Monday 31 October 2005
Astraeus Flight, 31 October 2005, London Gatwick to Agra, via Ankara

I had been impressed with a previous flight taken with Astraeuas and told then so in a letter. ‘Tell us when you’re next travelling with us and expect something special”, their reply had said. Nothing special at Gatwick check-in. Nothing wrong; just nothing special.

The plane was a little older than the average and the interior was showing its age. The cabin crew were a friendly and helpful bunch, even providing a bucket of water in the starboard toilet as the toilet wouldn’t flush properly. Those travelling at the front of the plane had their own toilet. Perhaps a working toilet was the reason they had paid hundreds of pounds extra to travel ‘star class’. I suppose with the early and frequent service of drinks they received, they would be needing the toilet more often. It seemed an expensive way to spend a penny.

Our service in the middle of the plane was fine, but we did think the plane seemed to be tilted very slightly to port. Not so much that you’d think it was making a turn but just enough not to be able to ignore once you’d noticed. Could it be something to do with the starboard toilet? Of course not!

The reason was revealed when we reached Ankara for our refuelling stop. There was a ‘little problem’, revealed the Captain. “Nothing serious”, he crooned, “only a ‘sticky flap’ that would be sorted out on the ground. We would, however, have to disembark and, indeed, buses were waiting for us on the tarmac, so off we got. We supposed we’d be taken somewhere, and so we were, but not to a terminal building or anywhere interesting. We parked a couple of hundred yards from the plane and stood there, waiting. Forty-five minutes wasn’t that long, really, unless you’d been travelling ‘star class’ and over-indulging in the drinks or queuing for a bucket at the starboard toilet. Some of the women were getting rather anxious. How much longer could they hold out? There was much relief expressed when the bus engine sparked into life and we were back at the aircraft steps. The air was freezing and the bus was unheated so those with challenged bladders headed for the toilets, up front or even mid-starboard (flushing or not). Horror! The toilets were locked. They could not be used while the aircraft was on the ground. You know how it is: you can hold on for so long but the nearer the prospect of relief, the more immediate the need. All we could do was be seated and hope for a prompt take-off. No chance! The wings had iced-up whilst on the ground and we’d have to wait for the de-icing machine to do its work. This began soon enough (though not soon enough for some sturdy matrons who, throwing decorum to the wind, announced if they couldn’t use the toilets whilst on the ground, they’d be prepared to use the starboard bucket instead. (They didn’t, thank goodness).

More torture was to come. The Turkish de-icer broke down with the job half-done. By the time a replacement could and the task completed, we’d been on the ground, without toilet facilities for two hours. You can imagine the rush when the seat-belt sign was turned off once we’d left Ankara. Every toilet was fully occupied for a good twenty minutes, and no-one bothered to have the starboard bucket refilled. I doubt the star class drinks trolley was too much in demand for the rest of the flight.

Tuesday 1 November 2005
Arrival at Agra was 9.30am local time, having lost two hours on the journey. Not too bad for most of us, but for the man who’d checked-in ahead of me who was making a day-trip to the Taj Mahal (yes, really!), this was a huge chunk lost from his birthday present. To be fair, he was allowed to disembark first. He seemed resigned more than annoyed.

Agra is clearly a working military airfield – witness the number of air force transporters parked up – and not fully geared up for international flights. By all appearances, our arrival, late or at all, seemed to have caught the immigration service by surprise. With most passengers looking for the toilets (clearly not wanting a repeat of the previous fiasco), I was among the small bunch ready for the official announcement to come forward to the barrier. We were dealt with courteously and efficiently. As we were the only flight in, the baggage came commendably quickly and once through customs I was greeted by the waiting Voyages Jules Verne (VJV) representatives. Pleasant though it was to be enjoying the Indian morning sun out in the open after being imprisoned so long, there was a long wait while the rest of the plane’s entourage dragged themselves from the arrivals hall to the waiting coaches. VJV are very clever with their arrangements. Some five or six different tours were served by our flight: ours was to the Taj Mahal, Agra, Jaipur and the Ranthambore National Park. Others were off to Nepal or touring by train. All carefully co-ordinated and well-practised.

