10TH 28TH FEBRUARY – INDIAN ODYSSEY.

My oldest chum & I jetted out of England bound for New Delhi on a bleak snowy day. We held our breath that the plane would actually take off amidst swirling snow flakes with much snow having been already cleared from the runway. I’d booked club class but in all the years of travelling we were upgraded to first class and spent a comfortable night stretched out on BA’s finest sleeping pods.

I’d visited India 25 years previously and really had no strong desire to re-visit; remembering the poverty, the constant press of small children and other beggars tapping on our bus windows and the use of gutters for impromptu loo stops. I felt sorry for the diseased dogs that roamed everywhere, the cows that wandered around the streets (even the airport and I did not enjoy sights of people sleeping on pavements or mixing cow pats for heat and bulding materials. The luxury of the hotels compared with how some Indians live worried me but best friend had developed a deep passion for the county and it was time to indulge her before we both popped our clogs.

Most standard tours don’t combine north and south and I wanted the Taj, the Red Fort, the Ganges at Varanesi and then to do Kerala and Cochin in the south; an area I had not visited before & round of the trip with a few days at a beach resort. All this became possible with the help of Wexas Travel and their Indian agents, Creative Travel and we enjoyed a magnificent tour. We were promptly met at every stage, transported to excellent hotels and given knowledgeable guides to take us round the sites. We failed to shake off a persistent TucTuc driver who followed us when we tried to see the sites around Claridges in New Dehli on foot so we employed him but we saw what we wanted and even ended up in a première tea shop that apparently exported to the Queen’s favourite grocer.

Varanesi was the next stop with an evening holy ceremony performed on the bank of the Ganges with lots of clashing bells and bags full of marigolds being scattered on the shrines. A rain burst soon cleared as the ceremony got underway and finally we climbed back up the steep ghats to the narrow streets thronged with people of all nations but mostly Indians. Cremation on the river banks on sandalwood pyres is the best way and the prized way to leave this world. At dawn, we were on the river with our personal oarsman who took us past bathers and people washing themselves and clothes in this sacred river. We cast our burning candles set on a lotus flower onto the water in keeping with tradition as the sun rose slowly through a heavy haze and we stopped photographing when the burning areas with their pyres drifted by. Was it really 25 years ago when I watched a real cremation and recalled how the wood had ignited quickly sending out the fragrant smell of sandalwood and th. body was consumed in flames in sceonds. After leaving our boatman, our guide led us on a street walk thought this ancient town. I forgot I had breakfast buns in my bag that I had snaffled at at earlier breakfast. They would have been a welcome feast for a three legged dog that eyed us hopefully as we climbed up the steep steps from the river again. A mother and her three pups got them instead. Retail therapy next at a silk making shop where Chai (marsala tea) was served in tiny earthenware pots that are broken and new ones produced for the next brew.

Agra was the next port of call and we endured a 5 hr each way car ride with the most aggressive driver I’ve had the misfortune to meet. Use of the horn is endemic in India & without it, progress would be impossible as many junctions are just a free for all with the fittest & bravest surviving. Our man broke all records with constant hooting, hassling and taking on all in his way head on aggresively. We made good time on the return journey and well well in time to catch the next flight he still furiously honked a heavily laden horse drawn cart when the poor beast was doing its best to get out of the way. He then pursued another horse drawn wedding carriage with equal impatience where the beasts were forced to canter hard to get out of our way. I regret giving the man a good tip but in fairness we got to Agra and back again.

Time to fly south to Cochin ( Queen of the Arabian Sea), on a Ryan Air type flight where the only food to purchase on the 4& half hour flight was a non veg roll. All food is veg and non veg in India, non veg restaurants, all rolls are either veg or non veg too..

A Creative Travel man met us at the Kochi airport & we were driven in an Air Conditioned Toyota to our Cochin hotel by Jobin, a very pleasant less stressful driver than that Agra man. Jobin accompanied us for the next few days and having and car on call and personal driver was an unexpected treat. The following day Jobin took us round the sites which included those amazing ancient cantilevered fishing nets that were brought from the court of the Chinese ruler, Kublai Khan. A sunset boat trip took up one afternoon and the following evening we enjoyed watching a Kerala dance performance where training starts young and continues for a lifetime.

