Friday, May 3rd, 2013

See India through my very unobservant eyes

Created on May 3.

Updated on May 5 with my Taj Mahal trip report. Please scroll down.

Updated on May 7 with some random observations and thoughts.

=====
Wow, where do I start?! I remember asking my manager in the US what it was like when he visited India. Detecting the anxiety in my voice, he said it probably was just like in China, even though I didn't think he had ever been to China. I'm typing up this report on my hour-long ride to work and it is my second day here. I must say so far, having grown up in China did not make me feel right at home while visiting India.

The first impression was security. When I exited the airport, I noticed security guards strung about holding rifles. When the driver entered the hotel complex, which is fully fenced off with an iron gate, two guards checked the trunk and with a large mirror, examined the underside of the car. And before I entered the lobby, I had to walk through a scanner. When I set off the alarm, a female employee led me to a private enclosure, but she quickly realized that it was my silver bracelet that my dear sister equiped me with that was the culprit and let me go without a full pat down. All my bags went through the scanner. This was to become a daily ritual. Oh, and the guards in the complex all have rifles.

IMG_5768.JPG

IMG_5769.JPG

My co-workers here "come in late and leave late," so I chose to adapt to the culture. That means I'd leave the hotel at 10 and arrive at work at 11am, and leave work at 8pm. That also enables me to use company's late drop off service and release my own driver after he drops me off at work in the morning because otherwise, he'd have to wait until evening for my return trip. Last night, I did just that. The car came and there were two occupants — the driver and a security guard. The guard handed me a pepper spray when I entered the car, which was to be returned to him when I arrived at my destination. It was the standard procedure when a female employee is escorted. Well, when the car constantly got stalled in traffic, I found myself holding the pepper spray in a very defensive manner. I don't know if the pepper spray made me more nervous or less nervous.

Oh, actually there was another passenger in the car, whose presense was not detected until half way. That was after I already got three bites I realized that there was a mosquito hitching a ride. For my readers, if I start showing un explained symptoms, ask the doctor to check mosquito born diseases.

So anyway, even though I know that with all the security measures, I have nothing to worry about … while being protected, I must say that for the same reason, I would feel very unsafe if I were to venture out on my own, which I was thinking about doing over the weekend. I'm re-evaluating that plan now.

… A day at work went by …

Nice, three of my co-workers will join me on a trip to Agra (Taj Mahal). I will just need to get up very early tomorrow morning. BTW, weather forecast for tomorrow: 102 °F.

Got another ride escorted by a security guard to return to hotel. This car is nicer than yesterdays, but it also has a mosquito flying about. I should have packed repellant!

=== Random observations ===

I thought driving in China was crazy. It's nothing compared to what I see here in India. For one, they drive on the wrong side of the road! Mainly, there do not seem to be lanes on the raod, or they are completely ignored. Cars, bicycles, and pedestrians can come from all directions at any moment. Everyone here seems to have very good reflexes.

Lots of honking. I passed one place where many trucks were parked on the road. And everyone of them had "Blow horn" written on the back.

Today, I had my lunch at Subway downstairs. There are some localized flavors.

IMG_5787.JPG
Localized subway menu. I had Veg. Shammi. I bet you don't know what that is.

IMG_5762.JPG
A flower boutique in the middle of the parking garage at the airport.

 

======= Taj Mahal and Agra Fort =======

I almost was not going to go to Taj Mahal because I was a bit afraid to go alone, worrying about logistics, safety, and expenses. But my wonderful team in India came to my rescue. The local manager offered to plan a family trip that would take me along, even though his family had been to Taj Mahal many times. In parallel, a teammate, Neha, recruited two other teammates along with her sister in law, so we formed a 5-person group. That should get my manager off the hook. Initially, I was wondering how we could fit five people in a car, which would predictably come with a driver (more on that later).  Would we need to keep a door open and make one passenger hang half of the body in the air like this? IMG_5827.JPG

Well, what was I thinking! Our ride turned out to be a very comfortable seven seater, AC Innova. On Saturday early morning, my manager and his beautiful wife along with their 4-year-old son picked me up from my hotel. Guess they decided to make the trip with us anyway. He delivered me to the group rendezvous point — the office, where else. Off we went…In our car, two had been to Taj Mahal before and three of us had never been, but nobody, including my manager in his own car, had used the Yamuna Express Highway, which was recently finished. It was a smooth ride both ways to Agra, the town where Taj Mahal resides. The entire time on the six-lane highway, this is how deserted the road looked.

