Incredible India

When I was working in Singapore and getting all my news from BBC World there was an advertisement that kept playing over and over with an infuriating earworm of a jingle that went “Indiaaaaaa Incredible India.”

Two years later I eventually went to India, and I admit that there was some substance to that memorable little statement: India is like nowhere else. All the clichés about it being an assault on the sense, an explosion of colours and smells and the overwhelming noise that comes with a population of over a billion, are true. I loved it.

We landed at Mumbai airport after an uncomfortable night flight and were hit with a wave of heat – it was 42 degrees, a wet, clingy heat, and your clothes stuck to you the minute you got outside. In the baggage hall mosquitoes whizzed around emitting their ominous whine.

Outside, before getting into a taxi, my colleague was understandably keen to confirm that it was equipped with air conditioning.

“Does it have air conditioning?
“Yes, yes, yes, very good,” beamed the amiable taxi driver, rotating his head in that way that is neither a nod nor a shake.

“In the taxi?” she persisted. “Does it work?”

“Ah, yes, yes, very good air conditioning.”

We pulled out of the airport into what looked like a land in a permanent state of unfinishedness, populated entirely by skinny construction workers with no shirts on.

“Can we have the aircon on?” my colleague demanded, slightly agitatedly.

“Ah yes, yes, very good,” came the stock reply from our grinning driver, the air-conditioning, unsurprisingly, unforthcoming.

“It’s REALLY hot in here! We REALLY need the air conditioning on!” my companion practically screamed.

“Ah yes, very good, natural air conditioning. You just open the window.”

There’s something about Mumbai that I can’t put my finger on. It’s a city on contradictions: dazzling wealth sits side by side with grinding poverty, yet an open, almost innocent friendliness pervades it. On my first day a family approached me and wanted their children to have their picture taken with me. My London cynicism assumed they were trying to rob me and kept a tight hold on my bag, but the children posed with serious expressions. “When they are grown up we would like them to study in England”, their father told me. Presumably seeing this new tourist attraction, other people came up for photos too. I worried that perhaps they had mistaken me for someone famous, but I eventually I surrendered my own camera so I could have some keepsakes for myself. Sure enough they did not steal it, and I still have several shots of me with these fleeting Indian companions. Walking home at night I was struck by the vast contrast between rich and poor – my work had put me up at the Four Seasons, and walking back from a restaurant that night took me down a road lined with tents and makeshift shacks, all tarpaulin and corrugated iron open to the pavement for any passer-by to see. A cacophony of noise filled the air from every corner of this impromptu settlement – people were washing, cooking on little camping stoves, someone had a ghetto blaster that was blaring out bhangra music. Young men sat glued to their mobile phones and a little girl in a flowing sari was dancing for admiring relatives. Aware of a mixture of guilt and intrigue I hurried on, to cries of “where are you from? What are you doing here?” and even “you want some food? Come! Say hello!” Once again I felt the warmth of this alien culture and the openness and curiosity of its people. Returning to my grand but somewhat faceless hotel, my belongings still intact, I was wracked with a mixture of feelings – sadness, perhaps, at poverty which was on a whole new scale for me, coupled with a realisation that these people were not merely managing to exist, but to really live.

The news of the terrible attack and murder of the young female student on a bus in Delhi not look after I left shocked me. Although Delhi did not grip me in the way that Mumbai did (the old city was overcrowded and a little desperate, the new city as imposing and anonymous as any administrative capital) I nonetheless was taken with how incredibly safe I felt during my time in India, and in particular in Mumbai. Perhaps naively, I wandered around alone, unhindered and largely unbothered, save for the occasional catcall and the usual hassling from tuk-tuk drivers vying for customers (but you get that from cab drivers in any city.) In Delhi, a Mr Singh drove me in his taxi to Humayan’s Tomb, waited outside for me for 40 minutes with all my belongings in the back of his car while I explored, then drove me out to the airport, all for £6. Everywhere I met I found friendliness and inquisitiveness and generosity. I got the feeling that, had I been unfortunate enough to have anything happen to me, there would be a hundred other people around to offer assistance. I’m perhaps far too trusting, but I will need to go back again to be proved wrong. And I do indeed intend to go back one day, though I fear that if I do I may never leave.

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I pose with a family in Mumbai
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A Very Private Museum Tour

Our trip through Eastern Europe seemed to be marked by trips to museums where we were the only visitors. This was a new experience to me. In Bucharest, we arrived at the huge City Museum in a downpour a few minutes before it opened. Unlocking the door, the attendant surveyed us with confusion and asked if he could help, and seemed pleasantly surprised when we mumbled something about wanting to come in and see the museum. Even though it had opened on time, the museum obviously wasn’t ready for visitors. A small, older lady of the Mrs Doyle variety was energetically vacuuming and was not about to let tourists get in the way of this task. The result was my friend tipping over the wire, followed by the woman persistently hitting my husband’s feet with her Dyson until he moved. This was followed by the strange realisation, once she turned the vacuum off, that, as we read soberly about the destruction caused to the country during Ceaucescu’s reign, the theme tune to Dallas was being broadcast loudly through the speakers.

A few days later we visited the city of Veliko Tarnovo. Formerly the country’s capital, it was nevertheless clearly not at its best in March. Imagine a Bulgarian finding himself in Blackpool off-season: I think we probably felt like that. The city’s art museum looked interesting and was highly recommend in our guidebook, so we diligently trotted there one afternoon. A sign stated it was open, but everything else about it indicated otherwise – it was dark, the door was locked, and there was no evidence of any other visitors. Gingerly, we rang the small bell on the door, which emitted a buzz that could probably be heard on the other side of the valley. We were about to turn and go when a light came on inside, and we could hear footsteps getting gradually closer. Laboriously, an old lady (east European museums evidently being largely staffed by old ladies) undid a bolt, then another at the top of the door, another at the bottom, and eventually unlocked the door with an enormous key that looked like a stage prop. She spoke to us first in Bulgarian, and we guilty replied that we were English, so she demanded to know what we wanted. She looked doubtful and irritated when we apologetically replied that, if possible, we’d like to see the art, and ushered us in quickly as though she didn’t want anyone to see us. Once inside, she methodically did up each bolt again so that we were decidedly locked in the building, then pointed us in the direction we should go. She followed us into each room, turning the lights on as we went in, and off again as we went out. We didn’t see anybody else at all while we were there.

Our finest experience, though, occurred at the Tsaravets fortress. Once again we found ourselves alone, this time in hail. Every now and then a disembodied voice boomed out of a hidden speaker relating information in Bulgarian at the wet, empty ruins. Just one announcement was given in English – the safety announcement. It was made in a monotonal, distinctly northern accent, slow and deliberate: “Be careful when walking around the fort. The ground is uneven. Take extra care when approaching the Cliff of Death.” We can only assume it was called the Cliff of Death for a good reason.

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Tsaravets Fortress, deserted