April 30 and May 1: The Grand New Delhi Hotel
(My apologies that this post is out of order and it’s pretty long, but I wanted to share our adventures getting to Delhi and our five star hotel stay.)
We are sitting in our hotel restaurant for lunch, The Grand New Delhi, beside a towering wall of glass, where outside fountains spray and a green lawns stretches toward palms, bougainvillea vines, and apricot trees. Inside, before us stretch variously themed lunch buffets—Indian, Continental, Japanese/Asian, a sushi bar, a salad buffet, a cheese buffet, nuts-and-dried-fruit buffet, a dessert buffet. The latter has the most amazingly crafted individual dessert concoctions, mousses, individual petit fours with icings and berries, individual cheese cakes, Dutch chocolate cakes, etc., etc., etc.
I’m having Indian fare. The boys and Jennifer are ordering from the menu, grilled cheese, chicken nuggets, and a panini.
I wanted the family to have a break from the heat and noise and chaos of Mumbai and Pune and for the boys to have a swimming pool. The pool here is grand.
Getting here, however, required weathering one emotional shock after another, in spite of my meticulous planning.
It all began at 5:30, a.m, at our flat in Pune. Our flight to Delhi left at 7:30. I wanted an early one because we had only two nights at the Grand New Delhi, and I wanted the boys to have two good days at the pool.
We’d spent the previous day packing, which posed a challenge. Leaving the US our bags could weigh up to 50 pounds each, but in India, for a domestic flights they could weigh only 15 kilos–or about 33 pounds. So, we took our largest suitcase (I had brought two) and stuffed it with everything we thought we could do without in Dharamsala—clothes and shoes and books for teaching at the U of Pune, extra clothes we didn’t need, the boys’ blankets, etc. (We ended up leaving much that we would later wish we had brought.)
The appointed morning, our bags all packed, we went down in the pre-dawn darkness, among the calls, whistles, and songs of the early birds. The birds wake at 4:00, a.m., making Pune sound like a jungle before dawn lights the sky. Fifteen minutes went by. Our driver was late. Finally, he called. He didn’t know where to go. Manu, a trusted ashram friend, had made the car arrangements for us. The driver on the phone spoke little English. I didn’t know if the little street we were on even had a name. The apartment is listed as at the Praram Apartments “off Lakaki Road.” Lakaki Road was the larger street down at the corner. Luckily, Jennifer saw the apartment caretaker and he helped us communicate our location.
The car finally arrived, late. A white van-like vehicle, with a driver and a second man. This was not good. Why a second guy? Only two people can sit in the back bucket seats. Usually I sit up front beside the driver. So, Jennifer had to sit in the way back with Kellen in her lap, all the suitcases packed in beside them. I’m not liking this already.
As we take off, the drivers are talking to each other, not to us. I don’t like that, either. Maybe they’re going to rob us? We’re getting one of those intuitive feelings that this may not be good. “How many rupees for the drive?” I ask. We’re in traffic, they don’t answer. I ask again. No answer. Ok, I think. My friend, Manu, arranged this, so it must be okay. I try to call him, but of course it’s 6:00 in the morning. No answer. I let it go. Manu has arranged cars for me before. Plus, we can’t jump out of the car. We’re already running late for our flight. How would we get there?
After a fifteen-minute ride, we arrive at the airport, negotiating our way through the airport traffic. I think, “Wallet, phone, passports, itinerary, check.” The men get our bags out.
“How much?” I ask.
I freak out. A fifteen-minute tuk-tuk ride costs about 50 Rupees.
“No way! That ride was just fifteen minutes!”
They mention the size and quality of the van.
I dial Manu. No answer. The men call someone on their cell.
They show me a text that says, “Rs 1300.”
But I don’t know who the hell that text is from.
“No way!” I say again.
Of course, I should have settled on the price before we got in. But my friend hired the guys. And we were running late leaving the apartment.
I make sure we are in possession of all of our bags. When something like this happened at the Barcelona airport, years ago, the confrontation happened while our bags were still in the trunk of the taxi. So, if we had not more or less worked it out, the SOB could have driven off with our bags. (Tip: make sure, when you get out of a vehicle that you are in possession of your bags before you start arguing the price of the ride. We were at am impasse.)
