After dropping our bags and passing through security, we were waiting in the departure hall of Goa Airport with what must have been several hundred other passengers. As I surveyed the space, I counted no less than thirteen different shops, only two of which had customers, and both of those were food outlets selling microwave-heated burgers and slices of pizza.
Swarovski jewellery, Da Milano handbags, Krishna jewellers, Kalsburg mensware, John’s umbrellas, Nirvana souvenirs and several others were all doing a very poor or completely non-existent trade. It seemed to defy every notion of good business sense and yet the practice was widespread. I wondered why so many airports around the world provide real estate for a bunch of generic stores and products that seem inappropriate choices considering what could be in their place. Combined with obsessive security and frustratingly long wait times, it is no wonder many people find air travel a drudge.
For me, those brief moments when the planes engines roar into life and it accelerates down the runway for takeoff, is still the most exciting thing about flying. Not surprisingly I guess, the rest of the experience rarely seems to match my expectations of what air travel could be.
Our trip to Nepal and India was coming to an end and with only two days left before our flight back to the UK, we took a plane from Goa to Delhi so we could organise our gear. Because we’d bought books, gifts and various odds-and-ends during our travels, we’d accrued a few more things than we started with and some careful packing was required before the flight.
We also wanted to visit one last site of historical interest and on our last free day we took a taxi to the Qutub Minar complex in the south-west of the city. Our driver was a Sikh, originally from the Punjab region, and very talkative throughout the entire journey. He spoke excellent English but was also learning Spanish, for no other reason than he enjoys learning new things. He told us about a woman he likes and how she encouraged him to lose weight before meeting her family. It now meant he was exercising more and proudly suggested he had already lost a few kilos. He described how crazy the people in India were and how so few of them follow any kind of rules on the road. Corruption was a big problem in India as well, he explained, and was responsible for the vastly different circumstances between the lives of rich and poor. He’d experienced first hand, he said, the intimidation and humiliation the wealthy can sometimes inflict on those less fortunate.
The man was in his late twenties, very self-aware and under no illusions about the state of his country. Despite the downsides, he had a positive attitude towards life he said, and made a point of demonstrating it by turning his car’s sound system up to ‘club levels’ for what he thought would be our enjoyment. We weren’t so enthused by his choice of Punjabi pop but we were glad to arrive at the carpark and finally enter the complex itself.
Qutub Minar is an old Islamic minaret, 73 metres tall, surrounded by several historically significant monuments forming a complex that has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Building work on the minaret began in 1192 and continued over many centuries with different rulers adding further storeys or undertaking repairs. It is constructed of red sandstone and marble, is essentially Iranian in its design and has five storeys in total, each one tapering progressively towards the top. It is a striking structure, not only for its size, but the design of its exterior. The outer surface consists of alternating cuboid and cylindrical shaped columns, interrupted by bands of intricate floral, calligraphic and geometric relief work.
Next to Qutub Minar is the remains of Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque and numerous other ruins built by different rulers during different time periods. They were originally constructed on the ruins of what was previously a sizeable complex of Hindu and Jain temples and several remnants of the original Jain structures remain.
The complex was a fascinating place to walk around because so much of the stonework and the sculpted reliefs adorning it were in such good condition. It was a testament to the rise and fall of civilisations, the diversity of belief systems, and the potency inherent in human creativity. So popular is Qutub Minar that in 2006 it attracted more visitors than the Taj Mahal. What adds to the appeal is that the visitor is free to wander amongst the ruins without adhering to dedicated pathways cordoned off with barriers, warning signs and security personnel. There were still the inevitable brigade of selfie-takers though, more interested it would seem in taking photos of themselves obstructing the world’s places of interest, than the places of interest themselves.
After a few hours walking around in the heat, it was time to head back to Sunder Nagar. That evening we packed our gear and the following day boarded our flight back to London. Our travels through India and Nepal were over, at least for the time being. Yet back in the UK, we continued living out of our travel bags. In effect we were still travelling, moving between different places in England, visiting friends and family, reflecting on our experiences and planning further but shorter trips abroad.
Clare had already begun plans many months earlier to do a charity walk in Palestine in April and was busy raising money from sponsors. Together with a group of seven others, she would walk a section of Abraham’s path from Jenin to Jericho. The journey was expected to take around ten days and the money raised by the group would go towards the tertiary education of a Palestinian woman.
During the time Clare would be away, I was planning a short trip to Europe, with the aim of spending roughy a week each in Prague, Berlin and Slovenia. I had no agenda other than to relax, do some reading and writing and maybe a bit of sight-seeing. Berlin was the only place I’d been to before, but that was twenty years earlier. Prague had always been a city I’d wanted to visit because everyone who’d been there always spoke highly of it. Slovenia was more of a wild card. I’d read an article about how it was full of natural beauty like mountains, caves, lakes and rivers and that climbing its highest peak, Mount Triglav, was considered almost mandatory for every Slovenian at least once in their lifetime. A country making those sort of demands on its people couldn’t be that bad.