Friday 4th December
Delhi to Agra
Another travelling day today so no more history lessons for now, although enough happened to make it worth writing about.
India is a land of surprises - especially to relatively naive travellers like us.
It is also a land of extremes, where the level of comfort, service and courtesy shown towards tourists in the hotels is such a contrast to the chaotic squalor and poverty that exists just yards from our gate. We are not sure how we feel or what to think about that divide, but for now we will simply continue to enjoy our trip and invest our few rupees in the Indian tourism economy.
So...we started our day with a swim in the pool. Deserted as always, discouraged by the "very cold Madam" pool attendant (water still a tepid 24 degrees and air temperature 13 degrees), we swam and loved it. Around the pool, various hotel staff bustled about, sweeping, wiping, tidying and carrying.
Breakfast included omelettes and Lavazzo coffee. After that we quickly packed our bags, paid our bill and met today's guide and then our driver for the 4hr trip to Agra.
We left the hotel to a chorus of goodbyes from the staff and a bow from the turbaned commissionaire with his magnificent Poirot style moustache.
It was a bright day today, with less smog and the sunshine made the hotel gardens look beautiful, with dozens of brown kites wheeling overhead. The Delhi traffic was as crazy as ever as we set off out of town, stopping briefly for the driver to top up his road tax for the Agra area.
The journey was 220km and most of it was done on decent fast highways, where vehicles mostly travelled in lanes and moved quite swiftly apart from the odd tuk-tuk wobbling its way along the hard shoulder. There were also a couple of tractors and trailers amongst the throng and numerous mopeds driven by young men, often with their wife/ mother or grandmother sitting side saddle on the back.
We stopped half way for a break. Our driver was a nice chap but rather quiet and he vanished quite quickly. It appeared that we were at a real life 'truck stop' or 'Dhaba'. There was a workshop where several men in greasy overalls were puzzling over a piece of machinery. Next door to that was an open fronted barn made of corrugated metal. Within its gloomy interior we could see a ceiling fan and small tables surrounded by white plastic chairs. It smelt horrible and there were lots of flies. Some water pipes and a couple of doorways suggested toilets somewhere at the back of the building. It was a heart sink moment. A young lad approached. Speaking no English made life difficult as we asked directions to 'restrooms'/ 'bathrooms' / 'ladies' and finally 'toilet'. He pointed at the hedge behind the workshop... Oh no...
This being India, however, he did not leave it there and led us carefully around the workshop to the aforementioned hedge, and from there indicated the neat concrete path to the large clean shiny toilet block and a Costa Coffee!!!
The toilets were indeed very clean and shiny having been freshly hosed out by a lady who was now busy mopping and wiping every surface in sight. I paddled across the slippery floor in my flip flops, smiling and nodding. As I entered the cubicle and shut the door I could hear her chattering, presumably to another Indian lady who was also in the building. The chattering continued, getting louder. Oops, I forgot to pay my 20 rupees tip. Suddenly to my surprise, a hand appeared under the toilet door, holding a large crumpled bundle of white toilet paper! Luckily I had come prepared and did not need her thoughtful gift!
After all that the Costa Coffee mugs of latte went down a treat!
We drove on along the highway. Bill dozed, I typed and the driver concentrated!
Suddenly we reached the end of the motorway. Our driver did a rather startling U-turn through the central reservation, and set off in the opposite direction, swerving like everyone else to avoid a large cow lying in the outside lane. Suddenly we were in Agra (population 3 million) and once again our surroundings took on the appearance of a film set.
The roads, shops and pavements were full of people. They were on bicycles, pushing or pedalling rickshaws, sitting cross legged on tables in doorways, squatting in their shopfronts, mending bits of broken machinery or carrying heavy bags or sacks on handcarts or on their heads. Cattle, pigs and donkeys wandered aimlessly about or lay on the side of the road dozing in the sun.
We arrived at The Trident Hotel and passed through the gates and barriers after the usual checks by the security guards. The welcome was very gracious with much bowing and we were each anointed with a dot of paint on our foreheads. After all the formalities we sat in the gardens with a cool drink and admired the peaceful setting with its pool and fountains.
Unusually the hotel also had extensive grounds. As well as the formal gardens there were lawns and a cricket pitch as well as some fish ponds, a bird reserve, fruit trees and a very large vegetable garden growing herbs, aubergines and tomatoes, all carefully tended in small raised beds. There was a running / walking path around the gardens which we set off to explore and encountered peacocks, geese and stilts as we ran. The hotel gym looked out over the gardens so we spent a happy half hour here before a lovely cool twilight swim.
As we swam we watched the hotel staff preparing for the evening - lighting lanterns and charcoal braziers, and arranging tables and chairs in the gardens. All very beautiful.
On return to our room the housekeeping team were in attendance. Despite us only having arrived a few hours before, they were busy cleaning and replenishing supplies.
Dinner was fun. In the garden there were people playing musical instruments, by the pool there was a puppet show. Outside the hotel there was the sound of music that sounded like a procession passing by and we could see fireworks.
In the restaurant there were several large parties of tourists with their guides choosing from an extensive buffet. It looked great, with a huge range of Indian, oriental and western dishes and desserts.
We weren't very hungry so we just ordered a main course from the a la carte menu. Our waiter, Mosha, wasn't having any of it and, despite our protestations, insisted in bringing us poppadoms with chutney, hot chicken soup and then appetisers with yoghurt and mint sauce. Neither would just one garlic naan bread do. He brought three and followed those with a bowl of rice. We ended up eating far more than we had intended but it was all delicious - as were the desserts he slipped onto the table after we had paid our very modest bill!
This hotel did not allow personal tipping which, on this particular occasion seemed a shame! The staff here seemed genuinely motivated by a simple wish to please which created a lovely atmosphere.
We sat in the garden and admired the lovely peaceful scene for a while to let our dinner go down. The braziers had just about burnt out, but the pool and fountains still sparkled in the light of the lanterns hanging in the trees. By now it was quite cool and we went back to our room to warm up and prepare for our Agra adventures tomorrow.