In fact, I’m in Ahmedabad.
As I had expected, once we left Delhi and were on the move, there was little chance of coming across internet connection at places we stayed. I tried to keep up with the writing but it was very difficult given how tired I got at the end of each day – in fact, most of the time I was so relieved to escape into an air conditioned hotel room and gaining access to internet facilities was probably the furthest thing from my mind!
Since I’m now in Ahmedabad, some 10 days after my last blog entry, I won’t go to the trouble of making up for the lack of writing but rather write a synopsis of it in three large chunks – the Golden Triangle tour, 4 days I spent with Jasmine, and a quick run down of what I’ve been up to since I reached Ahmedabad.
I took an organised 8 day tour of the most sought after tourist destinations in India: Taj Mahal, Red Fort & the City Palace in Jaipur. The tour is called the golden triangle because we visit three main cities: Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, which creates a triangular route, then probably golden because we visit monuments of extravagant ambition and wealth at the peak of Indian royal family’s prosperity.
Day 1 – or what I thought of India back then.
It was averaging between 35 – 40 degrees outside and we were lucky enough to have a chartered A/C coach for just 10 people who were on the tour: 5 Americans, 1 Canadian, 1 Irish, 1 South African, 1 Mexican, and 1 New Zealander. July – September is an off-peak tourist season because of the heat and of course the Monsoon, so we saw hardly any tourists except when we were at really mainstream tourist spots like the Taj Mahal and the City Palace. Of the tourists I’ve on the streets, 70% were American, 25% Europeans, then probably 5% Asian. We were being taken to really touristy places where the restaurants would raise their shutters just for us then of course lock up after we leave, and we would suddenly have random assistants emerging at the washrooms with a handful of serviettes for drying your hands and the other hand motioning for money. People here are generally very kind and friendly, and if they do approach you, it’s generally for some money.
The first day I arrived, I must admit I felt so conspicuous and uncomfortable in my own skin, rather like a Zoo animal, because men here stare so intensely and their large black eyes are fixated on you like they’ve never seen another human being before. I know what (not) to do when I next visit the Zoo! Having said that, I quickly grew accustomed to being stared at, because I knew they meant no harm and were genuinely curious at seeing a fair Asian who looks obviously so out of place, so I learned to stare back until they looked away. After a while, it becomes a fun game, because at first you feel like everyone’s conspiring to stare at you together (which they are to an extent, in the sense the same thing is going through their heads) but if you think of it as a one on one staring competition where you’re just at a slight disadvantage and you’re having to compete simultaneously, it becomes more entertaining and bearable than otherwise. Upon reflection, I’ve enjoyed these kinds of small moments of contact and exchange with the people on the road – both with those on the tour and with those who are born into India – much more than all the glorious wonders of architecture and the chart toppers of UNESCO world heritage sites combined. This really isn’t an understatement and is probably the reason why I’m so passionate about Architecture for Humanity. Architecture, in the absense of its people, are but ruins that decay and lose meaning without the living continually passing down its memories to others after them.
I digress, when this was meant to be an entry about first day of the tour on Golden Triangle! Nothing much really happened during the first day – we met briefly in the conference room at the hotel at half 6 in the evening, where we had a chance to meet everyone else – 9 vivacious women and 1 poor ol’ Mexican boy called Jose who had to endure the next 8 days roaming India, of all countries, with 9 – that’s right – 9 other women! Nothing else happened that day except that around 9 at night, some Indian man walked into my room uninvited when I was about to doze off under my sheets! It was mostly my fault since I was silly enough to leave the door unbolted, but it left me thinking why anyone would do such things? I reported this to the hotel manager next morning who then suddenly lost the capacity to speak or understand English. He was probably laughing behind my back when I left. And I was pretty grossed out by the belching and spitting that men on the street do and was also a little grossed out by all the particles and liquids of all unimaginable categories on the street in the beginning. I’m writing about it now because I’ve made peace with it now and I’ve allowed the soles of my feet to develop calluses for them. You can’t spend the whole time looking at where you want to land your next step, because then you’ll end up missing most of the sights!
There’s over a billion people living in this country, so you could say that it’s at least 250 times more diverse than New Zealand. Oh New Zealand… proclaimed to be one of the purest countries on earth! I do come across quite a number of feature articles and billboards promoting NZ, which reminded me of the first day in Japan, where I turned on the TV and the first thing I saw was a documentary about sights in Auckland.
Day 2 – Transit to Agra
Today was a rather unproductive day – it rained all morning in Delhi and we were scheduled to take a bus tour around New Delhi and Old Delhi, but it rained so much that we didn’t have any time to see anything with any clarity. The most exciting thing we did while we were on the bus is to drive around the Connaught Place roundabout five times and saw the India Gate, which looked a bit like Arc de Triomph in Paris, from about 500m away amidst all the barricades, scaffolds and overturned pavements which was for building a new subway line in time for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi some two months later.
We went to a special restaurant that of course only opened for us and spent the afternoon commuting to Agra, which was just over 150km outside of Delhi. It took us about 5 hours to get there due to the road conditions. It’s a real miracle if anyone drove to the posted speed limit, because if you really tried to drive at 80km/hr on an Indian highway, your car will probably split in half and your tires will be long gone after about 5km.
I never quite understood or felt the density of a place until I came to India. What does a country with 1.1 billion people look like? Well firstly you’ll see refreshment stops and fruit stands at every 50 metre increment along every part of the highway, and what’s more you’ll also find that every single store is at least half full with people hanging about the place, and at least one of those men will be urinating out in the open. You also see an infinite line of lorries/trucks a.k.a “Goods Carriers” that have really colourful calligraphy and patterns painted on them, most of which seems like they were painted just last week. According to our Chief Experience Officer Narendra, there are only two things that Indian men obsess over: their trucks and their wives. To avoid any confusion I meant them in a monogamous sense! The truck owners treat their trucks as they would their wife, and I noticed that some even wear mascara and have built in eyelashes on the headlights!
