At last: the sun is finally winning its battle with the smog in Delhi, and I’m astonished at how quickly the temperature is changing. Rewind to the 5th of January, when I landed in India wrapped up in my North Face jacket and sheepskin gloves, and was STILL cold (mind you, I was hungover, which never helps)… and yet within two weeks I was happily pottering around in shorts and t-shirts at the weekends. It wasn’t boiling, but it was certainly passable for a half-decent Scottish summer. Now, just in this past couple of weeks, the temperature has climbed from the low twenties to around 30C+. Cue, hasty dash to the shops to stock up on suitable attire, and I’m now bracing myself for an uncomfortable few weeks.
One thing I won’t be sorry to see the back of is this couture item which has been sported openly by the female populace during the autumn/winter ‘fashion’ season: it’s what can only be described as an unforgiveable “camel’s toe” (and yes, I actually think it looks worse than the sort of “camel’s toe” to which you think I am referring, and that’s saying something). Just have a swatch at this:
Yup, it’s a sock designed especially for wearing with flip flops and sandals, and I am amazed by the sorts of otherwise-fashionable ladies who don’t realise (or don’t care about) how awful this really looks. If it’s cold, wear some boots, for heaven’s sake! As my wee brother would say, I’m afraid I just don’t get the ‘get’ at all.
I finally managed to make the trip down to Agra last weekend, and I’m really pleased I did, despite my earlier comments regarding my lack of interest in ticking off the major sights. I’d arranged to go down with Shiju, a friend from work whose family is away in Kerala for a month, so he’s a bit bored and fancied being my tour guide. We decided to head down early on Saturday morning, visit Agra Fort, and then stay overnight to ‘do’ the Taj Mahal early on Sunday morning (I would highly recommend this approach, as it gets monstrously busy as the day progresses).
So off we went, driving down the Yamuna Expressway – a huge, new toll road, which makes the longish journey pretty easy. It took us through Noida (not particularly picturesque) and past the new F1 racing circuit, which looked pretty impressive. I think I’m sounding a bit Partridge-esque here, so let’s move on.
Eventually we arrived in Agra, which was, as expected, bustling with tourists and tour buses. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen so many white people in one place for quite some time, and Shiju was highly amused when I told him I didn’t feel like a tourist (although I am), I felt more like a local who was getting rather grumpy at this invasion of ‘my’ country. I have definitely gone slightly native. It was great having Shiju as my companion, as he was able to negotiate with the tuk-tuk drivers and find the best tour guides, while I tried to impress all and sundry with my basic Hindi – it worked – the locals told me my Hindi accent was great (I’m sure it’s not) and they indulged me in my conversational basics as I introduced myself and asked them how they were. Indians are much more polite, patient and accommodating in this regard than are the French. In fact, they really appreciate the effort, and will probably charge you less than they would normally, if you’re buying something, so give it a go!
Firstly, to Agra Fort. As with all major tourist attractions in India, there are two queues, and two corresponding prices, for Indians and for tourists. The tourists pay a lot more to get in, but it’s well-known that this is the case, and I tried to ignore some English tourists who were obviously grumbling about this set-up. We found a good guide, and our tour took twice as long because our guide described everything in Hindi, and Shiju then had to translate for me. I’m sure he probably told me a lot of porky pies, come to think of it, but I wouldn’t know.
The Fort has seen a lot of action over the years, but I won’t go into it here (look it up on Wikipedia) – suffice to say it’s complicated but fascinating. I kept getting confused about which Mughal king ruled when, and who had which wives, and who was responsible for filling the moat with crocodiles as a deterrent to invaders (or as a swift way of disposing with unruly subjects), but I got the general gist. The one constant I kept hearing was how the building used to be more ornate, with many rooms decorated with gold and precious stones, but that the ‘Britishers’ came in and took the lot. I made sure that the guide understood I was a ‘Scottisher’ which is, of course, completely different.
