It was a hot and busy weekend! Sue and JC (Pfizer colleagues working with Project HOPE) and I went to Agra and Jaipur to be tourists. Agra-Jaipur-Delhi is known as the “Golden Triangle” and is usually a 6-8 day tour, but since we knocked New Delhi off the agenda we decided to be fearless and do Agra and Jaipur in one day each. Sleep? Sleep is for babies [Baby Ella, please take note. Your parents are tired].
Agra is best known for the Taj Mahal and Jaipur is known for its pink-washed buildings (it’s called the Pink City) and for the gangs of monkeys. We only saw a couple monkeys though, no gangs, and even the loners weren’t wearing gang colours or smoking anything interesting like I’d like to see a gang-affiliated monkey do. We did see cows, goats, camels, horses, donkeys, boars, dogs, cats, an owl, elephants, and bats, though. For a city tour, that’s a lot of wildlife!
The weekend started a bit early when our driver for the weekend picked me up at 3 on Friday. We drove to Agra which took about 4 hours and checked into the Radisson, which was a really nice hotel, and had a really nice dinner. The next morning we got up at 5am to go to the Taj Mahal which is supposed to be spectacular at sunrise due to the type of non-porous white marble they use (it glitters). We got there a little after the sun was up, but it was still beautiful, and slightly less hot than it would have been any later in the day. Since it’s the dry season, none of the pools – including the reflecting pool – were filled, so we didn’t get the full effect of the famous symmetry. We did go in though and saw all the stone inlay in the marble which was pretty cool. Inside the mausoleum it is incredibly noisy because of the echo, and a lot of people were doing what many Indians do best: make gratuitous noise on purpose.
After Taj Mahal we went back to the hotel for breakfast and hung out for an hour, then went to Fort Agra. We had a tour guide for the day, a different one each day for Agra and Jaipur. We learned (or attempted to) a lot of history of the Mughal dynasty and the stuff they built, but which I can barely keep straight now. The Agra Fort was at midday and it was REALLY. HOT. I was drenched. You try to just stand in the shadows but it really doesn’t make that much difference. Our guide thought it had to be about 50˚C standing in the sun in a stone fort. There was one really cool thing (well, there were several, I’m going to tell you about one) at Agra Fort. In one room, you can whisper softly into a corner and someone clear across the room can hear you perfectly in their corner. Apparently this acoustical magic was done so that no one could keep secrets from the ruler in his quarters.
After Agra Fort we went to Fatehpur Sikri, which is another fort. The carving was interesting and contains Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and Jain influences. There was a lot of marble too, but mostly red sandstone.
After Fatehpur Sikri, we drove to Jaipur. One thing about these private organized tours: you are not in control of where you’re going. This means that the guides/driver take you on unscheduled shopping trips at their “friend’s” establishment, where they receive a commission for bringing in customers. They certainly have nice things, but very expensive and since you’re not taken to any other places you can’t compare against anything else, and the sales pressure is pretty intense. Also, I’m not a shopper. So anyway, the first place we went was a marble and stone inlay place. It was interesting and they beautiful and very expensive pieces. Then in Jaipur we were taken to a jewellery store. They had very expensive things too, but with gemstones so big that to me it looks costume-y. And I don’t wear jewelry. We were supposed to go to a textile place at that point, but it was nearly 8pm and we were exhausted and hungry, so we made the driver take us to the hotel. His cell phone wouldn’t stop ringing after that, with the textile place calling him over and over about why we weren’t there yet. So we checked into another nice hotel and had dinner. We got up the next morning at a more reasonable 7am and went to Amer Fort, where Sue and I rode an elephant up the hill. 🙂
There was a breeze at Jaipur which made the heat a bit more bearable. Like, your sweat-soaked clothing dried a bit faster. We went to the observatory and the City Palace, and did drive-bys of the Water Palace and Palace of the Winds. And we went to the textile place, of course. Now, I love fabric stores, and I did buy some fabric there, but I still didn’t quite enjoy the experience as much as I would’ve like to, in all honesty. They only want to push you towards the expensive tablecloths and bedspreads, pashminas, and ready-made garments… and I was interested in bolt cotton by the meter. They had tons, but when it’s just stacked on shelves you really have to take your time and I didn’t want to delay my group too much. And no one was interested in helping me with “cheap” cotton. I did pull out some silk, which was beautiful, but then when the shopkeeper noticed my “good eye,” rather than try to sell me just a piece of silk, he wanted to become my supplier for when I start this imaginary custom design house he dreamed up. So I didn’t buy any, since I couldn’t get a word in edgewise to ask questions about his silks, and just stuck with a few pieces of cotton. There were LOTS of fabric stores that we drove by but I would have needed a lot of time there which we didn’t have, there was no way the driver was going to stop at a place he wouldn’t make a commission, and frankly I need more energy and sterner resolve to deal with their sales techniques. I did buy a sari though! Not sure if I’ll have much occasion to wear it, but c’mon, when else am I going to do this? (don’t have a picture yet, sorry).
Finally, we started back to Delhi. The speed at which traffic moves give one a lot of time to think… this was a 230km drive which took us 7 hours. Oh, I figured out what that trumpet trill horn is: a transport truck.
When I finally got home at 10pm, I found my first gecko in this apartment. It was dead, and I found it with my bare foot. This is only slightly better than finding your cat’s hairball in the middle of the night that way. I don’t know what the cause of death was, hopefully it was overindulgence on ants and not Melindzilla stomping him to death.
Overall, it was a good weekend. I’m so glad I got to see the Taj Mahal and, while it was blisteringly hot the entire time, not having to battle any crowds was a bit of a bonus! And my sunscreen is working really well, I’m still quite pasty. I think we all learned something about how to handle ourselves on organized tours, we need to be a lot more assertive about OUR plans for the weekend and, not to sound cynical, but a little less trusting of the people we’re supposed to trust. I still appreciate the work the guides and the driver did: I learned a lot of history, the cost of the tour was very reasonable, our accommodations were excellent, and we were comfortable and safe the whole time (thanks in some part to my imaginary brake pedal, I’m sure). But, as easily visible minorities, we are seen as targets and everyone here wants to push their agendas on us. I admit I do resent the idea that because of my colouring and language, it is assumed that I should spend thousands and thousands of dollars on marble furniture and jewelry, whether or not I want to or even have the funds to do so. It’s not a customer or client-centered industry here, it’s for whoever stands to gain the most. So, let’s just chalk that up as another life lesson learned along with experiencing those once-in-a-lifetime sights.