Once all had mustered, we turned out to be twelve in number, a good size for a group: Marsden and Mary, Maggie, Andrew and Fi, Stephen and Jan, Ian and Judith. Arthur and Edith, myself, and two more who will join our party later in the day, Chris and Betty, who have booked our trip as an extension to a previous VJV tour. [Note: these may or may not be the real names of these people!] Our guide, Vavik, looks well-nourished; we have a driver, Suresh, and a ‘boy’, Dinesh. The coach is very Indian and the drive into Agra proper full of colour. Our arrival coincides with the start of Diwali and people throng the steets buying, selling, celebrating. Street-side stalls overflow with yellow and orange marigolds, strung together as garlands. Bikes, cars, motorised and non-motorised rickshaws are everywhere, not to mention the buses, cows, donkeys and pigs. Here, they drive on the left (some of the time) but that seems somehow ‘wrong’ abroad. No-one got run over while I was looking, though goodness knows how.

We transferred to a battery-powered bus and were taken to have tea and other refreshments at a hotel in its garden overlooking the Taj Mahal itself. It was a captivating sight. The tea was just as it should have been (such a contrast with European wish-wash), the cheese sandwiches (no crusts) were good and the cold chips remarkable. The wispy haze around the Taj hung like a gossamer veil and the limpid River Yamuna guarding its rear added to its beauty.

Tea over, we transferred to the Mansingh Palace Hotel in Agra (Room 217 for me). It was good accommodation with a proper writing desk and small sofa. The air conditioning was fierce but I eventually discovered the secret of its controls and turned it off. A quick beer in the bar (Kingfisher 640ml, 150R) set me up for the Red Fort at Agra.

The only fault with the Taj Mahal is that is overshadows everything else around. Certainly, there are wonderful views of it from the Red Fort. But the Red Fort is a treasure in itself. Wonderfully proportioned, with generous squares and two-storey bungalow-style buildings, it has a delightful harmony. It’s not a long visit but atmospheric and a good introduction to the style and dignity of the local culture and architecture long before the Raj.

It was also our first introduction to Indian teenage hawkers. Whatever the etymological root of the word, they certainly swoop like hawks and home in on their prey with unerring accuracy. From nowhere, all manner of low-grade souvenirs appear: sandstone boxes, bangles, beads, postcards. There’s nothing threatening in their manner, just a relentless persistence. The wrong technique, I discovered, was to fob them off with a casual, ‘Later’, as this will only encourage them all the more when next they see you. Yes, remember you they will, be it ten minutes or ten hours later. They believe they are on to a promise and object loudly if you let them down. So, if you don’t want to buy anything, don’t show the slightest interest, even out of politeness. Ignore them if you can, say ‘No!’ firmly in whatever language you think they might understand if you have to. And don’t get separated from the rest of your group. Once isolated you’ll be surrounded and feel pressured into buying something, anything, just to get away. And once you’ve bought from one lad, all the others think you’ll buy from them, too. I succumbed and paid all of 50 Rupees (60p) for 20 postcards after much hassle and had to seek refuge in the coach. The postcards were perfectly good and hardly expensive (though could be bought at 2R each at the roadside booths which is where, I guess, the lads had get them – but hawkers have to make a living, too).

Also having to make a living were the marble merchants whose factory and showroom we were taken to next. The items available were of superb quality, without question. They were also outrageously expensive and not at all the sort of item you’d ever expect to buy on an Indian trip. Yes, you could negotiate a good price; yes, they’d pack everything up safely; yes, insurance was included. Realistically, though, no. Marble purchases just weren’t on our radar, and why would they have been? It was a total mismatch of expectation and not a single purchase was made.

Expectation met disappointment at dinner in the hotel this evening, too. The Maitre-D couldn’t find us a table for seven until nearly 9.30pm and when we were taken to it, it was still littered with the remains of the previous diners’ meal. We had to clear the table ourselves and use what clean cutlery we could salvage. The buffet food was by now barely warm, the service non-existent and the atmosphere nil. The beer was OK but even at 600R (£7.20) the meal was a rip-off. Bed by 10pm to listen to the bangs and whizzes of the Diwali fireworks.

Wednesday 2 November 2005
Up early for a decent breakfast (what a relief!) at the help-yourself buffet with an Anglo-Indian slant. We’re in the coach and out again before too long as we are dropped off for our sunrise visit to the Taj Mahal. Security is very tight as the monument is reckoned to be a major terrorist target. Parking is a way off, so we walk through a tumbledown area to the security checkpoint. A quick but thorough search over, we head up the drive on foot, listening to Vivik’s encouraging patter. What we’re about to see, he tells us, is truly one of the wonders of the world, an experience of a lifetime. I feel a little queasy when I hear this sort of thing as tour guides are not renowned for underselling their prospective wares. We turn a corner and there, framed by an arch, is the Taj itself. Sublime. It’s as though there were nothing else in the world. It sits there, solid but ethereal. The light of dawn is soft and warm, caressing the Taj with a rose tint. Even the attentions of the resident photographers can’t beak the spell. “Photo? Photo?” they chant. “Why not, I think”. We could have a group shot for the equivalent of £10 each. It’s quite a lot but we could probably haggle the price down by at least a half. Sadly, no-one else is interested, which I can’t quite understand. I opt for three solo shots for £7. It’s my Lady Di moment as I try not to pose too much. When I come to pay an hour or so later, I choose the three prints I want and get the other two thrown in free anyway. So far as I am aware, no-one else in the party has patronised the photographers. I’m glad I did.

