"I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult." E. B. White

Friday, October 18, 2013

Our Final Days in India

Over the past two days, our last in India, Anna and I have packed as much as we possibly could into our time. Yesterday, we visited the gorgeous Taj Mahal, and today was another sightseeing adventure in New and Old Delhi.

Our friend Rahul and his cousin, Rajiv, who lives in Delhi ,went to so much effort to help us plan our trip to the Taj Mahal yesterday - and what a great day we had! Rajiv called several times throughout the day to check on us and make sure we were safe and happy. He also worked out how much we owed to the driver at the end of the evening, as our driver didn’t speak any English and we obviously don’t speak Hindi.

With our travel buddy Brian
Rajiv arranged for a driver to pick us up no later than 7:00 a.m. on Thursday to begin our journey to the Taj Mahal. Our new friend, Brian (the guy we met on Wednesday), joined us, which worked out well. He lives in Seattle with his wife and three fluffy dogs and happened to be in India for work for a week as a computer marketing something-or-other. Not only did he split the cost with us, but it was helpful to have a male around while visiting such a busy tourist area.

The drive to Agra, which is estimated at approximately three hours, only took two and half, so we arrived by 9:30 a.m. and were able to start our day early. Rahul had warned us that we would be swarmed by men offering their services as guides, so to just trust our gut and pick one who knows good photo angles at the Taj (as we call it in India).

The first guide to approach us showed us a laminated paper badge, which he easily could have made himself, and claimed to be a “government approved” guide. Of course, this meant he wanted us to pay him 2,000 rupees, when we knew very well that we would only agree pay 200 each. We’ve learned in India that every store, salesman, and guide claims to be “government approved.” I have no idea what that means or why they came up with the idea to say it, but it appears they think they can get more money out of tourists with this ridiculous line. It must work on someone. But it definitely hasn’t worked on us.

The next guy to approach us called himself Bobby. Bobby gave us the feeling that he was legitimate, so we decided to go with him because our feelings were really the only thing to base things on in this situation. Great choice! Bobby agreed to our 200 rupees per person (just over $3 US) and turned out to be an awesome guide.

Here are some of the highlights of our day with Bobby: he forced his way to the front of the line to help us buy our admission tickets; he yelled at random tourists to get out of the way so that he could take our photos without strangers in the shot; he physically shoved a guy who attempted to approach us to take a photo of/with us (we didn’t know we paid for a guide/body guard combo!); and he led us through all of the VIP entrances so that we never waited in line to see anything.

Bobby turned out to be very knowledgeable about the Taj Mahal. He taught us all about the history and reason behind its construction and showed us that every aspect of the Taj Mahal is symmetrical. He knew all of the great angles for photographs, and often instructed us to pose in the most obnoxious, touristy ways...which we did. We joked that most of the photos will never make a frame, but they will most definitely make the blog.

Our guide really was awesome. He was constantly looking out for us, taking our photos, and warning against pickpockets. He even escorted us back to our car at the end of the morning, which was not part of the deal, as there were several parking lots and tourists frequently get lost. I’m honestly not sure that we would have found our way back without him.

And yes, there was another incident with a person asking to take a picture together. This time it was a young Indian woman. Clearly this is a cultural thing of which I was unaware.

As for the Taj Mahal, it is as beautiful and breathtaking as expected. I am so glad we made the visit part of our trip.

Did you know that the woman for whom the Taj was built (the third and favorite wife of the emperor) was Persian? And apparently the chief architect was Indian-born of Persian descent. Fun fact of the day.

The beautiful Taj Mahal

Anna and me in front of the monument that leads to the Taj
The photos begin.
Me in a cheesy tourist pose at the instruction of our guide...

...and Anna falling victim to the same fate

The architecture version of "I got your nose!"

So good. Our guide knew exactly where to have us stand!

After our time at the Taj, we drove a few short minutes to the Oberoi Amarvilas, an absolutely gorgeous and glamorous hotel. Rahul had suggested we have lunch there, but the restaurant was full and we didn’t have a reservation. Instead, we sat in the ornate lobby bar and drank ice blended lemonades while staring out the picture windows at the view - the Taj Mahal. It was yet another moment when I felt like I was in a movie.

The grand entrance
Lobby bar
Enjoying the view over lemonade

View from the lobby bar patio
Of course, as we drove away I was struck by the disparity between the people inside the hotel and the people outside. Inside, everyone is rich and clean and well fed. Outside, people are poor, dirty, and living in terrible conditions. It was a very blunt display of the wealth and opportunity gap in this country.