The majority of Agra Fort is built of red stone, but there is a huge section in white marble which was constructed by Shah Jahan (he of Taj Mahal fame). After Shah Jahan had built the Taj for his deceased wife, he wanted to build a black replica on the other side of the river, but his son declared him bonkers (i.e. didn’t want him to splurge another massive fortune on the project) and had him held under house arrest in Agra Fort until his death 8 years later. He was allowed to live in the marble rooms where he could look out across the Yamuna River and see the Taj quite clearly, and when he died he was popped in a boat and shipped up the river to join his wife. He was definitely rather eccentric, illustrated nicely by his insistence that the designer of the Taj have his hand cut off when it was finished, so that he couldn’t again design anything so marvellous. Apparently the designer agreed when the Shah promised he would look after his family, children and subsequent generations financially. I wonder if ol’ Norrie Foster has had similar offers?
After a quick interaction with the monkeys (I got soooo close this time, but was convinced I would be bitten or assaulted), we headed back to the hotel for some cocktails and a cairry-oot – in true Scottish style, we had brought our own booze to avoid hefty hotel prices, and I taught Shiju how best to avoid detection from the hotel staff: buy a couple of glasses of wine at the bar, then head outside into the gardens and replenish from the carefully-hidden bottles in my bag. I explained this was ‘jakey-drinking’, a common pastime back hame, and we merrily put the world to rights and bitched about people at work until we realised it was 11pm (we’d been there since about 5), we were a bit pished, and hadn’t had any dinner. Thankfully the restaurant staff could see we clearly needed some food, so rustled up some chicken biryani and politely ignored the contraband bottles of wine poking out of my bag.
Next morning, we headed early-ish to the Taj Mahal in order to avoid most of those pesky tourists. The monument opens at 6.30am, and by the time we arrived at 8am it was already pretty busy. We’d secured the services of “Raj at the Taj”, a highly-amusing tour guide who tried to convince me that he had escorted Tom Cruise round the premises, and that his father had done the same for Bill and Hillary Clinton. I told Raj (definitely not his real name but I can see why he chose it) that I would be sure to give his number to my pals George Clooney and Brad Pitt, should they ever find themselves in Agra looking for something to do.
Actually, Raj was really good value, and he told us loads of interesting facts about the Taj, and he showed us some pretty cool optical illusions along the way. Also, Shiju admitted that he’d learned more on this visit than he had done on two previous tours, so I think we did pretty well. Raj is also useful because he’s well-known, and managed to help us skip queues, hide illegal fags/lighters (no-one told me I couldn’t have them in my bag, but thanks to Raj they stayed with a dodgy bloke who reappeared when we exited a while later), and fend off the hordes of youngsters who were trying to flog glittery snowglobe souvenirs.
Our tuk-tuk driver took us back to the hotel, calling me ‘bagpiper’ (a new one on me) all the way there, before proudly showing me his Lion Rampant sticker (a gift from some friendly Scottishers, obviously) on the front of his vehicle. We tried to set off back to Delhi, but couldn’t because the car battery had gone dead overnight. Arrghh…I envisioned an RAC-style wait for assistance but, no, I keep forgetting this is India! A bloke knew a bloke just round the corner who could (and did) come within 5 minutes to sort it all out. Happily, off we went, stopping only for a motorway snack (hot samosa instead of UK-style stale sarnies) and the obligatory loo stop – I realise I haven’t yet mentioned anything toilet-related in this post, so should really rectify that – it was like entering a scrum with all the Indian women pushing haphazardly into the cubicle area, and barging past all the patient Europeans. No queuing system whatsoever, so some German girls and I formed a breakaway group and commandeered one cubicle for our own use, using a sentry-type guarding system to prevent any unauthorised queue-jumping. Glaring, harrumphing and making judicious use of pokey elbows also helped.
Now looking forward to next weekend’s trip to Rishikesh for some camping and white water rafting adventures! At least, I was looking forward to it until someone told me, casually, today, that we have to watch out for wild animals in the area, as they are very common; I said, “Why, what sorts of wild animals might we expect?”. The response? “Leopards”. Gulp!