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India

Around the World 2015: India's Golden Triangle and Taj Mahal

We had originally planned to visit Delhi and the Taj Mahal, so I had reserved one night in a hotel in Agra before we left. We figured we would sort out our transportation to Agra once we arrived. At the Tara Palace in Delhi, the manager had made us a reasonable offer to send us on a three day tour of Jaipur and Agra with a personal driver. I didn't know much about Jaipur, but we had already seen most of what we wanted to in Delhi so at least it would be something different. We set off fairly early in the morning on what would prove to be a five hour drive in an old car with weak air conditioning. We didn't have car seats for the kids, but fortunately the highway was in very good condition and our driver was very conservative. At least our kids were safer than the ones in this vehicle.
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We got to experience Delhi traffic as we departed through Chor Bazaar in the center of the old city.

Our highway lunch stop was a bit of a misfire, as I quickly realized that the restaurant was very overpriced with bland food and the only people eating there were Westerners on a similar itinerary to ours. We didn't have any choice at that point, but once we got back to the car I made it very clear to our driver that we weren't going to be earning him any more commissions at tourist stops. From on now, we were going to eat where the Indians ate.

Once in Jaipur we drove straight to City Palace, a complex of ornate pink-hued palaces and temples spread over a wide area. It was pleasant enough to walk around in, aside from the brutal heat which was worse than anything we'd experienced in Delhi.
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After an hour we retreated to the main road where we encountered the Hawa Mahal, a 18th century palace whose rear facade resembles a pink beehive. The ornately-latticed windows were reportedly designed to allow the woman of the royal household to watch the goings on in the street below without being observed.
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We spent a little more time walking up and down Hawa Mahal Road checking out various street vendors and buying a few snacks, but it was really too hot to enjoy ourselves so we drove to our hotel and checked in. The air conditioning and cold drinks were a god send. In the evening we had a reasonably good restaurant meal and then went to the Johari Bazaar, a large complex of shops where the main emphasis was jewelry. We weren't very interested in that, but there were enough food vendors and other things to see to keep us interested for a while.
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We weren't sorry to leave Jaipur for Agra the next morning. I'm sure there's a lot we didn't see, but in terms of markets and street life the city was a pale shadow of Delhi. Once we arrived in Agra, we didn't have to wait long for our first sight of the Taj Mahal. Our driver dropped us off at a rooftop cafe I'd read about in the crowded neighborhood south of the palace and we enjoyed a perfect view of the surreally beautiful building. It was a fine appetizer for our visit.
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We walked north through the busy bazaar south of the Taj Mahal to get to the Great gate, Darwaza-i rauza. If I hadn't seen the actual mausoleum from the cafe rooftop, I might have thought this formidable red sandstone and white marble structure was the Taj Mahal itself.
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Once through the gate, we were face to face with the beautiful white mausoleum. at the far end of a long rectangular fountain surrounded by short cypress trees. At this point I allowed myself a moment to savor our accomplishment. We'd made it here with two small children who could barely walk on their own, and Mei Ling pregnant to boot. One by one we were seeing the most incredible sights the world had to offer, and we hadn't let anything stop us.
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The exterior of the mausoleum was amazing up close as well, with complicated architectural designs and detailed, colorful decorations in the white marble. Around the mausoleum was a wide platform of white marble tiles where Indian visitors sat in groups. The four tall white minarets at each corner of the platform added to the sense of majesty and serenity. The crypt chamber was surprisingly plain, in keeping with the Muslim prohibition against elaborate decoration of graves. Between the crowds, dimness, and lack of memorable detail we didn't find any pictures worth taking once inside.
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As always, the kids were a big hit with the Indians, who often asked if they could take pictures of each other holding Ian.
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In the afternoon we visited the Kinari Bazaar, a large market next to Agra Fort. It was just as gritty as the markets in Delhi, but it felt great to be in the mix of activity in the street and part of the daily rhythm of Indian life. I was briefly tempted by a sugar cane juice vendor, but I had second thoughts after seeing the thick blanket of flies covering the crushed cane.
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Our driver had a lot of difficulty finding the restaurant I'd chosen from TripAdvisor, but eventually we had a pleasant meal of the local specialty which was reminiscent of savory crepes filled with meat and vegetables.
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I'd reserved a deluxe hotel room at a four star hotel in Agra before leaving Miami, but it was still very inexpensive compared to even an average hotel in the US or Europe. The kids got a kick out of the lavish interior decor and the friendly, uniformed staff.
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Our driver did much better with the highway stop on the way back to Delhi the next morning. We put together a good lunch from a mix of cheap stalls attached to the service station. Cleo had bonded quite well with our driver at this point.
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As we approached Delhi, we could see a very impressive-appearing temple on the eastern bank of the Yamuna River. Since our contract extended to the end of the day, we asked our driver to take us there once we'd had a chance to freshen up at the hotel. The temple turned out to be the Swaminarayan Akshardham, a gigantic complex whose construction had been completed only ten years earlier. Unfortunately I can't present any pictures of this amazing building because the guards were extremely strict about enforcing a no photography policy. Everyone was patted down at the entrance to be sure they weren't bringing in a camera or cell phone. Signs were posted everywhere threatening horrific penalties for attempting to smuggle in any such device. The only picture I have of us at Akshardham was taken from outside the perimeter fence.
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The main temple, or Mandir, or Akshardam is one of the most awe-inspiring structures I have ever seen. In terms of pure visual effect, it vastly overshadows even the Taj Mahal. The temple is constructed entirely from the highest quality pink sandstone and white marble, and cost about 60 million dollars to build. In the US, it probably would have cost five times that. Every inch of the stone was decorated with intricate carvings. The opulence of the complex is testimony to the enormous wealth of the Swaminarayan religious organization, the Hindu sect that built the temple. As with the grandiose cathedrals we've seen in countless poverty-stricken Latin countries, I couldn't help wondering why the enormous wealth amassed by religious organizations couldn't be used to provide genuine assistance to the helpless members of the communities rather than these opulent and ultimately useless edifices. It wouldn't surprise me if after a couple of hundred years have erased the stain of modernity, Akshardam becomes more well-known as one of the architectural wonders of the world than the Taj Mahal. Since we weren't allowed to take any photographs, I ripped a couple of pictures from the web to try and illustrate the magnificence of this temple.
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The next morning we were taken back to the Delhi airport for our flight to France. Our last memory of Delhi was of the pigeons flying around inside the departure area.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 12:44 Archived in India Tagged jaipur taj_mahal agra Comments (0)

