Rush hour in Delhi, and the compression of simmering traffic, heat and smog bubble over in the inner city melting pot. I find myself completely alone in this urban metropolis sprawl, on my first trip to North India. Friends have left after our exasperating 3-week budget tour, and a friend is en-route for the coming 3 weeks of nothing but palace hotels, pampering &ultra-luxury.
The thought of being alone in this urban cultural cluster is slightly terrifying yet inside I feel childlike butterflies of liberation.
I’ve thus far installed myself within the comforting confines of my luxurious suite at the Leela Palace Kempinski, to catch up on rest and self-indulgence, after an exhausting whistle-stop tour through the Himalayas &Punjab. With cool gadgets such as Ipod control to everything from the TV to butler service, and with mirror TV screens built into the bathtubs, I haven’t needed to leave.
Heading into breakfast, my taste buds throw a party at the sight of a lavish spread. The dining ‘event’ is held in an opulent yet contemporary grand room with the ultimate luxury (as in most burgeoning overburdened world cities) of Space. Natural light pours in, flooding it with vibrancy and opening up to a lush landscaped garden. Inside, the decor is stylish with chic black leather settees and fresh accents of blush orange roses. I have to pinch myself remembering that I am in Delhi, not Milan.
‘Bircher muesli minus the rice, poached eggs with grilled tomato, fresh lemongrass &ginger tea & fresh watermelon papaya juice,’ my order is specific. After my initial experience of North India, they don’t stand a chance of getting it right, surely. Observing is a favourite pastime; I people-watch whilst waiting, savouring the ambiance of this new place. One power couple glide past like royalty; her coiffed curls perfectly accented by a shimmering green saree and gold heels which sparkle as she sashays down her catwalk to a table, elegantly draped on her partner’s arm. Added to the mix are some smart-casual tourists and a few rarities totally relaxed in shorts and tees.
I’m shaken out of my train of thought by a devastatingly handsome man in a suit. The restaurant manager asks if I need a newspaper, clearly spotting my gormless staring into thin air. I explain that I like to observe, which sparks conversation. It’s so refreshing to clear the palate of my Indian memories thus far, conversing with a most charming, charismatic and courteous man. In fact, the Leela is a girl’s Indian fantasy. Generous doses of handsome men are peppered throughout the ranks. Previously, as I entered the beautifully-appointed spa& gym, I was greeted by a model line-up of gorgeous hunks in fitted T-shirts. Certainly one way to put a smile on a girl’s face when she happens to be flying solo! What’s more, they’re extremely willing to be of assistance; certainly a welcome distraction when you’re trying to work out. Well…it’s the small things.
Back to Breakfast, I watch a highly-skilled team of ultra-efficient staff deliver exceptional service, making guests feel pampered in safe surroundings; the latter featuring prominently on my pre-requisites. My breakfast arrives to my exact specification, leaving me delighted with the Leela’s ease of speed& service.
It’s light years away from my first few weeks in India, on a modest budget via an Indian travel agency, which lives up to unfortunate foreign clichés. Fidelity to fact being my priority, lofty promises translate, on the ground, as sub-standard service& poor organisation. The driver had never driven the route before, couldn’t read so had no sense of direction and didn’t like asking for help! TO make matters worse, his ego would be bruised each time I would ask in my broken Hindi / Gujarati for help. His defining moment was getting us lost in the think of the terrifying Himalayas, off-roading up and down and round and round massive mountains, on rubble surfaces the width of the car, just!
After a particularly life-threatening wrong-turn in the midst of the Himalayas, his wheel got punctured – probably because there was no road to drive on and only rubble rocky pathway. But he hadn’t bothered to fix his spare tyre, which was also punctured. So here we are stuck, in a ‘village’ with not a soul in sight, just hours from sundown. Eventually, after we advised to get help, he left us at the grace of some villagers, in a mountain village called Kheri with a population of around 20, he returning 3 hours later with a partially patched up tyre. They say these moments are sent to try us and define our character. Well those few hours with no mobile signal, no contact with the outside world and in total isolation confounded the warnings I’d received before heading out to India, unfortunately! This was a new experience to me, one that left us panic-stricken, utterly vulnerable and helpless.
In hindsight, I weigh up the bittersweet offering of indelible sights with disappointing service. But such are the niggling details of India that are well-documented.
It all pales in significance to the startling sights& special moments in this incomparably vast and varied sub-continent. Having turned travel from a passion into full-time obsession, I’m blessed to have explored the most remote &undisturbed parts of the world. But the temples, turrets and towers; peacocks, princesses and palaces and remoteness, spirituality and uniqueness of North India leave me simply spellbound.
- Rajasthan, India: Out of season, and on a roll (telegraph.co.uk)