Sunday, 22 May 2011

An Indian adventure: On holiday with my mum

Hello and welcome to my first and almost certainly last travel blog. The trouble with reading about other people's adventures is that, at best, it's terrifically boring or, at worst, you're reminded of how mundane your life is and quickly fill up with resentment for the person showing off about how tantalising the cuisine was, how the cabin was divine until the waves got a bit choppy between St Lucia and Martinique, or how the natives were surprisingly friendly and civilised despite not possessing a smoothie maker or knowing how to operate nail clippers.

This collective resentment builds and builds until the travel writer is scared away from the public domain and takes self-imposed exile in the relatively safe confines of Stockport, a tourist-free zone south of Manchester and unchartered territory for approximately 99.9 per cent of Britons.

What do you think happened to Judith Chalmers? There she went, faded 1980s bikinis hoarded in boxes in her utility room, her days spent re-living memories of always getting one over her co-presenter - the slightly overweight and uncomfortable travel companion whose name escapes me - he who tried in vain to look happy experiencing a gritty week-long break in "charming" Great Yarmouth while Chalmers was getting eyed-up by hunky passers-by in Barbados. 

She was a patronising, snooty, scantily-clad, aloof saucepot - and she got what she deserved (namely, being voted 88 in the list of 100 Worst Britons).

Anyway, I digress somewhat. Don't get jealous about my travels - it's not good for you. I'm not as sexy as Chalmers anyway. Heck, I don't even have a catchy theme tune, so I suggest you calm down and start enjoying yourself, you miserable, un-travelled peasant.

Destination: northern India. Travel companion: my mum. This is because a) I don't have a girlfriend to accompany me and b) I'm too much of a wimp to go by myself. There is actually another reason - my granny (I'm uncomfortable with 'granny' becoming a derogatory term for old ladies, by the way, you callous, ageist populace of Britain. I love my granny, OK? 'Nan' just doesn't sit well with our family - it sounds wrong, like 'pimple') was born and schooled in India, so my mum and I wanted to explore our recent family ancestry first-hand. Thanks to a plethora of bank holidays (high fives Wills and Kate! And one for you Pippa, while we're at it), we jumped on a plane to Delhi to begin our adventure.

Now, I'm quite an unlucky traveller. During my last few holidays I've missed flights, suffered horrific sunburn to the point where my neck attempted to detach itself from my body, been robbed by child gangsters, snowed in at train stations and accosted by unconvincing transvestites. Last time I was in India, I was hospitalised for five days with amoebic dysentery and run over by a motorbike. It's fair to say my mum was shitting herself before any butter chicken had graced her palate.

Delhi is a curious city. When I say curious, I actually mean 'god awful hell hole', but the curiosity stems from the Indian capital's remarkable ability to function on a day-to-day basis despite the relentless mayhem of energy-sapping heat, traffic horns, scam artists, lung-clogging pollution and a superbug-infested water supply. It's genuinely fascinating, but after two days the insides of your nasal passages turn black, you can drink a two-litre bottle of water in five seconds without your thirst being quenched and, most infuriatingly, you begin to lose faith in humanity.
Delhi 'lads' - I wasn't sure about that shirt either
Onwards, then, to Agra, which is essentially a miniature, industrial version of Delhi - but one that's home to the world's most impressive building. The Taj Mahal is an architectural marvel - tear-inducing, almost. It's just a shame the inside of the building stinks of piss. There's no escaping the aroma - after being moved by watching the early-morning sun reflect off centuries-old translucent marble adorned with Mughal scripture, the spectacle is unfortunately overshadowed by an invisible cloud of old wee, which hacks at your brain's annoyance cells like the Taj's self-appointed 'guides' spewing verbal diarrhoea with the ferocity of an Icelandic volcano.

Bet I'm making you really jealous, aren't I? Chalmers has nothing on me.

