Keep Calm and Carry Ohm

16/11/08 Day 3 - Delhi Belly

I was in a lovely sleep when through my eye lids I could sense a bright red light flashing in my face. It was 4am and the instinct to panic took immediate hold as "Fire! Fire!" rushed through my head. I sat bolt upright. The jolt actually woke me up enough to realise that it wasn't the flashing lights of the emergency services but the little message alert on our telephone instead.

I tried retrieving the message but there wasn't one to be picked-up. Yet the flashing continued and it was driving me mad. I phoned reception but they weren't any help. "dial 444 to check your messages, sir". "But I have and there isn't and it's still flashing at me!" ".... dial 444, sir" Aaaaargh!

I was on the verge of ripping the bloody phone out the bloody wall and smash the flipping thing into little pieces by throwing it against the wall. Then, in a moment of Gandhi-esque pacifism, I simply covered it with my dirty laundry. It did the trick. I only wished I had thought of it half an hour earlier!

We woke up for real at 8am and went down for breakfast.

I was so excited, like a kid in a candy store, when I walked along the Indian buffet. There was plenty on offer. I showed some restraint and only filled my plate on one visit with a Dal Sambar (a runny curry sauce), Corn Masala on Aloo (potato) Paratha bread, with a spinach pakora and a vada (a savoury lentil doughnut). Everything was so delicious and not once did it feel peculiar to be eating "curry" for breakfast.

"I could seriously get used to this!" I said.

Julie shook her head in disbelief as she tucked into her salmon & cream cheese.

At 10am we went down to the lobby to meet our guide for the day. We also met the remainder of the "India Panorama" tour group. There could have been up to sixteen in this group but we really hoped it wasn't going to be so large. When only two joined us we thought "please let them be nice" We were going to be in close company over the next twelve days!

We knew straight away that we were going to get along just fine with Rob and Carol. There was even a Garden centre connection between Julie and Carol.

We got into a minibus that was a little rough around the edges but it worked fine and we headed north towards Old Delhi and the impressive Red Fort.

The sheer scale of it's outer wall was staggering. The perimeter was 2.5km in length. Unfortunately we weren't going to get to see the inside. It's always shut on a Monday.

Nevermind. (Reason to return: number one.)

Red Fort, Delhi

We turned left, away from the Red Fort and into the narrow busy streets of the Chandni Chowk district. It was slow progress as we inched our way towards the entrance to Jami Masjid, India's largest mosque.

Once parked at the bottom of the northern steps we followed our guide, Gaurav, up through the security checks. Before we could enter the mosque we had to be frisked. Acts of terrorism are always a real threat and places of worship are not immune. Jami Masjid itself was targeted in 2006.

Before we stepped inside we also had to pass their strict dress code which Julie unfortunately didn't conform. We believe it was because her T-shirt sleeves were too short.

Or maybe they were just having a laugh because she was made to wear an absolutely hideous and hilarious floral gown that covered her from her neck to her ankles. You won't find a photograph of her here on account of the "I'll kill you if you take my picture!" death threat I received.

Jama Masjid, Delhi

Gaurav was very informative about the mosque. Jami Masjid was built by the great Muslim Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. He was the fifth generation of a mighty dynasty that ruled most of India until the British took over in the 18th century.

He continued the history lesson about how five thousand workers were required and one million rupees to build this spectacular red sandstone mosque that can accommodate twenty thousand worshipers at Friday prayers.

"Imagine trying to find your shoes after that!" he joked.

Despite his humour I could see that he was beginning to get a little annoyed .... with me. Whilst he was informing us about the Hindu influenced inverted lotus design atop the three marble domes I was busily taking photographs. (In my defence I couldn't let the beautiful gaggle of saris walk past without taking a picture; could I?.)

My apparent disinterest seemed to distract his flow.

In truth I was actually listening quite intently, if only with my left ear! I heard every word he said about how the minarets were built leaning slightly outwards so in the event of their collapse they would fall away from the mosque.

Like most people I don't listen with my eyes. But of course my unresponsiveness probably appeared quite rude.

Then again, perhaps he was more upset that I laughed every time he described the back of the mosque as the "backside"!

