January 22, 2008 ~ 10:45pm
Well belated Happy New Year. I returned from my India trip about 2 weeks ago and now I finally feel like the jet-lag has totally passed. I still have a lingering cough that I got some time before my arrival in Bombay. The only one thing I can not seem to kick is this overwhelming feeling of lethargy. It took me forever to write this!
Anyways, I had a really interesting trip with my family. We did a great deal of site seeing this trip, saw most of our extended family, had time to shop and relax.
Originally in 2004 we wanted to visit the north, but the May heat was too much so we never quite made it there. This time we decided to start there. We landed in Delhi early Dec 14th morning and the next day ventured all through the city. We started with the Lotus Temple (yes, it does look like a real Lotus). This is the first time I had to walk so much without any shoes. Then we visited the Akshardham Temple - supposedly one of the largest modern temples in the world. Unfortunately the security there was tighter than an airport - no camera, no cell phones, no bags, nothing. The security guards (for men) were quite thorough frisking every little corner. This was probably due to the news that a handful of Islamic terrorists had recently managed to sneak it into the country. While the Hindu temple is without a doubt a marvelous structure, walking past the unfinished areas you can see the filthy 3 and 4 yr old children collecting gravel for the construction. While this is not uncommon throughout India (and the world), it does make you wonder about the massive donations temples like this receive every year.
After the temples, we made a quick stop at the rather simple Gandhi Memorial. From there we drove by the Indian Parliament and Government Buildings (just like the US, you really cannot stop and look). Down across the road from there was the India Gateway. I don't know why, but the drive up to the monument was pretty cool. There's another gateway in Mumbai (Bombay). I felt in some way that this marked the "beginning" of the journey and when I visited Bombay, that would be the culmination.
For lunch we had some really nice Delhi thali. After lunch we made it to Qutub Minar. This is where I first realized how valuable tourism is to India, for entry Indians pay 10 rupees, non-Indians/foreigners: 250 rupees (25X as much). This place is the home of some tombs, a mysteriously non-rusting iron pillar and a really old tower. About 30 years ago when my parents visited, they were permitted to climb to one of the terraces. However since then, many have found it a convenient place to commit suicide, so entry was not permitted. Ohh well, the pictures would have been amazing!
We had about an hour before mass that evening, so we decided to visit the Indira Gandhi Memorial. Ironically I did not have a great desire to visit at first. However it was quite sobering walking through the home and seeing where a national leader was murdered in her own garden by her guard. Adjacent was a memorial to her son, Rajiv, who was assassinated in a suicide bombing 7 years later in 1991. It was quite depressing, but very moving at the same time. (Sadly Benazir Bhutto would be assassinated in Pakistan 2 weeks later).
We attended mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral where Pope John Paul II visited in 1986. The English mass was just like any other. The surprising thing for me, however, was seeing Hindu's visit, praying and leaving before mass. After mass, we had some cheap food at the Bengali restaurant near our accommodations. We slept early, for the next morning would be our trip to Agra!
Agra - Taj Mahal
We woke at 5AM to start our trek to Agra. From the looks on the map, it appears to be about 100 miles(160km). And in my impression the roads from Delhi seemed very well developed and our driver was making good time. We arrived in just about 4 hours. We drove straight to the Taj Mahal. However we were informed that vehicles were not permitted the last kilometer up to the mausoleum because the exhaust fumes were supposedly damaging the marble. This meant horse, camel, pedal or ... walking. The thing about India is that anyone and everyone has to make a buck ... err rupee. Our transportation up to the entrance was trying to sell us something from one of his "business associates". We jumped out and walked the rest of the way. Arriving at the line - Indians: 20 rupees, foreigners: 750 Rs!!!! So we bought our 20 Rs tickets and got in line of about 100 or so people. Someone pestered us saying that for 300 Rs we could skip the line. Too much. Someone else: 200 Rs. Too much. Finally someone said 100 Rs. So we accepted. He just pushed us to the front, he took care of the guards and we made it inside in less that 5 minutes.
However it was only a half victory. The female security check prevented my mother from taking her purse inside (which had passports, money, travelers checks and gold jewelry inside). Often handlers and even guards steal things, so she grabbed all the valuables in her hands and pockets and gave the purse to security check-in. The security check for us men was troubling in a different way. My brother and I made it through fine, however the guard really checked my father for any hidden packages (thoroughly). My father did scold them, and he made it through. After we all re-united, my father realized my mother forgot her gold jewelry inside her purse...
The Taj Mahal was quite breath-taking. Amazing, very beautiful - something definitely worth seeing before you die! I took more pictures there, than anywhere else during the trip. The view to the river and Agra Fort was very nice. We did get to walk inside, shoe-less (or covered), and see the two tombs. After taking it all in, my parents made a mad rush back to the security check-in to hopefully find the jewelry. ... Even though they exited at the wrong spot and ran all across the place, luckily nothing was lost or stolen. Well, as I will say: They will never forget the Taj Mahal.
The next stop across the way was Agra Fort. You could see the walls from the Taj, however the view of the Taj Mahal was even more amazing from the distance across the river. The fort in itself was gigantic. Even though we saw many walkways, courtyards and gardens - less than one third of the site is accessible to visitors. In some ways it reminded me of Heidelberg Castle I saw in Germany in 2006, but this was much better maintained and the artwork was much more intricate here. I wish I could have seen more, but time was limited. After an expensive lunch at some Chinese cuisine, we made the 4-plus hour trek back to Delhi.
On the last day in the north, we wanted to do some shopping only to find out that Monday the stores were all "bunth". Fortunately for us, our incredibly competent driver took us to some underground bazaar (Palika) where we had a hell of a time haggling with all the vendors. From 750 Rs down to 300 Rs for a hand-bag - not bad at all :-) After some quick lunch (more thali!!!) and a stop at the bank we visited some very old acquaintances of my parents from their last trip to Delhi in the 1970's. We had a very pleasant dinner atop a book store that towered over the Delhi streets at night. What a view! Especially after a little Black Label :-) It was a relaxing night.
After some packing we were all ready for the next leg of our journey. The Delhi trip turned out much better than expected. The first night it was quite cold, but I learned my lesson and slept with 3 wool blankets. I wish we had a little more time, maybe have visited the Golden Temple, perhaps that will be another trip in the future. The next morning we hopped on a King Fisher flight to Goa. But that is a story for another day.