Sunday, May 25, 2014

Agra and New Delhi, India: Is the Taj Mahal worth it?

Please note the change of form: Google Blogger makes it too time consuming to add multiple photos in an efficient format (eg. table).  I have thus compiled the photos in the link below if you want to see them and limited the photos in the blog itself. 


On paper, I have many reasons to adore India.  To begin with, I have always loved the food! On a more serious note, I am a history buff.  I find the country’s ancient and more modern history fascinating.  Moreover, India and the subcontinent’s unique cultures captivate the attention.  Finally, I am rediscovering my own religious spirituality, and India is the home to one of the world’s major religions.

Yet, I struggle to bond with India.  She elicits strong reactions among most international travelers.  There are those who fall in love with her precisely for the reasons I cite above.  They can’t get enough of India and praise her as one of the world’s top travel destinations.

Others avoid India at all costs.  They argue: It’s dirty, polluted, unsanitary and unbearably crowded.  Maybe, but so are many parts of Latin America, South America, and Southeast Asia.  Many Indians have no sense of personal space and don’t subscribe to our exacting standards of personal hygiene.  Not sure that this is either fair or true, but even if so, this criticism can apply to many cultures, including some European ones.  The infrastructure is crumbling, the bureaucracy inept, nothing ever runs on time, and those responsible could care less.  Umm, this applies to too many countries to count.  Petty theft and much more serious crimes run rampant.  Perhaps, but to me you are describing NYC in the 1970s and 80s.  None of these factors have ever stopped me from really appreciating and enjoying many other countries.

So, on balance suggests that India and I should make a good couple.  Except we don’t.  She and I have never clicked on the several business trips I have taken to the subcontinent.  I left those dates with a sour taste in my mouth and vowed that I would never see her willingly as a tourist.

Yet here I am, somewhat fortuitously.  My original plan had been to spend some time in Nepal and Tibet.  When visa and other travel issues nixed Tibet, I suddenly had a hole in my travel schedule.  People say that the Taj Mahal should be on everyone’s bucket list.  I don’t subscribe much to the views of others on this subject, but the story behind the Taj always intrigued me.  In some ways, it is the greatest love story ever told.  In any case, I researched around and figured that a visit to Agra could make a good short interlude.

I booked Spice Air into New Delhi.  One of India’s leading discount carriers, I found the flight and service to be fine, with one footnote.  Among the very few times in my travel experience, the flight left early.  I don’t mean by a little bit of rounding error.  The flight taxied onto the runway a full 40 minutes before departure time.  Fortunately, I arrived at the airport with time to spare, so I was happy with this outcome.  I imagine the plane pulled out because all other passengers had checked in.  If not, the airline certainly faced some irate customers later.

My flight landed In New Delhi’s modern airport in the evening.  Sometimes, it takes forever to clear immigration and customs, but I got lucky and made it through in no time.

India’s mobile telephone carriers are numerous and engage in fierce competition, which has driven down prices to less than 1 rupee per minute, with fractional minutes.  Airtel is the largest provider with the most comprehensive service, so as usual I went to their booth.  The desk service was impeccable; they tested my SIM card to ensure activation and off I went.  They just had me sign some blank standard forms and said they would fill out the rest of the paperwork later.  I gave them my R600, and was puzzled when he made change from the cash drawer but then pocketed my fee into his own shirt pocket.  A little weird, right?

It wasn’t until I left the airport that I realized that the Airtel employee had sold me an AirCel (not AirTel) SIM Card.  AirCel’s is a tiny player in India, ranking only the 6th biggest mobile carrier, and their coverage is quite subpar.  I specifically avoided their booth and had gone to the Airtel one instead.  Apparently, it is not that rare for employees of one company to skim the register by reselling the SIM cards of other providers.  This petty larceny aggravated me as I was plagued with lousy dropped service during my stay in Delhi and Agra. Grrr.

Originally, I had planned to take the modern metro to a stop near my hotel, but I thought traffic might be OK given the late hour.  I went to the prepaid taxi stand, and then hopped in a cab for R400.  The actual voucher was R385, but the counter guy claimed he had no change.  Whatever, I wasn’t going to wait around over 15 rupees (about 25 cents), but this still became an annoying pattern in my dealings on this trip.

