From Delhi, we caught a bus to Agra- which unfortunately happened to be full of an Indian group of friends who proceeded to play charades for the entire 6 hour journey- shouting, laughing and screeching at every right or wrong answer! The girls wernt too impressed, so much so that we got off the tour bus early to make our own way around! First stop was the Agra Fort, the central power hold of the Mughal Empire and once the administrative and military stronghold of India. An amazing building, a section of which was where Shah Jahan spent the final years of his life after being imprisoned by his son- left to see his creation, the Taj Mahal, 2.5km away through a hole in the window. After the fort, as part of the tour we made our way to lunch to some random restaurant, where it turned out that the food was really good, with the 3 of us tucking into dosas and paneer like evrywhere else we had been! After lunch though, we saw a man lying under a tree with a baby girl- so shai went over to give him some money to feed his child with. Thinsg started to look a bit suspicious though, the baby was crying incessantly, and then the guy hit the child ont he back of the head. Turns out that it wasnt actaully his child, he was a drunk who sat there whilst he was supposed to be working, and even more worryingly, the kids parents had left it there to sleep in the shade whilst they were across the road! weird or what!
Left the tour after lunch after being overdosed with indian charades on the trip so far and made our way to check into a hotel- taken there by a cute kid who spoke better english than most if us and his older brother in their rickshaw. been jokes gettin shai in rickshaws, i think shes learining to accept and love them, now though. The staff at the hotel were really friendly too- that afternoon they sorted out a rickshaw driver to take us to the park behind the Taj Mahal, across the Yamuna River. Even in the fading light, the white marble caught the eye, although our visit here was cut short by a sudden sandstorm!
We managed to see the Taj Mahal for sunrise the next morning, although for some annoying reason it opens at 6, after sunrise! Turns out our hotel was only a 200m walk from our hotel, all the more surprising when a rickshaw river wanted 100 rupees for the journey- pesky rip-off merchant! Entering the building, the anticipation at actualy seeing it for real was high- and boy ws it worth it. Walking round the corner and seeing it was amazing! Obviously we took way too many photos- but honestly you dont know which ones to delete and you definitely dont get bored of looking at them! Oh yeh, and the standard posing and and jumping pictures were imaginatively captured too lol. In the evening, we stumbled across a brand new shopping mall and multiplex cinema- a complete contradiction to the surrounding areas of Agra, which were in fact quite poverty stricken and dirty. Even inside the cinema, there was a sign tinged with ever-so blatent sarcasm which said "new shopping mall- just what this city needs!).
We were also able to sort out travel arrangements for the next few days too, from a couple of travel agents near our hotel who took an overly obvious liking to deepa and shai- not only taking emails and facebook details, but also following it up with messages declaring undying love etc! Add to that the fact he also happened to have the most messed up accent ive ever heard- an aussie/fresh combo! Still, seemingly organised for the next few days, we could rest a little easier.
Caught the bus to Jaipur later that afternoon, in what turned out to be a bit of an ill fated stay- as we knew from the moment we stepped off the bus when deepa got fined for smoking by a magician (he even gave her his business card!). We got there on the day of the bombings, but we managed to squeeze in a visit to a hanuman temple, to which we had to climb a hill inhabitated by cows, pigs, goats, monkeys and people (trust me, shai loved evry minute of it!). On the way back to our hotel, we got stuck in a mega traffic jam (even by Indian standards it was a complete standstill). Cars and bikes were goin in every direction, and we didnt have a clue what was going on- until shais dad phoned and told us about the bombs. Luckily, we were in a taxi when the bombs were goin off, but we now understood the reasons behind the mayhem outside! After somehow managing to do a 3 point turn in stationary traffic and avoiding swerving bikes moving in all directions, our driver found a rourte back to our hotel from where we followed news updates. Unsurprisingly, the next day was like being in a ghost town, where a government curfew had forced everything shut to avoid further repurcussions. I'd been struck down by the inevitable stomach bug that occurs upon visiting India so was bedridden for most of the day- but the girls took the chance to spend the day chillin, eating and relaxing at Rambagh palace- a 5 star hotel at a former Maharajas residency.
From Jaipur, we had planned to take a train to Delhi, then a train the morning after to Haridwar, up north towards Rishikesh. Sounds good in theory I guess, but unfortunately didnt really turn out like that in practice! We made our way to the train station that afternoon, only to find that we thought the train was an hour later than it was- the one time indian trains run on time! So we missed our train- and desperately dashed over to the bus station to find other means of gettin to Delhi on time. Luckily managed to grab the next bus so still made it to Delhi on time, via a stop where we bought apples for 40 rupees EACH- the price you could normally get a kilo for!
The train to Haridwar was pretty smooth though, although it was extremely cold with the nonstop/full blast A/C- you cant have your cake and eat it i guess! Checked into a hotel soon as we got there- i was still feeling the effects of the dodgy tummy so needed to sleep whilst the girls went shopping. Settled into bed, only to hear knocking at the door. Answered the door, and by the time i turned around, the girls had knocked out onto the bed, bags and all and fallen asleep!! Haridwar was cool, different to what we'd seen in India so far. The religious influnce was extremely apparent here, its location on the banks of the Ganga had made it a prominet yatra stop, even the Kumbh Mela is held here, with the next one in 2010! The daily evening river aarti was packed with hundreds, maybe even thousands of people, with a few brave souls bathing in the river (by which i mean mostly middle aged men with oversized ladoo bellies)! Squeezed in a safari the following morning, managing to avoid paying overpriced foreigner prices by speaking the tiniest amount of barely understandable gujurati! Was pretty minor for Deepa considering what shes used to back home, but was pretty good for me and shai- apart from when the word snake was mentioned right shai?
Then onto Rishikesh, which was as good if not better than what people say. The other side of the coin where indias concerned- quiet, peaceful and tranquil- and with a decent amount of other tourists! The bus was packed and cramped but fortunately only an hour long- although i think it was long enough for shais legs to be squashed underneath her rucksack! It was a boiling hot day, perfect weatehr as we were faced with a 1km walk to the hotel. Not! Faced with up and downhill climbs, steep staircases and a narrow footbridge obstructed with people/bikes and cows- we somehow made it over after what seemed like forever! Stayed in an ashram here, which was actually a nice place of accommadation. Went to meet a couple of Deepas mates from uni that evening, bit weird seeing people from LSE in India out of all places! The girls gave yoga a go the following morning while i caught up on sleep- before we went white water rafting in the afternoon. The guys running were a bit eccentric though, wearing some arm glove kind of things with tattos on it- weird or what! So we were on the raft with another couple, with the wife given the task of going at the front of the raft to keep the weight down whilst goin down the rapids- and despite the fact she was going to get soaked, she obediently went about her task! Not sure whther it was to take the piss out of her or not, but she got soaked every time whilst we all laughed at her! The rapids werent that rocky, but we still had a good time, although im not sure the woman did lol.
Had been a pretty busy week again where we had covered a lot of ground, but also been able to see more sides to India's multidimensional character. Agra was such a contraditory place. Its actually pretty dirty- but once you see Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, the surrounding areas become completely insignificant. Normally, when you see monuments like this, your're left thinking 'is that it?' or 'i thought it would be bigger!'- but in this case, it was just 'wow!'. Unfortunately we couldnt see much of Jaipur- but i guess we had to leave somewhere for us to come back to! Haridwar and Rishikesh followed, both relaxing and spiritual glimpses into a fusion of India old and India new.
Next up was a trip back down to Delhi for me and Shai- Fernando was homeward bound to Colombo and i was going with her!!