IMG_5802.JPG

 

Later, after I gained a feeling about what things cost here, I came to understand why this road is so uncharacteristically deserted (compared to any other places I've seen in India). The reason had to be the high toll cost. I'll have a separately section talking about expenses (for future visitors' reference). It took us about four hours including a tea stop at a public rest area along the way to reach Taj Mahal. We drove straight to the West Gate. The last part of the drive was through the local streets and we were fully exposed to the local scene of a small town, albeit a touristy town. I saw a barber cutting hair on the side of street. I saw cows, dogs, and other animals calmly wandering along the road meandering through crowds. In my eye, that was harmony if I don't think about whether they are all fed adequately. They seemed content. As discussed in the comment section below, I share the feeling that in India, infrastructure is lagging behind considering how fast India economy is growing and how luxurious a life style many Indians are able to enjoy. I've seen some neglected corners in rural areas of China. Even in the old days before the current China economy boom, the condition in my memory would be called good in comparison to what I have seen in India. And some of the worst spots are actually right in Delhi, the capital city.

Back to Taj Mahal … my teammate snatched a guide for our tour, who turned out to be very helpful. I'll have more information for beta section, but here I just want to post a few photos to show this magnificent wonder of the world. IMG_5847.JPG
The main gate.

IMG_5878.JPG
Apparently this is a mandatory shot for any tourist. The guide knows exactly where to place your feet and hands.

 

IMG_5897.JPG

Did I mention that my words pale in front of this masterpiece?

 

We were told that all the patterns (including Quran "written" on the outside of the building and the delicate flowers decorating the arch ways) and shapes were hand crafted with stone inlaying and carving. There was no painting involved.

IMG_5911.JPGIMG_5910.JPGIMG_5909.JPG

 

Looking through a hole in the window grid. (The guide's artistic creation.)
IMG_5914.JPG IMG_5915.JPG
IMG_6070.JPG

(This is actually a distance shot at Taj Mahal viewed from Agra Fort. Jamuna River runs by it.)
After we exited Taj Mahal, we were led to the gift shop, which I didn't mind. A craftsman was illustrating how the stone inlay is done. I made a couple of purchases I'm happy about and cannot wait to place them in the display case at home.

The driver drove us to Quality Restaurant (that is the name) , a short distance away from West Gate. It was a good recommendation, and I enjoyed the food very much. And everybody appreciated a break in the AC'ed room. Once refueled, we were driven to Agra Fort. I would not have known to go there, and I'm so glad that we went because in my opinion, what we saw there was just as spectacular as Taj Mahal. If I call Taj Mahal beautiful, I'll call Agra Fort handsome. I sensed the muscular charm at Agra Fort.

IMG_6011.JPG

IMG_6032.JPG

IMG_6095.JPG

IMG_6110.JPG

IMG_6093.JPG
This was in a mosque that was dedicated to female occupants at the Fort. Today, entering requires removing shoes. My companion taught me the proper posture for making a prayer in the mosque.

The above photos are just a small sample of what I was fortunate enough to witness on Saturday. For the complete presentation, you can go to my album (all photos),  or visit my Picasa web album where selected photos were uploaded and captions were provided.

 

====Taj Mahal and Agra Fort Beta Section====

Although I'm eager to share my photos with you, I know photos of Taj Mahal are abundant on the Net. What I also want to share is some information about my trip, which may provide some reference to my readers who are planning a visit. As of today, the exchange rate is about 57₹ to 1 US Dollar, although at the airport where I made the exchange, they displayed 50₹ to $1. (Was told Airport is the worst place for currency exchange.)

1. We hired an AC Innova with a driver, which comfortably sits five and can accommodate seven. The rate was about 11 ₹/km . He was with us from 5am until 5pm+. The car expense came out to be 5800 ₹ (roughly $100) for all five of us. My coworker spends 8000₹/month on a private driver (with her own car) who drives her to and from work (and waits in between).

2. The toll tax to and from Delhi / Noida on the Yamuna Express Highway came out to be 510 ₹(~$10). Compared with the car expense, I can see that this is high. That explains why the six lane wide open highway was very deserted on our ride both ways.

3. It took about 3 hours of driving each way on the highway. There are a few public rest areas along the way where beverages and food can be purchased with clean wash rooms. I feel that I need to remind foreign visitors, esp. Americans who are used to the convenience, that you may want to bring your own toilet paper in case of need. (I should point out, I did not learn that from a  lesson.)

