Apologies for the extreme delay in swinging by and taking some time to post on the next episode of my round-the-world trip. Things have been quite hectic lately... As some of you know, and as is indicated by the “where am I now” widget on the top right of the page, I finished my travels in early August. After a relaxing week in Madrid with family and friends, I took off to Chicago, Illinois. I will stay in this lovely city for the next two years and will be getting my MBA at the University of Chicago – Booth School of Business. I am happy to be here even if my travelling days are behind me as it represents an unparalleled opportunity to take my professional/personal development to the next level. In non BS terms, I am basically aiming to learn tonnes (from every perspective: academically, personally, professionally, etc.) and meet quality people. In addition, I feel quite privileged to be here as the school is regarded by many as the leading institution globally (http://www.businessweek.com/interactive_reports/bs_2010_US_FTMBA_TAB_1111.html). But first things first. I still have to share with you the final stages of my trip. So here we go...
In the northern province of Uttar Pradesh one can find a city called Agra which is most famous for the Taj Mahal, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the new 7 wonders of the world. Every year, this city receives millions of visits from all over the world. Everyone is quite evidently attracted by this landmark which seems to justify in itself, at least for many, a trip to India. Contrary to what I believed initially, the Taj Mahal is not a temple (not even a site devoted to faith – even though, granted, one can find a mosque inside the greater premises surrounding the main building) but actually a mausoleum, which was built in the 17th century by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. He erected the compound in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, to whom he was absolutely and passionately devoted. Shah Jahan was so devastated by the loss of his wife after she gave birth to their 14th child that he summoned c. 20,000 builders and artisans from all over India and Asia to work on a monolithic enterprise which would take over 20 years to be completed. The Taj Mahal is thus considered by most to be a monument to love... a tribute from a grief-stricken emperor having lost the love of his life for eternity. So much love that the official chronicles from the time describe (in Shah Jahan’s own words) the Taj as:
Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator's glory
Personally, and I think many that have been will agree, the Taj is a truly inspirational place: an ideal place to reflect, ponder and imagine...
I landed in Mumbai at 5am on July 20th after a c. 4 hour flight from Bangkok. I was lucky enough to be placed in Business Class for that flight (thanks so much Cathay Pacific for the treat!). However, it was rather short and the odd time of day (or night for that matter) made it slightly difficult to fully enjoy the experience. Nevertheless, I landed in Mumbai safely and upon leaving the terminal building I was greeted by someone from my hostel. It took a while for us to actually get going though as another person (the driver) had remained outside the airport premises (to save up on parking costs) and, strangely enough (right?), had fallen asleep. Approximately 45 minutes after having left the terminal, we were finally in the car on our way to the hostel. By the time I got into bed, it was c. 6:30 in the morning, almost like coming home from a party... almost.
In spite of the late/early arrival, I managed to catch up on sleep and didn’t wake up until 11am. After a revitalising shower, a succulent omelette and chi (typical Indian tea made with milk, cinnamon and copious amounts of sugar) based breakfast, I headed into town (as the hostel was a bit outside of the city) with a couple of fellow hostel mates (a Brit and a German). To get into the city, we had to catch an auto-rickshaw (similar to Thai/Cambodian tuk-tuk’s) to the train station and then get on a suburban train. I was utterly amazed when I set foot at the station: trains coming to and fro in every direction and people running into the carriages, jumping out of them while the train was still in motion, pushing and shoving like there’s no tomorrow, etc. Not your ideal practices from a health and safety perspective. I