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Why ghetto is good

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaI visit modern Delhi – braving lightning fast baggage belts and hi-tech radio cabs – to find my Samsonite that escaped into the Delhi Serengeti circa 2002.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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New Delhi's Rashtrapathi Bhawan in February 2014 with flowers in bloom

The world's most polluted city? Delhi's Rasthrapathi Bhawan in Feb 2014 with flowers in bloom/ photo: Vijay Verghese

THERE are many good reasons to head out from Hong Kong for a holiday. But nothing makes the senses keener and the imperative of packing more urgent than a 1,000lb second world war bomb discovered close to your home packed with 450kg of explosives. Neighbouring hotels and a Sikh gurdwara were emptied, and my son and I evacuated ourselves to New Delhi. We were already in Delhi when the news broke but this simply underscored our foresight and deeply honed survival skills, well beyond run-of-the-mill bachelor foraging on items in my fridge that are well beyond their sell-by date.

Delhi has changed dramatically since my childhood years. No more is it unrelievedly “ghetto” as some have unkindly described it. One example is Terminal 3 where air passengers are coddled on deep sink-in carpets and seniors sped to immigration on free buggies. Compare this with HK$60 per person for a buggy ride to the departure gate in Hong Kong. This was the "new" hi-tech India I arrived to. The kind lady at immigration ignored me and chatted animatedly with her friend in a display of informality that instantly put me at ease. In a country that traces its proud antecedents back 5,000 years, there's no rush.

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I spotted just one moneychanger at duty-free. This is an incredibly convenient arrangement as it eliminates distracting choice and the need to compare exchange rates. The counter was mobbed by Spanish school kids in red t-shirts, counting their change and making laborious calculations. I moved on. My bags arrived at the belt before I did, a boring departure from earlier days when my indestructible Samsonite cases sometimes never arrived and, I suspect, are still roaming proud and free in the Indian Serengeti adding welcome diversity to the eco-chain, perhaps now accompanied by smaller monogrammed Louis Vuittons and denim satchel "jholas" all posing for tourist snaps. Footloose luggage is an endangered species alas.

I whizzed through customs into the welcoming throng where it seemed a billion walking dead awaited to welcome me with placards and hollow blank stares through layers of shawls and mufflers. Ghetto? Not at all. The Meru Cab counter was unmanned and I was directed instead to the foggy kerbside, where I found a solitary podium with a heavily bundled figure slumped over fast asleep. Well, rustic, authentic, maybe a bit ghetto… Any cabs? No, but one would come along shortly. Meru is a radio cab company and is a fine example of Delhi's rapid progress. In the old days we dialled for rattling jalopies from a local taxi stand where large unkempt men swaddled in heavy woollens slept, and cabs rarely showed up, especially in dead of winter. Now we have radio cabs like Meru where you dial a number to reach unkempt men swaddled in heavy woollens anywhere in the city – and cabs rarely show up. This is a paradigm shift.

{The crowd offered various helpful suggestions to the taxi counter staff including doing colourful unbiblical things to their mothers and sisters...

Being in a hurry, I took my enquiry to the Delhi Police pre-paid black-and-yellow taxi counter. This is a reliable and cheaper computerised affair. The line heaved and swayed but we stood our ground confident in the modern wizardry ahead. Thirty minutes later three passengers had been served while one remained stuck at the counter. The staff informed the hapless woman that unless her required destination showed up on their computer they could not issue a pre-paid coupon. Hearing this the crowd offered various helpful suggestions to the counter staff including doing colourful unbiblical things to their mothers and sisters. One enquired whether overturning the ticket shack might rectify the technical hitch.

In time I got a cab, and it edged into a three-lane scrum that inched its way towards a single-lane choke point manned by a solitary policeman. I wanted to tell everyone I was escaping from a 1,000lb bomb but thought this might complicate my egress.

Next morning I awoke to crisp blue skies sans smog and an orchestra of birds. For a brief moment we were not the world's most polluted city; just the second most – after Beijing. A day later the fog had returned and the Indian capital resumed its proud place as a No.1 ranked world city. Another striking example of progress presented itself when I headed for the bank. Several were on strike. Fortunately HSBC was open. With jingle in the pocket I luxuriated rooftop at Market Place in Khan Market where the winter sun beat down mercilessly exhorting dahlias, marigolds and roses to full stretch and eventually driving me back into the shade.

The Aam Aadmi Delhi government headed by maverick chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had taken governance to the people. He was hard at work, not in a legislative building but in the streets whipping up loud chest-beating protests to get a finger on the pulse of the “people”. This was a novel direct approach not seen outside the more sober workings of the supremely democratic Swiss cantons. With the government hard at work throughout the city, huge traffic jams slowed cars to a crawl or a standstill, immediately making Delhi roads safer for pedestrians and practically eliminating accidents. Hurrah. Yes, Delhi had changed.

Meetings and weddings done and stuffed to bursting with kebabs and butter chicken, back at the airport, courteous staff checked me in and I sped through immigration before being becalmed at security where everyone undergoes a thorough pat-down search. This procedure is simpler than a full body scan and safer than a Bangkok massage with no haggling or usurious fees. Then I dropped by the Premier Lounge, which was exceedingly well stocked with steaming trays of Indian curry. Ah, the joys of modern India.

But I headed downstairs to the brightly caparisoned Ishana outlet that does everything from foot soaks to henna applications with the latest in Indian folk music for an upbeat lift. I sat at the food bar, a small brick affair with four stools and savoured a Bombay bhel-puri or spiced puffed rice. There was nothing wrong with the Premier Lounge of course but I wanted to tarry in "India" a little bit longer. Ghetto is good for the soul sometimes. Throw away that watch and enjoy Incredible India. And should you find my Samsonites you know where to reach me.

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