Thursday, November 26, 2009
See my photos here
See Mimi's photos here
When we arrived at the train station in Agra, it looked no different than any of the other train stations we had been in. Like India itself, Indian train stations are crowded, dirty and chaotic, only more so. A trip to India simply wouldn't be complete without some train travel. The first thing you'll seen when you walk into the main terminal of a train station is hundreds of people sleeping under blankets on the concrete floor. Presumably, these people are waiting for their trains. Look to the left or the right, and you'll see dense, unruly lines of men trying to buy tickets from the ticket counter. To eliminate the threat of line-cutting, the men will stand unnaturally close to each other so that one man's chest will be touching the next man's back, and so on. I've waited in these lines a few times and it is not fun. Women simply don't use these lines, but Mimi just told me that they are allowed to cut this line, if they want to. I think normally the men just buy the tickets though.
Walk through the station a bit more and you'll find men selling chai, families saying their goodbyes through the train windows, crippled beggars yelling for money, and cows standing and doing nothing. Who knows what else you might see. Indian train stations are amazing places to people watch. Still, the experience is intense and we always keep our guard up when in a train station. The vague smell of urine that permeates Indian train stations only adds to this intensity. Agra Fort Railway Station fit the bill, but we were prepared. After all, this would be the seventh train we've taken in India.
For the most part, Mimi and I have been getting around India by taking overnight sleeper trains. They are efficient because you don't lose a whole day just sitting on a train. They also save you money because you don't have to pay for accommodation on the night you take the train. Up until this point, we had been taking 2AC class, which means that there are two tiers of bunks in each sector and that the cars are air-conditioned. 2AC carriages are very nice and the preferred choice of the Indian middle-class. Above 2AC is 1AC, which costs nearly double but awards you private sleeping quarters like you see on the trains in movies. Below AC2 is AC3, which is just like AC2, but has three tiers instead of two. Confused yet? And finally, at the bottom is Sleeper Class, in which you receive no bedding, no privacy curtain, and no air conditioning.
The train from Agra to Bundi was not on a main railway line. As a result, our only choice was to take the local train that was scheduled to take 12 hours to travel what an express train might complete in 7. But since it was an overnight train, we didn't mind the longer travel time. The only other problem was that because the train wasn't on a main line, the only class available was Sleeper Class. I was hesitant to take sleeper class for safety reasons. The air-conditioned chambers, because of their higher price, see a lot less theft than sleeper class. Also, you can't travel between classes on the train, so someone from Sleeper Class can't come into 2AC. But Mimi and I talked it over and we decided that Sleeper Class would be fine for one trip. How bad could it be? The price didn't hurt either. A trip that might cost $10 in 2AC will run you about $2 in Sleeper Class. Our Agra to Bundi tickets cost us the equivalent of $2.40 per ticket. Like I said, India is cheap.
As we waited on the platform for our train to Bundi, we ran into an English "bloke" who we had briefly spoken to on the train platform in Delhi the previous morning. Coincidentally, we were once again taking the same train as him. He was traveling alone and acted a bit nervous about it. He asked us lots of questions and even sort of clung on to us a bit. I didn't mind helping him out though. I thought everything was running smoothly when a train pulled up on the opposite platform just as our train was supposed to arrive. Was this our train? Had they switched platforms?
We asked around a bit, but surprisingly, no one seemed to be able help. This was abnormal. Indian people seemingly know everything about every train, and are always great help. Not this time though. To complicate matters, the train had come to a stop far past where we were standing on the platform, so we had to hustle down the platform to catch up with it. Unlike previous trains, there were no designations on the side of the cars, making it impossible to figure out which train this was. We finally made it to our assigned carriage and began inquiring if this was indeed the right train, but everyone was giving us a different answer or no answer at all.
In 2AC, all the Indians speak English really well and are more than happy to help us clumsy American tourists. But in Sleeper class, no one knew what the hell I was saying to them. As the train lurched and began to pull out of the station, I began to panic. Was this the right train? But then it stopped and waited some more. I jumped out onto the platform in search of concrete information. Why did this train have no number? All the other trains we'd taken were identified on the side of the cars by their number. Finally, I found a little sheet over paper that had been taped to the side of the car. Haldaghati Passenger. Sigh. We were on the right train.