refrained from following their lead and thus had a bit of a harder time actually getting on a train. We did make it nonetheless and explored the city for the whole afternoon. We went to some famous landmarks such as the Gateway to India (a gigantic arc de triomphe style gatweway which marks the point where King George V of England first set foot during his official 1911 visit), the Taj Mahal hotel (which is the spot where bombs were set off in 2008), the Leopold Cafe (a very traditional and popular hangout spot for many residents of the Fort district and tourists alike, which was also struck during the 2008 terrorist attacks), Rajabai tower (a very famous clock tower located at the heart of the University of Mumbai’s Fort campus and so on. We used the day to soak in as much as possible and kept walking around the entire afternoon. At one point, we were approached by a group of three Indian males (roughly our age) who began talking to us at a red light. It was fine at first, nothing more than a casual cross-cultural exchange (of which I am obviously a huge fan), but as the conversation progressed and each of them was talking one-on-one to each of us, it began to grow quite awkward... apparently one of them had gone to the British consulate in search of a visa to travel to the UK, and had been denied that precious bit of paper. He was thus asking our group for tips and recommendations that he should leverage in a follow-up request. Interestingly enough, these guys didn’t seem to be up to much and seemed just fine following us around and chatting to us. After about 20 minutes of walking down the street with them we parted ways by entering into a restaurant for lunch. We managed to leave them behind and got to enjoy a very nice vegetarian meal. In the evening, on the way back home to the hostel, we stopped by at Mahalaxmi, where one can find the world’s largest outdoor laundry. We barely got to see any activity as it was after dusk but we still managed to wander around the narrow alleyways and wash basins. To grasp the magnitude of this place, be advised that locals say that nearly all laundry that gets done in Mumbai goes through Mahalaxmi at one point or another during its “life cycle”. It was a bit disappointing not to have seen such a place in full force, which thousands of men, women and children giving their utmost to make it through the day and earn a few rupees. On the way back to the hostel we grabbed a bite at a local restaurant and called it a night quite early.
The following day, and after an early wakeup, Kamil (my British buddy) and I took our backpacks and headed to the downtown train station to look for tickets. He was planning to go East and I was aiming to make it to Jaipur on a night train leaving at 6pm. My preliminary itinerary derived from, apart from the research I had made on my own (obviously!), the many conversations I had had with a good friend of mine, Beltran. He had spent c. 2 weeks in India 3 years ago and aside from sharing his route, he provided me with some great insights into this fascinating country... I was thus well-equipped for the upcoming weeks, at least intinerary-wise. After having lunch at a vegetarian restaurant (yes, many people in India are vegetarian and, hence, many restaurants are vegetarian) where we savoured such fine dishes as malai kofta, muter paneer and rajma, we parted ways as he was getting on an earlier train. The train journey from Mumbai to Jaipur, which lasted about 16 hours, was relatively uneventful. I managed to sleep for much of the night and got some reading/blogging done in the morning. To be honest, I was quite interested in the train experience in India. With over 100,000 kilometres of track, transporting over 30 million passengers daily and employing c. 1.5 million people (!!) it is one of the most complex and largest railway networks in the world (fourth largest in the world after USA, China and Russia). The many classes available when travelling on an Indian train may seem overwhelming at first (8 classes in total) but it is important for one to be able to distinguish across classes as the experience is utterly different, especially on night and long journeys. In this instance, I opted for a second class AC (air conditioning) sleeper, consisting of two double bunks facing one another (as well as two bunks along the aisle) and which was quite comfortable and for which sheets and pillow were provided.
