Burfi’s Revenge and Agra

A morning of leisure was spent for our last bit of time in Varanasi. Simon seemed to be feeling the adverse effects of consuming Burfi from an unknown street vendor located in a squalid alley in Varansi the day before. We enjoyed a morning free of activity, where the only real thing on the agenda was for James to avoid the creepy astrologer in the lobby of the hotel – mission accomplished. With some stealth maneuvering and brazen indifference, James was able to either avoid or ignore the the advances of the astrologer to share his bogus predictions. We took breakfast outside by the pool this morning as the weather was slightly more temperate. Simon was already feeling a bit delicate so he stuck to some fruit, yogurt and muesli, where as James had a sampling of fruit, buckwheat pancakes with a blueberry compote, a croissant and some coffee. Simon quickly retired back to the room for rest and to keep within close proximity of the bathroom, while James took his book, Shantaram (thanks to Margo for the recommendation, it’s a fabulous novel), and sat poolside reading and cooling off in the water. Our driver picked us up for one last driving experience in Varanasi en route to the airport. He seemed much less aggressive and subdued in his driving today, we’re not sure why.
This bring us to an aside on the smells of India. Everyone told us we would be able to smell Delhi the moment our aircraft began it’s descent. We were prepared for an olfactory assault that would leave us questioning our choice of destination. What we found was not nearly as foul as what we had conjured in our minds. The air so far has been thick with haze from the burning of various biomass (a lot of cow dung) and general pollution, but other than a mild smoky smell and the occasional waft of sewer (nothing worse than what you could smell any day in the summer in Montreal passing by particular grates), we were mostly unfazed by odour. Then came the Varanasi airport toilet. Against his better judgment (but driven by excessive water consumption earlier), Simon entered the toilets. The noxious stench that saturated every square inch of atmosphere within was beyond belief, and need not be described further, save to say that Simon held his breath until he nearly passed out and fled the place as quickly as possible.

Still, since that time, no smells have been significantly off-putting. 
We stayed a night near Delhi at the Trident hotel in Guargon. It’s another beautiful hotel with a lovely courtyard garden and incredible pool area. Guargon is the business area of Delhi, and it’s the first time since we have been in India where we have seen any sign of modernity outside of our hotels. There are large steel and glass buildings with company names on them (Yahoo, PWC, etc.), and our guide said if you stop on the flyover and look to the left, you would think you were looking at an American city. It is really quite a contrast from the rest of Delhi, and is where 40% of the population work, mostly in call centres. 

We are now in Agra. Simon has mostly recovered from his “Burfi-Belly” and we did the drive from Delhi starting early to beat the heat (side-note: always pack immodium, it’s a life-saver!). The Indian highways are an experience unto themselves. The 300 km trip took almost 5 hours, mostly because it is impossible to attain usual highways speeds in spite of fairly well-maintained roads.

Agra Fort

The main obstacles are the slow-moving vehicles. These include something called “pubic-goods carriers”, seemingly the Indian version of semi-trucks, which are decorated with very colourful paint jobs and use wildly musical horns to engage in the constant honking that is part of driving in India. Another staple on the Indian highways are state transport busses crammed to the rafters with people, and when no more would fit inside, 50 or so would sit up on the roof! We didn’t manage to get a photo of some of the more outrageous examples of this, but we snapped one or two of some pretty crammed vehicles. Finally, we counted at least 15 people crammed into one of these tiny little 3-wheeled carts that we would consider suitable for maximum 6 occupants (this was common). They take the back off and stack them up row on row, with people either sitting or standing on the back, children laying across the laps or in the arms of their parents, and 3 to 5 people on the roof (sometimes with goats). It was really something to behold! The final point of interest was these small structures scattered about fields and near the roadways made of neatly stacked piles of cow pies.

