Sunday, May 8, 2011

Delhi, Agra and some tidbits about traveling

As I explained in a previous post, our first stop in India was Delhi for a couple days while we were getting our bearings. We first stayed at the Hyatt with some free nights I had left, so that we could transition smoothly. Funnily enough, we felt a little out of place there. We landed late at night from Singapore and took a taxi to the hotel. More than a taxi, it was a beat up old piece of junk and as we were pulling up at the Hyatt we had trouble suppressing a smile. The car didn't quite match the standing of the place.
Once in there, we were apphaled by the price of the food and different buffets. Definitely not what we're used to, and not in our budget. It was actually quite amusing as we felt like clandestine passengers on the Titanic.

During our time there we didn't do much. We were busy planning the next couple weeks but we still went to Old Delhi and its big Red Fort. To be honest, the Red Fort is a little underwhelming considering how awesome the place could be if it were better maintained. It was fun to us since it was the first place we were visiting in India, but it would have been very dissapointing if we had visited it after our tour of Rajashtan. The fun part though, was that 95% of the tourists there were Indians. we were bathed in a crowd of locals and were happy to see Indians being tourists as we were.

This used to be surrounded by water. It would look amazing renovated

From there we had to take our first rickshaw back to the hotel. We had read a lot about the many ways you can get screwed as a tourist so we were prepared and negotiated hard with the driver before taking off. It went something like:
- Us: How much for [that place]
- him: 300 (about $6)
- Denise: big laugh - "75"
and back and forth. Once at 100 we were firm and basically told him to take it or we'd find someone else
The guy finally settled for 100. The funny part though, was that he didn't even realize where we were really going and once he did, after we were on our way and he asked more questions, it seemed like it was way further than he had anticipated. He tried to bring the price to 120 but since we had already agreed on a price, he didn't try too hard.

The reason why I'm talking about this is because it's something we've learned to perfect. Anybody who knows us also knows that I'm very non-confrontational (everyone except maybe my boss at StumbleUpon :), so in other words, I suck at this. Denise on the other hand is devilishly good. She doesn't enjoy it but she's good and I'm always impressed. So over time we've developed a method: We decide beforehand what we're ready to pay (and try to find out how much is a normal price from locals). This way we can show a united front. Once we reach through haggling the max price we've decided, we basically tell the guy that he can take us for that price or we'll find someone else. They usually still try to argue why it's too low, but since we've stopped haggling and set a price, we just move on and leave. More often than not, it works: the guy catches up with us and agrees. Now again Denise is the driving force behind it, but I'm trying to pull my weight more and more as time goes on.
I'd say we've become quite effective and the only places where it's extremely hard are big stops like train stations. It's almost like the guys are in collusion at those places and it's almost impossible to make it work as none of them will go below a set price. It makes it very hard to not get screwed there.
Sometimes we may even seem ruthless:
When taking a car from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, we had agreed with the hotel beforehand that the car would have A/C. As we departed in the morning, I noticed that the windows were open and the A/C off. It wasn't that hot, but we had traveled enough that something seemed off. Shortly after we left I closed my window and started to ask about turning the A/C on. The driver went something like "no A/C, it costs more" and Denise and I immediately ordered him to stop the car and go back to the hotel. We didn't argue or try to learn more. "No A/C = no ride; bring us back right now". The guy pulled over right away, a little startled, and called his boss. Things got settled in no time and we resumed our trip a minute later. Funnily though, we were sharing the car with 2 other girls for the beginning of the trip and they didn't say a word through the whole thing. We must have seemed rude and ruthless, but we were proved right and avoided a long drawn out debate. And the drive was pleasant after that.
Anyway, I digress :)

Before leaving Delhi for Rajasthan we spent a night a my friend's place, named Arti, who I had met at France Telecom, and took the day slow and finished planning the rest of India. It is so nice to be able to stay with someone who's local! Arti and her family took us in, fed us and helped plan some of our visits and transport.

