In his book Delirious Delhi, Dave Prager describes India as a pantomime. Oh yes he does. (Apologies – too easy.)
He is spot on. And, having been armed with that thought, we find it a good way to cope with the everyday challenges of getting through another day in India.
It’s a game and you have to play along… the bartering and negotiating for just about anything, the fact that they won’t have what you want on the menu, the chaos and noise on the roads, everyone jostling for an extra inch of space, the well-off Indians who are on holiday coming up and asking ‘One selfie please, Ma’am?’…
No more was the farce evident than in our recent hotel. OYO is a brand of budget-range hotels throughout India, with the emphasis very much on the word budget. We have had the misfortune to stay in one or two recently.
The email confirming your booking stresses that you will most certainly be given the 100% OYO experience on arrival. Oh yes, we did. Regrettably.
Here are some examples:
Hotel 1, day 1: We asked at 7.45 am where we could get breakfast. The reply was that it was all room service, from 8.30. Ok, so we ordered what we wanted, thinking it would be ready for 8.30. We went to a nearby hotel to use their wifi as there was none (none!) in our hotel. We first had to wake the man who was sleeping in the reception area, just behind the desk. We returned to our hotel at 8.30. We noticed the chef trotting off to his domain and eventually we got food at 9 am. All that for a boiled egg and toast.
Day 2: We ordered boiled eggs and toast at 8 am. While we waited, we read books and fed the monkey outside. At 9.15 breakfast was delivered with a flourish: A stale tomato and cucumber sandwich.
Hotel 2, Day 1: Breakfast was a bit farcical, trying to order coffee, tea, fried eggs (got 2 orders of eggs instead of one, four slices of toast, not one). The tea/coffee is particularly complicated because we ask for it with no sugar and separate milk (furrowed brows every time). The young man in a black suit tries so hard, bless him, but he really is like a young Indian Basil Fawlty apprentice, right down to the moustache.
At the third hotel, the main man (let’s call him Nosey-ji) came over to see what we were doing in the restaurant. When I say restaurant, it is a room with bare white walls, apart from the large black patches of damp. A hole has formed in the ceiling where there has been a leak but there seems to be no sign of repair. Water is still dripping down one wall.
Apart from the lovely decor, there were some tables and chairs.
So Nosey-ji mosies on over and does something that David absolutely hates. He lurks right behind him and stares at David’s iPad screen to see what he is doing. He doesn’t pass comment or talk further. Just stares.
He’s behind you….
I have noticed that David’s sarcasm has been coming to the fore recently, and he has decided to meet like with like. So he just looks at him and says ‘Yes? Can I help you?’
Nosey-ji’s English isn’t good enough to keep talking so off he goes. Proof of the communication challenge is when I say we will be leaving at 4 am to catch a train. I have two questions. Will the front doors be open? And can we get a tuk-tuk round here at that time of the morning?
‘Train. No problem. Check out.’
I repeat my questions.
‘Will the front door be open? Can we get out?’
‘Tuk-tuk. Station. No problem.’
And so it goes on. Sometimes it gets quite surreal and we start talking so sarcastically that you really do hope they don’t understand how rude you have just been. But you do it for your own amusement, otherwise we would be tearing our hair out.
All these hotel workers seem to sleep in the reception area, in the same clothes they were wearing today, tomorrow and the next day.
Anyway, that same evening Nosey-ji talks to me and confirms when we will check out. Yes, yes, tonight.
Tip, he says.
Tip. I finish at 11 pm and start at 7 am (the inference being… so you might not see me again). Tip.
Hmmm, well let me see.
