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We are all different and we are all the same.

The very best travel experience is one that can never be repeated: it’s when you set foot in a new country for the first time.

Sometimes when I am teaching photography, my students have never been to the place where the course is before, whether it’s Andalucia in southern Spain or Bangkok, or wherever. That initial experience is unique, enviable, unrepeatable – when your senses are at their most heightened. Just as after the first time you ever had sex, that innocence can never be restored, and everything looks different, so it’s the same with the eye. The first time you see a country with your own virgin eyes is both unique and exhilarating.

This gave me an idea for a blog for a series of blogs: “My first time in…”

My first time in India. Part One

I had been saving India. It was a jewel in a box, not to be opened just yet – until I received a call from Jonathan Newbury, Vice President, Strategic Development at the Preferred Hotel Group.
He invited me to deliver a Keynote speech on Luxury Hotel Photography at the Annual Conference of the #Iprefer group in New Delhi India.

Had I been saving India, or had I been saving the Taj Mahal?

Had I been saving India, or had I been saving the Taj Mahal?

In a milisecond, I convinced myself that it was the Taj Mahal, and verbally signed up to the offer. The affirmation was easy; it’s the practising and preparation of the speech that takes the time. Six months later, I flew Club with my favourite airline, British Airways, to the Indian capital New Delhi. During the flight my mind was on the conference more than on the county, but the minute I stepped onto Indian soil, all that changed. The taste of the warm humid air, the airport air-conditioning smells, the entrance to the country not via the long queues at passport control, but the short Business Visa line, with total efficiency. It was right then, at that moment, when I received my first huge, dazzling, white-toothed Indian grin, accompanied by an adorable head wobble from the Customs official. As I left the luggage area pushing my heavily-loaded trolley, the automatic doors in Arrivals opened and there before me were hundreds of chauffeurs wearing white, all jostling for position to hold their name cards high – and I spotted mine:

“Michelle Chaplow Welcome to India!”

I could discern English influences everywhere, right down to the fitted carpets at the airport. I was collected by the Oberoi chauffeur – a shy, respectful, dignified man, in an immaculate white outfit. This impeccably-dressed driver led me through the crowds and noise to the sanctuary of the leather-seated hotel limo. As we left the airport they were playing cricket on the central reservation of the highway, and the chauffeur told me that it was an excellent makeshift pitch, as the ground is so flat. When I asked if he was concerned about the ball going through the windscreen, he replied

“Oohhh noooo Madam, that would not be happening to us. You are in good hands with me.

I knew I was, so I ignored the lane-weaving and didn’t really bat an eyelid until we turned off the highway to a smaller road and met a strolling cow.

The Balloon Sellers. click to enlarge

All the cars and auto-rickshaws even balloon sellers, circled the cow, like ballerinas. Cows are sacred animals in Hindu countries, and she had every right to be there. The traffic was mad, yet the driver reassured me that I had chosen the perfect time to arrive – on a Sunday, as the roads were so quiet(!). I decided to look at the newspaper and ignore the horns.

The Sunday Times was written in Indian English, with headlines such as

“Passport Pickles”

. There was something about spice, which is a big thing in India – were there spice sellers everywhere. I even saw an airline – and this is the honest truth – named Spice Air.

Four weeks prior to arriving in India, I had been teaching photography in Bangkok, and you kind of grow accustomed to the small stature of the Thai people – but here, all that was about to change.

Silam Singh, the doorman at the Oberoi New Delhi

Silam Singh, the doorman at the Oberoi New Delhi

Silam Singh, the doorman at the Oberoi New Delhi was probably the tallest man I had seen for months, even years. He was dressed in white, complete with turban, and a moustache that curled in rings up at the sides. He was so tall that my sunhat fell off when I looked up at him. He smiled.

At the Oberoi I was allocated the Rudyard Kipling room. Kipling was a British author whose books – most famously The Jungle Book – were written in the era of the British Raj. It was a huge suite with immense rooms, including reception rooms and an elevated four-poster bed. The sari-clad female butler arrived with tea; I live in Spain, and the Spanish have no clue about tea. The tea at the Oberoi – wow, they have it sorted, they are the tea. She brought a tea cozy to keep the pot warm, she added hot water, cold milk. This is the birth place, the Tea Mecca; I was home already. Cup in hand, I settled down to browse a coffee table book on Indian moustaches while the female butler unpacked my cases.