The Dinosaur Goes to India
This trip was totally unexpected, that is to say, we had not planned to go to India until some friends told us about a great travel package they had found and that we could afford. While seeing the Taj Mahal was never on our bucket list, and even though we had already been doing a lot of traveling, we were not going to pass up an opportunity like this.
The adventure started early because we had to get visas from India before we could go. There was a “simple” form on-line which we had to fill out. Actually, it was the form from hell, but I digress. We submitted the form on line when I finished it, but we also had to send a signed copy of it along with a recent photo of ourselves pasted – not stapled or paper-clipped – in the upper corner. The form copy, along with our passports, went to the Indian Mission in San Francisco. Easy, right… no. The form was very touchy, at least to someone who is not very good with computers and who has fat fingers – in other words, me.
By the time I had Patsy’s form done, I was ready to tear out my hair. Why was I upset about her form? Because I was sure I had already submitted my form correctly. After reviewing the tracking process however, I found that my application had disappeared into the ether, never to be seen again. To make matters worse, every time I re-submitted what I thought was the correct form, I would get an error notice and have to start the whole process over again. After the fourth try, I saw that I could short-circuit the process by using an identification number for the current application. I could come back to the form I had been working on by referring to the code, but of course, I didn’t do that.
After many tries, I finally got both of our forms filled out correctly, got our pictures pasted on copies of them and signed in the designated signature box so that no part of the signature extended out of the box (they were very specific about that). By the time everything was done, we were running out of time, so we sent forms and passports off by FedEx Overnight. A couple of days later, the Mission acknowledged that they received her form, but there was no mention of mine. Arrrgh!
It was also an exercise in frustration trying to call the Mission. If anyone bothered to pick up the phone, they would either give us an “Everything will be okay,” type message or would give us a different number to call. Finally, though, we persevered and got our passports back with the visas glued into them.
Since our tour included airline tickets on Air India, which flew out of LaGuardia, we decided to spend some time in New York City. I have already posted that adventure, but if you didn’t see it, just let me know.
We met our traveling partners the night before at the hotel, so there were four of us ready to brave the elements – it was raining slightly – and deal with the usual airport confusion. There is safety in numbers, and more of a chance to spread out the blame should someone do something dumb.
We could see lots of other people lined up at the Air India counter, but since we were flying on an Airbus, I figured it would probably all work out. When we got to the ticket counter, a young man asked us what kind of seats we wanted. This was a surprise because I thought all the seats were already assigned. I told him that Patsy liked a window seat if there was one available, and I would take the middle seat. Then as a joke, I said, “Would you please make sure that the person sitting on the aisle is small, so I can get out to go to the bathroom.” He told me that the airplane was not full, and gave me the aisle seat, leaving the middle unfilled. Wow, that was almost as good as going first class.
We had flown on an Airbus before, so we know what to expect, but if you’ve never been one, it is nine seats wide with two aisles, so there are three seats on either side, and three in the middle. Even with the number of passengers who boarded at the same time as we did however, there were still lots of empty seats.
Since this was an international flight, they served us three meals, but I forgot to write down what we had, so that’s a miss. It must have been good, or at least acceptable, otherwise I would have written something snarky. I wish that I had a laptop to bring along, because my handwriting is lousy, I have to rely on my notes, and I forget to write something half the time. Blast those darned burglars!
There were television screens on the seats in front of us, so I watched “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Yeah, it was a cliché, but when I went to the restroom, I noticed a lot of other non-Indians watching the same film.
A couple of things about the flight: it was way too long, the seats were uncomfortable, but the staff and other people were very nice, so it balanced out. There was one gentleman who looked to be as old as me. He was dressed all in white and wearing a white turban. Either he stood most of the trip, at least the parts where I was awake, or he squatted down on his heels, but I never saw him sitting in his seat. Every time I saw him stand up, my knees would hurt n sympathy. I suspect his knees did not bother him at all.
After watching the one movie, I either slept or listened to an album of music called “Sufiaana,” which is a collection of Sufi music. Every so often, I looked at the in-flight map and watched the little airplane on the television screen. We were having coffee when we crossed over Afghanistan. I thought how odd it was: we were sipping coffee while flying over a country where our troops are fighting a war.
We flew out of New York in the afternoon and landed in India in the afternoon the next day, but our trip didn’t take twenty-four hours, it just felt like it. The airport at Delhi has a long wall with gigantic sculptures of hands, maybe eight or ten. Each hand was poised in a different manner, with fingertips lifting up toward the ceiling or down to the floor. I recognized one of the positions from a piece we have at home, so I asked a young man next to me what the hands represented. He said that they were positions from Yoga, and that each one represented some form of energy.
As we moved toward Immigration, I realized that I had put my passport somewhere, but I wasn’t sure where, and the clerk didn’t look like he would brook any delays. This misplacing my passport had happened before. We almost missed a flight out of Canada because I couldn’t find the darn thing. However, with a little bit of searching and a spurt of adrenaline, I found my passport in the side pocket of my backpack and made it through Immigration with no problems.
