Category Archives: In India

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 3: Agra)

Nov. 6, 2011 — Agra, and The Taj Mahal

Where the only horns in the streets that aren’t blasted every few moments are the ones on the cows.

Agra Street Scene

I was more impressed with the traffic in Agra and the massive Red Fort than I was with the Taj Mahal, but the title of this blog post would have been far less interesting if it had read, “Red Fort, Agra.”

“More impressed” probably isn’t the right term. I was impressed with the Taj Mahal: how could one not be impressed with a 186-foot-square mausoleum that is considered one of the seven wonders of the world, is made entirely from white marble with floral designs and arabesques inset with jasper, carnelian, emerald, crystal, jade and many other precious stones, is perfectly symmetrical in four directions in the Muslim style — even its four gardens subdivided into four and four again — and stands as a testimony to the greatest love in the world ever, from all accounts: that of the mighty Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his third wife Munoz Mahal. When she died during the birth of their fourteenth child, a still-born girl, the emperor went into such a terrible depression that he did not emerge from seclusion for seven days and when he did (according to our guide) he had “lost his height.” What a lovely way of expressing the effect his sorrow had on his physical presence!

The Taj Mahal

The queen had told him that if anything happened to her he should create something to commemorate her, and the Taj Mahal is the result. It is a truly astounding edifice, and if I had not seen Agra’s Red Fort earlier in the day, I would have been knocked flat. My biggest wonder, though, is what wives One and Two thought of all of the attention bestowed on wife Three: “What have you done for me lately, my Esteemed Husband?” they might have wondered — with some justification.

Queue at the Taj Mahal

When we were there, it was a Sunday during the holiday season, and there were thousands upon thousands of Indians there to see the Taj, mainly Hindu people.

We observed that the many fine qualities of Indians we have observed so far do not seem to include the ability to stand patiently in line (as, for example, Canadians and Brits have been raised to do). As we approached the main mausoleum in single file, the line ahead of us grew as flocks of Indians stepped into line ahead of us — despite the frantic disapproving whistles of security guards. We finally got in to the inner sanctum just after dark, saw the crypt by artificial light and made our way around by flashlight. (I did have the opportunity to go back the next morning before our bus for Jaipur but I declined. I needed coffee and a bit of quiet by then.)

Backflash: From Delhi to Agra

That morning we’d taken a six a.m train from Delhi to Agra, which meant we were up at 4:30, and as promised the trip by Indian train was an experience — although thankfully, we did not need to climb onto the roof or hang out the door… quite the contrary, in fact: a two course-breakfast was served on board and we were given the Sunday papers with which to amuse ourselves for the two-hour trip. The Sunday papers include the “matrimonials” (personals section) in which suitors advertise for prospective brides and grooms in the most flowery language they can think of, making what seemed to this skeptical outsider at least to be some doubtful claims to fortune and stature.

Gridlock, Agra style

We checked into our hotel in Agra, which was very safe, but plain and filthy. (Later in the day, exhausted and desperate for a shower, I realized there were no towels, so I called the desk and the towels were delivered by a man with an expectant look like an extended hand. But since our group had decided that we would all pitch in to cover tips at all the hotels throughout the trip and that the tour leader would pay them, and since I felt that towels were fairly basic, I just said, “The group is tipping.” He left, wearing an expression that said, “Oh well. I gave it my best shot.” That much achieved, I pulled off my clothes and turned on the water: nothing came out of the faucets. I put my clothes back on and called the desk. They sent someone up who magically turned the water on then expectantly waited for a tip. Sigh.)

Constructing a wall

I have come to trust few people in the “service industry” in India when it comes to money, and I leave the dickering to the tour guides and just don’t engage in conversation with the street vendors and beggars. We’re warned to make sure we’ve agreed to a price for travel before we enter a cab or a rickshaw, and not to pay until we’ve alighted at the end of the trip. I sure don’t begrudge anyone their fair share, or a bonus for extra service, and the prices are very cheap, and I understand that to many of these people we are simply rich foreigners with bottomless pockets — and that relative to them, we all are. But I tip what I am told is reasonable. (I am sure the situation is quite different for those with more expansive budgets: I’m talking “service industry” at a fairly basic level here.)

I also follow the instructions of our group leader not to give money to kids who ask for it (“We do not want the next generation to grow up to be beggars,” he said) or to take an elephant ride in Jaipur (“G Adventures does not believe the elephants are well treated”) or to admire the snake charmers, whose cobras are defanged and kept in baskets, which is also cruel. Our guide pointed out that there are excellent foundations and programs to which we can donate if we want to help the poor in India, especially the children, and if we felt we wanted to give money to poor women or the disabled in the street, that was up to us. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of opportunity to do that.

