10.03.2012 - 14.03.2012 28 °C
Once again it's been a few too many days since I've last posted and as usual I have lots and lots to update you all on. It's currently Wednesday morning and I'm just having breakfast before I head off to work. This weekend was pretty hectic as we began the first 'travel' segment of our 'work and travel' program with Sankalp.
Our destination for the weekend was Agra to see the magnificent Taj Mahal, however we didn't leave until after lunch so on Saturday morning a few girls and I decided to visit the Amer Fort - one of the most renowned tourist sites in Jaipur. At about 7.30 Elena, Elsbeth, Catherine, Sasha and I headed off in search of an autorickshaw, and after finally convincing one to take us at a reasonable price we set off. Elena and I sat in the boot enjoying all the immensely entertaining sites simple daily life on Jaipur's streets has to offer.
When we arrived I was surprised at how beautiful the fort was. I'm not normally all that big on forts and temples, but for some reason I really enjoyed my visit to Amer Fort. We arrived in the morning because before midday you can pay for an elephant ride up to the fort. Sasha, Elsbeth and Catherine decided to get the elephant rides but Elena and I felt like walking, so we made our way together. It's not too high up but the walk offered really pretty views of Jaipur City, and we were walking alongside the elephants (who due to their face painting I think may have been the ones showcased at the Elephant Festival).
We bought our tickets and walked around the enormous fort. It's hard to describe what I liked so much about it. The architecture was really beautiful- it almost echoed Moroccan style design, which I think is due to the Islamic influence on design hundreds of years ago. Also, the views were absolutely spectacular, as the fort is surrounded by small mountains, has a big lake below it, and views off the city across through the mountains. We didn't get hassled by locals as it was mainly full of just other tourists. There were also lots of little hidey holes and sneaky passages and rooms all throughout the fort. There were plenty of tourists but even so because the fort was so large and had so many intricate passageways most of the time you felt like you had your own secluded palace. Although - this did mean we struggled a bit trying to find our way out.
After losing ourselves for an hour or two we tried to find our way out, with little success. The security directed us to the exit which had market stalls and souvenir stores (of course) and to my surprise we stumbled across a snake charmer. Elena didn't appear to be keen on the cobra at all, but the charmers let me sit with them and play some music. I was even encouraged to touch the cobra and kiss it! Though when he offered to wrap it around me I decided I'd had enough. Still - I kissed a cobra!
On our way out of the palace Elena and I were approached by a young Indian man (pretty cute!) who asked where we were from. When he discovered that Elena was Spanish and I was learning he said his name was Carlos and began speaking Spanish to us - quite impressive really! He was pretty funny and offered to take us on his motorbike to the movies and to see real tigers in Jaipur, though I don't think Amita (volunteer house organiser) would like that and we had to let him down. By chance around this time we bumped into the other girls, who were bartering for a picture of them on the elephants - they hadn't even had a chance to enter the fort yet because they'd just spent their time on the elephant rides, but they were still pleased with the visit.
We had a bit of trouble arranging a rickshaw back as we were getting overcharged but finally got a driver and set off back home. The drive home was quite an experience, as this side of Jaipur had many more animals on the roads - buffalo, pigs, goats and a few chickens, as well as all their babies. He stopped to let me take photos many times which was great - though now I have far far too many photos to sort through. We also went past the Water Palace, which is right near the Amer Fort, and took photos - but it's actually in the middle of a lake and you cannot access it so it wasn't all that exciting.
When we got home we had an early lunch and quickly packed all our stuff for our trip to Agra. We had a really big group of twelve girls on this trip and split into two vans of six for the four-five hour drive to Agra. Our driver was the coolest dude ever and called himself G-Singh. I sat up in the front with my main man G-Singh and had some great chats with him about all different aspects of Indian culture and learnt a bit about the caste system. He has been a tourist driver for many years and even said that he was a driver for the princess many years ago - I couldn't quite figure out which one he was referring to but I think it was for Diana or Camilla or something. Anyway, he was a cool dude.
