Monday, January 12, 2009

Getting out of Nepal, a cat and a mouse, thick fog, goodbye Nepal and India, the end of our journey, till we come again.

Lord Shiva, so important in the Hindu religion

I am writing from our hotel room in New Delhi, the Palace Heights on Connaught Place, which was the same hotel we stayed at when we started our tour of North India.

As I said then the hotel is neither a palace nor is it high. It is, however, a clean and comfortable little place with everything you would need, the only draw back being its very tiny rooms.

It is in the very heart of Delhi, in Connaught Place which deserves a mention. Connaught Place was built and designed by Robert Russel and W.H. Nichollas in 1932 and is typical Georgian architecture which was modelled on the Royal Crescent in Bath, UK. It is instantly recognisable on the map of Delhi as one big circle in the middle of the town with lots or roads, like wheel spokes, leading off it. It was probably beautiful in 1932 but today it is in vital need of renovation. However it brims with activity and here is where you will find the top brand shops alongside typical street vendors. A walk around the circle is a very pleasant and interesting activity.
Connaught Place, the heart of New Delhi
However we may not be able to take that walk as we are stuck in the hotel room as Eladio is not feeling well and neither am I really. Last night we went to the Chor Bizarre restaurant in Delhi. It was recommended by the Globetrotter guide book and also by Kuldeep, the representative from our travel agency Real Incredible India. We liked the decoration and the service was great but we were rather disappointed with the food as the meat was really tough. And this morning Eladio woke up feeling sick. We were planning to visit some of the places we hadn’t seen at the beginning of our trip but I think we won’t be doing that now. Our flight is tonight, well actually tomorrow as it’s at past midnight at 01.40. If he gets better we may well take a stroll round Connaught Place.

Meanwhile, this is the perfect opportunity for me to round up my travelogue on our trip to India and Nepal which has been fascinating and has contained some of the most everlasting travel impressions we have ever had. Of note these are, the Indian and Nepalese way of life and culture themselves, the Taj Mahal, the Ganges at Varanasi and, of course, the flight over the Himalayas and the bird’s eye view of Mt. Everest.

Yesterday was our last morning in Kathmandu and as we had to leave at noon to be at the airport 3 hours (yes 3 hours!) before our flight to Delhi, we decided to spend it in our lovely hotel, The Dwarika, a haven of peace and beauty.
Eladio strolling through one of the courtyards in the Dwarika hotel yesterday morning.
We said goodbye to Rajan Tuladhar from the travel agency ACE Hotels and Resorts who had done an excellent job and were then picked up by our wonderful driver, Mr. Lama to whom we bid farewell at the airport.

And here at Kathmandu international airport we were to go through the longest and most bureaucratic check in, customs and security process we have ever experienced in all our travelling life. Now I understood whey we were required to check in 3 hours in advance! The process is amazing. It started with porters outside the airport fighting for our services to carry the luggage to the airport door, then to 2 more porters fighting to carry it into the airport and to take us through the first security check (both luggage and body). Of course all these people have to be given a tip and if they think you haven’t paid them enough they don’t hesitate to ask for more! Once past this first security check, the 2 porters took us to pay the airport tax which was to be the equivalent of 20 euros each and a lot of form filling in to the bargain. From the bank we were taken to check in which took place quite normally. From check in we went to emigration where we had to fill out a departure card and show it with our passports. Once past emigration we thought all the procedures were over but they weren’t.

We were in what we thought was the departure lounge and here we made our last purchases in Nepal, the odd calendar and Hindu God posters (!).

I went to the loo and found the usual ladies inside waiting for me to give them a tip but this time I walked in saying I had no money on me!! As we were sitting down in the lounge we saw a cat walking around and it eventually came to sleep on a seat next to us. I have never seen a stray cat in any airport in the world and the sight was most unusual. But then, Nepal is an unusual country.
The cat in the departure lounge of the International terminal at Kathmandu Airport

Then we saw another queue and realised there was yet another security check. So we joined the queues, one for men and one for women which is quite common in both India and Nepal. Here our baggage was checked and our bodies searched. Once through this security, amazingly enough there was another manual baggage check after which they stamped your boarding pass. From here we went to board the Jet Airways plane (India’s second largest airline). And here on the actual steps to the aircraft we had to go through another baggage check and body search. I can understand the need for security, what I cannot understand is the need to repeat this procedure 3 times. It is a total waste of time and an enormous nuisance to passengers.

