When toddlers attack

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Now it can be told

Well, actually, it could be told then, too, but I'm a lazy-ass blogger.


Is it Adrián at the Lotus Temple...

...or the Flying Nun?

So, yes, after some 20 hours travel time, we arrived in Delhi. Earlier bloggers got to experience the chaos of the old Indira Gandhi International -- mobbed by touts and taxi drivers as soon as they cast their jet-lagged eyes outside the terminal. That's all gone now. Arriving in Delhi is just like arriving anywhere else... except that we felt extra special since this was the only place we had our own driver waiting for us, arranged by Shilpi, Dr. Shivani's lovely concierge. He took us to the shiny, new ISIS Hospital, where we had the first encounter with the collection room, then to our hotel, Sai Villa in Greater Kailash, a few blocks from the M-Block Market. For the price (3400 rupees a night), it wasn't bad -- quiet and convenient. We walked to a Punjabi place in M-Block Market for tasty curries, headed back to our hotel and fell into a deep, untroubled sleep, courtesy of Ambien.

Our first full day, we headed out to explore, via the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws, the tuk tuks. Tuk tuk drivers will do their

best to rip you off, and I suspect we paid too much for several rides, until I read in our guidebook that you shouldn't pay more than four rupees or so per kilometer. By day two, when one driver tried to charge us 150 rupees each for the short trip between ISIS and the Baha'i Lotus Temple, I triumphantly ordered him to pull over, unless he'd take us both for 100 rupees (still too much, but I felt generous). He continued to argue until another tuk tuk driver pulled up and agreed to take us for 85.

You'd be hard-pressed to call New Delhi a pretty city, but it does have potential -- quite a few wide, tree-lined streets and impressive monuments. But the city seems to be crumbling under the weight of its own population, doing little to repair sidewalks, pick up litter, or clear rubble from construction projects. And while I suspect we missed the worst of the poverty, we saw plenty of people living on the potholed sidewalks with a tarp as their roof. But we weren't besieged by beggars, aside from one heartbreaking encounter outside Kutub Minar where a tiny child squeezed his way through the bars of a wrought-iron fence like a stray kitten. His mother was scrubbing pots in a dirt parking lot nearby where the family lived in a lean-to, but she wasn't paying attention. He motioned for money but was content to lean on my leg as I let him play with my camera. It reminded me so much of the three-year-old daughter of some friends of ours -- they had to be the same age, but he was half her size.

The next day, we took the aforementioned tuk tuk to the Lotus Temple (architecturally impressive, but if you're short on time, skip it) and later met with Dr. Shivani at ISIS. Then we took the new metro to Old Delhi. This was our first encounter with people who wanted to take our picture. One man asked A if he was English. Considering that one of my husband's favorite pass-times is making fun of the sunburned, drunken British tourists who flock to Benidorm back in Spain, this gave me something to tease him about for the rest of our trip.

If New Delhi is a modern city in need of a facelift, Old Delhi is the old Mughal capital with the mask removed. The metro stop let us out near Chandni Chowk, once the city's most fashionable shopping drag (well, like, 400 years ago). These days, it's a tangle of pedestrians, stalls selling everything from cucumbers to sandals, tuk tuks, bike rickshaws, animals, and smells good and bad. It leads eventually to Lal Qila, the Red Fort, one of Delhi's (and India's) most recognizable monuments. In retrospect, it's more impressive from the outside -- having now seen Agra Fort and a couple of others containing beautiful palace complexes-- but the inside is still well worth a visit.

After the Red Fort, we visited India's largest mosque, Jama Masjid -- with a spectacular view from one of its minarets (we were approached by three women -- two Indians and a Briton -- who asked us to pretend we were traveling with them, since women can only go up if they're accompanied by a male family member). We topped it all off with a delicious, greasy meal around the corner at Karim's, which I think is the restaurant that invented butter chicken. Mmmmmm.  Finished off with masala chai, of course.


Next morning, up at 4:30 a.m. bound for Agra and the first of four experiences with the Indian rail system.

How Agra got its name:
Como recibió Agra su nombre:

J: A -
A: ¿Qué? What?
Dime a donde vamos. Tell me where we´re going.
A: Vamos a Agra. We're going to Agra.
Dime algo sobre Agra. Tell me something about Agra.
"Agra" es el femenino de "agre" en valenciano. Una dona agra tè molt mal caracter. "Agra" is the feminine of "agre" (sour) in Valenciano (A's dialect of Catalan). (In Valenciano): A sour (agra) woman has a very bad temper.
¿Y cómo... cómo recibió ese nombre? And how... how did it get that name?
Pues que, una dona agra no es dolça, es una dona agra, molt agra. Well, a sour woman isn't sweet, she's a sour woman, very sour.
Ya, ya, ya, entiendo, pero ¿por qué es el nombre de la ciudad? Right, right, right, I understand, but why is it the name of the city?
A: Ah, ah, ah... porque era la novia del sultán, y tenía muy mal caracter, y el sultán hizo el monumento diciendo "eres una dona molt agra" e hizo el monumento. Ah, ah, ah... because she was the sultan's girlfriend and she had a very bad temper and the sultan built the monument saying "you are a very sour woman," and he made the monument.