4. Entrance ticket cost. Taj Mahal: 750₹ for foreigners and 20₹ for Indians  . Agra Fort: 250₹ and 10₹.  The 750₹ includes a fast lane to enter the premise as well as an exclusive VIP channel to enter Taj Mahal.  It's advised to purchase shoe covers (10₹) at the ticket office.

5. At the West Gate of Taj Mahal, we were surrounded by men who offer to guide the tour. They almost all show a work certificate and I was told that on the work certificate, the official guiding fee is printed to be 500₹. Neha managed to get a guide for us for both Taj Mahal and Agra Fort at 200₹ (each). I was happy with both guides. They speak ok English (maybe they all do), were attentive, and the Taj guide could have been a professional photographer from what I have seen. I gave him a 50₹ tip.

6. There are open electric vehicles that take tourists between West Gate and  the ticket office area. A short ride, but could be nice in the heat. I don't know the asking price, but it cost us 10₹ per person each way.

7. There is a gift shop at Taj Mahal. I think it's official because it is inside West Gate. I was told that they don't bargain, but with my female companions' help, they were able to give me a couple of complimentary gifts when I purchased two nice marble art pieces.

That's it for now. I'll add if I remember anything more.

====

Links (repost):

My album, with all the photos (including the ones that do not expose beauty).

Picasa web album, fewer photos, but some are captioned.

 

======= Updated on May 7 =======

Random things:

1. Earlier I mentioned that I got the India currency at the airport and I was told that they gave a low exchange rate (read: bad). But what's worse was I got a stack of 500₹ bills, all of which had a tear. The guide at Taj Mahal would not take it and even the cafeteria at work would not take it! I'm writing this to remind others that do not place too much trust in those seemingly official agencies.

2. Even though in the US, I could go for years without visiting a mall, I was told that I must pay a visit to the mall — MGF Metropolitan Mall — next to my hotel at the Saket District Center in New Delhi. So, today, after returning to hotel fairly early, I convinced myself to walk over. Well, within a few minutes of visiting, I concluded that the mall is like any multi-story mall in the US. I managed to pick up a toy for my kitties at home, Made In China.

Not so interested in the mall, I did find this dedicated door boy interesting. I like the outfit.

I also found another phenomenon interesting. Right next to the super modern and lavish mall buildings was an empty multi-story structure that I couldn't tell if it was in the process of being built or being torn down. What's interesting is I found many cows quietly reside on the second floor. What do they eat? where do they roam? Why are they there? I don't have photos. I found that there were too many scenes in this country I witnessed that it would pain me to take photos to show others.  There are people who are in such poverty that is almost beyond imagination. I'm sure there are people in China that do worse, but I'm sure it's not as prevalent as in India. I wish this country the best.

When I walked back into the hotel complex gate, I was surprised to see it engulfed in smoke. It turned out to be some spray/smoke to repel mosquitoes. I don't like the chemicals, but I hate mosquitoes even more.

Just when I was about to walk into my room, the service people stopped me and presented me this.

Who would know, my first custom pillow with my name printed came from a hotel in the remote India. Now, I'll have to figure out how I can fit it in my luggage. That reminded me, despite me being careful, I caught a stomach bug since yesterday. This morning at the breakfast downstairs, I mentioned it to one waiter who was about to recommend some dishes. Next thing I know, three different waiters of various ages came to my table to suggest home remedy for upset stomach. I was quite touched by it, but found it funny that some suggestions were the opposite, for example, "Have some Lassi, it's good for your stomach," and "No, you shouldn't have Lassi when you are sick." I didn't mind since all were out of very good intention.

 

 

 

 

 

2 Responses

  1. Arveekayon 04 May 2013 at 11:03 am

    Little secret from an Indian (who now is in the Bay Area): Most of the guys carrying those rifles don't have bullets. ;-) At least that is the way it used to be. Maybe it has changed in the recent past.

    The mirror check is for bombs (apparently).

    I have been to China and I have to say — India and China are very different. Infrastructure in India is quite a bit behind that of China.

    Mosquito problem — if you are still in India, the best repellent locally available is Odomos. It is a cream that comes in a tube. Works like a charm.

    mudworm

    Hello, thank you for visiting and for sharing the secret. What a relief to know that the security guards around the complex were fakes…um, I mean, they carry "fake" rifles. I agree with you about the difference in infrastructure development between China and India.

    My upload of Taj Mahal photos will take a while, so I'll let it run while I sleep. I can't wait to share my experience today. Another "wow" for sure!