We woke up on Day 2 of our blitz through the Golden Triangle to the sound of pigeons flapping madly. I have no idea why, but the pigeons at the Alsisar Haveli seem to congregate on air conditioning so the noise travels into your room via the air conditioner. It’s not an unpleasant noise, really. Just startling – a little bit of country and city.
Before setting off on the 5-hour drive to Agra, we stopped by a textile shop in Jaipur, Anokhi, which the Lonely Planet described as being high-quality and ethical (i.e., setting aside some money to educate the children of the craftsmakers), so we figured why not try to be a “good” shopper.
As we expected, there was a Ringmaster guy (supposedly named “Lucky”) who did all the talking, selling and bargaining for the store, and he had four or five sidekicks pulling inventory off the (packed) shelves at an overwhelming rate. If you even glanced at a pashmina, suddenly two guys would be pulling a dozen pashminas from the shelves and unwrapping them in front of you.
At 10:30 in the morning, Eric, Erica and I were the only ones in the store, and by the time we left at around 12:30, it looked like the store had been swamped by a tidal wave of textiles. Tablecloths, quilts, scarves, wall hangings, bedspreads . . . everything was lying on the floor. Erica and I viewed at least three dozen silk and embroidered duvet covers. The fabrics were so gorgeous and colorful that it hardly mattered that brocade is not my thing. I felt like I was in the Great Gatsby shirt scene.
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue.
But back to our story: after picking out five duvets (five, seriously, what were we thinking?), Erica bargained hard with the Ringmaster so that we paid $70 per duvet instead of the initial quoted price of $120 a duvet. Jon’s work colleagues from Jaipur claim we got ripped off, but I think we did as well as a foreigner is going to do, and you know, if the Lonely Planet is to be believed, some of the money goes to kids. Plus, free of charge, the store custom-made two bedspreads into duvet covers and had them couriered to our hotel in Delhi a few days later (i.e., sent one of their guys to drive 6 hours from Jaipur to Delhi), so you have to admit that is some service for the money). Jon replies that this bit of free service should hint at how much we overpaid for our duvets (and the dozen other things we picked up). Damn him and his cynicism. I’ll bet next he’s going to say none of the money goes to kids, either.
The drive to Agra was long and mildly entertaining. The usual livestock-pedestrian-bike-tractor-truck madness, mixed in with dry, hardscrabble scenery. I loved the number of buses that we passed where there were passengers riding on top of the bus (in case it wasn’t obvious yet how different the risk calculation for personal injury is in India). Our driver Manoj expertly used his horn and wove in and out of traffic like the pro he is, and with some quality Govinda Aala playing in the CD player, time passed as fast as it can when you’re on a highway so varying in quality that your average speed is about 30 km/h.
We stopped for a quick lunch at around 3 pm in a town called Mahawat. It was a gorgeous, mild, sunny day, and the Rajastan Motel where we ate was surprisingly green and peaceful. So when on the road between Jaipur and Agra, give this place a try – the food was much better than it had to be considering the lack of options in the area. I was surprised the tandoor chicken was moist and smoky, and the palak paneer (cheese and spinach) was creamy without tasting greasy. An excellent break for the three of us for Rp 1100 ($23 US).
A brief note about how weird it is when we stop for food and Manoj doesn’t eat with us. In this instance, we invited Manoj to lunch with us, but perhaps because we didn’t make clear that it would be our treat, or perhaps because he needs a break from us, Manoj declined.In other cases, it turned out to be much less awkward for everyone if Eric, Erica and I pretended that it was perfectly normal that our driver would take us to nice hotels and restaurants where he would not be eating or sleeping (and instead, we are pretty sure Manoj slept in the car). It’s difficult for me to figure out how much to sympathize because I have no idea how all the money gets passed around. We paid our travel agent $220 for Manoj’s services and those of a guide for two days. The travel agent hired another travel agent who hired Manoj and our various guides. So the question is, how much does Manoj get and how far does that money go in Agra (where he lives)?
