Before I write about the next places I went to, I need to share two anecdotal stories told to me by a friend who is the husband of a friend and colleague. He had arrived in Hyderabad just at the end of our conference to travel with her in the south of India and came armed with much more knowledge about the country than me:
- Bang Lassi: Although this sounds like fucking the irretrievably annoying hound, “lassie”, from banal childhood TV-watching, it is, in fact, a very popular drink over here and is made by blending yogurt with water and Indian spices My friend, however, told me that there is a variation upon this drink whereby you insert the word “Bang” before “Lassi”. This potion is concocted from the aforementioned ingredients but laced with a slew of narcotics, including potent opiate-based drugs. My friend told me that “a friend of his” (it was probably him) had once traveled to India and found a place that sold one of these illicit mixtures. His “friend” ordered a “Bang Lassi”, gulped it down, and did not feel a thing. Disappointed, he ordered 2 more and chugged them. Not only did he not remember a single, solitary thing from that moment on – get this – he woke up in his hotel room the next morning surrounded by puppets!!! Yes, he had gone and spent several thousand rupees on a puppet-shopping spree because they had freaked him out so much when he was stoned off his gourd. That is just so awesome and I have been scouring every shithole back alley (and a shithole back alley in India is beyond what you can possibly imagine) wherever I have stopped vainly searching for a “Bang Lassi”. I want to wake up in my hotel room surrounded by puppets! So far, I have totally struck out but I will let you know if I eventually succeed…
- Train Stations: As we were discussing our travel plans, my friend also warned me off taking the train. Not only are they disease-ridden cargo holds reminiscent of trains traveling east through Central Europe, circa 1944, apparently there are also thoroughly bogus ticket booths designed to rip off every foreigner stupid enough to have made the decision to travel by rail. These ticket booths are totally out in the open and fleece foreigners of their rupees leaving them aghast as their tickets are rejected at the door and they watch the puffing diesel smoke of their train disappear over the horizon as it lazily meanders its way to Poland. Having heard this, I decided then and there to hire drivers for overland travel – good thing too as you travel in relative comfort and it is only a shade more expensive than taking the real train (which is not much).
Delhi: I actually do not have a lot to say about Delhi but that is not Delhi’s fault – it is my fault for only spending such a short time there and therefore not having really been able to properly explore the city. Still, I have a few impressions:
- I was amazed by how GREEN Delhi is despite being such a ridiculously enormous mega-city. On my drive from the airport (at night), I was convinced we were traveling in the wrong direction as I felt, for the entire 40 minutes, I was making my way deeper and deeper into a thickly wooded forest. Mistakenly thinking I was not even close to the city limits, I allowed myself to nod off. The next thing I knew my driver announced that we had arrived at my hotel. I wandered around for awhile and, despite the usual chronic traffic and noise pollution, I was, and remain, astonished by the trees. Every street in both the poor and the rich districts are heavily tree-lined, the overhanging foliage clipped in an arch to accommodate the trucks and buses, making them look like green-veined arteries to a surreal Oz that is no place like home.
- Unbelievable smog that puts an unrelenting chokehold on the city and makes you wave your hand in front of your face just to see to the next gash in the road. It is hard to believe that more than 20 million people can cope 24/7 with pollution as overwhelming as this.
- Delhi is flat. I had just been traveling in Nepal and I wistfully yearned for a mountain (or even a “hill”). There were mountains of steaming trash in the streets, I admit, and they could probably rightfully be classified as ‘hillocks’ as the cows, donkeys and goats sucked out the insides of vile discarded tin cans, flip-flops and sundry other objects wastefully tossed away.
- Old Delhi was the coolest part and is the Mughal capital established by Shah Jahan in 1638 (more on this guy when I write about Taj Mahal). I was told the best way to navigate Old Delhi is by rickshaw. Note that I am not referring to a Tuk-Tuk. I am talking about a real rickshaw pulled by a real human being. I was reluctant to do this as it just seems to me like a modern-day form of slavery. After hiring one, I discovered I was right and after 10 minutes of watching the wiry muscles on this poor soul’s back look like they were imminently about to burst forth from his body under the strain, I put an end to it. I paid my ‘driver’ handsomely for his 10 minutes of servitude and set out on foot. To say that Old Delhi is a warren of crooked and congested alleys is the understatement of the century. These alleys look like every 15 minutes or so they, and all of their jumbled contents, are ripped up and thrown high into the air with the broken pieces being allowed to rain down wherever they will. They make Kondapur Road back in Hyderabad seem like a quaint, well-heeled street in Vienna. Still, it is mesmerizing to watch the untrammeled and unrelenting chaos of the bazaars in action. This is a must-see.
- I visited Raj Ghat, Mahatma Ghandi’s cremation site where an ‘eternal flame’ has remained burning ever since he was assassinated in 1948 by a Hindu nationalist as thanks for his leadership in emancipating the country. This was ho-hum and located in a flat, banal park area with nothing else of interest to see in it. I then went to Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India. This was okay but, because I was wearing cargo pants, I was forced to wear a make-shift skirt and was the laughing stock of foreigners and locals alike in their cursed jeans and T-shirts. Still, I tried to be modest and not show too much ankle for fear of being run out of town as a dirty slut. I also visited Qutb Minar, a towering 240-foot minaret – the tallest in the world and surrounded by an elaborate complex built in the Indo-Islamic architectural tradition. That was relatively interesting (and I did not have to wear a skirt).
