Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | September 12, 2012

India: Sick and tired in Lucknow

Picture gallery in Lucknow’s Old City: Portraits of the nawabs are inside, though through a less picturesque entrance

My third night in Lucknow is horrendous. I eat something because I like a hollow vessel enclosing a great empty void, and then pay for this folly with stomach pain that keeps me awake for hours, interspersed with urgent trips to the bathroom.

Physically I was not in tip top shape when I arrived in Lucknow. I was exhausted, and despite eating very little, feeling rather ill. I forced down lunch at Cafe Coffee Day, and for the next three days I had crampy stomach pains, alternating with intestinal spasms. I don’t get better, I get worse.

Still this doesn’t stop me seeing a few sights, such as The Residency, and Ambedkar park. Built in 1800 to house the British Resident General, the Residency is leafy and full of compelling ruins for those interested in history, as it’s considered to mark the beginning of the end of the Raj, being the arena for the 1857 First War of Independence, the Siege of Lucknow that lasted 147 days and claimed thousands of lives.

Ambedkar Memorial is a vast pink stone complex largely celebrating the life of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, an Untouchable whose brilliance and appetite for study led him to be India’s First Law Minister and an advisor to Nehru. There are many sculptures of Dr Ambedkar, and a number of former Chief Minister Mayawati, who creates a few likenesses of herself and handbag should anyone forget who is responsible for all this.

The complex seems a bit excessive at first, but there does seem to be merit in changing public perception via monuments like this – especially for the masses who don’t read – but the myth-makers needed to refine their vision. Sculptures of Kanshi Ran, an Indian politician committed to helping the lower castes and Mayawati’s mentor, with his paunch make him look like Homer Simpson on his way to a barbecue. As for Mayawati, Queen Elizabeth II is the only female leader who can carry a handbag without looking like someone’s gran going shopping.

In Lucknow’s Old City there are some magnificent Islamic architecture, such as the 18th-century Bara Imambara, a colossal shrine with an intriguing labyrinth.

In Lucknow I CouchSurfed with Shilpa, a journalist who seemed very welcoming and engaging at first. We had lots to talk about and I thought we were forming a genuine friendship. She told me she had a partner, an Irishman who was currently in England. Later on for some reason she gave me her phone so I could talk to him.
His voice was hard and completely devoid of any warmth – I thought he just wanted to say hello to be friendly, but he was just checking me out, investigating who was invading well, not even his turf. I found it hard to believe this was the man Shilpa kept talking about so fondly, but chacun a son gout. Talking to him was like making chitchat with Gerry Adams.

But it’s not that long before some switch in Shilpa’s head flipped and she turned into someone thoroughly suited to be Gerry Adams’ consort. Before this we had some lively discussions and she said her children have a large house in Delhi and how I must stay with them. Later we met a friend who gave us wine and snacks, even though I couldn’t eat anything. They discussed spending Christmas in Kerala.

‘You must come,’ Shilpa said to me. ‘And for Diwali too.’

That sounded appealing, though Gerry Adams would be there and he already gave me the creeps.

Later on I felt rather faint and threw up in the street on the way back. I thought some rest will sort me out, but I had trouble sleeping despite my fatigue and though I can consume an egg for breakfast, when one of Shilpa’s friends, the urbane Sunil, takes me sightseeing I cannot eat a thing although he kept offering me more snacks and was concerned when I didn’t want any. I was concerned I didn’t want any – I live for good snacks!

I originally told Shilpa I would be in Lucknow for two days, which was my intention, though I was toing and froing with a hotel chain which decided they wanted to host me at their property but not for a few days as it was full. I asked Shilpa if I could stay one more night as then I expected to go the hotel. Then suddenly I had three days I needed to fill. This is confirmed just before I go out again with Sunil and I explained all this to him on the way to the Residency.

He said he’d talk to Shilpa and organise something. I didn’t think I could stay any longer with her, but I decided not to stress about it – it would work out. Anyway, I am quite capable of finding a guesthouse, as I have done hundreds of times, but I was tired and still not feeling that good so if people wanted to help I was more than grateful.

I returned to Shilpa’s flat and intended to ask her advice about where I should move to, but she was busy so I didn’t disturb her. Then she hands me the phone. I think it will be Sunil, but it’s Gerry Adams. After a preliminary inquiry as to what I’ve been doing, he launches into basically ordering me out of the apartment.
I am shocked by this. It’s not his flat, he’s not here, and what business is it of his anyway? Besides I was going the next day anyway.

