Our four children were raised on adventurous holidays – we’ve explored Guatemala and Belize, driven around the coast of Sinai, and taken a disastrous yet memorable journey in a 4x4 through Western Australia. But three of the four kids are now adults, so we may not be taking many or, indeed, any more long holidays together. We’ll all miss these travels.
In the 1980s, I travelled to some of the major Indian cities on business and it left an indelible mark on me. I wanted to return with my family to share the contradictions that Indian cities throw up, and visit some of the obvious and less obvious tourist attractions. Last Christmas, we decided to grab our last chance for an adventure together and headed for India.
We planned to spend the first few days in Mumbai, probably the most cosmopolitan of India’s cities and the gentlest introduction to the country’s, sometimes challenging and always surprising, culture. But, two weeks before we were due to arrive in the city, the terrorist attacks took place, so we switched our flights to Delhi.
Delhi certainly doesn’t offer a gentle introduction to India. Within minutes of leaving the airport, we plunged into its chaos. Our car battled with weaving tuk tuks; mopeds carrying families of four; cyclists bearing loads that would make British white van man say “more than me job’s worth to carry that much, mate”; cows; stray dogs; and beautiful street kids running alongside waving and hoping for something from us. All to an incessant soundtrack of car horns.
To reach our gated hotel complex we turned down a road lined with families sleeping without shelter; we knew that we’d done something right with the kids when they started to show discomfort about such a contrast.
That night, we walked to Connaught Place where we ate a brilliant Thali meal; £13 for six of us. (Well, five, the 11-year-old wasn’t quite ready to embrace the local cuisine so he held out for a McDonald’s, only to find they don’t serve beef burgers in the land of the sacred cow.)
The next morning we took a cycle rickshaw ride through the narrow streets of Old Delhi to the Red Fort. It seemed as if the city’s 14 million residents had come out just to sell us something. It was hard not to hand over a few rupees to the enterprising kids selling postcards; we now have a collection of Indian tourist sights taken by the world’s worst photographer.
Our next stop was Udaipur in Rajasthan, a city of palaces set on and around a series of man-made lakes. We stayed in the beautiful Lake Palace Hotel, once the summer home of a maharajah and now a place of unbelievable luxury and amazing service. This island hotel is reached by polished wood launch, manned by “sailors” in crisp uniforms. Men in traditional dress held decorated sunshades over our heads as we walked up the red carpet to reception where rose petals gently fell from above.
The Lake Palace’s rooms are amazing, the gardens luscious, the restaurants superb – and 15 times the price of eating in a restaurant in town. But when we ventured into Udaipur we were tempted by the delicious smells from the street stalls to try some pakora. Dinner cost us £1.60 each – except for the 11-year-old, who still hadn’t succumbed and survived that evening on popcorn and fizzy pop.
From Udaipur, we took a flight to Jaisalmer, within striking distance of the Pakistani border. After the Mumbai terrorist attacks on 26 November, tensions between the two countries ran high and some posturing was going on. We landed en route at Jodhpur and sat on the runway only to be told that the Indian air force was engaged in operations and wouldn’t let us fly on to Jaisalmer. We collected our bags and were led to the airport entrance – where we were told we were, actually, going to fly. Our bags and our bodies were X-rayed half a dozen times; our boarding passes were stamped by umpteen military officials and we were off again, landing soon after on a tatty military airbase – aka Jaisalmer’s airport.
Jaisalmer is a Unesco world heritage site. Thousands of people live in its moody medieval sandstone fort with its intricately carved temples and havellis. It is stunning – and an eye-opener. Hundreds of cows, pigs, goats and dogs compete to eat the waste that is regularly poured out of windows into the street – even down the walls of this historic fort – and to drink from the open sewers. It’s hard to take a step without getting cow dung or dog poo on your shoes.
It’s harder still to fend off the stunningly made up, amazingly bejewelled and brightly clothed Rajasthani gypsies. There are seven-year-old magicians, four-year-old dancers, six-year-old trapeze artists, and crippled beggars at every turn. A young man spotted that one of our bags had a broken handle and mended it using canvas, a sturdy needle and twine.
Never mind the amazing architecture, this is human visual stimulation par excellence. It really gets the brain cells working overtime and family conversation flows. While the constant badgering can be a hassle, the enterprise shown by most in earning enough to survive is inspiring; what looks like squalor to us is actually pretty sustainable. Nothing goes to waste.