On the other side of Immigration, we met our guide, M. A. Khan, and got all rounded up. Our guide told us just to call him Khan, which we did. He kept us entertained with stories about Delhi, the monkeys, why there were cows in the streets, and other bits of information as he took us to the Royal Plaza Hotel. There was an optional guided tour through the town before we turned in for the evening, however we were tired and gave it a miss.
The Royal Plaza Hotel was… interesting. Even though we were met at the door by a statuesque Indian lady, who put a red dot on our forehead, the hotel was European in flavor, not Indian There were marble statues all over the place, but they were Louis XIV style, not Indian..
The hotel was definitely posh, even the individual in-room coffee maker looked like something out of “the Jetsons,” that old TV show about the future. Even so, there were also a few drawbacks. One drawback was our cupboard at the end of the bed. It had a spring loaded switch that turned on a light whenever the door opened. Unfortunately, the door latch was broken, so when I closed the door, it would slowly open back up and the light would come on again. After several hours of closing the cupboard door, I thought about taking out the light… no such luck, the light was in a plastic cover. I would need a screwdriver to remove it. It was the same story with the wires to the switch. Next, I tried putting the room chair up against the door. There was just a little bit of room between the door and the chair, but that was enough to let the light go on again. I tried shutting the door and going to sleep before it opened again, but that didn’t work. Finally, I had a brilliant idea and went in search for some Band-Aids. I found a couple and carefully wrapped them around the switch. It worked. I relaxed and was almost asleep when I heard the cupboard door creak open and the light was again in my eyes. The spring was too strong for the Band-Aids.
Well, I decided that this was the reason why God created pillows, so I put one over face and went to sleep. The next morning, I woke up in a panic because there was blood on my pillow. I sat up and touched my face to find out what had happened during the night. What I found was that little red dot the lady had put on my forehead when we arrived.
Yes, they do drive on the left side of the road… generally. More than once, we saw another vehicle driving the wrong way on the shoulder of the road our bus was using. Traffic is usually motor vehicle, but again, not always. We saw carts drawn by camels, horses, water buffaloes, and donkeys, but they used the outside lane. I have no idea how a camel cart would make a right hand turn across traffic… it’s an interesting question. There were times when the highway was nominally two lanes, but in fact, the traffic was three or more vehicles across.
We heard lots of horns on the tour. Our guide told us there were three things you needed to drive in India: a good horn to let people know where you are, good brakes for when people don’t yield, and good luck.
Here are some freeway signs you will never see at home: no Pedi cabs, no oxcarts, and no pushcarts.
We left the hotel early because this would be a long day. We started out by seeing the central Mosque, or Jama Masjid, in Delhi. I got several surprises when we went to the mosque, the first being that we had to take off our shoes before we entered. The next surprise was that women in the group had to wear a full body cover, like a shapeless housedress, but not something over their faces. If the men were wearing shorts, they had to wear a wrap-around skirt type garment. Since I was wearing jeans, I didn’t have to do that. Once we were inside the mosque, the size of the enclosure was incredible. I was reminded of a fantasy series by Mervyn Peake, called “The Gormanghast Trilogy.” Gormanghast was an ancient castle so large that nobody knew how big it was or where everything was located. There were groups of people living in the castle, who did not know the master of the castle or what he looked like. This wasn’t that big, but it was the largest enclosed space that didn’t involve football, that I had ever seen.
The mosque was Mughal Architecture, which meant many domes and peaked and fluted arches. Inside, the main face of the mosque was a large rectangular shape with an arch in the middle of it, and two small towers on the top corners. Behind it was the largest dome in the facility. There were galleries of smaller arches on either side of this large face, each with five arches and topped with a smaller dome that matched the shape of the central dome. There was also tall, graceful minaret at the end of each gallery. The whole structure was made of red sandstone, faced with inlaid white marble. On the other side of the plaza was the main gate, a large blocky three-story building with a dramatic arch over the gate. It was just as ornate inside, with several alcoves on either side of the entry, and an almost lacy looking gallery that overlooked the plaza. This was where the royal family would sit during worship services.
The plaza could hold thousands of people during worship services, and there is a picture on Wikipedia that shows the plaza full of worshipers, should you want to see what that looks like. Just go to Wikipedia and look up Jama Masjid; the pictures are beautiful.
I mentioned surprises and there was another one: my camera had turned on inside my backpack and drained the batteries. Here I was in this incredible place and I couldn’t take pictures. I wanted to scream in frustration, except, well we were in a holy spot, and screaming might not be the most acceptable thing to do. Inside my head, however, I was livid.
There were beggars around on the street around the mosque, and I was gently panhandled by a young boy who put his hand in mine and said something. Our guide told us that if we wanted to contribute anything, we should give him the money and he would distribute it, otherwise we would attract more beggars. I believed him and gave him some money to hand out. As it was, we were mobbed everywhere we went anyway, whether by beggars or people hawking souvenirs. Not one of the people hawking knickknacks at the mosque had double A batteries, darn it!
