A New Delhi Reprise

Getting off the plane, I could not find the baggage conveyor belt. And eventually when I did, there were no baggage trolleys. As I drove in to town, the talking heads were discussing the latest gang-rape, this time of a 30 year old BPO employee in the Dhaula Kuan area. Delhi it seemed was playing true to character.  William Dalrymple in his ‘City of Djinns’ explains how Delhi has been around almost forever, rising and falling with each successive ‘civilization’. I am sure the current avatar is unlikely to be one of its glories.

But it turned out to be a glorious day. One of those bright but crisply cold pre-winter days that along with its quick Spring makes Delhi enchanting for a short while every year. To relive great memories, I went to Nehru Park in Chanakyapuri and wandered all around it with a friend. Shubha Mudgal was playing live & open air in Nehru Park in the evening courtesy Spic Macay, but unfortunately could not catch it.  A real surprise was the tolerance towards canoodling couples. The last time I wandered Delhi’s parks, I recollect cops and similar irritating fauna harassing lovers that inevitably dot parks. Now I saw they were being left alone and wondered what has led to this change. Not being able to put my finger on it, I decided to to attribute to the person to whom all good things in Delhi are usually attributed to :  the Chief Minister, Shelia Dikshit. As we walked on the Vinay Marg side of Neru Park, I also saw the army ground over which, as a teenager, I had seen a small red aircraft do crazily daring maneuvers, while we played cricket below. It was only when news came that Sanjay Gandhi had crash landed & died that  I realised that the little red plane had been piloted by Indira Gandhi’s younger son and heir apparent. Those innocent times having passed, I saw that the army had put up a fence around the ground and I guess kids don’t play there anymore.

And on to Khan Market. Now, Khan Market is not the most natural location to obtain enlightenment, but I came close. At the bookshop there one cold evening I stumbled upon another book that fulfilled the two criteria I always look for in a book – a bright cover and many pages (yup, I know you should never judge a book by its face or by its size, but I do – which of course Outs me on other aspects too I guess). The fat book by Wendy Doniger titled ‘The Hindus – an alternative history‘ seemed too interesting to pass up and so I ended up buying it along with Kakori Kebabs from one of the bylanes; both holding the prospect of a wonderful though solitary evening ahead.

Delhi’s homestays and B&Bs

Sodhi Lodge New Delhi

A little guest house in New Delhi

The commonwealth games were to be the coming-out party for Delhi’s small hotels, home-stays and B&Bs. But as we all know, things did not quite turn out that way. Not too many tourists in Delhi converts into despairing house owners & desolate premises. Not a good situation. But if the experience of places like Coorg in Karnataka and Kochi in Kerala are anything to go by, there is no reason to despair. The emerging breed of travellers – both domestic and international – seem to like alternate accommodations. The better ones among these little places in Delhi will get filled up in time. They just have to hold on.

Chandni Chowk, Jama Masjid & the New Delhi metro enroute to Karim’s

Before we move forward, here is a confession. I am not the world’s greatest fan of mughlai food. As Mohit observed, at times mughlai food seems rich & heavy just to be rich & heavy – and not because it adds immensely to taste. The last time I had wandered around the Jama Masjid area was about 20 years ago on one magical Ramzan evening just as the food stalls were getting busy. And i decided to go back again to see whether I could rekindle romance.

Nope. Karim’s was a sore disappointment. While the Burra did hit a couple of high notes the general sense was of let down. Maybe I ate the wrong stuff or maybe the place is over-rated now. Dunno. But, I did find a small place in Chandni Chowk that served ‘soth india dishes’ including Dosa and Chewmen. So that made up for it.

The highlight of the evening without a doubt was the New Delhi Metro. This is one of those rare times that an Indian will find it in him to praise anything contemporary over the ancient (for, who can argue with stuff so old nobody really knows anything about it). And I must thank Mr Sreedharan and his team at the Delhi Metro for this (and, I suspect Sheila Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Delhi, who, from all accounts is a lady determined to leave a lasting impression on Delhi). As any of us who have lived in Delhi can say without an iota of doubt, if a Metro rail can work in Delhi it can work anywhere else in India. It does & so it can. As I watched, the doors opened & closed automatically at every station and the world’s second most unruly crowd got in & off demurely. Atta boy ol’ S!

The Jama Masjid & Chandni Chowk area reeks of history (and a lot more, but that is par on course for all our cities). I am told that there a number of ‘walks’ you can do to get it all in. What I missed however was a good walking map. Wonder why no one has done one.

