Comeuppance (or, Memories of an Indian Holiday)

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PeterUK
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#1 Comeuppance (or, Memories of an Indian Holiday)

Postby PeterUK » Wed Sep 13, 2017 1:28 pm

I made my first trip to India in December 1996. I was working as a London minicab driver at the time and went with a fellow-driver from the cab office. Ashley his name was. He was mid-twenties, very diffident but sweet-natured, and loved the outdoor life; he played tennis, his obsession, to county standard. I had never felt much sexual attraction to him, an almost fatherly protectiveness if anything, but on our first night in New Delhi I felt impelled by the novel situation – sharing a hotel room with him in an exotic land – to proposition him. It was all rather halfhearted to be honest and Ashley declined politely but firmly. And that was that, the matter was never mentioned again.

I disliked Delhi intensely at first, the congestion, the noise, the pollution, but once we started exploring the old town my interest perked up. I loved the Red Fort with all its historical associations and travelling by cycle rickshaw through the warren of narrow streets constituting the Chandni Chowk market outside. My eyes were constantly swivelling from one absorbing sight to another: cobblers at work in doorways, traders shouting their wares, laden carts from opposite directions noisily trying to navigate past each other, little urchins scampering on errands down even narrower offshoot alleyways. I beamed a smile at Ashley alongside me, who was looking decidedly uninvolved and glum – not a tennis court in sight.

At the end of our 4-day stay we were up early to catch the bus to our next stop, Jaipur. While waiting at the bus-stop we heard a loud crash across the road. A truck had hit a rickshaw and the rickshaw driver was lying in the road. People went to help him, but my abiding memory is of his Indian lady passenger sitting upright in the back of the not-badly-damaged rickshaw, totally unmoved. The road to Jaipur was littered with rusted, overturned vehicles in ditches – further tributes to the care and attention of Indian drivers.

In Jaipur, 'the pink city', a talkative handsome young Indian with a mane of black wavy hair took us from the bus station to our splendid hotel, an ex-maharajah's palace (a small one, but even so). There were matching cannons by the driveway, peacocks on the lawn, liveried staff. Our high-ceilinged room had bright carpets scattered over the stone floor and beautifully carved furnishings. We both relaxed into the delightful mood which stems from being pampered and knowing that there is more pampering to come.

We visited some of the city's famous pink-sandstone buildings, notable the Hawa Mahal or Palace of Winds, through the small windows of which ladies of the royal harem could in times past view the world outside while remaining unseen. You're never far from squalor in India though and the streets outside were lined with dank, foul-smelling ditches. Beggars everywhere. Mules, cows, camels ambled along the middle of the road, raising dust.

On our last morning at the hotel we were returning to our room from breakfast when I spotted a crow flapping about on the lawn, hopelessly entangled in slender nylon kite string. A gardener assured me that it would soon be dead, either from exhaustion or as a tasty feline snack. I wasn't having that. I called over some hotel staff who started carefully unravelling the nylon string and received regular nips from an angry crow for their trouble. At last the job was done and the crow shot away from opened hands like a bolt out of a crossbow. I gave Ashley a smile of real satisfaction, but he just looked bored.

On the road to the railway station later that morning the fine historical buildings soon gave way to a long, grim shantytown on one side. I could see the leg muscles of our elderly rickshaw driver bulging with the effort of transporting us and when we reached the crowded area in front of the station I succumbed to Western guilt and paid him more than the agreed fare. Big mistake! Within seconds we were surrounded by frantic beggars who had picked up on his excessive gratitude. When we had finally fought our way through to the platform, Ashley decided that he needed to use the toilet. I'll never forget the shell-shocked look on his face as he emerged a few minutes later. He couldn't bring himself to describe the horrors he had seen in there.

Our destination – the third leg of the 'tourist triangle' – was Agra. Only one place on every tourist's mind here. No matter how many times you have seen images of the Taj Mahal beforehand, nothing quite prepares you for its breathtaking beauty as you first set eyes on it emerging out of early morning mist. As the sun slowly rises it changes colour from pink to yellow to white. Stunning.

We had one more place to visit, Rishikesh in the foothills of the Himalayas, famous as the place where the Beatles met the Maharishi Yogi. You may have detected the occasional hint that my relationship with Ashley was leaving a bit to be desired. Amicable enough on the whole, but I was getting a bit pissed off by his lack of interest in the fascinating culture all around us. Now we argued about the best way to get to Rishikesh from Agra. I was all for going by train, quicker and more comfortable. He wanted to use the cheaper bus service, not because it meant a chance to witness more local colour but because it was just that, cheaper. He was unusually persistent for him and, as I had had my own way in most things up to now, I conceded and agreed to go by bus.