There was an odd sort of beggar on the edge of the group; I didn’t even realize he was begging until I got on the bus (perceptive me). The man bent forward so that he supported himself on all fours. There must have been something wrong with his back, because he used wooden blocks like shoes for his hands. He had obviously been doing that for some time, since the wooden hand blocks looked well worn. I didn’t see them until we were seated and ready to roll, but it has bothered me ever since; what would have caused him to be bent over like that?
Our next stop was at Gandhi’s tomb, set in a sunken garden. This was the place where they cremated his body and interred the ashes in a black marble tomb. Along with the tomb, there is a statue of Gandhi and an eternal flame enclosed in a large glass lantern. There were patterns made with flowers on the tomb, with lots of marigolds. We would see marigolds, strings and piles of them at temples and other important places, as we traveled. The orange of the marigold is symbolic of Hinduism, and even though it originally came from South America, the flower is very popular here.
On the way back to the bus, Patsy bought a flute like the kind they use to charm snakes. In fact, we saw a snake charmer sitting outside the parking lot. I don’t know what they do about the snakes, because they are cobras, and I understand that all cobras are poisonous. They are not something to play around with (no pun intended), but the one in the basket seemed very docile. I read that they sometimes sew the snake’s mouth shut. Maybe that was the case, or is there such a thing as snake Prozac?
We encountered a lot of temples, mosques, and smaller places of worship as we traveled. I think I even saw one on a road median as we were traveling; at least there were several flags there, and that was usually a sign of a worship location. Many of the temples were quite large, especially one in Jaipur that was all white marble, but there were others that looked like storage sheds, and one that was about the size of a large doghouse. Most of the smaller places were open so you could see the idol inside. A good number of them were dedicated to Ganesh, the elephant headed god. He is the god of knowledge and of good fortune and prosperity.
Every so often, one of the worship places would have a number of colored lights and flags, while many of the smaller places were simply… there. We got to Jaipur later in the evening, and saw one place of worship that was just an idol sitting under a freeway on-ramp, surrounded by candles.
The terrain changed from Delhi to Jaipur. We left later in the afternoon and drove southward. I think we also moved closer to the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains as well, since Jaipur is higher in elevation than Delhi. The landscape reminded me of Northern Nevada, with its scruffy hills and farms. We passed fields of millet, with small grass huts at their edges. The huts appear to be for storage, but our guide didn’t know for sure. We also saw men and women walking along with huge bundles of straw and twigs balanced on their heads. There is color everywhere, at least with the women. The ones we saw walking along with the bundles on their heads were dressed in colorful saris. The men were more or less drab, with white shirts and dark trousers.
If you have OCD, don’t go to India, it will drive you crazy. There are a lot of people moving all of the time; there are all sorts and conditions of buildings, vehicles, and living conditions; animals wander the street casually and people adapt to that; finally, there is a lot of clutter. We humans have created plastic materials will never go away, and that accumulates. I saw kids kicking a block of white packing foam like a soccer ball, which broke down into smaller pieces until they were too small to play with and just scattered in the breeze. Sometimes I could see pieces of paper scattered on the ground, sometimes in piles, and sometimes mixed in with other debris, like plastic cups or old rags.
I’m not condemning India as a dirty place, there are many reasons why this clutter exists. Our guide explained one of them. There used to be a caste called the Untouchables. They and some of the other lower castes did the scut work nobody else would do. However, since the caste system is now supposed to be illegal, the upper castes still does not do the cleanup, and what used to be the lower castes say the mess isn’t theirs, so why should they clean it up.
There were tents or huts made out of tarps and surrounded by bare dirt. People squatted down beside small fires in front of the tarp huts, but even so, we frequently saw them look up at our bus and smile and wave. I found that amazing – here were people with nothing, waving and smiling at people who were comparatively wealthy.
I tried to think of a term for what I was seeing. The first thing I came up with was orchestrated chaos, but that didn’t work, so I tried a few variations on the idea, and finally decided the best I could do was cooperative chaos. If no one was cooperating, the whole thing – traffic, people living in all sorts of places and conditions, hawkers, beggars, wealth surrounded by poverty – would come crashing down. The traffic was the best example of cooperative chaos. I mentioned before that sometimes people drove against traffic, and that sometimes traffic included animal drawn carts, pedicabs, and those iconic vehicles, the Tuk-Tuks. Without cooperation, there would be hundreds of traffic deaths every day, but we only saw a couple of accidents during our whole stay, and they were trucks that ran into construction barriers.
Tuk-Tuks are funny things. They are technically auto rickshaws, and look like the old three wheeled mail trucks the Postal Service used years ago. They should hold two or three people beside the driver, but I saw one where three men were hanging on to the back, and one was sitting beside the driver, inside the door, with one leg outside the vehicle. Tuk-Tuks can be simple green and tan things, or they can be kinetic works of art. Usually, they were highly decorated.