Sleeper class is miserable for the simple reason that there are no rules. When we arrived at our seats, the floor was covered in a thick layer of peanut shells. This was in spite of the fact that Agra was the departing station. In other words, the Sleeper cars hadn't been cleaned since the last time the train was in use. I forgot about the peanut shells as soon as the stench of stale urine found its way directly into my nostrils. It didn't help that we were right at the end of the car, practically adjacent to the lavatory. If the floors hadn't been cleaned, I didn't even want to think about the bathrooms.
As we sat in the station, a rather rotund Indian woman leaned in between Mimi and myself and began chatting with her relatives who were standing outside on the platform. This conversation continued for upwards of ten minutes, while this woman's posterior bounced directly in my face. Mimi and I laughed it off. After a brief delay, the train finally got on its way. It wasn't until three hours later, however, that a conductor came through to check our tickets. In the mean time, countless Indians had hopped on the train for a stop or two and then hopped off. They clearly had no tickets, and either sat in the aisles or shared seats with other paying passengers. Families of 10 were squeezed into areas that should have slept 6. Men kept putting their bags on our seats as if we weren't even there.
The strange thing about the experience was that no one was acting like this chaos was out of the ordinary. It's just how Sleeper Class rolls I suppose. And boy does Sleeper Class roll loudly. In 2AC, the actual compartment is separated from the entranceway by a solid door. This makes 2AC so quiet that you can barely hear the rumble of the train. In Sleeper, not only was there no barrier, but the doors of the train itself were also left wide open. On top of that, many passangers had left their individual windows wide open. As a result, the compartment was not only deafeningly loud, but by night time, it was also completely freezing. Lastly, because it was a local train, people kept getting on and off all throughout the night. At each stop, passengers would loudly board the train, stumbling over everything and waking everyone up. And don't even get me started on the snoring fat man across the aisle from me. Here I am being miserable on the train:
Now I'm all for "roughing" it a bit, but Sleeper Class was just plain shitty. By the time the sun came back up, I had probably logged in about three hours of intermittant dozing, as had Mimi. Mimi also told me the next morning that in the middle of the night, a woman had tapped her on the shouler while she was sleeping. "Can you move your legs please so I can sit down?" Mimi pretended to not understand and to be asleep, so the woman would move on. But she tapped Mimi again. "Hello! I'd like to sit down." So Mimi got sassy and told her that she paid for this berth, and that the woman should go sit somewhere else. Apparently, the woman acted like Mimi was the one being rude. Go figure.
So that was that. We arrived in Bundi on time at 7am, tired and ready for a nap. We would be staying at a very interesting guest house called RN Haveli. The place was a 250 year old haveli (traditional Rajasthani home) that had been converted into a guest house. The rooms had real character, including ancient doors and some stained glass panes. It was owned and partly run by a lovely, if just a bit senile, woman who introduced herself as Mama. Mama had help from quite a few people, but it was clear that she ran the show.
It didn't register at first, but we gradually realized how revolutionary and even controversial this was. A woman running a hotel in India is just unheard of, and Mama told us about the rumors that went around when she opened the place. Very often in India the hotel staff is cold and professional. But occasionally, you can find a place where the staff welcomes you in as family. This was one of those places. It had a cosy common room where we could chat with Mama and the other travelers. And the fact that RN Haveli advertises itself as a place that is safe for female travelers only adds to its awesomeness.
And still, the place had its set backs. For starters, the bathroom was competely dysfunctional. I'm used to the hot water not working, but this was a triple strike: the sink drained directly onto the bathroom floor, the toilet didn't flush, and the shower didn't even produce water, let alone hot water. But the entire room was costing me $3 a night, so I couldn't really complain, and after a visit from the plumber, things improved greatly.
Another fixture at RN Haveli was a man named Rinku, who Mama had hired to help manage the place about a year ago. Rinku, whose real name is Vishvesh Kumar Sharma, was a kind but mysterious man in his early 40s. Like just about every other man in India, he had a carefully manicured mustache, wore simple but functional clothing, and owned a motor bike. He spoke decent English, but did so in a timbre that was as stoic and unchanging as his face. I couldn't quiet place it, but Rinku somehow looked devious, conniving. And yet, nothing but kindness and generosity came out of his mouth. It was an odd paradox.
Rinku was kind enough to have picked us up from the train station. He also told us that the following day, if we wanted to, could go around with him on his motorbike to have a look at some of the sites around town. Like everything about Rinku, the invitation was awkward but genuine. We told him it sounded like fun but that we wanted to have a look around town first, and that we would let him know.
