Cocooned in her enormous flat bed airline seat, the little girl was oblivious to the turbulence disturbing our flight across the Indian Ocean on our way to New Delhi.
The youngster was instead calm and motionless, her eyes fixed on the screen of the iPhone in her hand, watching a Disney movie.
It’s a scene more common of India now, as the Indian sub continent begins to realise it’s true potential.
Our neighbours on the flight were an Indian family on their way home from a holiday in Indonesia. Affluent and young, the family are just the tip of the iceberg; just a tiny, tiny fraction of the burgeoning middle class in India, the world’s largest democracy and an economic powerhouse.
This is my first time in India, and I didn’t know what to expect. As a Brit growing up in the 80s I’ve seen my fair share of period dramas depicting India at the height of the British occupation through to independence in the late 1940s. Then there’s the contemporary portrayals of the sub-continent in movies like ‘Slumdog Millionaire, depicting a society with extreme gaps between the ‘haves’ the ‘have-nots’.
Finally there’s been the kind advice from friends and family offered to us about food hygiene; ‘no ice in drinks’; ‘never eat salad’, ‘don’t even let the water from the shower go in your mouth!’
No wonder every person who visits India has a different story to tell.
Well, I prepared myself with antibacterial spray, wipes, hand gel; diarrhoea tabs and a conviction not to touch my face, pick my nose or eat with my hands!
We arrived ahead of schedule at New Delhi’s Indira Ghandi International Airport – a huge, gleamingly clean and new Terminal 3. Our driver told us the airport is designed to handle around 100 million passengers a year, making even Heathrow sound small.
In fact once outside, greeted by the ubiquitous sash of marigolds, and in our transfer 4 x 4 I saw that the whole area was new or under construction. Huge motorway flyovers, and the new elevated stretch of the Metro Express dominated the view from the car window before entering the elegant avenues of New Delhi with its diplomatic Embassies; miltary academies; the Presidential Palace and finally our hotel, the classic Shangri-La.
Islamic extremists and the terror they bring to Hindu nations like Bali and India continues to impact travel. As with our time in Bali, security checks in India don’t stop at the airport.
Police roadblocks are along the roads from the airport and entry into the hotel compound isn’t permitted until the car is searched and checked.
We had to pass through a metal detector and our bags were scanned. It’s a sad reminder that even in the week when the USA assassinated Osama Bin Laden, the threat from the warped ideology of those that follow him continues to touch our lives.
The following day breakfast was a feast!! I totally went for it and had all things Indian. To be honest after so many weeks of hotel breakfasts, it was fantastic to have something different.
A waiter befriended me once he saw my enthusiasm and ordered a few Indian favourites including a thin crepe filled with mildly spicy potato and vegetables (Masala Dosa); a rice pancake with coriander, red onions, and chilli (Uttapam); little fried vegetable snacks (Mysore Bonda) and some light rice snacks, and mini rice blinis (some with sweet red pepper called Kara Dosa – all served with a selection of mint, coconut and tomato sauce (Idly).
We then had a full day in the city with a really friendly guide, Rajesh Sharma (rsharma36 AT HOTMAIL DOT COM) who had studied Spanish at University so gave both Rafa and I a great insight to the city.
We took in a rickshaw ride like a real tourist (although there were very few foreign tourists) through the main street of Chandni Chowk and explored the narrow streets and alleys of the area, with an immense tangle of utility cables above, and informal produce stalls below.
(Not sure my rickshaw rider appreciated such a chubby client as me!)
It wasn’t as I expected. Admittedly the gap between those struggling to make ends meet in old town and those investing in real estate in new town (with square metre prices higher than London) is huge. Yet the people on the whole did seem to be making a living. There wasn’t much of the raw poverty I was expected. The people are friendly and truly curious to meet foreigners. Some would sit next to us to listen to our conversations whilst others would ask to have their photo taken with us.
We had the privilege to enter the city’s major Sikh temple, Gurdwara, with its elaborate gold central area, where a copy of the teachings of the Sikh guru Nanak Dev is kept and surrounded by men singing sections from it.
Traffic is light (well as much as can be expected for a city of 17 million people!) and the residents have free time to enjoy the city’s parks, shrines and temples, including the impressive UNESCO World Heritage complex of Qutub Minar.
It includes what is said to be the tallest brick Minaret in the world, constructed centuries ago to mark the first successful Muslim invasion of India.
What’s for sure, this time in Asia has reminded me just how much this dynamic region is going to be crucial to our future prosperity in Europe.
India’s population is growing at something like the equivalent of Australia every year, and with high levels of education and almost unlimited human capital, the economy is representing a major democratic marketplace for the west.