the same country as the India of the northern plains. Why on my first recovered morning, I walked fully 500 metres and nobody tried to sell me a single thing. I don't think anyone even tried to beg.
The following day, I met an English guy called Simon who'd been there a week and he told me a story that sums up Darjeeling nicely. He said he'd been looking at yak wool jumpers and, seeing a jumper for 400 rupees, about six quid, immediately offered 200, this being the way that things are done in India. The stallholder replied that no, it was 400. Seeing Simon's look of confusion, he said, 'You are in Darjeeling. We don't haggle like they do in Delhi.' Simon was aghast: 'What do you mean you won't haggle,' he said. 'OK' said the guy. Let's start again. Ask me how much the jumper is: 'I'll tell you that it's 800, then you can offer me 200. And then argue we'll for a while before we settle on 400.'
Darjeeling is of course famous for its namesake tea. Up to this point, I had been a little disappointed (well, more revolted) by Indian tea which is drunk with roughly the same volume of UHT milk and eight or nine sugars. But the inhabitants of Darjeeling give their great brew its due and serve it black. It is astonishingly good, like eating Parma ham after the stuff in supermarket packets. Every cup is a pleasure.
Still, if you are consuming the stuff outside of Darjeeling you should vet your supplier carefully. During our tour of the tourist friendly plantation, our guide told us that although some 60 million kilos of Darjeeling tea are sold worldwide every year, the region itself only produces 12 million. Darjeeling is the Ralph Loren of tea world and, as such, is widely counterfeited.
Other than tea and its associate paraphernalia, Darjeeling has two other great leitmotifs. One is the prayer flag. These are very cute indeed and make everything look so pretty. I can quite see why impressionable celebrity types like Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford go in for Buddhism; they also make it almost impossible to take a bad photo. Rather less cute, but equally ubiquitous is the swastika. Now, I know that Hindu India is the true home of the swastika and was thousands of years before the Nazis (with a keen eye for semiotics) misappropriated it. Still, as a liberal west European, it's sort of difficult to get your head round the sight of a jeep bowling down the hill towards you liberally adorned with a sign you more normally associate with genocide and skinheads in bomber jackets. Still, I suppose, if I found it discomfiting, it was doubtless doubly so for Darjeeling's dozens of German tourists.