It turned out to be the journey from hell. Hopes weren't raised by the first sight of the aged rust bucket that was to be our means of conveyance. It looked as if it would be lucky to get us to the end of the street, let alone Rishikesh. For the next fifteen hours or so (I've forgotten the exact number – it felt like a week) we were crammed into two rock-hard adjoining seats designed for small Asian bums. Night eventually fell and at occasional rest stops snack sellers moved through the packed, smelly bus. As the long hours passed, so it got colder, the loose, rattling windows sounding like chattering teeth. I shot Ashley increasingly ferocious looks – all this to save a few rupees! - and at least he had the grace to look ashamed of himself.

Our hotel in Rishikesh was to discomfort what the one in Jaipur had been to ease of living. On our first morning I was awoken at 6 o'clock by an exploding wall socket with about ten leads attached to it. As the flames leapt up I think I can safely say that it was the quickest I have ever got out of bed in my life. I smothered the small fire with a blanket. When we raised the matter downstairs the receptionist apologised unconvincingly and I had the feeling that this was not the first time that he had had to deal with complaints about exploding sockets.

In the early morning mist the streets of Rishikesh looked almost medieval, what with the mainly wooden buildings, the cloaked, bearded figures huddled round fires and the omnipresent cows wandering aimlessly about. Rishikesh attracts numerous Western spiritual seekers and this was of much interest to me. We sat in on a large gathering at the ashram of a female American guru whose soulful stares and convoluted answers to questions impressed me not at all. I was much more taken by a wise-looking, robed old Indian whom we met on a rocky path next to the fast-flowing Ganges. I got into conversation with him and goodness knows what he made of my smug, bookish comments about spiritual life; he was clearly a practitioner, not an idle prattler, himself. Before long I noticed with surprise that there were about a hundred Indians standing around us, gawping. Ashley was as usual bored and more keen to see if he could score some weed from the wild-haired, zonked-out, dark-skinned Indians sitting further along the path.

I liked Rishikesh very much. Apart from its rugged, wooded, hilly terrain, so many interesting, unusual sights. Every morning there was the amazing spectacle of hundreds of people bathing in the Ganges or launching floral tributes from its banks. One evening we came across two sinister hooded figures kneeling with candles before a statue of the fierce-eyed goddess Kali inset in a wall. Another time we saw a wedding parade with a band playing loud music and the ornately dressed bride and groom mounted on elephant back looking no more than about twelve years old each. Then there was the time when I stopped before a glass cabinet full of Indian sweets and was about to make a purchase when a mouse appeared and ran all over the display as the frantic vendor tried to catch it. I suddenly lost interest in Indian sweets. Yes, I liked Rishikesh a lot, even if it meant having to share the experience with an unimpressed, distant companion.

On our penultimate full day we decided to visit a Hindu shrine on top of a 3000-foot hill. Finally, after the many forts and palaces and spiritual ramblings on my part, something more to Ashley's liking – a hike out into a natural setting and bracing fresh air. When we reached the foot of the hill there was an easy vehicular path to the top or a twisting footpath ascending round the perimeter. Fatefully, we chose the latter. Somehow, despite the fact that I suffer badly from vertigo, I managed to negotiate the ever-narrowing path to the summit, partly inspired by Ashley's example; he was in his element and cool as a cucumber. The highlight, halfway up, was a distant view through hills of what we at first took for a cloud but then realised with a jolt of pleasure was an actual Himalayan mountain. The shrine wasn't much to write home about and we soon started on the descent.

That was when my difficulties really began. I got part of the way down and froze. What you have to understand about vertigo is that the sufferer feels a kind of mad urge to throw himself over the edge. Going up hadn't been so bad but now, approaching sharp, narrow, downhill bends, I felt as if I was heading straight towards the edge, ready to plunge willingly over a 3000 foot drop. At this alarming moment a goatherd with accompanying goats came up the path and I pressed myself white-faced to the hillside to let them pass. How I envied those goats with their carefree, protruding, crazy yellow eyes. I muttered to Ashley, looking at me with concern, that there was nothing I could do about this, I couldn't move.

And – ah! - this was the moment when sweet, dear Ashley came into his own. The recipient from me of many sniping, critical comments about his lack of engagement over the preceding weeks, he now came up beside me, placing himself between me and the edge, and started muttering little words of encouragement. Holding my arm he gradually coaxed me forward. He started to sing gently to raise my spirits. With him blocking out as much of the drop as he could, he got me back down. I thanked him profusely time and again, but he made light of it, not wishing me to lose face any more than I already had. Not a word of recrimination from him about my carping behaviour on all those occasions when I had felt myself to be the self-assured one, the one in control.