Now you know.

So you know those trains from the old Forster novels, from the "Jewel in the Crown" and from countless movies? The iron steeds steaming across parched plains or up steep mountains, perhaps with crowds clinging to the rooftops? Nah. Not this time. We were in "chair class," which basically makes it like any commuter train anywhere -- air conditioned, clean and comfortable. No, scratch that, not like anywhere -- this included breakfast and a snack, with lots of masala chai.

Of course, as the trip progressed, we noticed a not-so-picturesque part of the scenery that took some of our appetite away: at first, the men squatting near the railroad tracks as the train passed didn't catch our attention. Train stations are full of squatting people -- if you can't find a seat, squat, feet flat, not on the balls of your feet with your heels up like people in the West seem to do. I tried it. It's not easy. I kept falling backwards. Try it yourself, now. I will wait.

Hard, huh? Anyway, the men along the tracks weren't just squatting. They were POOPING. One guy whipped down his pants facing the train just as we were passing, giving everyone on board a full confirmation of the fact he was going commando that day. It continued for miles, as residents of shantytowns and villages saluted the sunrise and answered the call of the train's horn by answering nature's call. We made a mental note never to walk along the tracks for the remainder of our trip.

There's no kind way to put this: Agra is a hole. But, like reaching into the toilet bowl when you accidentally drop your ring in, you have to visit Agra if you want to see the Taj Mahal. And the Taj makes it all worthwhile. But before thou shalt be rewarded by entering the sublime Taj, thou must pass a series of challenges.

Our first challenge was named Riaz. He ended up being our driver for two days, and attached himself to us like a limpet as we exited the Agra Junction train station. In spite of the nice man at the tourist information booth inside the station having told us that we should pay no more than 950 rupees a day for a driver, at the "prepaid" taxi booth outside we somehow ended up paying 3100 for two days. That's... let's see... 1550 a day. "Happy?" asked Riaz, as we walked towards his car. No... no, I had a hunch I would definitely not be happy.

Okay, it didn't start out badly. He took us to a pretty, little-visited tomb of a Mughal official whose name I forget, but the place was unique for the Chinese elements of its design. We also visited the "Baby Taj," the tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah, who was the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal... who's buried you-know-where. It was beautiful, and we had the place practically to ourselves.

Things started going down hill just before lunch. "Now I show you Mughal arts," Riaz said. "We're not interested in shopping, Riaz," I said. "Not to buy, not to buy," he said, making it sound like nahtubai, nahtubai. "Just to watch." Well, naturally, just to watch meant just watching while the rug seller pulled out rug after rug. Actually, it was sorta tempting -- and we reluctantly asked how much they were. He said he could ship us a 5 x 8 hand knotted wool rug for... pulling out his calculator -- 900 dollars. We said we'd think about it and left. Then Riaz took us to a very touristy restaurant, which, in spite of looking like a fluorescent-lit diner inside, had a Rajasthani singer and dancer -- a ten-year-old boy -- at the door. They started playing as we drove up, the dancer winking at us in a way that made me want to call child protective services. Or maybe his contacts were just slipping. I do that with my eyes when my contacts slip.

Actually, it's a beer label, so get your mind out of the gutter.
We could tell whenever someone was about to enter the restaurant, because that pattern -- the music starting anew -- repeated every time a new group came in. The music stopped as soon as the door closed, almost automatically, like one of those machines that squeals "hai, irashai!" when you open the door to a sushi bar.

"Are we happy?" asked Riaz, as we headed back to the car. I didn't answer. "Now I show you more Mughal art," he said.

"Riaz, we'd rather go to Agra Fort."

"Nahtubai, nahtubai," he insisted. "Just to look. You will see embroidery."

He took us to a gem shop where we were subjected to a 45 minute presentation on the art of embroidering using semi-precious stones. It was beautiful... but not the sort of thing we'd buy even if we had the money. The gem dealer pulled out the ubiquitous calculator to quote us a price and seemed genuinely crushed when we remained uninterested. As we finally headed towards Agra Fort, Riaz told us of his two daughters, how poor he was, and how he depended on commissions from the stores where he took tourists to help put food on his family's table.

