The final countdown
18.07.2010 35 °C
John:....and so, our departure from New Delhi and goodbye to Matt and Amanda, our amazingly generous hosts and New Delhi guides. Without their accomodation, good company, air conditioning units and advice, our stay in India would have felt very different. Thank you.
We left New Delhi via the Indira Gandhi International Airport. We were driven there by our excellent driver in New Delhi, Buphwindar Singh, aka 'Happy'. Like so many young men in Delhi he was working here whilst his young wife, a school teacher, was working far away. His wife was working at their home town near Amritsar, a 9 hour drive away. A lovely gentle guy, he was easily the best driver we have had in India. No excessive use of the horn, no aggressive driving but an unfailing ability to find his way through the chaotic New Delhi traffic. A proud Sikh, beturbaned in blue and with a steely glint in his eye (he could easily seek out eye contact with the driver 5 cars away that he already knew was going to try and cut him up) when driving, he was one of those people who instill confidence in you, an important quality on the roads of India. He had recently taken delivery of his own long awaited Maruti-Suzuki air conditioned taxi that was, within 2 weeks of arriving, hit in the side by another car. We rang for a lift and Happy had to send his friend to collect us....'Lucky' was his chosen name. Fortunately Happy managed to get his old car back for our last trip to the airport...he protested that on this occassion we should pay no fare...
'If it isn't late it isn't Indian' is a slogan I propose to offer to the Indian tourist ministry. The plane was late arriving from monsoon hit Mumbai and so we were just over an hour late leaving New Delhi flying up through very turbulant air; Delhi disappearing from view as the colours went through a rapid sepia change. Viewed through the pollution and developing dust storm it looked like a place in an old photograph before it disappeared from view altogether. The only entertainment was watching the Indian passengers enjoying the opportunity to take it in turns to press the 'help' button to get the cabin staff spinning around carrying out inconsequential tasks. An otherwise uneventful if very bumpy flight saw us arrive safely in Mumbai and get delivered to our hotel in the Dadar East district.
It poured down throughout our journey from the airport and the puddles in the roads turned to small toxic lakes. It was clear that Mumbai had a very different feel about it from New Delhi. Not just the difference between being drought stricken and being monsooned upon, but the difference between an administrative capital (New Delhi) and the commercial centre (Mumbai). In truth we weren't in Mumbai that long but there is a Maharastran 'regionalism' that doesn't have an equivalent in New Delhi. All that aside we really enjoyed our time in Mumbai but before exploring the city we left for three days.
We took the 6 hour train journey to the city of Aurangabad, north-east of Mumbai. Named for, and once home of, Aurangzeb, son and imprisoner of the builder of the Taj Mahal, his town is a rather dull and dour place. His father's legacy is one of the world's architectural wonders whilst present day Aurangabads's architectural highlight is the electricity sub-station on the outskirts of town. Our reason for the long trip was not to explore the (well) hidden delights of Aurangabad but to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed temples, monasteries and schools at Ellora and Ajanta.
On separate days we visited the 'cave' temples and monasteries at Ellora and Ajanta. I had developed a case of 'colonic quickening' and consequently a restless night. A great time to develop 'Delhi Belly', just after arriving in Mumbai. The difficulty in tracing this back to any one source was clear to me; so many possibilities but only one (well rather a few as it happens) 'outcome'.
We had never heard of either of these sites before arriving in India. These magnificent places are a mixture of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples carved into the sheer rockface of a river valley. The use of some of the temples overlapped, showing that for about one hundred years, showing a considerable degree of religious tolerance in the region. Unfortunately Aurangzeb set about changing things as the Moghul Empire began to flex its muscles.... the acts of vandalism by the new Moghul administrators were huge in scale; many of the heads and limbs chopped off the carvings and sculptures as the religious tolerance that had permitted the practice Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism simultaneously was diminished and Islam became dominant in the northern part of India.
Fortunately for us, all that which remained was truly beautiful. We have only once (Valparaiso) been disappointed by the excellence of the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites we have visited. Ellora and Ajanta were magnificent. The scale of the work, the detail of the carvings and the vision of undertaking such projects that, in some cases took hundreds of years to complete all truly awe inspiring.
As with a number of places that we have visited, the magnificence of these places hasn't translated well onto our photographs, some of which will be appearing in the gallery over the next few days. Flash photography is, quite properly, forbidden inside the temples and the entrances, in the main, aren't too dramatic. To be in these places is very special however. We visited them over consecutive days on a weekend and felt rather like film stars as people came up to us asking us to pose for photographs with their families and friends. Nothing to do with being famous, just that we were 'white' and different. Goodness knows what they do with the photos afterwards!
A great description of the caves, together with photographs can be found through the link
...with even more in Wikipedia if you search 'Ellora' and/or 'Ajanta'
Each photo encounter with Indians is followed with a conversation that invariably starts with the question "Where are you from?" on answering "New Zealand" we get a really positive response followed by a full listing of the New Zealand cricket team. When I ribbed some of them by saying that we have just signed Sachin Tendulkar to play for us there is usually a look of horror. The man is reveared here, above any other single person, not just for his unearthly cricketing ability but also for his humility and the way he uses his influence to do good things. A great role model for young Indian men, especially when so many other malignant influences are circulating around them.