Hotel lobby

Rural people collect, dry and store them at this time of year for the monsoon season which is much cooler. They are burned as fuel for everything from heat to cooking, contributing to a significant portion of the smoky haze that has permeated all parts of India we’ve visited. It is amazing how integral livestock is in daily life; not only are they revered as being holy (cows, anyway), but they serve as a source of food (milk, not meat of course), fuel, and transportation. It certainly explains why there are ubiquitous and random cattle on the roads, in yards, and yes, even in houses. 
We are staying at the Oberoi Amar Villas, whose claim to fame is a view of the Taj Mahal from every room. We requested a room with a balcony, and our view absolutely stunning (we are sitting out on the balcony writing this email currently). The doting service of hotel staff is as consistent as the heat, and at times actually becomes irritating. Staff race you to every door to open for it for you, are constantly asking how you are enjoying the stay and if there is anything they can do to make the stay more pleasant – we enjoyed it at first, but it is staring to wear on us. With only one day in Agra, we needed to venture out in the 46 degree heat in order to take in the main sights of the city (Agra Fort and Taj Mahal).
The Agra Fort from the outside looks very similar to the Red Fort we saw in Delhi, but inside it is much more impressive. It has four floors, and an exterior perimeter of 2.5 km. Only 20% of the fort is open to the public, and the part we were allowed to tour was the royal part of the fort where the Mogul Emperor (Shah Jahan) and his harem lived. The Mogul Emperor had over 5000 women and concubines in his harem, all of whom had specific jobs at the fort and were paid (very well, we might add) for their services. 3000 of the women had mundane jobs of cleaning, cooking, etc., but many of them had the sole purpose of pleasuring the Emperor. There were amazing and ingenious engineering features within the various palaces inside the fort, where all details were well thought out – such as the way windows were designed to funnel air for cooling the palace, sight lines for viewing or occluding views, ornate filters built into the stone so when water flowed in, the sand and sediment was left behind before it funneled to the water repositories. Simon’s favorite was a “gossip corner”, two corners of a room that were designed in concert with the diamond shapes cut into the domed ceiling to reflect sound from one corner of the room to the other. Standing in one corner, you could hear the voice of a person in the opposite corner (15 m away) as if they were standing next to you. 

The Agra Fort also has stunning views of the Taj Mahal, so Shah Jahan could watch it being constructed. This turned out to be fortuitous as his son overthrew him as Emperor and had him under house arrest at the fort while the Taj Mahal was being completed. We exited the Agra Fort through the requisite street vendors and beggars that mob anyone Western where we were to carry on to the Taj Mahal on a Tonga ride. James, for some reason, had in his mind that a Tonga ride was riding on a elephant, but it turns out it is essentially a horse drawn rickshaw. Despite our disappointment we climbed aboard the rickshaw, and tolerated the stench of the filthy, undernourished equine pulling the cart and carried on to the Taj Mahal. One persistent woman with a child in her arms, and begging for money to feed this poor child, was beginning to crack our defensive posture of not giving money to street beggars. We both always feel terrible ignoring them, but have been warned that if you give money to one, you will be swarmed by throngs of other equally needy people, which can become almost like a stampede. This one lady had been following us for a while before we boarded the tonga and it was clear that she meant business for her kid. We had some bottled water and she held out her cup after we declined giving her money. Given the +46 C heat, Simon couldn’t resist and filled her cup from his water bottle. The child in her arms drank most of it immediately and she had what was left over, but still was asking for money for food. Just as the Tonga began to pull away Simon reached into his pocket and gave the woman some money as our exit strategy was already in play. A growing throng immediately formed in our wake and followed for 20 m, but we managed to make a clean break. It probably did more for us than her and her child, but we can’t change the world on one vacation. Unlike street people in North America and Europe, these people are not mentally ill, or addicts, they are truly desperately poor and hungry – it can be very heartbreaking. 

There is so much hype about the Taj Mahal, that on some level you worry you might be disappointed when you actually see it up close. This was most certainly not the case, it is absolutely stunning from near or far. It’s perfect symmetry and scale make it an absolute marvel to view and the intricate work in the marble is truly a sight to behold. No detail was overlooked in it’s construction, including the size of the script surrounding the arches – it gets physically larger as it gets higher up so that it subtends a constant angle to the eye at all points (in non-optom jargon, it makes it all look the same size even though the top is farther away and would appear smaller if it was all the same size). Truly an amazing sight that we feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit and experience. James bought a small marble piece nearby the Taj Mahal with the same semi-precious stones inlaid into the marble after seeing a very interesting demonstration on how the craft is done. He likely overpaid as he is loathe to haggle, but is happy with his purchase and that is what matters. 

We were so hot by the time we finished at the Taj, that we headed back to the hotel for a quick shower and to have some dinner. We had a drink on the veranda overlooking the pool, and the Taj Mahal of course, then to Esphahan for dinner. The food was excellent and we were entertained by live Indian music while we ate and had a team of wait staff catering to our every need – they did everything short of lifting the food to our mouth and chewing. 

Off to Ranthambore

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