Monday, December 13, 2010

Tuesday Dec 14th

They say that a fool and his money are soon parted.  Well, the big story of our stay in Delhi is the story of two people who left their brains at home.  Our plan, after the trip to the bike supplier and decision to put the bike on the train with us and go directly south with it, rather than go around Rajastan,  led us to the search for train tickets to Madras/Chennai.  Lonely Planet firmly in hand and the section on getting train tickets in Delhi read carefully several times, we got into a rickshaw and said "train station".  You want to buy tickets?" we were asked.  Yes, we want to buy tickets.  Okay I take you to get tickets.

 The train station we repeated, well-trained by Lonely Planet to insist on the station.

The central railway station must be a very noticeable building, clearly marked.  But it is also the case that tickets are bought in a place separate from the actual departure area and that tourists/foreigners' tickets are handled in a specially arranged section.  So, where is this place?  Not actually at the station?  We were delivered to a large area in front of what could have been the back of the railway station.  A man rushes out and asks if we want tickets.  Yes. You have to get reservation form.  tickets for today at the station but for tomorrow somewhere else.  We had read about the forms - you sign up for what you want and then go to another counter for the actual tickets.  Okay.  Not here - you have to go down there - he points along a wall that stretches as far as the eye can see and gestures that the station is around the end of the wall.  The location of the station  is not clear on our little map and anyway many of the road signs are written in Sanskrit so we can't read them.

Another man comes forward and says, I get you a rickshaw.  He crosses the road with us and puts us in a rickshaw - you must go to N block.  Richard tries to offer him a tip.  He refuses.  'I work for the railway' he says, this is my job.

We go off in quite a different direction from what we expect but do arrive at N block where there are signs suggesting official reservation offices for train tickets.  He stops at one of these and we go in and at once see that this is not a government building with a reservation desk for tourist travel and I say, this is not a government office. A man thrusts a card at me - I work for the government, he says, we are an official place for train tickets.  His card does say government approved or some such thing. Sit down, sit down, would you like some tea.  (These, dear readers, are the words that should send chills down the spine - they are the incontrovertible signs of imminent scam ).  .

We are ushered at speed into a 'cabin' , a sectioned off area of the office space - and behind the desk a charming young man greets us, Ifran, asks us where we come from, (the inevitable question from anyone we might just pass on the street- I keep planning to say Togoland or Argentina but am not quick enough and here is not the place anyway.)  Canada.  How can I help you?

So, it began.  Within fifteen minutes, we had learned from him that there were no seats on any train from Delhi to Chennai for the next nine days and therefore we might as well use the extra time to travel around and where were we interested in going and we would need places to stay and he would send us by car to Agra since the train was full and the car would stay overnight and get us to the station when we left for our next stop, Benares/Varanasi and since the sites to visit were at a distance from the town, a car would make our going around much more pleasant.  From Varanasi we could go to Amritsar and from there back to Delhi in time to go and check on the bike and get that packed for the train and our leaving for Chennai.  And he would arrange all.  He wrote out a list of the places and dates and stops and at the bottom, a total cost.  We looked at each other, it didn't seem too bad.  We handed over our money. 

Would you like car, complimentary - he will take you to the museum and whereever you want to go. Tomorrow, the car will pick you up at your hotel and take you to station. I will send all the tickets and vouchers for the hotels with him.
We go in the car.  Why not. 
To be continued...

Actually, I think the phrase is: A fool and his purse are soon parted...

So, the driver took us to the craft museum - a marvellous collection of arts and crafts of India with a room full of hangings of silk fabrics from over the centuries as well as carvings,sculptures in iron and wood, and intricate designs in gold and silver ornaments.  Outside there were artisans and craftsmen making these same artifacts and selling them - have to go back there.  We also went to the railway museum which was mostly outdoors with the old engines and passenger cars.on display and inside the historical account of the development of railways since 1856.  This was more Richard's passion than mine but interesting.  I can't help but look at these old railway cars and see them inscribed with the crexcent moon and imagine the slaughter that took place as people fled north and south during partition and were stopped en route or at the stations. 

