Monday, 30 October 2017

Less Agro, More Agra

We departed Delhi early in the morning, catching an Ola taxi to the train station. Or as close to the train station as our driver could get. The crush of people, tuk tuks, roaming animals and other vehicles became more dense the closer we got, and we gradually ground to a complete halt. The final couple of hundred metres were on foot, pushing squeezing and banging past the many obstructions on our way to the station entrance. Once there, we queued up to go through security.

Security is a funny thing in India. I have never been herded through so many metal detectors in my life. Not just at airports, but at train stations, metro stations, theme parks, hotels and most tourist sights of any notable size. At transport hubs and some of the hotels, the security personnel meant it. Bags were x-rayed, people were shuffled through detectors and a secondary line of guards used their magic wands to probe and poke customers just to make sure. But at most places, security just for show. A pretense. Crowds were pushed through metal detectors, each person making the machine bing loudly. And not once would the guy on duty open his eyes and look up.

Once in the train station, life was more bearable. The stairways and platforms were crowded, but without the life-threatening crush we experienced outside. It was easy to find our train. Although even without the signage, we’d have successfully guessed where we should be – there’s a veritable gaggle of western tourists waiting to board the Gatimaan Express to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Follow any pair of confidently strutting white legs and you’d be fine.

The train is something of a flagship for Indian Railways, offering a speedy sub 2 hour service to Agra with, in one or two carriages at least, hot food served at table. It was a comfortable ride, the meal was reasonable, if a little bit ‘airline style’, fare. The scenery was drab. Mile after mile of seemingly half finished, single-storey concrete and tin blocks as we went through Delhi’s suburbs. A small break in the urban monotony when a few fields broke into view. Then back to the shanty towns following the line into Agra’s suburbs. But I watched the people living their lives along the route with fascination. Some walking along the tracks. Some sitting by the edge of the line. Others getting on with their day in their yards. All of them baking in the 30 degree plus morning sun.

I listed most of the sights in Delhi that we visited, with one glaring ommision. The Red Fort. My reasoning is simple enough. There are so many forts in India that you’ll quickly suffer ‘fort-fatigue’, unless you have some very deep seated interest in them. It’s best to pick a few of the best and utilise your limited time elsewhere when you can. Agra Fort is similar in many ways to Delhi’s Red Fort. But it is so much easier to get to,  much better maintained,  much more interesting to wander round. And it has fabulous views of the Taj Mahal across the river. Visit Agra’s fort. Give Delhi’s fort the elbow.

I’d decided one night would be enough for Agra. I got it bang on. Agra Fort in the evening, Taj Mahal the next morning, then move on. We also stayed at one of the more luxurious hotels that I’d booked on this trip, safely walled in from the monstrous city outside. We swam in the pristine pool, sunbathed next to the green, manicured lawns and feasted on a delicious, albeit pricey, all-you-can eat buffet.

We slept like a king and queen, in a bed that would have satisfied an emperor and a chunk of his harem. This was all fitting preparation for the next morning, when we woke and rose well before we’d have liked to. But we had a mission. The biggest ‘must see’ on any Indian visitors list. That most famous of monuments to the art of love, designed by a king for his most beloved queen, the Taj Mahal.

What can I say about the Taj Mahal? Or at least, what can I say that hasn’t been said countless times before? How do I summarise my thoughts as I approached one of the official New Wonders of the World? Let me try.

‘It’s quite busy here for six in the morning isn’t it?’ ‘Yes. honey. I think that must be the queue.’ ‘Watch you step there honey.’ ‘I really hope this is the right queue.’ ‘Jesus. In the world of cow pats, that is definitely their Hiroshima.’ ‘There she is! Through that arch!’ ‘My, it is quite busy.’ ‘No honey, I don’t think that’s an early morning mist.’ ‘Look, there’s Diana’s seat! And quite a lot of people pretending to be Diana.’ ‘Yes, honey. I’m pretty sure it’s pollution.’ ‘Still, it’s damned impressive isn’t it.’ ‘Let’s take a selfie here. Please try and not look like you’re still jet lagged and about to nod off at any moment.’ ‘Goddamit, I look like death.’