My 'Lady Di' Moment

I was less sure about the ‘photo-guide’ who persuaded me to follow him round the site setting up pictures of the Taj from all angles. I gave him 1,000R (just over £12) at the end. I did get some decent shots and probably more and better (and certainly more quickly) than had I been left to my own devices but I did feel awkward, particularly when it came to handing the money over. “I am a poor man”, he pleaded. My advice? Be ready. Decide ahead if you’re going to use private guides of any kind at these sites. If you do, be prepared for the embarrassment of the reckoning at the end. And be sure of this: whatever you offer will be considered too little. Just hand it over, express your thanks and walk away. Sometimes the guides will pick you up before you’ve noticed. At first, you assume them to be fellow tourists who have engaged you in friendly conversation. Only slowly does it dawn that you’ve been ensnared and it’s too late to escape. That happened to me inside the central building of the Taj itself. He was very informative and not that expensive (£5, or so) but I felt a fool suckered into the experience.

Dawn is a wonderful time to visit the Taj Mahal. First, it’s not too busy and second, you get the experience of seeing the shrine change colour with the rising sun. If you’re visiting in the summer, you can also get a couple of hours in (and you’ll need at least that long as there are other buildings on the site too, as well as the gardens) before the temperature gets too high for comfort.

Wednesday 2 November 2005
We embark a very long drive to Jaipur along National Highway 11 via Keoladeo Ghana, Dansa and Sanganer. There was rubbish everywhere, of course (this being India), with cows munching merrily through it. Children were moulding fresh cow dung into flat cakes to be left in the sun to dry and used for fuel. Once burned, the ash dung will be turned into toothpaste!

A visit to a Kashmiri carpet factory beckons not long after we leave Agra. The rugs and carpets are magnificent, it must be said, but they are eye-wateringly expensive. The cheapest runs out at £250, the dearest well over £5,000. One of our party, Stephen, bought a mid-range rug for his wife’s birthday. A photograph was taken and printed there and then, so he knows that he receives the right one. If you’re booked on such a tour and wouldn’t mind a new carpet, why not measure up for one before you leave? Although the price seems steep, there’s quite a discount on the UK price, even when duty has been paid.

It’s said you need three things to drive in India: good brakes, a good horn and good luck. I have observed that much more use is made of the horn than of the brakes! We just hope that luck lasts longest.

Utta Pradesh (where we now are) has good farmland and much of the terrain through which we pass is under cultivation. It’s also noticeable that wherever there is a scrap of grass on level earth the boys are out playing cricket against the big skies. The air is heavy with brick dust from the kilns that line the road.

The towns and villages through which we pass are a riot of activity. Everywhere people are swarming around market stalls in the street, hurrying one way or another. Wherever we are, we are of intense interest to children. If we slow at junctions or are brought to a halt in the traffic, the hawkers (many of them little children) appear and thrust their wares, books, trinkets and dolls through the open windows of the coach, both nearside and offside, frantically calling out 200 rupees!, 100 rupees! Amusing at first, the experience galls rapidly. Just beyond one town, we encounter a makeshift roadblock, a tree-trunk rolled out across half the carriageway, to ensure the traffic backed-up in the village allowing maximum selling time and sitting ducks for the street vendors.

A planned stop was for lunch. The roadside restaurant provided a vegetable curry, bread and beer for 310 rupees. Excellent food and good value. Just as important were the clean toilets, a real haven to westerners who, unlike local village people, need more than the pavement or field edge to meet their sanitary needs. This restaurant is also quite a cultural centre with a shop selling not just gifts or a decent quality but books of all kinds, too. It’s quite a surprise to come across the classics of English literature at the local curry house. There are text books for engineering and accountancy alongside tourist guide books with washed-out photographs. Everyone’s taste is catering for.

There’s little to note of the remainder of the drive to Jaipur. Of course, we marvel at the jeeps and trucks overflowing with passengers, crammed inside and hanging on desperately outside or on top. How do they all get to their destinations safely? Perhaps they don’t.