Now, to get back to the trip, we arrived in Jaipur late in the day. We went directly to the Fern hotel, which advertises itself as an ecological friendly green hotel. I was never clear on why this was, but took it on faith. It was a pretty place with a multi-story atrium. When we got to the hotel, we had to pass through a portal, sort of like a metal detector, to get inside. This was interesting, since we ran across it again later on and found that we could just walk past it and nobody would tell us to go back and go through the detector.
Once we were inside the hotel, a bellhop gave us small glasses of fruit juice and sent us to a sitting area. There was a man who played an instrument like a grand hammered dulcimer, and entertained us while the front desk registered our passports. The place was very nice and seemed like it had not been open that long. We stayed here for two nights.
Everything in the room operates on the keycard, which you put into a unit on the wall near the door. When you leave the room, you have a couple of minutes before everything shuts down. This gets interesting if you forget about it and go back inside the room to get something after you have pulled the card. I forgot my wallet when we headed down for dinner, and got caught in the dark while looking for it.
The sun rose through a haze this morning. One wall of the dining room was glass, so we could see across the city as we had breakfast. Across the street, there was another luxury hotel under construction, surrounded by the tall scaffolds made of giant bamboo, all held together by thick strips of bamboo. I have a hard time climbing on metal scaffolds with metal clamps holding each bar in place, I can’t imagine climbing up several stories on a scaffold lashed together with just more bamboo.
Beyond the new hotel is a small village of tarp huts, and I am again struck by the contrast. We are sitting high up here with all sorts of luxury, while down below they are living in tarp huts. I guess this was a metaphor for what we will see all throughout India: graceful old buildings, luxurious new buildings, all cheek to jowl with poverty.
When we went out to our bus this morning, there were children begging. Again, we passed some money along to the tour guide so he could give it to the kids. One of the other tourists on the bus took a picture of the children and they all immediately struck poses. Even little beggars can be hams.
As we drove to our destination, we saw motor scooters everywhere. Scooters are inexpensive to operate and are maneuverable in the very congested traffic. Men rode some of the scooters, while some of them also included a woman in a sari, riding sidesaddle. There were also Muslim women riding scooters, their heads covered in black scarves. Traffic was horrendous as usual, with the usual honking going on. In other words, it was cooperative chaos.
We passed a large artificial lake with a palace on an island in the middle of the water. Our guide said that one of the rulers had the palace and the lake built, but there were too many mosquitos there, and the water smelled bad, so they don’t use the palace anymore. I suppose there might be a way to drain the lake, but I didn’t ask.
We went to the Naharagarh Fort that overlooks the city. This fort is part of a strong defensive ring of walls around the city built in the 16th century, and sits on the summit of the ridge above the city. There are walls extended over the surrounding hills, fortifications that connected this fort to Jaigarh, another the fort of the ruling Kachhawa clan of Amber. All these sit above what was the capital before they built the present day Jaipur and moved there. The walls followed an irregular line around the hilltops and looked like some of the pictures I’ve seen of the Great Wall of China.
We were supposed to go up the hillside on elephants, but there was a store nearby that had double A batteries. Hot dog! I jumped over and tried to buy the batteries, but ran into a haggling session. Our guide told us not to pay more than 200 rupees for anything. The shop owner told me he would sell the batteries for 700 rupees. Ten rupees were the equivalent of eighteen cents, so I would have paid $12.60 for the four batteries. I’m not the fastest guy with math, but using all my fingers, I figured it was more than I would have paid back home, so I said no, even though I was desperate for batteries. I told him 200 rupees and no more. He said he could not sell them at that price, so I walked out of the store. Just as I got to the sidewalk, however, he came out and said he could sell them to me for 300 rupees. I told him I would give him 200, and we finally settled. The 300 would have been closer to what I paid in the States, but I had to stick to my guns.
All the haggling with the merchant almost cost us an elephant ride. When we got back to the loading area, our entire group and our guide were gone. It looked like we would have to buy tickets to ride, and then wait at the back of the line. However, we had cleverly put our orange buttons on our shirts. The man in charge saw them and said that our group was already at the fort, but since he knew our guide, he put us on the next elephant. Even so, there were people who tried to push in front of us to get on board an elephant
The elephants all had freckled faces, and some of them had decorations drawn on their foreheads. Their drivers were small men, dressed in dark clothing and turbans. The riding platform of the elephant reminded me of an old iron framed bedstead. We half sat and half reclined on the platform. Riding an elephant is just about what you would expect. These things can move fast when they want to, but ours was in no hurry to get to the top of the hill. Fortunately, neither Patsy nor I get sea sick, but if we were so inclined, this would have been a great opportunity. The elephant rocked back and forth, while also adding a forward tilt to the whole process. There were souvenir hawkers all along the trail, shouting out their wares. Patsy said something about dineros, and the hawkers immediately switched to Spanish. These people were versatile… I couldn’t have done it.
