|India -- an excerpt or two from Christopher's journal:
25 March 07
between Delhi and Agra
We are now jostling along the rails between Delhi and Agra. We've just passed a small
collection of peaked straw huts sitting in the middle of a field (wheat?). Occasionally
rising up from the middle of the fields are tall, industrial-looking smokestacks. We left
Delhi about an hour ago -- at 6am.
The countryside continues to roll by. The number of squatting figures relieving
themselves along the edges of the track has dwindled to none. Bright saris, strolling
cattle, and straw field huts populate the scenery. A review of the matrimonial want-ads
in the newspaper we received on the train seems to yield, for the most part, requests for
"tall, slim, light-skinned" girls from good families. One or two suggests that "caste is not
an issue." More than that inform us that the prospective groom is "exceptionally
After some indecision at an earlier, poorly lit, and anonymous station, we disembark at
the clearly marked and obvious Agra station and are quickly met by a representative of
Snow Leopard (our itinerary organizer). He walks us through a the small throng of
hawkers, beggars, taxi-drivers, and would-be guides to our waiting car. We are driven
through the dusty, busy, ragged streets for perhaps 30 minutes to the Taj View Hotel. It
had occurred to me several weeks before our trip to inquire whether our rooms at the
Taj View Hotel actually featured a view of the Taj. Alas, only if one is on the correct
side. Attempts to upgrade to a Taj-view room at the Taj View Hotel were unsuccessful.
But, no matter. I later learned that the monument is not lit at night and, hence, we did
not miss out on the spectacle I had imagined. On full-moon nights, however, the entire
complex is apparently aglow and is said to be stunning.
It is time for a decent cup of tea and a quick breakfast (since, at 9 am, it's too early to
get our rooms, anyway). We are also introduced to Manju, who will serve as our guide
for the day. Back in the car a short while later, we do not have far to travel. We bounce
through more ragged streets, past wandering cattle, tethered water buffalo, small herds
of goats, and pigs rooting through the random piles of garbage. I might have expected
a grand avenue leading to India's premier tourist attraction. Quite the contrary.
The Taj Mahal compound is really something. You don't see the iconic white dome and
pillars until you've passed through a vast outer courtyard surrounded in dark red walls.
Several signs are posted on the lawns stating, "No trespassing on grass - or
photography." Virtually everyone has a camera in hand, happily snapping away. Manju
clarifies for us that we may not walk on the grass or take pictures on the grass (although
it would seem one precludes the other). We dutifully keep off the lawn.
27 March 07
A warm yellow glow suffused the walls of this 400 year-old palace - now a boutique
hotel. Tucked into the Rajasthani hills, it is apparently frequented by celebrities and the
similarly wealthy. (We saw none such persons.)
After breakfast we slathered on a bit of suntan lotion (what does one wear on a camel
ride?) and headed outside the gates to meet our mounts. I don't think anyone bothered
exchanging names. Four of us, four camels, four camel supervisors. Oh, and two or
three local... locals who would walk alongside us for a while asking where we're from, if
we like India, whether we'll visit their families' shops...
Even though the camels had cantilervered themselves down onto the ground with their
legs folded underneath them, I still needed to step up on a short stool to be able to
swing up into the saddle. The saddle, an uncomfortable wooden affair covered with a
thin woven blanket, offered nothing, really, to hold onto. There was a little knob under
thee somewhere, but I didn't find that until later. When my camel began to rise
(unannounced) it lurched, in Alissa's words, "backward and upward, or maybe it was
forward and upward, or upward forward backward - whatever it was, it was unsettling."
|Jaipur, continued (several days later)
Alissa appeared somewhat refreshed and greeted us as we came back in from the
pool. She sat in the lobby and wrote a few lines to Nana — Annaliese soon joined
her — while Arianna and I changed. We returned to the heart of Jaipur to visit
some of the bazaar stalls and acquire more goods. I had solicited some
suggestions from the guide before we sent him packing, and he indicated that we
should bypass the very tourist-oriented (read: inflated) vendors along the main
street and go instead to this other street around the bend, “where the locals shop.”