Jama Masjid, Delhi

Jama Masjid, Delhi

He eventually ran out of things to say and released us from class, granting us fifteen minutes breaktime to wander around.

We headed immediately inside.

I've only ever been inside one mosque before. That was in Cairo, Egypt. I don't remember much of the detail but it had a large interior. So I was expecting similar architecture here but it wasn't.

The prayer hall led, more like a hallway, from one end to the other, with the ten arches and the large main entrance providing the natural light.

It didn't reach any deeper into the structure at all. We even thought we had missed a secret entrance somewhere but we hadn't.

The floor of the hall was layed with white marble with an inlaid black line that gave the impression of being a prayer mat, the tip of the arch pointing westwards. As our guide pointed out we were the other side of Mecca in India. (See I was listening!) In the UK worshippers would pray towards the east.

It was being kept spotlessly clean by this guy sweeping in a very unconventional method. He swung high above his head this bundle of rags tied together at the end of a rope swooping down to brush the floor. There was a lot of effort involved!

Conscious of our time constraint we moved on, stepping back down from the platform of the prayer hall and onto the courtyard, walking around the surrounding colonnade.

Jama Masjid, Delhi

Looking through the ornate arches, to the south, we overlooked the impressive flight of steps that served the south entrance.

It was quite a sight.

Beyond the mosque's outer wall we could see a crowded street market busy with people browsing the numerous food stalls, butchers with live chickens in cages, and even the odd vehicle spare parts stall!

It looked a fascinating melee.

Sitting at the top of the steps there was a group of four young men, bonding. It was the first time I'd seen the curiosity that is the tactile young Indian male. It's not uncommon to see men holding hands or walking arm in arm. It's just the way it is here.

view of the Red Fort from Jama Masjid, Delhi

We continued our walk along the eastern side from where we could see the Red Fort in the distance.

In the city haze and with the hovering birds of prey it was a view full of atmosphere. A view that has not changed in almost 400 years.

Before our time was up we made our way to the centre of the courtyard.

There was a wonderful splash of colour rippling in the reflection of the ablution pool. It was such a delightful sight. It even made me step back and realise for the first time "Wow, I'm really in India!"

We didn't really know how long we'd been strolling around Jami Masjid. Neither Julie nor I had brought a watch with us. (I never wear one and we decided that Julie's Tag watch was a little too flash for travelling).

We were glad to see that Rob and Carol had also gravitated towards the middle to wait for our guide.

At least it meant we weren't late and not in trouble with sir.

Jama Masjid, Delhi
He soon arrived and we returned to our minibus to inch our way slowly along the backside of the mosque and through the street markets we had seen earlier.

The painfully slow progress was actually welcomed as it gave us a good opportunity to have a great view of the market bustle safe from the sanctuary of our bus.

I was itching to get out there and mingle but we had no time, our next Delhi must-see attraction was waiting.

As soon as we popped out onto the wider ring road we moved swiftly to Rajghat, the site of Mahatma Gandhi's cremation where now stands in the middle of a garden a simple black granite memorial inscribed with his last words "He Rama" ( "Oh God").

Every visiting heads of state are taken here to lay wreaths in memory of one of the 20th century's most inspirational figure and India's most treasured son.

Today as it happened was the turn of President of Egypt which unfortunately meant we found the gates shut and we were turned away. The memorial garden and the accompanying museum were closed to the public for security reasons. (Reason to return: number two.)

A short distance away we arrived at Humayun's Tomb, the mausoleum of the second Mughal emperor.

I had seen photos in the guide books and it looked remarkably similar to the Taj Mahal. It was built in 1565 which made it almost a hundred years older than its more famous architectural nephew.

We entered through a large arched gateway only to see another gateway in the distance. All we could see of the domed structure was a tantalising glimpse through the last arch. The suspense was building as the nearer we got the perspective opened up and the full majesty of the tomb came into view.

It was quite striking.

This tomb, built under the supervision of his grieving widow, was positioned in the centre of a large square garden with a grid of water channels feeding small ponds and fountains. The symmetry was astonishing.

Humayun's Tomb, Delhi

Our guide gave us the essential history lesson which this time I made more of an attempt to appear attentive.

