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Date: March 14-21, 2007
In early December '06 I learned from Mike, a buddy and a former roommate, that him and Neil, another friend and a former roommate, were planning a trip to India for March of 2007. This would be Neil's first trip to the land of his parents. Neil's dad would also come along. Although I was still recovering from various economic misfortunes encountered in Costa Rica, going to India with somebody originally from there was an opportunity too good to miss.
I have to admit that I was a bit unnerved about the trip for several reasons. Too many people had shared with me just how dirty and crowded India was. And then, I don't even like Indian food! All of it seems to come in a form of some paste. I figured that my dining selection will be limited to a choice of colors. Orange and red, or green and blue paste, sir? Then, about a month before the departure, Roy called, saying he was coming as well. The circle was now complete. The four of us lived together for a year in University Terrace in Blacksburg. Turns out Roy really is a professional poker player. Wild!
Roy and I left from LAX on the 14th of March, with a direct flight to Delhi from Chicago. I flew with AA, even though I swore never to fly with them again after the experience on the way to Costa Rica. I guess the low price and a convenience of a direct flight won over the poor customer service. Still, damn you, American Airlines! Well, to give the airline some credit, the service on this flight wasn't bad at all. The 15 hours (the longest flight I have ever been on) went by fast. We arrived at the Delhi Indira Gandhi airport around 9pm. I forgot the directions to our hotel, we caught a ride to the Park, place where Mike, Neil and Neil's dad were staying.
The Park is one of Delhi's premier hotels. It was also out of my price range, so Roy and I settled for a more economical option. The stay in India was organized by a travel agency, IndianVisit.com. The hotel that was booked for us in Delhi was the Florence Inn. The short taxi drive from Connaught Place, location of The Park, led west to Karol Bagh. Here we navigated through a jumble of shops, stands and late night shoppers until we found the side street leading to the hotel. Florence Inn was pretty much just what I had envisioned. Not many bells and whistles, but a good, clean place to spend the night, without breaking the bank.
After an unnoticed visit to The Park's breakfast buffet, Roy and I went for a quick stroll through Delhi's Jantar Mantar, located right across the street from hotel. This site has a collection of various astronomical instruments built in the early 18th century. The guide tried his best at explaining the function of each, but quite a lot of it got lost in translation. Still, I feel that I ought to be able to figure these things out, with all the schooling I had in engineering. One of these days...
Here I am at some sort of an astronomical contraption at Delhi's Jantar Mantar. It is also possible that it used to be a trap for giant 18th century rats.
The other guys got to India few days earlier, and had already seen some of the famous sights of Delhi. Their plan for the day was a visit to the Akshardham Temple. Roy and I decided to catch up and head up to Old Delhi, to see the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort. We caught a cab from the Park. Taking a taxi in Delhi is an extremely well choreographed process. In America, you summon the cab, get to your destination, pay the driver, and he is on his merry way. Not so much in India. The driver took us as far as he could go. But, instead of taking our money and heading back to the hotel to seek more customers, he simply told us that he will wait for us. Almost instantaneously, a group of rickshaw operators surrounded us, offering rides to the mosque entrance. The driver picked one of them, probably a buddy he could count on to bring us back. We got dropped off near the entrance, and once again, the rickshaw driver did not demand any money. He would just wait for us. Given that the mosque has at least three different entrances, quite a lot of the tourism business must be conducted on trust. Here soon after we were joined by a "guide." He explained to us that the rickshaw took us to the wrong gate, one designated for locals. This could have been true, as we didn't see too many tourist looking folks around here. In fact, we were in what could be described as a homeless den, with a multitude of people sleeping in gutters and an attached dirt field. We were lead through a multitude of shops to another gate, which indeed had a much larger concentration of foreigners.
View from the back of the rickshaw. What this picture doesn't show is the madness of buses, three-wheelers and cars squeezing by just few inches away from my exposed arms and legs.
Red Fort and Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in Delhi (and possibly India).
Central arch at the mosque.
Jama Masjid was an impressive sight, and also the first mosque I have ever been to. Compared to the elaborate Catholic churches of Europe, the most astounding feature of the mosque was its simplicity. The architecture was marvelous, with elaborate paintings and carvings. Yet, the prayer hall, or musalla, was free of any objects that could distract from the connection to Allah. The only prominent feature in the musalla is the mihrab, located on the wall opposite to the entrance, indicating direction to Mecca. Jama Masjid also contains a small museum dedicated to the prophet Muhammed. Here we got to see such marvelous things as the prophet's footprint in white marble, and a piece of his hair. Or at least, so claimed the shopkeeper.
We didn't visit the Red Fort, and instead we headed through a jumble of shops to an alley containing a Jain Temple. After removal of all of my leather based garments, I proceeded to the second floor to witness a spectacular hall, with walls covered by detailed gold decorations and carved statues of various Jain deities. The temple guide attempted to explain the meaning and history of the place, but most of his explanation was given in Hindu, except for the occasional "gold" and "thousand years old." From the temple we took a quick rickshaw ride to Old Delhi's spice market. We passed shops selling tea and saffron and arrived in the home of red peppers and other curry spices. This was a very neat place.