After a much required nap, Mimi and I ventured out into Bundi. The place was a breath of fresh air. It's just far enough off the tourist track that you can walk down the street without being constantly urged to go into a shop or take a richshaw somewhere. In other words, the place was hassle free. It also had beautiful old homes, many of which were painted blue. The place was downright charming. But the real attraction for me in Bundi was its magnificently decaying palace and fort that sat up atop a the city's tallest hill.
It boggled my mind that the place wasn't a bigger tourist attraction. In fact, it had been shut off from the public for centuries and only recently been reopened. In my opinion, they made a wise choice when they decided to clean the place up, but not to restore it beyond recognition. This is what they had done with the Agra Fort. They took restoration so far that they literally rebuilt the place. But here in Bundi, the palace and fort were left just as they had been, allowing us to obvserve the natural decay. As a result, the palace had an ancient mystique and authenticity that I loved. But even more I loved the fact that it wasn't swarming with other tourists. Even though it sat atop the city in plain view, it was almost like the place was a secret.
It was great fun wandering through and getting lost in the palace. On occasion, we would stumble upon some wall paintings that had miraculously survived over the years. We were also able to walk up on the roof, which offered wonderful views of Bundi below. The place was also swarming with monkeys to an alarming extent. In fact, Bundi in general has a serious wild monkey problem, but maybe thats for another post. The palace was a real highlight for me in India, and so I've included quite a few pictures. Be sure to scroll past them to continue reading.
Even higher above the palace lay the city's ancient fort, which dated back to the 14th century. The place was really wild. It was completely overrun with wild plants and monkeys. In fact, a nice boy "rented" us a big stick for 10 Rs (20 cents) so that we could protect ourselves if the monkeys came too close. The walk up to the fort took us through some dense foliage that ran alongside a decaying old rampart. Once we got to the top though, I was in heaven. I just love places like this. There were tons of ancient walls and buildings that were simply falling apart. We spent a good amount of time wandering around and getting lost in the maze of old buildings and stairways. Here are a few more pictures
That night, we had an unbelievably delicious home cooked thali back at RN Haveli. Although she didn't cook the food, Mama took great pride in it's deliciousness and freshness. As if she were a Jewish Mom in a previous life, she repeatedly urged us to eat more and more, making sure our plates remained full at all times. "Anything you need," she would say. "You aren't guests. You are family, and anything is possible for our family."
The next day we went on a very interesting motor bike trip with Rinku. Before I go into any more detail, however, I think it is important that you can see Rinku for yourselves. I'm telling you, this man is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. He never smiles, he never alters his firm monotone, and yet, he is now a friend of mine. He speaks his words with coldness and indifference, and yet says only the kindest, heart-warming things. Here are some pictures of us with Rinku. The man just doesn't smile.
Riding a motor bike through Bundi was a great deal of fun. The streets were inhabited just sparsely enough so that cruising through them was a real joy. Had therehttp://www.blogger.com/post-edit.g?blogID=8653924141680761005&postID=7314512577143355533 been any more pedestrians or cows on the road with us, I think it would have been terrifying. In the morning, Rinku took us to some great cenotaphs (burial grounds), some of which had been preserved and some which hadn't. The pace through these sites was a little slow for me, but Mimi seemed to particularly enjoy them.
One place was actually privately owned, and Rinku had to track down the groundskeeper, an ancient man sporting a wonderful turban that I've learned is quite typical for men to wear in Rajasthan. Here, the cenotaphs of a forgotten royal family had been over run by nature. We stayed here for perhaps and hour.
We then prepared for a 45 minute trip on the motor bike out to a waterfall that Rinku assured us was worth the trip. But first, we made a pit stop at what Rinku told us was by far the best samosa joint in town, and I have no doubt that he was right. It was so good in fact, that Mimi and I tracked it down the following day and went back for more. This place must churn out thousands of samosas a day, and had a huge staff to keep the line moving along. Like so much street food throughout the world, our samosas were served to us on a piece of newspaper. The filling was exquisite and the sauces on point. We were in heaven.
The bike trip out to the waterfall was long and uneventful and I was glad when we finally arrived at our destination. The scenery en route had been rather drab, but near the waterfall, it was suddenly reminiscent of what I imagine an African savanna to be like. Mimi and I both began getting some serious Lion King vibes and jokingly sang the momentous melody that opens the animated film.
As we walked down into the valley of the waterfall, two teenage Indian boys approached us and began talking to me. This happens on a daily basis and sometimes it is interesting and fun, but other times its very annoying. These conversations almost always follow the same line of questioning. 1) Which country are you from. 2) Which country is she from? 3) What is your relation to her? 4) How long are you staying in India? 5) What is your profession?