It wasn't difficult because I actually found it interesting. It was a great story.

In the 16th century the all conquering Barbur, a direct descendent of Genghis Khan, swept down from central Asia brushing aside the Sultans of Delhi and became the first emperor of the magnificent Mughal dynasty.

On his death Babur's kingdom was divided between two of his sons. His eldest son Humayun inherited the coveted Indian lands.

He didn't have the most successful of starts to his emperorship, loosing most of his father's territories.

He eventually regained control of what he lost and in fact expanded the empire. He was at the height of his power when he tragically died in an accident falling down steps in his palace whilst hurrying to the muezzin's call to prayer.

Humayun's greatest legacy was fathering a great son and leader. A thirteen year old Akbar succeeded him to the throne and went on to be known as Akbar the Great. I'm not too sure what he did to deserve the title "great" but he did expand the empire to twice the area of his father's kingdom.

Humayun's Tomb, Delhi
Humayun's Tomb, Delhi

We were given time to wander around at our own leisure so we made our way up the steep stone steps onto the first level.

The first thing we noticed was the use of several hexagram symbols, a shape we more commonly associate with the Jewish star of David.

Gaurav explained later that the Muslim mughals didn't normally decorate their mosques and mausoleums with images of animals or people; choosing instead ornate geometric designs.

Humayun's Tomb, Delhi

 

We walked around the outside, clockwise, looking outwards over the gardens, and further out towards a glistening white Sikh temple.

A very large group of chattering school children were just leaving whose absence left the place quiet and still.

As we turned to walk across the 'backside' Julie and I were now on our own. Our solitude created a powerful feeling of presence.

The atmosphere was further enhanced by the countless eagles that hovered above us.

On the opposite side we could see a small building, Gaurav had earlier referred to as Barber's Tomb. He asked "Why is it called Barber's tomb?"

Wanting to prove that I had been listening carefully I said "He was Humayun's father"

His face lit up and he may as well have said "ha ha, gotcha" because he had fooled me into giving the right wrong answer! If you know what I mean?

"No, no, no, he was the barber, the man who cut the king's hair, not Babur. You see, to be able to hold a blade to the king's throat you must be highly respected."

He must have been a pretty special barber to warrant his own tomb within the sacred garden. (Something for the weekend sir?)

We entered the central tomb chamber where a plain white marble sarcophagus stood in the middle.

The emperor's final resting place is actually 30ft below in the basement of this tomb, buried alongside his wives (of which he had six). Also one of his great grandsons kept him company.

The most attractive feature of the chamber by far were the intricate trellis work carved from single pieces of stone.

The craftsmanship to have created such delicate artwork was immensely special.

It was soon time to regroup with Rob & Carol and re-join our guide by the arched gateway.

Before we left the complex we visited another mausoleum, one that pre-dated Humayun's by only twenty years.

It was the tomb of a nobleman from the court of Sher Shah Sur, the Sultan of Delhi.

Built during the period when Humayun lost control of the city.

Whilst being small and obviously less grand than its neighbour the octagonal tomb of Isa Khan was quite charming.

Within its perimeter walls it also housed a mosque.

With only a few minutes spare I decided to scale the mosque in the hope of finding a good vantage point for a photograph.

My first ascent ended in trauma when I scaled some steps that lead up and inside, deep into the mosque. Within a few steps I had disappeared into a blackhole.

Completely sightless any thoughts of being Indiana Jones evaporated when I almost shat myself on hearing the squeak of bats.

I got out of there pretty quick!

I did eventually find an external staircase that lead up to the roof and it was a great view of the enclosure.

I saw Julie below waving and pointing to the imaginary watch on her arm. It was already time to go.

I took a few photos then in my haste I almost came to the same fate as Humayun himself. I almost stumbled down the steps. They were steeper than I had anticipated.

I pictured myself tumbling down ending up in a crumpled heap with a fractured skull. So I slowed down, taking each step with care.

As I walked back to the others my thoughts turned to Mr. Hughes, a primary school teacher who taught my daughter in the early nineties. On a solo trip to Italy he fell down some steps (he may even have been pushed) whilst visiting a remote amphitheatre. He lay undiscovered for a day or two. He was seriously injured but he did eventually make a full recovery. Fortunately to go like Humayun was not my fate today.