We took a quite expensive but necessary taxi ride back to New Delhi, for I had managed to develop a case of the runs the following day (is any trip to India complete without this experience?) and we had to make a few emergency pit stops on the way. At the airport, I was going on to Bangkok and Ashley was returning to London. The moment of parting arrived and we uttered the usual banalities. Looking at his predictably bashful, awkwardly-smiling face, I knew it wasn't enough. 'Thank you again, Ash,' I said from the heart and he knew what I was referring to. I threw my arms around him in an affectionate hug; it seemed to last quite a while. Then we turned and went our separate ways.

fountainhall
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#2 Re: Comeuppance (or, Memories of an Indian Holiday)

Postby fountainhall » Wed Sep 13, 2017 8:43 pm

What lovely memories of India! I have made just one trip and that was back in late 1989, ideal for weather and a lot less pollution. Hard to believe that Agra then seemed almost pollution free! My trip was all very last minute. So I booked one of what Cathay Pacific then called their Discovery Tours, all-inclusive packages that are supposed to make travel easy. In my case, too much went wrong and I ended up aborting the last few days. But there was still much of interest.

I started with a late flight from Hong Kong via Bangkok to what was then named Bombay. Arriving around 9:30 pm in the rather squalid airport, I was driven to the Intercontinental Hotel - then a large multi storey block not the old hotel where Pakistani terrorists later murdered many of the guests. En route we passed many cloth-covered bodies just lying on the pavements. I assumed there would be body collectors coming along during the night, rather as there had been body snatchers in the Edinburgh of old – only the latter robbed recent graves.

Shown up to my room, it was in a dreadful state not having been cleaned. Instead of finding me a different room, I had to wait another tiring 30 minutes whilst cleaners were found and put to work. Bad start!

The next two days I was on my own and enjoyed exploring parts of the city. Even the poorer parts were fascinating, but it was its imposing colonial architecture that I specially enjoyed if only because it seemed so out of place - the grandeur of the Gateway to India Arch, the Crawford Market and the extreme Victorian Gothic of the main railway station.

My real interests were the next two stops also mentioned by PeterUK - Jaipur and Agra. For the flight to the former, I had to get up at 4:00 for a 6:00 am flight stopping at Aurangabad and Udaipur before reaching Jaipur. The first stop was extended by an hour whilst 6 seats were taken out so a stretcher and ill passenger could be accommodated. Then at Udaipur there was yet another hour's delay, the reason given that there was bad weather at Jaipur. On arrival, it was brilliantly sunny. I asked an airport worker about the bad weather. "What bad weather?" came the reply. The extended stop was just to let the pilots take time over their lunch, a meal denied to the passengers! On my return to Hong Kong I complained to Cathay that it was ridiculous to book passengers on this very long early flight when there was a daily non-stop every day departing at 6:00 pm. That was not the only complaint, though.

The tour claimed that accommodation would be at the Rambagh Palace, the former Maharajah's main residence and converted into an hotel. But no! Although it was on my itinerary, the hotel was full up and I was put into what can only have been a 3- star hotel. Pleasant, but soulless. Still, what could I do? So I decided to make the best of it. The hotel had a nice rooftop lounge where I ordered a beer and asked what snacks they had. The waiter recommended "Fried Kot Tarjeez". Never having heard of this before, I asked him to repeat it more than once. Always the same. So being adventurous, I decided to try it. I suppose I should have realized that he was talking about a common or garden cottage cheese!

I loved Jaipur - the Palace with its tall handsome red capped guards, the Hawa Mahal already described by Peter UK and the elephant ride up to the glorious Amer Fort just outside the city. I could have spent days wandering around fascinated by the sights as well as the poverty. Young men openly defecating by the side of the streets was somewhat off-putting as were the omnipresent cows. But after two days it was time for the short 6:00pm flight to Agra. Only on arrival at the airport we were to discover that this flight had been cancelled with no reason given. So we were bundled 4 to a taxi for the 5 hour drive on rickety roads, dodging camels and cows and goodness knows what else. The one wonder of that trip was a pit stop for pee and coffee slap bang in the middle of nowhere. Being blindingly dark, I happened to look up to the sky. Never had I ever seen so many stars - billions of them with shooting stars clearly visible every two or three minutes. Magical!

