I went out with some friends of friends and found out that I actually have a reader or two in the blogosphere. This is for the people out there whose names start with C.
(I just finished reading "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" by Lynne Truss. It's an entire book on punctuation, how to use it and how it's not being used. In light of this recent reading, you'll probably be seeing a few more apostrophes, semicolons, colons, commas, dashes, hyphens, parentheses and even periods than you're usually used to. Trust me, though: you'll feel a lot better when it's all over. Additionally, I do not promise to use this punctuation correctly as it was a long book and I can't go remembering the whole thing off the top of my head. I also can't figure out how to do a dash on the Windows laptop that I'm using (I do know that it's an Apple Symbol and the hyphen on my Mac).)
Now then, where was I? Ah yes; we had just finished day two, which was our first real sight-seeing day in Delhi. Our third day in the Western hemisphere, R and I went to see the Taj Mahal in Agra. I was up at the crack of 6 to get ready for the 2½ hour train ride from Delhi to Agra. Our train was at 9:10 and the ride to the station was about half an hour by cab. Our hotel was right near the New Delhi train station, but this train left from the Hazrat Nizamuddin station, which was much further downtown.her bench, but was very proud of the fact that she had figured out that it was our train that was sitting in front of us the whole time. [clap clap clap]
We found our car about 50 yards down and climbed aboard. We were seated across from an Indian family: mom, dad and son. After a half hour of awkward silence, mom broke out some food and gave us a plate. Thereupon we found some pickled whatnot; some stuff that resembled those Chinese potato chips that you put in Won Ton soup, but thinner; some Almond cake; Naan; rice; and something else that I can't recall. All of these things were absolutely delicious and were described to us by the family as being "very typical Indian food." I like to think that they were impressed with my enjoyment of the spicy-pickled-whatnot. All of this eating sparked conversation. Earlier in the ride I'd noticed that both dad and son were reading an English newspaper and it turned out they both spoke excellent English. During the train ride we learned that the son was in IT, like me, but worked more with networks; we got the chance to compare some acronyms: him with his TCP/IP and me with my SQL. They were on their way to a wedding in the town after Agra, which made us feel more comfortable since it meant they could tell us when to get off the train.
Per the Lonely Planet guidebook, Agra is a disgusting hell-hole (I'm using a tad of poetic license in my paraphrasing there). I'll say this: the town didn't fail to live up to its description. Being a stupid tourist, I had assumed that the Taj Mahal was an idyllic place sitting out in a field somewhere right outside the train station two hours south of Delhi. This isn't an entirely ridiculous thought, given that a lot of the castles I've been to in France are surrounded only by forests rather than honking taxis, rickshaws, peddlers, panhandlers, swindlers and cows. But then, the Taj Mahal isn't a castle. The Taj is a mausoleum built for the 3rd wife of Shah Jahan (8th of the Mughal emperors, if I count correctly). The Shah's wife died giving birth to their 14th child and he built the Taj to house her body. Agra was once the capital of the Mughal empire, but has since become more of the hell-hole described by guidebooks. I suppose it's not really fair to judge a city this way having only seen its train station, main tourist attraction and the roads in between, but I feel that, in this case, I have literary sources to back up my criticisms.
The train station in Agra is about 20 minutes away from the Taj Mahal itself and a cab ride to get there seemed like the best way to go. No sooner had our shining white selves stepped off the train than we were surrounded by offers for such. Guidebooks had warned us about accepting rides from just anybody - a common practice being to take tourists to predetermined sites other than their actual destination to try to get them to buy nick-nacks, trinkets, tchotchkes, bobbles, etc. While the book did explain that these detours weren't all bad, we only had one day to see the city and weren't interested in being swindled. To help reduce the possibility of detours, when we got to an actual taxi stand R spun a yarn about us being with a group that we were supposed to meet at the Taj Mahal in 10 minutes. They threw a curveball about there being three gates at the Taj: East, West and South and asked at which one we were meeting them. I pulled out my secret weapon (the Blackberry) and made a fake phone call to confirm that, yes. It was, in fact, the West gate.
This may not have been the best choice. Our cab driver dropped us off on a circle and pointed across to an arch with a road behind it leading up to the Western gate. Crossing the circle itself took some courage, but once you get over the fact that there are cars, trucks, cows, buses, cabs and bicycles sharing the road with you, you realize that there are plenty of other people walking around in the street as well.
