Thursday, October 23, 2008

India on one bag... Part 1

Finally back from India! But not really. I got back about two weeks ago, and finally have a little while to sit and type. I'll post Part 1 today and the rest tomorrow. I've add a few pictures to the photobucket site (around 500) to keep everyone busy...

India was amazing! Absolutely, amazing! Now, as you read below, I definitely had my doubts about vacationing in India. But the country met, lowered, and raised my thoughts about the country at different times throughout the trip. Let me start from the beginning...

We're off... Flying out of Doha can sometimes be a hassle. It is a fairly small airport that is constantly growing, an incredibly tiny security area, and lots of passengers. We, [NAME REMOVED] and I went through security with no hassles, and got in the massive line for the final security check before customs. Thankfully, we both had gotten our E-Gate cards... which allows you to bypass the final security check, and ALL of customs! This had to have saved us half an hour of standing in line at least! We then snacked our way thru the Qatar Airways Silver lounge (it pays to date someone who travels a ton) and made our way to the gate. As we were boarding, we were upgraded to business class! Now that's a start to a vacation!

New Delhi... we arrived in Delhi at three in the morning, taking about an hour to clear customs. As you leave the airport, the first thing that hits you is the swarming mass of people. Hundreds upon hundreds of drivers, taxis, chauffeurs... all pushing into each other to get your attention. Now this was where I had my first sense of trepidation... because this is where [NAME REMOVED] and I were splitting up. She was headed to a friend's house, and I was headed in the city to find my hotel. She has traveled to India several times in the past, and is accustomed to how India works... not so much me. I prepaid for our taxis, kissed her goodbye, and watched as my girlfriend was swallowed up into the night in one of the most populous areas in the world. I then got in my taxi and left for the Clarke International Hotel.

Now, I should mention that I found this hotel on my own online. Good reviews, very cheap, situated in central Delhi. Translated... this means a very nice but very old hotel in the scariest part of all India. Where my hotel was located, the Karol Baugh area of Delhi, I soon found out is not considered the most scenic, or safe, or sanitized area of Delhi. Driving thru back alleys, pushing people and animals out of the way with the car to get to the hotel would definitely be considered one of the most harrowing times of my life. I have never traveled alone in a foreign city besides weekend trips to Mexico... and let me tell you... Brownsville ain't got nothin' on Delhi in the nighttime scary factor!

Thankfully, the hotel was very nice and comfortable. It had one of those old-fashioned elevators that you had to close the two wrought metal gates, hit the button, the pull the lever to move. Every time I operated it, when it stopped, I kept waiting for the doors to open... force of habit. I took ever bottle of water from the mini-bar, and kept washing my hands with disinfectant. See, in India, you don't drink the water... ever. You don't wash with the water, brush your teeth with the water, touch the water, or even look directly at the water. Even a slight glance at a faucet and you will come down with "Delhi Belly." Everyone who has ever been to India warns you... constantly. [NAME REMOVED] did a very good job as scaring the shit out of me before we left. At any given time, I was carrying at least three bottles of hand sanitizer and two bottles of water. I was sanitizing my hands so much I think people thought I had an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The next morning, I went downstairs and asked the hotel how I could get a taxi to take me around Delhi. He pleasantly said that he would take care of everything, and walked outside. I thought he was going to flag down an rickshaw(a three-wheeled scooter). Instead, he slams the roof of a car parked outside, and up pops a formally sleeping head from the driver's seat. "Oh no"... I thought. I only wanted a cab to drive me around the city, to follow the Lonely Planet guide... I really didn't want to pay for a car and driver, but that's what I ended up doing. I got in the car (an Ambassador Classic... see the pics), and my driver Kareem, barely awake at this point, smiles and says "where to?" I tell him to show me all the sights of Delhi. He smiles, changes his shirt in the car, and we were off.

