The Amigos have Landed!

Nine Hours Later

During the long flight, the person in the seat next to me introduced himself as a vice president of Air India. Just for a change, his name was Ravi who soon became; yes, you guessed it! Ravi Air India. He took immense pleasure in telling me that he usually flew first class. However, he had made the supreme sacrifice of flying Business Class on this trip as a gesture of respect to the other passengers, his customers.

He may or may not have been telling the truth, but the cabin crew certainly made a fuss of him and, as his new friend, I also enjoyed extra special first-class service all the way. During the nine-hour flight, Ravi Air India and I became firm friends (the freely flowing champagne and Caviar may have had something to do with it.) I still have his card somewhere and an open-ended invitation to stay at his villa in the hills to the north of Delhi the next time I am there.

Immigration

On arrival at Indira Gandhi AirportNamed after the first and to date the only female primeminister of India , Ravi Air India was able to call upon his status to enable us to bypass a lot of the usual immigration and customs delays that passengers, even those flying Business class, endure upon arrival at Delhi International airport. A simple wave of his hand and a “No, no, no. These are my personal guests,” delivered in a Peter Sellers stereotype accent, sufficed to get us past most of the officials. Such formalities were different in those days. For all I know they still are.

However, even his influence couldn’t get us past the stringent security upon arrival, and we had to line up to have our baggage X-rayed for bombs or other weapons. I was rather hoping that they would want to conduct a post-flight strip search on Mick to check if he had anything dangerous hidden in his trousers, but fortunately for him, they didn’t.

Outside the airport, our Indian trip organiser, Aziz, was waiting to escort us to our car and driver. Incredibly, to my mind at least, he had spent the previous twenty-four hours on a slow train up from Mumbai, just to meet us at the airport. Aziz, is, of course, a remoter member of the Indian branch of the Pathak extended family and so, as one would expect, provided no less than the perfect service. I would recommend his agency to anyone wishing to take a special personalised tour of India. Please feel free to email me for details.Dante@daveapsey.com

With Ravi Air India’s help, we had managed to evade the horde of porters inside the terminal, but the massed ranks of beggars outside were an entirely different matter.

Now, before we left England, Ravi and I had given Mick strict instructions on how to deal with beggars. The basic rules are: –

• Don’t make eye contact.
• Don’t respond to them in any way.
• Keep hold of your possessions.
• Above all, keep walking.

If only he had listened!

We had gone less than 50 yards when I noticed that Mick was missing. Looking over my shoulder, I spotted him shuffling off in the opposite direction in the wake of a small brown man who was pushing his trolley. Leaving my own cart in the experienced hands of Ravi and Aziz, I hurried after my tall but weak-willed friend.

“Mick, where the hell are you going and why has this guy got your trolley?”

“I couldn’t stop him. He just grabbed it. I tried to explain to him that I didn’t need a porter, but he wouldn’t listen.”

“What do you mean you couldn’t stop him? You’re six foot six, and he’s four foot ten!”

“Well, I didn’t want to be rude, and he doesn’t speak English.”

“Oh, for God’s sake! What did we tell you about stranger danger?”

I stuffed a few rupees in the wannabe porter’s hand and retrieved the trolley before passing it back to Mick, and the two of us set off after Ravi and Aziz. We only got about halfway back before I heard a commotion behind me.

On turning around, I was confronted by the sight of Mick politely trying to explain, by hand gestures alone, to half a dozen porters and beggars that he could push his own trolley. In the meantime, said trolley, was disappearing up the path at a rate of knots in the grip of yet another volunteer helper.

A brief chase ensued, culminating in yet another exchange of rupees before we recovered the errant trolley.

Once more, we set off towards the waiting Ravi and Aziz and had almost reached them before Mick lost control of his baggage for the third time. To be fair, he had managed to keep one hand on the trolley handle but otherwise seemed to be incapable of preventing the bare-footed street urchin who had grabbed it, from leading them both away in completely the wrong direction.

By now, my patience had worn very thin, and this time there was no question of a negotiated settlement. Instead, a few choice English expressions and some threatening gestures quickly convinced the young Gunga Din he would rather be somewhere else.Gunga Din is a Poem written in 1890 by Rudyyard Kipling. Best known for its final line -“You are a better man than I am, Gunga Din. If that sounds slightly racist, then I freely admit it is, but it reflects the attitudes of the time.

With me pushing the trolley and glaring balefully at any beggar who approached within 50 yards of us, we eventually caught up with the others and made it to our car without further incident.

Taj Palace Hotel – Dehli

Our driver, whose name was, of course, Ravi, hereafter referred to as Ravi Driver Walla, loaded our luggage into the back of our private 4 x 4 Jeep Cherokee and off we set for the Taj Palace Hotel, with Aziz explaining the sites and our itinerary along the way.