In all this excitement I had built up quite an appetite but sadly there was no lunch to be had at our next stop. We were taken to a government approved department store to be shown how the exquisite Indian rugs were made.

We were sat down and given a cup of chai as we watched a presentation of the intricate task of producing such fine detail on a quality carpet. "This is how we make our knotted rug, see they are double knotted by hand, not single, but knotted two times. And there are 480 knots per square inch. This carpet will last a lifetime and more."

He was stressing the labour intensive work as the demonstration of the arts seamlessly shifted into sales pitch as examples of their work were laid out before us for our consideration.

I must admit that the first few, their best ones, were absolutely stunning. Made of silk they had a shine than made them look almost fluid, even magical.

In the opposite corner a couple were signing their name on the back of a rolled up rug. It was one larger sizes. As they walked out the bloke said "Watch out, they're good salesmen!"

They displayed in front of us a full range of sizes, quality and intricacy. Rob asked the price of one of the more modest smaller rugs. I almost choked on my chai when we were told the price would be "two hundred and seventy five pounds sterling". No salesman on earth would get me to part with that amount of money for that rug.

I must admit to having a pathological distrust of salesmen. It has been known for one to put me off buying something that I actually wanted to buy!

Now if they had a postcard size cut of a rug, a rugette, then I would have probably considered paying 600 rupees for it but £1500 - £2000 for a rug, like the other couple had bought, well there was more chance of seeing a manifestation of Shiva fly out my arse.

Still he wasn't giving up, as they brought out even more. "These are carpets for people who don't want to buy carpets" he quipped. The size of a door mat and quite plain in their design I thought perhaps they could be within our reach but at two hundred pounds sterling he was just missing the point.

He eventually got the message that this frugal Scotsman and tight-arsed Welshman weren't going to part with their money and we were allowed to leave, but only to browse the rest of the department store first. The whole experience felt quite uncomfortable and we all left without buying anything.

We got back in the minibus to travel the short distance to our next attraction.

The saturated streets of Old Delhi had now turned into wide tree lined boulevards where the traffic flowed in a more orderly fashion. If it weren't for the classic black and yellow Ambassador taxis and the green and yellow auto-rickshaws it would have been a very un-Indian street indeed.

Gaurav explained that India's ministers and officials all live in the spacious bungalows along these avenues.

We drove on towards the drum shaped Parliament House and past the very British built secretariat buildings, home to the Prime Minister's office and all the other ministries. In the distance the President's residence, Rashtrapati Bhavan, could be seen.

The security was tight here. We weren't allowed to park anywhere so the driver slowed down to a crawl so that we could take our photographs through the window.

This whole area was planned as the new capital, the seat of power, by the British. Less than thirty years later India gained her independence.

Its most recognisable structure is the huge memorial arch, India Gate. Built in 1917 it honours the British and Indian soldiers who died fighting in the First World War and other campaigns. It also has an eternal flame that burns in memory of the unknown soldiers who died during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war.

We were permitted to park on the Rajpath, the ceremonial road that leads from India Gate to the Secretariat buildings. So we had the opportunity to walk down and take a few photographs.

I would have liked to crossed the road and spend some time just walking beneath the arch, see the eternal flame and even walk towards the sandstone canopy we could see in the distance. Unfortunately our schedule must not have allowed enough time as our guide shepherded us back into the van.

Along the way we encountered our first snake charmer. Tucked away between two cars we were startled by a loud sudden toot on the charmers flute. We all turned to look where it came from to see a turbaned young man squatting by a ratan basket lifting the lid to reveal his little baby cobra. As cute as it was, Julie burst into a sudden quick march out of there.

It was only 3pm but our tour of Delhi was coming to an end. As we drove back towards the hotel I was kicking myself for not suggesting a visit to Gandhi Smriti, the place where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. It wasn't far at all from India Gate and we didn't get to see the Rajghat memorial but it was too late to ask.

