Saturday, 18 October 2008

First Impressions of India

India 2: Welcome to Ahmedabad

Le Meridien in Ahmedabad is a little odd. It is simultaneously amazing and disappointing. It is beautifully decorated with marble pillars, polished brass railings, glass chandeliers, and bowls of water with floating flower petals adding colour to the lobby. At first glance it looks like no expense has been spared. But once you get past the surface layer the reality seeps through, that this is just a facsimile of an expensive Western hotel, where something got lost in translation.

The bedrooms are large, with 2 beds, a desk, a comfy armchair and a large (42”) flat panel TV. A small table sits in front of the window with two fruit vaguely resembling an apple, and a knife. The first thing I noticed on walking into the room though was a damp smell, like laundry that hasn’t dried properly, which has not gone away over time. I think it’s something to do with the air-conditioning system. I started to unpack and found that there was only one small drawer, barely large enough for a couple of T-shirts. Maybe they don’t use drawers in India. The room itself is just a little bit dark and dingy. Looking out of the room I could see the river with a bridge over it, and between the hotel and the river I could see a cluster of run-down shacks that appeared to be some sort of slum settlement. I was struck by the contrast between the plush hotel and the poverty below, and felt a small pang of guilt.

After settling in we went for a swim. The indoor swimming pool (why they made it an indoor pool when it’s 35 degrees outside in October I have no idea!) is a magnificent affair, a long room with light marble floor and walls, and white Greco-Roman columns lining the poolside. At the end of the pool is a white stone carving of a mermaid sitting and holding a seashell from which streams of water trickle into the pool below. Between the columns are art deco painted murals of half dressed cherubic figures, much like you would see in an art gallery. A spiral wrought iron staircase takes you down from the changing room to the poolside. Five minutes into the swim, I discovered just how impractical this excessive design is – marble and water do not mix! The result is a slippery and treacherous floor which is pretty much impossible to cross in bare feet. I found this to my cost as I got out of the pool and slipped over and landed with a thud by the poolside. I stubbed my toe in the process. A very concerned pool attendant fussed over me and helped me to my feet.

I then went to check out the sauna and steam room, both of which are fully functional but have complicated control panels with dials and switches to set the temperature, time etc – in effect you have to “order up” your steam room or sauna session, waiting for it to be ready and hoping you chose the right settings. The jacuzzi is huge, with mirrors all around, and looks like something an LA movie star might look at home in with a glass of champagne and a girl on each arm. The jets are insanely strong, like an industrial power hose, so much so that it hurts to sit against them. While I was waiting for the steam room, a man who had been cleaning nearby came up to me and pointed out some marks on the floor and said something I couldn’t understand. I looked down and it turned out I’d cut my toe when I slipped over and left dots of blood across the marble floor! It barely hurt at all, but in no time the man had ushered me into the gym where I sat on a towel on a weights bench while he and a colleague carefully applied Dettol, cotton wool and a Band-Aid to my toe.

Then the pool attendant came back, looking even more worried than before, apologizing profusely for my accident. I said it was nothing, no problem, and that I would wear shoes next time as I hadn’t realised the floor was slippery. After that I thought nothing more of it, but as I was getting changed in the changing room, the pool attendant came back with the hotel Front Office Manager who offered even more sincere apologies and asked me if there was anything he could do for me; he seemed desperate to want to do something to make up for what happened. I couldn’t believe they were making such a fuss. Again I assured him it was no problem. He gave me his business card and said that if I needed anything at all I should just contact him. Back home you might think that all this fuss was a fear of being sued – but here it is different, there seems to be a genuine desire to make the guest or customer’s experience as perfect as it can possibly be and the staff were genuinely shocked and upset that they could have allowed such a thing to marr my experience.

Putting the poolside adventure behind me, as the heat of the day subsided a little (having dropped from around 37 degrees to a mere 25 degrees) we headed out to explore Ahmedabad. The air was hot and dusty, with a little humidity, though not as sticky as somewhere like Bangkok. Like other parts of Asia, it seems that pavements here are not really intended for walking on, and are typically filled with parked bikes and motorbikes, piles of building materials, small trader’s stalls selling fruit, pastries, trainers or T-shirts. I was pleasantly surprised to see that while the streets were untidy, there was not a lot of litter or unhygienic waste at the roadside. We circumnavigated the various obstacles, stepping out into the road every now and then to do so, and wandered in the direction of what appeared to be the centre. The roads were packed as ever with motorbikes, cars and tuk-tuks (as I’ve called these miniature three-wheeled taxis since I first saw them in Thailand – “auto rickshaw” seems to be what they are called here). In fact probably only a third of the vehicles on the road are cars. Every now and then a bike would pass by with a six foot by six foot load of boxes or bags on the rear, all tied together with string, or a similarly perilous load. Miraculously the load would stay attached despite the cyclist weaving in and out of the traffic.

Next we had to work out how to cross the road. It turns out the technique is very different than in Europe, where we might wait for a gap in the traffic then wait, or cross at a marked crossing point on the road. We did see one marked crossing, but it was completely ignored. It seems the best technique for crossing the road here is to walk confidently out into the road at a steady, predictable pace, and trust that the motorbikes and tuk-tuks will weave around you. Occasionally you have to pause or speed up a little to ensure a vehicle has room to pass, but it seems to work remarkably well – maybe because the traffic is generally going quite slowly so that vehicles can avoid each other. It’s bizarre, I’ve never felt so safe stepping out into a busy road.