The subcontinental sojourn began in earnest on the overnight train to Varanasi. If you're not familiar with Indian trains, they (normally) have the following classes: 
  • Chair car: Avoid like the plague unless you like sitting on upright slatted benches for 13 hours and have a perverse attraction to insomnia.
  • Sleeper class: Where passengers are presented with a sticky plastic padded horizontal bench and no privacy. 
  • AC 2-tier: The same, but with bedding and curtains. 
  • AC 3-tier: That with one more person squeezed in per berth - something of a lottery, let me tell you.
  • First class: Which essentially involves being locked inside a moving box with two strangers, one of whom will have a snoring problem that urgently requires the attention of an ear, nose and throat specialist and whom, as a consequence, you will want to strangle while cackling like a vengeful witch.
We chose AC 2-tier for this particular journey. My mum wasn't too impressed with the on-board facilities and was gripped by an unwelcome bout of claustrophobia. Being a gentleman, I let her have the bottom bunk - the one with the window and enough space to accommodate an average-sized badger set. 

The upper bunk, unfortunately for me, was so close to the train's roof that I couldn't sit up without banging my head on the grilled metal air conditioning vent. Using all the common sense I could muster, I decided to lie down. I was immediately transfixed by a big red handle on the end of a short chain, which dangled invitingly close to my right hand. Above it were the words 'Pull to stop train. Penalty for use without reasonable and sufficient cause - fine of up to Rs. 1000 and/or imprisonment up to one year'.

Pulling this handle seriously tempted me - it would have generated enough excitement to justify a £15 fine, but I didn't fancy being harangued by my fellow passengers or spending 12 months wasting away in an Indian prison cell with curried lentils as my only company.

After dilly-dallying for longer than I should have, I realised the train had been moving for 20 minutes and that I had no idea which way it was travelling. I glanced down at the bottom bunk - the curtains were closed and my mum was asleep. It was the same story over at the adjacent bunks. I spent the next 13 hours wondering whether my head was following my arse, or my arse following my head.
A not-so-smiley Varanasi sadhu
I had heard mixed reviews of Varanasi from friends of mine who had already visited. On the one hand, it was India's oldest and holiest city, crammed full of temples, the Ghats, the River Ganga and bucket loads of religious and spiritual significance. On the other, it was an over-populated, polluted and filth-laden sprawl of clapped-out buildings that had gotten out of control - its growth has been unstoppable, and the intensity of an around-the-clock sensory assault coupled with an unforgiving climate has driven tourists to more peaceful surroundings after only a few hours. Just as well my mum decided to book a five-night stay, then.

Religion has inspired some of the most beautiful buildings, music and traditions on the planet - and nowhere is this more evident than Varanasi. Unfortunately, I'm programmed to view all religions as over-elaborate fairy stories, which makes it rather hard for me to get in touch with my spiritual side. A whisky and a roots reggae bass line normally help, but neither was readily available in Varanasi. I therefore left my mum to the spiritual duties, and up until an early-morning row (as in what you do on a boat; not an argument. We get along quite well, thanks for asking) on the Ganges, she had done a sterling job.

On said row, we were exploring the Ghats from the peace and tranquillity of our wooden boat, trying to avoid staring at the aged testicles (they were attached to male bathers, before you conjure up some horrific image of giant bollocks splashing around in holy water) on the adjacent banks, when a man in another vessel drew alongside and tried to sell us floating candles - the idea being that you light them, say a prayer for your family, and pollute the river before a few crows choke to death on their remnants.
Hello and welcome to the latest episode of Spot that Testicle
All well and good at night, but when it's 7am and the sun is already beating down on your skin in 30-degree heat, the ritual doesn't really have the same poignancy. Still, we were quoted 10 rupees for a couple of candles (about 15p), so my mum thought it would be a nice thing to do. We could take a few pictures and the family would be dead chuffed that we were praying for their wellbeing, when in fact all I could think about was mango-flavoured corn flakes and chai, neither of which had made their way down my oesophagus since the morning before.

"100 rupees," the boatman demanded.

"But you said 10 ten rupees literally five seconds ago," my mum replied.

"100 rupees," the man retorted, firmly.

After two weeks of attempted rip-offs left, right and centre, my mum had had enough. It was time to let out that pent-up frustration, even if it risked robbing Varanasi of its characteristic divinity on this particular morning.

"PEOPLE LIKE YOU MAKE ME SICK," she shouted as a flock of pigeons, hunting for scraps on the opposite river bank, took to the skies as one and blocked out the sun's rays for at least four seconds.