Agra’s Red Fort

Almost immediately after our arrival in Agra, we headed out to the Red Fort which is magnificent and I will try to post some photos of it here as soon as I figure out how to get them off my iPad. (An iPad is a great thing to travel with, by the way. It’s light to carry and I haven’t even needed to buy a SIM card: we’ve had access to wireless internet here and there, and I supplement by using hotel computers and internet cafes to do the things the iPad can’t.)

The Red Fort

The Red Fort was built by the Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century, on the site of the ruins of a 2500-year old fortress, and it incorporates both Muslim and Hindu art and architectural styles — showing the deep roots of the respect for other religions in addition to one’s own that makes India so remarkable (even if the Mughals did steal everything in sight when they took over the territory — including untold wealth that included what later became known as the Koh-i-Noor diamond). The fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been described as a “walled city,” and that is a good way to envision it. Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan extended the fortress even further, using marble which was his preference (he was the one who built the Taj Mahal) and which is much cooler than sandstone.

Every room is different, but all of them are enormous. There are passages with filigree stone screens from which the women watched proceedings in the more public areas (i.e., where the men were), extensive women’s quarters, vast open areas where the rulers heard petitions from the public and made decisions, rooms that were built to capture the coolness of the air and to encourage breezes, stone planes that created indoor water cascades and fountains (also intended to cool the air). Outside were massive gardens whose flowerbeds provided not only colour but also scent to be carried inside on the carefully captured breezes.

Our guide showed us where the musicians would have been posted in the middle of spacious courtyards and, there, one can feel the ambiance they must have experienced in those huge stone rooms with their pillars and carved arches (both Moslem and Hindu shapes), nooks and crannies; it is possible to imagine the perfumed breezes, the brilliant flower gardens, the curtains wafting against the pillars, the music. The excesses of both detail and scale of the Agra Fort are magnificent. There is even an enormous square right in the middle of the fort where the Mughal installed a great deep pool that he stocked with fish. Our guide showed us where the emperor would lean against a pillar and expansively cast off the balcony.

The son of Shah Jahan overthrew his father (in good old Mughal fashion) and allegedly locked him up in a section of his own wing of the Fort, where he lived for the last eight years of his life: the only concession to his lifetime achievements being a view of the Taj Mahal in the distance (now almost impossible to see from the Fort through the humidity and smog).


The traffic in Agra was an eye-opener for me. It made me realize what terrible drivers we are in North America: we can’t even get down relatively empty roadways sporting lane markers, street signs and signal lights that other drivers actually respect, much less talk on a cellphone and smoke a cigarette at the same time. We’re wimps. Here, although they are certainly travelling at much lower speeds than the ones in North America, the confusion is something one can only sit back and admire.

There are trucks of every description imaginable in the streets, from tiny to large, full of people and goods and brightly painted to honor various Hindu deities and to speak to their fellow drivers (“Blow horn!” they urge, as though any other driver needed an encouragement.) There are auto rickshaws or tuk-tuks — so named because of the sound they make. There are bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, buses, camels, horse- and mule-drawn carriages, pedestrians and motorcycles, and they are all going wherever the hell the want to go, and they are all doing it at the same time with their horns blowing. I would not last five minutes as a driver in this traffic — and until I realized nobody seemed to be bumping into anyone else and began to just sit back and watch and marvel, I did not think I would last five minutes as a passenger, either. Sometimes your knees are so close to the rider’s of a motorcycle that they nearly touch — and it behooves you to keep your elbows and belongings well inside. Sometimes a bicycle comes across an intersecting road ahead of you going east-west as you go south-north and a collision seems inevitable, but your driver swerves, narrowly missing a pedestrian, a dog, a hugely horned cow and another tuk tuk, and suddenly all is well. I loved it.

So on Sunday, we travelled from Delhi to Agra, we saw the Red Fort, the Baby Taj (… look it up), and the Taj Mahal and somewhere in the middle of all that had a fabulous South Indian lunch. By the time most of us got back to the hotel, we were dead on our feet and the amount of dirt in the bedrooms no longer seemed to matter.

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 2: Delhi)

Saturday, Nov. 4, 2011


Delhi airport

Delhi. The only way I can describe Delhi at this point is, Yikes! And I can only begin to imagine what it would be like in July — “Yikes times ten,” perhaps.

