To the uninitiated, Sharjah is known in some quarters as the armpit of the UAE - not unfairly, one has to admit. It's the only one of the seven Emirates which is "dry" and is renowned for its massive traffic jams, its hundreds of labour camps, its thousands of heavy lorries and equally heavy industries. Not a place one would immediately think of to spend a holiday.
But we've booked on Air Arabia to fly to Delhi, saving some 600 dirhams each (around Rs 8,000) on the Emirates price. Oh God - I won't last two hours here, Sush declares as she surveys the scene once we have finally arrived. Despite the traffic we have made good time and actually get there 15 minutes before the flight opens.
We are shown to a queue for early check in - but it's miles long and 20 minutes later we have shuffled only about two metres by the time I discover that by joining the Mumbai check-in we can be through in no time as they are happy to process us for Delhi.
The loos stink, Sush informs me, having checked out the plumbing once we are airside. Believe me, this will be the first and last time I come through Sharjah Airport! Even I have to admit that Sharjah's standards fall somewhat short of the dizzy heights of what Sush has come to expect of an airport. But there's one very good way of cheering her up.... We head for the food court. A choice of Indian, Chinese or McDonalds. No contest. With a reasonably good Dosa inside her insides, washed down by a coffee that appears to be the right colour at least, Sush is once more a happy bunny and heads for the Duty Free, where with obviously well practised ease she eventually returns clutching a number of plastic bags.
They sell booze in duty free! she informs me. (I am surprised, for as I think I might have mentioned, Sharjah is a dry state.) But there's a sign saying it's NOT for Muslims, so I guess that's alright. I wonder how they can tell what religion you are, she muses as we make our way to the gate.
We go through another security screening. Sushmita manages to set off all the alarms and is ushered into a tent where a cacophony of electronic squawks informs us that the female frisker is taking no chances with our beloved heroine.
Better check out the loo before we board the flight, as I don't want to be caught short once we're in the air, I am informed; and as she minces across the gate lounge, a hundred pairs of hungry male eyes avidly follow her route. One particularly greasy individual turns round to me and gives the thumbs up with a knowing leer, as if to say you've struck it lucky kid!
Air Arabia leaves on time and in our welcoming announcement we are informed that the cabin crew between them speak English, Arabic, Korean, Russian and Ukrainian, but alas... no mention of Hindi or Malayalam, so the vast majority of passengers have not the slightest idea what is being said.
We are given landing cards to fill in where it informs those interested enough to read the small print on the back that each passenger can import 2 litres of whisky or wine (no mention of gin, brandy or vodka) except for those under ten years of age. I half expect to see swarms of tipsy ten-year-olds being supported by their younger siblings when we arrive.
Time for a little sleep before landing in three hours' time. The crew turn up the heating to ensure the right soporific conditions are met and Sushmita curls up like a pussycat and is soon purring away contentedly.
In no time the lights come up again and we prepare for a bumpy landing. The stewardess informs us that mobile phones should not be switched on until we are in the terminal, but her announcement is drowned out by the Nokia theme emanating from every corner of the plane.
We wait for the HSBC-sponsored swing bridge to allow us off, but the HSBC controller is obviously still fast asleep and instead we climb down the steps into the cool of a beautiful Delhi morning and into an old beat up bus that struggles to make it into 2nd gear before depositing us around the corner at immigration.
Here we are met by a posse of officials wearing face masks and we all have to fill in forms stating our seat numbers and whether we have come from anywhere with suspected swine flu. Sush can't remember any of the flight details and puts down the first figures that come into her head. The medic affixes an official looking stamp confirming her details and I start to worry that should she go down with the dreaded disease, there will be no paperwork to show that I am the most likely passenger she passed it on to. Ah well, I must be brave!
I go to change some money. Four UAE bank notes from me exchanged for 117 notes depicting the Mahatma in a thick wad which I can scarcely fit in my pocket, let alone my wallet. I am reminded of that famous one-liner from Mae West: Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me? Well, I'm obviously pleased to catch up with our heroine once again as I discover her by the Duty Free (where else?) and together we set off into Incredible India.
