It's India, darling
Jane Woolridge relives the Raj era on a private tour through one of India's most fascinating regions.
The white-gloved waiter brings the freshly squeezed juice to our banquette framed by white drapes. Soon, a canopied boat will ferry us from the gardens of the 17th-century garden palace across the city's centrepiece lake to the fabled palace of the Maharana of the House of Mewar.
The modern world may be flat, but at this moment we're in the India of a glorious past, of jewelled palaces and geometric gardens, tiger preserves and the exquisite white marble mausoleum that marks a timelessly obsessive romance. For two weeks we'll be chauffeured through fabled Rajasthan on a private tour in a gleaming white Ambassador, the iconic conveyance of India post-Raj.
The tab: less than US$2000 (NZ$2268) for bed-and-breakfast, car and driver. And yes, that's for two.
With other meals, guides, museums, tips and the doctor – we'll get to that – our holiday comes to less than US$100 per person per day, plus airfare and shopping.
No, we didn't languish in the five-star private enclaves that grace sleek magazine covers – though we did stay in several royal-owned boutique hotels that made us feel like pampered guests of a bygone time. And while our meals weren't prepared by the stars of the MasterChef India TV series, we ate well enough on dal, chicken korma and the occasional plate of pasta.
What a change from my last trip to India, some 20 years ago. Then, little was computerised–, phones rarely worked and travelling anywhere entailed endless forms and even longer queues. Today any English speaker can easily catch the Metro from the airport to New Delhi and book arrangements from train tickets to tiger safaris online.
ut The Husband has declared that he's past his do-it-yourself-in-the-developing-world days. But we're also not in for a group tour. And why should we deal with the hassles of luggage and public transportation when Namaste India Tours – a small, family-run company highly recommended by a friend – can take care of the details for such a reasonable price?
The website was enough to convince us.
Learn this phrase early in your trip: "Ye hai India, darling." (Pronounced yea hay India, darling.) This is your mantra whenever something goes wrong, when things don't move fast enough for you, when the road is blocked by a cow, when you haggle ferociously for 15 minutes to reach an agreement on the price of a bracelet and as you proudly leave with your purchase the shopkeeper throws in a second one for free, when a 6-year-old street beggar tugs on your elbow and offers you a handful of berries, when the lights go out as the sun comes up, when the lights go out as the sun goes down... "This is India, darling."
At least, we knew, we'd be dealing with people with a sense of humour and a firm grip on the realities of frustration.
We opted for a trip to Rajasthan's highlights in "legacy" lodgings - an upgrade from the lesser priced clean-but-basic offerings - with an itinerary tailored to meet our interests and time frame. We were welcome to choose our own lodgings or mix-and-match with those offered by Namaste. A handful of emails with Jawahar, Namaste's owner, and our plan was set. Since Jawahar takes no credit cards, we'd pay on arrival.
True to promise, a white-clad driver, Mr Hukam, picked us up at the Delhi airport at the appointed hour. He became our guardian, ferrying us from city to city, arranging guides on request, directing us to tourist-savvy shops, advising us on appropriate prices, pointing out the best camel ride operator. No-one could have taken better care of us.
The man was an ace behind the wheel, which is no small feat in a country where a typical highway drive involves motorbikes-for-four, taxis for 12, the occasional camel – often hauling a massive canvas bag heavy with hay – and frequent trucks driving the wrong way up the "shoulder" of the two-lane road. But driving was, we figured, the best way to make this trip through a netherworld wedged between historic fantasy and a Flat World future of glassy "technical institutes" sprouting throughout the countryside. We booked our trip in an Ambassador, the white boxy Indian car based on the 1958 Morris Oxford with curved roof and fenders and circular headlights so adorable you almost expect to see eyelashes. Hindustan Motors still makes them, and Namaste offers service in them as a nod to Return-to-the-Raj travellers like us. The modern version has air conditioning – a necessity in India at every time of year – and reasonable shock absorbers. One of Namaste's modern sedans would likely have been more comfortable, but where's the romance in that? Thanks to Mr Hukam, our "king of Indian roads" appeared freshly washed for every outing.
We landed in Delhi on the Holi – a rite of spring largely characterised by throwing coloured powders in Day-Glo pink, purple, red, yellow at anyone foolish enough to venture out. As a result, we got started on our day tour late, and many sites were closed – providing an early opportunity to get into the "It's India, Darling" mode. The simple air of festivity made up for anything we missed; families of four packed – illegally – on a single scooter, girls in their best clothes strolled through the grounds of the 16th-century Humayun's tomb, crowds picnicked near the War Memorial Arch.
Soon enough we are hurtling down highways, dodging cars, motorbikes and general insanity, and we understand all too well why Mr Hukam has stopped to pay homage at a temple on the highway just beyond Delhi. It would take the grace of every deity in the pantheon to ensure safety.
Cities give way to fields worked by women in bright saris and roadways clogged with camels and horse carts, cargo trucks decked with garlands, tractors, cows, Jeep taxis with a dozen inside. And, as we approach Jaipur, elephants chalked with elaborate designs – leftovers from the elephant festival we've just missed – accompany us on the road.
Our Jaipur lodging turns out to be the most beautiful of the trip, a renovated haveli, or private mansion, owned by a royal family. (India boasts multiple royal families, a hangover from the time of regional potentates.) Two dozen rooms flank a three-level courtyard, with a sunny pool and carved rooftop breezeway on top; breakfast is served in a white banquet room adorned with frescos and chandeliers that at once is both stunning and simple. Our corner room features high ceilings, colonial furniture, a comfy bed large enough for the 6-foot-4-inch husband and a fresh new bathroom.