Accessible Travel

I had never really thought of it before; the needs of the disabled when they travel. While traipsing around India in the last 10 days (I did Bangalore to Chennai to Bangalore to Delhi to Chennai to Tanjore to Chennai to Bangalore, which explains my disappearance from this blog for some time), I came across the group that was in India for a series of conferences on Accessible Travel, which is short-hand for ‘doing all of those things that help disabled travellers travel easier’.

Met a couple of interesting people that evening in Delhi – guys who are opening up a world of easier travel for the disabled.

Scott Rains : Scott is the man who put the disabled on the world agenda. He coined practically all the phrases that are today the cornerstones of all discourse on disability, including Universal Design. In fact, almost all US legislation on disability has the Rains imprimatur. Read Scott’s writings at the Rolling Rains report here.

Craig Grimes : Craig was the first person to demonstrate conclusively that the disabled are a definite ‘market’ in world travel. While living in Barcelona, Craig set up AccessibleBarcelona, a tour operator focused on helping the disabled have a good holiday in Barcelona. And made it into a viable and vibrant business. Craig now lives in Nicaragua and is at it again. Check out his latest venture – AccessibleNicaragua.

I also met Jani Nayar of Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality in NY. They are a Non-profit that works to increase awareness of the needs of the disabled for Travel.

A common theme that ran through all of the conversation was the notion that disabled travellers form a large market. And that it is in the interest of the travel trade to focus on this market and make it easier for the disabled to get around.

Weekend getaways from Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata and 10 other Indian cities

HolidayIQ has just revamped its weekend getaway section. Now one can find weekend getaway destinations as well as weekend getaway resorts/hotels by distance from each of the top 17 Indian cities.

Click here to see the new pages:

Weekend getaways from Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata

Weekend getaways from all 17 cities

What makes for great tourism : remaking the Taj Mahal experience

(Guess whose photo this is! Answer at the bottom of this post)

Recently ran into an interesting check-list of items to be addressed to create great tourism experiences.

  1. Enrichment and authenticity
  2. Partner with community
  3. Invent the themes that will intrigue visitors
  4. Engage all the seasons
  5. Increase the value inside the tourism experience by including access to people, a unique activity, or combination of both. When you do this , you can increase the selling price
  6. Invent new forms of programs that incorporate new mixes of activities, people, traditions and places that showcase and celebrate the community. Invention is the key
  7. Personalize and customize your services
  8. Add interaction and hands-on activities
  9. Involve local community and mentor them
  10. Add specific local retail items into the experience or package.

Ok. So let us try to apply this check-list to something we know. How about India’s best known attraction, the Taj Mahal? (Given the very sterile and – sometime very hassling – experience that is visiting the Taj Mahal, I think some creative thought can help). Here is my take on how one could apply some of these principles to the tourism experience of the Taj Mahal.

Enrichment & Authenticity : An ‘immersion’ into the world of Shah Jahan – how about setting up a place where travellers can experience in at least a small way, the nature of life at the time of Shah Jahan. Maybe, this can be in the form of a bazaar recreated in authentic historical detail.

Partner with Community: An obvious area would be to bring in the community into this bazaar. There are other options to bring in local musicians, artisans & cooks into an authentic street scene.

Invent themes that will intrigue visitors: How about “Luxury in the time of the Mughal”, a theme of what it meant to indulge in luxury fit for a king in Shah Jahan’s time. This can cover so many aspects, it is almost endless. Continue reading

Where is the desert cooler?

It was another hot mid-day in 1979. The infamous loo was blowing in from the Thar desert across Delhi’s Rajpath. And a young boy walked past the black gates of The National Museum in the blazing sun. And walked into the the coolness provided by one of mankind’s ealiest inventions. Across the imposing front doors of the National Museum of India, from the ceiling to the floor was this huge curtain of khus fibre constantly kept moist by buckets of water being thrown on it. I dont know how many of you have had the good luck to smell the wonderful aroma of a khus curtain on a hot north indian day – it remains with me, so many years later. 

The Punjabi migrants of Delhi converted this idea to a nifty little appliance to beat the Delhi heat. And since Punjabis are generally better are creating innovations than in naming them (a trait similar to the inventive Japanese, who succeeded in coming up with some of the corniest names for some of the best innovations around – think ‘walkman’!) they called it the ‘desert cooler’.