Just the sort of advice one might hope for from a local guide.
Feeling smug, we drove through the main street, past the colorful stalls and past
the tourists who were being gouged, and turned left down the recommended
avenue. The guide was right; this street was where the locals shop. Instead of
hawkers displaying intricate, hand-woven merchandise and colorful cloth, we found
modest little stalls where locals were buying from locals. Hardly a tourist in sight.
But where to start? Did we want soap cakes, bicycle parts, or a pile of eggs sitting
out in the warm night air?
We surmised that somehow our intentions were not made clear. Apparently we had
a choice: either overpay on the tourist strip for items we actually want, or get some
real bargains on corrective shoes, school supplies, slightly used batteries. We
grappled only briefly with this decision.
Mr. Hariprasad, our driver, seemed to gravitate towards a particular shop as he
took us back along the tourist trade route. We were greeted with great enthusiasm
and Alissa, Annaliese, and Arianna were soon in their element: divestiture and
acquisitions. We drove away with a tablecloth, some bright material, perhaps a pair
or two of shoes, and enough bangles to reach from wrist to elbow. Then we went
into a “government-run” store, which is supposedly more regulated and which
boasts fixed prices, eliminating the risk factor of arbitrary, appearance-based
pricing. The end result, however, was basically the same: eight more pairs of
shoes. “But really cute shoes,” one of them might add.
None of us were really in need of a meal, so we each had a simple but tasty soup
back at the Hilton, and then retired. We were to expect an early day the next day,
and a long day of travel. We would drive from Jaipur to the Delhi train station
(supposedly five hours), from where we would begin our rail journey north to
Haridwar (supposedly three hours), and then be driven farther north into the hills
past Rishikesh. Waiting for us at the end of a day on the road would be a balmy
tent with cot-like beds and scratchy blankets, and then, in the morning, a dunking
in the Ganga — the holy Ganges River.
That day turned out pretty much as expected, with only a few minor twists. The
driver was squirming a bit when we finally came out of the hotel. He had suggested
an 8:30am departure and we finally drug ourselves out about 45 minutes later than
that. The drive was almost exclusively through agricultural regions and therefore
featured the same sort of rural scenes we’d witnessed in previous days. But, as
before, the colors and the diverse forms of transportation and cartage were
enough to keep the scenery entertaining.
At one point, about 30 seconds after Alissa announced that she would need a
restroom stop, we raced past the single nicest, cleanest, most inviting service
station we’d seen in India or Indonesia or any of our Asian travels. There had been
signs announcing a motel and restaurant a few kilometers up the road, so we held
out for that. It never quite materialized, so Alissa finally had to make do (so to
speak) in a less savory sort of lean-to adjacent to an open, concrete drink stand.
Occasionally, as we drove along during the course of our week, our driver would
suddenly turn off the air conditioner. Given the outside temperature, this would
become immediately obvious to us. Alissa and I would raise our eyebrows at each
other and, just about the time I was phrasing a question about the vehicle
overheating, he would slow the car and pull into a drink stand or a recommended
lunch stop. We never learned the logic behind this—whether it was some well
thought out engine-preserving technique or simply one of Hariprasad’s quirks.
As we neared Delhi, the landscape changed quickly from fields to a region of office
parks and tall glass buildings. This was not Delhi itself, but a satellite that,
according to the driver, was home to many of the international call centers for
which the country is known. It was good to see the contrast between ancient
agrarian life and the more modern India.
Traffic increased as we pushed farther into Delhi, and the road condition
deteriorated. The air conditioner was shut off again and we realized we were
approaching our lunch stop. Once again we found ourselves entering the gates of
a very subtly marked restaurant that we never would have spotted on our own. We
were met by Praveen, the tour organizer who had managed our whole visit, and we
moved most of our bags to a second vehicle. Once again, for our own
convenience, we would only take one bag on the train up north. During lunch (did
you guess… we had Indian food), Praveen introduced me to Colonel Singh, one of
the principals of Snow Leopard Tours. He had come out to greet us and inquire as
to our satisfaction. As it happened, he showed up at about the same time as our
lunch order, so we may not have given him the attention he was expecting. But
then, we were the client, so our happiness (i.e., the meal) took precedence.