Our drive back to Delhi was...interesting. What took only two and half hours one direction took six heading the other. We sat at almost a dead stop for two straight hours trying to get out of Agra. When we finally made it to Delhi, we got stuck in traffic again and it took an extra hour just getting through city streets. Our driver was constantly driving onto the wrong side of the road trying to go around other cars, but then he would get stuck and it would take even longer.

When we finally arrived at our hotel, our driver talked on the phone to Rajiv and told him the total cost for the trip, based on kilometers. Fortunately, both Rahul and Rajiv had instructed us to document the kilometers when we got in the car in the morning, so we quickly discovered that our driver was over-stating our journey by 100 kilometers. Rajiv was so helpful! He instructed us to pay the driver the amount he asked for, but not to tip him because he was cheating us. If the driver had a problem with it, Rajiv would explain that we would have tipped had the driver not tried to rip us off. But in the end, it wasn’t much money, we had an awesome day, and we made it back safely. And as Rahul told us, “You haven’t really experienced India until you have a crazy driver.”

This morning, our last full day in Delhi, our trusty friend Ajit picked us up from our hotel in his tuk-tuk. We had a full day of sightseeing, during which Anna and I developed a new form of photography, which we call phoTUKraphy. It is basically where I take pictures of random things as we drive by in the moving tuk-tuk.

We had the opportunity to visit Old Delhi today, which is very different to the New Delhi we’ve been seeing. Old Delhi is what I had imagined India looked like. I think it is what most Americans would picture. The streets are busy and crowded, there are as many bikes and rickshaws and cars, and there are street markets on every major road. It was quite the contrast to the newer part of the city, and I’m so glad we had the chance to see it before we go.

I will say that for as much as I have loved India, I have found the poverty to be very upsetting. Everywhere we go, I see homeless young women with babies sleeping under overpasses or squatting in piles of dirt or hovering in the center divider of the road. I see little old men and woman, looking half-starved, wasting away on the side of the street. In the taxi, children (and some adults) approach the windows and tap and scratch at them, begging for money or food. I’m not suggesting that I want to ignore these things or that I wish I hadn’t seen them, I’m just sad that these things exist at all. It is very difficult to see and understand.

As for our day, I’ll let the pictures and captions speak for themselves. There were a few more incidents of people asking to take photos with us, and one very odd interaction where a young guy asked us to take his picture by himself. Glad I have that one for the album…

With our new friend Ajit
At the end of our day, we said our sincere thanks to Ajit, and handed him a 200 percent tip. We paid him just over $20 for spending the entire day with us, driving us around, watching out for our safety, teaching us about his beautiful city, acting as a driver, guide, and restaurant recommender, and planning out every site that we visited. I feel like he deserved so much more, but he seemed genuinely thrilled with his tip and, even more so, that we were happy with his service. He asked that tell our friends and family who visit Delhi to call him if they want a ride (I have his number if you want it!), and sweetly asked if we would be so kind as to mail him the few photographs we took of him. So sweet. How lucky were we that this kind, knowledgeable man found us on the street and became our wonderful guide for all of Delhi?

Anna and I have been so blessed on this trip in India to know and have met so many great people - our friend from home Rahul, his cousin Rajiv, our new buddy Brian, and our guide and friend Ajit. The people really do make the place.

PhoTUKraphy of street vendors

Bike traffic jam, as captured through phoTUKraphy
Our first stop in Old Delhi was a large, beautiful Muslim mosque. Anna and I (and all the other women) were asked to wear these robes to fully cover up.  
I learned today that Muslims make up the second largest religious group in India, while Sikhs (much to my surprise) are only 2% of the population
Prayer rugs at the mosque
Arches inside the mosque. I love this picture because of the two tiny silhouettes 
A visit to the Red Fort, made of red sand stone
The busy streets of Old Delhi
PhoTUKraphy of a boy walking his goat to the nearby goat market
And of men at an outdoor barber shop

And children playing on a swing on the side of a busy road
House of Parliment. Nearby, we saw the President's home.
At the Indira Gandhi memorial and museum, this walkway was installed to show her final path and the last few meters she walked before being assassinated by two guards. The crystals are meant to look like a flowing river, and the glass is the place where she was shot and killed. 
At the Mahatma Gandhi memorial and museum, this monument marks the place where he was assassinated. There are stone footprints along the path leading to this monument to show his final walk. Both the Indira and Mahatma Gandhi memorials are free to the public, which I appreciate for the sake of the many Indian people who could not otherwise enjoy these lovely museums. 
A mausoleum in the lush Lodi Gardens. These giant, green, beautiful gardens are right in the middle of the busy city and are filled with strolling couples, picnicking families, and tourists. 
Another mausoleum in the park. It is believed that these structures were built in the 1400s and it is unknown who is entombed here. 
The intricate stonework is hand-carved with Arabic scripture. 

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