I wasn't particularly in the mood for one of these conversations, but the boys were persistent and followed as we walked towards the waterfall. I normally would have made an attempt to end the conversation, except that the boy doing most of the questioning, whose name was Pradeep, spoke English in a bizarre accent that was unmistakably Russian. This alone made the conversation quite interesting. I have no idea why he spoke English with a Russian accent, but he did. It was a strange thing, walking and talking with a 17 year old Indian boy whose voice, when I closed my eyes, recalled perhaps a young Polish immigrant, fresh off the boat and full of vigor and optimism. Bizarre.
As Rinku had promised, the waterfall was pretty awesome. We hung out there for a while and took a bunch of photos with some other Indians who had gathered around. Here is a picture of the waterfall and a picture of me with one of the local men.
On the way back to Bundi, we made a pit stop at a farm. Rinku was friends with the family and thought it would be interesting for us to see an Indian farm. The family spoke very little English, but showed us their crops and their cows. They even milked the cow for us and Mimi was brave enough to try milking the cow as well. Rinku told us that they would make fresh chai tea for us with this milk. The tea was incredibly rich and creamy, as the milk was literally as fresh as can be. All in all, it was a really cool experience.
We spent our final day in Bundi walking around the city itself. We had no particular destination or goal in mind. We just wanted to explore. In addition to the return to the samosa stand, we had some other yummy street snacks and I also got a beard trim at a local barber. Bundi is a great town. It moves at an ever so slightly slower pace than other Indian cities, but its just enough to make Bundi a breath of fresh air. It was great fun to walk through the city's charming blue alleyways. In one neighborhood, all of the children had learned the phrase, "One photo!" so we ended up taking quite a few pictures with the kids. We also saw a goat tethered in a rather precarious position.
The previous day, Rinku has invited us to his house for the following night so that we could meet his family. It was the kind of awkward invitation one is never sure whether or not to accept. Did Rinku really want us to meet his family, or was he just being polite? We decided that either way, it would be an experience to remember, so we accepted the invitation.
We rode across town once again on his motor bike and eventually arrived at the building which housed his family. On the first floor were two classrooms, a small school that his father had established. After walking up a flight of stairs, we entered an apartment composed of large, barren rooms. It was a very nice, clean apartment and I realized then that Rinku's family was actually pretty well off. We also learned that Rinku had previously been a football player and had even played on the Rajasthani State team for two seasons. He had a vast collection of trophies to prove it.
I personally found the experience to be very interesting but also quite awkward and a bit stressful. I was very happy to be visiting Rinku's home as a friend. But at the same time, there was an unspoken barrier between us. Was it I who had erected it? Perhaps. Or maybe it was just Rinku's inexplicably sinister persona, his inability to smile and laugh. I couldn't help but feel that I was intruding on their privacy. We briefly met his wife, his two year old son, and his mother and father. They all smiled at Mimi and I, but lacked the English to go much further than that.
For me, the absolute highlight of the experience was when we flipped through Rinku's wedding photos, which were kept in an extravagently decorated binder. Like virtually all Indian marriages, Rinku's had been arranged by his parents, and as we flipped through the hundreds of professionally shot photos documenting the six days of matrimonial ceremonies, it really sank in how different our cultures were.
Rinku's wife then brought us some delicious parantha bread and sweets, which we happily ate. Before we knew it, it was getting late. We said goodbye to Rinku's family and he drove us back to the guest house. I was grateful for the experience, but somehow exhausted by it as well.
And that was Bundi. We left early the next morning by bus for Pushkar, where I am now.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Oh how I have neglected thee. How many moons has it been since I made a report? Five? Six? Far too many. I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to write anything. Part of it was that I became engrossed in the book Three Cups of Tea, but I also think I just needed a break from writing. I realized that I haven't been writing very much about the geography of my travels, and that all these different names of cities may be a bit confusing. Here is a map of where we've been since we came back into India from Nepal:
MAP BROKEN COMING SOON!
I'm currently in Agra, which is about three hours south of the capital city of Delhi and is also home to the Taj Mahal. Less than an hour ago we were having lunch atop a modest roof top restaurant just south of the Taj, one of many such restaurants in the unexpectedly run-down backpacker enclave known as Taj Gang. We had just finished our thalis when Mimi let out an urgent gasp, followed by an onslaught of pained, blood-curdling barks from a lone stray dog. I turned my head away from the Taj Mahal and down to the busy street below, where a small pooch lay spasming and screaming on the ground, his leg clearly broken. Several other strays gathered around him caringly, but they were hopeless to help him. Apparently, Mimi witnessed an auto rickshaw drive over the small dog, rendering it crippled for life. A small group of people gathered around the writhing dog in a sympathetic manner, but eventually lost interest and moved on. We watched as the dog limped around in circles and finally made its way under a parked truck, where it tended its wound in solitude.
