Taj.

Taj.

It has been a wonderful couple of days in Delhi, with the Imperial Hotel looking after us as if we are at home – this is the most beautiful hotel in the world and I actually (quite simply) want to move in. One of my dearest friends in the world arrived in Delhi on Sunday night and we have not stopped talking ever since and, (after five weeks of speaking French) it has been all verbal diarrhoea for the past couple of days.

Yesterday was spent back in the beautiful Hauz Kaus Village where we drank gin and tonics overlooking the magnificent lake, before watching the sun set as the crows circled the sky with their wings moving to the beat of the Hindi music that filled the rooftop courtyard.  It was total magic and we laughed and laughed – it felt so good to be in the company of a great friend again.
We whizzed home through dusk in an auto rickshaw – serious giggles ensued and the driver sang a made up tune about loving the disco and managed to drive, phone a friend and keep an eye on his blond friend on the backseat all at once.

This morning after breakfast we made our way down to the carport ready for the three hour journey to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal.

Our driver Ashwani was  wonderful and as I type, the other madam relays the best parts of the day.  There is too much to write about.

Upon arriving in Agra, we were introduced to our tour guide who had an agenda and was convinced that the Madams were going to love every bit of him. First, we were told to mount a cart driven by a very angry old man and a wormy horse – and in all honesty, we both felt really conflicted and not at all happy because we would have preferred to walk and not support the awfulness that is the cruelty towards that horse and that man, ‘ you must feel like the royals madams,’ our guide cried with glee before taking photos, to which we replied (under our breath and to each other), ‘no, not princesses, more like big fat white people doing something pretty awful actually.’ We clip clopped down the road against our wishes before arriving at the VIP gate, because apparently we were in that moment.

The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (reigned 1628–1658), to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The tomb is the centrepiece of a 17-hectare complex, which includes a mosque and a guest house, and is set in formal gardens bounded on three sides by a crenellated wall. As we both concluded, had we given birth to 14 children of which only 6 survived, we too would probably expect a little gift in return. Hairnets on our feet to protect the marble from the dust, a few snorts, a fair bit of laughter, some sincere nods to our guide, our very own Princess Di shot and tile overload later – we were ready for Channa Masala, Butter Naan and some Paneer Tikka at a small guest house on the way out of Agra.

Agra is a sad and strange place that has really fallen into the hands of tourists – and whilst the monument is a beautiful sight and we both had our breath taken away today, it is crazy what we needed to climb through (and the money that is made from things like wormy horses dragging a horrible old cart reluctant madams), but as we rounded our way through the official entrance, nothing could have prepared us for the beauty of the huge white monument under a perfect blue sky. It never changes and is just indescribable.

Our trip back to Delhi as beautiful and we finished the day at India Gate and the Presidents Palace, and now we are heading out the door to the Delhi Gymkhana Club for dinner with a friend of a friend and there will be a more detailed post to follow tomorrow.

On leave.

On leave.

It’s been a day of watching crows circle the sky to the beat of Hindi music while drinking gin and tonics with one of my most favourite people in the world.

Tomorrow is Agra and the Taj… watch this space. 

Madam.

Madam.

‘Madam, there is an ATM up your backside, you can be using this if you need more cash’.  ‘Madam, I come you’.  ‘Madam, auto, a big mosque on right side’.  ‘Madam, madam, madam, madam…’.

It’s been a big day of madams and an abundance of men – and, an overwhelming stench of urine (and everything else), plus dogs and diesel and kerosine and unhinged horn tooting (and did I mention the noise), and the sadness- unadulterated sadness of men (always men) half asleep in cycle rickshaws, emaciated and pretty hungry muttering seemingly their last ‘madam’ at me in desperte whispered breath – all nine million kilos of me. How can I justify an exhausted man driving me on his last gasp? (but then how does he eat if he doesn’t cycle nine million kilos of human- shouldn’t I be cycling for him?).  The circle of human life doesn’t really make much sense, and for the record, I don’t think I could ever ride in a cycle rickshaw in this city.  
Sadly though, I don’t think my standoff is contributing much towards the overall issue.

And then there were more dogs, and children and thousands more men and not a woman in sight and I’m so white and so female and all I really wanted to do was return to a very special place just off the Meena Bazaar in Chandni Chowk – one of the oldest parts of Delhi.  

Yes but madam, if you walk it will come at a cost, an internally blown fuse and a fair amount of frustration (said my imaginary Indian man friend in my head).