The road leading up to the Western gate was closed to street traffic after the arch, but allowed for plenty of hocking of wares and offers of rickshaw rides up to the gate. There was a long line of bicycle rickshaws just after the archway with most of their drivers sleeping in the sun while laying on the back seats of their rides. As we came through, a kid who couldn't have been more than 10 rode up along-side us and started trying to get us to take a ride. We knew it was only half a kilometer to the gate, so didn't plan on taking him up the offer, but he followed us almost all the way to the end (just before a big hill that he would have had to go back up) and went from offers of Rs. 20/- ($0.50) to Rs. 5/- ($0.10) by the time he gave up.
The fee for entering the grounds of the Taj Mahal is Rs. 750/- for foreigners and something like Rs. 50/- for Indians. Rs. 750/- is about $17 - which isn't too shabby considering that you're seeing one of the most beautiful buildings in the world and the entrance fee included a bottle of water, free shoe covers and a locker rental. The entrance fee for residents didn't include any of this great stuff. As we were buying our tickets we were surrounded on all sides by potential "guides" vying for our attention. One particularly young skinny kid stood out and shoved a badge in our faces proving his status as a "real guide". The picture was such a cheezy glamor-shot that we had to let him show us around. We talked him down from Rs. 150/- to Rs. 100/- ($2.50) for the tour and he immediately had us follow him to the security line where he started pushing everyone in front of us out of the way.
R and I both failed the screening on our first go around. Actually, R failed first, due to having some chocolate and an ipod in her purse, and I gave up after seeing her fail. There are separate security lines for men and women at most places in India and the ladies always goes more quickly because most women don't leave the house.
Our child-guide was very helpful in telling us what stuff in our bags wouldn't be allowed in. Apparently Cliff bars are a no-no, cell phones are a no-no, and iPods are a no-no. Video cameras are OK until you're within about 200 metres of the Taj and regular cameras are OK as long as you're outside the actual burial chamber (which is, in fact, a replica of the real burial chamber because too many people where slipping and falling downa flight of white marble stairs.
The kid who convinced us to let him guide us around had obviously been doing this for quite some time. His whole tour was very routine, but still perfectly informative. He showed us the inlaying of black marble on white on the outside of the structure, explained that the buidlings on either side of the Taj itself were Mosques and showed us the writing of the Quran all over the building. He explained that the four towers or the Taj leaned outwards so that if they ever fell, they would hurt the main building. He also pointed across the river to the site where legend says the emporer planned to build a black marble duplicate of the Taj for his own body.
Like many of the sites in India, there's a strict no shoe policy once you're up on the main level of the Taj. Thanks to the handout of free shoe booties, most foreigners up on top are wearing silly shoe covers and most of the local visitors are standing about in socks. What a great way to single ourselves out. By the end of our trip, I was down with just wearing socks and shoving whatever shoes we had on into my bag.
It's impossible (not just difficult) to talk about the Taj Mahal in words. It really is the most beautiful structure I've ever seen. If I could recommend seeing something in another country, this would be it. Fly into Agra, stay at the Sheraton, see the Taj, go home.
After having the innards of the Taj explained to us by our guide, we took off our booties and sat on a bench while we waited for him to get his shoes back from a locker. When he returned we sent him packing with his Rs. 100/- and sat around in the different gardens that surround the building taking pictures and trying to pick other Western tourists out of the lines of people walking up to the Taj (I counted eight)
Given that it was 114 degrees, we got a little warm and decided that it would be best to leave. Our train back to Delhi wasn't until 6:10pm, so we had about four hours to kill. On the walk back along the road to the circle where we'd been dropped off, we encountered the same rickshaw driving kid who'd followed us on the way in. This time he knew he wasn't going to get anything out of us, so he only tried for a few minutes before giving up and deciding to insult me instead by calling me a lady ("Sir, are you a 'Sir' or a 'Miss'"). I called the kid a Miss back and R scolded me for sinking to his level. It was fantastic.
After seeing the state of affairs between the train station and the gate of the Taj, we weren't about to try to look at some more tourist attractions within the city. Instead, I suggested that we take a vacation from our vacation and go to eat lunch at the Sheraton. At this point, we were both a bit frazzled from culture shock, hot from the sun and ready to experience a touch Westerness. We hopped in a tuk-tuk and had them take us down the road to the hotel. We were dropped off on the street outside of the compound and walked the 1/4km to the front. No one even looked twice as we walked past the five-or-so guards to enter the main lobby. Walking through the doors was just like walking back into the US. Everything was completely westernized; they'd even managed to make the place smell like home. R and I set upon the lobby restrooms immediately. I felt bad washing my face and looking bedraggled in front of the bathroom attendant, but then I feel bad in front of bathroom attendants in the states, too.