By the time we got to the fort, my mood was indeed agra.
But the fort was exceedingly cool. According to the signs inside, not all the buildings originally inside exist today, but what still exists is exquisite. Like the Taj, much of the palaces inside is white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones. The various apartments once had running fountains and overlooked the Yamuna River.

Following our fort visit, we declined a visit to a marbleworking shop (Nahtubai! Nahtubai!) and had Riaz take us to our hotel, the Hotel Taj Plaza, which describes itself as "sophisticated and stylish." That's not what I would call our room, lit by fluorescent light bars and furnished with two grubby looking blankets. But overall, for a whopping 32 bucks a night, the place was clean, and it had a very nice rooftop terrace with a great view of the Taj, about a half mile away. We had papadam and beer chatting with a visiting British-Aussie couple as the sun went down.

We were up before sunrise the next morning for the obligatory sunrise visit to the Taj. It did not disappoint. In spite of the hundreds of tourists sharing the experience with us, I teared up, and it wasn't from the omnipresent smoke that seems to hang over Agra. I didn't have that reaction with the Parthenon or the pyramids or the Dome of the Rock, all of which are beautiful. Words don't do it justice -- cliched but true. Turns out, while they tell you to get there at sunrise to beat the crowds, the people thinned out around 8:00 a.m. I was told the crowd gets heavier once the morning train of Delhi-day-trippers arrives. We stayed for about three hours, soaking in the Taj from every side.

For someone who grew up around animals (most of which ended up in paellas), my husband is surprisingly ill-at-ease around them. On the way back to the hotel, A gave me the first of many wonderful photo opportunities of him recoiling from animals... this time a cow, which had been happily munching papers from a garbage can:

Cows eat garbage! Who knew?

Riaz picked us up at 10:00 a.m. and asked if we wanted to go back to the rug dealer. When we replied that, no, we really wanted to go to Fatehpur Sikri, he again told us about his daughters.

Fatehpur Sikri was the original Mughal capital, constructed entirely of red sandstone by Akbar the Great in the 16th century. Unfortunately, he didn't check the water supply -- there wasn't enough -- and the city was abandoned in favor of Agra fourteen years later. Today, it seems inhabited mainly by people who make a living scamming tourists, beginning with the "guide" into whose hands Riaz delivered us.

I don't remember his name. He was at a post outside the gates of the old city with other bogus guides, where we were told we also had to pay 50 rupees for parking on top of the 400 for guide services. A assented before I could argue, and we followed him into the complex of pristine, 500 year old buildings, me grinding my teeth.

The site is stunning. But the guide couldn't tell us much about Fatehpur beyond a narrative we'd already heard at Agra Fort -- it seems that Akbar had three queens, a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian, and built each of them her own palace within the complex. Our guidebook said that most of what's visible at Agra Fort was actually constructed by Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan, 100 years later, but that didn't stop the faux guides from telling the Three Queens yarn.

I overheard a guide (a real one) nearby explaining the Chinese influences on a little pavilion called the Astrologer's Seat. "Why does that building look Chinese?" I asked our alleged guide. "Yes, Chinese, Hindu, Muslim, Christian," he said. "Akbar had three queens..." I tuned him out.

Legend (and our guide) says that Akbar chose the site for his new capital because he was a follower of Salim Chisti, a Sufi holy man who lived in a cave near the old city of Sikri. Chisti predicted Akbar would have a son -- when the prediction came to pass, Akbar located his city there in gratitude (which is an odd way of expressing thanks... if the guy lived in a cave, he probably wanted to be alone, right?). Akbar built a beautiful mosque near Chisti's tomb, today a Sufi shrine. And that's where the pseudoguide directed us. "You are very special," he told us in hushed tones. "Only ten percent of the visitors who come to Agra every year come to Fatehpur Sikri. Of those, fewer visit shrine of Salim Chisti. You are chosen."

I could see where this was going.

"There is no admission to enter," he continued. "All you must do is buy a cloth to lay on tomb of saint. Money goes to poor. That is the system." He led us down a narrow corridor, open to the sky, behind the Sufi shrine. A young man dressed in white, wearing a skullcap, was seated cross-legged under an arcade, surrounded by colorful, plastic-wrapped pieces of cloth. "Three-thousand rupee," he said, as I was being encouraged by our guide to sit down in front of him. I finally spoke up. "Y'know... no," I said. "We don't need to do this. We don't need to visit the shrine."

