Until February 2010 I’d never been to India. Telling people we were going there on holiday elicited three responses. That it could be a bit of a dump. That we’d get sick. And that the accommodation was terrible. And they were right on all counts. But they forgot to mention that the monuments are magnificent, the food fantastic, the people curious and friendly, and the whole experience worth the hardships. Maybe.
We arrived in Delhi at 2am aboard an evening flight from Hong Kong to Delhi, to find that the hotel pick-up had not materialised. Some guy from the hotel was there, but his placard didn’t bear our names, and he’d never heard of us. But in true Asian style he wasn’t about to let a detail like that get in the way of a bit of business, and promptly decided that the name on the card was ours after all, and off we went. Not an auspicious start, and I’ve no idea what happened to the poor feller whose name actually was on the card…
…but that was nothing compared to what was to come. We arrived at the Ajanta Hotel in Paharganj to find that…they didn’t have a room. And this is despite the fact that I phoned yesterday to reconfirm both the room and the airport pick-up. Obviously there is a limit to what they can do…if they don’t have a room, they don’t have a room, but that kind of logic didn’t necessarily enter my mind at 3am in the morning in a strange city. Whatever it took, they’d better bloody find one.
Option 1, a room in Hotel Sita just round the corner, was promptly rejected upon inspection of a room that can best be described as squalid. Option 2 was to hang on until 4.30am whereupon somebody was scheduled to check out, although by that time it was already 4.30am and there was no sign of anyone leaving. Option 3 was a room in their ‘new’ wing, Hotel Sweet Home, just over the road. Their definition of ‘new’ was clearly different to mine, as was their definition of ‘hot’ water, but by now it was 5am, so despite our reluctance we accepted this as the best option and bedded down for little of what was left of the night.
So our first day in India began with a series of arguments/negotiations with one of the many managers of the hotel as to why no room was available, when we could move into the room we had booked and paid for, and what the hotel was prepared to do to make up for this. There were various offers bandied about ranging from no charge for last night, to a free breakfast, to a free tour of the city – I suspected he’d throw in his wife and kids if we kept going. The consensus of which was to put the whole thing to one side, go out and enjoy the day, and sort it all out later.
So a complimentary auto-rickshaw took us to the Red Fort, Delhi’s number one tourist attraction, which was…closed. No one seemed to know why – it wasn’t a public holiday, there were no known renovations going on – but it was very definitely not open. So we continued on to Connaught Place, the all-singing all-dancing centre of New Delhi, which appeared to be an all-banging all-drilling building site. Although still open it was apparently being done up in preparation for the Commonwealth Games in October. I thought it’d be an impressive sight once it was all cleaned up, but it would also be an impressive feat if they got it done in time.
It must by now have been lunch-time so we chowed down on some excellent dosas, cholley batchure and parathas, in a fast-food place called Haldiram’s, which seemed pretty edgy to us at the time but we expected would turn out to be the McDonalds of India. Either way, it’d prove to be a safe haven for us on more than one occasion.
And then someone threw shit on me shoe. Literally. Shit on me shoe. The sacred Lonely Planet had warned about this – one dodgy geezer deposits some shit on your shoe and another ‘helpfully’ offers to clean it off for 50 rupees. Incensed at potentially being scammed, I resolved to clean it off myself, but might have been better off accepting the scam and putting it down to experience. It was stubborn stuff to say the least.
The guidebook determined that it was feasible to walk back to the Ajanta Hotel, taking us past the train station and past what we later discovered to be one of the main bazaars. Whilst we hesitated to enter – it was getting dark, it was a narrow side-street, and we were India novices after all – the whole surrounding area was busy, vibrant, a little scuzzy, and provided no shortage of photographs. Back at the Hotel Ajanta we’re shown to the right room – which in truth wasn’t much better than Hotel Sweet Home, still had no effing hot water, and was rather noisy to say the least. Dinner in the hotel restaurant redeemed it to a small extent as the food was pretty damned good, but then it was early to bed in preparation for an early start for a trip to Agra.
After a night or two in Agra, we were back in Delhi. And then the fun started again. Having accepted the various apologies, compensation and guarantees of the Ajanta Hotel management, we’d booked in for another two nights, and guess what…we arrived to find…no room available. What?! How…?! Why…?! (What might have been a more appropriate question is why we chose to return there.) Apoplectic barely describes my frustration and anger with the so-called manager.
Another couple in the same predicament accepted a sub-standard room for the night with the promise of moving to another room tomorrow. But the room we were offered was unacceptable – more like a prison cell than a hotel room. After an hour or so of totally fruitless arguing, reasoning and hypothetical hair-tearing, we ended up back in the same room in Hotel Sweet Home as we were two days ago. Given that my travel partner had suggested giving up on the money and not coming back to Ajanta at all, I slipped off to bed with my tail between my legs. At least the hot water was working.
It seemed that the hotel’s business model – if indeed they had one – was to accept any and all bookings in the expectation that some people wouldn’t turn up, and in a backpacker world they may have had their fingers burnt from time to time. But to consciously overbook, and accept the subsequent loss of future business from pissed-off customers, seems short-sighted, not to mention downright masochistic. Either that or they are just sheer bloody incompetent.
In the morning we reconfirmed the hotel booking that we’d made last night at another hotel, cancelled the remaining night’s reservation at Ajanta, and got the hell out of there. At the end of the day, we paid for two nights, stayed three, got a 1,400 rupee refund, and a free taxi to the new hotel. But it still didn’t make up for all the grief. We’d still rather have paid the right money, for the right room, and had a hassle-free stay.