I'm not really sure why I just related this story. There are countless stray dogs all over India, and now that I think about it, all over Asia as well. Like so many things here, they are initially intriguing but gradually melt into the background. Nowadays, I hardly even notice the strays as they wander aimlessly through the streets. But seeing this crippled dog totally helpless on the street served as a quick reminder of their sad existence. Stray dogs in the United States are quite rare, but in Asia they are as common as the heaps of garbage that provide their sustenance. I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this, but boy did we feel bad for that pooch.
Leaving this sad tale behind, let me bring us up to speed. When I last wrote, we were en route from Amritsar to Rishikesh, a sure destination on any backpacker's list of places to visit in India. Ahhh Rishikesh. It's the city you love to hate and the city you hate to love. It's the self proclaimed yoga capital of the world and is accordingly overrun by hippies and new agers from all around the globe. The lower half of the city is a grimy, impoverished city virtually indistinguishable from any of the other cities we rumbled through on the train ride from Punjab. The only reason a foreigner might go to this lower part of town is to catch a bus. "Upper Rishikesh," however, is considerably cleaner and better maintained and was composed nearly entirely of yoga ashrams, traveler's cafes, new age bookstores and hippie-oriented clothing and craft stores.
This area spread out along both sides of the Ganges river, which cuts through the city and winds down to the holy city of Haridwar and eventually down on to Varanasi, where we had been just a week before. Unlike Haridwar and Varanasi, Rishikesh is not an especially holy or historically relevant place for Hindus. It has, however, been home to a scattering of ashrams (yoga and meditation oriented spiritual retreats), one of which was run by a man named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. When a band called the Beatles stayed at this ashram in the winter and spring of 1968, it put Rishikesh on the map for Westerners, and I don't think things have been the same here since.
Now, Rishikesh, is the place to come in India for spiritual seekers, yoga enthusiasts, and let us be honest, pot smoking hippies. If you want to surround yourself with like minded individuals and escape a lot of the filth and hassle that plagues travel in India, Rishikesh is the place for you. People come here and seemingly never leave. As a result, there is quite a wacky cast of characters floating around Rishikesh, which has more Westerners than any place we've been to in India. The "peace and love" contingent here makes itself quite present, with their dreadlocks, poofy colorful pants, and rainbow headbands. But among these silly looking people are many hard working yoga students who have come here not for the late night conversations in traveler's cafes, but for the very serious yoga courses at the ashrams.
Part of me wanted to write Rishikesh off as a ridiculous enclave of New Age bullshit separated from the "real India." How can we sit around talking about peace and love over our ayurvedic teas when people are living in shantytowns made out of tin less than two miles from here? But nothing is ever that simple, and after a few days here I concluded that the place had merit. People were dedicated here and very serious about their spiritual development, and it was a place to truly interact with and learn something from Indians. The sadhus here, of which there were many, were not stalking tourists looking for a handout. They were here for spiritual reasons only, and I saw more Westerner/Indian interactions in Rishikesh than anywhere else we have been.
So where did Mimi and I fit into all of this? For our part, we took a few yoga lessons and did what we do best, which is to walk around and soak up the vibe. We were lucky enough to be in Rishikesh right at the tail end of a two-week long free yoga and music festival. First, this enabled us to see two concerts, one featuring the sitar and one featuring the tabla. Despite some frustrating sound system issues, both concerts were quite excellent. The sitar player was a bit flashy for our taste, but the tabla player was fantastic. Still, Mimi and I agreed that nothing would compare to that first tabla concert we attended in Kolkata.
One hilarious highlight of the sitar concert involved an aging hippie from the Czech Republic who, armed with an acoustic guitar, somehow managed to hijack the stage just before the concert started so that he could play us his "Mantra for Peace," a corny sing-along whose sole lyrics were the (heavily accented) phrase, "World peace starts with peace inside." While this statement may have some truth, I struggled to keep the laughter inside as the audience reluctantly sang along. It was moments like this where the "anti-hippie" found in all of us came bubbling up to the surface. I'm for world peace just as much as the next guy, but singing about it? It's just not my cup of tea.
