And that’s putting it mildly.
We arrived on a Sunday morning – around 4 AM – after a long, tiring flight with one stop in Istanbul. After the unexpectedly harsh European winter and the claustrophobic, air-conditioned airplane cabins and airport lounges, India welcomed us with a mild night-time breeze that got me down to short-sleeves in no seconds flat. The officials were polite and efficient, the backpack was neither lost in translation nor “examined” by more-or-less official hands, the hotel driver was actually waiting there with our names spelled correctly on a piece of cardboard… All is well in India, no need to fret or bother, right, fellow-me-lad?
But my well-manicured English, carefully pressed and polished for the occasion, went by and large virtually unobserved. The first shock of the day: our driver did not actually speak English. Only a few unglued, disparate words, enough to let us know where the car is located and yes, isn’t the weather nice for this time of year? My attempt to strike a conversation was met with a simple explanation. I’m sorry sir, my English no good. No education. And a big apologetic smile, the sadness behind it almost invisible under the harsh lights of the petrol station.
Judging by European standards, the hotel was a dump. A polished, marble-floored, dirty dump, with a mathematically-challenged receptionist – his sums were always rounded to the next hundred rupees – and an insolent, well-meaning bellboy who doubled as a deft salesman of toilet paper. I know this because he presented the opportunity not 2 minutes after we settled in our room. And what a room that was! Dirty floors, damp sheets, crumbling bathroom walls… Granted, I was not expected the Hilton, given the €10 we were paying per night. “I’m just going to pretend I’m in a very large tent, after a week’s mountain journey”, I told my companion and proceeded to crush in one of the hard beds. In less than 5 minutes I was sleeping like a baby.
Our hotel was situated in Connaught Place, the busy, dusty, noisy, smelly centre of Old Delhi and very close to the railway station. It turned out we shouldn’t have bothered. Thanks to my poor understanding of the subtleties of Indian railway transport, it turned out we didn’t actually book a ticket in advance. Only the option to get a ticket, should 7 of the lucky passengers already on the train would change their minds at the last minute. Fat chance, said the helpful railway employee. Better check with the travel agency. So we did.
Moving from place to place in Delhi is actually very easy and very cheap, provided you are able to negotiate worth a damn and you don’t mind travelling in suicidal traffic on rickshaws that look like they wouldn’t survive a head-on collision with an oversized pillow. But Indians are great fatalists, and the sooner you get on with the programme, the better. In the end I just resigned myself to an early, gruesome end and started to enjoy the view. And unforgettable views is something in which India particularly excels.
Funnily enough, that was exactly what the travel agent told us after he sold us a one week tour of Rajasthan, including lodging at heritage hotels (breakfast included), transportation (our own car and driver) and a safari in Ranthambore National Park, where we would get to see real, live tigers. Or not, as it turned out. But that was yet to come. Meanwhile, we would get a little tour of Delhi from Sunil, our newly acquired guide. Something we were cautiously looking forward to.
We shouldn’t have worried. Both Sunil’s competence and his grasp of the English language were a class above everything we’ve experienced so far on Indian soil. He took us to see the Red Fort, a 17th century fortification complex in the centre of Old Delhi. He took us to a great little restaurant on the fringe of Connaught Place, where we had our very first contact with authentic Indian food – an altogether pleasant experience. Finally, he took us to our dump of a hotel, leaving us with an appointment for early next day and a promise of great things to come.
But I’ll tell you more about Sunil’s Promise, how I didn’t get to see a tiger twice in a row and the Mustachios of Rajasthan in the next episode.