Today’s the day we drag ourselves out of Pokhara.
Most of my posts until now have been full of descriptions of the length and general unpleasantness of our journeys, so I’ll spare the gory details this time round. Suffice to say that getting from Pokhara to Lucknow started at 5.30am, took almost twenty-four hours, and involved an unnecessary hour-long wait in a stationary bus, serenaded by a group of Hare Krishnas waltzing around outside with an accordion.
… but eventually, in the small hours of the morning after that on which we left, we check in to the Deep Avadh hotel in Lucknow’s Charbagh district. It’s exactly as I expected from the reviews. If someone cared, it could be a slick, comfortable hotel. Everything is a decent clean and a lick of paint away from being pleasant. But apparently no-one does care, so despite what seem to be fairly expensive, elegant furnishings the whole place has a run-down, dilapidated feel.
They’re also fussier about taking down our personal details than anywhere else we’ve stayed. In India, hotels and hostels are required by law to take your passport details and make copies of them, as well as a bit of other basic info about who you are and where you’re going. Most places we’ve stayed until now have been happy with the barest of minimums in this regard, but not the Deep Avadh. They insist on taking down details like my father’s profession and mother’s maiden name, and I’m summoned back to reception a few hours after checking in to explain why I’ve abbreviated “Hertfordshire” to “HERTS” on my address.
They also have the strange habit of getting you on the in-room telephones. They love them. We receive three phone calls from the front desk in our first morning in the room, all of them reminding us that we are able to order room service through the in-room telephone. Plus the one asking me to come back to reception to correct my address.
Truth is, this still looked like the best of the affordable hotels in the area. Until late in the trip we hadn’t thought of coming to Lucknow, but given the final two stops on our itinerary – Amritsar and Delhi – are half-way across the country from Sonauli where we left Nepal, it seems as convenient a place as any to stop en route. It’s not all that touristy, but that’s a positive; I’m looking forward to seeing some of the city’s architectural heritage that I feel many tourists miss when they visit the country.
First on my list is the British Residency. During the Indian mutiny of 1857 the colonial administration, with the usual accompaniment of womenfolk, servants and other assorted hangers-on, were besieged in the residency for five months before being relieved by a brigade of Scottish Highlanders. Diseases like scurvy and gangrene were rampant and the ruins have been left in place ever since. This being a historical sightseeing trip in 38C heat, Rebecca stays at the hotel. I set off down the road in the general direction of Hussainabad – effectively Lucknow’s Old City – and hail a pedal rickshaw.
The driver is a cheerful young lad who refuses to discuss prices before I board, insisting that I pay him whatever I feel is appropriate when we get there. He habitually sniffs and wipes his nose with a rag every few minutes. Through very broken English he explains that this is his “career job”, or so I assume, until he asks me if he can borrow some change, stops and disappears for five minutes.
Slightly confused, I pass the time playing street cricket with a bunch of local kids who thrust a bat into my hands as soon as the driver disappears. I manage to dab the first few deliveries away gently, at which point the bowler clearly realises how useless I am and starts spinning them embarrassingly easily either side of my flailing bat. Just when the whole thing is getting awkward the driver thankfully reappears.
He gives me back fifty rupees less than I initially gave him. I’m not at all sure what’s happened, but I assume I must have misheard him saying he has a “courier job”, and that he’ll deduct the fifty form the final price. Eventually we get to the residency and I reach into my wallet and offer him another hundred.
He shakes his head. He doesn’t say anything, but points at a two thousand rupee note in my wallet. Shit. I’ve got so comfy in India and Nepal, the initial paranoia that dogged my every move in Kerala a long-forgotten memory, that I’ve slipped into flashing cash.
I tell him no, and re-offer the hundred rupee note, at which point he reaches into my wallet and grabs the two grand. I shout at him, and start panicking a bit. The entrance to the residency, manned by armed security guards, is a fair distance away; the only people in the immediate vicinity are other rickshaw drivers who I doubt will take my side if there’s a scuffle. The cheerful, friendly face that had welcomed me onto his rickshaw earlier has disappeared; his eyes are glazed over, and I wonder whether the rag he’s been sniffing is soaked in something. He lets go, though, when I grab his am, and then to show we’re still friends points out where I need to go to access the residency.
It’s an interesting space. You’d find it very pleasant if you didn’t know the history. Neat, spacious gardens glow in the late afternoon sun, spread around the stately ruins of some fine colonial architecture. With the grisly history of the site fresh in mind, though, there’s a haunting element added to what is otherwise a nice stroll in a park.
The other visitors are in good humour. Several, including a trio of teenage boys and a husband with his wife and baby, stop to say hi and ask for selfies with me. Squirrelly, chipmunk-like creatures scuttle between the trees in which parakeets chatter to one another. Lucknow’s bustle and noise seem a long way away, and I start to unwind, camera in hand, happily hoovering up pictures of the scene.
Until I see a figure some way off across one of the green quadrants, in a familiar grimy white t-shirt, unmistakably cutting diagonally across the grass towards my position. At this point I’m exploring a slightly isolated corner of the site, and there’s no-one else around. My heart starts to race a little as the figure gets closer. It’s the rickshaw driver.
I start back down the path towards the main area, hoping to get into plainer view, but the driver cuts me off. He stands in front of me in the path, neither saying anything nor moving towards me. Out of sheer British awkwardness I say “Hi, are you ok?”
He doesn’t look as though he is, in truth. He is swaying ever so slightly on the spot, and seems to be breathing heavily. I wave to let him know I’m addressing him, and his eyes flick briefly up to my face. Then I realise that all along he’s been staring fixatedly at the camera in my hand.