Once I got to Jaipur and as I made my way to the train station exit, I started to be approached by very friendly individuals (very persistent as well) who were determined to offer me accommodation, either at their “family-run” hostel or somewhere else. I had booked a hostel the previous day, while still in Mumbai, so I was all set and declined the numerous offers from taxi drivers, rickshaws and other fellow middlemen. At the hostel, I dropped my things off, had a quick shower and had a bite to eat on the rooftop restaurant/bar (food was amazing! Vegetarian, once again, but amazing!). Afterwards, one of the guys from the hostel staff was kind enough to help me book my train tickets for the next couple of weeks. I figured, after having experienced the online/offline booking system that rail travel in India can be quite difficult to book on the spot or even with a couple of days notice. So I thought it would be a good idea to set out an itinerary based around the availability of trains in the Rajasthan, Agra, Delhi region for the next couple of weeks. He was very helpful and introduced me to the Tatkal (literally “immediate” in Hindi) system, which leaves a few seats available until a couple hours prior to departure so that people (like myself) booking very close to the travel date can obtain a seat – at a minimum premium. After that, I left the hostel and negotiated with a rickshaw driver a “tour” of the city. I got a very good deal, relative to what I had heard from other travellers, and got him to take me all over the city as well as outside of it – to the Amber Fort – which is c. 10 km outside of the city. You can imagine that doing 40km/h on a rickshaw on a hilly and winding road took a while! After visiting the Amber fort, the driver took me, in spite of my refusing quite directly, to a jewellery artisan (basically a store) where I would, supposedly, see craftsmen polishing precious and semi-precious metals. Far from that, I was taken to a store and asked whether I was interested in purchasing anything on display. I was quick to pull my “I’m a student/backpacker” card and after some hefty negotiation we hit the road again. Upon leaving the place, I decided there would be no tip for Mr. Rickshaw Driver. Later on, he took me to other popular landmarks such as Hawa Mahal, the City Palace and Jal Mahal (which is a c. 5 storey palace laying in the middle of a lake and which has its first two stories covered by water. There is a picture of it below). Since many of these were closed, I decided I would be returning to some in the morning before leaving for Jodhpur. The rickshaw dropped me off at the hostel close to 8pm. I then had dinner on the rooftop, read for a while and went to bed early.
The next morning, I woke up early to visit some of the spots which were closed the previous day. I took the opportunity, given that I had some time to spare, to walk from my hostel (close to the train station) to downtown. I spent some time wandering around and getting lost in the old city. I was really astonished by the lively bazaars (markets), the poor hygienic conditions and the insane traffic found at every street corner. Also by the diverse fauna... in one single shot, I managed to capture a dog, a cow (sacred them lot!), a donkey and a camel – all either chilling at ease (cow and dog) or being used to drag carriages (camel and donkey). I was also very impressed by the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds, a five storey palace which was built in the late 18th century to replicate the shape of the crown of Krishna, the Hindu god. Following a bit more walking around and soaking in the local vibe, I returned to the hostel to grab my backpack and headed to the train station. Next up a 5 hour journey to Jodhpur in regular AC seating class in which I ended up reading most of the way. When I arrived to the train station, I walked as far out of the station as possible and caught a rickshaw to my hostel, a cosy little place atop a hill with only a few rooms. Although it was close to 11pm, the staff was kind enough to make me some food. Quality individuals. The two beers I had over dinner put me to sleep real easily.
For the next day, I was hoping to see as much of Jodhpur as possible. From my hostel, which was on a hill and from which one could see the entire city, I had spotted the fort on the opposite end of the city. From my end of the city, it stood tall overlooking the city. One of the things that particularly impressed me was how, compared to the one I had visited a couple of days earlier in Jaipur, it was located right in the middle of the city – thus truly serving its purpose of a fortification used for defense and government purposes in the old Jodhpur. I thus set out to explore the fort and ended up spending most of the morning going around the maze and visiting the museum that has nowadays come to take up most of the rooms in the main castle. There, one can find anything from recreations of scenes from past castle days to various rooms devoted to arms exhibits. I was also able to visit a Hindi temple that is nested within the fortified walls. I also ran into a number of very friendly Indian males that enquired about my visit to India, my stay, my journey, my expectations, my impressions, etc. It tended to be a recurring theme during my stay in India that males were generally much more open to engage in a conversation with a foreigner than women would. In general, I found this to be a manifestation of Indian culture and civil society as women hold a secondary role and are, to a certain extent, excluded from many activities, roles and social (professional as well) circles reserved to men. This to me, traditional/historical values aside, is a gigantic hurdle that needs to be overcome to ensure a sustainable social and economic development for all Indians (and this is, by no means, only applicable to India as one could generalise and argue that it could be a conclusion drawn for most of the developing world). On another note, and something that positively struck me from Jodhpur was how all the buildings were painted in blue (hence the popular name “the blue city”). It was truly amazing how, from an urban planning/development perspective, the whole city was covered in all sorts of shades of blue – from turquoise to navy blue. It reminded me a lot of Chefchaouen, a tiny city in Morocco nested in the middle of the Atlas range and more commonly known as a haven for those Spanish (and European) smokers in search for a psychedelic “trip”. In the afternoon, I went to the bazaar area, located on the other side of the fort from my hostel and which is an impressive location from which to stare up at the ever-imposing fort. All the main stands and stores all revolve around a clock tower situated right in the middle of the commercial district. It almost seems to be the source of life from which all the surrounding activity emanates. I didn’t venture into too many stores but still caught a glimpse of much of the commercial/selling/marketing habits in the area. In the afternoon, I returned to my hostel to relax on the rooftop terrace and catch the sunset over the fort... breathtaking! Later that night (at 11pm), I got on a train to Jaisalmer – which is a small town in the Western part of Rajasthan and a mere 150km from the border with Pakistan. It is also located in the Thar desert (also known as The Great Indian Desert) which runs along the border between in India and Pakistan and is the world’s 9th largest subtropical desert.