Perhaps it was my hunger that kept me quiet. I was so starving I could have eaten a piece of carpet! Luckily I didn't to resort to such extreme measures, we were back in our hotel before I began munching any textiles.

The first thing we did was to go and have some lunch at the hotel's 24/7 bar. Julie ordered a tadka dal with garlic naan and I went for a chaat sampler. It was an "Oh my God this is delicious, you've got to try it!" moment and we ended up sharing all the dishes.

The tastes were amazing, spicy yet comforting and soothing. Great combinations.

Having filled our boots we went for a walk to Connaught Place. A large circular shopping arcade surrounding a central park.

I specifically wanted to find a bookshop to buy an uniquely Indian book. A few weeks ago we had watched a TV programme by British comedian Paul Merton about his visit to India. In search of the humorous side of the country he sourced many of his peculiar tales from the Limca Book of Records, an Indian version of the Guinness Book of Records. Amongst the standard entries, longest bridge, tallest building, it also contained the bizarre of man's achievements. I just had to find it!

We left the hotel on our first solo adventure. Within seconds were pounced on by a persistent auto-rickshaw driver. "Where you going?" "Want a tuk tuk?" We explained politely where we were going and that we were fine thankyou very much. In an attempt to dissuade us from walking he warned us "Watch out for the shoe shine boys, they throw monkey shit on your shoes and ask if you want them cleaned!"

I looked down at the straps of our sandals and replied "We'll be OK. There's nothing to shine!" I then visualised monkey shit between my toes and almost wished I was wearing socks with my sandals.

In the meantime, as we reached the corner of Barakhamba Road, whilst still being hassled by the tuk tuk driver a young girl, barefooted and as dusty as the pavement, came cartwheeling towards us. After her brief cameo performance she then held her hand out for payment. If I had some small change I probably would have given her some money but I only had 100 rupee notes. Also in the back of my mind were the words of the Kuoni rep who picked us up from the airport; "Don't give the beggars any money. You start with one then you will be surrounded by many. Don't give them anything, they're professionals."

The eventful start to our walk continued when we were then befriended by someone who asked "You staying at the Intercontinental?" I nodded. "I work there" he added. He then accompanied us for the next few minutes, "How are you finding Delhi?" "Where are you going?" He seemed genuine enough but he then recommended that we should go somewhere else nearby for shopping instead of Connaught Place. "Oh, it's OK, we're not going there to shop, I want to see the architecture." I said referring to the columns of the plaza.

He accepted this and we parted company as we crossed the road to reach the outer ring of Connaught Place, also known as Indira Chowk.

Before long we reached the inner circle, Rajiv Chowk, and decided to walk around it in an anti-clockwise direction. It wasn't quite what I expected having read the guide book's description of "Georgian architecture reminiscent of the Royal Crescent in Bath."

It was surprisingly busy as we walked in the shade of the colonnade. Most of the stores we walked past were clothing shops with United Colours of Benetton being the only recognisable name. Other store names were obviously chosen to give the illusion of western chic such as Da Milano selling Italian Designer(-style) clothes or Big Ben Outfitters of London.

The pavements themselves became a flea market selling plastic knick knacks galore, especially bangles. And on the street corners, where the roads began out from the centre creating that wagon wheel you see on the map, sat the monkey shit throwers, the shoe shine boys.

I must admit to feeling quite apprehensive about have shit thrown at my open toed sandals, that wouldn't be pleasant! But of course it never happened.

A little further up we came across a sight that shocked us. A woman, squatting with her arms outstretched, hands cupped to receive. Her face was contorted with despair, her eyes fixed on me, her voice moaning. In front of her lay what I thought was a dog.

Nothing new there, begging is a common sight the world over but when we came a little closer we realised the scruffy looking pet was actually the unkempt hair of a filthy dirty naked child (probably about 2 years old). The poor kid was lying still on the pavement. What desperation.

We had now reached effectively 3 o'clock on the Connaught Place circle.

"A bookshop!"

Jain Book Agency est. 1935 suppliers of General & Law Books Govt. Publications.

Displayed in the window were books covering such topics as "Practical Handbook to Hospital Waste Management" or "Logistics & Supply Chain Management". It didn't look like a place that would stock a book on something as frivolous as "Who can eat the most pickled onions in a minute"

It was a long shot but we stepped inside nonetheless.