I arrived at my hotel, the Ganga Cottage Inn.  I found it on Tripadvisor, and opted for a basic inn near the train station since I would be catching a 6am train to Agra.  The hotel staff was smiling and friendly, and confirmed my rate at R1230.  I told him that I had confirmed for R1200.  The desk staff smiled and said, “Oh, sorry, sir, maybe it is currency movement.”  I then pulled out my email from the hotel which showed R1200.  The original reservation was in INR, not USD, so while the USD price may change, the INR price should be constant at R1200.  The staff smiled again and said, “Sorry sir, we don’t know.”  Whatever, I was too tired to argue over R30.

I went to my room for a shower, but there was no hot water.  Literally no water.  I went back downstairs and the staff sent someone who played around a bit with the valves but couldn’t get the water to turn on.  The staff then gave me a new room.  I showered, but then noticed that the bed sheets were used and soiled.  I mean they were filthy.  I went back downstairs and asked them to change it.  They claimed they change it after every guest, but I dragged a staff to my room to show him how dirty they were (once you removed the blanket).  They changed the sheets.

With that settled, I wandered off to get some food before heading off to sleep.  My hotel was situated in the Pahar Ganj neighborhood, the boisterous backpacking and market area.  Here, I had my first good luck of the trip.  I bypassed all of the restaurants that were teeming with backpackers and tourists until I stumbled onto one with a huge, rambunctious crowd of locals waiting outside, apparently for takeout.  I peeked in, and the waiter pointed to the one empty table in the entire place.  As I sat down, I noticed that I was the only foreigner in the entire restaurant.

They had an English menu, but I just pointed to what some others were eating.  I ended up with buttered mixed vegetables, spinach with cheese, buttered naan, rice, and a Pepsi for R180 (or about $3).  The food was so delicious!  The buttered mixed vegetables in particular blew my socks off with its intense flavors and spices, topped with vegetables that had been cooked just enough to still maintain some crunch.  I am not a vegetarian, but I might convert if all veggie dishes tasted this good.  If you are in the neighborhood, Swagat Dabah is worth trying.

I debated going to some bars afterwards, as I felt like a beer.  I poked my head in a few places but didn’t feel particularly excited.  Given my early morning train departure, I headed off to bed instead.

I woke up early, repacked, checked out (paying the extra R30 since the manager was asleep), and walked the 10 minutes to the train station.  I had read about the very common scam targeting foreigners here, and sure enough, I was approached by several people with official looking name tags asking to see my ticket and offering their assistance.  Their plan is to take their marks to a side office building where they would tell the victims that the tickets were invalid for some technicality and that the tourists would need to buy new ones from them.  Of course, the helpful guy with the name tag has no connection with the railways and is instead looking to dupe tourists.

For kicks, I showed my ticket (holding it firmly in my hands) to one of them, and sure enough, he frowned, shook his head, and asked me to come with him to the "office".  Yeah, right.  I frowned in return, looked sad, and then started speaking in fake Japanese.  He looked utterly perplexed.  I shrugged and left him, now shaking my own head, and easily found my platform.  I boarded my train without incident, and off I was to Agra.  The train ride was comfortable, and on time, which is not common.

I booked at Aman Homestay in Agra, which was the second bright light of my little India side trip.  I needed only basic accommodations to sleep, and at R1600 this place is a bargain.  The positive reviews on Tripadvisor are spot on.  Run by a wonderful woman and her family, “Aman” is actually her high school aged son who handles all of the internet correspondence.  She named the homestay “Aman” because that was the simplest name in the family to spell and pronounce.  During my brief stay here, I felt quite welcome and enjoyed their company very much.  I really felt like I was staying at a friend’s home.  Not too far from the Taj (though I would not recommend walking it), the homestay is located off in a quiet side street.  The nice garden provides a bit of an oasis from the rest of Agra’s chaos.

I had arranged a driver with Aman to pick me up from the Agra train station and then drop my bag off at the homestay.  We would then head to Fatehpur Sikri, which is about an hour drive outside of Agra.  My driver was a grandfatherly looking old man, who seemed nice enough, other than the times he tried to hustle me.  When we came to the first toll booth, he looked back and asked me for money.  I told him that this was included in the agreed upon rate of R1400, which I knew was already on the high end.  He said OK, no toll fee, but then he would need to charge me R200 for dropping my bags off.  I shook my head and told him that, too, was included and showed him the email.  He protested a bit, but eventually shrugged and drove on.