Jobin drove us through the Cardamom Hills region in the Western Ghats the next day where rubber plantations and tea bushes grew in profusion as we were bound for Periyar Wild Life sanctuary. The British had created this artificial lake in 1895 to supply water and sighting of rare wild animals, including the tiger was suggested. The sun was slowly rising as we found our seats on the top deck of a well populated boat. Creative Travel had made good reservations and somewhat impeded by fat life jackets, we glided along the waterways and were rewarded with kingfisher, samber, wild boar and a small elephant basking in a sunny glade in the forest. A guide took us to his spice garden in the afternoon, all spice, cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom and pepper where just some of the spices for which Kerala is famed. No visit to see local produce is complete without the retail therapy aspect. We were waltzed into a spice shop and had to buy having been shown the goodies in production. I was shocked at the cost and had to use plastic to pay the bill but there is no such thing as a free lunch. Back home, the India cookery book will be heavily consulted to make use of the new spices.

Our chauffeur drove us the 5 hrs. needed to reach Kumarakon deep in the watery areas of Kerala with its numerous waterways and canals. The Lemon Tree hotel was at the water’s edge of a huge lake across which plied house boats of various sizes and standards. Dawn found us in a bird sanctuary and the 50 step climb to the top of the hide was worth the effort to enjoy a Purple Heron roost, the biggest in the area. We said goodbye to the charming Jobin when he dropped off off at the house boat centre that was to provide us with an overnight stop on a new floating hotel.

Michael the captain and Thomas the cook showed us around and then we untied from a coconut tree and set off along the river, its banks thick with lush vegitation and homley domestic scenes of washing and bathing. It was ironic that the one time all meals were included that I developed a nasty bout of sickness and only wanted water and a lie down and friend later in the night suffered a horrid diarrhoea attack that grew worse as I grew better. The boat trip had to be curtailed and the captain rang for help. The ever efficient Creative Travel had a car waiting at a convenient mooring on the river’s edge and we set off to hospital to sort out friend’s medical condition.

The hospital was a poorly equipped clinic with big flowery curtains and ancient looking kit sitting on news paper. Friend was seen at once, injection given, a lie down for thirty minutes and then we left cluttering three brown paper bags with required medication needed to staunch the flow. The entire bill came to 250 Rs. That’s about £3.50 sterling. Her recovery was fast.

Our final destination was the beach side resort Kovalam where the Arabian Sea and the India Ocean met. Yet again, Creative had pulled out all the stops & were were given the best room in the place, convenient to the pool and all the facilities nor did we have to labour up and down the slope to the further flung chalets set in leafy grounds overlooking a wide sandy boat strewn beach. The poolside days were welcome and soon we were in the air again heading for Mumbai, from where we would fly back to the UK.

With hours to kill before the dawn flight, Creative Travel had arranged a sightseeing tour that took us to a huge outdoor laundry, the Victorian colonial architecture of the railway station and the Gate of India before were dropped off to enjoy gin in the fleshpots of the Taj Mahal hotel, owned by the Tata Group, whose business empire extends to Jaguar and Range Rover cars.

I just ordered double gins and ice as friend’s feet were swelling badly. One more gin to finish off round and the bill arrived!. 3600Rs. We had the money as Rs can’t be taken from the country: it was just a totally lavish end as a holiday treat. I compared the cost of the Bombay Saphires to the injection and the handful of drugs that friend’s medical treatment of 250Rs had incurred. Country of contrasts indeed!

No First class on offer on the return leg only Club but it should have entitled us to the shower and food in the first class lounge but that almost ended in tears. Friend had produced an invalid ticket unbeknown to me which did not allow her access but the BA hostess courteously agreed she would give us the concession to use the facilities nevertheless. I then produced the magical passport to our right to remain and all was resolved. However, we could have been thrown out and made to wait the 4 hours to flight time in less accommodating surroundings. On board we dozed the hours away by watching the new release, “Contagion”. Friend and I both chose non veg breakfast .

Shuttle left on time to Manchester and taxi was waiting to whisk us home. Thank goodness the weather was balmy as I realised that despite having the boiler serviced before I left, we had neither hot water nor heat. Coming back from 32ºC heat could have been a shock. I washed with saucepan of boiling water to present myself for the Council budget on 1st March and by the time I got back. British Gas had pulled out the stops, tracked down the parts and we had heat and water once more.

All that remains is to send Jobin photos we took of him and send a note to the Chair of BA asking him to thank for hostess for resolving the mix up over access to the first class lounge.

Back home, the temperature soon plummeted to 3% and I picked up my election pack from County Hall, which is on offer to all members. Back to earth with a bump!

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