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.  

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