Without a word, the guide turned and led us back out into the main plaza and into... the shrine. Turns out, no, you don't need to buy a cloth for 3000 rupees (as much as a night in a hotel!) to enter. Entry is free, though they will ask you for a small voluntary donation (and I checked as soon as I had internet access to make doubly sure that it was a scam and that I hadn't just committed a major cultural faux pas... my gut was right). We didn't say a word to the guide until we got back to the car.

"Happy?" he asked. "No," said A as he paid him the 400 rupees, "not happy." We had Riaz take us to the train station at Bharatpur two hours early and gave him a generous tip he didn't deserve, because we felt guilty he didn't get any commissions. Even though we told him at the outset we weren't buying anything.

All things considered, Agra was worth the hassle. The Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri are unmissable. Just try to arrange a guide and driver (if you're using them) in advance through the government tourist office. The guidebooks warn you about all of this, and we were actually lucky that the only scam we encountered was at Fatehpur. Evidently, another more serious one has been around for decades, where gem dealers will try to get you to help them to help them get gems into your home country without having to pay duties on them. The scam involves you buying the stones yourself, but when you get home, you discover the "gems" are worthless and you have no way of getting your money back, because you were essentially breaking the law in the first place.


Every trip has its lowpoint. Ours came in the form of an unlovely town called Bharatpur, where we had to catch the train to our next destination, Sawai Madhopur and Ranthambore National Park.

Our main impression of Bharatpur: trash. Heaps of it, in gutters, in piles at the intersections of dirt streets, pieces of grey plastic drifting against walls like ten seasons of windblown leaves. The guidebook said there was a major wildlife refuge nearby that attracted spectacular amounts of migratory birds... until an ill-advised irrigation project drained off all the water. Good thing we were only there to catch the train.

Indian train stations are interesting places to spend a few hours. Most passengers don't travel in the air-conditioned first- or second-class cars -- instead, they pack into cars with bars covering open windows, with fold-down beds arranged in two or three tiers. I've seen pictures of cars with unreserved seating on the internet, but didn't see any in person. At a busy station, the crowd and the noise level eddies and swirls every time a train arrives and departs, to the chants of wallahs selling chai, Persian cucumbers with lemon and salt, toasted garbanzos and other goodies for hungry travelers. The ever-present street dogs wander the platform, where families sit on the ground or squat as they wait for their train to arrive.

As I said before, we're inexpert squatters, and all the benches were taken. We sat on our suitcases for a while, until I noticed the various waiting rooms. All the signs were in Hindi. I tried one with a glass door and a clean, air-conditioned interior with comfortable seating. One woman waited inside, and when I tried to enter, a man stopped me and directed me to the tourist information office. I decided waiting room number one was Ladies' First Class. I finally found another, unairconditioned waiting room -- I think it was second class. No one stopped us when we went in and sat down. I pulled out a book and started to read, until I noticed a scurrying under some wide benches where a family was playing a board game.

If A is uncomfortable around animals in general (aside from dogs -- he loves dogs), his feelings about rodents rise to near-phobic levels. And it turns out the scurrying I noticed in the corner was some very large, active rats, squeaking loudly as they tumbled over each other, squabbling over ratly things.

My husband wasn't sharing a waiting room with rats, even if it meant he had to give up his chair and squat inexpertly on the platform.

So we went back outside, where we decided once again that our suitcases made the best seats. We'd already gotten accustomed to attracting curious stares from people, but it doesn't seem like Bharatpur gets many foreigners (can't imagine why not...), because the staring here was extreme. Sometimes the guilty party would look away if we stared back, but usually they stared as long as they could, nearly colliding with posts or other passers-by.

Finally, a group of young men sauntered over... and surrounded us as we sat on our suitcases. "No hablemos inglés," A said to me -- "let's not speak English." And so we did not. For the next 45 minutes, as the group continued to stand and stare in a semi-circle around us, not a word of English escaped our lips. They didn't threaten us. They didn't do anything but stand there with goofy grins on their faces, even when I said "namaste" to them and took a video.

J: Dime una cosa... Tell me something...
A: Qué quieres que te diga, estamos aqué rodeados de esta gente que está fascinados con nosotros, no sé porque. A lo mejor es mi aparato en la boca, ¿quién sabe? Pero en fin, no importa. Bueno, ya está. Ya puedes cortar aquí. What do you want me to say? We're surrounded by these people who are fascinated with us, I don't know why. Maybe it's the thing on my mouth, who knows? It doesn't matter. Okay, that's it. You can shut it off here.
J: (to enraptured fans) Namaste
Fans: ...
A: Te van a quitar la cámara. They'll take the camera.
J: No...