Our guide around the temples at Ellora was Sandeep, maybe 65 years old but seeming much older after years of heavy smoking. His guiding style was that of a man who had been engaged in this work for 28 years or more. He was so confident in his discreet body of knowledge that he was comfortable taking questions out of sequence or basing his answers to our feeble questions about Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism or some other theme, on our visits to other monuments and places in India and South East Asia. Sadly, for him, he was unable to climb steps to some of the higher temples so he would load us up with information about what we would see and what it meant before sending us off or up to take photographs. On turning back we would see a small cloud of cigarette smoke rising above his henna'd head. A great guide; the sort you feel you could spend a lot more time with. Unfortunately his guiding days are numbered as more and more of India's official historic sites provide excellent, but inflexible, audio-guides and the money previously directed into the local community by paying for the human guide goes north to Delhi through the fees for the audio-guides.
The peculiar sights of India continued here as we drove through the villages and townships, soaking up our last glimpses of Gandhi's India. This rural heartland is the India of old, punctuated with a few modern confections like small motorbikes or Coca Cole signs over the tiny shop but even to these modern eyes it is the modernity that looks out of place here. It is the oxen and carts, shoeless people, sarees, terracotta pots and facial jewellery that look as if they belong here. Even the horse with its mane dyed with henna, and the bulls with blue and red or Indian tricolour painted horns looked more at home than the man with Nike trainers on his feet.
We left for Mumbai on the 06:00 train which, uncharacteristically, departed and arrived on time. The short ride to our hotel was in a taxi, badly treated by rust and low impact encounters, driven by two young Sikhs looking for somebody who could change a 1000 rupee note so they could get some beer from the beer shop that 'didn't have any change'. We said that we would love to be able to help but sadly etc etc.... Not put off, they discussed the merits of spin bowling and listed all the players in the current New Zealand cricket team.
We had one full day in Mumbai site-seeing. Where to start?! We had a list of places we wanted to see and a good driver, Mr Shaikh. We had to adapt our plans a little as several of the galleries we had planned to visit were closed. So we began by going to the Gateway of India, built as the grand entrance to the city for royalty and celebrities of empire arriving by sea. Across the road from here the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel where we had promised ourselves coffee and croissants. Before that we wondered around the Gateway looking out at the queues of ships lining up to load up or unload at Mumbai's busy docks.
Immediately around us people were busy inviting us to see temples, palaces or else give them money or food. We declined the former straight away as we had completed our temple and palace quota. When we tried to help with the latter we found ourselves being led to a small dark alleyway. Already alert to this possibility we detached ourselves from the young woman with small baby, noticing the very large man down the road talking to another young woman with regulation issue baby. Clearly an organised activity and we easily avoided becoming victims in it but one to watch for if you are visiting The Gateway.
My Dad had visited Mumbai, or Bombay as it was, back in the late 1940s so I was keen to visit some of the landmarks he had been to. Unfortunately the ballroom next to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was closed some years ago (turned into a club/disco called 'Insomnia' and complaints about the noise caused its demise) but the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel...
...was a gem. The young front-of-house manager Viren, on hearing about Dad, went out of his way to show us places to take photos of features that wouldn't have changed since the 40s as well as supplying us with postcards and a DVD telling us of the hotel's history (in the post Dad). Considering that we were just rather scruffy travellers stopping only for a coffee and sticky bun this young man showed his class by sparing no effort to show us around this impressive establishment. Unlike some of the rather anonymous 5 star establishments around the place this hotel was full of character and history. The Sea Lounge looked out over the busy shipping lanes just off the sea front (the second liquor license awarded in India bwas to The Sea Lounge). Recently fully restored after the shocking events of the terrorist attacks on 26/11 where a number of hotel staff died trying to protect hotel patrons, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is, appropriately at the heart of this part of Mumbai.
We visited The National (Mumbai) Gallery of Modern Art (fine exhibits, indifferent staff), the excellent cafe above 'Fabindia' but by now we were thinking about the next day, our journey home to New Zealand. We finished our trip around Mumbai with a cold beer/tonic in Leopold's Cafe, star of the Shantaram book and linked to the Taj Palace Hotel by being attacked in the 26/11 terrorist raids. Its rather anonymous looking frontage belying its place in Mumbai's history..
... The waiter patiently and smilingly talked about the book Shantaram, the cafe's part in the book and its history....another great but humble place to finish our travels. We drove back to our hotel, past the naval dockyard and the Lion and Cheetah gates where I wondered if my Dad had strode through them on his way for some shore leave, past the enormous naval mural painted on the dockyard wall and on through the congestion of Mumbai's traffic slowly grinding its way past the wonderfully eclectic architecture of the Victoria Station, the bicycles, rickshaws, trucks; past the young families living under freeways, the shopfronts with tailors....
..... running up suits on sturdy little Singer sewing machines, through the litter, past the street cows and a breast feeding woman in a shop doorway...through the impromptu market near our hotel as the security man in his sharp uniform snapped out a razor sharp salute to welcome us back to an hour or so of packing our bags.
Our last meal in India was at the fittingly named 'The Great Punjab' where we feasted on Dahl Makhani and Tandoori Chicken, hot rotis and crystal cold Kingfisher beer. Great Indian food with great Indian service.
We left for the airport first thing in the morning. Too early for breakfast at the hotel and, as it turned out, too early for breakfast at the airport. I could buy my body weight in single malt whisky, cigarettes and after shave but not, it turned out, a piece of toast and a cup of tea. Jackie filled in a section of the 'customer satisfaction survey' that looked like the structure for somebody's PhD submission and was clearly meant to intimidate whilst I began to fill in the three forms required to change my few remaining rupees into dollars...in the end it was easier to give them to charity. Incredible India.
The next posting will be the last one for this blog. We are now back in Franz Josef Glacier, back at work and enjoying our small but perfectly formed community in this small piece of paradise. This has been a fabulous trip and the next posting will tell of our arrival home in New Zealand, first to Christchurch and then across Arthur's Pass to South Westland. Until then lots of love and best wishes to family and friends (and happy birthday Mum).