Now the Taj Palace is only about ten miles from the airport and located in an upper-class suburb. It is where all the diplomatic and government compounds are and is an extremely pleasant part of town, to say the least, with lots of parks and green spaces.

However, on the way there you have to pass through some somewhat less than salubrious areas. So it is that at every set of red traffic lights, your car is surrounded by gangs of beggars and mendicants. Assuming your driver stops that is. In India, they often don’t, as we were later to discover.

Ravi was used to it, but for Mick and myself, it was the first time we had been confronted by mobs banging on the windows with truncated limbs and other mutilations and was quite an unnerving experience. I wonder if that is why they call it begging for Alms. Apologies for that one but I couldn’t resist it. Anyway, when travelling by car in India, the rule is – Put the windows up, lock the doors and stare straight ahead. Your driver knows what he is doing. Krishna help you if he doesn’t!

As you approach the Taj Palace Hotel, you enter the diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri.  Chanakyapuri is just five miles from the centre of New Delhi, and since the 1950s, it is where most of the foreign embassies are located. It benefits from wide clean roads, many parks, tree-lined streets and very good utilities and amenities. Not surprisingly, it is also where many wealthy people and politicians, including the prime minister and top officials, choose to live.

Given who lives there, security and policing are extremely high and so the low-lives disappear from the streets. Wouldn’t do to have the great and the good disturbed by such unsavoury sights as the masses of the poor and unwashed, would it!

The Taj Palace is a modern five-star hotel set in about six acres of land with some 300 rooms and suites, all of which can only be described as of a five-star luxury standard. It is not, in my opinion, as good as the Taj Palace Hotel in Mumbai, but it is where many visiting dignitaries to New Delhi choose to stay.

For example, the week before we arrived, Bill Clinton and his entourage had stayed there. If it was good enough for an Ex-President of the United States, then I could live with it but again, more on that later.

Aziz handled all the check-in formalities while Mick, Ravi and I were treated to a VIP reception in the lounge; hot towels, tea, canapes, cocktails, neck rubs. You name it, it was on offer. That was probably Mick’s first missed opportunity.

Soon enough, Aziz returned with a train of local porters to convey our bags to our rooms. Naturally, as a long standing-socialist, Mick objected to anyone being his servant but relented once Aziz explained that he could tip his porter and indeed it would be a kindness, as that was how the guy earned his wages. Menial labour is ridiculously cheap in India.

I must digress here to mention that it is a rigorously observed tradition of the Three Amigos that whenever we arrive somewhere on holiday, we always meet up in the bar within ten minutes of checking in for the first drink of the holiday. Check-in, drop the bags in the room, have a quick wash and a whizz and then down to the bar for the first beer of the trip. That sums us up.

The Orient Express Bar

Anyway, after dropping our bags in our rooms, actually, mine was a luxury suite. I am not that generous! Ravi and I met up with Aziz in the Hotel’s Orient Express Bar, which is just as you might imagine it would be from the name. Essentially it is a bar and restaurant, decorated in the style of the dining carriage of the Orient Express train that used to run between London, Vienna and Istanbul amongst other cities.

Incidentally, think of Ustinov’s Poirot from the filmMurder on the Orient Express, and you probably have a reasonably accurate mental picture of the physical me at the time, albeit without the moustache and fake French accent. OK, on reviewing the videos, I looked more like Peter Griffin from the Simpsons. Come to think of it, I shared a lot of Peter’s personality traits too!

Ravi and I ordered our beers and enthusiastically discussed the trip to come with Aziz while we waited for Mick to join us for dinner. Several hours and multiple beers later we were still waiting, so Ravi called Mick’s mobile. We tried several times before realising that he probably didn’t know how to answer it, so Ravi went up to Mick’s room to make sure he was OK. Big mistake!

It turned out that Mick’s digestive system had not been able to cope with the last 30 hours of drinking, Indian airline food and long-distance travel. That meant that he was now suffering a severe bout of what can best be described as of a loose Delhi Belly nature. Unlucky for Mick but when you think about it, extremely lucky for the security guard’s decision regarding body cavity searches at the airport.

Ravi came back down to report, and the two of us empathised with what Mick must be going through for at least 30 seconds before Ravi went off to get a plate of chips in the all-night cafeteria. Did I mention that Ravi is always hungry? Eventually, the two of us retired at around 3:00 am but not before arranging the next day’s, or should that be today’s tour with Aziz who was by now slumbering quietly in the corner of the bar.

I think he must have joined Ravi Driver Walla sleeping in the Jeep for the early hours. I didn’t care, I had a luxury suite and a giant bed with super soft feather pillows to get acquainted with.

The adventure was truly underway.

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