We stopped once along the way but finally arrived in Agra, which was just another big city. We were staying in the Crystal Inn, which is quite a fancy hotel, and I was pleased to see comfortable beds and Western toilets. Soon after arriving we headed off to the main markets in Agra. Within about five minutes of arriving we found out they were pretty crappy - maybe we were in the wrong area but it seemed like they'd taken us just to a residential area with a few shops. Anyway, we looked around and ended up visiting the Coffee Cafe Day shop (a name something like that - it's like a Gloria Jeans style chain coffee shop). Catherine and I shared a yummo choc brownie sundae (so good to have ice cream!) and then we all met back at the cars and went back to the hotel.
Most of the girls were keen to have dinner at the hotel as many were sceptical about local restaurants and had a fear of Delhi belly so we went downstairs to the restaurant. I finally ordered butter chicken - which was delicious as usual - and it was nice to have some meat after a week of vegetarian food. Nothing much else happened that night but Elena and I headed to our room and hung out for a while before heading to bed.
The next day we woke up bright and early at 5.30 as we wanted to see the sun rising at the Taj Mahal. We met our drivers and drove to the ticket area where they arranged our tickets, and then got a shuttle to the Taj just up the street. We had to wait a few minutes as there was some miscommunication about our guide and how to get in etc etc but finally all was settled and we arrived at the east gate. Unfortunately we quickly learned that the Taj doesn't open until 6.45 so having a sunrise was pretty unlikely, but we got some great masala tea while we waited in line. We passed the security screen (thankfully my phone wasn't taken as they're not allowed - but other girls had their mini-koalas confiscated which had been given as Australian souvenirs from Megan, as apparently flags aren't allowed).
We walked through the massive crowds through the north gate and soon our view of the Taj Mahal was unveiled. It is absolutely breathtaking and images on postcards do not do it justice. From whichever angle it basically looked like a mirage; as if we were just looking at a picture. Our guide told us some stories about it - it's actually a mausoleum, not a temple, which I did not know. It was built by the emperor Shah Jahan for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who was the one he loved most, and thus it is now known as a symbol for love. Both of their bodies rest in the basement in tombs decorated in star rubys, emeralds, diamonds etc, and there is an exact replica above it (which visitors can look at) but it is decorated with other stones rather than the expensive precious gems. Visitors cannot see the real tombs in the basement except on one or two days of the year where it is open for some sort of festival or something.
Our guide also taught us a bit about the history of the Taj Mahal in relation to British colonisation - the English took many of the precious diamonds and stones from the Taj Mahal which now rest in the museum in England. This story echoed very similar events in Myanmar and the altering of the Shwedagon Pagoda/other sites etc. He told us a few other little fun facts, like the fact that during WWII and the India-Pakistan war black scaffoldings were erected around the Taj Mahal so that it could not be bombed.
To the side of the Taj Mahal is a large mosque, which residents use on Fridays (the Taj is closed on this day). By residents, I mean that within the complex of the Taj Mahal, behind the North Gate lies the residency of the ancestors of the original builders of the Taj Mahal. They are up to the 17th generation, and they still live in the complex and maintain the area, and the whole place is closed to the public on Fridays for their use. However, I'm not sure exactly how many people live their and who they determined as ancestors, as around 20,000 people worked on building the Taj Mahal over 22 years of its construction - 6,000 of which apparently became blinded when chiseling the marble and another huge number apparently lost their fingers! Interestingly (I swear it'll be the last of my stupid facts about the Taj) it was built using similar methods as the pyramids (there were many influences from the Middle East in this era), where they used a massive ramp and animal power to carry the materials up high enough to build. It is truly magnificent architecture for its time.