Jumble of shopes, pedastrians and motorbikes in Old Delhi's spice market. The smell of peppers was everywhere!
Although Roy may not look scared, I am sure he was freaked out when the cobra started wrapping around his neck, or when it took a snap at its handler. Maybe that's why the guy packed up so fast after taking our 200 rupees!
This completed our tour. The guide demanded a ridiculous amount for his services. We negotiated a lower price, but in retrospect, we still overpaid by a hefty amount. This was our first day of sightseeing, and it was difficult to guesstimate a good rate for the services. As promised, the cab driver was still waiting for us. Before heading out, we were led to a craft shop conveniently located by the taxi parking area. The prices were completely ridiculous, so we didn't spend much time inside, and instead continued south to Humayun's Tomb.
This is Humayun's Tomb. It was built in 1565 and is the first great Mughal garden tomb. It is basically the pre-Taj Mahal.
The portrait of this woman sitting in the doorway of Barber's Tomb is probably my favorite image from India. The second photo shows a view from the inside onto an ongoing restoration work, taken through one of the many ornamental carved stone screens, or jaalis.
Early next morning we left for Agra, a city situated some 200km south east of Delhi. Agra is famous for it's most spectacular sight, Taj Mahal. The drive to Agra continued the spirit of organized chaos we experienced earlier in Delhi. But, instead of motorcycles squeezing between three wheelers, bicycles and the occasional cow, it was now our car squeezing between trucks and buses. Way too often we passed a slower moving vehicle with a truck hurling towards us in the opposite lane, but every time the driver managed to swerve back into our lane just seconds before the impeding head-on collisions. Some stretches of road consisted of a divided highway. However, the message proclaimed on many bumper stickers that "lane driving is sane driving" does not seem to have a wide acceptance. A highway divided into two lanes typically results in three lanes of vehicles. Direction of travel also seems to be just a mere suggestion, as we encountered several cars moving against the flow of traffic. Then, there is the honking. Unlike in the states, where honking is a nicer way of giving somebody the finger, Indian drivers honk to indicate passing. Most trucks, typically decorated with various floral and religious motifs, contain a request on the rear bumper asking for "standard horn."
Today was also the first day we noticed the smog. The smog in New Delhi wasn't that bad. The air quality used to be worse few years ago, but since then most buses and auto-rickshaws were mandated to switch to a cleaner compressed natural gas. However, the smog was fairly rampant on the rest of our journey. We passed several factories spewing plumes of black smoke. Besides contributing to health problems and various environmental issues, the smog also made it impossible to enjoy the view of the country side. Instead of terminating in hills straddling the horizon (which I could only imagine were there), the rolling plains of Uttar Pradesh ended in a dark yellowish haze. Visibility was at most 20 miles.
Neil, Mike and Neil's dad were staying in the Mughal Sheraton. Once again, Roy and I opted for a more economical choice, the Howard Park Plaze. Although costing just about a fifth of the Sheraton, this was very nice hotel. It even had a doorkeeper, dressed in the typical decorated outfit and prominently displaying a large moustache. After a short break, we headed out to Taj Mahal. Although Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi is a spectacular building in its own right, it's grandure is completely overshadowed by the Taj. A red gateway leads to a massive garden, which typically holds the lotus pool. Unfortunately, the water was not flowing on this day. On the opposite side is the white marble mausoleum. A red mosque stands on the left, while its mirror image, a jawab, stands on the right. The jawab was built to retain the symmetry of the complex, but since it faces away from Mecca, it is not a true mosque.
The presence of the white marble is intensified by the contrasting red sandstone. All the decorative floral patterns, as well as the Koranic calligraphy were created by inlaying precious and semi-precious stones into the marble. The effort required to do this is completely mind blowing, especially after witnessing the detail up close. Many leaves and petals contain a central stem, which is actually a hair thin piece of white stone, curved to follow the shape of the leaf. Descendants of the original craftsmen responsible for this pietra dura still work in Agra and sell their crafts to tourists. We stopped in one such a shop later in the day. Here we got to witness the process of manually shaping the stones to produce exquisite green marble dinner tables.
The UT crew (plus Neil's dad) at the gateway to Taj Mahal. The guy in the second photo was our guide for this part of the trip.
Mike and I, the two aerospace engineers, hanging out in India.
Taj Mahal is an absolutely breathtaking building. Yet, what really made the beauty of the white marble stand out was the contrast to the multitude of colors worn by Indian women.
The red building is the jawab, or a mirror mosque. Also, Neil on a prowl.
The Yamuna river forms a backdrop to the Taj. The legend has it that Shah Jahan's original intention was to build a tomb for himself, a black Taj Mahal, on the other side of the river, but the plans had to be put aside after a coup orchestrated by one of his sons, Aurangzeb.
We didn't stay to see the sunset (which is supposed to be spectacular), but I simulated it through the use of my pink "warming" filter.
That evening we had a dinner in an Indian restaurant. The food was actually very good, and I concluded that my dislike of Indian food is limited to the various curries. We spent the rest of the evening in the Sheraton, drinking indian beers and duty free liquor in the hotel's pool-side garden.
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