Jaipur arrives by way of squalid outskirts and choking traffic. Agra was peace and tranquillity by comparison. We crawl through the throng to the Raj Mahal Palace, a ‘Heritage Hotel’, a sort of stately home converted for guests. It has an impressive approach along a gracious drive. The chaos of Jaipur will not intrude on us here.

According to the literature, the Raj Mahal Palace has rooms which are of standard size but luxurious. According to me, they are small, dark and airless. Our party has been allocated what appears to have been the stable block and my room (114) does not even have a window! A drink and dinner (beer and meat thali) came to 600 rupees. Slept from 10pm until 5.30am. I woke up in the dark, of course. The room has everything under the sun, except the sun itself.

Thursday 3 October 2005
After breakfast at 7am, we left for the Amber Fort. Although we were due to take elephants to the fort, the queue was too long, so we resorted to jeeps which made short work of the narrow roads. We learned that the long queue for the elephants resulted from a shortage of animals. Only the week before our visit, a German tourist had been killed by an elephant who’d just had enough of bearing his heavy burden up and down the hill day after day. All the suspect elephants had been relieved of their duties. This story has since been reported on a travel programme on television. Our jeep trip back to town nearly proved fatal for the rider of a scooter with whom we had a collision at a junction. The jeep stood firm whilst the rider and the scooter slid in different directions. By some miracle, there was a break in the oncoming traffic and apart from a heated exchange there were no repercussions.

Amber Fort makes a wonderful visit with much to see. For me, the highlight was the ‘Hall of Mirrors’, a jewelled and mirrored building decorated all over. Much less interesting were the two shopping opportunities which followed. A jewellery store did indeed have some exceptional items but given the prices to match I was astonished that six couples actually made purchases. The carpet and fabric store didn’t do quite so well, but they still sold one jacket, six shirts, two lengths of silk, various cushion covers and two sets of table mats and napkins to our group. The lunch stop was welcome but having had a decent breakfast a number of us could only share a few dishes between us: curries, rice, naan bread, you know the sort of thing. 350 rupees (around £4.25) each wasn’t bad.

It had been a tiring morning, so we were glad to take the afternoon off. The pool back at the hotel was welcoming, not just to the guests but to the local pigeon population who come when they fancy a drink or a bath, twenty or more at a time. After a swim, I asked the pool staff about the advertised massage service but they couldn’t help. The buffet dinner was excellent value, three courses for the price of today’s shared lunch).

Last night and this evening we attended a Rajastani puppet show in the hotel gardens. Two brothers and a friend sing, play and operate the puppets and do a fine job. First, a belly dancer struts her stuff most convincingly. She is followed by a risqué ‘Rajastani Michael Jackson’ parody, the content of which cannot decently be described. Two fighting men then battle it out. Finally, the snake charmer experiences mixed fortunes with his cobra. Last night we were also treated to a song about a man with hiccoughs. After the show we are given a demonstration of how the puppets are operated. They are made at home by the operators and their families and are up for sale. How could I resist? (I couldn’t). The troupe say they’d like to take their show to Europe: London or Paris. It’s only a dream – but who knows? The lads all have day jobs but say they can earn up to 4,000 rupees a night between them with their puppet show when the hotel is full. Sometimes, no-one comes. Overall, it pays well.

It seems that in India, religion is a welcome topic of conversation. After the puppet show, I fall into such. The puppeteers ask, without any awkwardness: ‘What is your religion (they cannot imagine you might be an atheist), do you eat meat, do you drink alcohol?’ They have guessed we are Christians and assume we are all ardent practitioners. They are Hindu, they say, but they know a local Australian evangelist, Bob. They help him interpret the stories from the bible, parables mainly, with their puppets. They tell me they like the God, Jesus, and his mother, Miriam, and they seem to have admitted one or both to the pantheon of their saints. Inclusiveness seems to be their watchword and they are very courteous with it. I tell them about our puppet show, Punch and Judy, though I’m not sure they follow the story of the dog, the sausages and the policeman in its entirety. Do we have native songs? I offer up The Foggy, Foggy Dew and play Onward Christian Soldiers on their hand-pumped mini-organ. They are intrigued by my voice and the strange music.

Friday 4 November 2005
First to breakfast a little before 7.30am. It’s a 9.15am start today and the others haven’t risen early. So I have personal attention from three waiters in the breakfast room. There’s much talking with the staff, questions and offerings of food. I accept a marsala omelette, curried rissole potatoes, tomatoes and chicken sliced rounds (a sausage substitute). Toast, preserves and papaya. And tea. Much tea. Time for a walk around the hotel grounds before we leave for the day.