I knew about driving in Delhi. I had seen images of driving in Delhi. But still, nothing in the world prepares you for driving in Delhi. It has got to be one of the most exhilarating, terrifying, and panic-inducing activities in all of man. Bungee jumping is for pansies... skydiving is for sissies... I rode shotgun in Delhi!! The rode can be one or five lanes across, doesn't matter, as everyone shoves into every possible nook and crevice that can fit either a large truck, small car, autorickshaw, rickshaw, motorcycle, scooter, bicycle, or cow. And yes... I said cow. Several times we were actually touching other vehicles, while doing 60 kilometers an hour!! How there is not piles upon piles of bodies on the roads is beyond me! Once, while in an autorickshaw, I had to pull my arm into the window really quick because we were sideswiped by a bus! And the noise!! Dear God, the noise!! Every driver is constantly honking their horns. The don't honk in anger or frustration, but to let the people in front or to the side of them that they're coming closer... which is always! That was one thing that really got under my nerves was the never ending cacophony of horns blaring at all hours of the day.

While in Delhi, I saw a giant Hanuman (monkey-god statue), the Lotus Temple, the Quitab Minar Tower (800 years old), the Dehli Gate, Parliment, and the Red Fort. All of these places were stunningly beautiful. The size of the Red Fort was incredible! Huge red stone walls with a twenty meter deep moat that used to hold crocodiles, and this thing was built in the 1500s! Everywhere we stopped were the merchants pushing into me to try and sell me some such junk... postcards, whips, figurines... you name it. I did end up buying a used memory card off a ten-year-old kid for way too much money... but he had what I needed, and I had what he wanted. The whole time I kept my hands by my sides to stop any potential pickpockets. My driver kept shooing them away, and kept warning me about scams. "Don't give any money to anyone who says they are guides, carry your bag on your chest, and make sure not to accept any stickers about a school!" At the Quitab Minar Tower, a group of school kids kept following me around. I soon noticed that they weren't following any of the other westerners or Europeans that were there... just me. Finally, some came up to me and asked me for my autograph. Well what the hell do you say to that?! At first I said no, but they kept pestering me about getting my autograph, and then taking pictures with me! For the life of me, I had no idea about what was going on! Turns out, in the paper and news was a big story about a very famous American wrestler who was in town for a part in a Bollywood movie and a wrestling match. The kids saw a large American, and they thought I was him. The wrestler... Baptista. Google him... he's like my long lost twin.

After the Red Fort, Kareem got us a bicycle rickshaw (the driver looking thrilled when he saw my fat ass approaching) to guide us through Old Delhi. This part of Delhi has not changed... ever. The roads can only fit bicycles and people. Narrow storefronts selling colorful clothing and flowers lining every wall, the smell off street foods being cooked wafting through the air. Strange faces staring at me as an outsider. But along with the food smells was the smell of diesel fuel and soot, body odor and shit, sewage and animals. The air started to become stale and reeked. I realized later when I left Delhi that all of Delhi smells like that... but I had only really noticed the smell then. Power lines draped over each other into intricate cobwebs overhead. People were sleeping on the stained black concrete and gravel gutters. Half-naked kids played with stray dogs. This is what I had always thought Delhi was. Not an enormous, metropolitan city, but the squalor and filth of poverty. There is a strange balance with Delhi... the poor with the rich, the classes and the caste. Everyone shares the same space. You never really know where you are, but you never, ever, feel alone.

After an exhausting day out, I met up with [NAME REMOVED] and her friends at the Delhi Golf Club for some food and drinks... making sure not to each anything uncooked or anything that shared a plate with anything that was uncooked. Later I went back to my hotel and ordered a wake-up call for 3 a.m. to catch my train...

Agra... after I woke up and got ready, I went downstairs to get a ride to the train station. Yet another sleeping driver was awoken, and we took off. This driver, though, did not quite wake up fast enough. He pulled down an alley that was only about as wide as my hips, that was filled with cars on both sides, for about 500 meters. At the end, we found ourselves facing a locked gate. So, what any industrious driver would do, he tried ramming the gate... thankfully without success. So, he looked back at me, and started to go in reverse... at almost full speed. After the two motorcycles and three cars that he utterly destroyed (really, almost took the doors off our car), he turned down another road and took me to the train station.