But Delhi is also a central hub for the places we wanted to visit so We went back for seconds after our tour of Rajasthan. We had a 16hours train ride scheduled to get back there from Jaisalmer and it was our first train experience. Overall it went Ok. We had bunk beds and were in a car with A/C. There were just a couple 'highlights':
* As we were waiting for the train I went to get our tickets while Denise was waiting with our luggage. She was slowly getting more and more surrounded by men who were staring at her and taking her photo (people stare here, unabashadly and intently, espcially if you're a woman, since not many of them venture outside, and especially if you have a fair skin). I was gone for 5 minutes but she was definitely relieved when I came back. Not that she was in any danger, but it quickly becomes very uncomfortable.
* each 'cabin' at our class level has 4 beds. You realize how close they are to each other when an Indian guy shows up on the one next to you and starts staring.
Now, our conditions were actually much better than other tourists we'd met at the train station, who had chosen the cheapest tickets with many more beds per cabin and no A/C, but I franly don't know how these people pull it off when it's 40C outside. Maybe I'm just getting old.

This time around, we stayed in a fairly nice hotel in Delhi proper, in a fairly central location. Even if the hotel was nice, the neighboorhood didn't impress us. Until we reached the hotel we were actually getting more and more sure that it would end up being a dump given the surroundings, but thankfully we were wrong.
To give you an idea of how busy and traffic jammed the area was, as we were getting closer, our taxi got a sideview mirrow broken and backed up into a tuk-tuk. We actually covered the last 500m by foot given the madness. The street was small and super busy, with virtually no sidewalk. So much so that Denise had this very true remark:
- "Delhi is so busy that even pedestrians get stuck in traffic"  (this is now one of my favorite quotes)

As we looked at our different options to reach Rishikesh (our next destination) we got to visit a lot of the central part of Delhi, its commercial centers and the India gate. I'll spare you the details, but overall chaos is constant.

The India gate

The one place that really surprised us was the metro. It is modern and clean, has A/C and is a very pleasant way of going through Delhi. Since there are way less women than men in the street, they even get their own car at the front of the metro! It creates scenes like this one :)

Of course, we couldn't be in India and not visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, one of the wonders of the world. We did a day trip from Delhi by car and even got to see the Agra fort as well.

Early morning on our way to Agra. The sun is barely visible behind the pollution smog

View from the fort

Still in the fort

Par of the fort

The Taj Mahal is a massive building, and it's all the more impressive when you learn that it's just a tomb, built in 22 years for the wife of the king at the time. It's a huge building and is beautiful. Denise and I were ready to be impressed (kind of like the way we were by the Macchu Picchu, even though we've all seen photos) but for some reason we didn't come out as enthralled as others have. I have a few reasons for it
* The car came with a guide, which is a nice plus, but even though he was nice and didn't push us, the guy spoke a fair amount and didn't waste time. By the time we were out I realized I had seen the building and taken photos but I had not looked at it at my own pace, and it actually lessened the experience
* The place is also so famous that we expected a building with a decoration a lot more intricate. The architecture is amazing but the inside doesn't quite match the outside and after being blown away by that Jain temple in Ranakpur, we thought it would be even more impressive. What can I say, we're spoiled I guess :)

The decoration is still very cool with a ton of semi precious stones inlaid into marble

Surrounding the door, more inlays that are quotes of the Coran

Now don't get me wrong, it is a fantastic and huge building, and I'm particularly impressed by the fact that it is completely symmetrical: Look at it from any of its sides and it looks exactly the same (and consequently if you want to take a photo in front of it without too many other people, just go to the side!). I mean, they built a mosque on the left side of it, an built the exact same building on the other side just to keep the symmetry, even though it's never been used for anything.

Yes, this is the side

The 2nd mosque

An interesting tidbit: the king had planned to build a black version of the Taj Mahal on the other side of the river for his own tomb, but his son didn't see it that way and basically overthrew his dad before the work could be really started.

After 2 weeks in India and in the heat, we were definitely worn out by the time we left Delhi. We were ready for Rishikesh even though we feel we barely scratched the surface of what Delhi has to offer.

You can find more photos here (map)

View India - Delhi, Agra in a larger map

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