We drove on to the train station and there bade Mr. Hariprasad farewell. He had
served us well from Saturday night through Thursday — long enough to predict
how late we would be each morning. But we’ve had our own drivers for nearly two
years now, so I was on to him. If he wanted to leave at 8:00am he would tell us we
had to leave by 7:30am, which meant that if we got out by 8:15 we’d still have
plenty of time.
The Delhi train station in mid-day was not unlike the Delhi train station at dawn, but
the crowds were larger, the air warmer, and the smells stronger. I sat across the
aisle from the other three in our party, which put me beside a professor from a
hospitality and tourism college. I was working on earlier pages of this journal for
most of the train ride and he commended me on my perseverance in writing on
several occasions. Uncannily, his praise would usually interrupt me right about the
time I hit a comfortable stride in my narrative. But he was an amiable sort and was
eager to show me the brochures and catalogue for his school.
Although the train set out within fifteen minutes of the published departure time, it
took perhaps two hours longer than scheduled. The windows were double-paned
and the condensation that had built up between the layers almost completely
obscured the view. I did manage to see that the rail-side crop had changed from
wheat to sugar cane. Darkness cloaked the countryside well before we arrived in
A representative met us as we stepped off the train. Another gentleman stood with
him and gestured to my bag, offering to carry it. I indicated my willingness to let him
do so, and he quickly began swirling a long red cloth into a pile on top of his head.
Our guide noticed him and waved him away. Refocusing to look around the station,
I realized there were several similarly dressed fellows, some of whom were carrying
luggage on their heads, with the red cloth as padding.
We were ushered to the car (I pulled my own bag behind me) and we headed out
into the night. After I rephrased my question a few times, we were told either that it
would take about 45 minutes to reach the camp or that it was 45 kilometers. We
didn’t seem to have a common language.
It was about this time that I realized the passports were missing. The zipper on my
small bag was opened when I picked it up from under my feet on the train. I
suppose a professor of tourism could have contacts that could turn four American
passports into money. But then, there had been some confusion when we checked
in at the hotel in Jaipur the day before. Had we left them with the hotel desk? Might
we have stuck them in one of the bags we’d left with the Snow Leopard
representatives in Delhi?
And what did this mean for our last day in India? I suppose I could spend the day
(and probably US$400) at the U.S. Embassy while the other three toured the
sights. Our departure flight wasn’t scheduled until 11pm Saturday, so we’d have
the full day to get everything taken care of.
We had started out in a large town, but were soon winding along mountain roads
and were unable to get a phone signal, so we resolved to wait to see what means
of communication were available at the camp. At one point, rounding a sharp
curve, we encountered a small band of scrappy looking men blocking the road and
gesturing for us to stop. The girls were asleep in the back, but I verified that all
doors were locked. Some tentative words were exchanged and our driver and
escort looked back at us and said, “rock fall.”
It turns out they were doing some blasting to widen the road and there were some
small boulders littering the road ahead. We passed through it easily and were
soon in the camp. They had kept some dinner waiting for us, but we each had a
bowl of soup and left it at that. It is a permanent camp, with a common, covered
eating area and fixed tents with private, attached bathroom facilities. Not rough,
except for the absence of A/C. Though we were up in the foothills of the foothills of
the pre-Himalayas, even the night could not be called chilly. We did have a
clattering oscillating fan, which I tried to dismantle and reassemble—much to Alissa’
s frustration—to get it to shut up. Ultimately, fatigue won out and I managed to
sleep despite the recurrent rattle and wondering about the ramifications of our
missing passports. I did wake up in the middle of the night, when the power had
failed briefly, and in the silence I heard a few far-off rumbles—further mountainside
I was up earlier than the rest, as I had agreed to go on a short hike/walk with our
local guide, whose name I no longer recall. (I’m finally finishing this section a week
later, in Jakarta.) We walked up the highway/road several hundred meters and
then took a trail into a steep valley. A few basic concrete homes were perched
along our trail and each had an array of small plots growing a variety of produce;
rice, garlic, and wheat were the few that I recognized. A few of the families kept
animals—dogs and donkeys mostly. We also saw and heard many different birds,
including a bright blue kingfisher, which may or may not be the national bird (I
know, at least, that it’s the name of a popular Indian beer). We were back at the
camp in exactly an hour and we roused the others for breakfast.
