Thursday, January 10, 2008

Day 8 - Delhi again

This was my last day in Delhi. I didn’t have much on the itinerary other than to go to the National Museum and get some souvenir shopping done. I accomplished both with nothing substantially noteworthy. Thus, I will take the opportunity to share some random interesting facts about India.

(1) Indian tourist sites have no problem charging foreign tourists more than locals. At the National Museum, a ticket for foreign nationals costs 300 rupees. If you are an Indian citizen, it costs just 20 rupees. The Taj Mahal was even worse. It costs 750 rupees (US$20) as a foreigner. If you are local, it costs less than US$1. I understand that local visitors should get somewhat of a discount, but all the sites end up being overrun and crowded by crowds that climb all over the historical monuments and take flash pictures where they shouldn’t.

(2) The retail market in India is horrendous. I know India has some complicated regulations regarding the retail sector that prevent companies like Wal-Mart and Carrefour from setting up wholly-owned operations. The rule extends even to convenience stores like 7-11, which are all too present throughout the rest of Asia. This makes life difficult if all you want is a Diet Pepsi (or any other cold drink) and you can’t find a stall that sells it. It also means that each tiny stall carries only a small selection of the most popular (i.e. Indian) snacks and that every stall will have the same exact set of products.

Day 7 - Agra

We woke up early on New Year’s Day to go to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We left the hotel at 6:30 AM so that we could see the sights and make it back in one day. Agra is about 200 km (120 miles) from Delhi. I must say I was confused when the tour operator estimated it would take 4 hours to drive there. That’s an average of 30 miles per hour on a major highway between the capital and the largest tourist attraction in India. From Shanghai, I can take the high speed rail and get to Hangzhou from Shanghai (distance of 160 kilometers) in about 1 ¼ hours.

Once we were on the road, however, I understood. The road itself was better than expected. Two lanes in each direction, sometimes separated by a 3 inch high curb. The problem is the fact that it seems to be used by every type of vehicle known to man and every animal on Noah’s Ark. First there are the big trucks, spewing diesel fumes. Then there are buses, passenger cars and motorcycles. Then come the autorickshaws – three-wheeled carts with 100 cc engines. Occasionally, we would pass by a farm tractor pulling a bed of hay. Finally, there are people on bicycles, riding alongside the diesel trucks. Camels seemed to be the dominant mode of long distance transportation on the animal kingdom side. There were quite a few pulling some carts. However, there were elephants as well, carrying grass on their backs.

Despite their popularity in the rest of the world, I only saw two horses on the highway to Agra. Although they aren’t “using” the road, we did also see many dogs, monkeys, goats and of course cows sitting on the side, or trying to cross the road. As a result of all these obstacles, we got to Agra in just about 4 ½ hours, including a stop for breakfast.

The Taj Mahal really was nice. Definitely worth the trip. I won’t describe the Taj itself too much because everybody has seen pictures and my verbal description can’t add much. I will say though that the view from the back of the Taj Mahal was interesting. The site is located on the banks of a river facing what was to become a black version of the white Taj Mahal, and wihin sight of the Agra Fort, a palace for the Sultan. Even today, the view is impressive, until you see the garbage on the other side of the river and the people picking through it. Wherever you go in India, you are constantly reminded of the absolute poverty there.

After the Taj Mahal, we visited some other less famous and interesting sites, including the Agra Fort, and then quickly sped home at 40 km/hour and go to sleep.

The one other interesting part of our trip was that we shared the van ride with an Indian couple. The husband was from the United States (although born in Tanzania); the wife was born and raised in South Africa. When we told them it was nearly our 6th day in India, they asked us if we too were dying to leave. We then spent much of the day talking about the difficulty of living and traveling in India.

Day 6 - Delhi

With the wedding over, Paul and I headed to Delhi. Fortunately, the trip from Cochin to Delhi was relatively uneventful by Indian standards. Our flight was only 1 ½ hours late and the taxi driver from the airport only tried to rip us off twice: the first time by claiming that our pre-paid taxi fare receipt didn’t include luggage, the second time by asking for 50 extra rupees to lift our bags from the trunk. If only our first full day in Delhi had been as smooth.

As usual, the hotel was great. We stayed at the 5-star ITC Maurya, a Starwood hotel outside of Delhi. After eating breakfast and buying tickets for a New Year’s Eve party for that evening (more on this later), we went “downtown” to the official Delhi Tourism Center to buy tickets for an afternoon tour. Our guide book told us it was right across the street from a particular temple and next door to a coffee shop. With directions in hand, we guided our taxi (again pre-negotiated rate) to the right place. At the tourism center, we were told there were no tours running that day because on Monday, all the museums and some of the major attractions are closed. We asked for suggestions on where to go, but were essentially ignored as the employee tried to get his TV to work so he could watch cricket.

A little uncertain, we got a map and identified some places ourselves. We were only 2 blocks from Connaught Place, the supposed central hub of Delhi, so we decided to walk over to check it out. Less than 50 meters down the road, we found THE Delhi Tourism Center, next to another coffee shop. Immediately, we realized that the first tourism center was not an official information booth and was simply a well disguised tour operator sales center. That certainly explained the employee’s rudeness. With no tours running, we were not potential customers. It was very convincing; they even had official free maps. The real tourism center gave us similar information – that many of the tourist sites were closed and no tours were running. But they did help us out with some suggestions on where to go.

So, with maps in hand, we continued to walk towards Connaught Place. We weren’t sure we had arrived when we got there. The commercial center of Delhi is a big circle with dry grass in the center, shoe shine people on the sidewalk and 2-3 story tall buildings flanking the roads. Some were stores selling Western brand names like Nike and Addidas; there was even a TGI Fridays. However, most looked run down. One was even using a generator to power a string of fluorescent light bulbs that were lighting the store. However, Paul managed to spot the beacon of freedom that is McDonalds. A little tired of Indian food, we went in to see what we might eat. Half a Chicken Tikka and a McAloo burger later, we left McDonalds not much more satiated than when we entered. Nevertheless, we decided to hit up the tourist spots.

First was Hanuman’s Tomb. Great historical ruins from the 13th century. Don’t remember too much of the history, but check out the pictures here. We also managed to run into the Harvard Business School India Immersion program here. Two buses full of current HBS students. Paul’s initial reaction was, “Are all business school students so tall?”

After the tomb, we went to see the Qusab Minar, a tower built around the 13th century. Mildly impressive, but not worth it’s UNESCO World Heritage stamp. Then it was back to the hotel for a nap before New Year’s Eve.

For New Year’s Eve, we tried to attend the party in our hotel. But apparently, like many clubs/parties in India, it’s very difficult to be a man without a woman by your side. Our concierge politely told us that he could not sell tickets to men attending stag. Luckily, the Taj hotel down the street was more than happy to sell us tickets to their party, which featured a live performance from Jazzy B, a Punjabi singer from the UK. Oblivious to what Punjabi music might be, we bought the tickets figuring a 5-star hotel party would be fun no matter what.

That evening, we found ourselves in a room filled with 900 South Asians (read: Indian), 2 East Asians (me plus a Chinese-looking girl with her Indian husband), and 5 Caucasians (Australians on a group honeymoon), while listening to music sung in Hindi. It was funny and entertaining for the first 30 minutes. Then Paul and I literally began to count down the time to midnight.