When we got to the fort, we rejoined our group and walked around this beautiful place. We looked down on another palace below, surrounded by another lake. There was a formal garden next to it, with what looked like places to sit and contemplate the scene. I guess the lake here was not as bad as the first one, since this palace seemed to be in use. All in all, the scene was lovely.
On our way back down the hill, we rode in jeeps. While we were loading into the jeeps, a woman with only one arm but no hand came up and laid the stump on my arm while she begged for something. I only hoped our guide still had some money left to give out, because this was pitiful. I made sure to give him more later on.
Before lunch, we stopped at a fabric shop where the owner told us about how they did block printing. While he talked, there was a man, probably about a hundred and fifty years old, printing an intricate pattern on a very long piece of cloth. He moved quickly and surely, so maybe he wasn’t all that old, but he sure looked it.
The owner told all the dyes were natural, and that they would not run. After we looked around the store, Patsy bought some blue napkins, so we’ll have a chance to find out. For someone who likes fabric, this place would have been a paradise. As it was, they gave us sodas, beer, tea and samosas as we walked around. We would see this pattern repeated at every store where we stopped.
After the cloth store, we went to a local restaurant where the menu featured chopped vegetable kebobs. We had to try that because I wanted to see how you make kebobs out of chopped vegetables. As it turned out, they didn’t mean chopped so much as sliced, which made sense. We also had cheese naan… think of a thin layer of cottage cheese between two wheat tortillas, and then baked until slightly burned in places. While we ate, a young child danced for us, accompanies by a man playing on some sort of bowed string instrument.
Our next stop was at a museum where we saw an armory of old guns, swords, and knives of all sorts. A side note here: there were armed soldiers at almost everywhere we went, but they had a variety of weapons. Some soldiers carried what looked like M-16s, while a couple of others carried Kalashnikovs, and I swear one had an old Enfield rifle slung over his shoulder.
Back to the museum: there were a lot of thrust daggers called katars. Thrust daggers are short bladed weapons with bars that go along the user’s arms. The user stabs with a punch, although the daggers can slash as well. A few of them had small pistols built into them, although these were probably not very effective.
The courtyard outside the museum had four beautifully decorated gates; I was able to get pictures of them, but at this late date, I cannot remember what their theme was. I think each one featured a different bird or character and possibly represented the seasons. I hope that I will have the picture on my web-page photo galley soon and you can go there to see them.
When we got back to the hotel, I noticed there was very soft music playing. The sound was so soft it was almost subliminal. However, it kept repeating and I was finally able to figure out what it was. I believe it was “A Groovy Kind of Love,” an old Phil Collins song. Imagine that song played on a koto, the horizontal Japanese harp, and played so softly, it’s almost not there at all.
There are many smells in India, some of them unpleasant, and some not. Given all the cows, dogs, pigs, chickens, camels, donkeys, and the ever-popular elephants walking around and “dropping” where they will, unpleasant smells are unavoidable. However, there is also another scent, a mixture of wood smoke, spices, and incense present as well. It may not sound like it, but the over-all the smell of India was pleasant.
I mentioned earlier that the people here smile a lot. We encountered smiles everywhere we went, even the beggars smiled. I even have a photo of our two doormen on camera, smiling. They wore turbans with cockades and sported huge mustaches, so I wanted a picture of them, so I asked if they would mind posing. Not only did they pose, they mugged for the camera, giving me one of the funniest shots I have taken in a long time.
During the afternoon, we stopped at the observatory in Jaipur. This is a large several acres sized park full of astrological/astronomical measuring devices. The various structures measure time, distance and location of stars, and the movements of the sun, as well as positions of the stars in the Zodiac. While the rest of the place looks like some sort of kindergarten playground, we saw two very different kinds of structures: they were large bowl shaped marble basins set into the ground, one for summer and one for winter. The basins were cut with passages so an observer could climb down inside to look at lines that indicated celestial latitude and longitude. Each hemisphere also had a small marker suspended above it on wires. The markers cast a shadow on the lines cut into the marble, which fixes the celestial coordinates of the sun. The twelve signs of the Zodiac had their own tracking structures as well; apparently, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, the ruler of Jaipur and the builder of this site, did not draw a distinction between astronomy and astrology. The site is a world heritage treasure and an amazing place to visit.
After seeing the observatory, we took a ride through downtown Jaipur on a pedicabs or rickshaw. Our driver (peddler?) was a small man who looked as old as I do. The rickshaws usually had only two passengers, although I suppose that if they were small enough, three could fit in the cab. Two was about what our driver could handle. When we got up to a particularly high point in the road, all the drivers had to get off their bikes to push them uphill. I hopped out to make it easier for the driver to push the cab, and since I was out anyway, I helped to push on the other side of the handlebars.