Around the World 2015: Delhi

Jack Kerouac said "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time". I could say the same, if one substituted cities for people. That's why my favorite city in the world is the one I grew up in, New York City. The closest runners up are also among the largest and wildest: London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Bangkok. But no one who claims to be a lover of metropolitan greatness can be complete without a visit to India, home of some of the most populous and frenzied cities in the world. Naturally my first choice in India would have been Mumbai, but as luck would have it there were no direct flights from Guangzhou so we chose Delhi instead. It might not be quite as riotous as Mumbai, but it had the bonus of proximity to the Taj Mahal.

It might seem insane to have taken my pregnant wife and two small children on a first visit to India, but I was terrified that we would lose the ability to travel internationally for years once number three came along. I simply couldn't stand the idea of not having seen India until I was in my fifties, if not later. In the end, I figured we could hack it for six days even if it turned out to be more difficult that I expected. My biggest fear was the possibility of everyone getting gastroenteritis. I wasn't sure how we could handle two sick kids while possibly being sick ourselves. I resolved to be militant about what went into our mouths, especially water.

We didn't have to wait long to experience the uniqueness of India. As soon as we entered the terminal we encountered a vivid sculpture of disembodied hands making complex gestures against a background of concave copper disks. The effect was vaguely spiritual, somewhat artistic, but unmistakably Indian.
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A long delay at the visa-on-arrival desk was terrifying, in that I was sure that the driver the hotel had provided would give up on us and return to the city. However, once we finally escaped the terminal with our baggage he was dutifully awaiting us. The horde of frenzied touts gathered outside the gate made me immensely grateful that we had prearranged our transportation. Since there were minimal Airbnb options in Delhi, we had booked a hotel in the old part of town far from the areas that tourists usually frequented. Our driver brought us to Tara Palace, which we found to be clean but otherwise very basic. It was far too late to do anything except collapse into our beds.

