Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Incredible India

Incredib!e India is the logo mark for the country’s tourism bureau. It is very apt. This really is an incredible place, and we have had an incredible time trying to arrange our travels around it.

Our trip to India was my birthday present to Sally. She has always wanted to come here, and see the Taj Mahal. While I had heard wonderful accounts from many of our Indian friends, and others including Richard and Carol Henriquez and the Seeligs, I had reservations. I was particularly concerned about being exposed to the infamous levels of poverty and human suffering. I was also not looking forward to walking along streets covered in urine and excrement.

At the same time, I have always been fascinated by old Indian architecture and the photos of wonderful pink stone buildings with ornate carvings. And more recently, I have been intrigued by accounts of the country’s growing financial significance, as described by Thomas Friedman in ‘The World is Flat’ and daily articles in the business pages.

Throughout our trip, we have generally enjoyed organizing our travels one or two days in advance. This way, if we like a place we can stay longer, and if we don’t we can leave. We have also preferred booking hotels, planes and trains ourselves, rather than leaving it to an agent. We have avoided packaged tours, preferring less organized travel. As a result, I was on the verge of booking a couple of nights in the Ashoka Hotel, when I started to have second thoughts.

My cautiousness was in part due to warnings from other travelers, and the rising temperatures in Delhi as reported by BBC World News. We therefore decided to approach some travel agencies to see if we could join a packaged tour. I emailed companies that I found on the Internet, as well as the Seeligs’ travel agent, and the government’s own tourism department. We received a few responses, but the best came from the government’s Incredib!e India Travel. . I went onto their website which was very well presented, with tours all over the country, and other information about the government’s Tourism Department. They put together an 11 day tour of Delhi, Rajasthan, Chandagarh (the model town designed by Le Corbusier) and two places up in the Himalayas where it would be cooler. We were given two quotes, depending on the standard of accommodation. They seemed reasonable, and we chose one based on the higher standard of accommodation. Before leaving Hong Kong, we wrote back saying we were interested, and wanted to proceed.

Upon arriving in Kuala Lampur, we went to the lounge and checked the email. There was no response. We decided to try and phone the agent on Skype and got through right away. He chuckled at our last minute planning but assured us he could arrange everything. At Sally’s urging, I sought clarification on his relationship with the government. “We are the government” he replied, and this gave us some comfort. He arranged to have a driver at the airport, and proposed a 4 star hotel for the first two nights near Connaught Place, which Sally had determined was the best area to be in. I printed off the itinerary, including the hotels and other details. Prior to leaving KL, we received another email confirming that the hotels were all booked, a car would be waiting, and I should make arrangements to pay them in US cash on arrival. My antennae went up. For some reason, I started to think about the art students in Beijing!

Upon arrival at Delhi Airport, (which will never win ‘airport of the year’), we found a large Incredib!e India Tourism office. I noticed that their website was .org; but I was sure I was dealing with .com. I showed a lady behind the desk our proposal. “That’s nothing to do with us”, she said. “That’s someone pretending to be us.”

What to do? I decided to go outside and discuss the situation with the person who was here to greet us. Sure enough, a good looking young man was standing amidst the hundreds of other greeters holding up a card with our name. His sign read “Voyageur Travel”. “You’re not from the government tourism office, are you?” I asked. He didn’t reply.

Eventually he sheepishly confirmed that he was not with Tourism India, but thought it best that I speak by cell phone with his boss. “Good Evening Mr. Geller. Welcome to India” said the smooth voice at the other end of the line. I repeated my accusation. “I never said we were the government’s tourism department” he said. “I said we work with the government.” I told him that he knew that wasn’t the case, and I would not be leaving with his driver. At this point he urged me to let him drive us into the city, and stay at the hotel for one night, since it was paid for. I would reimburse them for the cost and that would be the end of our relationship. Given the chaos, the heat, and a desire to do the honourable thing, I agreed.

We got into a tiny Ambassador, the Indian car that has been manufactured since the 50’s without any body style change, and set off for the city. We immediately disliked the driver, a somewhat rough and crude individual. He told us how much he was looking forward to driving us around his incredible country for the next 10 days! We knew we had made the right decision not to proceed with this company, although we weren’t quite sure what would happen next.

The drive in seemed like a mélange of so many other rides we had taken. It was a bit of Hanoi, Beijing and Vientiane, Again there were cars, scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians going in different directions. But what really surprised me were the animals. Cows and water buffalo were everywhere. And I mean everywhere; wandering along the streets, through the traffic, along the sidewalks. And then I saw a CAMEL!

The Connaught Hotel is one of the best hotels in London. The same does not hold true for Delhi’s version. Although classified as 4 star, it was filthy and most unattractive. The only thing that was impressive was the mustachioed doorman in full military regalia. The caps on the bottles of soda water in the old fridge were rusting. None of our electrical converters would fit their outlets. There was an awful smell in the room. This was not a good start to Incredib!e India.

1 comment:

vinesh said...

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