By this time we had learned the fate of our passports. The Jaipur Hilton didn’t have
them, but the folks at Snow Leopard had taken the liberty of rummaging through
our other bags and found our documents in a side pouch. We would have our last
day in Delhi together after all.
Although we never really saw them, another small group or family was also at the
camp. They opted against the rafting trip, so, after breakfast and a rafting safety
briefing, we clambered into the jeep and drove upstream. The raft was waiting for
us and we were soon afloat on the famous river. There were a few dramatically
perched homes and temples along the Ganges valley, and some high, terraced
farmland. The river was fairly wide—perhaps as much as 100 meters—and, during
the course of our two-hour trip, never got much narrower than 40 meters. We ran
through four or five fun little rapids. The first one disappointed Arianna somewhat,
but she warmed up at the next one, where we faced some big waves and one- to
two-meter tall water moguls. (I don’t know what else to call them; the river is
rushing through them, but they’re fairly stationary humps of water springing up
from some submerged boulder.)
Soon after we had gotten onto the river the guide had us jump into the water. This,
he said, would prepare us in case we were swept overboard in the rapids. Alissa
went in first, and I followed. The water was not icy, but there was certainly a chill to
it. We clung to the raft as the guide tried to coax Arianna and Annaliese over the
side. This was taking so much time that we finally had to get the guide to pull Alissa
out, since we were afraid of exacerbating her headcold. Arianna finally jumped in,
but Annaliese refused. Later, the three of us went in again for some “body surfing.”
Arianna spent a lot of time in the water, and it wasn’t until we saw her jaw shivering
that we convinced her to come out. At some point she also switched boats for a
brief while; a two-person kayak was floating along with us and she traded off with
one of those guides.
The valley was lovely, we had submerged ourselves in the sacred waters, and the
rafting was fun, but it all came to an end too soon. We had spent less than two
hours on the river when we arrived back near our camp site. We clambered on to
some rocks and snapped a few family photos (designed to match similar photos we’
d taken in front of the library at Ephesus, Turkey, the previous Spring Break). We
climbed back up to the camp and, while Alissa and Annaliese cleaned up, Arianna
and I swam briefly in the small pool. There was a small delay in preparing our car,
so we also had time to play a quick game of volleyball with a couple of the staff
members, and to do a little climbing on their rock wall. After lunch, we drove about
30 minutes back for a look around Rishikesh.
This town had apparently made a name for itself back when the Beatles came to
study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It is a center for yogic study and is the site
of several ashrams. It is also, not coincidentally, a place where a lot of young,
unkempt, international travelers go to expand their minds in various ways. We
strolled through the grubby streets and across a footbridge to the other bank. At
each turn we encountered hawkers, holy men, tourists, beggars, merchants, and
temporary residents (usually young Germans or northern Europeans who had
either shaved heads or dreadlocks, wore clothing of the local style, and looked as
if they could use another dip in the holy Ganges—ritual or otherwise). As a tourist
destination, I’m not sure why this town would be recommended. Perhaps there are
temples we did not see. Maybe some more spiritually disposed individuals would
have sought a place for contemplative thought. We mostly wanted to get back in
the car and use some hand sanitizer.
The day had warmed up considerably. It was about 3pm by then and the car was
not waiting for us at the prearranged spot. Strangely, the prearranged spot was at
the bottom of a grotty little parking garage alongside the river. Beggars with
imploring eyes hovered nearby, flies buzzed about our faces, and we stood in a
conspicuous knot waiting for the car to arrive. We only had to wait about 15
minutes, but the sight of the car was welcome indeed.
