Off Season Tourist - India Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta
Two weeks in India, 2003 Notes from the Off Season Tourist
Our first Indian motorway
On the road from Delhi to Agra


Julie, Sanju and our 'Tourist' car
After three days in Delhi, we have two nights in Agra at the Taj View Hotel (one on a Friday when we cannot visit the famous Taj Mahal because of it's closed to non-muslims). From Agra we will go on to Jaipur to complete the obligatory "Golden Triangle" trip. Then it is on to the Udaipur and the Lake Palace and back to Delhi. These were the plans we made with western travel timings in mind.

When we discuss this plan in our New Delhi travel agency, looking at a map with driving times in mind, we discover that the trip from Udaipur to Delhi in one day will be an insane proposition. Our travel agent, whose business card simply tells us his first name, Javed, makes a call to find out exactly how much time it would take to drive that distance. The telephone on the desk immediately behind us rings and our driver, Sanju, picks up and answers Javed's question on a telephone that is no more than 5 feet away - 16 hours. Javed suggests an extra stay over in Pushkar…and when he mentions the possibility of camel riding in the desert, in a town where a great camel festival is held every year, the deal is finalized.

In the morning we set out on a 250 km drive to Agra. It takes five hours due to poor road conditions and a few required stops for trains and for payment of border crossing taxes on state lines. The region around Agra allows tourist cars to buy only a three-day pass, and the officials can spot our tourist designation easily, because the word tourist is painted on both sides of our car. It is written in blue and has an eye-catching circle around it. This creates a helpful target for anyone who wishes to sell us anything or to ask for alms.

Driving out of the city of Delhi, onto our first Indian motorway we see some massive road construction going on in the same area as a city slum. The slums are dramatically different from the rest of the city. While the rest of the city has solid stone structures from which hang awnings of wood and plastic covers, the buildings in the slums consists entirely of these awnings and have developed their own physical properties that gives them the appearance of walls and ceilings. Everything is black. No colour can survive where there is no running water, where there are no streets of commerce, where the ground, the people and the structures they have built all appear as one. Even the animals live only on the outskirts, the cows show their ribs. Our air-conditioned cocoon propels us by without enough discomfort to have us comment on anything but the irony of the slums being so close to a Nike outlet shop another mile down the road.


Pepsi marketing and cows
Every roadside shop is a Pepsi advert. There can be 5 shops side-by-side and every single one will have the entire face to the highway branded boldly in Pepsi blue. Eventually we stop at one to get something to drink and Sanju introduces us to the reduced price of soda in a glass bottle. By returning the bottle for recycling, the cost will be less. This is not the western deposit method of paying the full price and then getting money upon return of the empty. This is a contracted understanding that the buyer is not going to leave with the bottle so the cheaper price is paid upfront. Pepsi and Coke are just now introducing a 200 ml drink for a standard Rps. 5 or 10 cents.

Although driving in the city was bad, on the highway there are many, many trucks which, although lovely to look at artistically, are quite lethal. Only one of the 5 or 6 aftermath accidents that we saw in a span of 10 days did not involve a truck in some way. Although there is a nice white dashed line denoting the middle of the highway, the drivers seem to use this only as a gauge of how much space left or right they have to maneuver before running out of road. Frequently Sanju has to guide our car, without using his brake pedal, onto the shoulder of the road.
Video of insane Indian driving
click to watch the video
This happens with such great frequency that we were able to catch a video to share with you the thrills of motorway driving. It is not surprising that Westerners are discouraged from renting cars by themselves since near misses are not a required training program. Sanju explains to us how he worked his way up from rickshaws to taxis with his father. Before he had an official license, Sanju's father, whose name by law must appear on all of Sanju's driving licenses, would take him out in his taxi and give discounts to passengers if they would let his son drive. Thus he was given on-the-job training on the physical limits of lateral motion. Due to his skill driving in Delhi, we have developed a large amount of trust in Sanju; so much that there is only one time that we both white-knuckle our hands into the car upholstery as three trucks, all overtaking on the two lanes take too much time in determining who has the right of way.

There are two things we ask Sanju about. The first are the numerous signs for STDs that we see by the roadside ... for the full answer please read the STD ramble. The second is an explanation of the huts we see in the fields. There are some that we can tall are obviously hay for the animal's feed. These are made of the same straw that they contain and Julie asks, for fun, if the animals sometimes eat the buildings; according to Sanju, they do. The other buildings are more solid; it is like the difference in the three little pigs' houses of sticks and bricks.

They look like wattle and daub huts, but we notice that the 'doorway' has no door and is stacked to overflowing with its contents. The walls of the huts seem to have some intricate carving designs, big waving lines or swirls, drawn by finger, that cover the entire hut.

These are in fact cow dung huts that, just like the straw feed houses, are made with the same thing that they contain, flat patties of cow dung. To form the walls and the dung designs, the patties are simply stacked atop one another. With the addition of water, the dung produces its own mortar and develops a seal that keeps the patties inside quite dry. The dry dung inside can then be used as fuel for the stoves. The smell of burning cow dung is not limited to the rural lifestyle...this is the explanation for one of the aromas of Delhi that we had not quite placed.