The desert cooler was a 3 part contraption. It’s body was a covered box in which all sides are walls of khus fibre held in place by a wire mesh. Its underbelly was a huge tank which held many litres of water and its soul was a massive fan and a pump. Now, this is what happened. As soon as you switched on the desert cooler, the pump would start to pull up water from the tank and start to trickle it down on the khus across all the walls of the box. Inside the box, facing into the room was the fan which would soon start to rotate thunderously and effectively suck up the moisture from the surrounding walls of khus and throw it with great force ino the room. Voila, a very cool room, albeit one with an extraordinary amount of moisture. 

I still recollect this room I stayed in for a few years in Delhi. Shaded by a neem tree and blasted by a huge desert cooler, I spent many a Delhi summer swathed in a razai, which I believe I have never bested before or after for pure hedonism. 

But as incomes have risen, the harsh beauty of the Airconditioner has replaced the comely desert cooler (although calling a Punjabi beauty ‘comely’ shows a deeply besotted mind!). And as I keep an unsuccessful eye out for the Desert Cooler everytime I go to Delhi in summer, I cannot help mourn its passing. With it has passed an age of innocence.  

Click here for all my Delhi posts>>

New Delhi International Airport, Taj Palace Hotel, Indian Airlines now called Air India and Fujiya

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(Delhi airport. Photo from : http://www.newdelhiairport.in)

I am just back from a quick business trip to Delhi which coincided with the coldest week in Delhi in 28 years. Not good news – but as luck would have it, the first day there turned out to be very cold but very sunny, which is a lovely combination. So, escaped unhurt.

For old times sake (and because they have a bloody early morning flight from Bangalore), I flew Indian Airlines, which has now been determinedly renamed Air India. Unfortunate. Because in the process, Indian Airlines, which I have always had a soft corner for, is really starting to resemble Air India, which according to me is unquestionably among the the 10 worst airlines in the world. So, here is an emotional requiem to Indian Airlines; RIP.

Among the obscene prices for hotels rooms in Delhi, I was able to wangle a slightly less indecent price (fairly crazy nevertheless) from the The Taj Palace hotel by booking a no-cancellation room, way ahead of time on the Taj Hotels website. It is always nice to stay at the Taj, because somewhere they have perfected the art of clean & efficient luxury service without the ‘looking-you-over’ approach of some Indian luxury chains, not the least of which is the Oberoi. Continue reading

Golden Anniversary of the National School of Drama, Delhi

nsd_production_top1.jpg

(photo from National School of Drama)

Read a news item that NSD is doing a series of plays to celebrate its 50th anniversary. I first went for one of NSD’s annual festivals in 1991 (I think). It was held in the open air theatre in NSD’s campus close to Mandi house and Kamani auditorium. Have you ever watched a live performance perched on the steps of an open air amphitheatre surrounded by aficionados, in the darkness of a cold northern winter? If not, do it as soon as possible.

Nothing is an elevating as a live performance; a real person on a stage creating a spell of a character and drawing distinct human beings that make up the audience into that spell and that moment. It is one of the fascinating aspects of being human – this bubble which live theatre creates, encompassing both performers and the audience. I love it.

London is one of the greatest cities on earth and theatre is a big reason for that. West End of course we know. Great plays and fine dining make this THE location for an evening out in that city. But for a truly wonderful experience head out to Regents Park for an evening with the New Shakespeare Company. And here is the kicker; it is fairly close to Baker Street. So if you like both Sherlock Holmes and William Shakespeare, you need go no further for absolute nirvana.

Unfortunately, most Indian cities have practically non-existent facilities for theatre and almost certainly none for open air theatre. Further testimony to the fact that many Indian cities have become Continue reading

Neighbourhoods

As I move around in the world, I am struck anew by the variety of neighbourhoods I have lived in. Human scale being what it is, it is the little neighbourhoods that you live in or work in that matters – irrespective of whether you live in one of the most populated cities of the world or in one of the more remote little towns. The other interesting thing I notice is that my recollection of a place is forever tinged by my emotional state at that time.

Take Connaught Place in New Delhi for instance. I was young, single, thought I was in love, had a job that gave me a relatively relaxed time & a few Rupees in my pocket. To me, Connaught Place & its environs is still about lazy afternoons, pottering down Janpath, eating cutlets at Bankura next to the Cottage Industries Emporium, occasionally living dangerously with a cold coffee at D’Pauls and regularly catching plays at the NSD or Shriram centre. Continues to be my idea of bliss.

Or take downtown Jeddah in Saudi Arabia where I worked for 6 months about 15 years ago. My recollections of this place are of the extremely hot sun, the regular calls of the muzzein, the steel & chrome facades of the office blocks and of a huge mall filled with shops, eateries and vast echoing hallways without people. Surreal.