But while we may have got away from the Ajanta Hotel, we couldn’t escape the comedy. Hotel Oskar was selected on the grounds that the rooms appeared nice and clean and according to asiarooms.com was only 1.3 km from the city centre. Quite which city centre I’m not sure as it is actually in Hauz Khas – some 13 km from what I and the rest of Delhi would consider to be the city centre.
She looked at the room, said it was fine, and cheerfully moved in. The room and the bedding was immaculately clean, but given that it was rather small and had no windows, I suspect that she was just putting a brave face on it and trying to remain cheerful – which was more for my benefit than hers, as I was the one who had wigged out most over these hotel fiascos.
Putting hotel room farces behind us, we hopped in an auto-rickshaw to Janpath for just 60 rupees – finally getting the hang of auto costs – and had a browse round the main Janpath drag and the Tibetan market; which were all very colourful and interesting, not least the dude who was dressed up as some monkey-king complete with red face and tail, and goes about begging cash from stall-holders – and posing for photos with balding middle-aged tourists – presumably in return for some good luck blessing.
We then walked, rather inevitably, to Connaught Place for some lunch in Haldiram’s, before heading over to the Jama Masjid – the largest and best-known mosque in India, completed in 1656 and the work of the same feller who built the Taj Mahal, the Shah Jahan. There’s a lively if somewhat downtrodden market leading up to the mosque – a source of numerous photos and no little discomfort. We’d been concerned that at some stage India’s poverty would get to us, and the plight of some poor young feller horribly disfigured by elephantiasis and some old down-and-out, who had clearly soiled himself, being given a thwack of the lathi by a policeman, was almost too much.
After a brief wander round the rather disappointing Jama Masjid we sat for a while on the steps outside the main gate, with some old feller sitting not two yards away staring in that inoffensive and genuinely curious, yet still a little off-putting, Indian way. We were then joined by a young Afghan who wanted to have his photo taken with us, and then several of his mates, and then several other folk who just seemed curious in what was going on. It ended up with me being surrounded by two dozen fellers, none of whom I could speak to, and who all just sat looking or carrying on their own conversations. It was entertaining for a minute or two and then just plain disconcerting. Run away. Run away.
We walked past the Red Fort, but didn’t go in, perhaps because it looks the same as Agra Fort or perhaps because we were still piqued that it hadn’t been open when we’d wanted it to be, and headed instead to Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest and busiest markets in Old Delhi. It’s a long, congested, chaotic, melee of a market, notable for the decrepit state of many of the once grand buildings that line it’s fascinating length.
After another trip away from this city, this time to Amritsar, we found ourselves back in Delhi. This time we were booked in to the TJS Royale in the Karol Bagh area. And guess what…they had no rooms at the TJS Royale. But at least they were organised and we’d been moved into the TJS Grande instead, which is just around the corner and which we were assured is an exact replica of the Royale. We were beyond caring so meekly submitted to an inspection, which met standards, and duly checked-in.
With one day left to kill in Delhi we hit the bazaar in Paharganj – the one which we unwittingly missed on the very first day for the sake of crossing the road. And after an initial false start down the wrong street, it turned out to be well worth the effort and we subsequently spent about four hours walking up and down, back and forth, visiting and revisiting various stores, buying bags and scarves and bedcovers and exasperating no shortage of shopkeepers with attempts at bargaining.
India’s shopkeepers appear largely disinterested in bargaining and have a refreshing like-it-or-lump-it approach to selling. Go to a chemist and there are no attempts to sell you something else if they haven’t got what you want, or can’t understand what you want. In some parts of Asia, they’ll try to sell you anything. If they haven’t got cough medicine, they’ll try and sell you Preparation-H instead. Here it was monosyllabic and to-the-point. “Do you have Strepsils?” “No.” End of story. Haggling in Katra Jaimal Singh yielded absolutely nothing. “If I offer you a discount it means I didn’t give you my best price in the first place. This is my best price.” Haggling in Paharganj simply saw the shopkeeper roll his eyes in frustration as he asked himself what part of ‘that is my best price’ we failed to understand.
We then caught an auto down to India Gate, one final sight which we’d not yet taken in, and mightily impressive it is too, very tastefully lit as dusk sets in. Although a little like some other things in India, they could do with tidying it up a bit. The surrounding park looked like an empty fairground after the fair has moved on. Filthy and litter-strewn. Where’s your pride, oh people of India?
And then we were back home to Hong Kong after nine days in India without any lavatorial mishaps to promptly experience an explosion of Krakatoan proportions. I deteriorated gradually throughout the day until I was passing pure liquid throughout the night, and surrendered any optimistic hopes of going to work in the morning. It would be Wednesday before I was fit to return to work, by which time she was in a worse state than I was. The only consolation was that we were back home before getting sick – I can’t imagine having to face sickness of that severity and deal with the Indian medical system at the same time.
So that was our first trip to India. They said it was a dump. They said we’d get sick. They said the accommodation was terrible. And they were right on all counts. But up until Ghandi’s Revenge, I’d have gladly gone back; visited other parts of the country; marvelled at other monuments, wildlife and landscapes; experienced more of the chaos and curiosity; albeit with a second mortgage in hand to finance a top-end hotel and none of the shenanigans our attempt at economy had produced. But looking at the damage that final lunch-time meal in a questionable eatery in Paharganj – when we were probably getting a little over-confident in our ability to cope with Indian food – wrought upon our systems, I wasn’t so sure.