Prince William and Kate Middleton are on tour in India this week, spending five nights in India and two nights in the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan.
That might seem like an absurdly short amount of time to travel such a long distance, but, as Kate and William are no doubt aware, when you have young kids, it’s hard to get away for any longer.
When I first started traveling, in my late teens and early twenties, I spent three months in the Gambia, West Africa, two months in Malawi and Zimbabwe (twice), and three months in Brazil.
My wife shared my passion for travel, and even the arrival of kids didn’t slow us down too much—when we had one, we took one with us for three weeks in Australia, when we had two, we took two with us for a month in Kerala, and just last year, when we had three, we took three with us on a two-month working holiday to Sri Lanka where I was writing the text for a book about Sri Lanka’s most stylish homes (not an especially arduous task, I admit, especially as we got to stay in most of the houses we were writing about).
But, you know what? Traveling with three kids was pretty hard work. And, with our youngest now over 2 and therefore a full-price traveler (not, I assume, an issue for the royals), we abandoned the children to a rotating cast of grannies, aunts, uncles, and a kindly godparent and headed off to India for a week.
The 19-year old me wouldn’t have considered it worth getting on a long haul flight for a trip of anything less than a month or two. The 42-year-old, parent-of-three that I have now become, by contrast, couldn’t wait to board the Jet Airways flight from Heathrow, watch movies, and read a book for EIGHT WHOLE HOURS UNINTERRUPTED.
We landed at Delhi—a surprisingly calm airport—at noon and headed straight into town.
Delhi, as has often been observed, is a filthy, hellish city, and it was even more filthy and hellish than usual when we arrived due to a sanitation workers’ strike, which meant no rubbish had been collected for over three weeks.
Huge piles of smoldering plastic and paper were being burnt on street corners by the locals as an ad-hoc solution to the problem.
Old Delhi is an ad-hoc place, though. Every inch of space is claimed and used by a representative of the growling, grasping swarm of humanity. One enterprising teenager had set up a barber’s shop on a raised central reservation. A client, shoulders protected with a bright orange cape, was having his hair cut between six lanes of chaotic, hooting traffic.
We boarded a bicycle rickshaw, and went deeper into the warren of streets that make up the town. Monkeys hooted as they danced along intertwined electricity cables, thick ropes that snaked their way either side of the narrow, impossibly crowded streets. Prayers wafted from the Hindu temples, mashing up with the bhangra pop songs and rave music emanating from buses, taxis, and shops.
We stopped at an old temple of the Jain religion, and wandered into a shop where my wife bought bolts of gold and silver fabric encrusted with sequins and brocade. We paid 20 rupees (30 cents) for small cups of hot, sweet, ginger chai and deep fried balls of lentils.
Locals and children talked to us (English is widely spoken), laughing at these crazy Westerners who actually wanted to eat their street food (you probably won’t get ill as long as you don’t touch meat).
My wife, who had been to Delhi 20 years ago, said the biggest change since then was the almost complete adoption of Western dress by the locals.
We walked down to the Red Fort, Old Delhi’s top tourist attraction, but it will be the fact we had to hire a bicycle rickshaw for 10 rupees (15 cents) to get us across the seething, boiling main road that I’ll remember more than the admittedly impressive monument itself.
Back at our hotel, the luxurious, peaceful Lodhi, located in the diplomatic area of New Delhi, where Kate and Will on Monday laid a wreath at a military memorial, we realized with amazement that it was less than 24 hours since we had left home. We dined on curried chickpeas, and a truly extraordinary dish of deep-fried spinach, which had given the vegetable the consistency of a potato crisp, and collapsed into bed.
The following morning we took a rickshaw one kilometer to the nearby Lodhi gardens, and wandered around the incredible 16th century tomb and temple complex there. It couldn’t have been more different from the old town: Sophisticated Delhi-ites jogged past us, chattering into mobile phones as they did their morning routines in expensive running gear and shades.
Then it was back to the airport for a 45-minute flight north to the town of Rishikesh, on the edge of the Himalayas, where we were staying at one of India’s most famous ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) resorts, the Ananda (Paradise) Spa, where guests have an ayurvedic consultation on day one and the program (including the dining menu) is specially tailored according to the diagnosis. This place has a royal pedigree too, as it’s where Prince Charles stayed when visiting the Himalayas.
Rishikesh made a dramatic contrast to Delhi. It sprung to fame in the ’60s when it was visited by the Beatles, who went to study Transcendental Meditation at the knee of The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and has since become the ashram centre of India—tens of thousands of people, Westerners and Indians, live in sparse cells at hundreds of Hindu temples dotted along the sacred river Ganges, which flows through the town and is unpolluted here as it so close to the source in the Himalayas.
One of our best experiences of the whole trip was a day trip organized by the Ananda that comprised a 22-kilometer (13.6 miles) rafting trip down the Ganges. It was by turns exhilarating and tranquil, and a wonderful way to see the stunning, and often underrated Indian countryside.
We floated into Rishikesh shortly before sundown, just in time to see the sunset water-blessing ceremony in which candles and lotus flowers are cast onto the river from the temples lining its banks with much song and prayer. (Quite unexpectedly I found myself moved to tears. I blamed the jet lag.)
The following day we did an early-morning five-hour walk to a hilltop temple (Will and Kate are doing a six-hour trek through the Himalayas to the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan) through a mountain village where a simple way of life still prevailed, and cows tethered outside houses munched on baskets of leaves gathered by children.
We later found ourselves sitting cross-legged on the floor in the temple while prayers were chanted around us by priests.
Our last three nights were spent in Udaipur, a fantastical city built around two gigantic connecting lakes known as the Venice of India, in the state of Rajasthan, a two-hour flight down south.
We stayed at the Leela Palace Hotel, an 81-bedroom temple to luxury located right on the lake, so indulgent that you get a choice of 12 different pillows on the pillow menu.
Our room looked out on the Lake Palace, best known as the home of Octopussy in the James Bond movie. It couldn’t have been more amazing, or more different from what had gone before.
Udaipur is famous for its palaces, and we dutifully toured the big one, the City Palace. It was an awe-inspiring example of historical bling, but there is only so much inlaid glass, crystal-bejeweled peacocks, and lavish hand-painted ceramic courtyards a man can take. I got more enjoyment in the backstreets drinking chai (which, I had now discovered, actually cost either 5, 7, or 10 rupees depending on what size you wanted) and eating fresh chapatis cooked on a metal plate over a wood fire.
We also had great fun getting measured up at a local tailor where I bought a wonderful, bright blue, checkered suit for 12,000 rupees (about $180). We took a rickshaw 20 kilometers out of town to the ancient temple of Sas Bahu—despite being destroyed by Muslim invaders twice in its thousand-year history, there are several walls of astonishingly intricate carving work depicting scenes from the Hindu holy books, as well as a variety of eye-popping positions from the Kama Sutra.
Many of the sexual scenes in particular were singled out for destruction by the prudish Muslim invaders.
On our last day we splashed out 90 rupees each for a ride in a government bus to the top of a mountain 3 kilometers outside the city, crested by a former royal palace known as Monsoon Palace. The structure itself was badly preserved (“If you want to ruin a palace, give it to the government,” I was told) but the view of Udaipur stretched out below us as the sun went down was truly awesome, and a wonderful end to an inspiring and action-packed week.
Were we in India long enough? Of course not. Would I go to India for a week again? You can bet your last rupee on it.