One of them, summoning what I suspected was his full command of the English language, said to me "I like your muscles." My whole body tensed as I tried not to laugh and give away the fact that we really did speak English. He wasn't hitting on me -- at least, I don't think so, was he? -

At one point, a beautiful young woman in a shalwar kameez came up to us with what appeared to be her husband. "Where are you going?" she asked us.

We had started the charade; now we had to continue it. We motioned that we didn't understand. She tried a few minutes more to talk to us while we acted like idiots. Finally, she sighed (probably knowing we were just pretending) and said "I'm sorry, I'd like to help you but since you don't speak English it's very hard to communicate with you." I felt like an asshole for not accepting her kindness as our fans continued their vigil around us.

Finally, one of them gave a colossal shout -- their train had appeared down the line. The whole group left us and ran to the edge of the platform as it pulled in, and began shoving their way onto the car as passengers were still trying to get off. It didn't look like there were seats for everyone.

Fortunately, for us, second class AC was just an older version of the train we had taken from Delhi to Agra.


  1. More? I'm exhausted just reading about it. Thanks for sharing all of that. That is, indeed, an interesting trip. I can't wait to hear more.
    Your Friend, m.

  2. And so begins the adventure....
    There is something about India and its very colorful people that stays with you long after you leave. By the way, you sort of skated right over the main mission of your trip in a mere few sentences. Best wishes for a follow up trip soon. :-)

  3. Our journey to Agra seemed to take DAYS,..but it was an amazing trip to the Taj. We even bought a rug in Delhi on the way back to Mumbai...which sits under my feet as I post this comment. Good luck J & A! Looking forward to the next post (get off your lazy ass and blog!) ;-)

  4. @Edward -- I read online somewhere that the time you start enjoying your trip to India is three weeks after unpacking at home! It was more challenging than tooling around Europe in a rented car, that's for sure, but we had a great time.
    @Doug -- We bought a dhurrie instead! Where did you get yours?

  5. What a trip! Nice to see you braved the train! We have been to India a few times now and have yet to brave the train.

  6. WOW! You are so detailed. I cut and pasted the entire post because I know a number of people who would love to read this. Thanks so much.

  7. Hey guys, I just re-read the comments and realized you asked me a question -- I'm so lame, SORRY. The rug story is a long one. But I'll try ge brief. Bill used to sell rugs (not hairpieces) in Austin, TX and he had always heard about the amazing work that came out of Agra. It was his mission, and ultimately by no choice ;-) mine as well, to find a rug while in the region. After the Taj visit, we asked our driver and guide to take us to find a rug...well, after driving around for it seemed like hours and seeing everything from marble carving to underwater basket weaving (joke) we finally came upon a rug shop. Bill was looking for something specific and so he took us to his warehouse, and the literally took and laid out 30 rugs. I was like "Bill we need to buy something because they're serving us ice cold pepsi in the bottle and they are working so hard"...well, we never bought anything and I felt like a shmuck! We then took the very, very long drive back to Delhi and we had about an hour to spare before our flight, so we stopped at a rug place. After an hour of haggling we finally bought a rug, and they wrapped it up in a burlap sack and we checked it as baggage. I don't remember the store but it was fairly nice, unlike the warehouse we visited in Agra. The rug is about 10' x 12' and it beautiful...though our new puppy has put her mark on it a few times. Sorry for the long comment and for being so tardy...can't wait to hear more from you guys.

  8. Hi Jason and Adrián,

    My name is Edward McDonald and I am doing a documentary entitled 'More Than a Village' about a friend, Ian, and his partner, Troy, who are about to begin their journey with surrogacy. Ian's sister is donating the eggs that once fertilized will be implanted into Kelli (the surrogate). I'm fundraising for the documentary. I start shooting next week (egg retrievals are slated for the 18th of July) and wondering if you would post a link to my kickstarter page on your blog. There you can find out all the information for the project.


    I'm hoping you can help me by simply posting this to your blog. I think this topic is so important and I want to share it with the world. I hope you can help.

    Edward McDonald

    Producer / Director
    MFA Candidate, Film & TV
    Tisch School of the Arts, NYU

  9. Interresting post, nice trip, greeting from Belgium

  10. Hi! Stumbled upon your blog today. I am from India. You have drawn a very true picture of the state of things here :).

    About the fans surrounding you at the station and the singer boy winking - I wouldn't be surprised if they were hitting on you. The winking boy are cases which make me sad; The last one: the gang surrounding you - was creepy. Don't think we are all very straitlaced here - everything is done here - so long as you don't do make a hullabaloo about it, most will turn a blind eye to it.

    I will be reading more of your posts later (I guess you are parents now).

  11. WOW! You are so detailed. I cut and pasted the entire post because I know a number of people who would love to read this.