8 February 2020
We’ve forsaken the European grandeur of Russia, Malta and Sicily for the allure of India, where curry and shouting is used to extinguish everything unpleasant. Moreover, Asia is additionally threatening at this time because of the coronavirus. Consequently, we arrived at Sydney Airport with enough medicine to stock a modest pharmacy – along with gloves, masks, sanitisers, and a jar of Manuka honey which, I believe, can be poured down a dead person’s throat and they immediately sit up and ask where they are.
Michelle was told by a reliable travel contact that you can spend up to four hours at Delhi Airport standing in the immigration arrival queue. The best way to avoid this is for those, like me, with artificial body parts, and a longstanding inability to stand for long, is to seek wheelchair assistance. My ego resisted, of course, but hell, nobody I knew would see me as a cripple in India, so I agreed to an anonymous two-wheel experience when we arrived in Delhi. My condition was that Michelle had to endure to the same indignity. She probably deserved it more than I anyway, since she has painfully dodgy disks. The airline, it turned out, also had a condition – that if we needed wheelchairs, we had to begin our wheelathon in Sydney. We did several ontheotherhands and reluctantly lowered ourselves into the surprising comfort of the wheelchairs, weighed down by our carry-ons on our laps as ballast.
I’d never been wheeled before, except lying on a gurney in a hospital on the way to surgery. I wanted to steer the wheelchair, especially because the robust but unskilled wheeler cut corners and grazed fixtures. We were kind of tipped out at the Singapore lounge where we pleaded that we be allowed to walk to the gate when called. It took some persuading for Wheelers One and Two to agree, but they reminded us that once a wheelee, always a wheelee, and we’d be force-wheeled, if we resisted, for the rest of the trip.
At Changi in Singapore (where the captain of the A380 asked everybody to remain seated while a ‘sick’ person was removed, gulp) we were met by a team of wheelers revving up their chairs and calling our names. Escape was impossible. I felt quite uncomfortable as my wheeling lady huffed and puffed, especially up the carpeted slopes of the huge airport. Her task was made even more taxing because my chair had a shot wheel bearing which made it seem to continually hop over an invisible rock. She let me off at the airport Crowne Plaza, close to collapse. I should have been pushing her. The whole idea was only to avoid a stand-up at Delhi but now we were in the loop.
We escaped the Crowne Plaza on foot and took the flight to Delhi, only to find the wheelchair police waiting for us in the riotous Delhi arrival hall, where coronavirus testing stations had been set up like a shanty town, with clerks trying to read hastily devised declaration forms and firing red temperature lasers at anybody’d head they could hit. I was immediately captured by a wheeler but there was no wheelchair for Michelle. She had to claim a miracle cure for her back and walk beside her crippled husband as we dived into the squawking throng. I must say it wasn’t so bad being pushed, with the pusher emitting loud honking sounds as we went to front of queues and were spoon fed at the immigration desk. Once outside, the pusher was reluctant to let me out of the wheelchair, despite my requests. We continued into the darkness and on to the carpark, where the suspension of the wheelchair was no match for the potholes or my loosening teeth. Was he going to kidnap me? No, he was just trying to earn a bigger tip. I was generous, but he still went away muttering. I decided no more wheelchairs unless I became an amputee.
We were back at the airport early the next morning, full of apprehension at having to board the local Indigo airline to get to Udaipur. Military-style security men divided males from females for an aggressive examination of bodies and bags. But after that, it the tide turned. Instead of steep metal stairs up to the plane, Indigo uses a much better three-stage ramp. And in spite of the appearance of utter confusion, the plane left on time and arrived uncrashed at a small, well-appointed airport, where a theatrically dressed driver from Leela Palace picked us up in a BMW. He drove us though scruffy towns until we reached Lake Pichola where a boat took us to www.I’vediedandgonetoheaven. Our superbly appointed room has a balcony looking out on the lake – which was hand dug in the 13th Century and is filled by monsoon rains. In parts, it is 15 metres deep. Despite the Leela Palace’s ability to render us bankrupt in a short time, Michelle suggested we stay here forever. But the wonders of Udaipur await us tomorrow.