None of us had ever undertaken an “epic” train journey and the image of traversing India by train was a seductive one. Our next destination was Calcutta, and to get there we had to take a 19-hour trip on a sleeper train. We booked first-class, air conditioned and expected an old carriage that would perhaps be a faded version of the Orient Express. We should have known better. We spent a cold, cramped night on vinyl beds in a tatty 1960s carriage with just a curtain to keep out the snoring hordes, the mice and what looked like cockroaches.
After the dark prevented us from spotting wildlife, we ate our tiffin of vegetable curries, tandoori chicken, and roti (which the 11-year-old had started to enjoy). We played rummy, watched a film on a laptop and giggled as one by one we had to enter an open doorway to use a rancid drop toilet that went straight on to the tracks. We got off feeling awful. It was an experience to laugh about; never to be forgotten, or repeated.
Calcutta is a city that tourists normally bypass, but I had been there a few times on business in the mid-1980s before the Indians renamed it Kolkata. My visits back then had had a profound influence on me – they made me more compassionate and helped me to develop a social conscience.
Through my relationship with Action Aid, I arranged for the family to see the agency’s wonderful work with children and women at the Solo Bigha squatter slum. I am sure that my children will have a greater understanding of the problems that humanity faces after seeing the living conditions of these slum dwellers. Up to nine people are crammed into a mud-walled room and spend a third of the year having to sleep on raised decks above filthy monsoon waters.
The efforts of agencies such as Action Aid may only barely scratch the surface, but thank God they are out there trying. It was uplifting as a father to hear my kids discussing their desire to do some volunteer work.
Like all large Indian cities, Calcutta feels as if it shouldn’t work. The population stands at about 19 million people and it seems they are all out on the streets at once, shouting, blaring their horns, playing music, cooking food, trying to make a meagre living. Formal cricket matches are played on bare bits of parkland that are covered in litter and some of the hundreds of thousands of the city’s stray dogs. It shouldn’t work but it does, and Calcutta’s people are so welcoming that a request for a bat and bowl in cricket nets with them is greeted with joy.
We walked along the banks of the Ganges, past burning funeral pyres, holy men submersing people in the muddy waters, through colourful flower markets, past amazing colonial buildings. The Victoria Memorial and government buildings are all protected, but the colonial villas, warehouses, schools, hospitals and hotels aren’t; many are full of squatters and falling down. For anyone who appreciates architectural history, Calcutta is the ultimate eye candy.
A Hemingway winter expedition wouldn’t be complete without something going awry at Christmas. This year we sat at Calcutta airport waiting for a delayed low-cost flight to the Andaman Islands, where our aim was to spend some money in a place still recovering from the 2004 tsunami.
The plan was to finish our holiday in the sun – which had been elusive – on some languid palm-fringed islands. But we started to wonder what we were letting ourselves in for when we arrived at our hotel for the night in Port Blair. It said on our itinerary that the hotel was a “beach resort”, but the nearest beach was a 7km cab ride away and the girls lasted just 15 minutes on the beach before they could no longer take the pestering from locals asking to have their picture taken with them.
On Boxing Day, we made a 5am start to the island of Havelock. The ferry, a giant floating sardine can, left at 6.15am, after we’d spent an hour jostling for tickets. It was impossibly hot inside yet lovely outside, but there was nowhere to enjoy the dawn sun because of the diesel fumes and the cockroaches. Five hours later, we arrived in a litter-strewn harbour.
The fridge didn’t work in our hotel – neither did the air con nor the TV – and the phones were down. But it was lovely; the days were sunny and the temperatures 29C, cooled by sea breezes. We visited Radha Nagar beach: set against a backdrop of jungle, the wide beach offered gentle surf, rock pools and snorkelling that was like swimming in an aquarium.
Like everywhere you venture in India, the lows can soon become highs. Despite various hassles, and the struggle to find decent food, Havelock and Radha Nagar beach were a great end to a holiday that was much more than a holiday. It was a gift to us all of an understanding of the world. Above all, it got us talking and thinking and we have memories that will stay with us for ever.
How to get there
Wayne Hemingway travelled with TransIndus (020-8566 2729; transindus.com). An 18-day itinerary costs from £2,798 per person, based on two sharing, including flights from Heathrow to Delhi via Dubai with Emirates (emirates.com); internal flights; accommodation across India and the Andaman Island on a B&B basis; transfers; guides; and all excursions.Reuse content