The potentially vomit-inducing spiritual new age vibe continued during the yoga session that we attended through the festival. The lesson was led by a white woman from LA who had adopted an Indian name and dedicated herself to teaching an obscure sect of yoga that, as we learned, involves "poses" as varied as aggressively marching in place, hugging as many random people as you can, doing leg squats for ten straight minutes while smiling, and linking arms and singing about peace and love. This style of yoga had an Indian name, but it might as well have been called "Calisthenics for Hippies."
For the most part, we took our three and a half days in Rishikesh quite easy. We had been running around and doing quite a lot in Varanasi in Amritsar, and it was great to use these days to recharge our batteries and take it easy. On one of the days, we took a walk down to see the "Beatles Ashram," which has been closed for many years and is now part of a national forest. After a bit of searching, we finally found the entrance. I was disappointed to find that the gate was protected by a lone guard wearing military fatigues. I asked him if we could go inside to look around, to which he responded that we could, as long as we gave him an unofficial "donation" of 50 rupees each. The park surely should have been freely open to public, so out of principle, we decided to forgo the extended tour. We took a picture from the outside, waved goodbye, and walked back towards town.
As we walked back, we wandered off the path down towards the river, where we saw some of the buildings of the ashram. As you all probably know, I went through an intense Beatles phase just before I left America. A good chunk of the White Album was written while the Beatles were here in Rishikesh and it was a bizarre feeling to be there in the flesh. Looking at the buildings where John Lennon wrote songs like Dear Prudence, Julia and Happiness is a Warm Gun, it felt nearly surreal. I thought about the Strawberry Fields monument in Central Park, where Beatles fans congregate and sing their favorite songs. Then I looked around at where some of those same songs had been written. I saw some abandoned buildings beyond a fence and a lone sadhu walking away from a ramshackle tent, perhaps where he lived. Monkeys and cows wandered aimlessly around us. There's India, and then there is India.
On our third day, we did something quite random and signed up for a half-day white water rafting trip down the Ganges river. Despite its holiness, the local authorities have begun allowing people to raft down the river, which has some surprisingly turbulent and exhilarating rapids. I hadn't gone rafting since I was a little kid, so I wasn't really sure what to expect, but I can assure you, rafting is incredibly fun. We had a really cool guide and shared our raft with some friendly people from Wales and Canada. We went far enough upstream that the water is clean enough to swim in, and at one point we hopped out and swam around through the rapids. To my protective parents, if you are reading this, fear not, for we were wearing protective helmets and life vests.
And that was Rishikesh. Our next destination was Delhi, the capital of India. But we first spent one day in transit in Hardiwar, a very interesting city about an hour south of Rishikesh. We had a bunch of time to kill before our overnight train left, so we watched Hardiwar's Ganga Arti, which is sort of a river worship ceremony similar to the one we had seen in Varanasi. Unlike in Varanasi, however, we were the only Westerners among perhaps a thousand devout Hindus, many of which seemed to have come to Haridwar as pilgrims. The ceremony was simpler and shorter and didn't feel like a performance as the one in Varanasi had. Everyone sat along the river ghat. To protect us from the grime, local boys sold us uncut bulk sheets of candy wrappers as makeshift blankets to sit on. And, as always, there were some monkeys, who I can assure you, were up to no good.
photo by Mimi
We arrived in Delhi early the next morning after a smooth overnight train voyage. We had heard from numerous other travelers that Delhi was an overcrowded city full of hassle but no worthwhile sights. "You'll want to leave as soon as you get there" was the general consensus. Our guidebook warned of devious train station touts and untrustworthy auto rickshaw drivers who whisk you away to their brother's silk shop instead of your destination. I personally had spent a decent amount of time mentally preparing myself, and the preparation paid off. Yes, Delhi was chaotic and if you gave me a dollar for every time a rickshaw driver asked me "Hey where you going my friend?" then I would be a very rich man. But in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't any more chaotic or pushy than any other city we'd been to. I am fully convinced that by popping my "India Cherry" with Kolkata that everything else just pales in comparison. Delhi wore me down a bit and made me just a bit homesick, but it was nothing that we couldn't handle. And on the plus side, there were a few real gems.
We had also read that the budget accommodations in Delhi were pretty grim, so we "splurged" and upgraded to an AC room at the Ajay Guest House. This cost us about $7 per person, compared to the $4 a night that we've been averaging here in India. The extra money was well worth it, as we had clean sheets and bathroom and even a flat screen TV with over a hundred channels of hilariously incomprehensible Indian programming.
