25.03.2010 -50 °C
India has an unrivaled mass of various shops full of many many strange and unusual gifts. The range of utter crap is astounding. So with the prospect of birthday shopping ahead of me for Marks 25th (cough) and the assumption that Mark didn't need any Aladdin shoes, wooden elephants or excitingly coloured bangles meant that I was at a complete loss as to what would make a nice present. Then on a particularly sweaty, bumpy ten hour bus journey from Udaipur to Jaipur a light bulb appeared over my weary head and I decided that my present to Mark would be a few nights in a top notch hotel. When residing in rooms with hard beds on noisy roads with no air con, with trickles of water that fall out of the wall posing as showers and mosquito's personally directed through your window all night by the expressionless staff, a top notch hotel is a little piece of heaven. We checked in and were treated to sheer luxury for 3 nights. Food was rubbish.
So we had arrived in Jaipur. We spent the first two days by the pool, watching Star Movies (see first blog) and celebrating Mark's birthday in traditional western style: the pub. In fact we didn't really bother with any sightseeing in Jaipur as we've come to the conclusion that if you've seen one temple you've seen 'em all really and it's far too hot out there after all. We met up with a good crowd on Mark's birthday, one of which is a producer of Rajsthani music (don't you know) so we turned the studio into a mini gathering. One touristy thing we were lucky enough to see the day before we left Jaipur was a procession of elephants, dancers, camels, musicians and emaciated limping (but colourfully decorated) horses and the tourists were treated to VIP seating on a balcony above the procession. A nice way to spend the evening before heading to Delhi.
I have heard many horror stories about Delhi. Both travellers and Indians advise against going there but we persisted anyway seeing as it is the capital and it was on our way to the Taj Mahal. Even the faithful Lonely Planet guide book says that the accommodation will be shabby, try and avoid a fair amount of places, don't trust the rickshaw drivers, beware of the Fagin's and Artful Dodger's that lurk in every dark corner. And there are quite a few dark corners. However; the rickshaw drivers were helpful, our hotel room was clean and comfortable, we were spontaneously HELPED with directions once in New Dehli train station (forewarned as Scam Central), the beggars were few and far between and we found another McDonalds. I'm not proud of myself. We were only there for one day and spent the time in Old Delhi, I'd like to say looking at temples and old buildings but Mark and I went shopping for a new digital camera. We took a photo of a red temple thingy at the end of a main road so that counts I think.
We left for the much anticipated Taj Mahal in Agra very early the next day as we only had one full day before getting the train out of there that night. Agra's rickshaw operation is what Delhi's should have been: scandalous. We initially went to the Government Prepaid Counter in the station and happily agreed a fixed price with one driver through the policemen handing out the receipts. We then off loaded our heavy bags into his boiling hot stuffy rickshaw as he went into the usual sales pitch. That's expected but we don't want to go anywhere else; Mark is feeling ill and I'm really not up for the chat that always starts with "which country you from?" (and various answers have included Jamaica, Japan and Iceland). He realised he won't get any more money out of us and so pretends his rickshaw is broken and we were begrudgingly moved to another rickshaw. The second rickshaw is just as ridiculous and wouldn't take us anywhere unless we agree to pay more, even though the point of a prepaid counter is that there is no further negotiation. So Mark then marched back over to the police for assistance but they completely ignored us until we finally demanded a refund. The police tried to give us back half of what we paid in the first place and when Mark demanded they pay us back the full price they then discreetly folded the notes in such a way that they could snap back half of the money whilst we were handing over the receipt. Rickshaw's here make a living from the extra money they get from scamming tourists and sometimes, even though they're only asking for pennies, it gets to a point where you bite back. Luckily Mark didn't fall for any of it and we're 80p up. What will we spend it on.
This slightly detracts from the Taj Mahal. The first time we saw it was when we got to a roof top restaurant for breakfast and it's very weird seeing it in real life after you've seen the image so much in the media. We had an afternoon by the building itself taking lots of photos and having lots of people taking photos of us. It's a weird trend across parts of Asia that families, individuals, group of friends and kids come up to Westerners and have their photo's taken with you. If you're not careful you start pretending you're famous and hours pass as queues form. I'm actually not that bad really but it could easily escalate to massive proportions.
Again I digress. Taj Mahal: big impressive symmetric building from the outside, not much going on inside, it was built by an important bloke when his girlfriend/wife died as a dedication to her memory and as a big slap in the face to all the poor people who live in squalor around it. See photos. (For Taj Mahal, not squalor).
We then spent the early evening in another roof top restaurant whilst the sun set over the Taj Mahal and that's a fond memory I will have for a long long time to come. Tune in next time for The River Ganges, open air crematoriums, my birthday and more bl**dy rickshaws.