After that, we asked the driver to take us to the government tourist office at 88 Janpath Road so that we could pick up maps and brochures for our trip in the south. He drove down Janpath - a major road -  and then wound round some alleys and came to a stop outside a place which said 88 Janpath Road.  The right address but not what we expected of the government tourist office.  Someone came out and of course assured us this was the official tourist office.  We went in, suspicious, and were greeted by more cards and more assurances and even some hostility that we doubted their autheniticity.  But we did.  We left, despite the protestations of the driver and walked on down the alley toward the main road.  En route we passed two or three more establishments claiming to be 88 Janpath Road - only when we reached the actual road, off the alley, did we find the obviously actual government tourist office.

We got some brochures and then showed them our booking list from the agency.  "Let me show my boss " said our consultant.  She came back shaking her head.  We have had complaints about this company. This is not a proper contract.  There is no breakdown of costs and it is too much.   She was right.  We had not even asked what the various hotels and train ticket costs were.  As I said, we left our brains at home.

Well, she recommended going back to Ifran, getting our money back and then coming to see them.  We got back into the car and went back to Ifran.  We told him our problem and concern.  At that point, we were more worried about not actually getting the tickets and hotel vouchers than about the cost.  He was convincing - we could come to the office in the morning and he would show us that all our tickets etc were legitimate.  We agreed.  But we told him about the driver who had not taken us where we wanted to go but tried to hand us over to another travel agent even though he clearly knew the proper place.  Apologies of course.  He gave us a new car and different driver who would be the one to pick us up and take us to Agra.
Well, all of that worked out perfectly well.  It was a 4 hour drive and I  knitted and we looked out the window and stopped for lunch and arrived safely in Agra.  Our driver was to meet us at 6:30 a.m to go to the Taj Mahal.

That too was not a clear process.  We were told there would be a long line and the only way to avoid it was to hire a guide who would go ahead to a different entrance from the required one for tourists and get the tickets.  At 6:30 we were waiting outside and a guide appeared - from 'the company' apparently.  No petrol cars are allowed near or at the site so only electric vehickes are used to transport visitors.  The driver stayed behind and we followed Dinn, our guide to the gate to get tickets.  No line up. Surprise, surprise!!. 
We hopped on the bus and were taken to the entrance where we joined the lines, men in one line, women in another, to wait for the doors to open, go through security, and then walk into the grounds of the Taj.

Visiting the Taj Mahal when you are in India seems like the thing to do. We all know what it looks like and have seen photographs of it all our lives. But I was entirely unprepared for its impact.  We arrived so early that there were no crowds and we could stand and look at it unimpeded.  I found it very moving - almost brought tears to my eyes - it was similar to the way I felt looking down at Macchu Picchu.

The sheer magnificence made me gasp - no pictures do it justice as a monument to achieving a vision.  Perfect symmetry, amazing art in the inlaid patterns, marvellous workmanship and marble in all its possible splendour.  We walked all around and saw the light of the sunrise turning the semiprecious stones with which it is inlaid begin to shine like mirrors.  Quite gorgeous.

From there we returned to the hotel for breakfast and then joined our guide for what he called the second part of the tour, which was to show us the process by which the stones are shaped into flowers and leaves and inlaid in the marble. Crafts that he said the government is sponsoring to encourage more artisans and support the craft.  Okay. A government supported effort.

Well, we did see the very fine and precise shaping process of incredibly thin pieces of stone that are then glued into place for the mosaic. Along with the cups of tea. No idea where the government fitted in.
From the workshop area, we were ushered into another room, away from the simple workers at their lathes, a room full of thousands of examples of inlaid marble - table tops of all sizes.  When we balked at purchase of those (the object of the exercize, of course) , we were then moved into a room with smaller objects, inlaid marble plates and boxes etc.  Dishes are my weakness, of course, so we/I looked with more interest.   These guys are so polite and pleasant and it is very hard to be rude or pretend the things we are looking at are not exquisite - they are.... Well, to conclude this story, we bought one small oblong plate and resisted all the larger stuff.

A little back bone showing itself!  And the experience and the place were very interesting....

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