Today is Id-al-Fatr, the end of Ramadan, so the Moslems are on holiday. We take the coach into Jaipur and are let out for a short walk, the first we’ve been allowed, through near-empty streets. Outside the observatory we meet some hawkers. I buy a hat for 250R and a couple of guide books. I don’t mind doing this as the prices, although higher than in the shops (which are closed anyway), are still ridiculously cheap.

At the gate we are charged extra if we want to use a camera and more still for using a video camera. These days, most digital cameras have a video mode anyway. Inside there is a wonderful collection of enormous instruments for measuring the heavens, calculating times and seasons and predicting eclipses of the sun and moon. Every movement of the sun, stars and planets is provided for. This open-air park is the most wonderful place and an evident tribute to Indian culture and learning. To be able to touch these structures, some many metres tall, is a privilege but won’t do them any good in the long run.

We’re off to the city palace of the Maharaja where the museum and courtyards are very fine indeed. The museum displays garments worn by the maharaja’s family, among them saris, polo outfits and a suit for the playing of billiards. The art gallery shows carpets, paintings and books housed in a public audience room. Outside in the large terracotta-coloured courtyard, two huge silver jugs are displayed and well-guarded. It is said they were made for the maharaja upon receiving the invitation to the coronation of the King-Emperor George V. The maharaja was convinced that drinking London water might be the end of him, so commissioned these jugs, reputed to be the largest items of silver in the world, to hold Ganges water for the journey and his time in the UK. How well the Ganges water travelled isn’t recorded but the maharaja came back safe and sound.

Our intention was to return to the hotel by bicycle rickshaws which cut through the heavy traffic with shocking alacrity. We were dissuaded from this by our guide who explained that Indian Moslems were particularly excitable and unpredictable at festival time, sometimes considering outsiders such as Hindus and Christians appearing in their midst as a provocation. Although we couldn’t quite believe we would be in mortal danger, we thought it best, on balance, to trust the guide, so we reluctantly accepted the offer of the coach for our return journey. As it happened, the police later suspended the rickshaw service and the city centre as they had sensed exactly this trouble brewing. The coach was caught up on the ring road, which everyone now had to take. It made hold-ups on the M25 seem a cinch.

Eventually back at the hotel it was way past lunchtime, so I ordered a cheese and tomato sandwich (playing safe with room service) and a beer. Service was quick but the sandwich turned out to be cheese and ham. Querying this with the waiter I was told, ‘no tomato’, so I made do with the replacement filling. Having just finished eating, there came a knock at the door. The waiter was back. Could I please return the sandwich? It wasn’t mine after all – there had been a mix-up. We both stared speechlessly at the plate, empty but for a few crumbs. As he had brought my cheese and tomato sandwich with him, I suggested he took that to the other guest and explained, ‘no ham.’ He accepted the advice and I trust the sandwich was enjoyed, correct filling or not.

To fill the afternoon I booked a full body medicated Ayairdeva and head massage. Didn’t think 1,000R too dear. Never having had a massage before I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would a slender dusky maid arrive with showers of sweet-smelling rose petals and place gently-scented candles around my dark little room? Or would a brute of a sumo-style wrestler pummel me with gnarled unforgiving fists? I was on the point of cancelling when the door was opened and in stepped my tormentor. Dusky, yes, but flabbily rounded, a man of an uncertain age lurched towards me. ‘Clothes off!’ he announced. ‘English?’ he enquired. I squeaked a guilty ‘yes’. ‘ALL clothes off!’ was his response. I have learned on my travels that ‘foreign English’, even in countries where English is widely understood, has a directness unfamiliar at home. Requests often come across as orders and this was no exception. I imagine that English people interpret the order (request) to remove clothes as an invitation to shed a shirt or a couple of socks only, so the additional demand ‘ALL clothes off’ is the only way to make such a modest race comply with such a drastic course of action. Of course, in the face of his insistence and with 1,000R at stake, I complied. Prone on the bed, I awaited developments. ‘I will start with your bottom!’ he announced with glee. And he did. Thankfully, by ‘bottom’ he meant my feet, the bottom end of my body, so things got off to a better start than I had suddenly feared. The massage took an hour. It was the most peculiar sensation. I wasn’t entirely comfortable but was fascinated all the same. I wouldn’t rush back to have a massage (I’d prefer the flotation tank I once experienced in an alternative health clinic at Clapham Common) but if offered one at a reasonable rate when time was dragging ….

