“The south is so much cheaper, and the people are nicer”, the Driver said. “Mumbai is a better city, much nicer than Delhi. More expensive but nicer”, he continued as we were flying down the deserted Yamuna highway to Agra. It was early morning, and the sun was rising over the seemingly endless green plain, dotted with chimneys from brick factories.
In Agra, I met my Guide, a nervously grinning short guy, who waltzed me past the various lines to enter the Taj Mahal complex.
“See, if you came alone you would have had to wait all this time”.
Humility was not his forte. Neither was patience. He took my camera to take photos of “best views of the Taj”, with almost breakneck speed he showed me the translucence of its famed marble, the sparkle of its stones, and guided me past the tomb and slowly starting to lead me away.
“Can we stop for a second?”
“Of course, Sir”, he said, still grinning. I was very unused to this guided tourism and, honestly, didn’t like it. Up until that moment, Taj Mahal for me was a white blur – now it started coming into focus.
It was perfect. The dazzle of the marble, the elegance of proportions, and the location. Everything was ideal. The only blotch were many tourists that made paths of its the elegant gardens seem like conveyor belts. Still I could see why one can enjoy looking at it for the whole day, as its colours change.
Finally I was whisked away to see “something magical”, as the Guide put it. Unsurprisingly, it was a shop. It was selling and, allegedly, producing trinkets with inlaid semi-precious stones. The explanation of the process was interesting enough. Then came the sale. The owner quickly moved from explaining how little need there is for my custom (“so many orders, sir”), to how his trinkets cannot be bought anywhere else (“only In Agra, sir” – I’ve seen many of these pieces all over Kerala), to, finally, how this century old trade passed from after to son since the days of construction of Taj Mahal and how I am imperilling it by not buying (“it is for the higher purpose, sir”). I haven’t bought anything.
The Manic Guide then proceeded to run me through the Agra fort.
“Only 25% of it is open, so not much you can see”.
It was here that Shah Jahan was put under house arrest when his son rose against him due to his amazing but profligate building projects. It was a dungeon worthy of such an aesthete: an amazingly delicate prison in marble and gem stones. Although the palace was desecrated by the British who relieved it of precious stones and gold, you could still see the wonder it was. Most surprisingly , it was the view of the Taj from the fort that made my heart leap, even more than being a few feet in front of it.
“What is this?”
“Oh, it’s just Akbar’s Red Palace. It is not that nice”.
I walked around a bit more: it was much better preserved then the Red Fort in Delhi, with some of the tile work still gracing the gate.
The guide, unfazed by his little omission, left me there. When he heard I was going to Fatehpur Sikri later he was puzzled. “It is the same as Agra fort. All Mughal palaces are the same.” He is definitely not going to be the face of India’s Tourism Board.
The road to Fathepur Sikri was long and bad. There were animals everywhere: herds of cows strutted leisurely, goats hoped on and off the road, monkeys jumped around and there were pigs eating random stuff around the road.
“Do people eat pork in Rajasthan?”
“So whose are these pigs?”
“Nobody’s. They are stray pigs. Like cats and dogs”
“What about the cows?”
“Some are stray. Some have owners. Goats, however, all have owners”
After lunch (Driver did not join me, I felt awkward), I proceeded up to FS, blissfully guide-less. Guided tourism limits freedom, realised, and would rather have all the inconveniences of seeing things independently then being led around. It is also unsuited to amateur photographers who want to see every corner of the building to capture a nice view. Any guide would make me self-conscious as I am moving one foot there, one foot here to get what will probably be a mediocre shot. Any guide would hate me if I made him witness that on Rajasthani heat.
The Manic Guide, was proven wrong once again. Fatehpur Sikri was lovely. It was built by Emperor Akbar as a capital and abandoned fourteen years form the start of construction. The whole place looked like a level in Tomb Raider. It was all lovely mughal kiosks and geometric structures. The only this is that it is a huge place and the signposts weren’t too helpful. As I started wondering how to conquer it, Akbar appeared.
He was small and wiry and promised to show me Fatehpur Sikri for little money. Another guide? This one seemed nice. He took me to the mosque, which was stunning. It had a a huge arch in front and an intricately decorated shrine in the middle, dedicated to the holy man who helped Akbar get offspring. After admiring the architecture, I had to endure yet another sales pitch, this time from Akbar’s friend who was selling his wares inside the mosque.
A photo of an old man was produced.
“Buy it. Very cheap. Best stone”.
