India Street Children and Palaces

I’ve often heard it said that India offers an eclectic mix of culture and flavours without really considering how to plan a visit. It was only when the opportunity arose to join a tour group the sheer size of the country came into focus.

India is about 13 times bigger than the UK and it quickly dawned on me that it would be impossible to see the whole country in a week. Wendy Wu offer award winning holidays to the whole of Asia and I was confident that their Golden Triangle of India Tour would give me the perfect introduction.

The temptation when writing about any touring experience is to rattle off a list of hotels, sights and experiences without taking a breath. Apart from being quite boring to read, doing so would destroy the sense of adventure. Instead I will focus on just one day, the penultimate of my trip….                                                                                                 

I had slept like a log and the 5:30 alarm call came as a bit of a shock. Staying in different hotels every night can be quite disorientating and it took me a couple of minutes to spring into action. I find it quite hard sometimes to get going in the mornings, but with the prospect of the Taj Mahal at sunrise awaiting I was down at reception first and raring to go.

Our hotel was only a 5-minute drive to entry gate and we had been assured that the early start would help to avoid the crowds and heat of the day. I was a little disappointed to see a large queue forming at the main entrance; not to worry our wonderful tour manager Vishal called us to one side, lifted a corner of the fence and ushered us through. Well this is India.

As you may expect with one of the Wonders of The World there were still security checks to clear, but we were ahead of the game and soon taking in the breath-taking Taj Mahal sparkling in the rising sunlight. I have seen thousands of photographs over the years and I can honestly say none of them came close to capturing the sense of fulfilment I felt being there.

That doesn’t stop you taking a ridiculous number of pictures and there’s always that iconic Lady Diana bench shot to replicate. Top marks to anyone who spotted that I’m posing on the wrong bench. I suppose at least I’ve left myself with an excuse to go back one day.

Vishal painted a vivid picture with his tale of a heart broken Emperor, his cherished wife passing too soon, and the ultimate symbol of love lost. In truth he summed the experience up best by saying “Taj is Taj” and I get it, there really is nothing to compare.                                                                                                       

After breakfast back at our Agra hotel we set off for a visit to a charity project in Delhi called “Project Arman” which focuses on the well being and education of children from poor families. The bus ride took several hours and after such an early start I think all of us took the chance to close our eyes and rest. There had been plenty of opportunity to take in all the sights and sounds of the Indian countryside over the past week and I felt confident nothing could surprise me, how wrong you can be.

We had been asked to bring along some books and pencils for the children so armed with my Pound-Land supply of goodies, we made our way on foot through one of Delhi’s many slum areas. I have never experienced abject poverty and deprivation of this kind before. I felt so uncomfortable intruding into this alien world of desperation, misery and despair.

I have visited staged orphanages and schools in many countries where in truth they are simply tourist traps designed to grab your heartstrings and grab your cash. There was nothing staged about these streets, I was surrounded by utter hopelessness.

The school was situated down an alley between two shops and I use the terms school and shops extremely loosely. My first and enduring memory is the row upon row of tiny, worn-out shoes which the “pupils” leave at the door.

As I peered into the two classrooms, each no bigger than a box bedroom, dozens of bright eyes stared back. I felt distraught and my optimistic carrier bag of cheap stationery certainly wasn’t going to be changing these little lives.

We learned from the charity organiser that the children would probably be picking through rubbish tips if it weren’t for the haven of a few hours at school. At the end of the school day each child received a piece of fruit or a juice carton and I wondered if perhaps that was the only reason they were there at all.

Although I hardly felt in the mood, I had agreed to attend a Bollywood style theatre performance in the evening with some of the group. I’m embarrassed to say I was relieved to leave our school visit earlier than the rest of the group to get across town in time for the show.

As we drove past the neighbouring, luxurious US Embassy the stark inequalities of life in India could not have been more graphically illustrated. Wendy Wu are working with Project Arman to reach more children. I wish them every success.                                                                                                           

The Kingdom of Dreams modestly proclaims itself as the ultimate entertainment and leisure destination. In a country of such extremes it certainly lives up to its billing and comparisons with the squalor of earlier was unavoidable. Imagine a Donald Trump inspired Taj Mahal 2 and you’ll have the idea.

In front of us was a façade resembling an Indian styled casino with vast golden elephants arching their trunks to form the opulent entrance. It all seemed in rather poor taste, but with a deep breath we headed inside.

The foyer is themed on a boulevard of quaint shops, bars and restaurants complete with its very own luminous indoor sky. The actual theatre reminded me of one I visited at Radio City in New York a few years ago needless to say with the addition of copious amounts of gold-leaf.

Although the show was performed in Hindi I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. Zangoora the Gypsy Prince is a simple pantomime style story of a virtuous prince falling on hard times only to win in the end. The actual spectacle was mesmerising with the traditional head slide dancing almost lost in an extravagant laser and light show.

In the interval I was approached by a young Indian couple who were fascinated to know how, as an English speaker, I was enjoying the show? They asked in passing if I knew a little town in England where their brothers were studying politics. Yes…… I had heard of Plymouth!                                                                                                       

India certainly delivers a rollercoaster ride of emotions and for me that is the beauty of the country. I believe travel should be about adventure and discovery; did I mention the tigers…….

About the author

Co-owner Victor is the driving force behind the formulation and development of Golden Ticket Travel. His 30 years of self-employment have seen many personal highs and lows, but his appetite to make things better has never diminished. Now in his 50's his attitude to working life in general has softened as he watches his two daughters set off into their chosen careers and the world get a little crazier by the day.

Errors and omissions excepted.

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