Friday, July 30, 2004

Seven Come Eleven

Now pay attention. This is the real deal. This is more useful than anything you’ll find in a Rough Planet or a Lonely Guide!!!

Getting around Delhi. Is a daunting task. Vehicles in order of size are buses, taxis, private cars, autorickshaws, ordinary rickshaws, motorbikes, scooters, and bicycles. And then there’s walking. Lesson # 1 is how to take the bus in Delhi.

My initial week in June, I didn’t have the guts. Too hard!!! All the buses had a million people on them, spilling out of every window, door, nook, cranny, orifice. They were noisy, wacky, wild, chaotic tin cans, careering through the streets at 50 mph. They reminded me of camellos, the buses in Havana with the big hump in the middle, which the locals endearingly call ‘Saturday Night Movies’ because they’re full of sex, violence, and madness!!! All human life is found there – perhaps too much! In Delhi the buses seemed to be the same.

When I returned, I consulted my oracle, Dr. Dilli, on how I should get to work. Now, I’m taking the bus. This causes much hilarity amongst my new colleagues who think it is amazing: "you take the bus?????" they say, with barely disguised bemusement. However, with a couple of minutes running across life-threatening traffic at either end, there is a bus that takes me direct from where I stay to where I work. But, of course, you know it’s not that simple. Commuting is usually a drag for most people. However, in Delhi, commuting is adventure…

Delhi Transport Corporation or DTC runs about 900 routes, some operated by private bus companies, some DTC. Public ones have a big yellow strip down the side, saying DTC. Except for the ones with the big yellow strip that are school buses – they generally say, “school buses”. Private ones will have a big turquoise strip down the side, and usually have the owner’s name, such as:

Bunty, Nawab Khan, GS Mahalwa, Raman, Jitender Beersingh/Gujjar Boy, Amit Yashtoka, Akash, Deep, Raman, Sofiye, Saini, Jor Bagh Deshwal, Mehl Awat, Taygi, Nikki, Sejwal, Bobby Nagar, Lord Jesus

Well, I guess the last probably doesn’t personally own it!!! At least there’s none of those damn fabricated brand names, such as ‘Arriva’!!!

The bus numbers are in roman numerals. All the destination information, on the sides of the buses, is in Hindi, except for English acronyms such as ‘INA’ and ‘CP’, two of the few I can mull out. The bus shelters – where they exist – have a sign saying where they are in Hindi and English. Mostly. Which is helpful, except when they say things such as ‘G-Block’; however, if you stand at a bus shelter, and don’t know where you are, you probably have even bigger problems than I have! Otherwise, doesn’t help a lot as I probably will eventually find out where I am – though you never know – but it’s where I want to be that’s the difficult one.

However, the language problem is not a big deal. The big problem is the information availability vacuum. There is no bus map. There are no route maps. There are no timetables. The buses seem to run to schedules, but may not. Signs that show which buses stop where are scarce. To be fair, the DTC has a page on its website where you can key in the bus number and get the bus route, which is great if you happen to have a wi-fi facility at your bus stop and your laptop fired up and ready.

There are, in some cases, no stops – you simply stand at the side of the street, normally where you see a number of others and a chaat wallah or a refrigerated cold water wallah, watch the buses come along, stand near your fellow passengers, and wave your arms frantically and yell when your bus is approaching.

OK. So, you wanna go somewhere, such as the Red Fort. Well, you have to ask an oracle, your own Dr. Dilli, which bus to catch, or watch the buses as they pass by your bus-stop-which-you-hope-is-a-stop and look them up on the DTC website at some quiet moment.

Are you still with me? OK, now getting on the bus – pay attention, this is very important!

Simple. You get off the bus at the front, get on at the back. There are no doors, just doorways. Walk towards the bus through the maze of bikes, cycles, autorickshaws, all travelling in different directions. The driver will slow down to allow you to board. Slow down, I said. The driver will usually not stop, and you have to quickly hoist yourself up a narrow step using the metal bars on both sides. Congratulations, you’re now on the bus – although you may not feel that’s much of an accomplishment in a minute.