Today I set off on my own to see two Mughal-era landmarks the Rough Guide insisted I should not miss: The Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, “India’s largest and most impressive mosque.” I did not see either, but I did get a personal tour of a Hindu prayer site and I also got whacked by a woman in the street as hard as she could hit me. So it’s not like nothing happened.

The major problem with Delhi for me is that a lot of people really don’t speak English very well, and I speak Hindi even less (namaste being the only word I know). So I set out for the Metro with only general instructions on how to get to it and no real sense of what the hotel manager had told me to do when I did get there. It’s about 80 degrees F. today, and the streets of Delhi are just like you see on tv — an absolute maelstrom of vehicles of all kinds, from bicycle rickshaws to trucks, none of them adhering to any of the lines that are painted on the street (a woman on the plane who is originally from Delhi and was coming back here from Brisbane for FOUR weddings in the next two months told me that in Delhi, the lane markers are considered no more than decorations on the streets. No one pays any attention to them). Our tour guide, who I met just an hour ago for the first time, told our group that the reason there are so few accidents in Delhi are “good brakes, good horns and good luck.” As I sit in my hotel room here in Karol Bagh (an area of many inexpensive hotels) the sound of horns in the streets outside my window is incessant. The sidewalks are few and far between, and usually jam packed with people both horizontal and vertical, hub caps, motorcycles, garbage, dogs, you name it. So the pedestrians kind of just walk around the vehicles (and through/between them, when it’s an intersection) on the edges of the streets themselves.

So I made my way to the Metro station about six blocks from the hotel, darting through the traffic as best I could and attempting to follow close behind other pedestrians when crossing busy intersections, and then I faced the challenge of finding someone else to ask about how to get to where I was trying to get to. The ticket seller at the Metro seemed not to have heard of the Red Fort so I pointed it out to her on my map, and that didn’t seem to help her much, but she did sell me a tourist ticket for INR20 or thereabouts that would get me around the city for one day.

I entered the station (which has a security system where you need to get patted down before you can go through, then send your bags through a scanner. Women go in a different patting-down line than men, as I found out by trial and error. 😉 ) When I got onto the platform I asked two other people (I chose people in uniforms wearing guns who were positioned as security around the station, thinking that they seemed to be fairly safe bets) and by the time I actually got on the train I had learned that I’d need to go two stops then get off and transfer.

I did that, and then went through the same rigamarole at the station I got off at (a pretty central one named Rajiv Chowk), trying to find someone to tell me where to get another subway for the Red Fort in Old Delhi, and finding almost no one who could help me. I also appeared to be the only Western female in the entire city today, so I was trying my best to act like I knew what was going on but I’m sure no one was fooled.

I disembarked at the correct station and emerged into a very busy market area, crowded with shoppers, vendors and street people. I walked steadily in the direction I thought was correct (and probably was) but there were no signs in English and at a certain point the market thinned out and there were more street people than shoppers and as always many many more men than women.

I grew unsure of myself so I turned back and near the Metro I stuck my head into an intriguing-looking building, dark pink with small towers and many rooms containing (it turned out) statues of various holy men and gods that Hindu visitors were coming by in droves to honor. Despite the fact that the place was packed with devotees, a woman at the door welcomed me in, asked me to remove my shoes and wash my hands, and then gave me a tour of the premises, explaining who each of the statues depicted and showing where I could drop a bit of money into that deity’s coffers. I understood almost nothing of what she said and she didn’t know where the Red Fort was (although she did know of Canada. Lots of people here know of Canada and have relatives and friends in Toronto.)

As I was leaving the prayer centre another woman came over and pointed to a narrow arched lane nearby and told me to go down it and turn left to get to the Red Fort. The lane was standing room only, accommodating at most four people across, who were all basically pushing their way along the lane. It was lined down one side with with tiny shops selling brightly coloured fabrics and other goods which people paused to check out, slowing progress further, as did those who struggled against the tide to go in the opposite direction.