The main advantage of Tara Palace was that it was in close proximity to two of our highest priority sights in Delhi, the Chandni Chowk market and the Red Fort. On our first morning in Delhi, we woke early and made sure the kids were fed with the complimentary breakfast before setting out for the market. I had researched Delhi fairly well, so I was expecting it to be hot, crowded, dirty, and poverty-stricken. In fact, Delhi exactly matched my expectations, but there's an enormous difference between expecting something and experiencing it. We found Chandni Chowk quite overwhelming. The sidewalks were so crowded and obstructed by vendors that most people walked in the street despite the omnipresence of honking cars and motorcycles, and we soon found ourselves joining them. There was virtually no sense of personal space as we were bumped and jostled constantly. There were gruesomely crippled beggars everywhere. Lording over everything was the incandescent Indian sun, which seemed determined to suck sweat out of every pore of our bodies.
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Within minutes we had rechristened Chandni Chowk "the Choke", and so it would remain in our minds for the rest of our stay. The Choke wasn't actually a market, but rather a main street on which several markets resided. Rather disappointingly for us, few of these markets emphasized food. Fabric and hardware were much more the order of the day. However, we were able to find enough vendors of freshly peeled vegetables and deep-fried samosas to assuage hunger until we found a place we could actually sit down and eat.
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After walking west as far as we could stand the heat and the crowds, we doubled back the way we came. At the eastern end of the Choke is the Red Fort, a 17th century residence of the Mughal emperors. The site is a large complex of many buildings and structures, with the most imposing being the Lahori Gate that one encounters at the entrance. The abundant trees and well-manicured lawns were a pleasant respite from the madness of the Choke.
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We headed south past our hotel towards Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. Our goal wasn't so much the mosque itself as the markets which clustered around it.
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The small square in front of the mosque was a beehive of activity. Vendors were doing a brisk business selling snacks, clothes, and toys. Food stalls were placed strategically around the square, while other hawkers simply set up shop in the middle of the crowd or occupied the staircase leading down to the Meena Bazaar. Mei Ling found her beloved meat skewers fairly quickly.
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About this time we noticed people were paying an unusual amount of attention to us, especially considering how crowded and chaotic the area was. We've been in lots of exotic places from Morocco to Israel with the kids, but it was unusual for people to come up and ask to be photographed with us. Even more surprisingly, it was mostly young guys who would be expected to completely ignore families with kids.
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South of the mosque was a predominantly Muslim area of narrow streets where everyone walked in the street because the sidewalks were completely occupied with various vendors and food stalls. We continued to notice the unusual friendliness and familiarity of people in the area as we strolled around.
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We could easily have found a place to eat in that neighborhood but I wanted to check out a more upscale area called Connaught Place. On a map, Connaught Place looks like the hub of the city. It consists of three concentric rings and eight spokes, many of which continue outward to become major traffic arteries of the city. It was built almost a hundred years ago as a central business district, and is now packed with cinemas, hotels, and international restaurants. I had been advised to stay at a hotel in Connaught Place, but I was glad to have chosen our location in the old part of town. Like any modernized part of an ancient city, the area felt somewhat sterile and generic. Dinner was OK, but not memorable. After dinner I made an attempt to get a local SIM. I bought the card in an official Vodafone store and the salesman told me it would start working in a couple of hours. As I expected, it never did.
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The next day I discussed our plan to visit the Taj Mahal with the hotel manager, and he offered to sell us a three day package tour of Jaipur and Agra to depart the next day. He threw in a driver to take us anywhere we wanted in Delhi that day. I knew the price was probably higher than I would find if I shopped around, but it was low enough that I didn't feel like taking the trouble so I accepted. Soon enough our driver came by and we requested to be taken to the INA market. Mei Ling was looking sprightly and quite pregnant in a local outfit she'd bought the previous day at the Choke. Like everything else in India, INA was a bit of a culture shock. The facilities were even more basic and grim than what we'd seen in poorer parts of China and Colombia, and the air was thick with flies which swarmed over the piles of raw meat and fish. Nevertheless, the market was bustling with people and the vendors seemed to be doing a brisk business.
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Mei Ling can't watch food being made anywhere without itching to get involved, so she provided some free labor to some of the bread and dumpling makers. Afterwards we had a chance to sample some of her efforts.
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Adjacent to the INA food market is the Dilli Haat textile and crafts market, which is much more of a destination for Western tourists. We'd already seen quite a lot of clothing at the Choke, so we didn't linger long there.
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The next market was a wash out as far as food was concerned, having only a few of vendors selling nothing particularly new or interesting. However, we did encounter some gentlemen playing carrom, which fascinated Mei Ling and the kids. The players spoke perfect English and provided us with hot tea and pleasant conversation while they played.
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Our next stop was Lodi Gardens in the southern part of central Delhi. This beautiful park was built around several 15th century tombs.
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By this time we'd become accustomed to friendly locals picking up our kids and playing with them.
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One interesting thing that happened as we were leaving the gardens is that while Ian and Mei Ling were walking hand in hand, Ian suddenly tried to pull away just as Mei Ling was changing direction. Ian cried out in pain and then sat on the ground holding his left arm and crying. Mei Ling tried to coax him up but he kept crying and wouldn't use his left arm at all. Fortunately, I knew exactly what had happened based on my experience as an ER doctor. Ian had a nursemaid's elbow, which is caused by pulling outwardly on a small child's outstretched arm. The traction causes the elbow joint space to gap open and a ligament slips into the joint, causing pain with any movement of the elbow. Fortunately, it's very easy to get the ligament to pop back out of the joint using a number of techniques. My favorite is the supination/flexion technique, in which the child's hand is turned palm up and the elbow is flexed. If one holds the child's elbow with the other hand, one can usually feel the pop as the elbow bones realign into correct position. If that technique doesn't work, an alternative is the hyperpronation technique in which the child's hand is rotated palm down and then turned as far as possible without causing pain. I included diagrams of both techniques.
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Ian's elbow reduced easily and within a minute he was using his arm normally. I felt enormously relieved that thanks to my background we'd avoided a visit to an Indian emergency room, which was a very unappealing prospect. It occurred to me that every parent traveling with young kids should know to avoid yanking on their outstretched arm from below the elbow, and should also know how to reduce a nursemaid's elbow if it ever happened to their kid.