The private buses travel at an incredible clip, switching and swirling around the roundabouts of New Delhi, so that they can outrace the DTC buses and grab more fares. They race between stops, bombing around each other, seriously burning rubber!!! So, as soon as you get on, try to lower your centre of gravity by finding a seat – women and disabled on the left, everyone else on the right. You might find someone carrying herbs to sell or whatever. Often you won’t be able to find a seat – in which case you stand, crammed in against other hot, sweaty bodies if the bus is crowded, as it usually is – there is no limit on numbers.

The seat not to get is the vertical one over the wheel. The reason is that, with the bus travelling so fast, you’re already banging from side to side, caroming off the walls, bumping into people, losing your balance, arse over tip, anyway, without needing a seat with nothing to hold on to!!!

There are two conductors on the bus. At each stop they yell out in this poetic, euphonic Hindi the stops and the destinations to the running crowds seeking to get on the moving bus – I can’t catch very many of these, other than “Nought Place! Nought Place!” (for Connaught Place). The one at the back collects your fare, and bangs the side of the bus or whacks it with coins to give signals to the driver. The one at the front bangs his hand on the clattery, rattletrap bus frame to give signals to the driver. The driver honks the horn, which lets loose this high-pitched whistle. Whack, bang, whistle - it’s very nutty, and very confusing.

The buses don’t appear to be in the best of conditions. In fact, many have the grille missing at the front, and a few panels and other odd parts. The driver sits in the cab, often with 3 or 4 mates sitting around with him, while’s he spinning the steering wheel from side to side. There may be wild Hindipop music playing, or the radio. Usually the driver has individually decorated their cab – with fishy mobiles, coloured spangles, keyrings with plastic flowers, swastikas, flaming decals, blotchy paintings, bright red hearts, etc. All part of the hexperience.

Getting off the Bus: get up well before your stop. Fight your way to the front – or the back, as people seem to break the rules all the time, because you might get wedged in a tiny corner by a 300 lb. mother and her daughters and can’t get out in time. You then shove other people out of the way towards the open doorway ready to jump off as the bus driver slows down at the bus-stop-that-you-hope-is-a-stop, which I have managed without mishap.

Until today. I was a little late and a trifle polite making my way to the front, so got there as someone was getting on, which they’re not supposed to do, and they push on past me, I mash their face with my knapsack as the bus roars away, and fall off the bus and crumple into a heap in front of four lanes of roaring cars, autorickshaws, and motorbikes, just outside an exit door cheerily labelled ‘Thank You’.

Other than a blotchy elbow, a scraped hand, and a bruised ego, I’m just fine, thanks.

Just as India has one more season than everywhere else in the world, so Delhi has 7 cities more than every other city. Now, of course, Troy had 11 cities, allegedly, and you could easily say that any city reveals its various layers, its various histories, in the same manner – if you peel back the skins of the onion that is London, for example, you will discover its other cities – Roman, pre-Great Fire, post-Great Fire. However, Delhi really has 8 distinct cities founded at one time in its history or another. They are:

Rai Pithora/Qutb, Siri, Tughluqabad, Jahanapanah, Ferozabad, Shergarh, Shahjahanabad, New Delhi

with the last built in 1937 by the British. The legend is that whoever builds a new city in Delhi is condemned to lose it – as the last holders of that title did in 1947.

So anyone travelling to Delhi has to be prepared to deal with its 8 cities – though modern development and lack of funds for archaeology mean that most of the cities have left little evident or prominent remains or archaeological sites.

At the same time, Delhi has a number of other layers – vertical layers, I guess, but that would imply that they intersect the 8, which they don’t, necessarily. The layers are cultural, religious, linguistic, old vs. new, class-based, economic, all mingling and overlapping with each other. It’s obvious that my 3 months here will only be able to give me a sense, an indication, a feel for the richness of life here, but any more will require a lifetime.

So weekends are important, and with a full weekend ahead of me (we work alternate Saturdays), I went out with a couple of my new work colleagues for half of Saturday and Sunday, and the rest of the time visited some monuments in South Delhi, Safdarjang’s Tomb on Saturday, and the Lodi Gardens on Sunday.