Not a bit like I was expecting. I have been to Mumbai and also to Bangalore. Both those environments assault the olfactory nerves with their own strong characteristic odours, but not so Delhi. The traffic is a lot less manic too; and the cows wandering in the streets don't have their horns painted bright yellow as I witnessed in Karnataka. It feels almost like a different country.
Sushmita has persuaded one of her hapless friends - "Tiger" - to get out of bed at the crack of dawn and pick us up from the airport - a true gent and a saviour, and I am eventually deposited at a hotel I had booked just two days previously. The hotel can find no mention of my booking, but never mind sir. You can have an executive room and we will move you tomorrow into the room you think you booked with us. I get the impression that this is a regular occurrence with them and when I finally have to sign in to a massive tome that would be just perfect for pressing wild flowers, I begin to understand that computerisation of their booking system is not high up on their agenda.
I am shown to an executive suite - well that's what they call it ..."matchless in its understated elegance" ... (mine is the Greek Suite, so called, I suspect, because it boasts a picture of a statue with half its arms chopped off) and I begin to worry what their ordinary deluxe room will be like (perhaps a picture of a bar of soap?). Will its elegance also be understated? One of the tea bags on the beverages tray looks like it might have been used a few times too many, but I tell myself that as I'm paying only half the rack rate for this piece of real estate heaven in Delhi I'm in no position to complain.
Meanwhile a friend in Kashmir who was due to fly to Delhi to join us has discovered that a curfew imposed in the run up to the election means she can't get a flight out of Srinagar until the next day. Ah well, we can at least hope she will make it to Sushmita's BIG PARTY.
That evening I am taken to a slap up meal at Oh! Calcutta - the best Bengali restaurant in town I'm told. Don't ask me what we ate - Sush will have to fill that bit in, as I insisted she do the ordering. (The girl dun good!) But I'm left wondering if the restaurant is named after the town itself or after the 1960s Musical? I refrain from telling Sush what the origin of the musical name was as she is far too young and innocent to know about such things. (Hint for you ignorant shameless guys out there: try saying it fast and translating the resulting French into English!)
Sush, with Tiger's help, decides to teach me a few words in Hindi in the hope they might come in useful during my stay. When negotiating the fare with a cab driver, you should show him respect by calling him B.C., she patiently explains to me. (Of course, dear reader, it's not pronounced that way, but I have great difficulty spelling it in Hindi, and I am assured that it is normally shortened to this abbreviation). I try and commit to memory, but am sure I will forget by the morning.
The next day I leave Sush in peace and hire a car to show me the sights of Delhi. The driver decides he wants to take me on a tour of the factory outlets and promptly deposits me at a Kashmir carpet shop. No. No shops. I want to see Delhi, not carpet shops, I tell him. He starts to sulk and I wonder if I should use my recently gained knowledge of Hindi to cheer him up, but decide against it. What if he answered back, what would I say next?
So we take in the Bahai Temple, followed by the Qutub Minar, the Akshardam Temple -- (you want lunch now Sir? I take you to good restaurant, yes? No thanks, says I, wondering how much commission he has arranged with this particular joint... and he goes back into sulk mode) - Humayun's Tomb, Raj Ghat, Lal Qila (and all the time the driver stares ahead giving monosyllabic answers).
And then a miraculous thing happens. I get back to the car after seeing Red Fort only to find the driver has disappeared. He eventually reappears 20 minutes later with a load of shopping. He is 'devastated' that I have been kept waiting (do they get points deducted for not looking after their customers I wonder?) and when I ask to go back to the hotel he insists we go via India Gate. Of course I choose just that moment to forget my treasured new Hindi word, so instead of 'I say B.C. I insist on being taken to the hotel as I asked', I instead smile sweetly and come up with something along the lines of 'I say old man, would you be so good as to take me to the hotel as I asked?' We drive around India Gate and head for the hotel.
