The tourist board promotes it as "Incredible India" and we for one certainly don't disagree. Cows, dogs, prostrate citizens, bricks, monkeys, camels, goats, dust, dirt, elephants, ponies - and that's just the road into Delhi! And if this sensory overload wasn't enough, as with China, India is a horny country. Indeed, seemingly every truck carries the prettily painted sign on its rear encouraging followers to "Sound Horn Please". But we couldn't say we hadn't be warned. Way back in serene New Zealand we met a couple who had already 'done' India, and they strongly advised us to go with a tourist agent, as they spent their first few days in Delhi going it alone, until they cracked. We heeded their advice and were met at the airport by Bunty, our driver for the next few days, an employee of Shafi (who looked very like a young Al Pacino), our travel guru for the northern part of our trip. He recommended in the limited time we had to create our own verson of "The Golden Triangle", a north-Indian tourist route that covers Dehli, Agra and Jaipur. Our 'bastardisation' (ref. Keiran, Ware, March 2005) would substitute the final destination with that of the Holy City of Varanasi. This tactical change wasn't due to our religious aspirations but rather that we could connect to a train to get dahn saff (and consequently halving the original quote into the bargain!). We kicked-off the trilogy with Bunty driving us round all the major sites of the capital city, including the India Gate (modelled on the Parisian Arc De Triomphe) and the lotus shaped version of the Sydney Opera House. During this very touristy experience we learned what we had been told in New Zealand - that a casual stroll around Delhi was not an option due to the intense 'interest' from the locals. Not sure if it was our striking looks or ever-decreasing cash they were after? We balanced this day with a far more real experience of a meal round at Shafi's family house, complete with small baby, old granny, various cousins and a wife in the kitchen. It was an invite we couldn't refuse and a huge memory from our trip, although we declined to eat with our right hand and used our left foot instead - we mean knife and fork. Shafi's brother (who looked like Adam Sandler) confirmed that Dehli-belly does exist, however Susi suggested that we would overcome this by remaining veggies for the duration of our stay - she lasted all of one meal. In saying that, we both avoided any unfortunate tummy aches (which is just as well as toilet paper is of a premium and a bum-washing hose is a nightmare to operate under a good bill of health let alone feeling tom dick, and the left-handed bucket swish was also not too appealing..) and subsisted on a diet of various vegetable curries - although it has to be said that the Indians make some of the best cheese omelettes we've ever tasted!
Next day it was off to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, passing 100s of concurrent cricket (easily the national sport in India) matches on one big field reminiscent of football on London's Hackney Marshes. Shafi had booked us into a 5 star hotel and very nice it was. Top marks to the band at dinner who patiently played their way through the intermittent power-cuts. We wondered how Sir Elton John's temperament would of handled such interuptions We also had an interesting time at the post office here, where we sat behind the counter in a dusty dilapidated building, waiting for almost an hour for someone to help us send a parcel - eventually a woman came over, and after a brief check of the contents, she proceeded to wrap the box in cloth and sew it up! After this, it was sealed around the edges with sealing wax from the 15th century. All very security conscious, but we're not sure the folks back home would be prepared for this lengthy process just to send a box of dirty washing home! On seeing the Taj Mahal itself, Susi remarked that it looked like a painting, and no better description could apply. It was something about the blueness of the sky or the whiteness of the building or both - it was remarkable. It was also remarkable that we survived the day, as the temperature was now getting to us. The heat in India is unforgiving.
However something that will live with us more than the image of the Taj Mahal was our 5 hours spent at Agra train station that evening, drinking endless cups of chai. We started to feel quite isolated as darkness set in on the dilapidated and crowded train-station-cum-bird-refuge (very Alfred Hitchcock) By this point we'd already noticed that the stare afforded us by the natives seemed somehow more sinister in nature than that we felt we received in China. We thought we had met a couple of kind-hearted 'coolies' (train station porters) who were looking after us until they tried to exhort 25 times the going tip rate out of us when our train eventually did arrive. Fortunately Jamie pleaded with the gentleman that double the tip was good enough and he bolted. Phew You can't blame the man for trying though, the people here are so poor that they will go to any lengths for a few coins - however this eventually led us to distrust everyone's motives. There is no social security system in India and people must rely on their families for help - sometimes they beg as a profession as it is easier than working, and they prey on the "rich" tourists. Many of these are part of organised syndicates who take all the money. It's a very difficult situation, but its almost easier to be a bit heartless.
We were met at Varanasi (the most infamous train station of them all - just what we needed to hear!) by Shafi's counterpart. The hard-sell continued. In fact the hard-sell is that hardest thing to bear about India. Polite refusal to purchase a 4ft clay elephant with matching coasters results in a dagger stare and a the need for a sharp exit! This actually spurred us on to go it alone in the southern part of our stay despite intense effort to the contrary. The highlight of Varanasi is a dawn boat ride along the river to see the ghats, where the locals bathe and wash their clothes (oblivious to the threat of dysentry from the minging Ganges water), say their morning prayers, and cremate their sadly departed (being cremated here is the only way to escape the tedious cycle of re-birth) - the burning ghats are the only section where cameras are not allowed, but we were slightly freaked by seeing the bodies prepared for burning before we'd even had breakfast, so photography was the last thing on our minds! During this most spirtual of moments we deceived ourselves by thinking it would be a hawker free-zone but alas in true 007 style we were actually pursued by DVD-monger's boat, complete with TV!
Some welcome serenity was provided on a brief visit to Sarnath, a buddhist pilgrimage town where the original Buddha preached his first sermon at Deer park. Seeing the deer was easier said than done, however, as we were accosted by children and grannies trying to sell us carrot peelings to feed to the animals - with military style evasion we managed to snap a couple of pics Following the necessary custom, Susi attempted to have a look in the temple there, but found that the egg-frying temperature of the ground on her naked feet was not a sacrifice she was willing to make, but luckily a trusty American tourist saved the day by retrieving her shoes.
