Wednesday, April 8, 2009
THE INDIA EXPERIENCE
7 April 2009 – INDIA We had so many experiences and impressions that I hardly know where to start.
We got up at 0545 so we could leave the ship on our tour at 0700. As we were leaving the harbor we passed by an Indian Navy aircraft carrier. I did not look like anything I would care to ride on. I seemed to be in sad shape. The bus ride to the airport took about an hour and went through the slummiest part of Mumbai (Formerly Bombay – a Portugese name for the city). We shared the road with oxcarts, tuk-tuks, small taxis, cows and handcarts. The handcarts were sturdy two-wheeled carts that were about 2 feet wide and about ten feet long with the wheels about 2/3’s of the way forward so the man pushing it has leverage if he wants to lift something heavy.
Some of the taller buildings had their sewer pipes that ran vertically down the middle of the building with branches going left and right on each floor looking like a heavy vine. Most of the buildings had started out white but were now stained with back mould. They had some pretty good roads, some of which were expressways of a sort. Traffic was chaotic (no surprise) and bigger vehicles often straddled two lanes as they went along. Although everything looked pretty filthy and trash-strewn, we did see a garbage truck at work and several people working to sweep up and pick up trash – something we had not seen in the Andaman Islands.
The airport was quite modern in appearance and clean inside. In the men’s room there was no soap or way to dry your hands, but there was a man there offering squirts of hand soap and wads of TP. We learned early on that you always carry some tissue with you when visiting the facilities in foreign countries. We were warned that the security was going to be extra tight in light of the fairly recent bombings – no liquids allowed, etc. However when we showed our guide the two large bottles of sunscreen and the hand sanitizer we had in our carry-on bag he said that would be okay (and it was). Security was a bit different that in the US. They separated the crowd into a line for men and one for women. In addition to going through the metal detector every person was wanded and then patted down. We had 130 people from the ship on the tour and were on a charter flight of Indigo Airlines. (Brian joked that it was Indian for “In They Go” accompanied by a diving aircraft hand gesture). It turned out to be a clean, well-maintained A-320 aircraft with pretty stews and excellent service. We were, of course, late taking off.
The airport in Agra was a small part of an Indian Air Force Base. Our plane was one of only two commercial aircraft present there and the other one had dust covers over the engine inlets. Nearby there were several aircraft that looked like USAF C-141’s but I was sure they were the Soviet copies since Russia was the primary supplier of military hardware to India for years. A guard with an automatic rifle guarded the taxiway that led back out to the runway and we encountered about a dozen military in the hundred yards from the plane to the terminal and then out to the busses. As we boarded the bus we each had a garland of flowers put around our neck – daisies and roses – very fragrant.
We took busses from there to a Sheraton Hotel where we stopped for lunch. As we arrived we each got a traditional red dot painted on our forehead that we wore for the rest of the day. Not sure what the significance was. The picture of Clyde above was taken with the doorman. Lunch was buffet style and excellent. You had your choice of Western-style or Indian dishes. We went Indian and it was the best we had ever had – chicken tikka masala, a curried cauliflower dish, some sort of dumplings in a spicy sauce, and this lentil soup-like dish that was absolutely terrific (I had two helpings) and, of course, naan bread. Everything was quite spicy, but great. The hotel was very 5-star so we had no worries about eating the food. Mary, naturally, found time to shop in the hotel prior to reboarding the bus and bought some beautiful raw silk material (for a future dress) and some silk scarves.
Then off to the Taj Mahal by bus. We didn’t take Clyde into the Taj, since it was a mausoleum and wombats might not be welcome there. So he got to stay on the air-conditioned bus. Agra seemed quite a bit more clean and livable and less crowded than Mumbai. Very colorful buildings, signs, and women’s saris. Even the cattle in the streets were decorated with at least a multi-color beaded necklace. Agra is surrounded by rural areas where farming is the main activity and Agra is where the rural people come to purchase things, go to the doctor, etc. In addition to the types of vehicles that we say in Mumbai, we also saw some carts drawn by camels and saw several camels being led or tied under trees. Sidewalks here, as in most of the 3rd world, are for business or sleeping so most of the pedestrian traffic impinges on the street traffic from place to place.
The Indian government had discovered that local pollution was causing significant damage to the white marble of the Taj so they took some drastic measures to arrest it. Agra used to be a metal-working center, but the government has closed the foundries and moved them elsewhere. They also don’t allow internal combustion-powered vehicles in the vicinity of the Taj. So when our bus was about a mile away we had to transfer to battery-powered mini bussed that took us to within about a quarter mile of the entrance. We were besieged with vendors. We had opportunities to buy postcards, refrigerator magnets, whips, peacock-feather fans, carved elephants, sandals – you name it. These were the most pushy and persistent vendors we had yet encountered. You can imagine how much opportunity they had with us in the quarter-mile walk to and from the entrance of the Taj. The Taj itself met all of our expectations.