The ride was exhilarating, nerve wracking, and scary. We were intimately involved with the traffic around us. At first, I sat with my arm behind Patsy, holding on to the outside edge of the seat, but then I thought that maybe I should pull my hand back inside the cab. Before the ride was over, I had my hand inside the cab and Patsy pulled up close to me. Not only could I have reached out and touched the side of the bus right next to us, I would have had to do so by reaching past the motorcyclist between the bus and our cab. Oh, and there was a truck on the other side of the cab as well.
At the end of our ride, we had to change lanes; our stalwart driver signaled for a merger by waiving his hand at the truck… surprisingly, it worked. It was another example of Cooperative Chaos.
When the ride was over, we walked down to a main street to meet our guide. We passed shops that looked like one-car garages, but row after row of them, all piled high with whatever they were selling. Hardware shops stood next to food places, which stood next to shops that sold plastic things, and so on. The shops selling hardware or cooking things left us alone, but once we got to the clothing and leather stores, it was different.
We met with ten of our people and our guide, Kahn. He had already spoken to a couple of people and told them he would meet us further down the street, but Patsy and I missed that information. Khan left us then and we all began walking down the street together, but the two youngest ones of our group decided to strike out on their own. I thought we would stay together because there is safety in numbers. No such luck. Sales people quickly divided us up and whisked us into leather shops and clothing stores.
Before that however, beggars had already infiltrated our small group; this time they were mothers with kids on their hips. The mothers were friendly, not pushy at all, but they wanted us to look at their pretty children and perhaps help them with a donation. It was all very low key, and gentle.
We saw the last of our group herded off into a clothing store, surrounded by salesmen, and then Patsy and I were alone in a foreign country with no one to talk to and no one to guide us. We continued to walk down the street, because we had no other plan. We felt isolated, the proverbial strangers in a strange land. All was lost until we saw our guide sitting in a chair and talking to some merchants. We were saved!
No sooner did we find our guide than others began to show up until we were all together again. Our guide told us the bus would meet us on the other side of the street, and then he left to find the driver.
Crossing the street, at least this one, could have been a blood sport. Traffic was thick and broad on both sides of the street and pedestrians seemed like fair game. The only thing that worked in our favor was there were traffic lights further down from where we were trying to cross. The lights gave a kind of pulse to the traffic, but this was India and the traffic was not consistent. When we saw a break, we all rushed over to the median, which we shared with a brown cow. When another break came, we charged over to the curb and congratulated ourselves on our safe passage.
Three elephants came up the street while we waited for the bus. They all had fancy cloths hanging down from their sides and they had designs painted on their faces. They were obviously going to some celebration. I wondered if the drivers ever showed the elephants what they looked like with their faces painted. Apparently, elephant do recognize themselves; I read an article that said they would look at their reflections and touch their own faces with their trunks when they see a mirror.
We returned to The Fern hotel with its mustachioed doormen and “A Groovy Kind of Love” musak. On the way back to the hotel, some of our fellow tourists told us about the things they had bought. We also wondered what kind of adventures the two young people were having.
We got up early to put our bags outside our door. Breakfast was the usual mixture of Indian and non-Indian food. There were masala dishes next to hot porridge, boiled eggs, and of course, the ever-popular chocolate croissants. The coffee was good, but the young man who filled our cups had a habit of ignoring us when we signaled for a refill. He was friendly, cheerful, and apparently blind when we raised our cups up for refills.
Today we would travel to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, but first we would make a couple of stops. We went to a store that sold carpets, lots of pretty carpets. The owner told us about how the craftspeople worked and what to look for in a carpet. He showed us an odd-looking curved knife that the carpet makers use to cut the individual knots when the piece is finished. As usual, there was tea and a little food to make the visit enjoyable. Several of us bought carpets that would be shipped to us back home. No carrying carpets through airport ticket lines for us.
While we were in the city traffic, there were Tuk-Tuks everywhere – sometimes it looked like they would sideswipe our bus. Often, the only way I knew the Tuk-Tuks were next to us was when they honked their horns. We heard lots of horn honking as we travelled. Of course, it wasn’t important for me to know what was going on; I wasn’t driving, but still…
I may have mentioned that most of the Tuk-Tuks were highly decorated. Some of them just had fringes around their doors, while others were brightly painted and had things fastened to them. I saw one with a guitar stuck onto it… The Tuk-Tuks added color to the already colorful scene along the road.
Speaking of colorful sights, one in particular that I liked was a woman dressed in a bright orange sari and a black motorcycle helmet, riding a turquoise colored scooter.
I occasionally saw thin flags hanging in trees, and while I didn’t see any temples or other places of worship nearby, they were probably there somewhere. Flags seemed to be the marker for a place of worship.
We paid a visit to Galta Temple, dedicated to Hanuman the Monkey God. He is the ideal devotee of Rama, who in turn is the seventh avatar of the god Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. To non-Hindus, it gets a little complicated.