Before all of this, I checked in at the beautiful Imperial Hotel earlier this morning – this hotel needs to be seen to be believed and it will be my place to call home for the next four days. After driving through the huge white gates and along a driveway framed by palm trees and neat, sweeping green lawns, I left my bags at reception before being shown to my room full of rattan furniture, white linen, big bay windows, a black and white tiled bathroom and more rattan and then a rattan fan in case there wasn’t enough rattan. It is absolute heaven and I could quite easily move in here immediately. Before leaving my room, the porter who had dropped my bags left me with a final offering ‘is the whiskey a gift madam, very nice…’.  

I explained that the whiskey is a gift (of sorts) to myself and my friend Victoria, who will arrive later tonight. I didn’t bother telling him that I’d remembered an old saying from my days in the Himalaya ‘whiskey in, whiskey out,’ – it will repair the sickest of stomachs and heal the harshest of wounds and, Delhi duty free was running a bonanza sale on single malt at the end of the visa queue and to the left of the baggage carousel when I arrived on Friday so, it just had to be done. (And for the record, I don’t only apply the whiskey rule to India…).

  
Walking from the Imperial Hotel to Chandi Chowk is a short enough 55 minutes and parts of the walk can be quite wonderful- weaving through Connaught Place and its fading but beautiful Georgian buildings (modelled after the Royal Crescent in Bath) before hitting the crazy Minto Road which runs all the way up to the Meena Bazaar- which in short, is an assault on so many levels but mainly to the senses. Not a square inch between anyone and there is nothing to hide, not even teeth being taken out of a mans head as a chicken is butchered only meters away.

The Jama Masjid was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan between 1644 and 1656 at a cost of one million rupees. It’s completion in 1656 saw three great gates, four towers and two 40 meter high minarets constructed of strips of red sandstone and white marble, all of which still stand tall and untouched today. The courtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 people and when I first entered this mosque in 2003 I was utterly blown away – I will never forget how quiet it was.  
Sweeping views to the Red Fort can be enjoyed from the east side and shoes are to be removed on arrival – from there it is game on with people, pigeons and prayer.

Once inside the mosque, there is always a strange feeling of peace – a haunted peace- hundreds and hundreds of years of it. I suppose it’s moments in a setting like this one that ease the bad bits of madam who gets frustrated at all the questions, and the offerings and the advice and the sound of flip flops approaching, before her arm is held and she is begged to ‘Come. come, come madam’.

There is so much going on in this city and there are a thousand stories to be told. One of the best things I ever did by means of trying to understand the way that the system works in the wild and wonderful country that is India, where there is brutality and boldness (but kindness in equal measures), was reading Rohinton Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’ quite a long time ago. He weaves a beautiful tale (so sad that I wept throughout the entire book), in such a concise and measured way. In moments of frustration where I want to shout ‘MY-NAME-IS-NOT-MADAM-I-AM-PIN-AND-I-WANT-TO-WALK-IN-PEACE,’ I take time to reflect back on his writing, set my eyes to the ground and remind myself that quite often, it is best to just say nothing at all.

Dilip.

Dilip.

Just like Philip but without the PH and rather, with an added D.

This morning it was time to get to Hauz Khas Village, a beautiful old settlement in South Delhi and home to some of the most amazing boutiques and cafes that you can possibly find in this great city. As an added bonus, this chic village with its potholed narrow laneways and low hanging cables, sits alongside the Hauz Khas Complex which houses a water tank (a huge lake), an Islamic seminary, a mosque, a tomb and crumbling pavilions built around the now urbanised village and, which has medieval history tracing back to the 13th century of Delhi Sultanate reign. It was part of Siri, the second medieval city of India of the Delhi Sultanate of Allauddin Khilji Dynasty (1296–1316). The name Hauz Khas is derived from the words ‘Hauz -water tank or lake’ and ‘Khas- royal’ which leaves us with ‘Royal Tank’. The large reservoir was first built by Khilji to supply water to the inhabitants of Siri and several of the now ancient buildings (including the Mosque and madrasa) and tombs, were built overlooking the water tank (or lake).
In the 1980s, Hauz Khas Village, studded with domed tombs of Muslim royalty from the 14th to 16th centuries, was developed as an upper class residential and commercial area of South Delhi- and this afternoon, after one of the funniest morning walks of my life, I settled in there for lunch and a spot of shopping.

It really is not a bad spot for either.

It all started after breakfast (and a surprise drop in from housekeeping which almost trumped my piano playing flash in Paris), where I approached the doorman and asked him what direction I had to turn out of the driveway to get to the village (I had google maps ready to go but I couldn’t determine north from south). ‘Mam, there is not a possible way in the world you can be walking to Haus Khas, it is but 5.9 kilometres only and I will order a fine taxi, you will not walk’.  