When it was all over, I had two particular thoughts: my feet felt as though they could walk a hundred miles and the rest of me was quite exhausted, which was a pity as we were due out in just another 30 minutes.

Having changed some money, we were loaded into a couple of cars for a tour of Samode village and the famous Palace Hotel. The journey was hair-raising. At full speed we overtook slower traffic only to find ourselves being overtaken at the very same time by even faster traffic. Our arrival was just in time – we would have been gibbering idiots had the journey been a minute longer. We tumbled out of the cars, a bundle of quivering sweat.

The village itself is a tumbledown affair but the Palace Hotel spectacular almost beyond belief. As befitting the home of a maharajah, everything is sumptuous, inside and out. We were treated to a tour of the public areas where even the most humble corridor is a riot of decoration. This is no curry-house flock wallpaper gone mad: this is exquisite and tasteful, the very best of hangings, mosaics, painting and carving. If it weren’t for the steps up and down at every turn, you could wander transfixed from room to room, looking this way and that at the next extraordinary sight.

The sumptuos interior of the palace at Samode

We retraced our steps to the hotel entrance. What had looked magnificent against the backdrop of the setting sun had now been transformed into a fairy-tale palace by the magic of thousands of white lights as the façade was picked out by the twinkling bulbs against the dark sky.

There’s a central courtyard, full of atmosphere, dotted with cocktail tables with guests sipping colourful drinks. We join them and are entertained by a thrilling father and sons (aged 7 and 13) act. Dad plays the instruments, sometimes something stringed, sometimes a native oboe or the like, and is joined by the younger brother on the hand drums. His older brother dances beautifully. Both boys sing earnestly and the ensemble is divine. The music is strange and the dancing beguiles. The whole thing is hypnotic. The ladies love the family – in fact, we all do, so we give generously at the end of the display. The boys bat their eyes at the ladies who find a few extra coins as a result. Whatever they’ve earned, it is well deserved. It seems the father is committed to maintaining the old music and dance of his people. The elder son wants to be a doctor.

The beguiling dancer

We’re called to an excellent supper of mulligatawny soup, impressively varied buffet (the fish was excellent) and a choice of puddings. Including beer, it came to 1,000R. The trip home was not quite as wild as there was little traffic but there was no let-up in the speed. It’s been a tiring day, so even the pool party outside and the bangs and fizzing of the attendant fireworks don’t stop me from falling asleep at 10.15pm.

Saturday 5 November 2005
Upon waking, it occurs to me that last night’s fireworks might have had something to do with Guy Fawkes but that would be too fanciful. We’re leaving Jaipur today and the hotel staff, who have been properly laid-back until now go into overdrive. Nothing is too much for them at breakfast. Plates of food are brought direct to the table from the buffet, cups are replenished before they’re empty. ‘Sir’ gives way to ‘Sahib’. ‘When exactly are you to be leaving, Sahib?’ ‘9am? Very good, Sahib’. Of course, this is all to ensure that at 9am all are in place so that ‘Sahib’ can show his generosity to each and every of the many grateful servants the hotel has on its books. Unfortunately, ‘Sahib’ is rather short of loose rupees, so a lump sum is given to the one with instructions to share it out between the many, a recipe for fraternal conflict but it can’t be helped.

A brief photo-opportunity at the Palace of the Winds (a wafer-thin structure giving the impression of a substantial building) gets us out onto the streets again at last. The locals eye us with a casual indifference as they go about their daily grind. There’s such a contrast between the poor Indian and the rich tourist whose worlds never properly meet. The journey is broken at a café (where the toilets are advertised as the best in the area) and I buy a Coke® and a couple of necklaces made by the owner’s daughters at 100R each. The Coke® is fine, the necklaces are charming, but the toilets I give a miss.

We arrive at the Ranthambore Regency Hotel just as lunch is served, so we eat before we check in. It’s a quick turnaround as the afternoon tiger safari is due to start. No tigers are in evidence but there are plenty of deer, some jackals, monkeys, a mongoose and a variety of birds. It seems we were the unlucky jeep as the other two spotted the striped quarry: one even saw two of the beasts. Back to the hotel for a cold shower, of necessity rather than choice. Even the beer seems warmer. A knock at the door brings a message from our guide. He will not be with us for the next day, so he has appointed me as ‘leader’ in his stead. I hope there’s not too much to do! There’s singing and dancing in the courtyard around the hotel pool, so I sit there for a while and enjoy the entertainment. A very good buffet supper ends the day.