"Bloody hell" I turned to Julie.

I'd never seen so many books in such a small place! From floor to ceiling, shelf upon shelf of books were piled on top of each other. It wasn't designed for browsing you'd never find what you were looking for.

I asked one of the many bespectacled staff who stood behind the counter "Do you have the Limca Book of Records?"

"Oh yes" he answered whilst shaking his head as if to say 'No' and then pointed to the ceiling.

In the corner, almost camouflaged from view amidst stacks of paperbacks was a narrow staircase that went up to the first floor where we found another book filled grotto.

We were on our own without any assistance in finding the book. The task in front of us was so overwhelming we almost gave up before starting.

Then from out of nowhere it seemed to jump out at me screaming over here!! Sandwiched between Richard Branson's Business Stripped Bare and Cricket Lovely Cricket? were two volumes of the Limca BoR, one in Hindi and one in English.

I couldn't believe my luck!

Limca Book of Records
Central Park Delhi closed on a Monday

Book safely in my hands we continued in the shade of the columns until we had completed 180 degrees of the arcade.

It's difficult to believe but only a few weeks ago, on the 13th September 2008, forty people died when six bombs exploded at various location in Connaught Place. It was probably in the back of our minds when we decided to make a our way back to the hotel before it got dark.

The quickest route would have been straight down the middle of the central park but unfortunately when we got to the gates we found them locked. It was becoming a recurring theme of the day! The park is always shut on a Monday.

We amused ourselves for a while reading the park rules. The usual no plucking of flowers, no plastic bags, no loudspeakers were all present. The most reassuring was "NO SHOOTING" but the most surprising was "NO CRICKET" !! And if you had any complaints you should go to the central complaint room!

We walked back at a quite a pace. We were trying to shake off a stray dog that had a horrific open wound down its back. It was a disgusting nauseating weeping gash yet I couldn't help looking at it!? Thankfully the dog no interest in us, we were just walking in the same direction. We were glad to see it cross the road.

After getting slightly confused which spoke to take out of the centre we eventually found Barakhamba Road. On the corner where the young girl was still cartwheeling we met Rob & Carol going in the opposite direction. We didn't stop to chat, we were being followed by another stray dog!

Back in the hotel we returned to our room for a siesta. I began to read the Limca Book of Records but my laughing was keeping Julie awake! I'd only opened one page to read India's fastest clapper, India's fastest paper plane maker and the funniest, the one that had me snorting was India's fastest sock dresser. He managed to put on 57 acrylic socks on his left foot within two minutes. What a record !

At 7:30pm we had a meeting in the lobby with our tour manager Sancheev. He explained he would usually accompany a tour but because there was only four of us in the group he would not be travelling with us.

He handed over all the travel vouchers we would need for our accommodation and daily tours. All we needed to do was to keep them safe and hand them over to the Kuoni rep at each destination.

We agreed that Rob should shoulder the responsibility but that was before we knew he had lost his sunglasses today! (I don't think he ever got them back.)

We had reserved a table at the Baluchi restaurant again this evening and when we walked in the manager greeted us, "Same table sir?"

Julie had the Baluchi Rattan which were jumbo prawns marinated in carom seed and spiced yogurt, with Heeng Dhaniye Ke Aloo, baby new potatoes with coriander seeds crushed red chillies and mint leaves. I had a Dal Paranthi, a yellow lentil dal, and Koftas-E-Lazzat, spinach and mushroom dumplings in a saffron gravy.

Everything was very tasy but whilst the high standard was not in doubt it didn't quite reach the same heavenly heights as last night's flavours.

The naan bread was worth mentioning as they were much thinner than what we would usually get back home. It certainly made for easier scooping of the dal!

Rob & Carol came in for a meal a bit later. We hoped that their meal was good especially as we highly recommended the restaurant to them today.

We left the restaurant and thought about having a drink in the trendy neon lit 24/7 bar but found it to be soulless, cold and expensive so we returned to our room for a cup of peppermint tea each.

We needed an early night, we were flying to Varanasi tomorrow.
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