A bit of luck in Lucknow
Trip Start May 01, 2010
23Trip End Jul 15, 2010
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First impressions can be deceiving. Our first impression of Lucknow was of a noisy, smelly, irritating city. Despite rolling into the station at 6 am, the horns were blaring and the touts were in fine form. Upon discovering that the hotel we planned to sleep at had raised its prices by 200% since our guide book was published earlier this year, we began the tiring task of finding somewhere new to stay. Within seconds a tout had attached himself to us, promising to take us to a hotel a few blocks away with double AC rooms for RS700 (approximately $17). At the described establishment, we experienced the first of a number of irritating events that were to take place over the next few days.
Genevieve (to hotel clerk): We would like a double AC room, please
Hotel clerk: Sorry, we don't accept foreigners
Hotel clerk: No foreigners allowed
What?! In retrospect we realize that this is likely something to do with licensing and having the means to take all the information that is required of a foreign guest, such as passport photocopies, visa information, and travel details, but at 6 am, with our packs on our backs, and after a night on a sleeper train, we didn’t take it in the most positive light available.
The man that took us there then promised to take us to another place. We refused to accept his offer of help, but he followed us anyway. After checking out another dire hotel in the area, we decided to get an autorickshaw into a different neighbourhood to look at another place listed in our guidebook. Our new friend tried to get into the (definitely single person) driver’s seat with our driver to "take" us there! After shouting vehemently that we didn’t need and certainly didn’t want him with us, the driver pressed a coin into his hand and forced him out. Although this sort of thing has happened all over India, it is somehow much more frustrating early in the morning when the smell of the train is still in our hair.
Once we got to the next hotel, took note of the beer garden, and settled into our comfortable air-cooled room, our opinion of Lucknow began to look up
Later on our first day in the city, we headed off to one of Lucknow’s biggest sights – the Residency. Situated on more than 30 acres of land once belonging to a Muslim Nawab, the Residency was home to the area’s British governing officers and their families until the mid-19th century. In 1857 it was the site of a great uprising, described in Indian history as a freedom struggle, one of the most important events in the First War of Independence
Security guard: Tickets please
Genevieve and Kian: ? But we are leaving?
Security guard: Tickets!
Genevieve: But I want to keep them for my scrapbook…
Security guard: Tickets!!
Genevieve: (Thinking, perhaps he doesn’t understand…) Souvenir? Please?
Security guard (Grabs the tickets rather viciously and storms away shaking his head)
I seriously considered buying another ticket just to prove a point. I mean, honestly. What harm would it be to keep my ticket? He could have written void on it or something. It is just the principle of it that irks me.
A nap in the afternoon prepared us for an event that was to lead to the third irritating event of the day: a drink in the beer garden.
Now, we have learned our lesson (I hope) that we should never, never, never get our hopes up
When we got to the bar, we pointed to the word ale on the menu.
“Oh no, not available,” our waiter told us. I think I nearly cried. “Are any of the Little Devil beers available?” “No, not available.”
We talked amongst ourselves for a moment, debating what to do. They had other imported beers, but I was pretty sure they were all similar. However, I wasn’t completely certain. Not being able to picture some of the brands, I told Kian that I was going to ask to have a look at the beers to see if any of them looked any better than the usual Kingfisher.
Genevieve (standing up) to waiter: Can I look at the beer selection?
Waiter (approximately 4’11”, looks up in terror at G): No
Genevieve (perplexed, especially as the bar is only a few metres away and the alcohol is by no means hidden): But… I just want to look? To see which one I like?
Waiter, looking panicked, urges me to sit down while he calls the bar manager. I stay standing.
Bar Manager: Yes?
Genevieve: (Indicating the bar) I just want to look at the beer options…
Bar Manager: No madam. Not possible.
Bar Manager: No madam. Please sit down.
We ordered a Kingfisher and some peanuts. After discussing the matter we decided that a number of things happened when I stood up that led to their such obvious distress.
- I am a woman in a hotel bar. That is extremely unusual.
- The waiter was tiny, and I literally towered over him. And I think I looked pretty upset to be told the ale was unavailable. I guess you don’t want to mess with me when my beer is unavailable.
- Rules are rules. For whatever reason, people do not get to see the beer. It doesn’t make sense, it just is. And I should not try to change that. I have been told.
Day two was the day of Naved
After leaving the hectic office, we noticed posters for the Heritage Walking Tour posted around town, and despite my trepidation about spending three hours with the boisterous Naved, I decided I would go on the tour. The next morning at 6:45am I left Kian sleeping and hopped on the back of Naved’s scooter (his car was in the shop) and headed out to see the religious and historical sites of this mostly Muslim city.
We started at a mosque, and quickly moved on to the Bara Imambarra, a famous complex devoted to the Mourning of Muharram, an important part of the Shia faith
We didn’t make it very far. Within minutes we hear the first peel of thunder, and quickly took shelter, along with about 35 other people on foot, bicycle, or scooter, under a large archway leading to the old part of the town. The wind was so strong that everyone had to cover their eyes and mouths with whatever scarves they had available. My clothes were whipping at me and I was grateful for my Indian shawl. Then the rain came. This was not the refreshing pre-monsoon shower of the south: this was a violent, fast-moving, black storm. Almost instantaneously the road was transformed into a river and despite our shelter we were drenched. However, as quickly as it came, it passed, and we were soon able to get back on the scooter and go on our way without getting too wet. In just as much time again, the rain had stopped completely.