The Delhi train station is large, stark, and scary as hell. At least a thousand people were scattered on the concrete, contorted and sleeping. Beggars with every known malady kept coming up with hands or stumps outstretched. I had prebought my tickets, so finding my platform was relatively easy. The train pulled in exactly on time, and I boarded the first class, air-conditioned, executive car for the two hour trip to Agra. Total cost of the train ride... $14.

As the train was about to set off, a very dapper dressed Indian man sat next to me and ordered his tea from the porter. He saw my guidebook and asked if it was my first time in India, and I said yes. He then took a minute to extol what a beautiful country India was, and that there was no other place like it in the world. The train then pulled out of the station, perfectly on time, and for the first twenty minutes, we moved at a walking pace out of the city. But not before I got to see about two-hundred men, women, and children crouched down in the fields, ditches, or next to the tracks to have their early-morning shit. Hundreds and hundreds of people just bending over and shitting in piles as far as the eye could see. Men crouching ass-to-ass with other men, shitting into the same pile. People would just disappear then pop up out of nowhere in the middle of fields and wipe their ass with their hands. The irony, or whatever you call it, of the gentleman telling me of the beauty of his country and the fact that I could actually see more than one man's asshole pushing out last nights lamb biryani was not lost on me. But that was India... wealth piled on top of the shit...

I was well-fed on the train, as the food was rated very safe by my guidebook. I ate something I have never had before in my life, but feel that I must share it with you. I ate Kellogg's Cornflakes with sugar... and steaming hot milk! If you have never had cereal with hot milk, you have no idea what you are missing! It's as if I had never had eaten before in my life... you must try it!

I arrived in Agra and was quickly bombarded by the smell of poverty. Trust me, you know it when you smell it. Then, the smell of flowers almost knocked me over. About fifty people were passing out orange blossom and lavender leis to everyone who got off the train. I thought it was a scam and tried to avoid it. But then I overheard a British couple talk about how lucky they were to make it to Agra on "World Tourism Day." Honestly, real thing!! I quickly paid for an all-day taxi and driver, and we headed to the one thing that brings people to Agra... the Taj Mahal.

The car could only drive about five kilometers, then it had to pull over. No engines are allowed within a kilometer of the Taj Mahal to prevent pollution damage. I then grabbed a rickshaw, and made my way through some backalleys that could only be described as sewers. Agra was filthy and bordered on disgusting. It was once the capital of India, but is now a decrepit city. Once I reached a roundabout, the rickshaw driver told to me walk about 500 meters down the road to the Southern Gate. Immediately, people started to flood the street, forcing trinkets upon me; pushing the hard sell. I felt a few hands go for my pockets, but I followed the rules and kept my hands in my pockets, while my daybag was strapped on my chest like a baby-carrier.

As I approached the gate, you could see a large, red wall was intersecting my path, with a small gate and some security guards. I paid to get in to the Taj (750 Rupees for tourists) and went to the security check. This was the most intense security check I have ever had the pleasure to go through. A metal detector, hand wand, then one guy not only pats you down, but gives you a hard squeeze across every inch of your body! They then emptied the entire contents of my bag on the table. I had to give up my cigarettes, lighter, and monopod. The guard kept saying that it was a tripod, but I explained to him that it was for my camera to hold in my hand, not on the ground. He then asked, "camera go here?" Yes. "Tripod. Not allowed." End of conversation. They even took my copy of The Hobbit (for train reading.) That was a fun conversation between the guards... "Hubbit??" "Yes, Hubbit... Hubbit... little man... little man... movie."

Once they let you in, you enter a beautifully landscaped garden, but no Taj. This in an entrance courtyard for the three gates. The large gate in front of me was a beautiful red inlaid with the same stones and scroll work that I had see in pictures of the Taj. As I walked up to the gate, marvelling at the site and the people, for the briefest of moments, I totally forgot what was through the next gate. As you enter the gate, it gets very dark, and the light from the far exit shines in and almost blinds you; making it impossible to see what's beyond. And then... you see it... and all comes into focus.