We drove another 20 minutes toward Haridwar. We longed for something cool to
sip on and someone suggested ice cream. The guide and driver spotted a small
open-air hotel restaurant along the road and we U-turned back to it. As we pulled
up, we watched as one of the restaurant employees used a squeegee to clean the
floor. He must have emptied a bucket of water inside the entrance and was
pushing a small tide of frothing brown scum across the threshold and down the
front steps. Granted, it was an open-air establishment on the edge of a well-
trafficked and dusty road, but we were audibly grateful when the guide learned that
they did not have ice cream.
I must confess that I was feeling particularly American at this point. When we were
driving through Haridwar the night before, I had noticed signs for familiar hotels—
Best Western and Holiday Inn, I think—and I had my eyes out for these in case our
options remained bleak. But we pushed and found a perfectly acceptable
restaurant in the middle of the busy town. We sat in the air-conditioned restaurant,
slightly above the street, and watched the flow of pedestrians, cars, pedi-cabs, and
the occasional horse-drawn covered buggy. It was a good meal and would tide us
over until the train got us to Delhi. I was, however, surprised when Alissa and
Arianna came back from the bathroom and announced that, rather than use the
restaurant’s facilities, they would wait until they got on the train. We had
experienced the train bathrooms on earlier trips, and I could only imagine what this
restaurant’s must have been like.
The train ride back to Delhi was memorable mostly for the amount of food we were
offered. It comes as part of the ticket, but we were reluctant to eat any of it. We
had the bottled water and may have tried a cupcake. Anything else that was
reasonably well packaged and not particularly perishable we tucked into a plastic
bag that we’d been collecting to hand to some destitute child we would no doubt
find wandering in the Delhi station. Praveen met us again and, as we walked
through the station and to the car, we were surprise to encounter not a single
beggar of any age. Even on the drive to the Hans Hotel (where we had stayed on
our very first night), no one approached the car and we didn’t even see anyone on
the street to whom we could hand this ample bag of food.
We didn’t want an early morning for our last day, so Praveen agreed that the guide
wouldn’t arrive until 10:00am. We met Mr. Singh that morning (alright… it was
nearly 10:30) and were soon cruising the streets of Delhi. We first went to the
Jama Masjid, a large mosque; in fact, he described it as the second largest
mosque in Asia, after Mecca. Alissa and I glanced at each other, thinking surely
the huge mosque in Jakarta is larger than this. And isn’t the Blue Mosque in
Istanbul bigger? And Alissa has been to a massive mosque in Damascus. But why
quibble. It is a fine mosque, no matter the relative dimensions.
Whether Mr. Singh is a photographer himself, I do not know, but he was certainly
eager to suggest angles and composition. Because his suggestions would have
produced the most mundane, tourist-y, postcard photos possible, I took to lifting
the camera to my eyes, focusing, and making a clicking sound, so as not to
offend. I guess he never caught on, because he continued to offer instruction…
From there we at first drove through some very crowded streets, filled with vendors
pushing carts, cattle pulling carts, people, cars, motorbikes, pedi-cabs, and the
occasional camel. We then got onto the “ring road” and drove slowly for what
seemed like ages. We were shifting in our seats, depending on which side the sun
was on. We didn’t know it at the time, but Mommo read in the list of world
temperatures in the Houston newspaper that Delhi was 39°C (102°F) that day—
the hottest spot on the list.
We finally arrived at the next monument, the Qutb Minar, which was begun in
AD1209 and is said to be the tallest pillar in India. (We don’t have many other tall
pillars in Asia to compare it against, so we’ll let this one alone.) Alissa and Arianna
declined to visit this one, preferring the air conditioned vehicle. Annaliese, Mr.
Singh, and I ventured around the grounds, observing the tower, snapping photos
(or not), and discussing the place.
The pillar was built to proclaim the victory of Islam over India and, as with so many
of these monuments, part of the complex was built using stones and carvings
plundered from other structures—usually temples or monuments of other religions
or overthrown monarchs. The interior walkways of a large pavilion in this complex
feature columns adorned with literally defaced figures. It was not until the sculpted
deities were put in place in the pavilion that someone decided they didn’t belong
(Islam does not allow depictions of men or beasts), so all the faces were simply
smashed off the columns.