He lectured me like I am some stupid buffoon with no manners and no consideration for anyone and it’s completely unwarranted. I am furious and I cannot say anything out of respect to Shilpa. I don’t lose my temper but as the presumptuous ill-mannered bully goes on hectoring me I think he can hear the anger in my voice.

Many of the people I have CouchSurfed with in more than ten countries have remained friends that I stay in contact wit,  and not once has some third party got involved from a different country. I have never been treated like this, but worst of all I could not even defend myself.

‘You can hand me back now,’ he announced when he’d finished. Shilpa barely spoke to me after that. I have no idea what I had done, but I think Gerry, without knowing me at all, has decreed me to be some kind of Untouchable.

So then I ate something, thinking I might feel better, but I was awake for hours during one of those endless nights that are tortuous, just not quite as tortuous as the morning arriving. Around 8am I was feeling very unwell, but Shilpa is literally tapping her foot by the door. I collect my things between dealing with urgent summoning to the toilet. Nearing my exit deadline I again headed to where the plumbing is.

‘Don’t use that bathroom!’ Shilpa shrieked. ‘I’ve just cleaned it. Use the other one and I’ll clean that after you go.’

I did as I was told.

‘I’m leaving in about 20 minutes,’ she then announced. ‘Can you get to the guesthouse on your own or you want me to drop you?

‘You can drop me?’ I asked, mindful that walking any distance with my bags would be hard work because I felt so weak.

‘If I have to,’ she snapped.

Walking it was then. I was a little worried as I had visions of myself toppling over going down the stairs, but effort of will keeps me going, and it’s not as hard as trekking in the Himalayas after a night of vomiting.

I shuffled towards the door and Shilpa said: ‘Good luck with future travels,’ like we met for ten minutes at a bus stop. I’m guessing Christmas in Kerala is off.

I’m kind of wiped out when I get to the guesthouse she sends me to, and somehow I end up downstairs while a young man shows me a couple of rooms and does a bit of cleaning. Then I start crying and I cannot stop. The young man can’t speak any English but my crying worries him and he arranges things for me and gets my things in an attempt to make me feel better. When I still can’t stop he gets really concerned and starts patting me on the arm.

Sunil rang then and I am still crying and he said he’d come.

‘What is the address?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know,’ I sobbed. ‘I walked here.’

I gave the phone to the young man and he talked to Sunil, who arrived soon after to check if I was dying. He’d  said he was my friend, and he meant it. Fortunately for me he just happened to run a pharmaceutical company so he returned with medicine, water, biscuits, tissues and all the things that ill Westerners need. He was not even perturbed that I was a blubbering mess. Blubbering mess is not my favourite state, but it’s kind of a release. I was purged in every way by then.

India is a country of extremes, incredible wealth and grinding poverty. Traveling here is a bit like that too – it’s mostly either top end, five-star comfort or picking your way through debris and bodies at railway stations with electric signs that don’t work and announcements in languages you don’t understand. It can be hard on the body, and seemingly hard on the psyche too.

Later I took my passport upstairs and the kind woman who runs the guesthouse is so friendly that I start crying again. She immediately invited me in for tea.

‘You are upset about a CouchSurfing incident?’ she inquired.

‘How do you know?’ I asked.

‘We’ve had a few,’ she replied. ‘But you are home now. We will take care of you. I think I should get you some soup and toast.’

She sweetly came to check on me later that night to see if I was OK and needed any food. She seemed to know the Irishman too – she reports that he’s a used-car salesman and a ‘nutcase’. God knows what Shilpa sees in him, but her first husband was an alcoholic who squandered a fortune on partying, so I suspect her taste in men could be improved. And the way she screamed at me about the bathroom reminded me of a lunatic I shared a flat with who had a wet-sponge phobia.

The antibiotics Sunil brings are rather marvellous. The stomach pains disappear within hours. For the moment amoebas, parasites and rogue bacteria are under control and I can start to feel normal again.


  1. Hi Carolyn
    Have been meaning to read your blog and just haven’t got round to it until now! Love it! Will continue to follow your journey. Love, Sandy

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