Sunday 6 November 2005
5.30am call for 6am tiger safari. Yesterday, we were all Brits but this morning we are joined by an American couple. We know they are Americans because we they have turned up in the standard dress of the American abroad: loud, Hawaiian-style shirts and golfing pants. He sports a huge camera with a formidable tripod and a large array of lenses. If makes my £80 Vivitar® camera look ridiculous. As the Americans are the last to board, only two seats remain – and these are not together. ‘Guys’, he says, ‘my wife needs to sit with me. May we sit here?’ He eyes the couple in the front seats, the best available. The English couple move to make way for them. The rest of us shuffle around the jeep and I end up behind the American man. He’s talkative this morning and quite loud with it, so it’s not entirely clear whether he’s talking to his wife only or to all of us. Fortunately, his remarks do not seem to require an answer. At the entrance to the drives we are directed left (the routes are shared out between the vehicles) and we spot the tiger tracks leading in the opposite direction. We curse our luck but are determined to make the best of it. Even the run-of-the-mill animals are elusive this morning. A few deer skulk under the trees; a couple of wild boars, too. A kingfisher (bird, not beer) adds a bit of colour. We’re shown where the tigers hole up for the winter, a couple of natural caves close to a water pool. On we go, dusty and dejected. We round a corner and see another vehicle stopped ahead, everyone standing. It has to be a tiger! We accelerate up the road, just in time to see the beast at the side of the road walking away nonchalantly.

The loping tigress

Now we’re all standing up, pointing our cameras at this most remarkable sight. But what’s this? My American friend is still seated. He’s frantically fiddling with his camera lenses. He can’t juggle all his equipment at once. If he curses, I don’t hear him, but the tigress is long gone by the time he’s set up. ‘Gee, Honey,’ he says, ‘did you get a shot of that tiger?’ It seems she didn’t, believing (not unreasonably, given the evidence) that was his job. We are jubilant, but the American man is restrained. He didn’t even see the tiger, he tells his wife. She recounts her brief sighting, telling him (quite rightly) that it was a real privilege to see the animal in its natural habitat, so different and so much better, of course, than in a zoo. Her account doesn’t seem to cheer him up. The rest of the trip (four hours in total) cannot compare with those wonderful thirty seconds.

Our breakfast was served upon our return at 10.30am, so didn’t bother with lunch as a final safari was booked at 2pm. Heading off in a different direction, we visit some large lakes to find osprey, and herons of three varieties: purple, white and open-billed. There are crocodiles lurking in the shallows sharing space with soft-shelled turtles, frogs, wild boar, deer and probably much else. We saw tiger prints from this morning’s safari but the tiger has gone to ground – and I don’t blame her. It can’t be much of a life being pursued day after day by jeeps of snapping tourists. The killed deer we see had fallen victim to a jungle dog, we’re confidently told. A couple of jackals run past in the mid distance.

The pre-dinner session is occupied with wrestling the shower into some order. The hot tap runs cold for fifteen minutes, hot for five, then cold again. The cold tap is more reliable. Having a warm shower is a matter of split-second timing which, on this occasion, I get about right, hopping out just as the water comes to the boil. It’s a wasteful game, waterwise.

As I’m the ‘leader’ I’m given the responsibility of collecting and apportioning the tips for the guide, the driver and the ‘boy’. The Voyages Jules Verne advice was a certain sum but our guide, who will return tomorrow, casually suggested a different (and higher) sum before he left us. Much discussion ensues, most of it friendly, and at last a quite different third figure is fixed upon. I seem to spend most of that night in my room with piles of rupees and pounds sterling getting the books to balance.

Monday 7 November
It’s farewell to Ranthambore and onto the coach for a long and tedious drive to Agra. The lunch stop is welcome (we’d been to the restaurant before, on our way to Jaipur) but it’s a dull grind mile after mile along dreadful roads. Even the near-misses bore us. I amuse myself by calculating our average speed using the kilometre markers along the way. On a good stretch of road we can exceed 30mph. At long last we fetch up once more at the first hotel we’d stayed in. A different room, not quite so well-appointed, but fine.

As it was our last night out, we planned a visit to a local restaurant. The guide was happy to make a recommendation, of course, and taxis were booked to carry us to and fro. We were warmly received and set about choosing from the menu. Conscious of the risk of ordering a ridiculous combination of dishes, I asked the waiter to bring me a complete curry meal, and others did the same. The table looked quite splendid as dish after dish was brought. To my great delight some vivid coloured drinks arrived. I’d seen these in the guide books but hadn’t had the chance to sample. The drinks were shared out, some green, mine red. They were utterly undrinkable! Sucking tepid dust through a damp rag would have been better. It all added to the fun, I suppose. The evening was judged a success after all – and it was the only occasion we had escaped from our minders into the dark streets of India.