The train took approximately 6 hours and I arrived to Jaisalmer at around 5am the next morning. The journey was relatively calm and I met a few backpackers on the way – one of which, a Korean fellow, took me by surprise when he referred to Spain as the “country of passion”. Interesting to see how one’s country/culture is perceived abroad. This time around, I opted for 3rd class sleeper which is identical to 2nd class but has three bunks on each side as opposed to two. When I arrived to Jaisalmer, someone from the hostel was waiting for me and took me back right away so I could catch a bit of sleep. One of the main reasons why I had decided to Jaisalmer was because I had been told that one could set out on a desert tour (spanning 2 to 15 days) with overnight camping. It sounded really exciting and the next morning I booked a 2 day/1 night tour which was due to depart my hostel at 3pm that day. Until then, I mostly relaxed with a few other backpackers on the rooftop terrace. We all had brunch and a few beers and had a pleasant conversation about our impressions of India thus far. Some of them had very rich and interesting views as they had been in the sub-continent for months already and, in that time, had managed to explore many fascinating spots. At 3pm and following the customary round of “goodbyes”, I left the hostel accompanied by a French fellow, Michael, with whom I would share the desert tour experience. He was a very nice individual and I found that, aside from the common linguistic proximity, we shared a true passion for travelling and exploring new cultures. After a c. 1 hour jeep ride, we loaded our gear onto a couple of camels and met our guides, with whom we would spend the next couple of days. I found that they spoke excellent English... which they claimed they had learned thanks to the groups of tourists they had been taking around over the years! We formed a group camel caravan and set out into the desert. We went up and down sand dunes for a good 2 hours at a steady, yet relatively slow, pace. The ride was quite bumpy but still very enjoyable given the optimal 35°C + temperature, clear skies and slight, yet refreshing, breeze. Once we got off the camels, we began to set up what would become our camp for the night and began to cook dinner. On the menu, delicious vegetable potage-style dish with chapati (Indian type pita bread which we made on the spot – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chapati) and a couple of 600ml Kingfishers. In the meantime, we also managed to enjoy the beautiful sunset over the dunes from one of the high points close to our camp. One of the most breathtaking sceneries I witnessed during my trip, and by all means comparable to the sunset in Byron Bay, Australia (http://ad-infinitum-pv.blogspot.com/2011_06_01_archive.html). Dinner was outstanding and after an interesting conversation with our guide – mostly centred around his day-to-day life, his work, his family and, most importantly, his dreams. Very enriching conversation with the “man of the desert”, as he called himself. The night under the stars was quite an experience, one which I had not taken part in for a long time (maybe since my Camp Otterdale days?? http://campotterdale.com/), but it proved slightly hard to have a proper night’s sleep. Sleeping on a mat in the desert definitely had its pros and cons – the experience was worth it regardless though. My buddy Michael didn’t manage to sleep too much either.
