The last week has been a lot of fun. We landed in a pretty group of people in our Intrepid tour. As usual there has been someone who fits in less well with the group, and some who are quieter, but on the whole the dynamic has been quite positive. Our tour leader Veerendra is quite knowledgable, and it took him a few days but his less serious side finally showed up, and with it, his cheeky grin. Five of us are going on to do another tour tomorrow so hopefully the guide is just as good.
We began, and will end, in Delhi. And I have to say, ugh. Delhi is doubtlessly my least favourite place so far. It feels like just another soulless, sprawling city, where everyone wants something from you; and whilst certain elements have been interesting, the prospect of rattling around Delhi tomorrow and again on the day I leave India does not fill me with joy. But I will have good company so I'm sure I'll make the most of it.
Also, to be fair to Delhi, my impression of the hotel didn't help. Although I didn't expect great things, having travelled fairly extensively in developing countries, I was still a little disappointed. And that was probably because 1. The room was stuffy and claustrophobic because it had no windows at all, just a wall decorated with alternating panels of padded vinyl and a semi-reflective surface; 2. The entire bathroom was covered in dust (but not the rest of the room...); 3. There was a pigeon living in the exhaust fan of the bathroom, which probably contributed to the dust and also meant that, every so often, a feather would float out; and 4. There were maggots in our beds. (Do you like how I saved that one until last? )
We got up to a few things in our first couple of days in Delhi. My BFF Ness and I explored the area around the hotel and ate street food for breakfast for the princely sum of about 40c, so imagine our horror at ending up in hotels on tour where you have to spend seven whole dollars on breakfast. The horror! (That's a joke, by the way. Compared to the $20 or so you'd spend back home, it's obviously very affordable, despite often eating at establishments geared to cater for tourists with sensitive stomachs.)
We went on a tuk-tuk adventure (to be clear, I'm aware they're supposed to be called motor rickshaws (or a variation thereof), but they have taken to calling them tuk-tuks when they tout their services, presumably to cater to tourists) with a driver who in hindsight stalked us back from breakfast. After a dispute about where he was taking us (he wanted to take us to an emporium and to a tourism office where he obviously got a commission), he finally took us around the war memorial, and then to the parliament and prime minister's residences, where we had our first taste of domestic Indian tourists including us in family photos. And then we had a brush with the law. Our increasingly dodgy tuk-tuk driver didn't tell us it costs RS$500 (AUD$10) to get into there, and he evaded the fee on the way out which resulted in a very minor police chase and some red lights run. When he finally lost himself in traffic and felt safe and explained, we scolded him and he seemed suitably chastened. He took us to a fairly nice garden...and on the way home he insisted on taking us back to the emporium. We finally yielded when he explained that he got a lunch voucher if we looked around, so ten minutes in air conditioning wasn't the end of the world when you're hot and jet lagged. Anyway, that was our big adventure that lasted about 90 minutes, cost $2.10 and taught us what to watch out for so it was an afternoon well spent!
Once we'd met the group, we went for an adventure on the Metro, where we discovered there is a Women's Only carriage. And it was actually quite comforting. There was also a magical force field between our carriage and the next, despite there being no physical barrier. The metro was clean, new, ran well and was safe - bags were X-rayed and passengers walked through metal detectors - so I do quite highly rate their metro system. Just be prepared for the gentle push
We wandered around a market, had a masala chai, visited the largest mosque in India (spoiler alert: it was pretty huge), rode in a bicycle rickshaw, and visited a Sikh temple and saw their community kitchen where they cater for 3,000 hungry people each day. And we sweated. A lot. Luckily I was able to bond with one group member in particular over how ridiculously sweaty we were. One week in and it has become par for the course, but early on it was amusing.
From Delhi we moved onto Jaipur by train, which included a little breakfast brought to you on a tray. It was somewhat reminiscent of the long-distance buses in South America.
Jaipur itself was very pretty after the grime of Delhi, and our hotel was very 1950's British, with a nice lawn, cane lounges and simple but clean rooms in a hotel that both has windows (yay!) and was also built for the heat (yay again!).
Highlights from Jaipur were a visit to the quite incredible Amber Fort, an obligatory (but interesting) visit to a textile factory where they showed us how they do block printing using natural dyes, taking in a surprisingly compelling movie about a female Indian boxing champion (no subtitles!), visiting the city palace museum and the observatory, which contained the world's largest sundial, and an incredible (but for totally different reasons that I won't elaborate on here!) oil massage that cost all of about $15.
From Jaipur we caught a private bus to Karauli, where we stayed in a hotel that was the former residence of one of the Kings of one of the 22 Rajasthani princely states. He's still king, by the way, but it's a ceremonial role. He also still stays at the palace, but rents most of it out as a hotel to pay for the upkeep. It was a pretty amazing experience to stay in a palace, which, if I were to hazard a guess, was decorated more or less as it had always been. But yep, pretty sure I could handle living like a princess!
We also did a village walk in Karauli, and visited a Hari Krishna temple, where the women were very welcoming and invited the girls in to join them in their singing and dancing. It was quite an experience. Walking back through the village we encountered so many friendly children who just wanted to say hello. You could tell they hadn't made the connection between tourism and making a profit, which in hindsight is why our guide discouraged us from leaving the palace grounds. It was very refreshing and is just as it should be.
Back on the bus, and next stop was Agra, via Fatehpur Sikri, a former Mughul palace and adjacent, second-largest in India, mosque. Like Amber Fort, the palace was the kind of place you could spend a few hours alone with a camera...but no such luck. The guide told us an interesting story of the justice system of the time, and how murderes and rapists would be sentenced to Death by Elephant. They had this generally quite pleasant elephant they kept tethered to a rock, and when execution time rolled around they would feed it a plant that caused it to go crazy and trample whatever was in front of it - in this case, a murderer or rapist. Quite novel, definitely gory, and not at all fair on the elephant (nor surprising, given this was the emperor who came to the throne at 13 and would use women to play naked Blind Man's Bluff and other, naked, human-sized takes on traditional board games. He was obviously at a loose end as to what to do with his power for a time there...). On the bright side they obviously appreciated the poor creature, because they constructed quite a spectacular tomb for it!
Finally to Agra, where the streets seem to be better-made, and with less traffic than other cities. We entered the Taj Mahal at sunrise, but unfortunately the fog prevented us from getting the spectacular sunrise photos we'd hoped for. Still, the early start meant fewer people, so more photo opportunities and plenty if time to just chill out and take it all in.
The feeling I got from the Taj Mahal was incredibly powerful. Obviously things are a bit different for kings with bottomless pockets, but the love the emperor had for his wife was almost palpable. An awe-inspiring structure, and a surprisingly peaceful place to visit despite the crowds.
Later, we saw the room at the Agra fort where the emperor was imprisoned by his son for spending too much money on grand structures (hah!), and from it you could see the Taj Mahal. Legend has it that he would live out his days there, weeping for his dead wife as he looked out over the Taj Mahal that he would never again visit.
The fort itself was pretty cool, too. I mean, this place had two moats, one wet one filled with crocodiles, and one dry one filled with tigers. It doesn't get much better than that!
So now we wait for the train. I'm trying to take it easy this afternoon because I have the triple-whammy of having sweated in the sun for half the day, being up at 4:45am and having an upset stomach. Our train also won't get in until after midnight tonight, so rest is probably a good idea.
I hope that wasn't too tedious for you to read, but like I said, I have time to kill! And hopefully the pictures helped break things up a bit. I haven't taken many on my phone yet, as evidenced by the gaping pictorial holes in this story, but I'll try harder next week.
Stay tuned for more adventures.