Or Prabhadevi in Mumbai where my young family spent a couple of years. Facing the sea on a llth floor flat with lots of space, conventional wisdom suggested I had pretty much reached home-nirvana in Mumbai. But, I never got to like it. The awful dirt at the beach was a huge put-off. So was the idea that my little kids had to stand in a queue at Shivaji Park to get on to a swing (a queue for kids to get on a swing!). So, inspite of the world’s best seafood & very nice people, Mumbai could not hold me for long.

Other interesting neighbourhoods I lived or worked in include Chanakyapuri, Vasant Kunj & Greater Kailash in New Delhi, Perth Road in Dundee, Scotland, Lavelle Road in Bangalore, Jawahar Nagar in Trivandrum, Valmiki Nagar facing the raw power of the waves off the Bay of Bengal in Chennai & many more..

6500 Indian resorts, hotels, home-stays & guesthouses

HolidayIQ has now listed 6500 resorts, hotels, home-stays & guest-houses across India. About 40% of these properties have got reviews from actual guests who stayed there, which is amazing for our country. This is simply because of the consistent hard work so many travel-crazy folk have lovingly put into this over the last 3 years. I still remember early 2004, when this project started as India Resorts Survey – a travel-lovers initiative set up by a small group of holiday junkies. It has really grown up now and it cannot be easily replicated.

The count of accommodation options at the major tourism states are: Goa Hotels – 384, Kerala Hotels – 642, Rajasthan Hotels – 561, Himachal Hotels - 381

For the bigger cities, the count is : Delhi – 198, Mumbai – 176, Bangalore – 171

Out of this list, 1157 India hotels are in a mountain or a hill setting, 554 are Beach hotels in India, 161 are wildlife hotels and 92 give the traveller an inland waterfront experience.

Railway Protection

It was a summer in the mid-eighties. A 17 year old climbed into a train to undertake one of the longer rail journeys of the world – the 2 nights & 2.5 days needed to get from Thiruvanthapuram Central station to the New Delhi station. Sitting in the 2nd class, sleeper compartment was the usual motley crew of Indian travellers. But before the long journey was over, the 17 year old could see many of them as distinct human beings, who in one amazing moment, came together to save his life. It was a crazy journey on the 2625 UP, and the 17 year old was me. (sorry for the drama, but this is the 60th year of our independence and all that. Also, it is almost true.) Continue reading

National Aviation Company of India

Air India & Indian Airlines merged earlier today, the Prime Minister and others made spirited speeches & the airlines slapped on a new page on their existing websites. Will we, the travelers, get a halfway decent deal out of this whole initiative. Not likely. Unfortunately, this is one subject on which my natural sunny optimism gives way to a deep-down cynicism. Much prior experience has convinced me that governments should not be let anywhere near a service business (or any other business for that matter).

To find out why governments behave the way they do (and private enterprise they way they do), I would recommend “Systems of Survival” by Jane Jacobs. Not just an illuminating exposition, but a bloody engaging read.

Here is my previous post on Air India.

Best Hotels by Travel + Leisure : Where is Aman?

Another ‘Best Of’ list. Travel + leisure magazine has announced the best of tourism for 2007. Included are the Best Hotels, Best Cities, Best Islands, Best Airlines, Best Cruises, Best Car-rentals, Best Tour Operators and so on.

The big Indian story of course is that the Oberoi Udaivilas comes in as the Best Hotel in the world. The really interesting news for the cognoscenti is the absence of any Aman Resort in the World’s top 100 list for 2007. Intrigued, I checked out the 2006 list – Amanpuri had come in at a low 72nd rank last year. Is this a reflection on the properties of Aman or on the readers of T+L?

World’s best restaurants

The Restaurant magazine has listed Bukhara at Delhi’s Maurya Sheraton among the world’s top 50 restaurants and the best restaurant in Asia. I have done my rounds of Bukhara & yes, it is a pretty good restaurant; but the best in Asia? Proves once again that nifty ‘selling’ is a key component of such awards.

I consider myself a foodie – for me nothing in a restaurant is as important as its food. Not the ambience, not the location, nothing else. Which is why I believe that the best food in the world is still authentic street food. So, maybe Bukhara does stew its Dal for 18 hours & maybe Bill Clinton could’nt have enough of it. But for an authentic “royal” experience of food in Northern India, I would much rather trawl the streets of Delhi or Lucknow.

Incidentally, India is one among the 15 countries to figure in the top 50 list. France tops with 12 restaurants in the top 50.

It is raining ski-villages

The Economic Times this morning carried a story on 2 new ski-villages being planned in Kashmir. These are in addition to the 2 already under implementation in Himachal Pradesh.