The next morning, I woke up right before sunrise and went up the tallest dune nearby to catch sunrise (Canon camera in hand). If sunset had been quite the thrill the previous evening, sunrise didn’t fall short one bit. At around 7am we lit up a fire and began to cook up breakfast (boiled eggs, chapati, a banana and chai) before taking the camp down and hitting the road for a few hours. We were due to stop for lunch at noon, and in the next 4 hours were meant to visit a gypsy village and a local town nearby. Our guide initially told us that the camels we had been on the previous day (which, by the way, had been taken to the nearby village for overnight shelter) would not be available for us that day and we were going to have to walk to our lunch spot. I was initially confused and argued that we had been told the second day also involved a camel ride + that we had paid for a service that wouldn’t be provided. After our guide apologised and insisted that we were going to have to walk it, I essentially acknowledged and agreed to it, while Michael was rather angry. After a few minutes, our guide turned to me and said: “Pablo, you have a good heart, you understand” and then surprised us by saying he was kidding and that the camels were on their way to the camp. In the next couple of hours we saw a dance performance at a gypsy village and even got to participate with some dance moves of our own (pic below) and talked with a few children in a local town over their break from school. Overall it proved very interesting to visit these remote areas of India and see how some people seem to be completely outside of the institutional realm (triangulation comes from the fact that India is a very big country, with limited, yet growing, infrastructure and a huge population) yet survive almost entirely from the tourism industry. We had lunch under a tree’s shade in the desert, yet close enough to a road where the hostel crew was meant to come pick us up. We managed to relax a little bit after lunch and enjoy some more interesting banter with our guide. Upon returning to the hostel, I showered, packed up and, after a few hours, headed over to the train station. Next up, a 20 hour journey to Agra with a c. 3 hour layover in Jaipur. The train ride was long (very long!) but I managed to sleep or read most of the time. I was also able to enjoy some fine “train” food and chai sold by vendors that would get on at random stops, walk down two/three cars attempting to sell some produce and get off again. I got to Agra in the evening the next day and went straight to my hostel. It was raining and I was a bit tired from the long train journey so I decided to stay in the hostel, grab a bite and call it a night. My plan was to visit the Taj Mahal the next day and I would be getting up at 5am so I could catch sunrise. I was hoping that the weather would improve and that the clouds would fade... Would my wishes come true?!
... Not really! Next morning, I got up at 5am sharp and straight out of bed, pulled the curtain to one side and looked out the window. To no avail had I been up all night praying for better weather (not quite...) and still raining. Nonetheless, I wasn’t going to let that ruin my visit to the Taj Mahal. Although I was staying for two days (Thursday and Friday), the Taj is closed for popular worship day on Fridays (Muslim holy day of the week) and hence my only alternative was to visit this wonder of the world on Thursday, rain or shine! I headed to the main gate, which fortunately enough was quite close to my hostel (a mere 15 minutes by foot), and was astonished to find that foreigners were charged 750 rupees (c. 12eur) while Indian nationals only had to pay 20 rupees (I can let you work out the math to see how big of a gap there is!). It had been happening during my whole time in India but I had never seen such a dramatic delta! I opted to get an audio guide, which was another 200 rupees (I don’t usually get these gadgets – no guide books either, but thought this time would be special and quite unique so I wanted to get the most out of it). I got into the Taj Mahal complex at about 6:20am just in time for sunrise, but in reality it was rather disappointing as the sun was entirely covered by the grey and cloudy sky. Nonetheless, it was a truly mesmerising moment... walking past the main gate and seeing the Taj Mahal 200 meters ahead of you. Definitely one of the top 5 highlights of my trip in terms of “moments of astonishment” (one of such moments was reaching the top of Machu Picchu at 5:45am and being the 7th person to walk past the gate). One is just overtaken by the sight and by the magnitude of what lies ahead. In addition, there must have only been a mere 100 people in total within the site walls, which added to the mysticism/magic of the moment. I spent a good 6 hours wandering around, reflecting, thinking, taking pictures and soaking in such a unique setting. In hindsight I was very glad to have gotten the audio guide as it was very thorough and also covered some popular (yet untrue) myths about the Taj Mahal, such as the story that after its completion a “Black” Taj began to be built on the opposite side of the river or the idea that the Taj Mahal is sinking due to the excessive flow of tourists and that it will eventually collapse into the neighbouring Yamuna river. After such a fulfilling experience I returned to my hostel at noon to have a shower and rest up. In the afternoon, I set out to explore a bit of Agra, mostly the area surrounding the Taj. I had read there was a great rooftop restaurant/cafe with amazing views of the Taj in that area – so I decided to check it out and have dinner there during sunset. Another brutal moment (some pictures below) that I will never forget... I had the whole terrace to myself and took some great shots! After a bit more exploration of the surrounding area, I headed back to the hostel and called it a night rather early.