You know what? I’ll tell you my tip for you. I have a few actually, seeing as you asked, so here we go. Tips are discretionary, for good service. All you have done is your job. And not a very good one. You have not gone above and beyond any measurable measure of service. You are surly, slimy, and truth be told we don’t actually like you. You stand there in your scruffy trousers, grey shirt and woolly tank-top, but you haven’t helped us once. Your rubbish budget OYO hotel has had shite wifi which we cannot get in our room but we can occasionally get in this awful space you call a restaurant and you haven’t attempted to stop that leak down the wall, and you don’t even give us a small bottle of complimentary water each day, and the other day when we asked if we could have cornflakes instead of some ‘idli-shit’ or instead of ‘butter-toast’ you said no. No! Well, we could but not if we wanted the free tea and coffee as well. EVEN THOUGH CORNFLAKES IS THE SAME PRICE ON THE MENU AS BUTTER-TOAST and we had that with tea and coffee the day before. And by the way, your butter tastes horrible. And when we asked for toilet paper, you gave us a packet of hotel-branded napkins. And your shower is rubbish. We let it run for 15 minutes to see if it will warm up. It doesn’t get beyond tepid. And you put us in a room on the road-side of the hotel, next to not one road but two, one of which is a major highway. And the traffic honks all day and the fumes in our room, where there is single glazing and loose windows, MUST BE EFFING KILLING US. And have I mentioned that you woke me up the other morning when you phoned our room and said something in Hindi? I mean, it’s not like there are any other white people in your hotel right now, and you got the wrong number, without so much as an apology. Or maybe you were just being evil and winding us up? And by the way, our door handle is falling off. And when I washed my socks and left them to dry on the windowsill, in the morning they were covered – COVERED! – in little reddish-brown ants. And Sir – SIR – it is very rude to stand behind someone and stare at their screen. And you have the AUDACITY to ask for a tip.
Ah, all those things I wish I had said. I looked in my purse, there was no way I was giving him a 500-rupee note (just over a fiver). I didn’t have less. And while I looked, I decided. No, I am not giving a tip. I played the ‘I don’t have money / I am not sure what you are asking for’ card. He went away, to sit around for a bit, and when he came back to lurk again, I just ignored him.
Tip, my arse.
Crazy old Delhi
What most tourists do when they arrive on package tours in Delhi is get taken to Jama Masjid and from there ushered into a cycle rickshaw for an exciting ride through the crazy, bustling, colourful, potholed streets of Old Delhi. For anyone’s first experience of India, it is exhilarating indeed.
We did that a few years ago, but we have always wanted to explore Old Delhi at our own pace, and of course after three months of being in India we find it an easy thing to do. Just walk like it’s not your first time, let yourself get lost down alleys, sometimes ask the general direction of a main landmark, and say Namaste to street sellers and school children.
We decided to book two different tours to learn a bit more about the city, one cycling, one walking, both of them brilliant and enlightening and eye-opening.
DelhiByCycle took us on the cycling tour and afterwards we walked through some more crazy lanes before finding the first brand-name air-conditioned (not gonna get sick now) restaurant for a coffee.
I sat and stared out the window and felt like crying. I am not sure why India got to me after all this time. It is all I love about the place and all I hate. It is challenging on every level, physical, mental, emotional. Old Delhi is surely at the heart of the India that many tourists come for.
But this day it took me too far. One of the reasons for sure will be the animals.
First thing in the morning, we cycled through a street which is where they slaughter animals. I tried not to look but managed to glimpse one skip-load of heads and one skip-load of trotters. By 9 am, we were told, all the butchering will have been done and the meat will have been sent out for sale. All that will remain are red puddles at the side of the road. It was true. We were able to go down the same road later, the shutters were down. You would never know that you were in such a murderous place.
A little further along, a child as young as six, sitting at the side of the road, slitting livers. I thought he was doing it carelessly until I realised that he was holding his sharp knife between his toes, and then tossing the meat into a bowl.
Further on, a man holding a small length of rope attached to a plump goat. You can only assume that it is the goat’s last day and he is destined for the market.
Another goat at the side of the road, on a chain, somewhat startled by all the noise but briefly calmed by our words and touch on her nose and ears. I can only hope she is kept for milk.