Finally we took off and were lucky enough to be on the side of the plane from we were to view for the 3rd time the highest range of mountains in the world. Our flight followed the Himalayas until the mountains turned to hills and to slopes and then we slept until we arrived at the Indira Gandhi International airport of New Delhi. My first impressions of that airport when we arrived 16 days ago were awful but somehow this time I thought it was quite ok. And it was ok, except for the mouse I saw running from under the immigration officer’s desk and the sleeping toilet lady in the arrival’s lounge. The photo is quite something.
The toilet lady asleep!
A smiling and welcoming Kuldeep was waiting for us as was our new driver, Mr. Rawat with his Tata Indigo car, the same model we had travelled round Rajasthan with our previous driver, Rajendra (Rajesh). Actually we would recommend anyone travelling through India to use a jeep as the bumpy and hole filled roads, often unpaved, of India can be very tiring in a saloon car.

Once again we were greeted in Delhi with thick fog and it was late afternoon. Our whole holiday has been affected by this fog which apparently happens always in January and February in this part of the world. We did not know about this before we came and no guide book seems to mention it. It is however worth noting before deciding to come at this time of year. Also this is considered high season and prices are at their very highest, something else we were not really aware of. Apart from the fog we have had good weather, always warm and only cool at night and in the mornings. For instance it was 18ºc yesterday when we arrived in Delhi. In the hotter months in some parts it can reach just under 50ºc which was the main reason we didn’t come in the summer.

And so our journey is coming to an end and it is time for my last reflections and observations.

We have learned a bit about the religions of this area and have come to the conclusion that the most popularly worshipped God is Shiva, or Lord Shiva as he is known. Nearly all temples seem to be devoted to this God. We have also come to understand that there are many different types of Hinduism or worshippers and many doctrines. Nothing is black and white as nothing is black and white here, apart from the holy women and men or widows!

I was happy to read in the Globe Trotter guide that Sikhs reject the caste system, promote equality between men and women and interested to read that they only worship one god. It seems their religion is somewhere between Hindu and Moslem but I know no more so am only guessing.

The Indians, be they Hindus, Jains or Sikhs, are extremely religious but very tolerant of other beliefs. Also in Nepal where 10% of the population is Buddhist, they live in total harmony, respecting each other’s beliefs. They seem to be an example to the world. Maybe a deeper analysis would prove me wrong, as, after all, India is divided into 3 countries, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, precisely because of the differences between Hindus and Moslems.

As a person of British origin I am curious to know what is left of the British influence in this part of the world and also to know what the Indians think of the British. You would think that if they were once dominated by the latter they could be negative towards England. But on the contrary, to whomever I asked this question I was told they greatly respected England and the British and they even ventured to say that some people in India said life was better under the British. I surely disagree with that, as did Gandhi, that great Indian hero and universal man who gained independence for India passively.

I think some of the respect comes from the fact that the British left India passively and peacefully and continued the good relations under the Commonwealth. But what did India inherit from its time under the British Raj? Apart from some infrastructure, the trains and architecture such as Connaught Place, the most important inheritance has been the English language. Nearly everyone speaks English and even some Indians speak it together. Then, as I have written before, there is sport, Cricket mainly, the English suit, worn quite a lot by men and newspapers to mention some. The Times of India is a huge institution here and owes its origins to the days of the Raj. I shall be bringing back today’s copy for my Father to read, together with the Kathmandu Post.

The cost of living in India is also a subject that interests me. India is a developing country where, at least for a tourist, some things are incredibly cheap and others are extortionate. Having your laundry washed at hotels costs very little but India’s top hotels, like the Taj or the Oberoi have prohibitive prices, some costing over 500 euros per night!