Now, there is nothing subtle about the way in which I hitch my stretch jeans up towards what used to be a rib cage, but I did it with the greatest consideration for his concern, right there, knowing that those jeans and that rib cage were never going to meet again if I didn’t take this conversation very, very seriously. ‘Yes, I understand it is some distance, but you have to understand that I would like to walk, I just cant work out if I turn left or right at the gate’.  

Eye rolls, head wobbles and plenty of sighing followed and he finally pointed to the right.

And with that, I was off along the leafy and busy Rajesh Pilot Marg Road and past the Spanish Embassy before turning right into Prithviraj Road (and straight onto freshly painted road markings made with the strongest of oil paint, which got a rise out of the family squatting on the side of the road who had just finished painting them, not out of concern for their work, but more so for the soles of my shoes), and then left into the busy and heavily polluted Sri Aurobind Marg Road.

This is where I ‘truly’ found Delhi again and where my nose was taken right back to my first visit almost 14 years ago to the day.

There is no easy way in the world to describe how this city smells and what it looks like to navigate a busy roadside market but I suppose if you imagine diesel, kerosine, bonfire smoke, oil frying, the stench of rotten cabbage, dust (so much dust), dogs (so many dogs), the sweet and sour smell of beedies, the richness and thickness of tobacco stained slag lining the pavements, rows and rows of people standing on those aforementioned pavements alongside that incredibly busy road waiting to board a bus (that is flashing ‘breakdown’ on its lit up backboard while the driver sleeps in socks and jeans on the backseat), thousands of tuk tuks tooting, and a man riding a bike, with his wife riding side saddle with a child in her arms in amongst it all – you might sort of get the drift.

No one in the world is too important nor precious to make that walk but to his credit, I can see how the guy at the door thought that big fat white Madam with plenty of rupees in her pocket, shouldn’t do it. What he doesn’t know, is that BFW Madam learns a lot from these walks and she is much better for them.

Once I reached the relative greenness of the affluent suburb that is Green Park an hour later, I was probably on the brink of expiring and very much in need of a tall glass of water but I pushed on the further ten minutes which landed me in Deer Park, a beautiful park that houses (you got it) deer, and overlooks the Hauz Khas lake. It is a beautiful little sanctuary and one that allows a (sometimes welcome) distance from the madness that is Delhi and her huge, busy, choked and chaotic roads. Once the pathway around the lake was completed (and crashing into Indian families taking a Sunday walk and plenty of selfies, avoided), I was struck by the beautiful view of the Hauz Khas Complex that I described earlier on.  
To say I left Hauz Khas with no bags would be a lie, and to say I didn’t enjoy a beautiful lunch at Hauz Khas Social, overlooking the lake and feeling a little bit happy with myself, would also be a lie.
From there, I navigated the queues of tuk tuks and taxis and hopped into one of the latter with a man who was intent on singing along to Hindi classics as he wove his way through the traffic and on towards South Ex – a huge shopping mall, (but not a mall, more a mass of shops taking up two sides of the highway) to buy bathers from Marks and Spencer. Yes, bathers.   I am after all, going to Goa in ten days and I hope the mirrors in M and S were mean because it was all a sight for sore eyes. With this really awful task complete, I headed to the pharmacy – through potholes and more low lying cables, to find tanning cream. Several thousand bottles of whitening cream (I forgot this obsession, why do I crave brown and the most beautiful of us all, crave white- that’s another post in itself) later – I just had to take the legs for what they were and pray that my dear friend Tor arrives here in Delhi tomorrow night with something that resembles ‘Dove Summer’ or something equally as terrific.

After almost an hour of searching though sari shops (I’m actually addicted to Indian wedding dress shops and weaving through brides seeking the ultimate piece), it became apparent to me that darkness had fallen and I was really short of cash.  After standing dazed on the pavement surrounded by so much noise and my jeans needing a further hitch, I found a backstreet cash merchant who swapped the 50 euros I’d made at Charles de Gaulle earlier in the week (thank you French govt for returning tax to those silly and willing enough to get roped into your excellent sales). And, not only did he give me enough rupees to probably see out the rest of my time in India, he was was also incredibly kind. With his son hellbent on selling aftershave and cigarettes while trading currency, Dad was hellbent on getting me a taxi (and home safely) when I asked where I could find one, in the dark and incredibly busy, noisy place that South Ex had become.
‘Follow,’ and with that I was on his heel to the prepaid taxi hut (which admittedly was hidden behind a thousand parked cars) where I eventually met Dilip.  