Sanju stops at the state border and leaps across the busy road to pay the tax required for cars and tourists. He takes three different drivers licenses with him. As we wait, a movement in the rear view catches our eye. A young man is walking, crab style, along the side of the road. He is in a permanent squat and his ankles point to one another with his toes pointing in the directions of where he is going and from where he has come. He appears to have been in this position for years and does not have the capacity to straighten his legs. He has seen our tourist target from a distance and is scuttling impressively quickly our way. He reaches the side of the door and we can see only his right hand as he lifts it and taps on the window. After a few minutes of non-response he crabs around to the other side of the car and taps again. Finally he continues on his original path only this time, with his dangerously low sight line, he is chancing his life on the motorway. As he passes a stationary lorry we see that his head only just comes above the height of the rear tire.

With Sanju's return we are once more mobile and he begins to ask if we would like to take some detours to some temples. After the various tombs we had seen in Delhi we decide to stop only at a temple by the side of the road, instead of taking the detour to another one of Sanju's recommendations. After we leave our sandals at the main entrance we see the long marble garden, free from shade, that surrounds the temple. The ground is entirely paved in the same marble in which the temple is built and the sun has been beating down on it for 12 hours. It is currently 38 Celsius, we have no shoes and the only shade we can see is inside the temple, over 100 feet away. Taking our first steps we realise that the white marble has done a wonderful job of reflecting most of the heat and that the ground is not unpleasant to walk on.

Inside is a collection box with a large sign excusing us from donating. This entire temple has, supposedly, been built from the donations only of those people who have eaten no meat and drunk no alcohol. An older gentleman walks up to us an offers a totally free tour. He reiterates what we have just read on the sign and invites us to walk with him to the shrine at the far end of the 75-foot long open space that comprises the entire temple. Looking up we see huge unfinished beams of concrete; the marble is just a cover; a finish for the ugly structure below. Looking at the shrine, the man explains no more than we have already read or been told about shrines. As we make to leave he asks us, not for money, but if we wish to see the shrine in the basement, declining quickly we leave him and the three other visitors within. We return to the shoe wallah, who is not so discerning about accepting money from non-vegetarians who enjoy a wee drinky.

We decide not to stop again until we get to Agra; on the outskirts of town we reach the train station just as the train from Delhi arrives. Had we taken the train we would now be hot backed with bags and haggling with rickshaws or taxis to get us to the hotel that is another 20 minutes away. We sit back in the car and ask Sanju if he knows of a good restaurant in town. He responds by saying that he knows the 'only' restaurant in town and that the food at our hotel is very good.

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View of the Taj Mahal form the Taj View Hotel

The Taj View hotel

Our hotel is one of the elite collections of India's 'Taj' hotel chain, the "Taj View," so named because of the 'impressive' view of the Taj Mahal from its rooms (it can just be seen in the middle of the photograph above). Everyone informs us that we must request a Taj view when we check-in and, since this is the off-season, we discover a nice benefit of under-booked rooms; there are lots to spare. We are equally fortunate that the key to the room they give us does not work. Nor do any of the three keys that they fetch even slightly begin to turn the tumblers. We are therefore upgraded to a top floor suites where the carpets are plusher and the rooms bigger and the view that much more dramatic.

Flinging apart the curtains, we see through our window the wide expanse of Agra's maze. Tiny buildings that weave amongst themselves and entirely surround the Taj Mahal. We are seeing it for the first time in real life, even if through glass, and it is quite majestic. It is prominent on the skyline because city ordnance has limited the height to which all other buildings can rise. From our window we can also see the hotel in which Sanju is staying ... it is on the edge of the maze.

With the knowledge that there is sun and a swimming pool Julie gets ready for some serious relaxation.
Video of Julie diving
click to watch Julie dive
I join her for a while, book in hand, sitting under a shady umbrella with 30 UVF sunblock on my body. After a while I am itching to do something other than sit and leave Julie enjoying the pool as I go for a walk in the maze outside. It takes me all of 5 minutes to decide that the maze is not the place for me to be. I have turned already down two streets that have no exit. People are gawking at me as I walk by and a man offers me a seat behind him on his motorcycle for a ride through the labyrinth in which I forgot my length of thread. I decide to walk the main city street where I see the delights of dung patties being dried on hot pipes, children drinking from water in which others are washing, and an incredible number of men sleeping in the open air on the uncovered cloth weave that is stretched across wooden bed frames (called charpoys). A pig wanders around one man's charpoy.

I learn quickly that I must walk on the side of the road in which traffic travels towards me. If the direction of traffic is the same as my own then I instantly have a line of cycle rickshaws calling for my attention, offering to take me to the Taj Mahal for 10 Rupees. Recalling the distance of the Taj Mahal from the hotel window, I think that those ten rupees would result in a heart attack from the cyclist long before getting me to a destination. After 20 minutes I can take no more. The calls from the rickshaws, the stares from the people in the street, the line of people who follow me along the road are too unnerving. I walk back to the hotel where the doorman, unused to someone arriving without a vehicle, has difficulty reaching the door handle before me. He catches it as I let it swing closed behind me and holds it for just a few seconds before closing it. We learn that there is a work value here in which people who are assigned tasks are responsible for doing just those tasks. The doorman was responsible for holding the door for me and so he did so.

a water pump at a tree a man, a bed, a pig dung patties drying on a pipe

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