We carried on wandering, past tattered mobile phone shop kiosks, clothes shops, shoe traders and assorted street-sellers, and started to look for a restaurant for our evening meal. We could find no restaurants to speak of, nor any bars. We wondered if we were in the retail district. (We weren’t). Eventually we noticed one or two places, an expensive looking restaurant with no menu, and a Havmor ice-cream parlour. We settled on a very simple looking restaurant with diner-style seating in booths and an open front onto the street, called Star.
We were welcomed in and ushered to our table by a friendly man with a grey moustache. He wore a Thunderbirds hat and looked like he might have once been part of the Raj. He poured water into metal cups for us (which we decided not to drink, asking for mineral water instead), and gave us the menus. The menu was bi-lingual, in Hindi script and English too – although the dishes had no descriptions, so we went for dishes containing words we recognized from curry house menus back home such as “Paneer”, “Saag” and “Tikka”. Then we had our first surprise – There were no meat dishes on the menu! It turns out 90% of Indians are vegetarian, so it is very rare to see any meat on the menus – you have to specially seek out so-called “non-vegetarian” restaurants.

We ordered a couple of Paneer (cheese)-based curries (not that they call them curries in India – that is an English word), some rice and some “butter chapattis” as well as two lassis (yogurt drinks). I remembered having lassi once in Little India in Singapore and finding it very good to counteract the hot food there. The waiter asked if we wanted “Special” lassi. Feeling adventurous we said yes. A few minutes later he turned up with what looked like two ice-cream sundaes! In fact it was still a yogurt drink but with nuts and some sort of sweet bean sprinkled on top and sweet red fruit sauce down the insides of the glass. We thought it would be a bit sweet especially as he’d brought it before our main meal, but in fact it was delicious and not overly sweet at all.

Then the curries (I don’t know what else to call them collectively!) arrived in two small dishes, and a basket of chapattis that looked like they were swimming in butter! The waiter spooned some of the curries and rice onto the round metal trays in front of us - these are used in the region instead of plates. We tucked in and the flavours were delicious, incredibly aromatic with a blend of tomatoes, chilli and various unfamiliar herbs and spices in combination to make a really unique flavour. The chapattis were just the thing too, and I began trying to eat in the Indian way, scooping up rice and curry with ripped off pieces of chapatti. It’s messy but comes quite easily. The challenge is that you have to do it only with your right hand. In India the left hand is used in place of toilet roll so must never be used at the meal table. This can make ripping chapattis a little challenging, but not impossible.

Once we’d polished off our food our mouths were burning just a little bit. We ordered another two lassis (not “special”) to counteract the spiciness, which did exactly that. The bill came with two small dishes of what looked like bird seed and salt respectively, but I suppose are the equivalent of after-dinner mints (it turned out to be something a bit like sunflower seeds and some form of ground spicy mint). The total price for the two of us was 257 rupees, around £3.50 – and we were absolutely stuffed, despite the fact we’d essentially only eaten bread and vegetables, and the quantities had seemed a lot less than back home. We figured maybe it was the ghee in the curries that filled us up.

Leaving the restaurant, we then decided it was time to try out the auto-rickshaw back to the hotel so flagged one down. We asked the driver to take us to Le Meridien, figuring since it was the biggest most upmarket hotel in town he was bound to know it, but he didn’t seem to understand us. We tried showing him the map, but he held it upside down – we realised he couldn’t read. A local man joined in the conversation and explained to the driver where we wanted to go, reading aloud the name of the nearest bridge, Nehru Bridge, which the driver recognized. We asked the driver how much it would cost, and he said that we should make him an offer. We knew that this was a bit sneaky, but had no sense of the appropriate price, so proposed what we considered a low price, 100 rupee (£1.25), which he agreed to just a bit too quickly. Later we found out this was about 5 times too much! The man who’d helped with the directions ended up sharing the tiny cab with us as he was travelling nearby, and when we spotted the hotel getting further away behind us he helped explain to the driver what our gesticulations meant!

We arrived back at the hotel well fed and having got a good flavour of Ahmedabad. Back in my room I flicked through the 90 or so channels on my TV and saw a bewildering array of Gujarati community television, Indian soap operas, Indian pop music videos and something that looked like a Bollywood version of Pop Idol. Almost all of the channels were in one Indian language or other, and only 5 or 6 channels were in English, but I found it quite fascinating to watch some of the Indian channels. After a little while it was time for bed and a good night’s sleep ready for our first day of work the next day. I thought back over the day and considered my first impressions of Ahmedabad. It seemed like a bustling city, hot and dusty and scruffy, but at the same time very it felt very friendly and safe, and the food was great!

Well I’ve written a lot in these first two posts, amazingly I’ve only covered the first 48 hours of the trip! In the next post I’ll talk about the remainder of the week – starting work, doing a bit of sightseeing and generally began to acclimatise to living and working in India.