But in truth, it’s the many long, silent moments that are spent gazing at the Taj Mahal that tell the real story. Yes, it is busy. But it’s not so overrun with tourists to spoil the occasion. And enough of us were sharing those long silent moments of wonder to ensure a reasonably tranquil environment was maintained. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you’ve seen or how many videos you’ve watched. Seeing the Taj Mahal up close and personal, in the flesh, marble to retina – that’s why you come here. It’s these moments that make the suffering of travel all worthwhile.
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Saturday, 28 October 2017

Destiny Delhi

Imagine London 50 years from now, baking in a sweltering, climate-change-induced 40 degrees centigrade. With a population exceeding 40 million, social order has largely broken down. The people have been granted their wish and largely govern themselves. It hasn’t worked out terribly well and chaos reigns across this once great metropolis. Icons of it’s illustrious past – Westminster, St Pauls Cathedral, Tower Bridge – still stand. Faded, coated in soot, enveloped in an all consuming cloud of red, earthern dust churned up by hundreds of thousands of insanely decorated and customised vehicles of every type you could think of. It’s a scene reminiscent of a Mad Max movie. There’s a maelstrom of human activity around them, but few people take the time to look at these forlorn reminders of an age gone by. Time is too short and life too busy.

Alternatively, let your imagination rest and instead travel to Delhi today. A veritable feast of chaos, served with a side dish of calamity and liberally sprinkled with a heady and sometimes overpowering pinch of insanity. A thriving vista of apocolyptic urban mayhem awaits you.  Charge past the glorious monuments of the British Raj in your chauffeured tuk tuk, come tourist guide. The India Gate, Parliament and train station survive as testament to one of many foreign powers that have made India its home over the centuries.

Each one leaving its mark, but they were ultimately only temporary interruptions as the peoples of this giant country continue on, assimilating what is beneficial, discarding what is not. But there is order in this chaos. There is some divine force making things work in spite of it all. Everything we found in Delhi seemed to be on the brink of disaster, but the city’s inhabitants seem to have mastered the art of survival. It’s a miracle anything functions. That virtually everything, somehow, functions – well that tops even the Taj Mahal in the list of the wonders of the world.

There must be something masochistic within most of us that makes being consumed by all that chaos a fascinating and enthralling experience. But we could take only so much before we needed some respite. And we found several tranquil oases to rest our senses and recuperate. The first was Lodi Gardens, a large and green park in the south of the city, containing several tombs and a mosque. Delhi, despite the clouds of dust, is surprisingly green. And the parks, with their walls separating them from the hurly burly of life outside, are greener still. We enjoyed a long walk, climbing up, into and over the monuments and ruins. We were kept company by chipmunks, which ran amok everywhere we went. Liberated from the constant cacophany of combustion engines, we could even hear some birdsong. And we especially enjoyed an ice cream from a vendor on our way out.

The Lotus Temple provided another refuge from the hubbub of life. Like many things in India, it’s best viewed from a distance. Not, on this occasion, because of the litter. But because the mystical magificence of the temple is diminished somewhat when viewed up close. It ceases to be a beautiful lotus flower and turns into a shapeless assembley of concrete blocks. The scale of the structure remains impressive though. The interior is no Catholic festival of brightly coloured icons and gold leafed emblems, but has a more Protestant sparcity about it. Still, we sat for a short service, under the watchful eye of the Prayer Police who are ready to pounce on any infidel daring to try and leave before it has ended. 