When we arrived in Fatehpur Sikri, a guide popped out of nowhere shaking the driver’s hand.  The driver suggested strongly that I hire him, and the guide went deeply into his spiel.  I asked how much, and he offered me a discounted rate of R600.  I laughed in his face, and got out to find a tuk tuk to take me to the entrance.  The guide lowered his ask to R400, but I was sick of his style and left him.  When I turned around, he and the driver were deeply engrossed in some kind of angry discussion.

At the entrance, I managed to find a different guide who did a pretty good job.  We agreed on a rate of R200, but I liked him enough that in the end I gave him the standard R250.

Fatehpur Sikri, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a 16th Century city built from scratch by Akbar the Great.  It is one of the finest examples of Muhal architecture.  Akbar, who did not have a son, created and dedicated the city to one of the seers who accurately predicted that he would soon be blessed with a son.  Ironically, the city was abandoned after only 14 years from lack of water.

Next door to Fatehpur Sikri is the Jama Masjid mosque, which still functions today.  One needs to take off your shoes to enter the mosque.  While they laid cloth walkways to protect the feet, sometimes one needs to step on the hot stone to take a decent photograph.  I thought at one point I burnt my feet!  For those visiting Agra, Fatehpur Sikri is worth the drive to see.

The scorching heat was getting to me.  (During the course of the day, I would drink 5 liters of water, plus some soda and a large can of beer, but still felt dehydrated in the middle of that night.)  My original plan had been to return to Agra and then take a tuk tuk from sight to sight.  I wanted to see the Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah, Agra Fort, and then the Taj Mahal toward the end of the day.  For sunset, I wanted to cross the river to Mehtab Bagh park and catch the views of the Taj from there.  I planned to return to the Taj Mahal the following morning for the sunrise views.

Alas, after Fatehpur Sikri, I was already feeling too hot and tired.  I asked my driver how much if he drove me to my planned sites for the remainder of the day.  He quoted R1200, which is much above market for a half day city drive.  I just sat there silently until he came down to R1000, which is still high but I didn’t really have the time or energy to look for a different driver.  Sitting in air conditioning was critical by this point.  We made a deal, and I settled in for the drive back to Agra.

When he started going off into his chatter for the fourth time about how he could take me to a great store where I could get that “special discount”, I briefly lost my temper.  I told him firmly but politely to stop asking and to just drive me to the Agra Fort.  I asked him to stop pushing guides on me as well, or he would receive no tip.  I should have threatened the tip earlier, because for the most part (with one exception to come), he behaved well the rest of the day.

Agra Fort, yet another World Heritage Site, is a walled city that dates back to the 11th Century, but really gained prominence when Akbar made Agra his capital centuries later.  The site covers 94 acres, and contains both Hindi and Islamic architecture.  I wandered about, taking lots of photos.

By lunch time, I was starved and tired.  Against my better judgment, I agreed to a restaurant, Shivakash, that the driver said was quite good.  This was a BIG mistake.  When I entered, I saw the Tripadvisor logo on the door, so I thought this couldn’t be too bad.  I then saw that I was the only customer.  Normally, I would have just walked out and had the driver take me to a different restaurant that I would pick at random.  But depleted of energy, and much too hot and dehydrated, I just took a seat.  The guy gave me an English menu, but then as I was starting to read it, he hurried back and gave me a different menu.  Why?  As I scanned the prices, I noticed that the prices were much higher than I expected…almost NYC prices.  Did they have two sets of menus with different prices?

I didn’t want to waste the time to wander around, so I just ordered the chicken masala and some naan.  The waiter offered me a beer, which wasn’t on the menu, so I asked how much.  He said R600, or about $10.  For a beer in India?!  I took the Pepsi.