Both are from the Mughal period in Delhi. Safdarjang’s Tomb is, as the stone in front says, “the last flicker in the lamp of Mughal architecture in Delhi”. It was certainly the last enclosed garden tomb in the Islamic style, built in 1753 – 54 by the Nawab of Avadh in honour of his father (but remember to ask your autowallah for Safdarjang’s Madarsa, otherwise you could end up at Safdarjang’s Airport, which probably wasn’t built by the Nawab). In fact, it’s one of the last examples of Mughal architecture before the great empire collapsed. If you’ve seen the Taj Mahal, then this is very recognisably of the same style, but much reduced in scale, and not nearly of the same quality: William Dalrymple in his book on Delhi, City of Djinns, says that “the traditional Delhi quarries near Agra were no longer controlled by the Mughals – the road between Delhi and Agra was usually blocked by wild and hostile Jat tribesmen – [so] the builders were forced to strip other Delhi tombs in order to gather the material for Safdarjang’s memorial."

Instead of aiming at the balanced perfection of the Taj, the Tomb seems to be rococo, ornate, overdecorated. Dalrymple tells us that at the turn of the 18th century, Delhi had 2m people, and was the richest, most magnificient and populous city between Istanbul and Tokyo – but 50 years later, it was a city in ruins, the court given over to debauched pleasure and sensuality; music, poetry and the arts flourished while the empire was reduced to ashes.

From an earlier time date the tombs in the Lodi Gardens. The Gardens themselves were only laid out in 1936 around the tombs of the Lodi and Sayyid sultans who ruled north India in the 15th and 16th centuries. They include the tomb of Mohammed Shah, the Bara Gumbad and Mashid, and Sheesh Gumbad, the tomb of Sikander Lodi (see the Indian Summer collection for two more pictures of the Lodi Gardens). Mohammed Shah’s tomb was built in 1444, Sikander Lodi’s in 1517. The battlements for the Lodi tomb still survive, which makes it the more interesting of the buildings. The Bara Gumbad would have been a tomb as well, probably of an important person in the Lodi period, but the grave no longer exists and their name is not known.
The tombs were built in two shapes in this period: square (like the two Gumbads) and octagonal (like the Shah and Lodi tombs). The square ones both have the appearance of being double-storied. The Shish Gumbad combines features of Hindu and Islamic architecture, and originally was faced with friezes of blue enamelled tiles, which gave it its name, “dome of glass”. Most of the tombs would have had tiles, which had long since been stripped off. The Lodi Gardens are a favourite place to go for a walk in Delhi, calm and peaceful, and attract VIPs, diplomats, young lovers, joggers, cricketers, society types, and even elderly gents who exercise their lungs with mirth (and formed the country’s first Laughter Club – really! – in the Gardens). And mynah birds, green parrots, and…eunuchs. Yes, the garden has some resident eunuchs who traditionally have the power to put a curse on whomever they wish - one reason why many are employed by India's cheaper debt-collecting agencies to chase up their dues. In the Gardens the eunuchs collect Rs. 10 or 20 notes from couples, who are then exempted from their curses!

To have a look at Safdarjang’s Tomb (a madarsa was built there as well, hence the name confusion) and the Lodi Gardens (no eunuchs, though!), click here.

[Thanks to William Dalrymple and Edward Luce, the FT’s South Asia correspondent, for helping guide me around Safdarjang’s Tomb and the Lodi Gardens this week, and to The King of Swing for the title! ]

Friday, July 23, 2004

Monsoon Mystery

It may have seemed strange to return to India during the monsoon – I mean, why come at the rainiest time of the year? – but one morning at the beginning of July I returned to Delhi, this time during the daylight. A lot of flights arrive in the morning, and at that time the airport appears calmer, quieter, easier – less crowded than when flights arrive at night or, perhaps, everyone at dawn seems to need quiet. I was through immigration relatively quickly to my two waiting bags, and then out to Arrivals to meet my driver, who will be holding up my name on a plaque.