There is also a metallurgically unique pole set up on the grounds. It is remarkably
solid and our guide said that modern tests confirm the extreme sophistication of its
manufacturers. It has somehow also become a symbol of enduring love and,
before it was surrounded by a small fence, couples used to stand back to back
with the pole between them to somehow gauge their commitment to one another.
Occasionally someone would fail this test, and the slighted parties were known to
then climb the nearby pillar and hurl themselves to their deaths.
Alissa and Arianna had been circling the area in the car (to keep the A/C going)
while we toured the Qutb Minar, so we called them back and set out for the next
stop: lunch. We pulled into a place that had a name suggesting it was the
policemen’s commissary or some such, but which Mr. Singh said we’d enjoy for its
“natural setting.” I’d imagined something opening up onto the adjacent park or at
least a large garden, but it was a fairly run of the mill, enclosed restaurant with all-
wooden furniture and a few piles of large black stones spilling from odd nooks. The
food was just fine, but for the first time in our stay in India, we had to send our
bottled water back because the seal had been broken before it was brought to the
table. I’ve not seen this elsewhere, but in India all the water bottles are printed with,
“For Water Only” and “Crush Bottle After Use.” Although I’m a supporter of the
“reduce, re-use, and recycle” movement, this does not extend to allowing my water
bottle to be filled for a second (or fifth) time from a questionable source.
From the restaurant we drove past the Rajghat — Gandhi’s memorial. At Mr.
Singh’s urging, I jumped out of the car and took a quick photo of the garden
entrance to the area, which appears to have been mostly gardens. There was no
structure, pillar, or statue in sight.
We found a bookstore to buy a picture book of all the spots we’d visited and to get
some reading material for the plane. We happily browsed through the small and
crowded store, which was set in a busy but apparently prosperous neighborhood.
Nearby shops included Nike and Adidas stores and a McDonald’s.
Our last monumental stop for the day, the week, the trip, was Humayun’s tomb.
Humayun, the second Mughal emperor, died in 1556 and to our untrained eyes his
tomb features many of the characteristics we’d seen at the Taj Mahal and other
forts and monuments. Don’t get me wrong… it is an impressive and very
photogenic structure, situated in the middle of large and carefully laid out gardens.
Despite the heat, some of us took a lengthy walk through the buildings and
grounds (again, Alissa and Arianna found a shady spot and lingered instead).
En route back to the hotel we traveled along Embassy Row, reading the signs in
front of the various buildings. Some were grand and reflected the culture of their
respective countries. The U.S. Embassy mostly reflected the era in which it was
built—probably 1955, a time of bland, blocky, and expressionless architecture. I
was glad not to have spent the day inside it. As long as we were in the area, I
checked again to make sure we still had our passports with us.
We took a turn up towards the modern Indian capital buildings. Although not
necessarily graceful, these large buildings at least retained the character of India.
Mr. Singh again asked if I would like to get out to snap a few photos. Alissa spoke
up before I had a chance to decline the offer. “That’s alright; let’s keep moving.”
But Mr. Singh was insistent; “Yes, but I was asking him, not you.” Ever the
peacemaker, I rolled down the window, snapped a shot (an actual shot, not a vocal
click), and suggested that we drive on. As it happens, that hasty shot from the car
is one of the better photos from the trip. We passed from the capital buildings
down a wide central avenue toward a tall arch. Just beyond the arch was tall,
covered platform that one might expect to house a statue. In fact, it had previously
held a statue of an English king, but that had been pulled down and the platform
awaits the completion of a statue of Mohandas Gandhi. There will be great
ceremonies and parades when the statue is put in place and dedicated, which is
expected later this year.
|The Taj Mahal. The minarets are angled ever
so slightly away from the main building, in case
of earthquakes. The inlaid work is, among
many stones, marcasite, jasper, sandstone,
onyx, and lapis lazuli, as well as diamonds,
sapphires, and rubies.
|Below, camel riding in Samoud. And the
Samoud Palace, day and night. Further
below, carved red stone at the abandoned
fort built by Akbar the Great. And even
further below, various activities in the
foothills of the Himalayas.