29.07.2008 - 02.08.2008
After five days of mandatory R and R in Bangkok waiting for our Indian visas, we headed to Delhi. It was not too tough a wait, what with the good and cheap food and beer, and a comfortable room back at our favorite digs, New Siam 2. Our flight over was an adventure unto itself. We took Sri Lanka Airlines because it was the cheapest. This required an overnight stay in Columbo at the airline's expense, since our India flight didn't leave until the next afternoon. What we didn't know was that there was a big summit meeting of the ASEAN countries and security was extremely tight with heavily armed soldiers on many streets. There were still occasional bombs going off in town due to the civil war, and the powers that be didn't want to take any chances. We were the only ones in the van which brought us to our hotel, through narrow streets and country lanes that had the feel of a war zone, especially in the middle of the night. It took well over an hour to get there and the Pegasus Reef Hotel was eeriely deserted.
Delhi was as noisy, chaotic, and polluted, as I remembered it from ten years earlier. Nanette, who was looking forward to getting away from the controlling authority of China, quickly discovered that India, with its teeming masses, seemingly endless supply of aggressive beggars and touts, and more or less constant noise and dirt, was anything but a panacea. I tried to warn her about this, but it is hard to imagine India, at least its cities, without actually experiencing it first hand. In a sense, India is everything that China is not. Loosely democratic, more or less anything and everything can and does happen here. Nobody seems to care what you do, whereas China is much more orderly and regulated. Of course, both share a huge population, rampant corruption, and place little value on an individual human life unless he/she happens to be rich or powerful. As a traveler, you don't usually feel that your life is at risk in India, unlike, for example, in parts of Central and South America where many people have guns and the banditos might kill you for a few bucks. In India, its your mind that's at risk. With all the colors, sounds and smells, the lack of personal space, the incessant harassment by "helpers" of all persuasions, Mother India wages a kind of psychological warfare that is relentless and often overwhelming. To preserve your sanity, you have to make yourself oblivious to much of her.
Taking the easy way out, or so we thought, we hired a driver to take us around to see a few of Delhi's sights, such as the Red Fort and Qutb Minar, but even this was not hassle free. We had to forcefully assert ourselves with the driver's handler to insist that we didn't want a guide as well as a driver, and this same handler tried to scam us into paying more than we needed to for our railroad tickets to Agra. In India even the handlers have handlers, and they all want a cut.
After a couple of days, we took the express train to Agra, which was also chaotic, albeit smaller than the capital. Our guest house was comfortable and restful, and the Sikh proprietor and his wife hospitable. Based on his advice, we hired a driver to take us around to the Taj, Agra Fort and other assorted buildings. Once again a guide showed up who expected to be paid, but this time we didn't have the energy to fight it. We should have, as he talked incessantly and at the end demanded a larger tip than we thought appropriate. The Taj is impressive as an architectual monument, but doesn't quite live up to all the hype, at least in my humble opinion.
Indian women taking pictures of the Taj
Nanette and our guide walking toward the Taj
Baby Taj and ceiling detail
Indian women walking near Taj
Part of the deal when you have a driver and a guide is that they take you around to various cottage industries throughout the town. They get a commission of course if you buy something. You can resist, but it usually does little good.
"Madame, Sir, we just stopping here for a few minutes. Velly interesting. All handmade things you will see."
Some of the shops did indeed have beautiful things, inlaid marble tiles, leather work, and carpets. After an hour or two of negotiations with tea and snacks, attendants pulling down hundred of carpets, an 8 by 10 blue and red one with traditional design caught our eye. Like so many others before us, we eventually succumbed. It wasn't cheap, but we felt it was a bargain compared to what we would have to pay in the States, and better still the place seemed legit, and they agreed to mail it to us at home for the same price. When we returned six weeks later it was there, and is now at the center of our living room.
The following day we drove out of town to a walled and then abandoned, 500 year old Moghul village, Fatehpur Sikri. Built by Akbar the Great, the buildings and grounds are extensive and although much less well known than the TaJ, it is well worth spending a few hours here along with the nearby Jama Masjid. The heat, however, was intense and the harassment and attempted shakedowns for money continued. At times, this did not make for a relaxing visit.
Late in the daty we returned to Delhi via The Shatabdi Express. Having been asked by my dear wife to keep all "helpers" well away from us, I was somewhat aggressive when we arrived at the station and strange man went to take our bags.
"It's Tashi," he said, after I screamed at him to get away. When I didn't respond he said it again more emphatically. 'IT'S TASHI."
Then it dawned on me. Tashi was going to be our trekking guide in Leh. Now, I knew Tashi from the time I had trekked with him before, but that was 10 years ago, and so I didn't recognize him. Also I was not expecting that he would be here, having told him to meet us in Leh in another day or two. Somehow he had not only found out which train we were on, but also which car and which seats. Unbelievable. I hadn't given him the best of welcomes, but he understood.