It is on extensive grounds and there are several red sandstone structures on the grounds with it. You enter through a large one that is big enough to be a monument all by itself. The inner grounds are nicely landscaped with lawns, fountains and trees. The lawn was being tended by women in saris crouched down doing the edging by hand. No matter how many Taj pictures you have seen, seeing it in person is worth the trip. It seems to almost float on the horizon. You are asked to remove your shoes before entering, but our tour guide provided slip-on booties for us that were also okay. The interior is cool and well-ventilated. The burial chamber where the King that build the Taj is buried with his favorite wife is in the center of the building and their graves are surrounded with a white marble fence with an open lattice-work pattern that is inlaid with floral designs of semi-precious stone that are level with the marble surface – sort of like marquetry in furniture. The burial chamber is surrounded by other rooms that the crowd (and there was a crowd) flows through in a circular pattern. Each of the rooms has a high, intricately carved ceiling. In fact, most of the interior surfaces that did not have inlays, were carved in relief.
The brief story of the Taj is that it was build by a Mogul king in the 1666 to house his favorite wife. She died in the delivery of their 14th child. He hired an architect from Persia and gave him a blank check, requiring only that it be made of white marble, be totally symmetrical and be large and beautiful. The king lived in the Agra Fort. Later his power-hungry son besieged the fort and imprisoned the king for the rest of his life there. BTW Moguls were Moslem invaders that ruled India for several centuries until the British took over. That is why the Taj has verses from the Koran inlaid into its exterior.
As we were leaving the entrance we were beset by bicycle rickshaw drivers who, for a fee, wanted to take us back to where the mini busses would pick us up. They were apparently closer to the entrance than was allowed because a burly policeman came up on bicycle. He yelled at them and, when they didn’t depart immediately, gave each one a vigorous whack on the butt with a large bamboo cane he was carrying. They did not retreat very far we noticed despite the caning. Money is for survival here not just comfort or luxuries.
We went from there to the Agra Fort and saw where the king had been imprisoned. We went by way of the hotel where Mary and some others that were feeling the heat or had a shopping itch got off while the rest of us went on to the fort. It is a huge structure of mostly red sandstone surrounded by a moat that stretches 2 kilometers. The king’s residence was in white marble and has beautiful gardens. Looking from his prison quarters there you can see the Taj about 2 miles distant across the river. One of the sights along the way was an open lot with bee-hive shaped mounds about 4 feet tall built of these brown discs. The discs are made of dried straw and manure and a sold for cooking fuel.
After our stop at the Fort they took us back to the hotel for high tea -- like another meal with both sweets and more substantial fare like puff pastry filled with mushrooms and lentils. The return plane trip was uneventful, but our nighttime drive through Mumbai created some additional impressions. Driving through the city at 9:30 at night highlights things that you might not notice in the daytime.
Commuter trains here have used an innovative approach to deal with crowding. They have removed the doors! So you see the crowded trains rocketing along with people standing in the open doorways. This creates more room and eliminates those pesky delays when the doors are opening and closing. Seeing the passengers backlit with the train’s interior lights really brought this out. Made you wonder how often someone fell out.
The streets were teeming with foot traffic and many small businesses were open. Restaurants and food vendors were doing a brisk business. Most homes had no screens, curtains or shades so you could see how they were decorated and see people as they went about their activities. Nice-looking modern air conditioned high-rise apartments stood next to beat-up moldering low-rise apartments with night air cooling.
The make-shift sidewalk living arrangements of the poorest people also became evident. Some simply curled up on the pavement with their sandals under their heads. Others covered up with a sheet. Still others made a make-shift lean-to by attaching one edge of a sheet to a wall and the other edge to the sidewalk. Although India’s economy has been growing rapidly it is hard to see them overcoming their poverty unless they can overcome some of the cultural issues that hold them back (like controlling the growth of their population).
We were hot, tired, and dirty when we got back to the ship at 9:45 that night. Several of the ships staff had set up a little greeting for us in the terminal – cold cloths and ice water. It was like coming home and we were glad to be there. A room service pizza, some salad and we were out like a light. I didn’t wake up until 1000 the following morning.
Am sitting on our balcony watching the blue ocean passing by and the occasional flying fish. A great way to blog! Two more days until we get to Dubai.