The late evening was spent reminiscing with the group about the sights and smells we’d encountered, helped along by the beer. It had been a great experience and I’d got the pictures to prove it.

Tuesday 8 November 2005
Breakfast and then waiting. Our flight not being due to leave until the early afternoon, we were marooned in the hotel reception sounded by baggage. The hotel shops opened up for us and provided a little entertainment, though at a price. Eventually we were on our way. At the airport more fun awaited.

Ours was the only flight out but the organisational acumen that had seen us in efficiently had deserted the authorities. Only one baggage screening machine was available but the powers that be had decreed that three queues should be formed, two inside the terminal and the third outside. The queues inched painfully forwards until they came to merge in front of the single machine. At that point, the lead people in each line bundled their bags around themselves so as to block the progress of the other lines with the inevitable effect that a near-perfect stalemate was achieved. As the blockage became apparent further down the line, people further back spread their luggage wider still and wider to stake their claim to space choking the system entirely. Logic would have dictated a single line, no matter how long. The British ability to queue would have triumphed and the process eased considerably. Airports are stressful enough places and to layer passengers with extra trouble is hardly a good thing. But more was to come. The check-in desks were fully manned but painfully slow. On reaching the desks the reason became clear. Everyone was subject to the closest interrogation. Why had we been in India? How long had we stayed? Where had we been? Were we really whom we claimed to be? This was overkill, surely – we were trying to leave the country, after all. I was only glad they weren’t so bothered who we were or where we were going when we arrived or we might never have made it in! But what’s this? There are raised voices at the next-door desk. A couple of women, a mother and daughter as it turns out, have been on a VJV day trip to see the Taj Mahal (yes, these things are available – remember the chap on the way out?) but the Indian staff don’t believe a word of it. A supervisor has been called. He explains that there must have been some mistake – the women are confused – no-one would come such a way for such a short time. They must be at the wrong terminal. Yes, their names are indeed on the passenger list for the departing flight (and this must be some mistake) and the authorities apologise for the error, but would the ladies please leave the airport as they cannot travel on the plane. The VJV representatives, mainly the Chelsea blondes who brought us in, are not to be seen. My business now finished, I seek one out and suggest she intervenes before there’s an international incident. It’s not a prospect she relishes, it’s clear, but it is her job and she, or one of her colleagues, ought to have been on the ball and present at the desks to solve any problems. ‘But I’ve got to get home!’ pleads the mother as the daughter dissolves in tears. ‘This was meant to be a lovely birthday present from my husband but I’m now caught up in a nightmare!’

Once processed, we’re motioned towards the departure security staff. We’re questioned once more and passports given a forensic examination. Then comes the search. All coats and jumpers are to be removed. Each of us is joined in a little cubicle for a thorough pat-down search. Any lumps, no matter how natural, have to be accounted for. Am I carrying any weapons, any guns, any bombs? I assure my tormentor that I’m not, I’ve only been here for a holiday and I’m looking forward to being home. He’s satisfied of my bona fides and quite suddenly I’m disgorged into the freedom of the departure lounge. I’m relieved that some thirty minutes later the two women who’d faced an unexpected additional week as guests of the Raj join the throng, clearly relieved, even elated. It turns out the older woman’s husband is a writer for a national newspaper. Her tale should make interesting reading in a quiet week for news.

At last on board, we notice it’s the same plane that brought us out, the one that had to fly at an angle, make an additional stop and operate with dodgy toilets. As the steward comes round I remark that it’s a pity there’s not been time to correct the toilet problem. His irate response indicates I’m not the first to point this out. ‘We’re not obliged to provide any toilets, Sir’ is his ridiculous reply – as though we should be grateful for the bucket provided. In fact the standard of service from the cabin crew is appalling (though the worst I have experienced was on another occasion when a charter flight was staffed by a Bulgarian crew). Food is served with a snarl, requests for water ignored. It’s a great relief to land at last. I resolve never knowingly to fly with the airline again.

India seems a world away as I bid farewell to the party. It’s certainly a whole world of its own, many worlds in one, in fact. I’ve only scratched the face of India but of all the trips I’ve made this sabbatical, it’s the one which has left the longest-lasting and deepest impression.