Except he’s not. There. I wonder if he is one of the recumbent figures scattered around the lounge, and so shuffle about with my trolley and 3 bags, a seedy, unshaven slob peering oddly at several half-asleep people. I give up after awhile and buy a prepaid taxi ticket to Green Park, then go outside to get the taxi and find…my driver, who will be holding up my name on a plaque. Never mind. I swap my prepaid taxi chitty for most of my money back, go off with my driver, and leave the resultant shooting war with the prepaid despatcher!

Arriving during the day, you see a lot more en route from the airport. We swept out of the airport roads, then proceeded through Vasant Kunj, a southern suburb, past dusty signs on empty fields proclaiming imminent shopping malls to come, through various streets, crossings, roads, down Nelson Mandela Marg, turning at the Outer Ring Marg (no longer in any sense now the Outer Ring), then up Aurobindo Marg to Green Park, all the while traversing busy roads rich with riots of signs, people, activity.

After checking in and unpacking, I went out on a mind-bending, bleary-eyed walk around the area, close to where I will be working come Monday, then went back to the hotel to rest. I then sat down to start this journal.

When I planned to come to India, a journal was high on my list of things to do. I had kept a diary of my travels around Europe over 2 decades ago and, despite it providing slim pickings for a bestseller, it was interesting to return to occasionally. This would be different, however. For one thing, I was in India for 3 months, then travelling for 2 months afterwards: a longer period, including a substantial time in one place. Secondly, I was putting this on the web as a blog, so sharing it with former colleagues, friends and family. A final factor was that in travelling around Europe, I was in essence discovering things for myself that were a part, however distant, of my own heritage. In India, I had chosen a place which was about as far from that as possible.

Simply, I had come to India to see the country and meet the people, and satisfy my need to do and see some different things. I also wanted to volunteer for a not-for-profit organisation, hence an attachment here to do some marketing work for a project dealing with street and working children. So I was inviting, expecting, and even welcoming, the cross-cultural exchanges and encounters that I would have, in the hope that I would emerge enriched and renewed. I will thus observe and report what I find with that viewpoint in mind, already gained from my brief encounters to date, through a prism of respect and affection for country and people.

Near to the hotel on the map was an enormous complex called the Hauz Khas, next to a Deer Park. I thought that a Sunday stroll would be a good way to acclimatise myself, so I set out early and found the park after a short, hot walk.

The Hauz Khas, or ‘Royal Tank’, started life in the 14th century, built by the Emperor Al Auddin Khalji for the second city of Delhi, Siri. It was originally known as the Hauz-I-Alai after its creator. It was essentially a reservoir. After it got silted up, it was repaired about 50 years later by the Emperor Firoz-Shah Tughlaq (1351-88). He expanded it by erecting buildings on the east and south sides, the entire complex becoming known as the Hauz Khas. These buildings gave the location a second function as a Muslim college or madarsa, at the centre of which was Firoz-Shah Tughlaq’s tomb. And you will see some pictures of the Hauz Khas if you click here.

I found the entrance to the Deer Park pretty easily, and just meandered through the park en route to the Hauz Khas village, which was full of furniture stores, clothes shops, design stores, art galleries, etc. At the end of the village the road turned hard left, and ahead was the Hauz Khas. The area was quiet and few people were about. There was no ticket booth, no museum shop, no guards, nothing. A woman and children were sitting in one open air building; children and teenagers were playing among the ruins, teetering over empty space leading to the vast ‘tank’ below, nowadays bone dry, earth for trees and vegetation and, like most of us, awaiting the monsoon.

Ironically, in the 14th century, teenagers were probably still walking through these halls, participating in the small group discussions that characterised medieval Islamic education, while sitting on floors said to be “covered with carpets from Shiraz and Damascus”. The long pillared halls were probably lecture rooms, small cells probably assigned to holy men. There were stairs that led upwards and downwards to nowhere; concealed openings in the walls between chambers; doorways that led to no room. It was almost mazelike, but had obviously had a grand plan when constructed by Firoz-Shah Tughlaq. His tomb was a simple affair in which children played hide and seek in the concealed entrances and exits, the ceiling decorated and obviously beautiful at one point, with only decorative carved designs above the doorways.