- I also took a quick look at the government buildings close to India Gate, a prominent landmark in Delhi not to be confused with the Gate of India in Mumbai. Delhi’s India Gate commemorates the 90,000 soldiers of the British Indian army who were killed in World War I and the third Anglo-Afghan War. I was surprised by the size of this figure but then I remembered that probably about that many rickshaw “drivers” die daily in Old Delhi from hyper-exhaustion. Okay, that is perhaps a mild exaggeration but, I hate to say it, life is cheap here.
Road to Agra:
Because Agra is so close to Delhi, I figured I might as well go and see the Taj Mahal. I had checked a map and, by the main highway, Agra is a mere 200 KM south of Delhi. I was therefore stunned when my driver informed me that it would take 5 hours to get there. “It’s only 200 KM!” I protested, “How can it possibly take 5 hours, for heaven’s sake?!” My driver shrugged and said “road is not so good.” Correction: THAT is the understatement of the century. Montrealers, I know we all think we are professionals when it comes to our knowledge of potholes but, in fact, we have absolutely no clue what a pothole really is. The potholes on the road to Agra are craters so massive that if you drove into one by mistake you would have inadvertently acquired a one-way ticket to the core of the earth (and this being India, you would probably have to stop and pay a multi-limbed God a levy mid-way through your descent). On top of the potholes, this “highway” is not limited to motorized vehicles – it also has numerous horse-drawn carts hauling impossibly heavy loads at about 2.5 KM/hour. I must say, these horses were the most pitiable, undersized beasts I have ever seen and the strain they were under made me feel even sorrier for them than the rickshaw “drivers” back in Old Delhi.
Watching the farmers in the fields, dotted here and there with small shrub-like trees, through the smog (yes, the smog did not let up all the way to Agra) was interesting during the journey. I remarked to my driver that I did not know how these people (men and women alike) could toil, beating out the rice in the paddies and carrying around enormous bales of branches over their heads to feed the livestock, in such sweltering heat and pollution. He reminded me that this is the “cool season” and that in June and July the temperatures average out at around 47 degrees Celsius. He also pointed out that in the months preceding this blistering heat, the mosquitoes are so thick in the air, greedily sucking on anything with blood coursing through it, that people actually welcome the hot season as it kills off most of the mosquitoes along with the flowering epidemics of malaria and dengue. Basically, he was telling me that these people are quite content now that the “cool season” has arrived (it was about 34 degrees Celsius) and the mosquitoes are not quite so insufferable. Not for the first time in India, I was left stunned by how such a huge mass of humanity labors for mere survival in such utterly hellish conditions.
On the drive, I also noticed that some of the cows were tied by a lead to trees. I asked my driver about this as I thought that all cows were allowed to roam around at will. He explained that the cows in the countryside are owned by farmers and can be put to work, mostly for dairy. The ones that lounge around in the streets of the cities, snarling up traffic and petulantly waiting for a manicure, are un-owned. He also told me that the penalty for slaughtering a cow, whether in the country or the city, is a minimum 20-year prison term irrespective of whether you are a Hindu or come from outer space. I do not want to even begin to think about what conditions are like in an Indian prison – holy cow!
When we arrived in Agra, I was dismayed to learn that my hotel had been overbooked. My dismay quickly evaporated when I was told that I had been upgraded to ‘The Grand Imperial’ which is a Heritage Site. When I arrived at the hotel, I was told that the regular rooms were overbooked so I had been upgraded to an “Imperial Suite”. I swear to God, I have never seen, nor will I ever see again, a hotel “room” as decadently lavish as this. It was a gigantic apartment with ceilings at least 30 feet tall (this is NOT an exaggeration). It had a four-poster bed and all of the furniture was comprised of incredibly ornate antiques. The bathroom alone was bigger than a big room in a 4-star hotel back home. It was so big and ostentatious it looked like Mick Jagger would not even be able to afford to stay there for a night. I did not argue but I felt sick with guilt staying at this place after all I had seen on the road to Agra, a city which is yet another crushing homage to abject poverty.
I will not waste any time describing the white-marble “Taj” as everyone has seen countless pictures of the place. All I will say is that it IS truly stunning and definitely worth the road to Agra to see. I was cheesy enough to have my picture taken sitting alone in the exact same spot where Princess Diana famously pouted into the cameras (she allegedly hated so much) after discovering that Prince Charles was a philandering miscreant who harbored the startling desire to be one of Camilla Parker-Bowles’s tampons.
Anyway, I was embarrassed by my ignorance of the history. All I knew before coming was that it was built out of love. Correction: THAT is the understatement of the century. Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, was devastated by the loss of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631 during the birth of their 14th child (!) Apparently her last words to him, just before she expired, were “build me something cool”. So this character, Shah Jahan, put in an order for construction to begin on one of the Seven Great Wonders of the World to serve as a tomb for his wife and for himself when he died (yes, the Taj Mahal is a tomb not a palace). Construction began the next year after 20,000 architects, craftsmen and workers (paid workers, not slaves) were hauled in from all 4 corners of the known world. After 22 years of 24/7 labor, the “Taj” was complete. Total bill for the work: USD $45 million, not adjusted for inflation! Shah Jahan was still alive to see it and had his wife’s remains reinterred in the heart of the mausoleum. He died a couple of years later and was interred beside her. How is that for love?
One last interesting thing about the “Taj”: it is perfectly symmetrical in every single respect, including the reflections in the pools of water. There is only one exception being that Shah Jahan is buried just to the side of his wife. Reason: only God can make something that is wholly perfect and so a deliberate break in the symmetry must be made. I think that is pretty cool.
That is it for now. After I get back to Montreal, I will report on the last leg of my trip: Mumbai, Kochi, Alleppey and Marari.