‘Madaaammmm- will you be staying at the Claridges and will you be paying 400 rupees to get there- it is a most reasonable price,’ the boss said before screaming ‘DIIIIIIILLLLLLIIIIIIP,’ ‘DIIIIIILLLLLLLLIP,’ and with that, the cash merchant (also now my friend) started to shout ‘DIIIIIIIILLLLLIIIIIIIIIIP,’ and, with ‘Dad/cash merchant/now friend’ on ‘the shout for Dilip bandwagon,’ a sweet boy who had just patted the seat in the hut and said (very calmly) ‘sit down Mam,’ to which I replied ‘thank you,’ before sitting (with all my bags) and he replied ‘welcome,’ (also in a very calm manner) also shouted ‘DIIIIIIIIILLLLLLLLIIIIIIP,’ from the top of his lungs.

Out of the darkness and tooting and smog and puddles and just general madness, appeared a man who I really hoped was Dilip, because that’s what I called him for the next half an hour as he led me down dark alleys, through more puddles and into relative silence, behind a thousand shops with no lights and finally, to a Suzuki Swift with smashed doors and locks that weren’t working so well. The only reason I didn’t feel too perplexed by all of this, was that as I passed my friend the cash merchants shop on the way to Dilips wrecked taxi, I smiled at him, waved and mouthed ‘thanks’ and with that, he followed with a steady eye as we disappeared around the corner.

It’s safe to say that ‘Dilip’ (confirmed as ‘yes Mam, I am Dilip’ upon saying goodbye), was the nicest man I’ve met in at least 12 hours and, just like the doorman this morning, he had no other intention but to get me home safely (albeit in silence).  I’ve just had the most delicious feast of paneer and peas and have not stopped being told what to do ever since walking in the door.

Pictured:  an Ambassador Nova taxi found on my walk this morning.  When I first came to Delhi, these cars were still prominent on the taxi scene but not so much anymore.  Guys like Dilip drive Suzuki Swifts and Tatas these days.

Oh, how I’d forgotten.

Oh, how I’d forgotten.

‘And Madam up your backside only, is a tissue paper, and a water on your leg. Did you know the Claridges Hotel has but nine restaurants…’.  

And no, I hadn’t gone to the loo in my trousers and accidentally walked away with half a roll of lavatory paper hanging out the back of my jeans (much as I’ve always felt perplexed at this thought). Rather, I was just off the plane at Indira Gandhi International Airport and whizzing through the traffic towards my hotel with my driver very keen to let me know that there was a box of tissues behind my head, and plenty of bottled water in a console to the left of my leg.

Arriving back in India this morning was like heading into a time warp- the smell of beedies, smoke, smog and humans – nothing had changed in the slightest and the carpet in the airport was still the same colour as I remembered, as were the neon amber signs flashing multiple warnings about loos, Indian residents, a smoking room and where to go if you don’t fit into any of the above categories – the visa queue. I joined the latter and was told ever so casually to ‘do it,’ and when I put my hands up for biometric photographic testing, the most casual of all casuals just repeatedly said ‘do it,’ not that I really had any idea of what ‘it’ was. 

We eventually got ‘it’ on file before I heard that satisfying boom of a stamp smashing another page in my passport, and then two of the oldest men I’ve ever clapped eyes on waved me through an empty queue made up of a flimsy bollard towards a room full of people in tears with a sign above the door simply reading ‘deportees room’. They leant back in their chairs and continued to talk while I chose to grab my bag and continued to walk- out the door and into the haze towards a very eager man named Hari who held a sign reading ‘Madam Affleck Virginia’. Just like every good Indian story, there were two men- (not one) Hari was accompanied by Sunny (a Kim Jong Il look alike who spat a lot on the way to the carpark) who was pushed off the curb to go and find the car, while Hari told me he was very important and in charge of the ‘entire fleet of cars for the hotel’. ‘Madam, you will tell management that I was possibly the best fleet manager you ever did meet,’ why yes of course I will, Hari.
Sunny sped through the traffic, talking non stop and I listened, and listened and listened.

We located the Presidents house and then the race course before drawing through the gates at Claridges where we were bomb checked and met with prayer hands and multiple namastes. 

I’ve had a driver whizzing me around Delhi this afternoon seeking pajamas and summer items, and I have to say Sanjay (Sunny must have had another gig), is quite the fashionista, leaving me at Connaught Place and then the Khan Market with the ‘simply instruction’ to just call him when I was done.

