March 30th, 2005

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Lack of update

You've probably noticed that my photos of the Taj haven't made it up in any update or report about the trip. Well, I've saved my notes to the trip off-line, but the connection from the hotel has been difficult of late, so uploading the photos hasn't been working for me.

Just a few days left here and I still have so much to do. I don't know if I'll get any shopping done at all! (Hopefully Friday, being the end of the filing period in the U.S., will leave me time to get out and do some but I start heading home Saturday in the early a.m.)
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Taj and environs, plus dinner experiences and plans

The flight from Chennai to Delhi is about 2.5 hours. I scored a window seat in the exit row on the way up so I had plenty of room to stretch out and even catch a few winks as I was up late the night before and woke up early for my 6:30 a.m. flight. Excited.

Leaving the airport I see someone holding a sign with my name on it. Well, sort of my name, but close enough for me to recognize it. That's kind of cool. I met my driver, Rahim and the other fellow sent along by the travel agency, Vijay and we began our trip out of Delhi.

It was a holiday weekend in Delhi. You're probably thinking Easter, right? No, silly, this is India. The spring festival here is called Holi (pronounced like "holy") and is presented as a festival of colors. The main expression of this seems to be dousing yourself, your friends and random passersby with water-soluable dyes. An interesting shade of fuscia seemed to be popular, but greens, blues and yellows were also in evidence. There appears to be a bit of drinking involved in the festival for some, but for most it remains a lot of relatively harmless fun. Westerners, and particularly women, are generally warned away from Holi celebrations of the more rambunkious variety, but I saw a few groups of Western folks that were in their Holi colors.

The drive from Delhi to Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal is about four hours. I caught a few more short naps during the drive, waking up when we had to slow down now and again for various reasons. The highway was much like the state highways through rural Minnesota, where they run through a small town every now and then, meaning you can't make great time but that you get to see a lot of local color. (In this case, quite literaly, as each small town was celebrating Holi and the locals were colored up for it.) This being a Hindu festival, the big Hindu temple that is along the way was swamped with the faithful for the festival. A tent city stretched to either side of the temple for about a quarter mile down the road. I would have liked to stop, but the timeframe didn't really allow it and the hundreds of celebrants would have meant it would take forever to accomplish anything there.

We arrived in Agra right about on schedule. As Vijay explained to me on the way down, the province where Agra is situated suffers from a certain amount of corruption in how the money that comes in for tourism to the Taj Mahal reaches the general good. So Agra is a bit of a pit. Nothing all that horrible along the main roads, but things were run down, in disrepair and dirty; even for India.

The Taj is suffering a bit due to the increase in pollution that comes from the larger city near it supported by the tourism. To help combat this, they have officially restricted petrol-powered vehicles from approaching the compound holding the Taj. You park about a half kilometer away and take a battery-powered bus or similar conveyance the rest of the distance.

When I arrived at the gates, I found evidence of the corruption first-hand. Entrance to the Taj complex is 20 rupees (about $0.50) if you are an Indian citizen. Foreign nationals pay 300 rupees plus a special tax for visiting Agra-area tourist locations of 450 rupees. ($17 for those of you playing along at home.) Now, I had brought 1000 rupees along with me on the trip. The car, the hotel I'd be staying at Saturday night and breakfast on Saturday were covered with my tickets. So I'm figuring two or three meals (they feed me on the plane both ways, so I can get by if I need to), entrance to places, maybe a few souveniers and I'll be OK. Now three-fourths of my funds are going for entrance to the one place I really want to see.

I bite the bullet and figure I'll be able to get some cash in Delhi. I don't regret it for a minute.

Some things I was told about the Taj Mahal and otherwise learned: The aesthetic of the place is all about symmetry. the four minarets are constructed so that they lean slightly away from the main masoleum, this means that, when viewed from a distance, the typical effect of parallel lines seeming to converge cause the lines of the minarets to seem to be perfectly parallel to those of the masoleum. Also, the arabic inscriptions that rise the up the sides of the masoleum are carved so that they grow subtley larger as they get higher, meaning they appear the same size and retain their readability when viewed from the ground. The masoleum itself is only one part of the complex. To its left (as you approach it) there is a mosque and to the right a nearly identical guest house. This puts the Taj Mahal in place as a symmetrical complex of three buildings that make the whole.

I can't really say much more, so here are the pictures of the building that I took. They don't do this beautiful building justice, but I hope my humble attempts give you a hint of what it is like. (I present these in a slightly larger format than I've been typically using so you can see more details. This means they'll take slightly longer to download.)
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The Taj was not the only thing to see in Agra. I also visited the Agra Fort. (The 450 rupee special tax being paid, I "only" needed 300 rupee or $5 to enter. I did some quick math and forked over the $5 bill I had in my wallet.) In this complex, the man that had the Taj Mahal built for his dead wife was imprisoned by his son for a time. He requested that, if he was to be held, that he at least be given a room from which he could see the tomb of his wife. So some additonal structures were built on to the Fort, which also served as the center for the government of the region. I found much of the carving in the building reminded me of the Al Amarja in Spain, which I visited 11 years ago. That complex has its fortification elements as well and the architects came from similar cultures, so it makes some sense. The themes in the Agra Fort reflect those of the Taj Mahal, which is also not surprising. My favorites photos from this series are those that show views of the Taj as seen from the Agra Fort.
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After the long drive back to Delhi, I was set up in a little hostel called JayBees Guest House. Not the level of accomadation I was accustomed to in Chennai, but a clean place with bed that horizontal and included clean sheets. After eight hours of driving, two and a half hours of flying and several hours of sight-seeing in the hot sun, I didn't need that much comfort. I forced myself to stay awake long enough to download the photos from the full data cards of my camera and set up the charger for the batteries before collapsing. I awoke for short periods during the night, which was handy for swapping batteries in the charger, but otherwise I had a restful night.