Once we'd returned to our hotel, we decided to return to the area south of Jama Masjid for dinner at Karim's. This century old restaurant is a landmark of old Delhi. The only table to be had was on a crowded balcony where I had to hold Ian on my lap to prevent him from crawling around on a floor covered with dropped food. The dishes were basic but fairly good, although I'm confident I've had better Indian meals in New York and California.
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The coolest thing that happened to us in Delhi was that after dinner, we stumbled onto a Muslim wedding. A procession of decorated cars slowly trundled past us and we followed them a short distance to a reception hall.
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Mei Ling was ushered into a separate room full of women in brightly colored saris, while I brought the kids into a room where some scholarly-appearing men surrounded the festively-dressed groom. The invited guests made sure I had a good vantage point so that Cleo could see and I could take video. As always, Indians of every religion went far out of their way to make guests feel welcome.
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We couldn't stay at the wedding too long because it was getting late and we had an early departure for Jaipur in the morning. Despite the late hour, the main street south of the mosque was still packed with people going about their business like it was the middle of the day. The throngs of brightly-dressed people and swerving vehicles created a visual and auditory sensory overload.
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The next morning we set off by car for our three-day tour of India's Golden Triangle.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:56 Archived in India Tagged delhi red_fort chandni_chowk jama_masjid dilli_haat karim's lodi_gardens Comments (0)

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