Much of our time was just spent taking hundreds of pictures, as at almost every angle there was another beautiful thing to notice about the Taj. After going through (I took a couple of sneaky photos inside before a security guard reminded me this is not allowed) we slowly walked back to the entrance, but had to wait a while because Sasha and a few other girls wanted to take another few hundred pictures. Eventually we all found each other and on our way out spotted an eagle flying past, carrying a small helpless parrot - pretty amazing really. Our guide, who was a bit of a douchebag, was demanding tips and payments etc and we had to find our driver to organise it all, which took a while, but eventually I was reunited with G-Singh and we made our way back to the hotel for a much-needed breakfast.
Breakfast was awesome, as it was buffet-style continental and after sufficiently stuffing ourselves we went back to the room to rest until about 11am, when we departed for the Agra Fort, also known as the Red Fort. Here we met with a new guide, Sahani, who is competing with G-Singh for the cutest Indian man in the world position. He called us all 'his daughters' and was very fatherly indeed, even doing magic tricks and moving people out of the way so we had the best views of things.
Interestingly, during the tour Sahani told us that he was a Sikh from Amritsar, but did not have long hair and a beard because 22 years ago he was attacked in Delhi at knifepoint (I didn't quite understand but I think by extremist Hindus). They broke his teeth and cut his head, and he pleaded with them not to kill his children, promising not to keep his Sikh dresscode. Now he only wears the religious bracelet.
The Red Fort was also built before the Taj Mahal by Akbar, Shah Jahan's grandfather. It's basically a walled city where the emperors lived, even with their own concubines quarters. It was pretty cool. The only other story I really remember about it is that Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan's son, put Shah Jahan under house arrest (apparently because he spent too much money on the Taj Mahal or something..not sure if that's true). He was captivated in a room that had a view of the Taj Mahal.
The Fort itself was very nice and pretty, but there were a few monkeys sneaking around. Even more annoying were the masses of Indian men that followed us around taking pictures of us on their mobile phone. It happened a bit at the Taj Mahal, Elephant Festival and some other places, and being shameless I will often go up and tell them off. I just think it's disgusting and creepy and I find it really distracting as I know some strange Indian man will have photos of us forever and don't know what he'd do with them. At one point a family with women came up and were smiling and a funny little situation occurred where they took photos of us while we took photos of them, but it didn't have the creepy-old-Indian-man-feel about it.
At the end of the tour I saw a man feeding these small squirrell things that I've seen scampering around all over India, and he gave me some nuts and grains to feed them with which was fun. Then, sadly, we had to say goodbye to our dear papa Sahani and reunite with G-Singh, heading to McDonalds for some nutritious lunch and then going on our merry way to our next stop - Abhaneri.
Abhaneri is a small village closer to Jaipur than Agra, which is renowned pretty much only for the enormous stepping well there. Lian, Eve and some of the other girls who had done the trip before said it was one of their highlights - that they almost liked it as much as the Taj Mahal. Sadly, we did not quite share the same experience. We had a crappy guide - who was so bad it was funny - who just told us random irrelevant facts and then spoke to us about Bollywood dancing, the number twelve or put us on the phone to his wife. Also, we could not walk down the stepping well, which apparently the other girls did. I'm not sure how they did, but regardless it was boring though a nice drive, and eventually made our way back to Jaipur. We made a few friends across lanes of traffic, including a wedding party, and I saw the most beautiful sunset I've seen a while (very disappointed at my crappy camera) but soon we were home and I was glad to be back to Purnima's delicious cooking.
On Monday it was back to school. The kids were beautiful and quite well-behaved, and we had a new teacher for the week - Claudia, a German girl, who is sharing my room at the moment. After work we just hung out for a while, but in the evening I was hanging out with Elena and she got some awful news that he grandfather was very ill. Sadly, he passed away early yesterday morning very peacefully. She was very upset so yesterday I got the day off work to keep her company, and we just hung out and went for a walk and in the evening watched 21 Blackjack (really good) with some other people.
And here we are! I think that's all for now, but I'll speak with you soon! Tomorrow is a holiday (I've had a LOT of them!) and then this weekend we go on a big trip, so hopefully I'll be able to write before then.