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Sign on an Indian "motorway"
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At the Red Fort in Agra

Looking over Delhi from our room in the morning, we can see a yellow dusty city, birds wheeling overhead, vultures and white heron-type birds.

Breakfast is a colourful affair. Shortly after we sit down a group of about ten monks (Tibetan?) arrives, followed by a large accompanying group of Chinese-looking women. While we’re having our breakfast (fried eggs for both and curried chickpeas for me) we watch the Chinese women and the monks. The monks are waited on hand and foot by the women. Each wants to serve the monks and brings them either a bowl of fruit, tea, water, anything. Some of the women sit at tables, reluctantly. The tables closest to the monks are preferred. Most remain standing and crowd each other trying to serve the monks. The hotel waiters are not even allowed anywhere near them.

Our driver, Mr. Lal (means “red”), is there to meet us with his white Ambassador Classic. It has “India Tourist” written along the side, i.e. we’re in an official tourist car, so much for the world-wise travellers! Getting out of Delhi takes a long time. It’s the morning rush hour. People on bikes, scooters, rickshaws and ramshackle cars are everywhere.

Mr. Lal explains that to drive in India you need “good horn, good brakes and good luck!” For a long time the scenery doesn’t change. Heavily built up, with gangs of labourers along the road, dirty little shops and shacks selling everything from tyres, drinks shacks, all sorts of bits and bobs to do with motoring, etc. Near Delhi we pass a lot of offices. These disappear and are replaced by the shops and shacks further on, and eventually we’re driving along fields.

The landscape is flat, with a lot of trees, under a slightly less hazy sky. Traffic things out too. At the UP state border we have to wait in the car while Mr. Lal goes and settles some border admin. The car is beset by people with dancing bears, more peddlers. Lal told us to lock the door and ignore them. Shortly after the border we stop (Maharajah “hotel”) for a drink and samosas. We ignore the obligatory gift shop. The drive goes on and slides into a pleasant monotony. Ness and I both nod off for a while. The scenery hasn’t changed when I wake up again. It’s good to see the landscape (what there is of it) rolling by. Some signs catch my eye and amuse me:

- the “Central Institute for Research on Goats”

- a “British Wine Shop”

- trucks bearing the sign “use dipper at night”

- “Vijay Singh Owner Conteractor”

- “Welcome to the 31st National Convention of Company Secretaries”

I get the feeling that we’re seeing one of the worst sides of India. Grubby roads, road pollution, ramshackle concrete and brick buildings. Whilst there is poverty along the road it is not abject, but feels like a reduced lifestyle stripped of anything that is beautiful and fresh and has been replaced by rubber tyres, lubricant and coke stands. Hope it won’t all be like this.

Around 1pm we get to Agra, a busy city of low-rise buildings. Taking the route to our hotel we pass a few colonial bungalows, now bearing plaques like “NCC Officers Mess” and “Archaeological Survey of India”. The hotel itself is another multi-storey job, looking quite plush (for India). Our room is fine, overlooking the Taj Mahal in the distance. We have arranged to meet Mr. Lal again at 3pm, with a guide to take us round the Red Fort. But first we go in search of the bar for a drink. The “Tequila Bar” is empty and dark so we wander outside and grab two primitive sun-loungers by the pool. The only people are four workmen in the garden. After a beer and water, with “finger chips” and poppadums, we meet Lal and our guide, whose name I can’t remember now – he’ll have to be “Raji” for now.

The Red Fort is a short drive away and Raji gives us a little lecture along the way. There is a short gauntlet of hawkers to cross before we enter the fort. There are some monkeys. Only a very few white faces here and there. They stand out a mile, as do we. The fort itself is a pretty collection of courtyards, halls and gardens, but without any decoration, furniture, etc. Just the bare shell of the buildings. Raji’s descriptions try to fill the rooms with curtains, cushions, carpets, concubines and royalty but it fails to inspire us. Still, we try to be attentive tourists. Then we’re taken to a carpet “factory”. First we get a short spiel about how the carpets are woven and finished before the, anticipated, hard sell.

The carpet salesman’s efforts are lost on us. Next we’re taken to see “a special elephant”. This turns out to be a centre piece in a jewel emporium. On the way out I joke with Raji that the emporium owner tells him to stop bringing such cheapskates! Back to the hotel then, but when we get there I ask if we can go for a drink somewhere and Raji takes us to the “Gaylord” in town. Unfortunately he only sees us into the bar and doesn’t come in. Back outside he explains that it’s too expensive for him and when I tell him that we were offering them a drink he says that he would have felt guilty spending our money for us.

Back at the hotel we freshen up briefly and then settle in the lobby for a drink and diaries. Some time later a large group of (including or all) Dutch tourists arrives. It’s actually a relief to see some white faces but why did they have to be Dutch!

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Wedding procession

Impressions so far then? Mixed, though mostly on the negative side. It’s great to see new sights but so far most of them have been of the roadside which is not great. It also feels as if we’re having to travel in a cocoon. There is of course a communication barrier which I find frustrating. I can’t read the writing, can’t make out the words and can only use the odd Hindi word – shukriya, thank you, and dhanyavad, also thank you, and a few more useful phrases such as “hat jao”, go away, and “chalo”, let’s go! But the bigger barrier is that as a westerners (very obvious ones!) we’re seen as magnets for all the touts (not even beggars, simply touts trying to flog anything). It makes it impossible to walk down the street without being pestered. Now that we’re in our hotel it feels like we’re in a compound. Ness tells me that there is an armed guard outside. I’m comparing with Chile and Argentina, trying not to but not succeeding, and how easy-going, unpolluted, fresh, etc. those places were compared to India. My impression of the Indians is beginning to be negative, but I don’t want it to be.

While we’re still in the lobby we’re told by a young Australian tourist that a wedding procession is making its way down the street. We go outside to have a look. The procession is very noisy and is led by a cart on which a generator for the procession lights is carried. The family walk between two lines if light carriers. The groom is at the back on a pony/donkey with a small child. While we’re watching we’re surrounded by a group of kids. One in particular is persistent. But I guess we’re getting used to it, very gradually.

The hotel garden is prepared for the wedding feast. We get a table in the restaurant by the window, looking straight into the room prepared for the wedding ceremony. Two thrones at one end of the room are obviously for the wedding couple. The room opens onto the gardens. The noisy procession is nearby but doesn’t arrive in the garden before we have finished our meal. Some guests do though. Dinner is the restaurant buffet. Tasty, and I can’t resist a second helping! Back in our room we can hear the very loud music almost as if we had the band in our room!