Day 3 – Taj Mahal & Red Fort
Woke up at 4am to see the sunrise at Taj Mahal, and I didn’t sleep too well in a room which didn’t have a working A/C. As fussy and particular as that sounds, it’s hard to go from cool New Zealand winter to a country with 40 degree heat and 80% humidity without A/C and interesting specimens floating about in the air and water. If I’m going to be a humanitarian aid worker though, I know I should try to get used to this as much as I can. My Korean upbringing prepared me for the North Indian spicy food, but it seems that even my stomach can’t handle too much tap water. I’ve been brushing my teeth in straight tap water from the hotels, and my throat feels a little funny today. My roommate Sasha is already bedridden and constantly reaching into her dufflebag full of medications.
Another thing that really upset me earlier today was the little boy who introduced himself as Bobby and pestered me for what seemed like eternity while we were all sitting in an open cart train waiting for Narendra to fetch our Taj Mahal tickets at the office. At first I smiled and just shook my head, but he kept dangling his Taj Mahal paraphernalia off his little brown fist in front of my eyes. He was the clever one of the two, who knew I had a tender heart, and kept tugging at my arm to get me to buy his key rings from him. I gave in after about a dozen times, because he began personifying the sales pitch and I just couldn’t keep saying no. I didn’t have any change so I gave him a hundred rupees, which is a lot for these boys, which I think surprised the little one and I think he must have run off to tell all of his friends about me, because seconds later I had another boy, similar to his age who had a different Taj Mahal accessory to show off. At that point it got a bit too much and I began to sob. I just couldn’t help myself and I felt so bad for them. The poverty is so bad in that it’s so prevalent around here and people live it out as though it’s just a part of their skin. There seems to be no sense of urgency let alone desire to put things into order, to keep clean, to get out of their situation or to find happiness beyond survival. I don’t think most even try to get out of it, though the practice of cast discrimination in India has been formally abolished by the Indian Constitution in 1950, it is still recognised by the majority of the population.
Day 4 – Transit to Bharatpur: the playboy mansion, enroute Sikri & the “Rooftop Party”
Saw an infamous playboy mansion aka Fatehpur Sikri where the Mughal king Akbar was entertained by some 1500 concubines – yes, that’s not a typo – and the palatial bed that could fit upto 15 women at a time. I don’t believe it myself and I think it’s just a story they made up to entertain the tourists – I mean, Taj Mahal could be a five star hotel built for tourists, right? – Ok, I’ll post the picture of the playboy bed soon. No, I didn’t think anything else was blog-worthy aside from your standard intricate and ornate hand carvings on pillars, lintels, over sized skirtings, playful insets on walls that used to hold candle lights, fine details representative of Mughal and Rajput era architecture… You just had to be there, but then again, in 40 degree heat, even the most stunning palace sends you running for the shade and unplugs your brain from hearing anything from the guides and you wonder what made you want to pay to go on an 8 day retreat at an outdoor sauna across India. There’s only so much beauty you can appreciate when all your senses shut down and all you see are reflections of light registering in your head telling you that it’s supposed to be beautiful, but all you really want is to sit inside an air conditioned hotel room with a large bottle of mineral water.
As for the rooftop party? Well it was actually just a group of us drinking a couple of bottles of Rum (except me, of course – I’m allergic) into the early hours of the morning. Narendra, an uncommonly innocent and sweet Indian man who was our tour guide, put on a serious face at one point and said, “My mom would not believe me if I said I was partying on the rooftop with three other women and a Mexican!”
Day 5 – more of Rajasthan then to Jaipur – The Pink City
Stepwells in Rajasthan – more specifically Chand Baori ni Abhaneri, Rajasthan – is probably the most understated tourist attraction in Rajasthan. Think Italy’s Colosseum and Greece’s Acropolis, but inverted. It’s like experiencing a giant tapestry in 3D, with an added thrill of navigating through a maze of 1 foot square steps with no handrails!
Day 6 – Jaipur – The Pink City & Chokhi Dhani
Saw three palaces – the city palace, the water palace, and the royal palace. Got to go on a fun elephant ride up a hill, and luckily they are kind enough to send elephants back home during the peak hours – they only work from 8am to 10am each day, and what pretty little(?) things they are. In the afternoon we had free time to shop at their infamous bazaar, for some textiles. In the evening we went to Chokhi Dhani, which is like a cultural theme park emulating ancient Rajasthani village, complete with elephants, camels, dancers, palm readers, even a very dodgy manual observatory wheel made out of recycled steel cage that sounded long overdue for oil. The best part was the sit down buffet on a stone platform where we were individually served an endless supply of Rajasthani delicacies. My eyes were way too big for my stomach, and I knew it after 20 minutes. So much for trying to slim down in India!
Day 7 – Back to Delhi, and Jasmine!
Came back to Delhi to complete the triangle, and once checking into the hotel, I met up with Jasmine, who took 12 hours to get here from her home town in Jalandhar. I was so relieved that the tour was over, in the sense that I was itching to get away from playing the tourist. On reflection this was a perfect way to begin my stay in Inida, as the comfort level of the trip itself helped to ease me into the Indian ways. I was also ecstatic to see Jasmine, because it was the first time I had seen her since Japan, and also because I knew that she wouldn’t be taking me to places that only open their shutters for tourists. Little did I know at the time what unforgettable adventure awaited me in the morning, then for the next four days!
More to come tomorrow…