I went down one of the stairways to nowhere to have a look at the tank itself – down some steps and then jumped off a balcony – and to take pictures looking upwards at the ruins. I then sat down for a rest, interrupted someone who walked up to me, grabbed my Delhi guide out of my hand, flicked through it, then returned it to me and walked on.

I paced onward into the forests to find a way out, or up, but decided to return to the complex, and try some long, steep stone steps that climbed the outside of the buildings. The right side of each step had crumbled to pebbles or dust, so that you had to hug the building and wedge your foot onto what you hoped was the most solid part; someone conveniently started to walk down while I was walking up. We passed each other and I lent them a hand as they strode downwards. I made it up to the top without mishap, retraced my steps to the entrance to the complex, walked another way through the Village, and then, sweaty and tired, walked through the forest to the Rose Garden and back.

The Hauz Khas, a magnificent set of archaeological ruins, is now a madrasa without students, other than the children playing in the classrooms, nooks and crannies of the complex, and a reservoir without water. It desperately needed some rain.

The monsoon – and by this I mean the popular meaning of the rains, rather than the meteorological one of the winds – seems to be important to India for two reasons. One is that the intense heat of summer is relieved by the cooling rains. In addition, the monsoon has in previous years been so predictable that it was expected to start and end on specific dates, so it could be relied on when sowing crops.

Well, no longer. The talk of the town is that the monsoon is late or, even worse, not coming at all. Using the anthropomorphised terms employed in the newspapers, it’s ‘playing hooky’, ‘playing truant’ or ‘playing hide and seek’. However, the lighthearted phrases don’t really convey the gravity of the situation.

If you read the dire warnings and disastrous predictions that are the daily staple of the newspapers, Delhi is a city on the point of crisis in virtually every area of life. Well, possibly Delhi paper clips are up to standard, and perhaps the supply of roadside chaat is the envy of the globe, but everything else is apparently just about to implode - again, according to the newspapers. Piped water supply cannot be supplied regularly to about ½ the city. There is a shortfall of 200m gallons per day. The land mafia make things worse, the illegal housing developments and street living conditions just heap more stresses on the city…you get the idea.

Now, there’s no doubt that Delhi seems to have a lot of problems, some very big and seemingly irresolvable, but I seem to recall similar apocalypses being predicted for such minor world cities as New York (remember the Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead”?), London, Mexico City, and not just in the recent past.

The seek-it-here, seek-it-there game goes on every year, according to one of my new colleagues. Of course, it is here, but has stopped in the north east, Bengal and Bihar and Assam, and dumped billions of gallons of water on it. Bihar is one of the poorest states, and the TV pictures are terrible: persons huddling on the roofs of their homes while water surges all around them. Some have not eaten for 3 or 4 days. These are the worst floods in 20 years. And, in case you’re not depressed enough, there is increased risk of waterborne diseases (cholera, etc.) as a result.

But the monsoon has avoided the north or north west. It seemed to start on 5 July, but petered out soon after. It’s hard to envisage how violent wind and rain can ‘peter’ out, but it has.

The days now are hot and steamy. The light and heat are intense. Sweat washes about your brow, face, neck, and leaves your clothes and anything that touches them soaking wet. Wipe your brow and a cupful of liquid appears in your hand. So with my usual brilliant timing, the monsoon has waited for me to come to Delhi!!!

Everyone is fed up with the heat and humidity. After some optimistic talk about would it be today, tomorrow, by the end of the week, the feeling is that it will not now appear, that we will have a drought just as in 2002. The week for sowing is about the middle of July, which is imminent, and still dry as dust in one part of the north, flood disaster in the other!

By the way, a phrase that I’ve often heard, but rarely gets challenged, is that indigenous peoples do not feel cold or hot because they’re “used to it” or “acclimatised to it”. While you probably become better at coping strategies, that’s essentially incorrect. Everyone here is finding it hot, stiflingly hot, and the other day when the power went off in the office, we were all sweating in minutes without the air conditioning. It was 42 degrees C today, and it looks to continue at that high through the weekend.

