Published: February 9th 2006January 23rd 2006
We hired a car and driver, shared with a very pleasant couple from Espana, in New Delhi and headed south to Agra, on Jan. 20. Agra was an entirely uninspiring city (a type of mini-delhi) but it has a few good points, namely the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. We visited the former on a beautiful cool sunny morning along with several hundred other tourists (both Indian and foreign). It was worth the effort, a monument of sublime beauty. Enough said. Red Fort, built by the Mughal, was impressive if nothing else for its imposing position along the Yumana River upstream from the Taj, and for its size. It was also notable for the tenacity of the touts at the entrance.
Indian nationals have to pay roughly 1/10 the entry fee of non-nationals, perhaps reflecting the ratio of average earnings between that of India and the developed nations (or maybe its closer to 1/100).
Our next stop was Bharatpur, a relatively small town, the only tourist interest is the nearby bird sanctuary. Few tourists visit the town, but we did that evening. Our out-going spanish friend made a big impact by taking pictures of the children, then buying
large amounts of saris in a small shop. People were curious and extremely friendly. Despite the strange surroundings we have not yet felt at all threatened.
Next morning I rose at 6, rented a bicycle, and visited the sanctuary. I hired a guide, Prakesh, and proceeded to cover about 15 km in 4 hours, in the process seeing over 50 species of birds, including owlets, crested serpent eagles, cranes, herons, kingfishers and many others. Also saw rhesus macaques, chittal deer, nilgai antelope, and jackal. Great experience. My son, Jamie, elected to sleep in, as did our Spanish co-travellers, thus missing the experience. Lazy he is indeed. I think he regretted it afterwards.
That afternoon (yesterday as I write this) we headed to Ramthanbore National Park, to the south. The road was rotten, much of it a 4.5 m wide pavement with abrupt edges.
Traffic in India is fascinating, once you get beyond the idea that the absolute chaos and mayhem is in fact normal. Both drivers and pedestrians are amazingly cavalier about what we would consider basic safety measures, almost fatalistic.
Roads are crowded, and drivers almost fanatically impatient, a trait contradicting the fact that off
the road, most people appear to be sitting or standing around doing nothing. There are large, luxurious SUVs, passenger cars, taxis, motor rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, lorries of all description and size, buses in precarious condition, tractors pulling everything imaginable, jeeps with up to 25 people inside and outside, bullock carts, camel-drawn carts, bicycles, motorbikes, pedestrians, cows, goats, sheep, pigs, water buffalo, dogs and potholes. All of these participants assume that they have full right of way. It is continuous madness, and I find it intriguing.
I have concluded that there are a lot of people in India. Many of them seem to be doing nothing, although that is only the impression I get driving through the towns. On the way to Rhanthambore, we stopped in a small town for the driver to have a break, and we were almost instantly beseiged by young and old, sticking their arms in the car and asking for money. It would have been alarming but the driver returned before the car was carried away.
Driving through these rural areas, we are able to glimpse scenes of amazing squalor, filth and poverty, exceeding anything I have seen in Africa. No wonder most Indians
see us as having infinite wealth. One interesting thing about India is the dung economy. In most small villages, we see cow patties drying in neat patterns. It is bought, sold, distributed and bartered. Dung is used as fuel in cooking, in constrution and I'm sure in many other ways I haven't learned about yet.
To paraphrase Will Rogers, I never met an Indian meal I didn't like. We are trying as many dishes as we can. No delhi belly yet, and I am pretty confident that with a little care this condition will continue. Weather is perfect, but cold at night. All is well.