Month: August 2013

Taj Mahal — Even Better in Person

Taj Mahal — Even Better in Person


So, of course, the Taj is the “must see” sight in all of India — and we had both came down with food poisoning. It didn’t start out too bad — just a few stomach cramps. We weren’t too worried, and left the bird park by jeep, driving to (yet another) fort — this was in virtually pristine condition. It had been built by a maharaja in the 1500s, its location ordained by a priest. Well, he forgot one thing – there was no water anywhere near this palace in the desert. They stuck it out for 15 years, and its been abandoned ever since. Kathy felt increasingly unwell, and as we exited the fort for the drive to Agra, she realized her breakfast wasn’t going to stay down. Fortunately, as with just about everywhere in India, there was an open sewer running nearby, which she quickly moved to take advantage of.
We’ll spare you the details of the rest of the day – let’s just say we became well acquainted with the porcelain goddess in our room. Kathy was quite sure that she was going to have to miss visiting the Taj the next morning – but miraculously, she felt better enough to head out at dawn, to catch the Taj as the sun rose. Scott, who never seems to get as sick as Kathy, was feeling quite chipper.
Unlike any of the other palaces and historical sites we’d visited, there was impressive security at the Taj. You were allowed to bring nothing in except cameras, and had to twice go through metals detectors and body searches. (Apparently there had been terrorist threats against the Taj). There were probably a hundred or so people who arrived at dawn – it wasn’t crowded at all.
Entering the grounds, there was a light fog and the sun had yet to rise. The light was gray, the fog was gray, the Taj was gray. It was magical and unearthly. The pictures don’t come close to the reality — it is absolutely stunning. We spent a couple of hours, watching the the Taj turn pink as it reflected the rising sun. We were awestruck (and Scott has seen it before).
 We headed back to the hotel mid-morning. Kathy was exhausted (having not eaten for almost two days) and neither of were in top form. We slept through the afternoon, then headed off to catch the train back to Delhi. As we waited for the train to arrive, we were entertained by several urchins who apparently live at the train station. Keeping a close eye on our belongings, we blew up balloons for them to play with – they were enthralled.

Next: Change of Plans

Bharatpur — It’s for the Birds

Bharatpur — It’s for the Birds

birds

The last bus ride (hurrah!) took us to the tiny town of Bharatpur, where there is a big park for water birds. This may seem unlikely, sited as it is in the middle of the great Thar desert. But one of the maharajas found a water source and built a couple of lakes (lake-building was a standard maharaja activity). They were built to provide duck-hunting for the royals. But, as the land was turned over to the government, it turned into a National Park. Birds from as far away as Siberia spend time here – over 500 species in this small park. As one might expect, the only people to make it to this remote park, besides bus-riding Intrepid travelers, were rabid birders from Britain, with camera lenses the size of small cannons.

We spent a lovely late afternoon touring the bird park by cycle-rickshaw. It was indeed full of birds; water birds and “regular” birds. It was a delightful way to spend an afternoon, away from the noise and dirt and pollution of the cities. tigersign We wished only for a proper beverage: gin and tonic; rum ‘n Coke — as we enjoy in our favorite “Bird Island” forays down in the Florida Keys.

The hotel we stayed at was one of the nicest of the entire trip. Since there were no restaurants in the nonexistent town, we all had dinner at the hotel. And being a package-tour hotel (for Birders), dinner was served as a buffet. As a rule, one should never eat at a buffet in a country where sanitation is questionable – there are just too many opportunities for the bugs to multiply while the food sits out. But this seemed like a very nice hotel, and most of the dishes on the buffer were kept hot, except of course the dessert – a tasty cake with a thick custard frosting. Besides, we had proven ourselves hardy – almost everyone else on the trip had gotten sick at least once, but we’d been hale and hearty throughout. Mistake.

Welcome to India

Welcome to India

India Is Like No Place Else in the World

For Better and Worse.

Into India, with Trepidation

No one has ever accused India of being easy to visit. Fascinating, diverse, exotic, amazing, yes. But it has a repudation of being a difficult place to travel, between food poisoning, poverty, dirt, scams, etc. So, before we launch into the specifics of our trip, we need to first share what it’s like to travel in India. If you don’t understand this, nothing else will make much sense.

India is Like No Place Else in the World.

Now, Scott has been to India several times, travelling “business class” in the country. it was Kathy’s first time. So neither of us had really “experienced” the real India. We’ve been to many developing countries before, but as we were to repeat to ourselves many times during the trip, “India is like no place else in the world”.
Many of the first impressions of India aren’t particularly positive – and thus give an unfair slant to what is really a wonderful country – but you need to get over these things in order to truly appreciate it.