Onwards through the lanes, and we have seen enough chickens in cages already. I have also seen men picking up live chickens by the feet and transferring them from van to shop cage. There is no dignified way to pick up a chicken at times like this and luckily the man shows no extra brutality – but it is distressing enough as it is.
Suddenly to my left, I catch sight of a vendor holding up a chicken and he has his hands around its neck. I look away just in time, and put my hand up to my ear so I don’t hear anything that will stop me sleeping at night. I actually speak out loud without thinking. ‘Oh no, not in front of me. God. This place.’
No one else in the street could care less. It’s just another good meal for someone.
Jains – they seem to be a nice religion, very loving of all living things, though they seem to take it too far sometimes. There are people in the city who are naked – they will not even wear clothes for fear of having harmed a creature.
We visit the main Jain temple. Behind it is a charitably run bird hospital where we see this sign: ‘Birds are our friends: Do not hunt them for your food, amusement and pleasure. Safety and security of our living creatures and environment is our topmost religion.’
If only everyone in India could be Jain. What a different world we might live in.
What else has got to me, I wonder. Well, if it’s not animals, it’s humans. What on earth is India going to do about its over-population?
The worst deformities, beggars, men traipsing past with their uncombed hair matted with dust, with literally just the shirt on their back, trousers which have no crotch any more, clothes which are no more than rags, and shoes which someone else would have thrown away 30 years ago.
Early in the morning we see hundreds of men sitting on the kerbside waiting for a free meal from the temple. The Sikhs serve 10,000 every day. Later, we see the scene when the food is ready, and the crowd surges forward and there is no space between each man as they get what is perhaps their only meal of the day.
Which is all why, when it comes to the pantomime that is bartering for your tuk-tuk ride, even I have mellowed. I rarely get 50 rupees off the price these days, because at the end of the day, you realise that what you are paying for a fare is peanuts. You know that you are being asked for probably ten times the locals’ rate just because of the colour of your skin, but, in reality, a couple of quid for a relatively long journey, certainly one you didn’t want to walk in the heat and pollution, is actually not bad value.
We have read that the average tuk-tuk driver makes 400 rupees per day. Even in India, that really doesn’t go far.
The day after the cycle tour we go on a walking tour with Street Connections. It’s really the best way to get to places you wouldn’t normally see, and to hear more about life in the city.
Our guide was once a street child himself. His mother died when he was two months old, his father died when he was five. Although he and his older sister were taken in by a neighbour, they weren’t treated well so he ran away. He ended up in Delhi.
He teamed up with another kid and started rag picking but he also got into drugs and petty theft. When caught by the police he was given two options – go back to your home town or go to the Salaam Balaak Trust shelter.
He did the latter. Although he found it tough, he was delighted to be getting three decent meals a day. He was also going to be educated.
He took us through the lanes of Old Delhi, past weird and wonderful sights, havelis and temples, trees growing across alleyways, cheeky monkeys crossing the wires above us. We were shown a factory where a dozen men were busy at sewing machines. The boss was around and although on the surface he seemed pleasant enough I got the feeling that no one wanted to look up from their work.
They are paid 300 rupees a day. And they have to work a 12-hour day with just a half-hour lunch break.
I wonder how they afford to send money home after paying for food and rent – in most cases their families are in rural villages. They rent a room and then find a few other people to share with to reduce costs to the very minimum.
At least they have a job.
The work in Old Delhi is so physical, men pulling and pushing overloaded barrows, cycle rickshaws, great packages on their heads. I notice that with most of the men, their eyes have glazed over. We wonder what mental and physical health issues there are.
Today we sat in traffic and thought that maybe one day the traffic will become so gridlocked it will just never move again! It was a mass of pedestrians, tuk-tuks, electric rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, overloaded barrows, oxen and dogs. Only the dogs were not contributing to the jam.
Oh yes, we have loved India. It gets under your skin in so many ways (and the pollution up your nose). And the great thing is that if India is a pantomime, David tells me I make a very good Widow Twankey.