We were well behaved. And appreciative of being able to sit and rest a while. I also enjoyed reading some of the religion’s favourite phrases. Most of them made reasonable sense. Two of them caught my eye. The first concerned harmony between religion and science, asserting that a belief that runs contradictory to science is nothing more than susperstition. Quite so. The second suggested that if one cannot educate all your children, educate the daughters. For they will become mothers and will educate the next generation. A noble sentiment, bursting with logic. Yet I’m not sure this works somewhere as misogynistic as India’s. Indeed, poorly educated men who utterly dominate society seems to me to be one of the key problems that the country faces. Indians ask/wonder why China has left them so far behind. I’m inclined to believe that a significant part of the answer lies in how each country views its womenfolk.

Onwards we marched, for there are more temples and tombs to be seen. Next stop, the resting place of Humayun. Pointless fact – Joanna Lumley’s father proposed to her mother at this tomb. It is a grand looking place, so why not? Humayun’s Tomb, along with Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, stood out amongst the many sights we visited. For they are well maintained, rather than falling into ever more desperate states of disrepair. It’s a popular destination, but still retains an acceptable level of quiet. The views from atop the structure are worth the sweaty climb in the soaring midday heat. 

One must return to face the throng of the outside world eventually though. So we tuk-tuk’d over to Connaught Place. You can picture these grand white buildings in their heyday during the British Raj. If they’d been kept in tip top shape, they wouldn’t look out of place in a swanky part of London. But they haven’t and their heyday was clearly a century or more ago. Still, this is where the most extreme examples of India’s economy clash. The lame, the limbless, the hopeless gather outside stores selling the world’s leading fashion brands to Delhi’s nouveau riche. The hungry, with their rags barely hiding their exposed rib cages, beg for morsels outside some of the trendiest restaurants. And a Nandos. A Nandos in the heart of Delhi – who knew?

Unsettled by the shocking economic disparity, we settled for a thirst quenching frappe at Starbucks and moved on. Gurudwara Bangla Sahib is the number one Sikh temple to stop off at. Inside is a square pool of water, apparently fed by a well and popular with adherents of the faith because of its healing properties. I imagine that the most popular requests are for new lungs and sinuses. We enjoyed the scene greatly, walking barefoot around the marbled temple and pool. But onwards. Time is short. Green Park was our next destination. Whilst not quite as upper class as it’s London equivalent, it hosts a stretch of high street which just about resembles what you might find in the west. We ate delicious dosas in a nice restaurant there and relaxed a while in semi-familiar surroundings.

If you are travelling with a lady, as I was, then you will almost certainly nned to do some clothes shopping. We were guided to Sarojini Nagar market by the owner of our homestay. It was excellent advice, and Mrs P spent two hours examining dresses, fabrics, scarves and pants in numerous outlets and haggling acceptable prices. I spent two hours whining that I wanted to go back to our homestay. But I accept that it was a very grand market by any standard you wished to compare against.

Our time in Delhi was done. Truth be told, we were done. We’ve since watched Sue Perkins series ‘Ganges’ on the BBC. She spent two weeks in Varanassi, which quite frankly looks like Delhi x ten. She got to the stage where she just couldn’t take it anymore. She loved the people she met and valued the experience, but she really needed to move on. We understand her sentiments entirely. We’d had over two days in Delhi, but it was time to find a new Indian adventure.
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Wednesday, 25 October 2017

An Indian Odyssey

We’ve been back from our trip to India for more than a week. Seven days to gather my thoughts and put them into appropriately organised bits and bytes on my blog for you to read. But where does one even begin? India is a truly extraordinary place. Specifically, Delhi. Agra, Ranthambore, Jaipur and Udaipur – the destinations we visited. Words cannot do them justice. But I will try. Perhaps a little brainstorming would help, to try and come up with the right adjectives?

India is vibrant. Bright. Polluted. Colourful. Noisy. Tranquil. Misogynistic. Welcoming. Cruel. Alive. Depressing. Extravagant. Neglected. Bustling. Delicious. Dirty. Diverse. Historic. Relentless. Dusty. Hospitable. Dangerous. Poverty-stricken. Capitalist. Decaying. Functional. Edgy. Stinky. Spicy. Choking. Cheerful. Exhausted. Indomitable. Brutal. Brilliant. Ugly.