Good news awaits. My friend has arrived from Kashmir and is on her way over from the airport. Just in time for us to get picked up by Tiger and taken to where it is all happening. Sush has been working her fingers to the bone all day preparing for the party and we are let loose on scrummy biscuits topped with cheese, cucumber, tuna and tomatoes; the drinks flow freely;
Sush obviously chooses her friends from the best-looking people around (so great to know I'm in good company); the music blasts out to the night air. But alas like all good things it must come to an end and with tears in their eyes Delhi's beautiful people must be homeward bound. Tiger kindly insists on being a taxi driver (hey guys ... he's the best!) and at last I am snuggled up in my room of understated elegance dreaming of the morrow.
The morrow comes, but the Brain sleeps through the allotted hour of awakening and all his plans for the day go poof in a cloud of smoke. Instead he and lately-arrived friend make plans to cover ALL the must-see sites of Delhi that had been missed yesterday. Instead of an air-conditioned car with bolshy driver, we enjoy the open road in auto-taxis (note to non-Indians: these are the same as tuk-tuks in Sri Lanka and bemos in Indonesia, except that they run on gas and, it is said, are better for the environment!). We go to see the Tughlaqabad Fort ruins in all their splendid glory. We head for the India Gate, posing for pix, shoot up to the President's residence, pass the High Court, and go for some lunch in a restaurant that our auto-taxi driver takes us to. On to Safdarjang's Tomb and thence to the Jama Masjid. Surely we have covered everything there is worth seeing in Delhi by now?
No? No! For as we are at the Masjid, one thing I am told that should never be missed is the best Moghul cooking in Delhi - nay, India! Karim's boasts a continuous line of chefs dating right back to the days of the last Moghul emperor and it draws visitors in from far and wide. We take a rickshaw from the masjid and on arrival are shown to a grubby corner of a grubby restaurant and given grubby plates to eat off. But forget the superficial veneer. The grub (very un-grubby) is excellent. What a perfect way to end a first stay in Delhi.
So how did I find Delhi, your blog-readers are all agog to find out...... Weeeeell, it wasn't what I was expecting, that's for sure. There are some fabulous places, without a doubt, spread over a vast sprawl of a city with some beautiful areas surrounded by some not-so-pretty ones. The people I met were, as I just knew they would be, both charming and in many cases fascinating (and that goes especially for Sushmita's circle of friends).
But I wasn't expecting the blatant rip off-of foreigners in every conceivable situation, starting with the fact that almost all monuments charge, say 10/- for nationals and 250/- for foreigners. That's a whopping 2500 per cent for god's sake! AND they even charge an extra 25/- to take in a video camera to many of the monuments. Hotels have dual rates too; and the taxis, well I suspect the way they rip off visitors is similar to every other city in the world. But having a cabbie demand 800/- that costs anyone else 150/- (I end up paying 200/-) once again sticks in the throat. Even at the airport they don't accept Indian money from foreigners in the Duty Free shop (though it's OK for Indians apparently). And for me, this constant demand for extra money put a dampener on my entire stay in the city. When a city contrives to make its guests feel so unwelcome, one has to ask oneself why one would bother visiting it in the first place.
But a PS - when I came down to pay my hotel bill I was asked to fill in a questionnaire by a well heeled assistant in reception. I mention on the form that the food is well below standard and that over half the items on the room service menu are unavailable. At that point it descends into that famous Monty Python sketch where one person after another comes to apologise. First the sub manager is called, ringing his hands in woe; then the manager, promising he has never had ANYONE ever complain before. He simply cannot understand it. The Head of F&B is then summoned to explain himself. Can I give chapter and verse of EVERYTHING I found wrong with the food. (I don't have the time as I have a plane to catch!) And finally the owner of the establishment who is overwrought with guilt and contrition turns up and, I swear, looks as if he is about to burst into tears.
My bill is snatched back out of my hands and recalculated. Suddenly the room rate which had already been cut by 50 per cent has another 500/- taken off for each night's stay. A further 1200/- is deducted as a goodwill gesture. 250/- is knocked off my airport taxi bill.... (Maybe I should have mentioned the bathroom?)
Oh, and I never did get to find out what the picture with a bar of soap looked like as the hotel had waived the very idea of moving me to an inferior room. So perhaps all is not as bad as it seems in the state of India!