The first thing I noticed was the smoggy air – makes LA look like a cleanroom. Trucks and tuk tuks and buses all spewing out dark smelly fumes, the air with a dirty brown color. I had a bad cough by the second day – and so did many of the rest in our travel group. They’re working on the pollution – many tuk tuks and buses have been converted to LP gas. And they’ve got the city dug up for a new subway that should provide significant relief. They’ve managed to clean up Bankok’s air signficantly, maybe it will work here too.

Traffic in India is crazy, even by developing country standards. Besides the normal contingent of motor vehicles, there are cycle rickshaws, ox- and horse-drawn carts, various hand-pushed carts and wheelbarrows, people carrying loads on their back, market vendors overflowing the sidewalks into the street. Oh, I forgot to mention the cows. Yes, there really are cows everywhere, and they are perfectly content to find a sunny spot in the middle of a street and park themselves there, forcing traffic to divert around them. Sounds hectic, right? Now, imagine that the only traffic rule is that you can go as fast as you want, on whatever part of the road you want, as long as you honk to let people know you’re coming. In case of ties, the larger vehicle gets right of way. After several terrifying trips through the streets of Delhi, you realize that in fact this chaotic bedlam actually does have an underlying system to it that allows things to move along effectively, if you don’t die of fright on the way.

India is full of people. A billion plus of them. And they are everywhere – the sidewalks are full of people, the streets are full of people, the markets are full of people, the buses are full of people. People in western dress, women in saris, men in dhotis (the loose cotton loincloth like Gandhi wore), Sikhs in turbans, urchins in rags, tribal women with armlengths of bangles, businessmen in suits. Everything is crowded, everything is extotic. .
Everything is dirty – the buildings have layers of grime and pollution streaked down their fronts, seemingly never painted or washed. The streets are full of litter and spittle and cow patties. Men urinate against any handy wall. Open sewage gutters line the sides of most streets. The markets stalls are layered with dirt. There is grime everywhere; you come back to the hotel with dirty hands and feet and clothes. You need to endlessly wash your hands.

Scams and pressure to give up your money are everywhere. Newcomers are viewed like raw meat – charged 5x the going rate for a taxi, diverted to a different hotel rangued women and children continually and from all sides by people wanting to sell you something, talk with you about something, take you somewhere, providewhere the driver gets a commission, stopped during a tour at a rug store to buy (commission-inflated) carpets. Walking down the street, one is ha some service. All are loud and very persistant. Whatever it is, you are sure to be taken advantage of – maybe by a lot, maybe by a little. And then there are the beggars who trail after you like ducklings to a mother duck, asking for baksheesh. To the left, Scott is accosted by two shoeshine terrorists and a vendor, with another vendor dashing up from behind.
In a country with so many people and so little money, many things one takes for granted just don’t work. Expect hot water when you turn on the tap? Maybe, or maybe cold water, or maybe no water at all. Electricity is problematical. There are few women’s restrooms of any sort (women should be at home). Food safety is always suspect.
OK, so now put this all together – walking through choking air down a littered, grimy street with crazy traffic richocheting through the streets, horns blaring at 90+ decibles,and being assualted by an onslaught of humanity every step you take. You can see why India might make a bad first impression on some people.

What the Real India Experience is Like

Now, there are a couple of ways to deal with this. An approach preferred by many is to create a little first world bubble where ever they go – stay in international hotels with generators and backup water supplies and order beef hamburgers from room service. Take expensive a/c private cars to see the sights, returning at the end of the day for a dip in the hotel pool, a nice glass of French wine, and pick up some classy souvenirs at the gift shop. It’s easy, it’s comfortable, you see wonderful things, you get around most of the hassles listed above – but you miss 95% of what India is all about.

This isn’t the way we traveled.

The second approach is to jump right in and experience the country, traveling as a middle-class Indian might – on the trains and cycle rickshaws, staying in the guest houses, eating at the local restaurants. It’s an amazing kaleidoscope of a country – more like dozens of countries – with an amazing history still visible in the temples and palaces and forts from the last 1000 years. People are universally warm and friendly, even when they’re out to scam you – you’re a rich tourist, it’s part of the gig, you know it and they know it and you don’t really get scammed very much after the first few days. Traffic and everything else is chaotic, but the system is adapted to make do and work around the chaos. We were told many times during the trip, “In India, anything is possible” – and it almost always is. It’s fascinating, diverse, and very very inexpensive. The food is plentiful and tasty. It is a religious, family-oriented, non-materialistic, and generally very conservative country. People don’t have much, but most have the basics – food, water, shelter, education, access to basic medical care. If you can let yourself get over the noise and dirt and chaos , India is fabulous and truly like no place else in the world.

Next: A few days in Delhi before the Intrepid Rajasthan Tour