Sunday dawned a bit overcast. I had a light breakfast and met with my driver for the day's tour around Delhi.

We started at the Red Fort. This is one of the main palaces of the Moslem princes of India, was used as a garrison by the British and part of it is still used by the Indian military. Entry here was only 100 rupees. I was most impressed with the scale of this structure. From the street in front of it, I could not get the whole of its front into the frame of one photo. I'm given to understand it has a circumfrence of 2.8 kilometers. Even more than the Agra Fort, this structure reminded me of the fortress at Al Amarja. It wasn't decorated at the level of either, but it had a military bearing that was supremely impressive. I looked at the walls and tried to imagine being an enemy soldier of the appropriate period being asked to assault the edifice. Not a pleasant thought.
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After the Red Fort, I was taken to see the Lotus Temple. This is a relatively new structure, built by the B'hai religious organization. It is constructed of concrete and faced with white marble. It seems a popular site within Delhi as, even without services being held, people lined up in a steady stream for a simple walk through and around. No entrance fee was charged, but these folks could make some serious cash for their cause if they even charged a nominal 10 rupee fee. I respect that they don't, though, and that they continue to maintain their structure and its grounds so well. Both the Red Fort and the Lotus Temple benefitted from having a core of labor dedicated to the upkeep of the site; someone around to enforce the "don't walk on the grass" or "no photographs" signs that people otherwise seem to ignore.
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One of the saddest parts of visiting the sites in Agra was things like seeing litter along the hedges in the Taj complex and seeing the grafitti scratched into the stone walls of the Agra fort. I suspect you'd see this kind of thing anywhere, but I can't fully comprehend the thought process (or lack thereof) that goes into that kind of behavior in the face of something so beautiful.

After the Lotus Temple, I was taken to see the central government area of Delhi. This was most like a Western city, reminding me a bit of the similar area in Olympia, Washington. I dutifully took photos of one of the Parliment buildings and the India Gate. Then it was off to a Hindu temple. I'll have to look this one up as I don't remember the name. They don't allow photos inside the temple, which is a pity as I wasn't about to spend my limited funds on the overpriced postcards sold by the guys on the sidewalk outside and the interior of the temple is gorgeous. People were coming to worship and there were tour groups moving around the complex but it was a peaceful retreat from the hectic world outside. I spent a great deal of time just reading the sutras that were carved (in English and Hindi) into the marble walls and looking at the lovely depictions of various parts of the Hindu religion. There were individual temples for the various Hindu gods and most people seemed to visit them all as part of their devotions. I was sorely tempted by the goods in the gift shop attached to the temple, but didn't want to stretch my funds more.

After the temple, it was off to the airport where I parted company with Rahid and had to wait a couple of hours for my flight. I was a bit worried, having run so low on cash that I wouldn't have enough for a car to return me from the Chennai airport to my hotel. I needn't have worried. A quick inquiry there turned up the fact that pre-paid taxis (with rates set by the government) from the airport will take you to your hotel and bill the cost to your room. So a quick ride back in post-holiday traffic and I was safely ensconced in my familiar surroundings. I've already remarked on the lovely birthday cake the management left for me in my room. I've since had a slice or three and it's as tastey as it is lovely.

Tonight, I'm going up to the 8th floor for dinner. They are having some sort of special which started on the 25th and runs through the rest of my stay in which they feature foods that are purported to be aphrodisiac. Kind of sad to be indulging alone, but it sounds too interesting to miss. I checked if they had a tasting menu and they did for the first two days, so I missed it during my trip to Delhi. I guess I'll just have to go back over the next few days in order to sample all the dishes. Darn.

The above was written on Monday. Since then, I've tried a lot of the aphrodesiac menu. The first dinner started with a very good tomato soup that was served with half a lightly roasted tomato that had been quartered in the center of the bowl and topped with two parmesan straws. It was a lovely soup and the parmesan provided just the right amount of saltiness for the soup. The roasted tomato was a sweet counterpoint to the savory soup. My entree was ginger and ricotta gnocci served with steamed broccli and a tomato-based sauce. I thought the gnocci were far too subtle; I had to strain to taste any ginger in them at all. I came away wanting the chef to be more bold with this dish. Dessert was half a pear poached in red wine and served with a white chocolate mousse. Quite nice.

Tuesday's appetizer was half of one of the entrees, peppercorn-encrusted chicken skewers with a honey-fruit sauce. I got my wish from the day before and this dish was quite bold. At first, the peppercorns overwhelmed the sauce, but when I slathered on more, it was able to keep up. This made a good appetizer because when I was finished my mouth had a lovely tingle that made me want to munch on something. Entree was cinnamon and coriander encrusted chicken with mustard-tempered potato and okra cassarole. This chicken dish was just subtle enough, the cinnamon coming through the taste of crispy baked chicken with just a hint of sweetness. The potatoes were pretty uninteresting, but the okra made for a tasty side-dish and a couple of pieces were fried in tempura batter to serve as garnish. Dessert was a date dish that was part-way between ice-cream and mousse. It got better as it warmed up but was a little crystallized at first. It was served on a brandy snap mat (being a flat version of the same trick that served as dish for a dessert at the downstairs restaurant earlier in my stay).

Tonight, I think I'll have the soup again and then go for the tuna steaks. They are served with a mash of potato and carrot, if I recall correctly. For dessert, I think I'll go with the chocolate-covered strawberries served in a bowl of dark chocolate mousse. Yum!
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