A few days later and, just when you thought it was, er, safe to go back in the water, things are thankfully worse: illegal water tapping has arrived. The Times of India has a regular column on the water crisis, today recording the statistic that about 40% of the water supplied in Delhi gets lost in leaks/thefts by dishonest/unsavoury people, or unauthorised colonies/encroachments encouraged by the land mafia (how the hell does The Times know? Are they doing interviews in the street? “Any reason you’ve got 5 tons of earthmoving equipment with you? I don’t suppose you’re digging up the water supply, are you?” Do you suppose they’ve got CCTV in the trees above water taps?).

However, despite no water, no monsoon, land mafia and water thieves, cholera and typhoid, the good old Times doesn’t want you to slit your throat, in case you don’t buy a paper in the morning, so it ludicrously balances all the bad news with a second, lifestyle section that today features “man crashes car during sex”, “salman, sex, shah rukh, success” and “shop til you drop: therapy, Amisha Patel style”. None of this makes me feel cooler. In fact, only swapping my arthritic ceiling fans with Amisha Patel’s undoubtedly finer CoolJetAire Freez-o-rama Deluxe has the remotest chance…

Friday, July 02, 2004

Indian Summer

It was a strange feeling to be, two weeks before, in the Bank of Bermuda London Office then, two weeks later, sitting on the floor of the Fatehpuri night shelter operated by Butterflies, the not-for-profit running programmes for street and working children in Delhi. I was visiting the shelter and its street children with our group from India (Bihar, Chennai, Jammu & Kashmir, Kolkata), and also from outside India (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal)!

My introductory week in India was a wonderful experience, but the odd thing was that...I felt ready for it, and right at home with the cross-cultural stuff, not in shock at all. I think that I'd been looking forward so long to doing or being somewhere different that it felt comfortable, not earth shattering. Mind you, my upcoming 3 months attachment with Butterflies, living as a Dilliwallah, might just drive me around the bend – the place is hot and steamy, the monsoon is about to begin, just getting around is a real trial (the Metro will help a lot - when it gets built); and, of course, it's crowded and difficult, dirty and dusty and filthy. But it’s also magnificent, wonderful, incredible, stupendous, amazing!!!

I arrived at about 11:00 at night. At first sight, the galaxy of airport lights could be nearly anywhere, except for the hot air blast that greets you as you step outside. We take a bus to just outside the terminal building, where the immigration queue stretches nearly outdoors. It's easy, but long-winded, getting through immigration, then finding your bags (by this time sitting on the floor), changing money, and going into the arrivals hall to book your pre-paid taxi. Not just any taxi – people shout at you to come with them, but you should stick with pre-paid, which means no outrageous overcharging.

I was staying at the India International Centre (IIC), a kind of nice hostel for academics/ internationals/scholars, and the taxi drivers are well acquainted with it. Except mine. And, stupidly, I didn't have the address, just a vague idea where it was. We roared off and overtook a car moseying along the ramp – my driver swerves to overtake, rolls down the window, screams out something about ‘parking’, and then leaves him for dust. We are heading for central Delhi at 70 mph along a bumpy motorway with mazes of criss-crossing roads merging and demerging, and came up behind a truck containing what looks like bales or sacks. On top of these, lit up by the taxi's headlights, were people asleep, sleeping soundly amongst all that light, noise and movement, tongues lolling out as they bounced and jounced along. At that point, I thought, "well, I must be in Asia!"

Got to the centre after some more stops and starts - it couldn't be that difficult to find as it's beside a New Delhi landmark, the Lodhi Gardens - and checked in about 1:30, exhausted. The next day I spent sleeping in and recovering, sampling a vegetarian thali at the Centre (very good, and only £2!), getting used to the heat, and getting ready for the week. I went out for a walk in the afternoon - a big mistake, as who the hell walks around in 39 degree C heat at the height of the afternoon? - and got to know a bit of New Delhi. There were hardly any natives out walking, a bad sign. They were all driving –
and Dilli drivers are all completely mad. They typically will try to squeeze 6 cars into 3 lanes, all honking and bleating and making noise to get ahead of one another. The trucks and buses all have garish painted designs on their rears saying "keep distance/sound horn", as if anyone needs encouragement. The traffic rules seem completely improvised. During the week, I even saw one van driving down a deserted road sounding its horn, just in case!