Sometime around 5:30 pm, we arrived in the outskirts of Agra and decided to squeeze in a tourist sight at the Fatehpur Sikri. It’s a city built by one of the more successful Mughal emperors, Akbar the Great, in the 1500s to thank a Sufi saint for blessing Akbar so that he would have a son (Shah Jahan, who later built the Taj Mahal). Apparently, the city lacked a good water supply so it had to be abandoned soon after it was built, and now you can visit this “ghost city” and see the tomb of the Sufi saint, Salim Chishti.We arrived too late to see the ghost city part of the complex, so we decided to see the religious portion, which included the tomb of Salim Chishti.
Things I will always remember about the Fatehpur Sikri: (1) it looks gorgeous at sunset (see photo at top of this post); (2) our guide had waited there for four hours for us to arrive because we hadn’t realized we were supposed to have a guide and therefore we’d taken our sweet old time shopping in the morning at Anokhi; (3) we were the only tourists there and were *swarmed* by dozens of kids trying to sell us junk (jewelry, postcards, scarves, etc.); and (4) Eric and Erica each paid Rp 500 to tie a string inside the Sufi cleric’s tomb, “for wishes to come true.” I will be sure to let you know how that works out for them. : )
We checked into our Agra hotel, the Trident Hilton, at around 8 pm and told Manoj to go home to see his family. Oh, how generous we are.The Hilton, by the way, is nice and has a sleek recently-renovated lobby and pool. But hey, it’s a Hilton. You could be anywhere, and frankly, at $230 a night, it was definitely notwhere near as good a deal as the Alsisar Haveli was. On the other hand, it’s Agra, and there’s a whole lot of demand for hotels by folks who want to see the Taj Mahal, especially during peak season. So what can you do?
We negotiated with an auto rickshaw driver to take us to the Mughal Sheraton for dinner (for just Rp 40 – less than $1 US). The Sheraton was probably only a km away from our Hilton, but Agra is not a pedestrian-friendly city, and how can you pass up the chance to ride on a busy road in what amounts to a golf cart powered by a lawnmower engine?
According to the front desk at our hotel, Peshawri, the North Indian restaurant at the Mughal Sheraton, was the place to be. So that’s where we ate.
I was surprised by the decor of the restaurant – the color scheme is very brown and there are these log “fences” here and there. The menu is on a huge polished wood tablet that looks like something Fred Flinstone would order from, and instead of napkins, diners wear red-and-white checkered bibs.
Still, the atmosphere was welcoming and the food smelled good, so we were game to try out the place. I am super glad we did. The dal bukhara (lentils in a spicy sauce) were creamy, rich and spicy; the murgh malai kabab (yoghurt-marinated chicken roasted in the tandoor) was juicy and flavorful; breads were crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. All very tasty, though if I had to be picky, I’d probably avoid the tandoori aloo (potato and raisins wrapped in a pastry-dough-type skin) and the seekh kebab (ground lamb grilled on skewers in sausage shapes), which was too dry for me (though Eric loved it).
Our meal for three was a relatively pricey Rp 3800, but it was worth every penny.
Ahh, but the night was still young, so after we finished dinner around 11 pm, we hopped in yet another auto rickshaw to check out the famous Amarvilas (owned and operated by the Oberoi Hotel chain).The place is beautiful and who cares if it’s Disneyesque in its perfection? The light shimmers on fountains and glows on marble at night, and the arched passageways invite you to explore and discover where all the guests are hiding away. I was this close to wishing I’d spent the $600 a night it takes to stay there (a colleague of mine stayed there three years ago for just $80 a night, which I suppose is one example of how quickly prices are rising in India).
The bar was closed, but the security guard we spoke to radioed ahead to the bar, which decided to stay open just for us. You don’t get more gracious than that. So we sat on an outdoor patio off the bar, drank in the scene (along with a few cocktails that came with precious ice made from filtered water), and then called it a night so that hopefully the five guys still on staff at the bar could go home. Our server repeatedly declined our large tip, saying that he preferred we complimented his service to his manager, but since we weren’t staying at the hotel and it was late, we ended up (embarrassingly) putting the tip in his hand and apologizing for not being able to stick around to find his manager at that hour. We were certainly the classless ones in this exchange and he the classy one.
And that was our day. I promise to speed up the India narrative in my next two postings – one about the Taj Mahal and Agra, and the other one will summarize my four days in Delhi for work.