I slept in the next morning and, given that my train to Delhi wasn’t departing until later that afternoon, went to downtown Agra to visit the fort (which is, after the Taj, the main tourist attraction). I spent a few hours there and when I got to the very top I wished I would have had a better (further-reaching zoom) in order to take good pictures of the Taj Mahal, which sat there in the distance, still as imposing as when I was a mere 20 feet away. In the afternoon, I returned to the hostel to pick up my bags as I was due to get on the 4pm train to Delhi. The train journey was quite short and I managed to get to my hostel in time for dinner (which was included in the per night price). At the hostel, I met a friendly guy from Canada who had recently completed Law School at Harvard University and was moving to India to begin to work in a socially/charity oriented law firm. We shared interesting perspectives on Harvard, the US education system, life in India and many other things for a while after dinner. I was due to stay in Delhi for the next couple of days so had plenty of time to visit many of the cultural hot spots. I made sure not to miss the Red Fort, India Gate, Connaught Place, Akshardham Temple and a few more. It was a very enjoyable few days in which I managed to get a good grasp of the city and really get a slight feel for the British presence and influence on modern India. Over the next couple days it felt like I was in a totally different India... colonial India or even like I was in Baker Street or King’s Cross in London. After those 36 hours of exploring Delhi, I head to the airport where I was due to catch a flight back to Mumbai – from where I would then fly on to Amman, Jordan for the next stage of my trip. It doesn’t generally please me to end a post on a negative note but let me tell you, the layover in Mumbai was absolutely dreadful. In order to change terminals (from domestic to international), one had to catch a bus after a very thorough security control. Before the checkpoint though, a guard had to make sure one was carrying proof that there was an international flight booked and strictly demanded a physical document as evidence. As you can imagine, I did not possess such evidence and had a long discussion with the security guard as nowhere did it state on the security checklist (which was hung on the wall opposite to where we were) that this was a requirement. I was persistent for a while but quickly realised he would not cede his ground. I thus went to seek one of the members of the information staff. I spoke to a couple of young gentlemen who, although sceptical at first, decided to help me out. I told them I had my itinerary in my email inbox and just needed a computer with internet access and a printer to solve the problem. I enquired to see whether it was possible for them to grant me access to a computer in a nearby office and, although hesitant and with certain reservation, they helped me out and took me as far past airport security as I think any non-airport-employed individual has ever been. We walked in what seemed to be a maze of doors, offices and administrative departments until we reached our destination. 5 minutes was all I needed to get a printout and run out the door. I was very thankful to the kind staff that helped me out there and then. I know there is a very slim (if not nil) chance of them reading this, but if it is the case then: thank you! Once at the other terminal, I had to wait 2 hours (it was initially only meant to be one but the flight got delayed) before I could check in. After proceeding, security/passport control was an absolute shambles... Let me describe the scenario: two queues, one for males and another for females. Obviously, a ridiculous overcrowding on the men’s side, while the women’s side was nearly empty. And do you think Indian airport security staff was smart enough to send some men to the other queue? Far from that... it all gravitates back to the point I made earlier on the separation of men and women in social/civil life to ridiculous limits which go way beyond anything that could be categorised as culturally defendable. Oh well... After 1.5 hours (that’s right!) between check in and security/passport control, I finally arrived to the boarding gate. Another 45 minutes and I was on my way to Jordan – the penultimate country I was due to visit on my round-the-world adventure. Stay tuned.