When we told people that India was on our list of stops, a concerned look along with some quip about India being a tough country for the first time was the typical feedback. But after having negotiated 7 other countries in the previous 4 months on our own, we didn’t really give these remarks much weight. And then we arrived in Delhi, which turned out to be a rough start to India. To compound our discomfort, Ray, RJ, and Ty all got sick within the first two days, forcing us to stay put in our budget backpacker hotel located half way down “slum alley.” The hotel was ok, just budget – no heat, no towels, no bottled water, no housekeeping, limited wifi. The alley was swept daily, keeping it somewhat neat, and as long as you held your breath when you passed the two open urinals on the way to the main street, it wasn’t so bad.
We did manage to hit a few attractions before the Dehli-belly hit and once everyone recovered, we hit the road to see a bit more of what India had to offer. Below is a recap of the first couple towns we hit and what we saw there.
DISCLAIMER: After my first draft of this post, I reread what I had written and it had a pretty negative tone, so I cut all the bad parts. Ray commented that without those parts, my picture of India was totally sugar-coated and wouldn’t really give the reader an accurate picture of what things are like here. So, I added them back in. It is not my intention to offend anyone; I am simply writing about my experiences on this trip and I continue to believe that our encounters with a limited number of people do not represent the people of India as a whole.
Our first stop in Delhi was the Qutub Minar and Complex, which dates back to the onset of Islamic rule in India. Its construction started in 1193 along with the first mosque to be built in India on the same grounds. There were throngs of school children at the site, many of whom wanted to take pictures with us. After our experience getting to the hotel, we were reluctant because we weren’t sure what else they wanted from us. But, eventually we realized that they truly just wanted to take a picture with us. This is one of my favorites…
Next stop… Humayun’s Tomb. Who is Humayun? I don’t know for sure, but I think he was important. He might have been the second Mughal emperor. He had some altercation with his son, fled the country, and was taken in by the Persians. Then he came back, regained his throne and then promptly died. All that is according to Ray, who is the only one who read EVERY plaque in sight. The tomb was built by his Persian-born senior wife, which accounts for its Persian design. The building is renowned for its red sandstone and white marble construction. (If you look close, you can see me on the second level in bright blue.)
Our last stop was for a quick photo at India Gate, a memorial arch paying tribute to the 90,000 Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British cause in WWI and the 1919 Anglo-Afghan War. Soldiers were already camped out and starting to prepare for a huge religious festival that will be taking place here on January 26. Apparently Barak Obama attended the festivities last year.
Overall, our impression of Delhi was a polluted, dirty, poverty-stricken city. It hadn’t rained here since July and everything was coated with a thick layer of dust and dirt giving the city an even more apocalyptic vibe. Traffic is chaos and everyone honks their horn incessantly. Men hock up loogies to the point of gagging themselves and then spit on the street. And they pee everywhere. Half-starved, skeletal dogs are everywhere often seen eating the garbage that is piled on the streets. Cows also roam the streets at their leisure eating garbage and don’t look much better than the dogs. No one looks happy here. Children follow us for blocks begging for money and food. It is heartbreaking.
Really the best monument in Agra to see… the Taj Mahal. We caught our first glimpse at sunset from a rooftop café that our hostel recommended for dinner. From that vantage point, we could see that the monument was packed with people and we all were dreading having to deal with that. So, we got up early the next day to avoid the crowds and toured the stunning, white marble monument. We had to push and shove our way in to see the tomb in the center of the monument, which actually clouded our visit quite a bit. Had we known that it would be such a shoving match to get into the tomb, we might have avoided that part altogether. But overall, we learned a little more about the love story behind tomb and enjoyed seeing this beautiful monument up close and personal.
Agra had less air pollution than Delhi and the grounds of the Taj Mahal are kept very clean despite the people throwing their garbage where ever they please.
Road to Jaipur
On our way to Jaipur, our driver pulled off at another monument for us to visit. His English skills were marginal, so we weren’t sure what exactly we were getting into, but we had been in the car for a while, so we decided a stop was ok. I am pretty sure it was Fatehpur Sikri, a fortified city that was the short-lived capital of Akbar between 1571 and 1585. After elbowing our way on, we took a bus up to the top of a hill (the only vehicle allowed up) and toured the palace, monastery, and tomb. The picture shows Ray trying to find a moment of peace in the middle of the monastery. Later, after taking a picture of the front of the monastery, I was forcibly shoved out of the way by an older couple going the opposite direction. I called him a very not nice name that might have started with F. Looking at my photos later that evening, I saw that I had captured the couple in the picture I had taken just moments before. With my bad attitude in tow, I pushed my way through another crowd and was swiftly reprimanded by Ty for being rude. I apologized and promptly vowed not to let India turn me into a nasty American tourist.
After our rough day in Agra and on the road, we hit Jaipur and were warmly welcomed at Hotel Baba Haveli. The staff members were the complete opposite of everyone else we had encountered that day and made our two-night stay warm and wonderful. (A haveli is a townhouse or mansion usually with architectural or historical significance.)
After a good night’s sleep and with new attitudes, we set out to explore Jaipur. Our first stop was the Amber Fort, where you can ride an elephant up the hill through the front gates. But, apparently, the message that we wanted to ride the elephants up the hill was lost in translation. The driver said, “elephants expensive” and “we can drive top.” By the time we realized he wasn’t taking us to the elephants, it was too late. Will we remember that he saved us 4000 Rupees (~$60) or that we didn’t get to ride the elephants in India? I will definitely remember to tell people travelling to India to make sure their driver/guide speaks English! The fort itself was only marginally interesting. The best part was the view from the top of the hill where the fort was built. And the monkeys. The monkeys here were not macaques, but a larger monkey with a longer tail that seemed much healthier than other monkeys we’ve seen. The elephant ride might have made it more interesting. I’m not bitter.
We headed to the Nahargarh Fort on the next hill over where the view was even better. We walked through the fort and all of its rooms, but there wasn’t really much to see. Nothing was left in the fort but bare walls and empty rooms.
We stopped for a pic of the sunken temple, Jal Mahal, intended to be a gateway for the maharajas. There is some kind of legal dispute over this temple so you can no longer visit, although I am not sure how you would visit anyway being that only two stories of the five-story building are above water. But it makes for a pretty picture.
We opted for a photo only stop at Hawa Mahal, a five-story, pink-sandstone structure with a honeycombed hive façade constructed in 1799 to enable the ladies of the royal household to watch city life and the market below, unobserved. The building sits on a crowded street that is teeming with vendors, which we did not care to negotiate.
Next was the City Palace, where the royal family of Jaipur still resides. Most of the complex was not accessible and the only areas available for viewing were the courtyards. A number of “guards” were stationed around the complex in different forms of brightly-colored, traditional dress and enthusiastically offered to pose for a picture with you. Say cheese and then hand over some money. I fell for it once.
Finally, we visited Jantar Mantar, an observatory that dates back to 1728. There were a number of huge sculptures on the grounds that could each tell you something really interesting about the study of heavenly bodies. We all spent some time reading the plaques here, but the descriptions were so technically-worded that we would have needed a PhD in astronomy to understand them. Except one… the sculpture pictured is the “King of the Instruments” or the Brihat Samrat Yantra, which is a sundial and aids in the calculation of local and meridian time.
We had initially planned on two more large cities (Jodhpur and Pushkar), but decided we’d had enough of large crowds, pushy vendors, and tourist attractions that really didn’t hold our interest. For us, the Golden Triangle was more pale yellow. We came up with a new plan to visit smaller towns and our driver agreed with a smile. We just hoped he understood what we were saying.
The elephant we didn’t ride to the fort…