“Ask that cab driver over there,” Jennifer says.
I go over to the cab and ask the passenger if Rs 1300 is a reasonable price for a ride from our neighborhood.
“Maybe for a private car, like that. Next time, use a regular taxi, like this Radio Cab. For a private car, maybe that is the price. Sorry, I have to catch my plane.”
He hurries off.
“We have to go,” Jennifer says.
I hand the guy Rs 1100. “Here. It’s all we have!” I show him my empty wallet.
We get our bags and go.
I am fuming. I‘ve planned out this journey from Pune to Dharamsala, with a two day stay in Delhi, in excruciating detail, covering all the arrangements for cars, taxis, planes, hotels. Trying to make it easy and smooth for the family. Now, it’s blowing up in my face at 6:30 in the morning.
“Well, for a twenty-minute taxi ride from a hotel to the airport in a major American city,” Jennifer says, “$17 would be a bargain.”
Still I’m pissed. I didn’t know how Manu messed this up.
We head into the airport and begin a series of traumas related to our baggage. It being overweight and our carry-ons having magnetic toys and a small pair of child’s scissors. I knew our bags would be overweight and that we would have to pay something for that, but the difference between the planning of it and the doing of it was like the difference between sitting at home with a map and a cup of tea to plan the backpack crossing of a river and actually fording the rapids. Jennifer has written about this part of our journey on her blog. Poor Kellen breaking into tears about having to take out and leave his favorite scissors, the dangerous magnetic toys we had packed, etc. See her blog at jennifersinor.wordpress.com.
Our plane seemed old and dirty. But we had seats together, which is what matters. I made the mistake of eating the vegetarian breakfast. Well, I’d eaten Indian meals on the Delta flight from Amsterdam, I thought, but that was Delta. Jennifer and the boys ate the packaged roll, and Kellen said he only ate the butter. I ventured into a dahl-like lentil dish and a kind of falafel-like bready thing, which I didn’t like. Almost immediately, I was feeling tummy trouble. This was turning out to be a bad day.
After a two-hour flight we landed in Delhi. We could never really see anything out the windows, as the haze is too thick in summer. We entered a wonderful airport, clean, modern, and beautiful. As we walked through the airport, we came upon a wall covered lined with giant, gold hands protruding from it. Each hand about ten-feet high. Each forms a particular mudra, or spiritual sign. In Hinduism, these mudras are signs of spiritual power, which spiritual gurus and teachers use to bestow spiritual energies and blessings on people.
These mudras, or power-bestowing-hand blessings may seem odd to a Westerner, but look again at paintings of Jesus.
He is often depicted holding his hand up in a mudra-like gesture. This is another reason some people speculate that during Jesus’s “lost years,” the period of his life omitted in the Gospels–from the age of twelve to thirty–he may have gone to India and become a spiritual teacher and guru. The whole mode of his teaching — a penniless, barefoot teacher wandering around working miracles and preaching nonviolence with disciples who have left their families, has more precedents in Hinduism than in Judaism. Most scholars don’t buy it. But check some of out Jesus’s mudras!
We walk out to the airport pick up area, and of course there’s no car and driver for us. No where to be found. I call the hotel. They have no record of our ordering a car. I had called the concierge the night before. Arranged everything.
They say they’ll send a car. It comes right away. A very nice, polite, urbane young man ushers us into the car, and mentions that it will cost 2200 rupees. “2200 rupees!” I’m beside myself. Many hotels I have stayed in have free airport pick ups. But, of course, often the fancier the hotel the more the incidentals cost.
We are upset and I fear Jennifer is unhappy with India.
Once we get to the hotel, we are greeted by ten or more gold jacketed assistants. Some take our luggage. Some greet us. Some hand us things. Some lead us to some nice chairs. They have found out that we are upset. We have already labeled the hotel the “Not-So-Grand New Delhi.” Now they are on a mission to change our minds. They say we can check into our room immediately, even though it’s 10:30, a.m. They sit us down and bring us complimentary juices and yummy little delicacies on a tray–some kind of veggie chicken salad with little pieces of olive and condiments on squares of bread. We begin to relax. The concierge comes by to apologize. He says they’ll give us a discount on the airport pick up. They take us to our room–very nice and it overlooks the massive pool. Jennifer says they have come up a notch. Over the course of our two days there, we are given free, exquisite buffet breakfasts, free Wifi, and many other amenities. The boys love the place.