I decide it’s time to go, and walk off the path and round him. He turns – not exactly quickly, but with purpose – and starts following. I pick up my pace, thinking about cutting through the ruins of the banquet hall. I could easily lose him in the sprawling maze of ornate Indo-Saracenic archways. I could, though, equally as easily get lost and find myself cornered, completely out of sight of the rest of the park. So I take the long way around it.
On the other side a uniformed man sits lethargically on a bench. I approach him and see the word SECURITY printed on his badge. I explain that I’m being followed, at which moment the driver conveniently emerges from the banquet hall. I point him out and explain that he’s following me and, I think, trying to rob me.
The security guard nods slowly, and doesn’t stand up. He gives me the universal “I couldn’t possibly give less of a shit” look and, deciding he’s a waste of time, I walk quickly to the entrance. I get some distance down the road so that the driver – who doesn’t seem to be able to manage much more than a slow shuffle – can’t see which direction I’m heading in, and jump in an auto-rickshaw back to the hotel.
I try to digest it all afterwards, mulling over what actually happened. I’ve never been mugged and I’m not sure if he’d tried to earlier on, or if I had genuinely underpaid him. I feel like I can rule out underpayment though; a hundred and fifty rupees for a five-minute journey is generous compared to what we’ve paid so far. Was he after my camera? Or did he just want to secure the business of the return trip? If he did, he went a really bad way about it, but I wonder to what extent his lack of English and understanding Western norms contributed. Indians just don’t seem as bothered by actions that I’m conditioned to find threatening, like staring, following, invading personal space and, to a lesser extent, grabbing. And it strikes me how lucky I am to be a man. The events of the last hour or so shook me a little, but would have been terrifying if I’d been a woman, to the extent that I might not have been able to blithely pop out for a stroll by myself. That’s a fact of life for women who live and travel throughout the subcontinent.
Rebecca, surprised to see me back so early, decides after I tell her the story that what we need is food, so we head down the road to a place we’d tried to visit at lunchtime, Tundy Kebabi, but due to a combination of it being the first day of Ramadan and that votes are being cast in the elections today, it was closed.
I hadn’t realised until now quite how massive the elections are. They are the biggest exercise in democracy the world has ever seen, no matter what your Brexit-voting uncle tells you. Over nine hundred million citizens are eligible to take part, and voting itself is spread over several weeks. Five million people will be employed, in one capacity or another, as part of the process. Indian law specifies that no house can be more than 2km from a polling station, meaning that a gentleman who lives in a remote part of one of Gujarat’s national parks has a station all to himself. They are colossal.
By evening, even though the polls have closed and the sun is set (meaning Muslims observing Ramadan can break their fast), Tundy Kebabi is still shut, but the bustling street-foody neighbourhood it’s in is doing a roaring trade, so we look for somewhere else to eat. This takes longer than expected since most shops, in stark contrast to the rest of the places we’ve been to in India, seem to exclusively serve meat. Most places don’t even stock vegetables. Eventually we find a biryani shop that will do us a paneer masala.
The golden rule of travelling is: eat what the locals eat.
Rebecca and I are vegetarian on environmental grounds, but will occasionally make exceptions. In hindsight, last night should have been one of those.
In all fairness, it could be the water at the hotel. Most places we’ve been to so far have purified water containers in the foyer so we can refill our bottles with clean drinking water, but at Deep Avadh every time we need a refill our bottle is taken by one of the porters to a mysterious room that guests aren’t allowed into and returned full of very cold but equally mysterious water.
Whether dirty water or unpopular paneer is to blame, I’ve got my second bout of food poisoning of the trip in time for what was set to be a big day of sightseeing followed by a twenty-four-hour train ride to Amritsar. Fantastic. Rebecca is apparently unaffected, which I suppose is a good thing but I find annoying as we’ve eaten and drunk the same things since arriving, undermining my self-image as strong-stomached.
Our taxi arrives at 3pm to pick us up, because several of the sites we want to see close at 5pm. It’s 42C, and I’m sick as a parrot, as the driver pulls up outside the Bara Imambara. Dashing from patch to patch of shade, we take a few snaps of the majestic Mogul architecture and pile back into the car as quickly as possible, only stopping for Rebecca to fawn over a mongoose in the garden at the entrance. Same story at the Rumi Gate, the iconic gatehouse based on one form Istanbul. I try to get away with photographing it from inside the car but the driver insists we get out so he can take a photo of Rebecca and I looking ill and overheated in front of it. On our way into the Chota Imambara we’re accosted by a tour guide who immediately starts showing us around, describing the miniature Taj Mahal replica in English too rapid and broken for me to understand a word, both of us either too hot or too unwell to protest effectively, before the same process repeats itself with a wizened old man inside the main mosque. Eventually, we’re back in the taxi and ask the driver to return us to the hotel. He can’t believe his luck. We’ve booked and paid him for four hours and he’s done in two.
Our train to Amritsar leaves at five to midnight, so having checked out of our hotel room this morning, and with me unwell, we have little choice but to sit in reception for six hours, with a break for Rebecca to have dinner in the restaurant. A wedding party is taking place in the disco area downstairs, meaning that well-dressed locals stream in and out of the foyer the entire time and near the end strike up a raucous band on the street outside. It would be great fun if I didn’t feel horrendous.
Finally, it’s time to head to the station. I’ve effectively had my eyes screwed shut, praying for a flat berth to lie down and sleep on for hours. We check the board to find our platform, and can’t see our train anywhere. I groan inwardly.
We join the scrum to make an enquiry outside the office. One of the attendants inside must see the suffering on my face because he beckons us around to the back entrance to the booth. We tell him our train number, he punches it into his computer, and informs us the train is delayed by nearly six hours and is currently scheduled to arrive at 5.15am.
I turn to Rebecca and tell her we’re checking back into the hotel.