A cup of tea in the street, “cha” costs 6 rupees which is too low to convert into euro cents. Meals can be very cheap even at the best restaurants. Petrol costs about half of what it does in Spain and is 31 rupees per litre.

But how much do people earn? I got this information from our guide in Varanasi and I don’t know how reliable it is. We were talking about education and teachers. I have seen many schools and gathered education was taken seriously. I later learned that the good schools are the private ones which, like anywhere, are very expensive. I was told the state schools, although able to cater for all children for free were not very good because of rife teacher absenteeism. This I later read in The Economist special report on India.

So I asked how much does a secondary school teacher earn per month? Apparently they earn a meagre 15.000 rupees, less than 250 euros. So no wonder they don’t turn up. Our driver told us he earned 1.800 rupees, less than 30 euros. I wonder how they live? Doctors and lawyers earn up to 25 or 30.000 which is between 400 and 500 euros which is not very much either. I wonder how much the lower professions earn?

India is very obviously developing though. Internet and mobile phone infrascture are witness to this. I had no problem connecting, either through my data card or the hotel connection and mobile phones work everywhere. Service is also great. Indians are extremely punctual and things like laundry service, the best I have seen in the world.

Security is a big thing in India and has obviously been tightened up after the terrible Bombay gun blasts. At nearly all the hotels we went to, there were police checks and even bomb detectors. The security I liked best was the security we found at the cash machines, or ATMs as they are known here. Often they are guarded by an un-uniformed man usually bearing a gun. They looked like hunting rifles to Eladio but I don’t know. But the greatest security was at the airports for which we were grateful, not so the bureaucratic kind found at Kathmandu airport!

Whilst here the biggest news items were the aftermath of the Bombay blastings, India’s 9/11 and the financial scandal of its huge IT emporium, Satyam, a sort of Indian Madoff. Certainly tourism has been hard hit by the former. We were a bit worried about coming here when the blasts happened but not so much as to cancel our trip. But many other tourists did as we have noticed from places like the Taj Mahal which should have been much fuller during this high season. Indians though also travel extensively and we coincided on our tour with many Indian tourists too.

Finally a note on the people and how we have been treated. Apart from the money making guides and beggars who are inevitable – there are many beggars in India – a large percentage of the population of Delhi are beggars! – we have encountered some really lovely people and have been treated with great respect. I think “respect” is a word inherent to the Indian people. They seem to respect all living creatures, both animal and human. The word “gee” is a suffix of respect, the most obvious example being to their sacred river, the Ganga or Gangees. Now I understand why they called Gandhi, Gandhi Gee. They also called him Baphu, which means Father.

We want to come back to India, to get to know it better, to delve deeper into the Hindu culture and, of course, to see more of its geography and towns. We have heard of magical places such as Goa, Kashmir, Kerala, …

We also want to return to Nepal which left a deep impression on us. It is not unsimilar to India but has Chinese influence too. After all it is in between the two countries. We definitely want to go back to do trekking and stay again at the wonderful Dwarika hotel, a reason in itself for returning.

So did our trip live up to its expectations? I think more so actually. India is mind blowing, different in every way. It is only partly what you expect. I knew we were going to find poverty and dirt which of course we did, often more than we had expected but we also found what we were looking for; new experiences, and a totally different culture. Now I understand why they call it “Incredible India!”

Until we come again. Namaste!

Ok corrected the comment on the number of beggars in Delhi.  Thanks!


sumit said...

Very happy to know that you had great experiences here. Hope you come back again. It's not perfect but, as i always quote, "Perfection is boring"

Alvida! :)

hari said...

You doing good job , I really appreciated to you ,By the way what is the location of the top temple of Shiva ?

Anonymous said...

Delhi-Gurgaon Road. I guess...

Anonymous said...

The Point you have mentioned - 50% of the Delhi population is beggars, is quite absurd. I live in Delhi and I know, your remarks are absolutely wrong. The total population of Delhi is in excess of 18 Million now, according to your logic 9 Million people are beggars !!!

The fact is, there are around 100000 beggars in and around Delhi.
You can get it checked from independent neutral agencies.

Masha Lloyd said...

Thank you! I have corrected the comment on the number of beggars in Delhi.