As I was the only one on the tour, and as the old town roads were too small to accommodate cars but big enough for scooters, our “walking tour” ended up being mostly on wheels, which was fine. We saw another smaller imambarra, more mosques, many 500-year-old houses, an ancient Irani hospital that dispenses medicine for just 1 rupee, flower markets, and chikkan factories, the local type of hand-stitched cloth. We stopped at a small chai shop about halfway through. The owner, a young man, was crouching on the ground next to a pan of fresh milk, skimming the cream from the top
At the end of the tour, Naved told me that the Heritage tour was a fairly new concept, and asked if I would mind giving some feedback to the Minister of Tourism and Culture over the phone. I agreed and was handed a mobile. The conversation, after a few questions about who I was and what I thought of the tour, ended with the Minister begging me to take his mobile number from Naved and assuring me that I could call him any time, if I needed anything at all. He was very friendly.
Naved ended the tour with an offer to take Kian and I around the old bazaar neighbourhood in the evening when it is its most lively, and to take us to an ancient and very good kebab restaurant for dinner. After I told Kian about my morning and said that my initial opinion of him had changed, we decided to take Naved up on his offer
And what an evening it was. His car was still in the shop, so we balanced all three of us on a cycle rickshaw and headed out. As soon as we got to our destination, he asked if we would like to stop for a beer or whiskey. (I should clarify: he asked Kian if he would like to have a drink. I had to be quite vocal to make it known that I was also interested). What followed was rather mysterious at the time. First, he left us standing on the side of the road and ran off somewhere. Then he came back, had us follow him, then deposited us on chairs outside a tailor shop with the tailors sitting on the ground staring at us. About ten minutes passed before he finally came back, a bag in his hands, and once again beckoned us to follow him. He took us to a bar where he assured us we could drink safely, and we did just that – but with alcohol that he brought for us. We are still not sure why that was the case, but we accepted it.
Once again, I was the only woman in the bar, and we were the only foreigners. The stares were merely curious, though, and Naved was entertaining as he told us about the historical town, about his family, and about his job in the tourism industry. Naved, age 50, is the son of a Zamindar, a sort of Mughal feudal landlord
After two beers we were ready to tackle the bustling streets of the old bazaar. But before we got very far, we stopped for another treat: paan. Paan consists of a leaf rolled around a number of possible ingredients, always including betelnut, and sometimes including tobacco. Ours did not have the latter, but was filled with coconut and breath-freshening herbs. We stuffed them in our mouths and chewed. And spat. And chewed. And spat. It was not very ladylike at all. In fact, it was pretty disgusting. It left my mouth with a fresh feeling, but otherwise I found it rather uncomfortable – I think my mouth was too small for it! Another experience in the books…
Heading down the main bazaar, we popped into a chikkan shop to pay our respects to a friend of Naved. In chikkan shops, as in the silk shop we went to in Varanasi, we took off our shoes and sat cross-legged in a circle on the cushioned floor
At some point during our visit to the shop, it was suggested that we should call the Minister again to tell him that we like the tour so much that we decided to do an evening version, and it was wonderful. After some persuasion, I agreed, and was put on the phone to the Minister. Our conversation was as follows:
Minister: (barely audible over the loud thumping of Daft Punk in the background) Hello?
Genevieve: (not sure how to introduce myself) Hello, this is Genni…
M: Ah yes, hello Genni, how are you this evening?
G: Very well… (goes on to tell him about the tour, how wonderful it all is, how wonderful Lucknow is, etc. etc.)
M: That’s wonderful… listen, what hotel are you staying at?
G: Gomti Hotel
M: Gomti, great. Would you like to come to a party? There is a great party happening, I can send a private car to the hotel for you and your husband…
G: (Really unsure how to respond and trying desperately not to laugh at the situation): Um, well, I think we are just heading out for dinner, actually…
M: Oh very good, well, you have my number so please call me after your dinner and we can arrange a car wherever you are
When it was time for us to leave the shop, Naved told us that we could not leave before the Nawab. At this, the Nawab stood up and insisted that he would not be insulted if we left. We shook hands all around and made our way out.
Our tour of the busy bazaar took us to a simple and very old kebab shop. Kebabs in Lucknow are made of small portions of minced meat, usually mutton, very rich, fried, and served with raw onions and the pastry-bread that I had tried at breakfast. The food was being cooked on open flames at the front of the restaurant, and we sat inside and watched the preparation process. Before eating, however, I wanted to use the facilities. This proved to be a problem, as there was nowhere appropriate for women to go. After making some inquiries, Naved and another man led me down the alley, up a long flight of stairs in what appeared to be someone’s home, to a private bathroom on the top floor. It was clean and quite nice, if in a slightly strange location. Like many top floors in India, this one did not have a roof, and when I stood up, I could look over the tops of the walls to see the moonlit rooftops of the ancient adobe town. Not a bad view at all!
The food was delicious and we ate until we couldn’t find any more space in our bellies. Some more walking and window shopping, a taxi ride back to the hotel, and a long and thankful goodbye to our host, and our eventful evening came to a close. Our lasting impression of Lucknow was definitely a good one: enthusiastic hospitality, delicious food, and a brush with Royalty – you can’t go wrong with that!