After what is now a brief 20 hour train journey for us, we arrived in Chennai, formally Madras, chosen for our itinerary as it is Jamie's favourite Ruby Murray other than Vindaloo - and we couldn't locate this on the map - can anyone assist? And Susi would love to visit her favourite, butter chicken.. We immediately noticed that Chennai was cleaner and more prosperous than the towns we had visited in the north. Our sick French train compartment companion (who had dodgy orange juice induced Delhi-Belly but no toilet paper or money) likened Pondicherry to Nice in the south of France. Susi suspected Nice might be lacking in elephant and cow pedestrians. Pondy was a French colony and still has a huge French influence. French street names and French looking architecture is mixed in with the usual Indian style ramshackle huts and roads with giant pot-holes. Cows still roam freely and there were so many people sleeping on one street that we saw, we actually thought it must be a bus station or something! Pondy residents congregate on the beach in the evening, and it can seem almost serene - there's even a rather swanky Pizza Hut (serving mainly vegetarian pizzas - no pork or beef anywhere) wedged in between some falling apart buildings! We just chilled-out there for a few days after our adrenalin-fuelled time in the north. We did have a few Kingfishers - and the locals enjoy a few themselves believe us (well, the men do - it was quite normal for Susi to be the only female in a bar) - but we were tucked up in bed by 9pm every night along with the rest of the town (not all in our bed mind you!) due to a curfew imposed because of the pending elections. Voting here is an emotive time and tensions can rise.
Finally, we headed back up the coast (which was badly affected by the 2004 tsunami - but is pretty much back to normal with new fishing villages and hotels) to a bargain holiday resort for a few days. We both agreed it had the best if deepest pool we had ever encountered - why does one end need to be 8 ft deep, when there is a sign up saying diving is banned? The private beach was beautiful, but hampered by the killer-surf and the terrifying translucent crabs that scuttled across the sand - Susi wasn't too keen on a walk there after she first saw these, but Jamie even got up at 6am one morning for a stroll in the lapping waves. In true relaxing style, Jamie got himself an ayurvedic massage. As with any consumer transaction in India this was preceded by plenty of clockwise/anti-clockwise head-nodding. Being a simple human one ends up aping this and you've soon got yourself a store full of head-nodderers! Susi still doesn't know whether it means yes, no, maybe or I haven't got a clue. Anyway, Jamie was instructed to drop his pants which hadn't been so nerve-wracking since the doctor asked him to as a youngster. The hotel staff were very attentive, and we felt thoroughly spoiled here in 5 star luxury for less than 30 quid a night, so we felt it was a reasonable request to get someone to come and rescue us from the lizard that had taken up residence in our room. We expected some sort of net, or maybe even a special lizard-stunning spray, but in fact the instrument employed was a good old broom, which was used to repeatedly bash the lizard as it ran around the walls, until finally its tail fell off and it was scooped off to its final resting place. We felt a bit guilty after this harsh treatment, especially as we had allowed our resident bathroom lizard to coexist with us in harmony in our previous hotel in Pondy!
On our last day, we hired a scooter and braved the roads to visit the hippy enclave of Mamallpuram, where we found amazing rock carvings and several beachfront bars. We were greeted here by three groups of enthusiastic young men desperate to have their photos taken with the enigmatic Susi and finally a slightly jealous Jamie managed to get himself in on the third requested shot. In fact, all Susi was really good for in India was posing for photos, as the attitude towards women here is very unprogressive... All questions were directed towards Jamie, and Susi started to wonder if she was in fact wearing Harry Potter's invisibility cloak!
If it is a relaxing holiday you require we are not sure that the destinations we visited would help you to achieve this goal (e.g. we have heard that Goa is a bit more easy to deal with), but if it is a new experience (including a stark-bollock-naked massage ) then we haven't had better on our trip so far!
Eating: "Eating can be a quite sensitive point. It is usually done with the fingers, and requires a bit of practice to get it right. Rule one is eat with your right hand only. In India, as all across Asia, the left hand is for wiping your bottom, cleaning your feet and other unsavoury functions (you also put on and take off your shoes with the left hand), while the right hand is for eating, shaking hands and so on."
Delhi-Belly: "The volatile cuisine dished up by India's street vendors has ruined the romance of many a tourist's trip to the Taj Mahal. Now, in an attempt to eradicate the dreaded "Delhi belly", the Government is putting the roadside chefs through crash courses in kitchen hygiene. About half of all foreign visitors to the sub-continent fall victim to debilitating diarrhoea after being poisoned by street food, which is also a big domestic health hazard."Do not set up your stall in the middle of a rubbish dump, drain or sewage channel," recommends the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health. "Wash your hands before cooking and do not let large swarms of flies settle on food displays."
British Empire: "Why were the British in formal control of India? Like much of British imperial expansion, taking formal control of India was not intentional. Instead when British lives and trading interests (represented by the East India Co.) were threatened by violent reaction to encroaching westernization, London felt obligated to step in to take control of both the situation and the country. In 1882 Britain occupied and administered Egypt. Such colonialism was not so much a 'Scramble for Africa' but a means of protecting the Suez and Nile respectively. These waterways were thought crucial in securing access to, and control of, the Jewel in the Crown. India offered newly industrialized Britain with valuable raw materials and was a lucrative export market. Besides its economic significance, India was of profound military importance. Indeed Lord Salisbury termed India as "an English barracks in the Oriental seas". The sub-continent was a great source of manpower for wider British foreign policy."