This is the first of several posts telling the story of our trip to India with some of the best of the photos we took along the way.
After a 10 hr overnight flight, we arrived in Sunny Goa on the morning of Sunday 11th, and transferred to our overnight stay at the hotel Fidalgo in Panaji, the capital city of the state of Goa.
Even getting that far in the journey was an interesting challenge – dealing with the money grabbing luggage porters at the airport who were pushing for 2 quid a case for taking them 100 yards to the bus! This wasn’t the first time I during the trip I wished I knew the Hindi for “Go Away and stop trying to cheat me”. To give you an idea, the going rate for luggage is INR20, or about 25p.
So we arrive at the hotel, and fortunately our rooms are ready early. They were … adequate. The aircon and plumbing worked, and there were no suspicious stains on the bed linen, but that’s about the limit of what there is to recommend it, I’m afraid. The pool was rather cloudy, getting a drink outside the restaurant all but impossible and the breakfast buffet was rather poor. On our wandering tour of the city we found a vegetarian restaurant that was mostly full of locals, and bravely wandered it. We took one look at the prices and ordered about half the menu! A quid for a large beer, 25p for a Naan bread, 50p for rice, and less than 2 quid for a veggie curry.
Goa is a former Porteguese colony that was the last part to gain Independence – I think British independence came in 1947, and the Goan independence in 1961. There are a few signs of the history still – including a 35% Roman Cathlolic population, and a few catholic churches and shrines dotted around. Of the rest of the population, about 60% are Hindu, and the last few mostly Moslem.
The Church of the Immaculate Conception looks somewhat out of place in all this tropical greenery!
After our exploration we retired back to the hotel for a few drinks and dinner – and their Indian restaurant was highly recommended. Yes, that’s right, Indian dishes twice in one day. “Native” Indian cookery is much less rich than the stuff that makes it to the west. While you can get the rich Tikka Masala, Korma, and Makhanwala dishes there, they still use yoghurt rather than cream so are still lighter. I think we had two chicken dishes (one kebab, one in “gravy”) two veg ones, rice and Naan. After that little load, we were ready for bed.
Monday morning dawned to a cloudless sky as we headed back to the airport for our flight to Delhi, and our first encounter with Indian bureaucracy at it’s finest. You need your tickets to get into the airport, then the bags are security screened (and you need to show your tickets again). Then you get to the check-in desk, and need passports even though it’s an internal flight. Same again at security, with the boarding card and luggage tag on your hand luggage all being stamped to show you’ve been checked. Then, at the gate, the usual boarding card check by the airline. Then again by the airport police and more stamps on the card. Then a quick check at the airplane to tell you which door to use (front or back), and a final look as you get on! At least double the number of checks I’m used to!
We had a connection to make at Mumbai, so were a little concerned at the 30 minute delay to our flight – and even more concerned when it dragged into a 90 minute delay. We arrived in Mumbai, with a lovely view of the shanty town along the airport perimeter fence, 10 minutes before our next flight was due to take off.
We’re not going to make this, are we?”, asks Yvonne – ever the optimist!
“Would passengers for flight <mumble> to Delhi please make their way to the exits first, please. So we fight our way to the door, down the stairs, onto a bus, and the 6 of us on the tour, plus one other guy, get whisked across the apron to the next plain, hurried up the steps, and they literally shut the doors behind us and start the engines. As we get on the plane I managed to ask “is there any chance our bags will make it?”
“All your bags are already on board, Sir”.
Wow! Major Kudos to Kingfisher Airlines there!
One of my memories of my previous time in India is the typical choice of airline meals: “veg or non-veg”. So, that’s two flights, two more curries!
We arrive, with luggage, at our hotel in Delhi for the night, have a quick bite to eat and a few drinks, and get up promptly the next day to start the tour proper. It was a great group – our guide, Arun, a driver who’s name escaped me, and his nephew along for the ride and handing out drinks (more on that later) represented the paid staff on the tour. As well as the two of us, there were Barry and Sharon (Sharon was about our age, Barry a little older), and Huw and Margaret from South Wales.
The tour of Delhi took in some of the major government buildings, the monument to Mahatma Ghandi, the Gate of India commemorating Indian soldiers who died in battle, and the Mughal fort in the city.