From that day forward, I saw my mum in a different light. She became my friend, a future drinking buddy and a fellow unapologetic obscenity user. A high five sealed the new status of our relationship, and at that moment I knew the trip had been worth it.
My mum; you can't take her anywhere
We hadn't just travelled to Varanasi for the usual reasons. This is the town my great-great grandparents are from. Wilmot Charles Dover - easily the most handsome man who ever lived in Varanasi - and his wife, Alice Maud, lived in a bungalow complex in the city until the late 1940s. My granny, whose parents' wedding reception was held there, remembers almost everything about it - from the mango tree at the front to the well at the back, even sleeping outside on the veranda when it got a bit hot at night. Armed with a few old photographs, my mum and I decided to pay the bungalow a visit - the first members of our family to do so in 60-odd years.

We were welcomed by the Guptas, the bungalow's residents, with open arms. A family of 14, they told us the history of the house and we in turn showed them our old photographs. It was all rather pleasant - we were treated to a huge, all-you-can eat meal and a grand tour of the complex, which by Indian standards is pretty bloomin' big. With a little help, we subsequently tracked down Wilmot's grave, unmarked apart from a number '46' and covered in scrub and ants. It was a genuinely moving moment and felt like quite an achievement. I may have even hugged my mum, but I can't remember. Besides, that would technically be retracting to our previous relationship status. Our new relationship dictated that we could only embrace after five Stellas or a glorious sporting triumph. Like, um, Cheltenham Town winning the League Two play-offs, or something.
Chalmers never came close to any of this stuff - what a lightweight she was with her beaches (pah!) and cocktails (dismissive chortle!).

From Varanasi we returned to Delhi and headed north-east to Nainital, a picturesque hill station in the Himalayan foothills and the town where my granny went to school. This was the 'holiday' part of the trip. Up in the mountains it's a much cooler 25 degrees, which basically means you can go out and have a nice time without fear of melting into a large puddle of sweat, flesh, Fructis matt clay (Hi! I'm Matt Clay!) and eyebrows.
Nainital lake - and my desktop background
It was here where I met the Indian Mr Burns - his appearance and gait unquestionably similar to that of Springfield Nuclear Power Plant's owner. He was fascinated by two things in particular: British coins and the royal wedding. His enthusiasm for both was insatiable and he couldn't be calmed down - every time I opened my mouth to speak he looked at me like an eight year-old boy about to receive a Lego pirate ship for his birthday.

"You have English coin?!"

"Um, let me check. Yep, um, only about 20p though, sorry."

"Wow! I shall keep this and treasure it! You have more?!"

I replied in the negative and his face dropped. "You sure, maybe check again?!"

I felt bad that I couldn't scrape any more domestic coinage together, so decided to buy a shawl to use as a scarf to make myself feel better. Mr Burns tried to rip me off. I kind of got my own back, though, by taking a picture of him outside his shop (called 'General Stores and Sons' - Jesus, his parents were cruel, I bet he got bullied at school. Unless he became a General in adult life and his first name was actually George. Actually, George Stores is still pretty funny) standing directly underneath a cardigan, which, by virtue of him standing directly underneath it, looked like a cardigan-shaped hat. Teehee. That kept me amused for approximately three days.
Mr General Stores - the Indian Mr Burns
So, then, back to Delhi and the end of the trip. Had I 'wished you were there', as Chalmers claimed on a weekly basis? No, I hadn't, seeing as you asked nicely, because I probably don't know who you are - and unless you look like Freida Pinto (which you don't, so stop deluding yourself), I probably wouldn't have wanted you sharing my hotel room, let alone spend three weeks with you. But, if you do get the chance to go to India, you should. Because it's nice and the food is yummy and the scenery is pretty and it's cheap and some of the puppies are really cute and the men hold hands and shake their heads in a funny way instead of saying 'yes'.

If you've got this far down, I salute you. Drop me an email and I'll send you a signed photograph of myself as a thank you. Goodbye.

If you fancy travelling to India with your mum (and why wouldn't you? She's lovely) I'd heartily recommend going with Indigo East when their 'reinvented' take on India holidays launches in summer 2014.


  1. brilliant says granny x

  2. Fantastic!! I love your blogs Charlie! they make me laugh so much, this one's my fave!
    Can I have my signed photo now?

    Gem x

  3. Ahaa, the train journey sounded like a right barrel of laughs. I'm jealous however, India is one place I haven't been.

    Interesting blog, funny too! I like.

  4. FYI, apparently Chalmers never wore underwear in three decades of the travel show, because she "didn't want the outline of her knickers showing through her holiday outfits."