Friday, May 25, 2007

Delhi and Agra

Day One
On our first day in Delhi, we went down to the government’s Tourism Office in Connaught Place to try and book another tour. We were told there
were no package tours at this time of year, but a very charming man proposed a private 10 day trip. It was only when we made the payment that we discovered that once again, we were not dealing with the government, but with yet another private Travel Agency. This time it was Exotic Adventures, and I now fear they may not be much better than the first company we were dealing with.

However, we are booked into the Ashoka Hotel for the night, and have an itinerary taking us to Agra, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, (where we’re also going on a camel safari), then back to Delhi and up to Chandigarh, the planned city designed by Le Corbusier. We’ll be driving part of the way, and taking four train trips (two overnight), since someone told us that a bad train trip in India is still better than a good car trip. We’ll see.

We spent the balance of our first day being toured around various sites in the city. Some of the old monuments are most impressive, with very intricate carvings. There is a huge contrast between Old and New Delhi; with the latter having some very impressive streets and public places, while the former is just awful. After a day of sightseeing, we decided this is not a very pleasant city, and we look forward to leaving and seeing other parts of the country.

Day two.
Early this morning
we met up with Sanjay, our new driver in his Toyota Innova SUV and set off for Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located. As we drove out of the city, it was disturbing to look out of the window since the view was so distressing. Tens of thousands of people were huddled under corrugated metal structures along the road, amongst piles of rubble and garbage. Roaming cows and water buffalo wandered between pedestrians, cyclists, and motor scooters. Then there were the tuk-tuks, the three wheeled motorized taxis with canvas convertible roofs permanently up in the 40 degree plus temperatures. Many of the tuk-tuks looked like they had spent the last few years in Iraq. Then there were the buses. While many are powered by CNG, most look like they too have spent time doing duty in war torn zones. Passengers were hanging onto the outside, and some were even on the roof.

There were lots of trucks. I liked how many of them had been decorated by their owners. There were also lots of cars; predominantly locally made Ambassadors and others that we don’t see in Canada. Almost all of them bore scars from trying to weave in and out of the congested traffic.

In addition to the rubbish and debris along the roads, there were piles of bricks everywhere, presumably stockpiled for future projects. Most of the buildings seemed to be either under construction, or being torn down, or falling down. As strange as it may sound, few seemed to be complete.

The scene outside the car windows was all the more disturbing because of two unbelievably extravagant functions at our hotel last night. The first was a wedding. We learned about it when he heard music and what sounded like a procession outside our window. We looked out and saw a golden carriage being drawn by two white horses, surrounded by joyfully dressed musicians and dancers. Later, hundreds of beautifully dressed men, women and children were partying just down the corridor from our room, while the bride and groom sat at the head table. In an adjoining ballroom, there was a ‘ring ceremony’ or what we call an engagement party. Another beautifully dressed bride and groom to be sat up on a stage, while well-wishers mingled below. We were told these were both arranged marriages, rather than ‘love marriages’. Apparently 85% of marriages in India are still arranged. Sally didn't think either of the brides looked particularly happy.

As we got out of the city, the scenery changed and the corrugated buildings were replaced by farmers’ fields. The tuk-tuks and trucks were often crammed with perilously balanced farm workers. Along the road were thatch roofed ‘huts’ that looked like they were built out of mud. In fact, we were told it was cow dung, being stock-piled to be used as fuel. Some of these structures seemed to have intricate designs impressed on the outside. At the border, I was greeted by another animal: a monkey that jumped onto the car window, and his owner who wanted payment for this photo.


We reached Agra in the early afternoon, after stopping off at a couple of very interesting sites including a step well and the first white marble temple. Despite being home to one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, Agra is a very, very ugly place. Fortunately, entering our hotel, The Taj View was like finding an oasis. We were presented with cold cloths and lime sodas upon arrival, and there was a lovely view from the lobby through the restaurant to an outdoor pool. True to the hotel’s name, our room had a full frontal view of the Taj Mahal. I turned on the TV, and amazingly, CNN was doing a story about the Taj Mahal needing a mud bath to bring back its original colour. As you can see, I needed to cool down!

Taj MahalWe set off with Sanjay and a guide to see the Taj Mahal around 4:30. It was quite a ritual getting there since cars are no longer allowed to drive up in an effort to prevent a further yellowing of the marble. We took a tuc-tuc, and then had to go through very strict security. Our guide was a bit strange, and seemed to be in too much of a hurry. We subsequently learned he was eager to take us to a marble carving studio and store, where he hoped we might buy a table so he could earn a substantial commission. But we were in no rush to leave. Sally has waited most of her life to see the Taj Mahal, and we lingered until the sun started to set and we were asked to leave the grounds.

As we wandered around, I came across this door which had been painted the wrong colour of white. I found it very disturbing. I told Sally it should either be toned down, to match the marble, or painted a charcoal colour, to match the inlay. Sally told me to relax, I was no longer at work!

It was particularly interesting to watch all the other tourists, mainly Indians, posing for photos in front of their national monument. A few of them also wanted to have their photos taken with us! I will always remember one family of about 12 people, including a beautiful little girl who, as she was leaving asked me “And what is your good name, sir?”

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to experience one of those golden sunsets you see in the pictures, nor could we see the Taj Mahal at night since this is now only allowed at full moon for ‘security reasons’. But it was wonderful to be there, and walk around the site.

While we said we didn’t want to visit the marble studio, it was in fact quite interesting. A row of scruffy young boys sat in front of grinding wheels, shaping tiny fragments of coloured marble which was inlaid in very intricate patterns into marble bases. It’s the same technique that has been used in Agra for centuries, ever since the Taj was built. Despite some very impressive salesmanship, and the turning on and off of lights to help us appreciate the translucence of the marble, we didn’t buy a thing.

That night, we decide to cocoon ourselves in the hotel. We just couldn’t face going out into the streets again.

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