India is definitely one of the hottest countries on earth. So the idea of India having ski-slopes to rival the Alps seems kind 0f strange. Strange, but soon to become true.

It seems climate change is melting the ski slopes in the Alps and for aficionados, the only option soon to be left is the Himalayas.

Pakistan seems to be jumping into the act too - check out this video.

The north kerala sikhs

My colleague Prashant claims this is a true story..

Ramanashree Hotel in Bangalore has a Punjabi restaurant, one of the highlights of which is that every evening there are a bunch of prancing sardars doing an authentic Bhangra.

So, Prashant decides to take his punjabi friend who is on a long business trip to Bangalore, to take in the Bhangra and drive away his homesick blues. So off they go to Ramanashree and right on cue the prancing Sardars happen. Amidst his relief at finding compatriots in far away south India, the Punjabi friend then engages one of them, resplendent in his psychedelic turban and luxuriantly waxed beard, in a little bit of Punjabi banter (if you have lived in Delhi for even a short while, you know what that means).

Huh? says the Sardar. The Punjabi friend tries again. heh, heh laughs the sardar apologetically under his breath. Sorry Saar, I do not understand Punjabi. And as the Punjabi friend falls off his chair, the sardar delivers his coup – You see saar, I am from Wayanad.

We all know that whichever end of the earth we go to, there will be the one-metre chai guy from kerala and the friendly butter-chicken dhaba man from Ludhiana. But, evolution being an inexorable force, watch out for new composites.

Here is a video of a Bhangra in M.I.T. (amazing, isnt it, the kind of stuff you find these days on Youtube!). Presumably being done by nerds, it is unlikely to have the earthiness of the real thing.

Weekend breaks

As the monsoon sets in and summer holidays become a memory, urban India goes into the short-break mode. Soon HolidayIQ will be flooded with users trying to find weekend getaways from various cities. When we put togethe the Weekend Getaway option on HolidayIQ, we did not anticipate the huge following this feature would get.

The Weekend Getaway feature on HolidayIQ lets users find holiday options around 18 cities of India. The best part is these can be searched by distance from the city, upto a distance of 350 kilometres. I have great fun playing with this feature even when I am not planning a holiday. Dreaming.

Here is the list of 18 Indian cities from which weekend breaks can be found on HolidayIQ:

Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Chennai, Cochin, Coimbatore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mangalore, Mumbai, Mysore, Nagpur, Pune, Thiruvananthapuram, Vizag

Street Food in India

Could not find a video of Mumbai Vada Pav – so here is an alternative – of it being made in Ahmedabad

Last night I saw Vinod Dua do a show on Chandni Chowk’s Street Food. Brought back memories of street food across India that I have had. Delhi has a cornucopia of riches in street food. Samosas & jalebis from Chandni Chowk, kababs at the inner galis of Nizamuddin, the Mutton Biryani & Mutton soup (strong mutton stock that settles down to wait in your stomach) at the inner circle in CP, Rajma & Rice in Nehru Place…

Mumbai is another great place for street food. Near keerti College, in the small lane leading to the sea in Prabhadevi is a Vada pav guy with an awesome alchemy. Of course, the Dosa man in Nariman point who dramatically cuts up a bar of Amul butter and daubs it on each Dosa is a legend. There are so many more, as I discovered in my 2 years of living there and of course over innumerable trips before & after.

Here is a special mention for Kerala food lovers. Vanitha, the mallu woman’s mag has this special edition that gives details (and recipes) of some of the best street food across the length and breadth of kerala. An absolute collector’s item for ‘street foodies’ – the catch is that it is in Malayalam.

Delhi 1

I lived 15 years in Delhi. My first memory of Delhi is of a very long, 3 hop flight from one of India’s smaller cities, driving past the swish boulevards of Chanakyapuri and discovering to my terrible teenage mortification that Indian fashion had moved away from bell-bottom trousers. Rocky start, if there ever was one.

In time, the city grew on me. I now know that there is nothing in the pantheon of basic human needs that Sarojini Nagar market along with its earthier neighbour Babu Market cannot provide. Or that some of the best prawns in the world are hawked in INA market. Or that DTC buses behave the way they do because DTC drivers can never fully transit from their Haryanvi heritage. Or that South Delhi matrons are just North Delhi matrons in clever disguise. Or that…

Yup, I am quite fond of Delhi, especially now that I dont live there.

The best book on Delhi is City of Djinns by William Dalrymple.

Here is a video of Delhi’s rail museum – I lived close to it for about 10 years.