They say that you can't miss the Grand Canyon, because it is the one thing that doesn't disappoint you in real life. Well... neither does the Taj Majal. Words cannot describe the size and symmetry. The peaked domes and minarets, the brilliant white marble set up high about the surrounding area, giving it only a sky blue background...

It is considered the most beautiful building in the entire world... and it is. Just stunning. The only thing surprising is that it's fairly small on the insides, and there are two almost as beautiful buildings flanking the Taj Mahal. Had no idea...

Trying to write what it's like seeing it for the first time is almost impossible. I'll try to do it in person the next time I see everyone. It's almost indescribable.

I spent a few hours there, and later went to Agra Fort. About TEN TIMES the size of the Red Fort, this thing covers about twenty city blocks! It has 16 palaces inside, and once housed Akbar's 5000 concubines!! They even have their names and pay stubs! I later joked about the 5000 concubines with my driver... I told him I could barely handle my three concubines! At this point, I had see about all Agra had to offer. I went to see the Baby Taj (not very impressive after the real thing) and took some pictures from across the river. I had a nice lunch, bought some gifts (and a damn nice, and damn expensive rug) and decided to wait out the remaining four hours until my return train back to Agra at the train station... stupid mistake. The train station is not air-conditioned, has barely any seating, and was filled with beggars and what can only be called street-urchins... kids who would come up to you and yell at you until you gave them money. Thankfully, having grown up with four harpy-like sisters, they were no match for me. But the concrete floor, god-awful humidity, and foul stench was really starting to get to me. All this time, I have an iron grip on my bag at all times (plus a heavy, folded up rug). Suddenly, men in army uniforms flooded the station with about ten dogs. They were running up and down the platforms, yelling things back and forth, shoving people out of the way. I talked to a cabbie, and he said that a bomb went off near the Delhi airport, and that everything in the country was on high alert. Well, this snapped me back to attention. One day earlier, my phone went dead, and I had no way of checking on [NAME REMOVED]. So, now I was trapped in a disgusting train station, sweating beads of spice and stink-ladened sweat, figuring out whether my friend was OK, and whether or not we were going to be able to fly out the next morning. To be honest, at this point, I started to think India was really testing my resolve. That four hours was the most physically and emotionally draining period of time I went through in a long while. Night descending on the train station, and I was left as the only person waiting on the platform for a good hour. It never even dawned on me to go back to the Taj Majal to see it at sundown... dumbass. I got on the train (on time, again) and headed back to Delhi. Unfortunately, the train was stopped by the army and searched for about an hour. Everyone got off in Delhi and went out into the crowd of cabbies fighting for our fares.

Then I discovered I had a big problem... I lost my hotel card. Everyone carries the card of their hotel, because in a city of 21 million people, not everyone is going to know every location in town. I could not find anyone who knew my hotel, or even anywhere close. I finally found a guy who could take me to Karol Baugh, and I said "Karol Baugh, find the McDonalds." I knew my hotel was a few blocks from McDonalds from the map. He drove around and around the back alleys until we saw the golden arches, and I found my hotel.

Safely away, I was able to call [NAME REMOVED] and make sure she was OK. A bomb had killed a kid in a market in Old Dehli, the place where I was in the day before. At this point, I cleaned up with a bottled water shower and got packed up, ready to go. By the time I finished, it was already two a.m., and I had to be at the airport by four a.m.. So, I stayed up and watched some cricket matches, got my bag back on my back (rug included), and took an autorickshaw to the airport for my next adventure in India.

Ask me what I didn't write about... getting a cobra thrown at my face, my hotel bathroom, the other sleepy driver, the Ambassador Classic, floating houses, indoor rivers, one-bag travel, killing boulders, autorickshaw fatigue, temples on the golf course, train station lepers, how Asians love me, the marble factory, how I got my shirt, and Will Smith...

Part 2 to follow tomorrow...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Part 2 to follow tomorrow..."

Lies, all lies!!!!

Where is part 2? I want to get some explanation of what happened to your arm and where you are in those pictures????