Friday, May 29, 2009

Agra and Departure from Delhi/India

My hotel is actually about 20 yards from the entrance to the Taj Mahal, so I woke up early and got to see it when it was relatively uncrowded. There are definitely more western tourists here than anywhere else I’ve been. It looked just like the pictures everyone’s seen, but there are also red standstone mosques built on the grounds, which glowed in the rising morning sun. The whole thing is done in perfect symmetry—the Taj itself, the matching mosques on each side, and the entire grounds. I guess I had always heard about the Taj Mahal and seen pictures, but I realized that I actually had no idea what it was. I always thought the Taj itself was a mosque, but actually it’s a tomb for the emperor’s favorite wife. Inside feels much smaller than you would expect having seen its massive presence from the outside. Apparently the emperor Akbar was going to build a “black Taj” across the river for his own burial, but then his grandson organized a coup and locked him under house arrest in the fort, so there is only a foundation for the other Taj across the river, and Akbar is actually buried next to his wife in the Taj Mahal.

I also decided to skip the rest of the Agra sites and instead see Fatehpur Sikri, 40km outside of the city (obviously this takes at least 1hr each way to travel). I didn’t know exactly what this was, but had been told by several Indians that it was good to see. Turns out it was a giant mosque (Fatehpur) and palace (Sikri), which took 12 years to build, and was built by Akbar’s grandfather, so it predates the Taj. However, after living there for just 4 years, a drought forced the city to be abandoned as the capitol. Interestingly, this emperor had 3 wives, one Hindu, one Christian, and one Muslim, so the mosque has elements of all three architectures and the palace has a separate mini-palace for each of the wives in completely different styles. A 12 year old boy talked me into letting him be my guide for just 20 rupees, and he actually did a great job. Mostly he just kept all the other scammers in the mosque (yes, there were a lot of them, despite the sign posted outside that clearly stated that “any commercial activity was prohibited within the mosque and punishable”) away from me so I didn’t have to worry whether the “charge” for entering, watching my shoes, getting a head cover, etc., actually needed to be paid or not. They didn’t. Of course, there was a catch to this inexpensive 20 rupee charge. After I had told him over and over that I didn’t want to buy ANYTHING, and was simply not interested in buying anything even if it was so cheap they were giving it away, he took me at the end to a shop selling “his village’s” handicrafts.

I returned to Agra in time for my 2pm train to Delhi. I was planning to get to Delhi in just under 3hrs, and would have plenty of time to use the internet and also shower and change before going to the airport for my flight. I was once again in sleeper class with no AC, but figured it was only 3hrs. However, and this can only happen in India, the 3hr train ride actually took 5 and a half hours! I had to head straight to the airport, dirty and sweaty though I was. The best I’ve been able to figure out is that once a train gets behind schedule, it has lowest priority and has to stop in a place with multiple parallel tracks and wait for other trains that are supposed to be running on the same tracks as it to pass, so it just gets later and later. However, since I only ever took trains that were late, I conclude that all trains are late all the time, so I’m a bit confused as to how the priority gets assigned.

The airport: I arrived at 8:30pm for my 10:50pm flight. This seemed reasonable. Outside was a huge mass of people, and there were 4 entrances each with separate lines to go into the airport. There was a departure screen outside, but this only had 4 flights listed on it, clearly not all of the international departures of the evening, and I had no idea how to tell which entrance I was supposed to use. I stood in line for one of them, but they wouldn’t let me in (to the check-in area) because I didn’t have my ticket printed. Inside I could see lines of e-ticket machines. They told me I had to go to Continental’s office to get my ticket. After wandering around and being directed in various directions, I finally found Continental’s office in the 2nd building I tried. However, it was closed and locked. I asked the people in another airline office across the hallway what I should do, and one guy came out to lead me to the right place. I skeptically followed him, but was magically taken to a second Continental office in a third building where they printed me a random garbled piece of computer code that would apparently serve as my entry. I was pretty frustrated at this point.

Then as I was being taken back to the guarded entry gates, the guy from the airline, a genuine airport/airline employee mind you, had the nerve to ask me for a tip!! I was livid. I would never dream of asking someone I had helped in the United States for a tip. In fact, on my way home from the airport as I arrived in India I helped an elderly Asian couple that was lost on the T. Did I ask them for a tip? Did I even think about asking them for a tip? Obviously not. This was like the last straw in India. I am not your freaking fairy godmother, here to pass out money and gifts, which is apparently what lots of Indians think I am. What the hell.

Finally I got inside of the airport and actually checked into the flight. I think by this time I was one of the last ones. Security and emigration were also ridiculously inefficient and slow. I guess I should have predicted as much. First I went through security, which involved removing my electronics and putting my items on the conveyor belt for x-ray, then walking through a metal detector, and then having Indian army personnel wave a handheld metal detector over me and pat me down whenever it beeped. They do this double-metal-check for everyone. By the time I got to the other side to retrieve my items, my electronics had been dumped out of their box and my phone and camera were just hanging out unattended. Great. Then, after I went through the gate to board the plane, where I expected to see the jetway leading onto the airplane, instead I saw another line where once again we had to take out all our electronics, run our items through another conveyor belt, and undergo another pat-down before actually getting onto the plane. This seemed a bit over the top. As my Udaipur friends suggested, in India they have so many people that they just make up stupid jobs that don’t actually need to be jobs, like guarding an ATM, just to occupy more people. Although overall my trip was awesome, I was glad to be leaving India. I just don’t have the patience for such inefficiency.

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