Yves in India Blog: Day 1

2008-10-13 00:00

Saturday. It's 1am your time, 3am here. Here's Dubai airport. I didn't realise for some reason of inattention that I'd be travelling through the night and arriving in Delhi only at about 9.15am. Everyone here's asleep by the looks of it; men and women dressed as if for Mecca herringboned together on the floor for miles (it is miles between terminals) waiting for their flights.

Coming into Dubai at midnight was magic: at first a ribbon of amber appears out of nowhere in the invisible sands below. As we get closer it cuts across another glittering highway, and then eventually a Christmas tree of lights pops up (only regular, in city blocks) as Dubai announces itself below. A flashing beacon turns out to be the tip of the world's tallest building, whose name I forget. We loop out to sea for no apparent reason, except we passengers agree that he's doing it to show off the city for a bit longer, before finally touching down.

My eyes are scratchy but I can't sleep. There'll be time sometime. Flying Business Class is a thrill. We're being treated by the Indian government (so thanks Mr Shringla; he's the Indian consul-general in Durban): that's four South African, and four Brazilian journalists, invited to attend an editors' conference attached to the India-Brazil-South Africa summit in Delhi. I love the legroom, I love a chair that massages me, I love being whisked past the queues I'm more accustomed to getting snarled up in, and I love the option of having fillet for lunch, although this time I stick with a Mediterranean mezze so I don't bloat. But it's surreal too. We took off from Durban on the morning that the economic tsunami breached the Eastern economies, who had looked as though they'd be able to hunker down and ride this thing out. Cocooned in comfort, none of this could be happening.

I get talking to my neighbour, who I have to make contact with by peering over the privacy screen that's up between our seats. I suppose he put it up for a reason. He trains butlers for a living. What do you call the thing that a butler does, I ask. "Butlering," he says. Or "butling", both are acceptable. So hotels, of the boutique kind, use his services to train their staff, as do wealthy individuals. How do you find candidates shape up in South Africa? Well, they have the most wonderful, open smile, he says. In other words, not the hospitality smile you get from people who'd as soon slip some cyanide in your gin. And what makes a good butler, I wonder. Someone who enjoys service, who knows what you need and anticipates what you might want.

9.15. There's the chauffeur with my nameboard. They've spelt my name right. How's that for a first. Crisp in white, with gloves and all, Pritan Chand drives me to the Hotel Oberoi (Mr Shringla, that first word of thanks is nothing compared to the thanks that welled up as we came up the drive and I spilled out into the welcoming embrace of a squadron of staff who must all have been on that butling thing.) Then I catch myself: where was India on that little drive? It was orderly, the road was more or less clear bar some roadworks connected to the Metro that's being put through town for a 2010 launch (some 2010 hype here too!). Where was William Dalrymple's City of Djinns? I didn't come all this way not to see India. Is that a recidivist expectation? After all, we're all globalised now. Tata's invaded our roads and ACSA runs Mumbai airport. I'll have to go looking for it, and I know it won't be far, but first quick workout in the gym to uncrease from the trip, and lunch. Indian, of course. Well no sir, sorry sir.

There's Italian, international and Chinese, oh and a bar if you prefer something liquid. Okay, Chinese it is then (maybe finding India is going to take some work). Anand Shekhawad, my waiter, is a dream. His father is Director of Forestry at Ranthamboor reserve in Rajistan. He's been looking after Royal Indian tigers, and nursed their population up from six to 65 by fending off Chinese poachers. Or so says his proud son, who recommends crisp lotus leaves fried in honey and lemon to start. OMG, who needs Indian cuisine? Braised chicken in black bean sauce with chicken rice to follow. Okay, enough Chinese. A strong mug of coffee to go, because it's now been over 30 hours without sleep and I've got to venture forth. Normally I'd walk, but the distances between the places I want to see are vast and my legs just will not make it. Enter Sucha Singh, cabdriver, in his green and yellow chariot, a 2002 Ambassador Classic. Classic! We agree on a rate: 800 rupees for the afternoon, and that could be anything between four and six hours. Less than R150. How's that even worth it? But it's a good deal, especially since I'd been warned that the three-wheeler Tuk-Tuks aren't a good idea when I was ready to risk them.

We hit the road, and … welcome to India. The traffic is … something that needs to be explained. The road we traveled has three lanes, but vehicles of various descriptions turn it into more of a seven-lane highway: three cars, a bus, two Tuk-Tuks and a bicycle or a rickshaw or a horse all abreast, and every now and then an accommodation has to be made for wrong-way traffic. A commotion up front and dread grips me, but all it is is cars veering to avoid an elephant crossing the road. No one has a rearview mirror, everyone hoots to make the vuvuzelas at a Pirates-Chiefs match sound strangled. And it works in the most magical way. I'm looking for metaphors and I think I've found one. The financial crisis has shown us that we've been in the grip of an oversold, unexamined dogma about the markets. The Way has now been found to have taken us over a cliff. India's taken a more balanced view of how to feed the market and prevent devastation in the countryside. Set a course, by all means, is how I understand it, but there will be many detours. Is it the influence of Hinduism, and its tendency towards openness and accommodation that have enabled this "Third Way" of the developing world? The roads of Delhi have direction and are pumping with energy in freeflow. But they're not as chaotic as may seem at first sight. Cars move aside at the critical moment to allow another through, or to prevent a collision.

In spite of all the hooting, which serves no cautionary purpose beyond creating background noise, in six hours I saw no raised fists or voices, no instances of road rage. It's the way it is. Everyone has a place, and everyone hussles for it. I'll chew on it some more as I become more abreast of issues, but that's a first impression. All the TukTuks have "Keep Distance" on the back, but already I know that it's neither an instruction or an expectation. It just draws a line so everyone knows where it is so they can ignore it to work the system as best they can. And in between, Mr Singh the cabman has taken me to a string of tourist sights from the Red Fort to the Gandhi Smriti (his place of martyrdom), to what feels like every "Emporium" in town. Do you get a commission, I ask. No commissions in Delhi, he replies. Maybe a little thank you at the next religious festival, but no commissions. No.

Tomorrow (Sunday): Agra. But after 40 hours on the trot (well maybe swanning in Business Class isn't exactly on the trot) it's sleep first.

As an example, see the organised chaos of how traffic flows in India:


Read the Yves's blog: Day 2



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