Today I did something quite unprecedented. I usually pride myself in making my arrangements independently – not the packaged tour for the likes of this boy. In my superior way, I look down my snobbish nose on the mindless millions who are paying an overpriced fortune for what is generally considered comfortably safe for those who do not want to be too disturbed by main-line raw India. But, I am an old hand! Unctuous drivers to take you everywhere, first class hotels, express trains. Not me, thanks (but it might be nice, perhaps, to be so fully taken care of at my advanced age?)
Sometimes, however, the full frontal assault is just too much. Such was the case, as I was disgorged into the teeming masses of New Delhi train station. I have been here countless times, and as I gingerly stepped over the prone bodies sleeping on the platform, I arrogantly swished away with a none-too-polite hand-gesture the legless beggars, taxi touts and the massive sea of desperate humanity that make their not-so-temporary home here. Their sole purpose is to separate maximum rupees from those like me. I march on resolutely to Pahar Ganj; the warren of cheap hotels and any other service needed by the swarms of backpackers who compete for the best deals. It’s a giant market, with fleabag hotels jammed cheek by jowl up ominous back alleys. Like much of India, I am simultaneously drawn and repulsed. Every kind of ware is thrust upon one constantly, and you have to have intestinal fortitude to decline the seductive call of “very cheap, best quality sir”. Translation: “Made in China, fall apart the next day”.
But my bearings are off: the territory has changed, and I am now hot and very bothered. My cardinal rule is to resist every supposed offer of help; but the combination of age and heaviness of excess luggage force me to break down and ask. “Best to head into Connaught Place”, suggests one friendly lad. I know it to be everything Western with an Indian twist; KFC, McDonalds, Gucci etc. But my new friend guides me to the tourist info; which seems like a good place to start. He hails a rickshaw and instructs me to go to Delhi.com. By now rational thought has evaded me. Mostly what I want is to get the ever-important SIM card to turn my cellphone Indian. I think they even come with a waft of curry essence. I have done this before: it’s very convenient and cheap to get all the convenience of being on the West; and India is über-connected.
I am dropped off at a central official-looking place which has the official insignia of DTTDC – Delhi Tourism and Transportation Development Corporation. With what little I have left of my reason, I am lured into the immediate offer of chai – the standard lubricant of commerce.
I open my laptop where I have stored the info on hotels I want to check out, and most importantly where to get my SIM card. “By golly”, rejoins my friendly tourist advisor, “we can install one right here”, and best of all it’s free. Hard to resist. Quickly my advisor is breaking down all resistance to my informal plan. Apparently the Expedia deals I have so thoroughly researched usually don’t include tax, I am told with grave concern. You have to add another 12 % for Indian tax…so not so chap after all “Let me phone the ashram in Rishikesh and check your booking for you”, he purrs invitingly. Truth is, I only got the vaguest of confirmations of my booking several months ago: and in India such supposed confirmations are as ephemeral as the mist. Instead he suggests a “lovely cottage” where he can get a discount rate. And while we are at it: “how about getting your train reservation? It gets quite popular, as there is not one but two international yoga festivals taking place.” I did know this, but hadn’t figured for the possible unavailability of transport. There is this quaint work-around, where even if everything is fully booked, there are still apparent seats for the “tourist quota.”
My man starts launching into a fascinating story of growing up in Rajistan shooting tigers (when there were still some left) with his grandfather. I am now completely under his spell, as he tells me how I will be driven to the hotel he has arranged, picked up and taken to the dentist tomorrow. Also taken to the train the next day, and there will even be someone who will have one of those signs with my name on waiting to drive me from Haridwar where my train stops, the remaining 22km to my newly-booked hotel in Rishikesh. I have seen these placards being wielded by servants of the affluent at airports etc, ready to whisk you off in chauffeur-driven luxury. I have admittedly secretly wanted to be one of those “important people”. But of course that requires money, not a commodity I have ever had sufficient surplus for personal slaves, or other minions of the well-heeled.
So complete is my state of lulled confidence that when a contract is proffered to the tune of $800, I sign like a lamb being delivered to slaughter. There is a small voice in the back of my mind, suggesting independent research, sober second thought. But I throw caution to the winds – isn’t that what credit cards are for after all? Spend in haste, repent in leisure. But I do know that just about EVERYTHING is being taken care of for the following 14 days. Even breakfasts. Just have to forage for the odd chapati between the 5-star service.
My new personal driver draws up in a none-too official beaten up mini van– sans chaueffeur-hat and uniform, and sadly lacking the limo I crave. But its certainly not too bad being escorted right to the front steps of my new accommodation, without the usual haggling, wrong directions and direct exposure to diesel fumes and imminent death that would be the experience in my usual transport of choice – the auto rickshaw. My man even unloads my luggage as we stumble over the open ditch that’s a substitute for a sidewalk in front of the Landmark Inn. This does not bode well, as we steer clear of the accumulated detritus that’s been excavated from some kind of subterranean sewer.
In actual fact in many places, there is a kind of aqueous channel that runs along the side of the street that delivers just about every kind of waste that’s casually deposited there to theoretically flow …away?? There really isn’t an “away” here: daily the untouchables and others labour to unclog these vestiges of waste management, only to be quickly overwhelmed with more incoming. I did witness one particular destination – an actual landfill, not far from where my former host Dr Khatri lived. It was actually a small mountain, a local landmark visible miles away at night, as its got eternal fires burning whatever is combustible. Recycling? Forget it. Yet again, my inner environmentalist recoils, but I am not new to India as a giant repository of garbage. Its sad, as it must have been a beautiful country before they discovered disposable consumer culture. I sometimes conceive in my wilder fantasies that I will single-handed establish something closer to waste reduction programs we are familiar with in the West. I do hear rumour that there is actually a place in South India where they are sorting out organic waste. There is hope yet.
There is a laughable simile in names appointed to hotels that recall places with grander traditions – the Four Seasons being a laughable copycat of the same chain back home. There is a very nice Landmark Hotel in Vancouver, but this is a very, very distant cousin. The only similarity is that it offers rooms for rent. My room, I discover is without hot water, the toilet wont flush, and there is a raucous din coming through the window. I peer nervously out through a window-like opening into the growing gloom and spy some kind of alchemist welding a huge tank on an adjacent building. Not only is he welding, but he’s bashing the hell out of what turns out to be a very effective steel drum. It’s got none of the musicality of its Jamaican relative – just bang, bash, clang, bang. Very loud, and insistent. One has to accept that India is noisy, or you will quickly go insane, but the welding laddo is an evil sonic sorcerer’s apprentice determined to try the very limit of my endurance. I drape a blanket over the window to drown out the ruckus with little success. Then I attempt ear plugs. Eventually I complain to the various boys hanging around the lobby that constitute the management. “Nothing to do”, they sigh, “Not our building”. Apart from stating the obvious, I have gained no new insight as to how I may sleep. Turn on the TV, and zone out to non-stop Bollywood movies until my lids are heavy with drowsiness and I fall into a restless kind of slumber.
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