(By the way, I am no longer in Agra but am now in the wonderful small town of Bundi, which is in Rajasthan.)
We had gotten a pretty decent night of sleep on the train, so after a quick breakfast at our hotel, we headed out into Delhi to look around. We decided to spend the first day exploring "Old Delhi," which is where many of the ancient bazaars are, tucked in and around a wide array of complex alleyways.
I don't have anything particularly exciting to report about in regards to our wandering around this day. The bazaars were predictably discordant and numbing to the senses. The bicycle rickshaw drivers were on point as ever, flawlessly weaving through the pedestrian traffic before being pushed aside and overtaken by the auto-rickshaws that honked there way through the dense, slow moving chaos. We also had some delicious jalebi from an apparently very reputable sweet shop.
Jalebi is an absurdly sugary sweet (as desserts are called here) made by dropping fresh dough into scalding hot oil so that it forms pretzel-esque squiggles. The hardened dough is then transferred into a giant vat of hot liquid sugar, which soaks into and saturates the dough. Think of funnel cake, but a thousand times more decadent. Here are a few pictures from Old Delhi. Note the mystery man who sneaked into the third photo down.
photo by mimi.
The next day we decided to take Delhi's brand new metro system out to the outskirts of Delhi to visit a reportedly magnificent modern Hindu temple that had been highly recommended to us. The metro ride out went quite smoothly and by late morning we had reached the entrance way to the massive complex of Akshardam Temple. At this point, we were subjected to one of the most thorough security checks I've experienced outside of Ben Gurion International Airport. We had to leave our cameras, cell phone, digital clock, and just about everything else at the cloak check.
After clearing security, we entered the temple grounds. Sadly, I have no photographs to show, but I can assure you the temple was magnificently decadent. Boasting over 20,000 individual stone carvings, including something like 120 elephants which lined the main temple's perimeter, the temple was stunning. The place was relatively uncrowded as well, with only a few other foreign tourists. Mostly there were just massive school groups out for a field trip.
At one point, while Mimi and I were sitting on a bench, a school group of adorable young boys walked passed us. As they walked, each boy would timidly peer over at us in curiosity. Finally, one brave soul walked up to me, stuck out his hand for a shake, and proclaimed, "Hello!" I shook his hand and returned his greeting with equal enthusiasm. The ice was broken. Before we knew it, dozens of excited boys were swarming around us, waiting for a turn to shake our hand and say hello. They had formed a firm semi-circle around us and it quickly became clear there was no escape. The hellos went on for a solid five minutes, before their teacher came over and saved us. "Hello!"
The temple was architecturally impressive, but having been completed in 2005, it lacked the ancient charm and historical mystique of some of the other places we have visited on this trip. To make up for this, the temple offered a hall of animatronics explaining the history of Hinduism, as well as a Disneyland style boat ride through the life of the temple's saint. Unfortunately, these rides had steep admission prices, so we bade farewell to the temple and headed back to Delhi.
Our next destination was the completely underrated Humayun's Tomb. Humayun was an important Mughal emperor and his tomb was accordingly impressive. Lucky for us, the admission fee was waived that day, so we got in for free. Inexplicably, the grounds of the tomb were nearly deserted, despite the free admission. In fact, we practically had the entire place to ourselves. We found the place quite serene, and Mimi particularly enjoyed it. It boggled our minds that Humayun's Tomb wasn't a more popular destination for tourists. Here are a few pictures:
After an incredibly delicious lunch of South Indian food at a local canteen recommended by our guide book, we walked over to Delhi's most important Sikh shrine, the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib. Ever since my visit to the Golden Temple, I've been fascinated by Sikhs and have been reading up on their history. Guru Gobind Singh anyone? The day before, we had stumbled upon another Sikh temple in Old Delhi and went inside to check it out for a moment. The inside of the temple was modest and not particularly nice, but for reasons beyond my comprehension, the rituals of entering -- removing the shoes, washing my hands and feet, covering my head -- excited me. Why do I enjoy this? I am not religious!