I extricated myself from them both, and Akbar wanted to charge me quadruple of what we agreed. He settled for double.This guide thing is not for me. After that, I watched a group of local tourists almost get into a fight over getting on a bus.
After a long day we went back to Delhi. That night I wanted to say goodbye to the bazaar. It was lively as ever. I went to a chicken place the Driver recommended. A burly guy was tossing spiced, butchered, chicken flesh into huge pans of boiling oil. What came out was magical: tangy, crunchy chicken. With my appetite open, I went to Karim’s, Delhi’s most famous restaurant, to give it a second shot. This time it was better: chicken saag (my favourite from Whitechapel’s Tayyabs) and naan were amazing. Sated, I went back home and crashed.
The next day, my last one in India, was magical. Again I did the bazaar tour. I had chai by Ajmer gate, where a young rickshaw driver stared at me in disbelief for some reason (was it the dirt, my size, my beard or the fact that as tourist I was let loose). Then I strolled around to the Red Fort and Jama Masjid, to say goodbye. I passed several floats with idols of Hindu God’s as it was a holiday. They were colourful: some smiling gently, some ripping the hearts out of demons. Jama Masjid was rising wearily over the bazaar in morning heat and looked as handsome as ever. Nearby a 40-something guy stopped me for the usual drill (where are you from? What do you do? Are you shopping?). This time there was a twist: “Do you like my country?”
For this he wanted to buy me tea. I declined and continued towards CP.
Weirdly, the same thing happened there. Some dude from Mumbai told me I looked Indian, and then asked me if I liked India. That could have been a perfect ending of my tale, with the camera zooming on my smiling face while I look longingly onto humongous Indian flag in the middle of the square.
Instead, my trip to India ended with a ride during which my uber driver was stopped for speeding (he had a rather casual approach to driving, more concerned about a packet of crisps he was wolfing down) and then a shopping spree at Delhi’s lovely new airport. There I helped a struggling law student from Mumbai buy booze and chocolate on my boarding pass (boosting my karma). Finally there was a rather boring flight to Dubai, during which I subjected myself to the sequel to the Huntsman and two unnecessary G&Ts. I am not sure which of the two hurtful my brain cells more. Bored, I leafed through my Rough Guide, dreaming of new Indian adventures (Maybe three weeks in Rajasthan? And add Varanasi as well? Or maybe Assam? How about Punjab?).
Since I arrived in Dubai, I miss India and the times I had there. I miss the feeling of freedom and constant sense of wonder. I miss the curries and the nice healthy way they made me feel. I miss the people and their colourful dress. Most of all I miss the general can-do, buzzing vibe of the country.
In India, I felt different to my usual grumpy self. I felt in the moment: maybe more because of the constant fear of colliding with a rikshaw, then because of mindfulness tricks I learnt during my short stint in the ashram. I was in the zone, nevertheless.
Before this trip, I didn’t believe that travel can change a person. I’ve seen many people who haven’t travelled almost at all who seemed wiser and more open-minded, than those who have spent endless gap-yahs in fabulous destinations. Also having travelled a lot, somehow, I always felt the same. After, I think that some trips can indeed change you. Probably less because of anything you actually see or hear, and more because travelling (if done right), can provide a nice vacuum to grow, just or allow oneself to be different and do different things. There are no daily routines you need to respect, and most importantly you there are no expectations from you: no-one to demand attention, no-one to remind you that you are not behaving like they expect you to.
India, as a very unique place, however opened my eyes to a few things. There is little point there in rushing and being frustrated. I this learnt less from my time in the ashram, than from observing people on the streets: porters waiting for work, school children on slow busses, people queuing. For all of them, things got sorted. Miraculously, in what, to an outsider seems like chaos, things are sorted out in India. They are only frustrating if you let them get to you, or rather if you want them to get to you.
It is also very humbling to see that a great majority of its 1.25 billion subsist on meals of less than a 1 USD. This is humbling, especially as I used to spend five times that amount on coffee. Much of their precarious position is due to imperial greed, whose least offence was robbing Mughal palaces of their jewels: the economy was wreaked and Indians were forced to pay dearly, often with their lives, to be subjugated for their natural riches. Although I studied development, it was a very sobering this first hand.
I might forget all of this once I get back to my normal life, but at least I enjoyed the nice, blissful feeling while it lasted. India, I am yours. You may be difficult to get around, your touts and tour guides might be a pain, but you are a different, dazzling world. I hope to see you again soon.