That I was, almost an hour ago, and now I sit here in the garden listening to Jazz and being waited on hand and foot. I haven’t slept since yesterday and I can feel an early night coming on but as the sun peeks through the smog, and crows circle the garden filled with Indian men drinking odd looking milky cocktails, there is nothing between me and the hazy sky- bar the splashing of the fountain, tuk tuks beeping on the other side of the fence and about ten men in waistcoats calling me Madam – I am just so happy to be amongst all of this again.  

India, you never change, you just keep getting better and better.

Au revoir.

Au revoir.

I’m writing this from the Business Lounge in Dubai (thank you Emirates for looking after me- this is a treat) after flying from Paris today (in economy as always, don’t get any ideas)- there is Moët on the table and a bowl full of nuts and a whole lot of thoughts rushing through my head.

For the first time in my life, I didn’t sob uncontrollably on the way to the airport (I have a thing with airports and leaving and loving places and overthinking everything and I think this is one of the reasons that Love Actually is actually my favourite film ever).  I managed to board the flight (almost) perfectly intact (and, with the added bonus of a whole packet of tissues that will be useful in future should I ever get a runny nose).

This morning in the mad rush that was packing up the apartment, I managed to throw the keys out with the rubbish which meant climbing into a City of Paris rubbish bin in a crisp white shirt with newly washed hair all ready for my flight. This was followed by a towel in the dryer that wouldn’t dry in its allocated timeframe (not to the poor towels knowledge) which hence meddled with the perfect pattern that was the morning list – all book ended with a non negotiable 11.15 am taxi to Charles de Gaulle.  
Thankfully when I was checking in at the airport the girl asked if I had an Indian visa (‘do I ever’ I thought but instead nattered in French whilst trying to find the thing), which was actually packed in my checked luggage – highly unhelpful when it would have been required in four hours upon landing in Delhi ‘in my hand luggage’.

I’m painting a pretty hopeless picture.  
The last five weeks have been nothing short of magnificent and the one thing I want to highlight in this post is how much I love settling into a new place, a new routine, a new language and a whole lot of new things to think about. I’m going to be short and sweet, because the man at the desk did say that Madame must not forget to board her flight (he saw my eyes light up at the very mention of champagne), but for now its au revoir to my beloved Paris (tricked you, I’ll be back before you know it), and a much anticipated and long awaited hello to New Delhi.  

After twelve years, I’m just four hours way from another of my favourite cities in the world. I can’t wait for the head wobbles and complete, unadulterated, unplanned and highly amusing confusion that comes with all that is beautiful India.

Watch this space.

Places.

Places.

I could hear the dogs howling well before I could see them. At that point, it was Sunday and I was taking photos (like every other person), of ducks fighting seagulls for a slice of bread on a completely frozen pond in the Tuileries Gardens- the sun was in the final stages of sliding out of sight, the Eiffel Tower was ever striking in the distance and the huge Tuileries sculptures vied for highest position as they reached for an increasingly darkened sky.  
After capturing pictures of ducks and seagulls dancing on the ice, I began walking up towards the Louvre like an Arctic penguin fighting the cold- I now walk like a penguin in these conditions after reading an article in the Guardian recently, where German scientists recommended it as a way of combating slipping in icy conditions.  

I digress.

I love the sound of dogs barking in the distance as much as I love sunsets and huge old buildings – and when the three are married together under a new moon in hectares of green space in a city that has stolen my heart, well- I’d be lucky if I didn’t penguin slide onto my face (it’s been known to happen).

I eventually found three beautiful Alsatians bounding across the Louvre courtyard towards teams of soldiers with rifles at the ready, and while that in itself was a reminder that there is not peace in the world – in that very moment, there was.

Yesterday I finished the day with a visit to the incredible Sainte Chapelle (I could make multiple visits – the history in itself is almost as magnificent as the stained glass), before treating myself to a quick peek of the beautiful old law courts on the way out, where les barristers (plural and masculine, much as they were predominantly women) strode the halls with complete purpose and vigour.  

This morning I finally made it up to Parc des Buttes Chaumont in the 19th arrondissement and took a photo (at the top of this post) from the top of the Temple de la Sibylle (inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy).  I could just see the Sacre Coeur in the distance making every effort to be visible through thick cloud and an all encompassing winter haze – and, while my hands were pink and my lips blue, it was magic.  

On the way home tonight, I drew money out of the ATM and an old man who looks like a vision from I don’t know what (and who has taken prime position under the machine on a blanket and has done for as long as I can recall), barked at me under a sliver of moon. While he doesn’t have the same je n’est sais quoi as the real dogs under the moon while strolling home under the shadows of the Louvre after a long day of walking and soaking it all in, he gives us all a fright, he makes girls scream and if I’m not careful, he’ll have me penguin sliding all the way down the Rue.