I walked by the Lodhi Gardens (home to wonderful ruins, and Sikander Lodhi's tomb) and up Janpath towards the centre, a fairly straight run which took me by Lutyen's late 30s creations of India Gate and the President's Palace (formerly the Viceroy's Palace) in Rajpath, and the parks that surround them, the National Gallery, and into the middle of the markets at the top of Janpath, very touristy. I also found the YMCA, where I would be spending the next 5 days in Planning and Training Meetings with Butterflies on the Children's Development Bank (CDB). And walked back to the IIC, exhausted!

I experimented with various dishes at the IIC dining room over the next few days, but finally decided that Indian was far and away the best. The IIC ended up costing about £220 all-in for the week, including 2 long telephone calls to Helen, accommodation, and meals, so very inexpensive. It’s also a cultural centre, with library, lectures, music and concerts and films and theatre, all surrounded by sumptuous gardens, so would be a nice place to spend my attachment (it lacked a swimming pool or anything like that, and the facilities were in some cases a tad basic and the service lacking, not an uncommon problem). It was a good place for this week - although the YMCA, despite falling far short of the IIC standard, was where everyone else was staying, so if I had known, that would have been more logical, to get to know the delegates.

The next 5 days followed a pattern: morning rip-off taxi to the YMCA (while not far away, it was a little too far for a walk, and I would arrive hot and sweaty in the already 30 degree heat), in the sessions from 9 or 9:30 or 10, with breaks for lunch and tea, then winding up about 4:30 or 5. The first two days I went back to the IIC in the evening, had dinner there, and read and wrote about the day's session. The next two, afternoon visits were arranged, during which Butterflies had arranged to show those of us new to Delhi some delights of the city. Wednesday we went to the Fatehpuri night shelter to meet the street children and talk to the staff, and to see the original incarnation of the CDB. It was in the middle of a bazaar, underneath the arches of Old Delhi Railway Station.

From there, we went looking around the market, Chandni Chowk, and the Lal Q'ila, or the Red Fort, the first a teeming anthill of market stalls, winding lanes, shoppers, market sellers, con artists, hustlers, food fryers, chaat purveyors, sights and sounds and smells all assaulting the senses.

The second was a fort built by Shahjahan, one of the Moghul emperors, and was sprawling, enormous, fantastic. All in terracotta stone enclosing vast parkland and various buildings used by the emperor - the Diwan-I-Am (where the tribal leaders would meet) and the Diwan-I-Khas (where the emperor would have private meetings), and others.

The next day we paid an afternoon visit to the Andhra Bank in South Delhi – who are helping out with the CDB – then went on to the Qutb Minar, another monument from the Moghul era, 240 feet high, lavishly and intricately decorated, and the centre of a large archaeological site from one of the previous seven cities of Delhi. I also saw my first cow in the street - standing in the middle of the median, serenely surveying the cars roaring by on all sides!

Friday saw the launch of the CDB at the Constitution Club, where the Indian constitution was framed in the 1940s, dinner at the YMCA, followed by beers at the India Habitat Centre - which was unfortunate, as most of us had an early start to get the bus to Agra. Butterflies had laid on a day's coach excursion for us. We didn't go by train because many of the monuments and buildings around Agra were far-flung – so having your own transport saves taxis and touts. However, the trip was 5 hours long. We broke it at a cafe, where we had either a western (omelette and toast) or Indian (idlies and sambhar) breakfast, and where I encountered my first Indian roadside toilet - luckily with plenty of tissue paper.

