This will be my first significant solo trip for nearly 40 years!
The idea started three years ago, when I watched a slideshow given by an 80-year-old in our village, back from his annual trip to India. His photos of temples, forts and people were mind-blowingly beautiful and I felt that I HAD to share that experience.
So, I will be joining the - presumably small - number of 60+ year olds with two false hips to make this pilgrimage. (It has to be said I am somewhat anxious if there is any expectation that I sit cross-legged on the ground, as my getting there is a somewhat stiff and ungainly sight!).
First stage was to dip into 'Rough Guide' and 'Lonely Planet' , and more recently, 'Le Guide du Routard'. The next was the difficult one of picking an area.
For what I hope is the first of several trips to India I have chosen the well-trodden route of Delhi-Rajasthan-Agra-Khajuraho-Varanasi. It will be strange and not entirely comfortable taking part in mass tourism in a developing country, but I couldn't resist the chance to see all these amazing sites. I'm also looking forward to meeting lots of Indian people.
Meanwhile, Chris, my husband, will be at home, in France, looking after our geriatric dog. And it is for him and our two daughters, Kate and Jude, that I am writing - plus those of our friends who want to follow the trail.
Désolée, mes chers amis français - je n'écrirais qu'en anglais. Mais j'espère vous allez apprécier les photos.
The first leg: France to England
Off to Montpellier (thanks for the lift, Philippe), a five hour wait in the city centre (during which I lost leave of my senses and bought my gorgeous new camera), and then to the airport, to catch the plane to London.
I had a day in London for last minute shopping – and to repack my bag again, in an attempt to reduce my pack to about 12 kg. I’m taking two bags, to make it easier to carry – and to allow space for further purchases.
At last I'm off.
A 4.30am start to the day, for a 10.30 flight, was to prove un peu fatiguant later. No problems checking in. The girl remarked on my incredibly light travel bags, perhaps this was due to the fact that I left out essential items, such as my first aid kit and a change of tee-shirt!
The plane was large - three rows of three-seaters - and packed, mainly with arabs and indians. Few signs of fellow European backpakckers. I set next to a young Sikh salesman from London, off to visit his relatives in Delhi, and a Filipono maid, whose mistress was travelling business class, returning from a shopping trip in London. She was putting a brave face on a pretty miserable life - family all in the Philippines, poorly paid and allowed no freedom of movement whatever.
Then, seven hours wait at Kuwait Airport, which is about the size of Montpellier airport - a tacky restaurant, small expensive duty free, and no internet facilities to while away the time.
Until fatigue fell in, when I attempted to stretch out on the seats (background musak was luckily Vivaldi, Mozart and Beethoven!), I enjoyed watching the other passengers and the juxtaposition of traditional and modern. Take, for example, that sheikh in immaculate white robes and headgear, talking animatedly down his mobile phone. Or another, dressed entirely in black (so his brilliant white teeth shone like a beacon) with in tow two teenage girls (his daughters?) wearing cool Western gear (all black) and talking with American accents. Couldn't quite work that one out.
Talked for a while to a young English woman with three-year-old son, on her way to marry her Sri Lankan fiance. She will be living in a small village just above the tidal wave disaster line, and with the current collapse in the tourist industry, she and her future husband will be selling his goods (he is a goldsmith) on eBay.
A big step into the unknown, but she has prepared for it by making a prenuptial agreement, assigning right to keep children, right to observe the customes of her culture (eg Christmas tree) and the obligation on her husband not to take a second wife. She says she is looking forward to bringing up children in this relaxed atmosphere - in her previous visit her son was instantly adopted by and cared for by the other villagers.
At last, at about 3am we boarded the second Kuwait Airline plane, a pokier affair, with no leg room but marginally better food. My travel companion this time was a young (I use this term loosely for anybody under the age of 40...) Indian doctor, finishing his six-month houseman stints in Lincolnshire, with a wife and baby living opposite her parents in Kent. He sees them at weekends, and is travelling alone to visit his mother in Delhi partly because of cash but also because his wife doesnt really like India (or Indian food). Mmmmm. Wonder how long that relationship will last, poor man.
We flew high over Iraq, out of the firing distance of rockets. A salutary reminder of the horrible, real world below.
I completely lost track of what time it was, as we crossed one time barrier after another, but I think it was about 9am local time when we finally landed at Delhi Airport.
Friday 7 January
First impressions of Delhi? Well, it helps that I have already lived in a third world country, as there were many comparisons with my first landing in northern Nigeria.
The airport was small and tacky, rather more so than I had expected. As I waited in the baggage hall, I experienced for the first time some feelings of nervousness. Was it completely mad to set off on my own at my age? Most of the other luggage seemed to be enormous packages, often of cardboard, wrapped in polythene, with perhaps a mattress attached. No wonder my bag seemed so tiny. On emerging from customs, I was overwhelmed by the tide of touts, trying to sell anything and everything, as forwarned. Luckily there was a driver waiting for me.