I’m not sure how often it is appropriate to post in this blog. Write too often and you risk annoying your audience; too infrequently and you may lose them altogether. (I guess!) Since my last post, we’ve come a long way; physically and emotionally. From Delhi, we’ve taken trains to Agra – to see the Taj Mahal, Jaipur – the pink city, and Udaipur – the city of lakes. We’re booked on an overnight train to Mumbai tonight – our first experience of the sleeper train. Delhi proved to be an unrelenting assault on the senses which took its toll in the four short days we were there. In the first blog post from Boxing Day I wrote that we were looking forward to catching up on sleep, and although we did to a certain extent, the experience itself wore us down in a totally different way. Travelling’s supposed to be relaxing, right? Feeling like we should take in some of Delhi’s cultural sights we bought ourselves metro day tickets and jumped on board. Connaught Place is the centre of New Delhi and is probably the most westernised environment we encountered in the whole place. The huge Flag of India stands proudly in the perfectly circular, peaceful park in the centre of the place – we sat under it and I had a little snooze. (No surprises there!) We caught the metro to Chandni Chowk to visit the Red Fort, a huge and imposing structure next to the famous Jama Masjid mosque. Both are worth a visit, although we were thrown out of the mosque for reasons we could not figure out.
Shortly after this photo, we got lost in the back streets of Old Delhi – semi on purpose really, and enjoyed the array of tiny shops and stalls, the intense and ever changing smells – sweet bread, strong garlic, incense – as we carved out our own little passage through the chaos. As as we were ‘sight-seeing’, however, we realised that we were also a ‘sight to be seen’ – a feature of our trip that has become quite a regular occurrence. It’s not the locals who do it, it’s the other Indian tourists – so it only really happens at or near famous monuments, and there are some more subtle than others. Some are simply brazen and blatant. Catching your eye, they tilt their head, camera in hand and ask, ‘One photo? Please?’ The first time it happened was in the Red Fort. Helena was off taking a photo of some inlaid marble, and I was sitting minding my own business when a rather fashionably dressed young Indian wearing Aviators came up and asked, ‘Can I take a photo of you?’ I was mildly shocked at the request (and confused), but I figured there was no harm in it so I consented happily. Cue a 5min photo shoot! Two of his friends joined me and, as I remained as I was, they proceeded to take a variety of shots, mocking up multiple poses around me. When I thought we were done, the camera man motioned that he wanted to be in the shots as well, so he swapped with his friend and the whole process started again. I looked around to see Helena standing some way off, giggling to herself and taking photos of people taking photos of me..! When they had finished, we shook hands and they went happily on their way. We didn’t know at the time, however, that that was merely the first of many times this would process would take place – we’d been accosted a further five or six times before we even left the Red Fort. Then again on the steps of Jama Masjid, in Lodi Gardens (South Delhi), Agra Fort (where a real crazy woman latched herself firstly onto my arm, then around Helena’s shoulders all the while getting increasingly more annoyed with her husband because he refused to remove his hat and smile), Amer Fort (Jaipur) and various other places around Delhi, Jaipur and Udaipur. Interestingly, one of the places where we didn’t seem to be a major attraction was at the Taj Mahal, in Agra. That, perhaps, needs little or no explanation. Every local who spoke to us in Delhi told us that four days were too many – they were probably right. After celebrating New Year with beers in a roof garden, we left almost more tired than we’d arrived, although we do look back on Delhi affectionately, especially Pahar Ganj. And then we went to Agra.
Arriving in the early morning, we got the benefit of a quieter environment around the Taj Mahal and we enjoyed the peaceful nature of the place even though the Taj herself seemed determined to keep her full majesty hidden behind a veil of mist and modesty. I must admit that I had, for a short time, a similar feeling as when I visited Machu Picchu in 2009 – that I’d paid my money, gone through the tourist turnstile to see exactly what I expected to see. It does, after all, look the same as in the photos and on the postcards. Can you be underwhelmed? Is it allowed? And yet, as we spent more time there, the mist partly cleared, we went inside to see the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan side by side, and inevitably, we realised that this place was indeed something special. I’m not sure I’ve figured out why yet. Is it the intricate architecture? The story behind its construction? The feeling of the marble under your feet and fingertips as you hush your way around the mausoleum with the single light suspended from the ceiling inside? Maybe it’s the whole complex, the buildings surrounding the Taj, pure and perfect symmetry. As we sat and reflected near the spot where the famous photograph of Princess Diana was taken, we realised that it was not about ‘seeing’ the Taj, or taking the ‘perfect blue sky picture’; I’m still not sure how to describe the feeling but it was something else. Something special. This blog-writing is a new challenge…I’m not short of content, quite the opposite, and have to try to filter the stuff worth reading..! We had a good day on a tour around Jaipur – met some interesting characters: Hassan and Eileen, young Bangladeshi newly-weds on honeymoon – they were obsessed with their selfie stick(!); and Prabaker and his wife – most interesting because Prabaker is the name of the main character’s guide in ‘Shantaram’, the novel set in Bombay that Phil Warren recommended to me – thanks mate! And Udaipur has saved us in the last three days – rooftop cafes, boat rides and a wicked cycle tour. We almost feel ready for Mumbai…and we will definitely be having a drink in Leopold’s.