We left about 5:30 and arrived about 12:00, after stopping outside Agra at Akbar's Tomb. Akbar was another Moghul emperor who built many monuments in the area. This was only an appetiser for the Lal Q'ila in Agra, another magnificent terracotta-coloured fort with imperial buildings inside it, which was itself only an hors d’oeuvre for the Taj Mahal, across the dry river bed from the Agra Fort. After lunch, we went there and began the long trek to the Taj. We had the usual problem at the ticket gate - Indian Citizens get in for Rs. 10, and it costs Rs. 750 for everyone else, which means that...I cost more than everyone else put together! While this was a constant problem, as the security guards could identify me as foreign, there were plenty of other foreigners in the crowd that they didn't. I didn't mind - Butterflies wouldn't let me pay for anything, although I offered, and I was happy if people could avoid the higher rate - but then they stopped one of our Nepalese party, and insisted that he wasn't Indian (by the way, nobody was asked to provide any proof – it was all done on the racial judgment of those on the gate, a dubious policy). He said that he was from Sikkim - nice, as the people from Sikkim would of course look similar to their near neighbours. They wouldn't buy it!

This is one of the problems and one of the delights of India - the 1,000 different languages and dialects, the different tribes, peoples, regions, locales. In the training course, nobody spoke the same language!!! Many people could speak a bit or understand a bit of Hindi, but the main common language was English. The Assistant Programme Director from Chennai (Madras) told me that his group of accompanying street children spoke Tamil and a bit of English! So the English translations were not just for me, but for many of the participants. The folks from Nepal spoke English, and some Hindi as they were a mere 150 miles from Delhi.

Hassles aside, the Taj Mahal was...incredible. No picture really does it justice as it changes in appearance depending on your vantage point, and what the weather is like. It was the hottest day of the week, 40 degrees, and somewhat overcast and muggy, and it changed appearance as we were walking towards it! One felt like taking pictures of it constantly, just to capture the changes. It's just mesmerising. Totally constructed of marble, with black marble inscriptions from the Koran inlaid in white marble, and inlaid floral designs made of translucent jade, each flower made up of multiple pieces of jade cut precisely to fit together in the pattern...amazing!

On our return journey, we stopped at Mathura, the legendary birthplace of Krishna, and toured the temple complex. We had to check all items in a cloakroom and, when I asked why, was told about the communal violence that erupted on a fairly regular basis! Well...the most violent thing that happened when I was there was on the way back to the coach, where in the pitch black a cow nearly walked into me and speared me with its horns! We arrived back very late – about midnight – so I spent the next day sleeping in, reading and writing, and walking in the Lodhi Gardens during the afternoon, before getting ready for dinner. I was invited to a flat in South Delhi for a pre-flight dinner - the flight didn't depart until 02:00 Monday morning, timed I guess to arrive in London at 07:00, so there was plenty of time.

I ordered a taxi and was told to get the driver to ring my destination for directions – as I could find the place on the map, I didn’t see any need. Well, there was…the driver was okay getting to the general district (Chittaranjan Park), but terrible at finding the address (the blocks all have letters and numbers), and kept stopping to ask people, waving away my map, until I ended up directing him! Dinner was great - homemade Indian food - and I brought petha, the little doughnut-like cakes that I had bought at the Famous Petha shop on the Agra Road the previous day.

My taxi to the airport was uneventful but, as in most trips in the city, I saw something new or different: an open truck full of 60 people, all standing up and swaying as we drove along the highway at 50 mph.

The airport experience was, like most the world over, less than exciting, but quite complicated: all bags are x-rayed before check-in (I had to unpack mine to show off my 6 boxes of petha!), there are multiple, multiple checks right up until you climb on the plane, and it was a relief to finally get in my seat ready for take-off and a sleepless night en route to London, looking forward to my return in a few weeks time for my attachment.

When I go back, I have invites from the CDB partners to visit Kabul, Dacca, and Kathmandu, if I can fit them in!

Well, that's about it - whatever aspect of India you see in the newspapers and in the media, it's probably true - but this enormous and fascinating country also encompasses myriad other truths and realities. There's a substantial and growing Indian middle class founded on the new entrepreneurial wealth being created in the services and i.t. sectors – so while there is a lot of poverty, especially in the rural areas, that picture is gradually changing as well. And, how can you not love a country that actually has one season more than everybody else in the world? So much for the Indian Summer…for when I return next month, Delhi will be heavily into the Monsoon…
To see an album of pictures from this trip click here.