The food was poor.  I would call it bland but for the fact that it was way over-salted.  India has great food but I was stuck with some tasteless (if you exclude the saltiness) and expensive junk.  When the final bill came, the waiter had added in a 20% VAT, which is usually included in the price stated on the menu.  I don't even know if the VAT is that high!  He smiled and pointed to the menu small language which said something like “taxes may be extra”.  Ok, I suppose.  That just made an expensive meal simply outrageous.  Two other staff members came by when I inquired about this and crowded me, reminding me that service was NOT included but that it was expected.  Were these waiters turning into thugs?

I just paid, rounding up to the nearest R100 and left.  I complained to the driver that I did not appreciate this stunt, but he gave me a puzzled look of innocence and claimed he had heard only good things about the place.  Umm, that’s why I was the only customer in the middle of the peak lunch hour?  I also complained to the folks at the homestay for giving me this driver, and they were apologetic noting that he was not the guy they normally use.  The driver’s name is Ashok but that’s a common name or I would tell you never to use him.

I didn’t want to let any of this spoil the day.  I cleared my head as we headed for the Taj itself.  I have to confess, the Taj was truly magnificent.  There was no queue to get in, and while people milled about, I would not call it crowded on this day.  I took about 100 photos (that look identical in hindsight), simply because the Taj really is a sight to behold.  Even with the photos, it’s hard to appreciate the simple symmetrical beauty at such an enormous scale.

The Taj’s lore states that the shah of the time fell in love-at-first sight with a beautiful girl.  She became his favorite wife.  Their love for each other was mutual and very deep.  As she was dying, she made the shah promise to build a monument to symbolize their eternal love for each other.  Heartbroken, he fulfilled that request by vowing to build the greatest testament ever, and one that would stand the test of time, the Taj Mahal.   He buried his wife in the Taj’s mausoleum, and later upon his death, his son buried the shah next to her, where they would rest with each other forever.

The cynic in me naturally scoffs at this.  I mean, how many wives did the dude have?  And assuming the lore is entirely true, why is this deed so romantic?  The guy is an absolute monarch who can do whatever he wants.  Wasn’t this all just a self-aggrandizing wish by a dying wife?  Why not spend all that money and give it back to the people as a better sign of the generosity of their love?  Why insist on an overpriced, overbuilt grave marker?  Is that love or is it just selfishness?

But then I soften and ponder a bit.  One cannot ignore the beauty of the Taj.  In many ways, the Taj was indeed a gift to the shah’s people (or perhaps the entire world).  How many millions of people have admired or been inspired by this monument?  It would have been easy to build something big, expensive, and gaudy.  There are many temples that actually fit that description.  However, the Taj’s perfect symmetry and simple elegance does indeed speak to the purity of their love.  Maybe the Taj is one example of perfection.  Ultimately, I guess I choose to accept the “greatest love story” view.  And gazing at the Taj, one begins to hope to be as lucky as the shah and his wife, in discovering or rediscovering that someone who fulfills us that “perfectly”.

Leaving the Taj, I headed next to the Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah, or the “Baby Taj”, which was built for the father of one of India’s empresses.  Many consider this building to be the inspiration for the Taj itself, especially in its use of symmetry and marble inlay.  The place was basically empty when I was there, so it was great for thoughtful mediation.

The final stop of the day was Mehtab Bagh, which is a park on the other side of the river.  The park itself is pretty stinky (not literally), but most go there for the unobstructed views of the Taj, especially at sunset.  One views the Taj from the rear, but given the Taj’s symmetry, this doesn’t matter much.  The dome of the Taj appears to change color, depending on the time of day that the sun’s rays hit it.  I hung around a bit, snapped some photos, and then had the driver finally drop me off back at the homestay.

For dinner, I wanted to try Aman’s mother’s cooking.  I showered and then went to the dining room table.  Since it was low season, I was the only guest eating that night.  I wish I had brought my camera to the dinner table, since the food was amazing!  As I ate, I talked with Aman and his mother, getting to know them.  They are wonderful folk and I enjoyed getting to know them, and learning a bit more about Agra and India.  Even though the homestay has been open for only 17 months, I have no doubt it will be a huge success.

Stuffed but exhausted, I quickly fell asleep.

As I mentioned, my original plan was to see the Taj again at sunrise.  This was overkill.  I decided instead to sleep in until it was time to head to the train station and back to New Delhi.  In the morning, I bid the family a fond farewell.  If I ever come back to Agra, I know where I will stay.

