We got out of the Taxi at 1:00am into a smelly, grubby narrow street strewn with old trucks, taxis, dogs and people sleeping under whatever they had found; and walked into the Godwin Deluxe Hotel. This was the first of many contrasts India was to throw up at us. Minutes earlier I was wondering what sort of hotel would be located in such a squalid place, how could I have got it so wrong? The answer is, virtually all these roads in Delhi are the same. My overwhelming impression is that almost everything in India is past its use-by-date, broken, filthy or probably all the above. Urban renewal projects stall, so people are evicted from slums, the area cleared and new buildings started, but are never finished so remain a wasteland of concrete, re-bar and rubbish. Our last glimpse of India was from an Air India plane that I am convinced only made it to Yangon because more than half the passengers were Buddhist Monks. Mere mortals would not have made it; due to its Indian state of repair!
Once through the door we were in another world. It was like a tardis in the way it transported us from the harsh reality of a Delhi street to the relative luxury of our Hotel. Once in our room, we opened the duty free gin and added tonic from the mini-bar. We were at the start of our Indian adventure!
Two months earlier a chance phone call to my brother at Christmas ended with me arranging to meet him in the lower Himalayas in March. Such impulsive decisions on travel are commonplace, seeing us in places such as Zimbabwe, Tasmania and Viet Nam in the past. All that was needed was some precision arrangements to ensure we were in the right place at the right time, and as you will find out this in fact did happen to within 5 minutes.
The flights came together pretty well with the exception of Qantas that caused some frustrations. Likewise Hotels seemed easy with the help of the Internet. Trains however were a different matter, with many bookings failing and monies refunded, the time taken and frustration also had their price, way more than the dollar value of the tickets at around $55 for 2 first class sleeper tickets on the Darjeeling Express.
Sunday 28th February had finally arrived and we headed off to the airport in a friends car, checked in our baggage and breathed a sigh of relief. The first flight was to Singapore with Qantas, which did not impress at all; the plane was old, the legroom nonexistent and the service perfunctory. I do expect more from our national carrier, costing top dollar. Singapore to Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport was with Qantas partner airline Jet Airways. The plane was even older, but much more comfortable and boasting ample legroom. The crew was also attentive and friendly.
On arrival we seemed to be the only travelers using e-visas, no queue at all, but still a lengthy wait while forms were checked and stamped and a less than cooperative fingerprint scanner finally accepted our prints. Eventually with suitcases in hand we breezed through the ‘Nothing to Declare’ isle and went looking for our driver who was as relieved to see us as we him, he had been advised to be there at our ETA at 11:00pm, this was now an hour later and I guess there was no guarantee we would ever show. “Carpark full..” he informed us as he sped off suitcases in hand, with us following to an outer carpark. He drove like many Indians slap bang over the white line ready to cut left or right to get the best position. Any part of the road, either side, side lanes, footpaths or anything available were used to forge ahead and cut in front of another vehicle. All this done with the horn blaring, apparently to be sure the other driver knew they were about to be squeezed out. Trucks use painted signs on their tailgates to inform other road users to “Please Use Horn’, I don’t think they are really necessary. Frankly the traffic is an example of pure anarchy, surprisingly we saw few accidents, only one serious, but it did mean travel was very slow, the average speed was only around 40kmh or less.
It is a well-worn cliché, but India is a country of vast contrasts, side-by-side abject poverty and wealth, cleanliness and squalor or piety and disrespect for human life. To grasp these contrasts brings one closer to understanding India and all it has to offer.