These are all great words to describe India. And whilst it is true that you could apply them to virtually any country, India is perhaps the only country to truly define them. But adjectives alone cannot tell the story. I will have to add some verbs and nouns to the mix. The problem I am having in putting my experience down on to this bit of virtual paper, is that the story comes in two parts. They are conflicting parts that occured simultaneously. In fact, they are not really parts, but two independent stories. Two stories – that’s a better way to look at it.

Let me start with the bad story. To describe India as challenging is to be polite. For me, the single worst aspect of the country was the pollution. It’s choking. Motorbikes, tuk tuks, cars and brightly decorated Tata trucks race insanely across barely paved streets, chucking out fumes and stirring up colossal clouds of dust and dirt. Visitors flock to the Taj Mahal at sunrise and sunset, promised that there’s no better time of day to see the, now official, wonder of the world. Only to discover it is a scam. The sun is barely visible behind the thick gravy brown skies, and tourists must make do with smogrise and smogset.

For the first week, we were revolted by the locals and their constant gagging, rasping coughs and spat out bits of lung that are an inevitable by-product of such badly polluted skies. It’s one of the prevailant sounds of Delhi, along with the never ending beeping of horns and the whiny engines of the countless scooters and tuk tuks. By week two, you have sympathy. Not least because you are, by then, a co-sufferer.

Mrs P and I roamed Delhi and Agra as extensively as we dared for the limited time we had available. Mostly by tuk tuk, but we made use of the occasional taxi too. We were pleasantly surprised by the modern metro system too, which ran very efficiently. It’s a busy and crowded city, as you would expect. Hordes of people charging about in a most industrious manner. But whether one is prepared for the crowds or not, the sheer number of people can still be a little overwhelming. They overwhelm their own terrain too. Wherever we went, we encountered vast quantities of litter, earth and general debris where you might hope instead to see paved sidewalks.

It saddened me, for this is a gaping, self inflicted wound that scarred every city, every town, every neighbourhood, every street that we passed through. It’s unnecessary. What passes as a posh area in Delhi would be labelled a dump elsewhere in the world. I came to the rather unscientific conclusion that posh areas in India can be identified by the sight of rubbish gathered into huge piles for the cows, stray dogs and wild pigs to feast from. For in these towns, there does at least exist some type of refuse disposal system.

There were other things that saddened me. The women we saw who have had their faces melted by acid. The disfigured, handicapped and tortured souls left by society to try and eek a miserable survival in the gutters. The general lack of maintenance of everything, that proves that the old sayings of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and ‘mend and make do’ can indeed be taken too far. And so much more. There are plenty of Dorothy moments, where you wish you could tap your little red slippers together three times and be whisked home. But you get the picture. Let’s not dwell too long on the negative.

There’s another story to be told about India though. About a country so rich in history that all the bank vaults on the planet would not be enough to contain this cultural treasure trove. There are protected national parks that burst into view like a Rudyard Kipling novel that’s come to life. Beyond their obvious flaws are a people who are kind and generous. There are beautiful, albeit worn, temples that must be explored. There is life in India which is intoxicating. You might feel trapped there at times, but it’s almost impossible not to go down with a bout of Stockholm Syndrome. India isn’t a holiday. It’s an experience. It is an experience that one perhaps grows fonder of once it is over.

So, for all the negativity of this post, India has a certain something that wins over the heart. At the risk of overdoing the analogies – if life is a box of chocolates, then India is a can of Coca Cola. You know the ingredients are just a bunch of poisons that’ll rot you from the inside. But that secret ‘Ingredient X’ just keeps you coming back for more of it’s delicious, intoxicating and indulgent magic. I’ve more to write about India. I’ll try and tell that second story I referred to earlier – the good part. Perhaps at some stage I’ll be able to put my finger on that elusive magic. But I suspect it’ll remain, like the Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the world.
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