There were the usual flags and so forth, but on the way from the bus parking area to the temple, we also saw piles of old clothes, plastic jewelry, and other things scattered on the ground. India has a lot of clutter, but this was more than the usual, so I asked our guide why the things were here. He told me that people would come to the temple to pray and to shed their sins. Then they would leave things on the ground that were symbolic of the sins left behind.
As one might expect, there were macaque monkeys everywhere. We could buy peanuts outside the gate to feed the monkeys. Our guide said to be careful though, because the monkeys would try to steal the nuts, and sometimes they might bite.
A large courtyard was inside the gate, and there were smaller areas reached by stairs on either side; I think they were small shrines. Each of these had brightly painted figures of gods and flowers beside the doorways, but we did not go into them. We passed through a gate that had a storeroom filled with idols and other bits of decorations, on either side of the passage. Our guide said that these were where they kept damaged idols. The idols might be broken, but they were still sacred, so they kept them here. Once a year, the caretakers cleared out the storerooms and threw all the idols and other things into the river.
There was a narrow staircase leading from the entry courtyard to the upper level of the temple. When we climbed the stairs, we found a huge pool with a beautiful Mughal style structure at the far end. A staircase led from the lower area up to the structure, where our guide said there was another pool for relieving of sins; all of the water for the pools came from a mountain stream.
The lower area was where women could wash away their sins. There Bits of clothing and jewelry were scattered around the pool. As might be expected, the upper pool was for men only, so we stayed at the lower pool.
The entry way and the lower pool was the territory for the short tailed macaques and they were everywhere, but the Mughal structure and the upper pool was the territory of the langur monkeys, their long tails drooping down over the carved facade. Langurs have brown tails that are longer than their bodies. We could see them lounging in the windows of the structure, grooming one another or chasing each other around under the carved arches.
After visiting the temple, we were back on the road to Agra. We passed through farmlands planted with fields of millet. We saw people carrying things on their heads or sometimes on their bicycles. One bike in particular, looked like a haystack with wheels.
For some reason, we got a late start leaving the hotel for our drive to Agra. We were going to see two special sites today, probably putting too much into one day, but there wasn’t much choice, the tour was only five days long and there was so much to see. By the time we got to Agra, it was late afternoon. We stopped at a palace called Fatehpur Sikri, built by Emperor Akbar in the 16th century that was once the capital city of the Mughal Empire. As usual, we had to walk through a gauntlet of merchants hawking the usual “100 rupees” tourist stuff.
Like most of the Mughal buildings we had already seen, this one was red sandstone. I have no idea where the sandstone comes from, but it has to be one heck of a source. The Mughal emperors used red sandstone the way we use concrete.
Inside the complex, we saw the famous five-story palace that looked sort of like a pagoda in that each floor was smaller than the lower one, ending in a small domed room. There was one building called Hall of Private Audience, which had a central pillar supporting a round balcony and four walkways coming from the four corners of the room. Even though Akbar was a devote Muslim, he would sit on the pillar and listen to people discussing other religions below him.
There were many other buildings worth the seeing, but we were running out of light, and the site was due to close shortly. We stopped at the outer wall and looked down on a procession of people coming back from evening worship. It was getting into dusk now, and some of the people carried candles.
When we left the site, merchants inundated us again; they were like gnats, because they wouldn’t leave us alone. Of course, they were trying to make a living, but for us it was annoying. In fact, a merchant pursued one of our fellow tourists to the point that we had to almost body-check him to make him leave her alone.
Finally, we were on the bus, headed for the hotel, and settled in from a long day’s drive. When we got up the next morning, we could see a thick forest outside the hall window and in a short distance amongst the trees was a ruin. What we could of it, the style was Mughal, red sandstone, and all the crenellations that we h ad seen in other places. There was a woman in charge of the cleaning crew, so I asked her if she knew what the ruin was. She said that she had never noticed it, and had no idea what it was. I found this interesting, because the ruin was so close to the hotel. I figured there are so many historic sites and monuments; it must be like living in a museum. This ruin must have been one of the lesser monuments.
They served our breakfast this morning in a room down a hallway, which took us past a series of shops. There was lots of pretty stuff for sale, but we still had a lot to see that day, so the shops could wait. As usual, the breakfast was a mixture of Indian and western food… I could get used to this way of eating, although I would look like a barrel or something.
We boarded the bus to go see the Taj. A wall surrounds the Taj, so you do not see it right away. We passed through a gate along with a mass of humanity. The guards checked us a couple of times along the way made sure we did not have any paint, markers, or other things that could be used to deface the monument. We thought this was odd until we saw one room filled with graffiti. Thank heavens the graffiti was not all in English, otherwise, I would have felt an enormous guilt.
After walking through the main gate, we had to go another couple of hundred feet and turn right to pass through a second gate set in the outer wall. This is where we had our first view of the Taj.
Just when you think you don’t have any “Wow” left, there is the Taj. I’m sure everyone knows this is the mausoleum of Empress Mumtaz Mahal, wife of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Empress Mahal died giving birth in 1631. The emperor had this mausoleum built out of love for her.