I had the same sensation the following day. As we entered the Bangla Sahib, shivers went down my spine. Inside, three men sat cross-legged and sang the holy hymns. We sat down and listened for a little bit, but somehow, it just wasn't as magical as the Golden Temple. I guess they only let the really good guys play at the Golden Temple. There was a nice amrit (holy pool) outside of the temple and we did a quick lap around. The courtyard had some beautiful marble insets, but in the grand scheme of things, this temple paled in comparison to the eloquent beauty and mesmerizing devotion found at the Golden Temple. Here are some pics:
The next morning, we took at 7am train from Delhi to Agra, which took just over three hours. Since it was a short journey, we had booked our tickets for the second class compartment, which is the cheapest ticket you can buy. I was a little bit nervous about this, but it turned out fine in the end. However, when we arrived at our seats, a family of five were already sitting there. We asked them if we could have our seats, but they acted as if this was a strange request. We made a compromise and all squeezed in. This confirmed our assumptions that it is much more a free for all when riding lower class trains in India. A conductor never even came and checked our ticket.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, we stayed at a nice budget place just south of the Taj Mahal, and someone from the hotel even came and picked us up at the train station for free even though we were only staying for one night. It even had a few of the Taj from its roof!
To our dismay, the Taj Mahal was actually closed on Friday, so instead we walked over to the Agra Fort. The walk took us along the dismal Yamuna river through an area that, judging by the constant stares, doesn't see many foreigners despite its proximity to the Taj.
Agra Fort has undergone quite a bit of restoration over the years. Although it had some very cool buildings, compared to the amazing fort we visited today in Bundi, the Agra Fort felt a bit sterile. It felt less like a historical site and more like a museum. I don't know that much about the issue of restoration, but I couldn't help but feel like Agra Fort had been unnecessarily refurbished. Here are a few pictures:
After checking out the fort, we walked around Agra's main bazaar, which actually may take the cake for the most oppressively busy place we've been to in India. A still, silent picture doesn't really do the place justice, but here is one shot anyways. The big building in the distance is one of Agra's larger mosques. I took some cool videos as well, and hopefully I can get those uploaded as soon as I get a solid connection and a few hours to spare (and some patience).
One interesting thing about Agra was the high number of Muslims. There were many mosques (called masjids in India) throughout Agra and hearing the calls to prayer throughout the day reminded me of my trip to Egypt last year. One mosque's loudspeakers sounded as if they were positioned directly at our window and I was not particularly happy when the 5am call to prayer woke me up.
Agra was also interesting for the same reason that so much of India is interesting. Amidst the tourist destinations and ancient sites, life in India simply goes on. Walk just a few steps away from the Taj Mahal and you won't find any other white people with cameras. Instead, you will find Indian people living their lives. You will find motorbikes, wild dogs, burning garbage, men selling bananas, rickshaws, chai stands, an occasional woman in a bright colored sari, cows, men holding hands, sadhus, fabric shops, but more than anything, you will find a hell of a lot of Indian people. For us in the west, Agra is synonymous with the Taj Mahal. But in reality, beyond the Taj Mahal, it's just another crazy Indian city, albeit one with substantially more charm than Delhi or Kolkata. And yet, the following picture serves as a decent summary of Agra beyond the walls of the Taj.
The next day, we got up early in a failed attempt to beat the crowds and walked over to the Taj Mahal. I had purposely kept very low expectations for this visit, because I didn't want to be disappointed. We were already a bit miffed at the comparatively expensive admission fee of 750 rupees (about $15). And I have to be honest, the Taj simply did not blow me away. It wasn't that I was disappointed, it just didn't blow me away. We've all seen pictures of the Taj Mahal, and in the flesh it pretty much looked just like the pictures, only in real life you don't have the Taj to yourself. Instead, you share it with thousands of other tourists. These are the tour group tourists that we rarely run into unless at a popular site like this. And while I understand the benefits of traveling with a tour group, it still doesn't change the fact that they make visiting these popular sites less enjoyable for everyone who isn't in a group.
Still, the Taj Mahal is an undeniably beautiful monument. I'm no architecture expert, but I am a big fan of symmetry, and in this regard the Taj does not disappoint. But in terms of its magnificence, I didn't understand why the Taj Mahal is so famous and other places in India are not. People say a picture is one thing, but to see it in the flesh is something totally different. When it comes to the mountains of the Himalayas, I couldn't agree more. Pictures simply don't translate. But in regard to the Taj Mahal, I think you can basically get the idea just from a picture. So without further ado, here are a couple of classic Taj Mahal shots, taken by yours truly. I threw one in of some Indian tourists just for the hell of it.
After about two hours of walking around and taking photos, we had had our fill. There wasn't anything else to do! So at around 10am, we said goodbye to the Taj Mahal and walked back to our hotel. We took it quite easy for the rest of the day, and took a train that night from Agra to Bundi, where I am now.
Bundi has been amazing (way more fun than either Delhi or Agra) and I can't wait to write about it. More soon!