The Taj was everything PeterUK has described. No words can do it justice. At midday the brilliant white marble set against the green grass, the small ponds, the flowers and bushes was breath-taking, the sight only slightly marred by a couple of large dark bees nests high up in two of the arches. The return to see dawn break over the Mausoleum was even more stunning. The visit was capped by a tour around the Agra Fort where Shah Jahan, imprisoned by his son for 8 years before his death, could daily see the memorial to his beloved wife.

In the intervening afternoon, I was taken 40 kms away to the ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri, for a few years the capital of the Mughal Empire. It was then quickly abandoned in favour of Lahore. It has been abandoned every since. Truly an amazing ghost town.

Then it was the three-hour drive to Delhi. The hotel was a sprawling 3-star shabbily decorated establishment to the west of the city that had zero charm. Perhaps because I had already seen the other three cities, I did not enjoy the visit. Yes Delhi has lots of attractions, but they are in a way almost too similar to what I had already seen. I got bored. I also found myself getting bored by India; yet I still had three days left on a houseboat on the Dal Lake near Srinagar with views of the Himalayas in the background. I should just have continued with the tour, I suppose but I was more than slightly concerned that two aircraft on the Delhi/Srinagar route had crashed within a few weeks of each other. I have always enjoyed flying and one crash on an airline you are flying on is part and parcel of travel. But the domestic Indian Airlines had a dreadful track record, and I was as worried about delays for no reason as I was about a dodgy landing. So I decided just to end the trip there and then. I went to the Air France office and purchased a one-way ticket to Bangkok where I could completely relax for those few days in Soi Twilight in a way that would have been impossible in India. I then picked up the last sector on Cathay back to Hong Kong.

So I have mixed memories. Being on my own, there were no romantic intentions and certainly no romantic interludes. I am, however, glad that I went and wish I could have spent more time in Rajasthan. If I were to go back, I would return to Jaipur and then add in Udaipur, Jodhpur and perhaps one other city.

When I returned home, I wrote to Cathay Pacific with my views on the various issues which had gone wrong. They wrote a very pleasant letter of thanks, refunded my Air France ticket cost and provided some vouchers for future in-flight purchases. In the circumstances I thought that was fair.

For those with a fondness for or even an interest in India, I hope you will read the magnificently written, poignant and vivid “Raj Quartet” (often called “The Jewel in the Crown”) by Paul Scott. This focuses on the end of the Raj and all the personal conflicts that it created amongst rulers and ruled. It was made into an eight episode TV series at the end of the 1970s by Granada TV. I found it on DVD many years ago and love re-watching it. The writing, the plots, the casting (Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Eric Porter, Fabia Drake, Rachel Kempson et al), the inclusion of a sadistic homosexual policeman played by Tim Piggott-Smith, all make for stunning television. Scott later wrote the even more depressing but utterly engrossing “Staying On”, with two former colonial types beautifully played by Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, who decide to remain in India after Independence and hope to maintain their old lifestyle whilst renting a house from an Indian landlady who hates them. Role reversal! They fail, of course.

PeterUK
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#3 Re: Comeuppance (or, Memories of an Indian Holiday)

Postby PeterUK » Wed Sep 13, 2017 10:13 pm

Thanks for your own recollections of India. It truly is a magical place, though it helps to have experience of somewhere like Thailand first, which breaks the traveller in somewhat and lessens the shock of its flipside horrors. I've been back once since the trip described, accompanied by an American friend from Pattaya. We started in Mumbai, then went down the coast through Goa to Cochin. We loved everything about Kerala, the food, the backwaters, the easygoing people. My American friend is an accomplished predator but even he failed to get his end away on our trip. For myself, I don't find the Indian 'look' very exciting sexually. Some are cute in their teens of course but they quickly fill out and become hairy in their twenties. Yuk!

fountainhall
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#4 Re: Comeuppance (or, Memories of an Indian Holiday)

Postby fountainhall » Thu Sep 14, 2017 9:02 am

PeterUK wrote:For myself, I don't find the Indian 'look' very exciting sexually.

I quite agree. Some can look immensely handsome - those guards at the Jaipur Royal Palace for example. But as a turn on? Not for me.

There was a lengthy discussion on one of the Boards not so long ago about sexual preferences. If I recall correctly an argument was put forward that this is a form of racism - real or implied. I think that's nonsense. Thankfully we all have our own preferences and I don't believe it has anything to do with what we know of as racism. I had hardly looked at any Chinese guys other than those who worked at the Chinese restaurant near my home before I moved to Hong Kong. Even then, my first relationship there was with a Canadian. Within 18 months, I had totally flipped and from then on could only consider being with Asians! Even then, my early liking for Filipinos eventually waned to the point where I could not be with one now.


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