Finally, I emerged from the tunnel to the light and turned left. The streets here too were crowded and noisy and there was no sign of other tourists. After a few blocks when I could still see nothing resembling a red fort or any minarets, I decided it was pointless to go farther: I felt that I could not stop to take out my guidebook and look for a map or even dare to take a photo, as revealing my “tourist” status would just reveal me as a mark. There were no signs to the landmarks I was looking for — at least not in English — and there seemed to be no one official anywhere to ask. So I turned back, and this is when a woman in a sari, about 40, maybe about five foot three, came across the sidewalk at me with her fists raised. I thought she was shouting angrily at a man nearby but she kept coming at me at and she struck me hard on the chest and arms with her raised fists. It hurt but not a lot: mostly I was just amazed. I just kept walking, trying to appear as though nothing had happened, and the woman didn’t follow me.*

I made my way back to the tunnel lane and pushed my way back up it toward the Metro. A couple of children attached themselves to me, asking for money, but I refused — concerned that if I gave them anything, swarms of other children would emerge from the crowds also looking for money.

Back on the Metro, which was now more crowded than it had been earlier, I decided to get off at Rajiv Chowk and have a look at Connaught Place and maybe see India Gate and some of the more upscale market promised in the Rough Guide. But up top when I emerged from the Metro station, it was store after store (many western ones there) and again few tourists, so again I was unsure how to get to the sights I wanted to see.

I decided to admit defeat, and to take the Metro back before rush hour got any closer. By then I felt like a pro at using the subway system and I think the achievement of my day was going as far as I did without much signage I could read, through all of those crowded confusing streets, and then making it back safely to my hotel — because if I’d got lost in Delhi, I’d have been really lost. It’s amazing what a little fear does for my sense of direction!

*Please note that I don’t attribute the woman’s behaviour in any way to the fact that she lives in Delhi: there are crazy people everywhere. And if she does live on the street in that city, she probably has a right to hate me on sight anyway.

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 1: En Route)

Hong Kong Airport, November 4, 2011

One thing I like about airports is that you don’t need to pretend that you’re not a tourist, like you do in major cities when you don’t know your way around. Here, everyone looks lost.

So I’m sitting in the Hong Kong airport and it’s about 6 a.m.. local time but it’s about 6 p.m yesterday in my head, so I’m having supper. I’m eating spicy chicken noodle in fish soup and HK really means it when they say “spicy.” With a tea, it was only HK$54! (Honestly, I don’t know either, but I gave them US$20, and got back HK$90. So not much.)

I extend my gratitude to all those who suggested books they’d take with them if they had a 16-hour flight and several other long hauls ahead of them. There were great suggestions for books and authors I hadn’t heard of. I’m going to check out quite a few of those when I get back. The books I finally did bring with me are, in paperback: Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black and Peter Carey ‘s Illywhacker (thanks, Bert and Victor, respectively). On the iPad I have Arivand Adiga’s Last Man in Tower and Russell Banks’s Lost Memory of Skin (thanks for both suggestions, Charles, but how come every book you suggested is available only in hardcover? Do you think I’m made of money and built like Hercules?) (actually, I think I know: you read review copies, right?). I also (thanks to Rhona) have with me The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever. So I’m well nourished every which way. So far I’ve started the Adiga and the Carey, and they’re both light-handed but engaging, and they’re going to be perfect.

Some of the suggestions I liked about the kinds of books to take on long trips from other people were: to take classics so you’d be forced to finally get to them; to bring an old favourite; to include a Calvin and Hobbes collection to break up the heavier reading; and to take a selection of genres such as a mystery, a local history and some more challenging books as well.

As I started to write this post, I was nearing the end of the first leg of my journey, the 16-hour flight from Toronto to Hong Kong. I had read a few chapters, slept for a while, done some crocheting, watched a movie (Bollywoodish), and been wellfed (as Joyce might have spelled it) twice. It was crowded in my window seat with my own stuff plus the blankets, pillows and headphones they handed out, and the plane was full. Still, it was much better than I’d thought it was going to to be and I hope the rest of the flights go as easily.

I saw nothing out the window as it was night from the time we left Toronto till we landed in HK, except one brief time when I noticed a bit of light under the lowered blinds. I am not sure where that happened, as we flew up over the top of Canada and Alaska before heading south again towards Hong Kong, where it was about 5 a.m. when we arrived. Where could there have been light? Also mysteriously (to me) it was 5 a.m. on November 4 when we arrived although we left Toronto at 1:30 a.m. on November 3. Time to learn about the International Date Line, I guess.

Bangkok looking very wet, Nov. 4/11

I have no idea what happened to my photos of Hong Kong but here are a couple I took as I landed in Bangkok briefly on the way from HK to Delhi. Bangkok was just beginning to recover from the flooding. I thought the airport was appropriate — its arches looked “Siamish” to me —

Bangkok Airport, Nov. 4, 2011