We also visited a Mosque, and had a rickshaw tour of the old city down the narrow streets. That was an experience in itself – despite the 80 degree heat, the guy pedalling the rickshaw didn’t seem to be breaking a sweat, and we got to see the old city up close and personal.
After that, we set off for the 160 mile, 4 hr road trip to Agra.
Yes, that’s right, about 40 miles an hour is a good planning speed for inter-city road travel in India. And that was on a divided highway almost all the way. What slows things down is a mixture of potholes, rickshaws, “Auto-rickshaws” (3 wheel scooters that seat 3-4 to Western sensibilities, 10 if it’s the local kids going to school), carts pulled by a variety of quadrupeds (horse, oxen, camel, elephant), cows wandering in the fast lane, and any of the above going the wrong way down the hard shoulder.
This trip took about 4 hours by road despite being only 200km (140 miles or so). I couldn’t close my eyes the whole way because there was so much to see. Some might claim it was pure terror, but with cows in the fast lane (asleep), camel drawn carts, and amazingly overloaded auto-rickshaws doing long distance routes, it was something to behold!
After our road trip to Agra, we checked in to our Hotel, and went to find dinner. In reception we meet Barry and Sharon who’ve been for a wander, and they say the’ve seen a nice looking restaurant just down the road, so we decide to venture out and check it out. Despite being hassled most of the way by the same rickshaw guy:
“No, we want to walk”
“But I go at walking pace”
“But it’s still not walking!”
“Very cheap ride, Sir” (is he talking about the service or insulting my wife??)
“Sir, I take you good restaurant”
At that point, I wished I knew the Hindi for “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”
Yeah, that’s why everyone questions “why India?” But it wasn’t intimidating, just trying very hard to get us into the rickshaw ride. I was on the point of telling him “10 rupees to the end of the block” just to shut him up when he realised he would be better off selling ice cubs to polar bears and left us alone.
We found the recommended restaurant, ate another delicious Indian meal (good dhal, as I recall), and once again, slept soundly until the alarm call at 5 am.
At 5:45 we were in the minibus on our way to the Taj Mahal. Getting there is a classic Indian job creation scheme. It was a 15 minute bus ride from our hotel. But after 10 minutes, we have to leave our bus behind, because only electric vehicles are allowed up the road to the Taj Mahal.
We purr along the road, and in the distance we can see the east entrance to the Taj. And the bus stops.
Of course… we have to allow the hawkers to proffer various forms of tat. So the final 200 yards is walked in a slalom course between sellers of postcards, “genuine marble” (chalk) replicas of the mausoleum, books, memory cards, more postcards…. you get the picture.
We finally get in, walk though the main gate, and just stop.
We look at the Taj Mahal. We look at each other.
Neither of us has to say it; we’re both thinking the same thing. But we say it anyway: “we’re finally here”. It’s such a famous iconic sight, that when your own eyes finally settle on the same view, you just stop and drink in the moment.
Of course, I had to take the “classic” photo. This was about my fifth attempt, lying on the floor in front of the reflecting pool with the camera held at an awkward angle to get the line of things down the centre of the pool to appear as one…
The entire site is symmetric: there’s a Mosque to the left, so an identical building was built to the right to keep the symmetry. There are just two breaks in that rule. The first is that there’s no garden behind the Taj. It was built on the riverbank so it would be seen against the sky, and secondly is inside the mausoleum where Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb is in the centre, and Shah Jahan’s is off to one side.
Actually, what you see aren’t the real tombs but monuments: the actual tombs are in the level below which is not open to the public.
Something you don’t realise until you get up close is the amount of detailed inlay work there is on the building. The whole building is covered with inlaid semi-precious stones. To give you an idea, at today’s prices, it’s about GBP50 for a set of coasters made this way!
He must have loved that woman…..
And just to prove we really were there, with my thanks to the nice lady who took this picture for us!
After our early start, it’s back to the hotel for breakfast.
Our next stop is at the Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son. You can just see the Taj in the distance from the prison, and legend has it that he spent his final 7 years gazing at his wife’s tomb.
From there we drive to Fatehpur Sikri, the fort that at one time was the Mughal capital. 15 yeras after occupation, it was abandoned due to a lack of water (talk about bad planning!)
This was the longest day of the tour: after our 5am start, it’s about 8pm when we finally arrive in the Pink City of Jaipur, and have a good nights sleep before further explorations……..