The bar area had been set up for the world cup, which was in the Semi-Final rounds. After using the restrooms, we plopped ourselves down in the lounge/bar area and each drew in a deep relaxing breath. It was still pretty early in the day, so we had to satisfy our eyes with news about upcoming matches and senior tour golf (Yes. They show Senior PGA in India. Terrible, I know.).
I was a little surprised to find a complety Western bar menu featuring hamburgers of all things. We decided not to go overboard and stuck to veggie burgers and Indian beer. After lunch, we still had some time to kill and took walk around the grounds of the hotel. Later, we got the doorman (who was in full Maharaja garb) to hail us a Tuk-Tuk and got a ride back to the Agra train station.
Arriving around 5:30pm and our train being at 8:10pm, we waited around a bit in the main terminal where the unreserved ticket counters and the big board showing the track nubmers were located. Once the clock hit 5:45pm and our train number still hadn't come up with track listing, we decided to ask an authority figure about its status. FYI - Authority figures in India wear glasses. Period.
R and I went up to a man sitting at the entrance to the first platform to show him our tickets - which had been purchased through the travel agency that we used.
Per usual, he grabbed the ticket out of R's hand and held it close to his nose. After looking at it for a few seconds (during which time a crowd had gathered to watch the plight of the white), he handed it to a man with glasses. This man looked at it for a few moments and then made a "shooing" motion with his hand.
I inquired as to what this meant by immitating him and shrugging my shoulders.
"Your train has already left," he explained.
"Oh," I said.
We asked him about the options that we had, given that our ticket was for a train that had already departed. I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but India has a repuation for beauracracy and the filling out of forms; after listing to him explain our options, I started to understand the reasoning behind this reputation. Much like my experiences with the DMV, I was informed that we would need to go to a separate booking office around the corner, fill out a cancellation form, take the form to a refund line, get a refund, go to a reserved ticket line and then buy a new ticket for the Delhi<->Agra Express departing at 7:30.
After waiting in the refund line for 10 minutes and starting to get worried about time, I decided to just give up on getting a refund and spring for the two $7.50 tickets back to Delhi instead. We gave our old ticket and the refund form to a girl who was hanging around and told her that she could exchange it for us.
After we got back on the platform, we met an English kid who was backpacking around the country before attending his hippie-sister's wedding in Goa. Somewhere in our conversation we mentioned having seen a monkey on the roof of the building across from our hotel. He proceeded to tell us about his friend's mother who was mauled and killed by a monkey while on holiday. This is when we decided to definitely avoid the roof in the future.
Just as our train pulled, the girl who we'd given the old ticket and refund form to showed up and had a man with her explain that she needed to get our first names on the form to get the money. We quickly wrote our names and then managed to guess the right direction that our train car would be in. (There is an extremely limited number of staff when the train pulls in and no one available to direct you where to go, so finding your car is a matter of picking a direction and then walking the length of the train to look at the car numbers on the side. There are also passenger lists for reserved seats that are printed out on that old school dot-matrix printing paper with the perforated paper things that you can peel off and bending into an useless paper string. I wish now that I'd gotten a picture of our names on the side of the train to Delhi from Agra and I really hope that that girl got the money for our cancelled ticket.
The train from Agra to Delhi was disgusting. The journey gave me my first experience with insects on public transportation. I'm used to the occasional rat or mouse in the metros; DC even has its share of cockroaches on the streets; but nothing could have prepared me for watching cockroaches crawling in and out of the seat cushions and curtains the entire three hour ride from Agra to Delhi. This wasn't something normal. All of the locals sitting around us were just as disturbed by our six-legged friends running around. Several of them even pointed out the ironic sign at the front of the car listing "To Maintain an Excellent Level of Cleanliness and Comfort." among the train company's objectives. The bugs started getting braver and braver as the trip went on. They would dissappear at station stops and reappear in higher numbers with newfound bravado when the train started moving again. Everyone was very neighborly and we all took turns watching eachother and brushing the bugs off. I brushed one off my neighbor and he brushed one off me. He also brushed one off of himself which landed on my shoe and I then kicked a row up and into the door. Altogether it was a bonding experience that I would easily rather not have had.
Back at Hazrat Nizamuddin, we refused cabs from anyone else and gave our man Durga a call on the BlackBerry. He had a guy there in 20 minutes and we were on our way back to the hotel room to get there around 11pm and be back up at 6:30am to get our train north to Shimla.
I promise Part Trois will be done this week.