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Published: October 27th 2011
Taj Mahal Palace Hotel
This hotel has some wonderful bars, and great drinks. Super pricey.
So far as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone, either by man or nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds. Nothing seems to have been forgotten, nothing overlooked. - Mark Twain
We arrived in the early morning on the last train of our journey, and made our way to a little hotel to drop our bags and get washed up. First stop was the Gateway of India, built to commemorate the 1911 royal visit of King George V and completed in 1924. Most impressive, despite the aggressive touts who lie in wait outside. From here we bought our boat tickets to Elephanta Island. A pleasant if toasty ride across filthy seas with a good view of Mumbai city until you got a little ways out and the smog impeded the view. Elephanta Island is home to a labyrinth of cave-temples carved into the basalt rock of the island, thought to have been created between AD 450 and 750, and the artwork represents some of the most impressive temple carving in all India. The main Shiva-dedicated temple is an intriguing latticework of courtyards, halls, pillars and
shrines. The Portuguese renamed it Elephanta because of a large stone elephant near the shore, which collapsed in 1814 and was moved by the British to Mumbai’s Victoria Gardens. It sounds impressive, and in truth it wasn't shabby, but it was a long trek for a single temple, the others, as the official guidebook itself proclaimed, not being worth our time. The monkeys on the island, however, were the most entertaining I'd come across, whole families used to dealing with tourists and drinking soda from bottles left behind or stolen out of people's hands. Clement was not amused, but I could have spent more time just hanging out and watching them. The monkey who tried to shake me down, though, deserved a swift kick that I wasn't able to give while running away. They didn't get anything from me except the empty lemonade bottle I left in the trash!
Another long boat ride back and it was time for drinks at the magnificent Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, one of the swankiest hotels in the country. With drink prices to match. Still, a relaxing experience for our last day in India, and we were able to finish all our
postcards. If you're subscribed to this blog you should be getting one soon! We filled up the rest of the day with shopping and a bite to eat, and then it was time to get ready for our flight home. Unfortunately there was quite a lot of traffic on the way to the airport, and by the time we arrived we weren't really in the proper frame of mind to appreciate the checks and re-checks that constitute India's version of airport security. We made our flight, only to be held up again in Amsterdam with a fuel leak on our plane and a seven hour delay getting home. But home we are!
Overall, I found India to be magnificent in some ways, and horribly negligent in others. Many of the high points have already been covered in the previous blogs: beautiful art and architecture, wondrous monuments and history, colorful and often helpful people, some great food and fabulous shopping. A wondrous place full of every conceivable type of environment, kind of person, experience or adventure, and bit of beauty that you could imagine.
I admit to having kept to the more attractive images of India in my previous
entries. There aren't many photos of the streets, the traffic, the trash. I didn't really want a record of the more difficult aspects of this trip, the India that isn't widely exported, the things you have to travel here to experience and believe. There's the homelessness. The street people. The beggars. The poverty. Whole segments of society relegated to the unimaginably huge slums that encircle the cities, people who make their homes in garbage dumps. As only a short-term tourist I'm not qualified to make much commentary on these issues, and as a resident of San Francisco I can't admit to being completely taken aback, although the scale of the problem here is larger than I can rationally comprehend.
In addition it was incredibly crowded, and full of people who refused to queue up. Nearly every site was busy from the moment it opened, and everyone there wanted the same photos and video footage. The Indian tourists were just as bad, if not worse, than the foreign tourists. So pushy! Rules were posted advising people to be clean and respectful, and these were subsequently ignored by almost everyone, except in Darjeeling and Kolkata, where things were amazingly orderly and
the people polite. The touts were more aggressive in some cities than in others, particularly in the more touristy areas, although I can't really say that they were worse than in Egypt or Morocco. There were just so many of them that it often became overwhelming. The pervasive lack of small change was irritating, but not really the huge problem that was anticipated. Being treated either as invisible and addressed collectively as "sir" or being stared at incessantly as though I were going about only in my yellow shoes got old very quickly. This was particularly bad the closer I was to Delhi. And the incredible honking! And the stifling heat!
And then there's the filth. Or the lack of sanitation, if you prefer. India is, I'm sorry to say, really a very dirty place, so much so that the few areas you find where people are actually making any effort at all do stand out. The street sweepers of Mumbai and Kolkata, for instance. One of the more stressful problems from a tourist perspective is that no matter how clean you start out being, it takes only mere moments to become filthy again. I'm not just talking about
the heat and resulting sweatiness that makes you question why you ever bothered to shower in the first place.