The Agra train station was a bit of a mess.  The signboard was confusing and the staff at the window couldn’t care less to help a foreigner figure this out.  The guy literally asked “What do you want from me?  You have a ticket.”  My train was delayed for an hour, and ultimately was delayed again en route so I arrived at Delhi several hours behind schedule.  As they say, “This is India.”  To add to the stress, they changed the platform numbers on me at the last moment, which led to some quick scampering in the morning heat to board the car.

Unlike my first train, this train had uncomfortable sleeper births.  When I got to my seat, some guy was sitting in my seat.  He was traveling with his family and had the upper birth above me.  He insisted on sitting on my lower birth with me.  He didn’t speak English, but I think was indicating that he was entitled to sit there as well.  I couldn’t argue with a guy in a different language, and for all I know he was right.  I settled in for what would undoubtedly be an uncomfortable ride jammed next to this chubby fellow.  A few minutes later, however, he gave up and moved to another seat in the car.

I think his daughter was in the berth across from me.  She kept peeking through the curtain, I assume to make sure that the stupid foreigner wasn't misbehaving or something.  I'm not sure how my reputation preceded me this far.

Then came the strange part.  About an hour into the journey, some guy (her boyfriend?) joins her in the berth and pulls the cover over them.  They didn’t bother pulling the curtain shut, but soon they started jostling about quite aggressively.  I gather from the noises that they decided to have a quickie amorous session while the father was away.  Ahh, this aspect of India is truly universal.

This train arrived at a different station than New Delhi Central.  I didn’t mind since Hazrat Nizzamuddin Station was close to the one sight that I did want to see in Delhi.  When I exited, however, I encountered a new problem.  There were taxis everywhere, but I thought I could walk to Humayan Tomb, which looked quite close on the map.  Unfortunately, the station is fenced off from the neighborhood and I couldn’t figure out how to exit.  I briefly walked around in a circle in the oppressive heat. I asked a few people, but got no help.  Eventually, I saw a small hole in the fence that dropped off into the street.  I decided to go for it and crawled through the tiny hole and scrummed it outside.  Free at last!

The Nizzamuddin neighborhood was surprisingly pleasant, almost suburban, filled with leafy trees and large houses.  I consulted my map and headed toward the tomb, but I got turned around a bit.  The GPS on my phone was of little help, especially given my crappy AirCel coverage.  As I pondered my choices, a tuk tuk driver approached and offered to take me there for a negotiated R30.  I hopped in, and that was probably the only wise thing I did all morning.

The Humayan Tomb is another World Heritage Site dating back to the 16th Century.  From the little Indian history I studied back in the day, I knew Humayan was an important emperor, but couldn’t remember much else.  At the entrance, I paid for my ticket, and the cashier made a big show of giving me the little brochure and mumbling “World Heritage Site” over and over again, and pointing to the gate and smiling a lot.  As with all too many places in this town, however, the cashier then waited patiently until I specifically asked for my change before giving it to me.  I know I sound paranoid, but when this becomes a pattern, I start to suspect that the cashiers are hoping that the stupid foreigner just walks away without the balance of his money.

Immediately at the entrance is a different monument, the Tomb of Isa Kahn Niyazi which predates Humayan by 20 years.  The heat and humidity were stifling, and my heavy backpack was literally weighing me down, but this tomb was definitely worth checking out anyway.

Afterwards, I made it to the Humayan site.  It was large, and almost park like.  There wasn’t much of a crowd, so I took my time wandering around trying to remember what I could of my prior history lessons.

Afterwards, I headed back to my hotel.  Because I had booked under a nonrefundable rate, I was stuck once again at the Ganga Cottage Inn.  The famous India Gate landmark was on the way, so I stopped there first to snap a few photos and walk around, and then had my tuk tuk take me to the hotel.

I was a bit wary given my prior experience, but my hotel room seemed fine at first glance.  I wanted to shower from the hot day, but after I turned the water on, I noticed there was no soap.  I called downstairs and the staff brought up a small bar.  Then I noticed that the toilet doesn’t flush.  The seat was cracked, which isn’t terrible, but the only way to flush the toilet was to fill the nearby bucket with water and dump it in the bowl.  I know India’s infrastructure leaves something to be desired, but this was getting ridiculous.  I didn’t want to deal with the staff anymore, so just went with it and hoped that there would be no other issues.  Other than the stink of sewage creeping in the middle of the night, I had no other complaints about this place.  Oh, this is a photo of right outside alley that leads to the the hotel.  Great neighborhood.