At one point we get a phone call.
“Yes, hello. Is everything going all right? Are you happy with the hotel? We apologize about the airport pick up. We thought that as compensation, we would like to invite you down to our happy hour for free drinks and conversation. Treats for the children. We would be happy to entertain you. Free cocktails.”
I’m taken aback. “One moment, please.”
“Jennifer, as compensation for the airport mess-up, they are inviting us down for drinks and refreshments and conversation. We don’t want to do that, do we?”
“I didn’t think so.” To the concierge guy, I say: “Thank you very much for your kind invitation. However, we don’t really go in for that sort of thing. We don’t drink alcohol. And we are very strict about our diets. But we really appreciate the offer.” (Not mentioning the fact that we did not really care to hob nob with the hotel staff and business travelers.)
“Oh, thank you. I”ll talk to the Concierge about a discount for the car.”
(At the extravagant buffets, they are similarly taken aback that we are vegetarians. They say, “Isn’t that unusual in America?” I want to say, “No. You just are used to business travelers. Probably a lot of them are not vegetarians.”)
He calls back. “Yes, I spoke with the Concierge. We would like to offer you 50% off regarding the airport pick up. Might that be your cup of tea?”
Very charmingly, pre-1947 British-English remains alive and well in India. My cardiologist friend says that when he visits Britain, he’s surprised at how much of his “British English” is no longer current in England.”
“Yes, that would be our cup of tea. Thank you very much. You are so generous.”
And, yet, with all of the attention and sitting here amid the opulence and elegance, among wealthy Indians and Japanese, American, and European travelers, I can’t help feeling that this is not the India I love. The place is surreal, seeming strangely empty at times. We can afford an occasional five-star hotel here, where we sit in the middle of the rising middle class–modern, progressive, Westernizing, the India of the future. But its shiny, gold-plated, gold-jacketed, sparkling clean, posh accouterments are not really what we came for. We have all that in the US.
No, I love the people on the streets, the crowds and cows, and pots and pans on the sidewalks, the stray dogs (I wrote, “stray gods”), the little temples where people remove their shoes and bow before local deities, the crows and bulbuls, the faces of ordinary people, the street sweepers, and of course the life of the ashram.
One of my friends there says that on a superficial, physical level, “India is hell.” My German friend says that after visiting Germany and coming back, he has the feeling that in Germany, everything on the surface is clean, orderly, nice and tidy, but he has the feeling that under the surface, it’s really not so clean. Whereas, in India, on the surface it is noisy, dirty, crowded, and chaotic. But under the surface–it feels very clean.
But it’s only when you connect to India’s 5,000-year-old spiritual culture that this place becomes revelatory, transformative.
As noted, in Pune, I started going over to the 5:30 morning walking mediation around my guru’s ashram, where we chant the Hanuman Chalisa and to the service afterwards. Sometimes for the walking meditation there are just a few of us. Balji, one of the young men workers at the ashram, leads us. He has a beautiful voice. Perhaps, he is of the lower classes, but in the ashrams I have visited, that does not matter. I have my little book and reading light I carry around in the darkness. The birds sing in the towering rain trees that Indira Devi planted fifty years ago. Another good friend of mine who often comes, Yasmin (“Jasmine”), is the daughter in a long-time mother-and-daughter pair of devotees. They are Parsees, descendants of Zoroastrians who fled Persia when the Muslims invaded centuries ago. Sometimes just the three of us do the walk and chanting. Balji and I have become friends. After we finish the chanting, we walk hand-in-hand back to the temple entrance. This is common in India. The India I came for.
(Oh, and I should mention that I finally got hold of Manu. He said 1300 was the proper amount for the taxi ride.
And by the time we check out of the hotel, the airport pick up had been reduced to 500 rupees–or by 75%.
And the driver from the hotel to the airport is from Dharamsala and tells us all about the place–another little Indian miracle, which are known as coincidences in the modern, rational West.