According to a 2010 Indian government survey, the dirtiest city we visited was Varanasi. The Mercer Health and Sanitation Index of 2008, which looks only at larger cities, ranked Mumbai at the seventh dirtiest city in the world, followed by New Delhi at twenty-fourth. From our own experiences, the large cities couldn't help but be dirty with their huge populations (Mumbai and Delhi each have over ten million people, Kolkata just under 5 million), even when they looked fairly well cared for, and of the smaller cities, Jaipur and Varanasi stand out for me by their uncleanliness.
If you haven't traveled through India, you need to rethink what dirty means. Imagine the dirtiest place you've ever experienced. No, dirtier. Imagine walking about with a bag of chips, a soda, a bottle of water. Maybe you're on a train, or a boat. Now imagine you've finished with this item and just toss it onto the ground, or out the window. Onto the tracks. Into the sea. There you go. Now imagine over a billion other people doing the same thing,
every minute, every hour, every day. Imagine cows coming by to sift through this trash in search of something to eat, including, sadly, sometimes bits of plastic which end up killing them. Birds, too, of course, and dogs. Maybe goats, pigs, chickens. Definitely street children will come by, looking for food and useful things to take or sell.
Maybe you think you can imagine it - minus the plethora of cows and other urban wildlife. Perhaps parts of New York, now or decades ago, or certain areas of Chicago, Los Angeles or San Francisco. You can probably also imagine walking to another part of that city, a cleaner, better managed area. In India, imagine getting into an open little three-wheeled car with no doors and driving miles in any direction, through the nastiest, blackest fumes possible, through dust and soot, with mouth and nose covered, and seeing the same thing. This isn't the slums I'm talking about. This is the center of town, where the action is, where the tourists stay. Imagine the smell of urine everywhere. Feces, animal and human. Not more than a moment goes by in most towns that you don't hear someone hawking something up
and spitting it onto the ground. Imagine paan-red spit sprayed over the ground, the walls, the beach, the magnificent forts, palaces and monuments. Imagine dozens of sewers flowing openly into the most sacred river, the Ganges. Imagine a land of many well-thought out rules and regulations and very few people employed to enforce them. This is India. It's nearly enough to convert me to my mother's way of thinking, where praising the cleanliness of something is seen as the greatest of compliments, and something to be heartily kept to in all parts of life. I used to think that perhaps someone just had a little too much time on their hands. Now I'm not so sure. But I can tell you who has vowed to dust off the scrub-brush at home, and be thankful that they can walk down the street even at rush-hour without a handkerchief to their face!
In terms of the largest cities, my favorites were Mumbai and Kolkata. Mumbai felt very modern and liberal, in addition to being the home of beautiful monuments and architecture, great food and wonderful shopping. Kolkata also had a modern feel, more orderly and a cleaner appearance, with a metro.
People were actually available to provide assistance and enforce the rules. A bit too spread out, though. Delhi was full of people who were rude and difficult, more so than perhaps any other place I visited in India. The people I came across in Jaipur, Agra, and Varanasi were so entrenched in the tourist trade that I began to feel like a walking pocket-book. Khajaraho might be heading in that direction. Overall, Clement and I more or less agree on our favorites: Udaipur (more a favorite of mine), Darjeeling and Goa (Panjim especially for him.) Most people say they prefer the smaller cities and towns of India, and after traveling there myself I can see why.
On our next trip we'd like to see more of South India, say from Kolkata down the coast to Kochi or around again to Mumbai. I'm interested in visiting the Sun Temple in Konarak, Hyderabad, the erotic carvings of Belur and Halebid, the monuments of Bijapur and Bidar, Bangalore, Mysore, the ruins of Hampi, French Puducherry, the Sri Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, the Keralan backwaters and canals of Alleppey, tea plantations and spice gardens in Munnar, the beaches of Kovalam or Varkala...
Then there's always more to see in Rajasthan: the sandstone fort in Jaisalmar, romantic Bundi, blue Jodhpur, the camel fair of Pushkar...
And neither of us would turn down a chance to return to Darjeeling.
Photos are now up for all blog entries. Thanks to everyone again for all their help, and for following along with us on this wonderful trip. A special thank you to my significant other Clement, who in addition to putting up with all my craziness saved up two years of vacation in preparation for this trip and still choose to spend it all with me. It wouldn't have been nearly so much fun without you! A bit of recuperation and I'm sure we'll be off again for new adventures!
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