After resting a bit, I still had some daylight hours so headed over to Chandi Chowk, which is Delhi’s oldest street and the sight of its most famous bazaars.   Let me digress here and mention a common ploy by the tuk tuk drivers.  By law, Delhi’s tuk tuk’s are metered.  In practice, they rarely run the meters for foreigners, and instead insist on negotiating a rate.  That’s fine; I’m used to negotiating with tuk tuk drivers.  However, about half of the tuk tuk drivers I encountered initially quoted an outrageous rate, and then when I countered with something closer to the market rate, they would agree (or offer me an even much lower fare) only on the condition that they could take me to a “great store with great discounts”, for only ten minutes where I would be under no obligation to buy anything.  No thanks.  Just take me where I want to go.  Having said that, I did want to check out the historic bazaars of Chandi Chowk, as well as the historic 17th Century mosque Fatehpuri Masjid which is a cornerstone of the neighborhood.

When I got to the mosque, the man at the gate wanted R300 for a camera fee.  I thought it a bit odd since it wasn’t obvious I was carrying a camera.  He didn't ask; he just said wanted my money.  Everyone else (none of whom were foreigners) was just walking in.  I decided I had enough of this nonsense, and just took some photos from the outside, and then moved on to explore the rest of the neighborhood.

The neighborhood was crowded, noisy, and a beehive of activity.  Different areas specialized in different products, including what appeared to be a scrap yard for auto parts and a goat butcher who proudly showed off the head of a goat carcass.

I made my way deep into the heart of the labyrinth to check out the other stores.  People crammed into the narrow alley ways, pushing and shoving without a care.  It was easy to get lost, and this was one time when the GPS on my phone proved helpful.  Looking up, I noticed how the electric wires all seemed jerry-rigged.  I hope it isn’t a fire hazard.

I didn’t buy anything, but tried the lemonade, which was salty and not to my liking.  At another vendor, I had a sugar cane drink which was OK.  I came across a lassi place which served a great chilled drink.  The owner spoke English, and we kind of hit it off.  When he found out I had never had Indian cookies, he insisted giving me free samples of all of them.  The cookies were OK, but the guy was a pleasure to talk with and I learned a bit more about the Chandi Chowk neighborhood from him.

Eventually, I tired and decided to head back towards my hotel.  When I arrived back in the neighborhood, I went back to that first restaurant (Swagat Dhaba) for dinner, which was as good as the first time.  Walking back to my hotel, I came across a marching band.  I don’t know what they were celebrating, but the people were joyously dancing and singing along.  It was a pleasant spectacle to watch.  I had a Bollywood moment and felt like joining in the dancing, but then thought better of it.  There are enough reasons for people to laugh at me.

I stopped by another lassi place for dessert.  It was quite good, and I sat on a plastic chair and enjoyed my cold drink just watching the crowd go by.  All was fine until I noticed a mouse scurrying out from the bottom of the lassi stand and brazenly munch on some leftovers by my feet.  Yes, this is India.

I left for the airport early the following morning, and caught a flight back to Kathmandu.  Sitting on the plane, I marveled at the sight of the Himalayan mountains that peeked through the clouds.

I thought about this short side trip to India.  Was I being too harsh and unfair?  Did I just have a string of bad luck?  Was I just an uptight sourpuss in not accepting to go with the “This is India” flow?  I've been justifiably called that on occasion. For example, even in the aggregate, the amount I was cheated monetarily was peanuts.  In any case, once again, India and I just failed to click on our date.

Still, I was glad that I saw the Taj Mahal.  Forget the whole bucket list thing.  As a monument of hope for true love, the Taj is beautifully inspiring.  I also met some splendid people whose brief company I truly enjoyed.  I’m not sure if I will ever return to this country as a tourist, but I can certainly appreciate why so many people love this country, even if I am not yet a convert.


Please find photos at the link on top

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