Other lodgings aren't quite as atmospheric, but all are comfortable and clean. One features a wide chair swing on a breezy balcony; at another, we're served a simple private rooftop dinner in view of a lake and centuries-old palace. When one hotel features a surly staff, poor air conditioning and shabby grounds a little too reminiscent of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel pre-renovation stage, Mr Hakum swiftly calls Jawahar, who has us swept away to a clean, friendly and blessedly cool guesthouse nearby.
The one drawback to several of the lodgings is their distance from the city centre; even with Mr Hakum perpetually at our call, we would have preferred the option of wandering to restaurants and shops on our own.
Our agenda is dotted with stops at workshops producing expensive carvings, weavings and miniature paintings, and we're torn between fascination with a world where commercial goods are still wrought by hands, and a feeling that we're walking ATM machines. Yet even on the occasions when we decide to forgo a shopping stop, Mr Hakum and the ever-gleaming Ambassador remain our cheerful companions.
Our itinerary through Rajasthan calls for visits to the capital of Delhi, the pink city of Jaipur, Pushkar (famed for its annual camel fair, which unfortunately we'll miss), the lake-side palaces of Udaipur, the fort city of Bundi, the tiger preserve of Ranthambhore, Agra for the Taj Mahal, and back to Delhi.
And generally things go according to plan, in that Ye Hai India kind of way. Jaipur's lacy Hawal Mahar palace is closed the day we visit (just as well; on my last trip, I literally passed out from heat in a corner of its stairwell), but we're completely charmed by our elephant ride up to the maze-like Amber Fort.
We get thrown off course by road closures and end up on a long detour through the fields on the way to Bundi, but still get there early enough in the evening to witness the street procession – complete with marching band and veiled bride on a jewel-deck horse – that is part of a betrothal ceremony tying two pre-teens in a future marriage. A miles-long parade of pilgrims slows our arrival to Agra – not that we care, as we wonder at the queue of men swathed in kerchiefs against the dust, women balancing huge bundles atop their heads and music blaring from the loudspeakers hung on resting tents along the path.
No, the one thing that truly disrupts us is queasiness that turns into full stomach revolt, causing us to cancel our camel ride in Pushkar and ask the hotel to call a doctor ASAP. The ensuing illness – and we've been so careful! – causes us to spend an extra night in Pushkar. Mr Hukam graciously rearranges the rest of the itinerary so we'll still be able to hit all the highlights.
As unpleasant as it is, the incident also brings out the kindness that I have witnessed before amid India's unfathomable cacophony. The doctor arrives promptly with antibiotics and rehydration salts in his pocket and then tells us to pay whatever we wish, finally allowing that US$12 is the going rate. (We pay $20, and are grateful we've done so when a second visit from him is required.)
Mr Hukam goes to the camel operator and persuades him to return our camel-riding fee, then checks in frequently to see that we're as comfortable as possible. When The Husband's jelly belly persists, an octogenarian hotelier in Udaipur – member of yet another royal family – sits with me and waits while "the only doctor our family trusts" makes his slow way from the hospital.
The Husband back in action, we resume our journey, taking in the vintage Rolls Royces and Model Ts in the auto collection of a polo-playing royal, palaces converted to five-star hotels, mud villages, parading pilgrims, ramshackle "communities" right out of Slumdog Millionaire, the exquisite sandstone temple that served as the final resting place for the Tom Wilkinson character in the original Marigold Hotel.
Silk clothes and cotton table goods, sandstone carvings, embroidered sandals and a camel-hide purse find their way into our bags. No tiger appears on our safari, but we hear from a family that shares our safari truck that the day we left, they spotted a sleek striped cat just feet from the jungle path.
At last, we reach the Taj Mahal. Years ago, taxis motored right up to the elephant-sized gates, navigating easily through a relative handful of local people and touring foreigners. Today, the grounds are mobbed with tourists and local visitors reaping benefits of India's growing prosperity, and cars must drop visitors at the park's edge. A brief haggle with a pedicab driver, and we're bouncing through stalls hawking Taj Mahal snow globes and key rings on our way to the sculptured garden.
Built by Shah Jahan in 1632 to honour his beloved wife, the project nearly bankrupted the royal treasury, leading the shah's sons to imprison their father before he could spend the remainder of their inheritance on the black marble version planned for the opposite side of the muddy Ganges river. Unlike so many other world wonders, this one outshines all photos and imagination, and though I've been here twice before, the massive white marble mausoleum still leaves me breathless.
As does India itself. Sure, the humidity is stifling, the crowds oppressive, the traffic maddening. But as the Exotic Marigold Hotel residents discover, the welcome is as warm as the sun on a camel's back. Ye hai India, darling – indeed.
Namaste India Tours offers a car-and-driver who doubles as a general helpmate with two levels of hotels. For those who prefer more upscale accommodations mixed in, owner Jawahar recommends making your own reservations online at "splurge" hotels. Those travellers who prefer to make all their own lodging arrangements are welcome to do so. In 2015, legacy hotels cost 5500 rupees per night (about NZ$115) and include breakfast and taxes for two; a small sedan with driver costs about NZ$70 per day. Less expensive hotels and larger cars are also available. The company focuses on Rajasthan and city tours of Delhi. namasteindiatours.com
For independent travellers, India is relatively manageable with a good guidebook, though frequently maddening.
Many companies offer organised tours for a relatively reasonable price. Several companies now offer river cruises on the easternmost parts of the Ganges, including Vantage (vantagetravel.com), Uniworld (uniworld.com) and Pandaw (pandaw.com).