People crowded around us, but they did not distract us as much as they might have. There was so much beauty before us, that we were almost overwhelmed. The reflecting pools were drained for repair when we were there, but we did not miss them that much. The Taj was the attraction; the pools were just added touches.
The Taj is all white marble; verses from the Koran frame the main entry to the tomb. We could see the verses were onyx, carved and cut into the marble; the Arabic letters looked to be two or three feet long. We learned later, that the letters gradually enlarge as they climb up the face of this main entry, so they look the same size from top to bottom. There is a frieze inside this border of verses; entwined flowers, mainly red lotus, leaves, and vines formed by semi-precious stones inlaid in the marble. Although we could not see it from where we stood, there was a red teardrop at the peak of the arch over our heads, symbolizing Shah Jahan’s sorrow.
All throughout, there were friezes of flowers and vines on the walls, formed by cut stones: jasper, malachite, onyx, jade, and lapis, among other gems. The semi-precious stones fit so well into the white marble that they looked painted on rather than inlaid.
The tomb stands above a river, which meant there were some nice breezes coming up from the water. Delicate screens carved from marble let the breezes pass through the building. Good thing too, because there were so many people walking around inside, and the day was such a warm day; the temperature in the tomb could have been unbearable.
Neither Patsy nor I quite remember, but it seemed like we went through in groups. We do remember having to stand outside on the marble walk for a while. It was hot, but it also gave us more time to examine the friezes of cut stone. Part of this was because the guards were making sure we didn’t have things we could use to deface the walls. It is a pity that people feel the need to tag the walls of something as magnificent as the Taj.
After visiting the Taj, we were supposed to head back to Delhi, where we would have dinner and take our flights back to the United States. We stopped at a store that sold marble tabletops, among other things. We were able to watch two workers carving the marble, using tools that looked like old-fashioned ink pens. Sitting next to them were other workers cutting the stones for the designs. The clamps that held the bits of stone for shaping looked very much like long wooden clothespins. This was an amazing thing to watch because artists were carving their bits of stone, using hand driven sanders.
Inside the store, there were so many nice things to look at, and there were the usual samosas and drinks to consume. I think we need to adopt this sort of custom back here in the US.
On the way back to Delhi, we had a rear tire blowout that completely shredded the tread. Fortunately, we were only going about 35-45 mph, which seemed like the usual freeway speed here.
The good news was that out bus had dual rear wheels. Since only one tire blew out, and since it was the inner one, we were all safe. However, it did mean we had to stop long enough to change the tire.
The bad news was that it was the inside rear tire, and so the driver had to pull both tires to make the change. That meant a couple of hours sitting around at a sort of truck stop/gift shop/tourist attraction. The place had a fancy façade and courtyard, but inside it was more like a truck stop than a restaurant, with a big open room and long rows of tables. No matter, we had a place to sit, there was food, and we even had restrooms. There could have been worse places to stay.
I mentioned restrooms; the usual tip for using the restrooms was ten rupees. Every restroom had its attendant. No matter how clean or how messy the place was, the attendants expected ten rupees to use the facility. I suspected some of our fellow travelers were out of ten-rupee notes because of something that happened when we were ready to leave. The restroom attendant on the men’s side asked me to help him. He had a number of one-dollar bills, and he wanted to know what that was in rupees. I told him that ten rupees was the equivalent of eighteen cents, so a dollar was something like fifty-five rupees, and his eyes lit up.
Finally, we were on our way to Delhi again. We passed through the fields and saw the odd little huts we had noticed before. There were also a couple of gigantic idols off to the side of the road. These things were about the size of a three or four story building. I have no idea why they were there, other than being another worship point.
When we got to the outskirts of town, I did see that I had missed earlier is that some of the huts had sod roofs on them and I wondered why. They would be easier to keep up than the tarp roofs, and you wouldn’t have to replace them so often, but the roofs were not on tarp huts, so that didn’t seem to be the answer.
After dinner, we went to the airport for our flight back home. Patsy and I were in line, ready to go through security, when someone mentioned that they had just changed their rupees for dollars, and that they couldn’t change them on the other side of security. I went over to the money exchange, along with a Buddhist monk who needed to change his rupees also. We talked while we waited our turn in line. He was Caucasian, from New Jersey, and very much at peace with himself; in fact, the monk radiated peacefulness. He was on his way to a temple in Europe. I figured anyone from New Jersey that was this peaceful, had a lot to teach us all.
Inside the terminal, we had one last adventure. We went to one location to wait, but after an hour or so, an attendant told us our waiting area had changed. We went to an entirely different area further down the terminal. After a long, long wait, though, we were on our way back home. Again, we were on an Airbus with the seat padding worn out. Life was back to normal.
That’s pretty much our trip to India. Hope that you had a good time with the adventure. I have a new laptop computer now, so next time I can make my notes as we go along and not have to rely on a shaky memory.