12/28/10 - The Trip Begins

In December 2010 and January 2011, three friends traveled across India: Shobhana Chelliah, Tricia Cukor-Avila, and myself.  All of us are professors at the University of North Texas; I am in anthropology while the other two are in linguistics.  

Each of us provided particular knowledge or skills.  Shobhana is originally from India and contributed an invaluable familiarity with the country.  Traveling without her would have been a million times more challenging.  Tricia was our “staff photographer” – she took amazing pictures of our experiences.  All the pictures on this website are hers unless otherwise noted.  My own modest contribution was to keep us organized and provide travel-related information.  I was the one who read the guidebooks, created summaries of our schedule, managed financial records, and so forth.  I also played a role in encouraging us to take the trip now, after we had been talking about it for years.

We used an Indian travel agency to coordinate the trip, and as a result, our travel was quite luxurious in some ways.  We always had a car and driver, and often a tour guide. 

We flew from Dallas to Chicago, and then on to Delhi.  The flights were all on time, which was lucky and surprising, because a huge blizzard on the east coast had led to hundreds of cancelled and delayed flights.  As our plane rose into the sky, Tricia started things off on a funny note by giving us fuzzy socks for the flights.  The Chicago-Delhi leg took about 15 hours and we tried to sleep as much as possible.

We arrived in Delhi at about 10 p.m. local time.  The airport was not much different from what you would see in the United States, and the international arrivals process was if anything even more efficient.  Once past Customs, we were greeted by Sandeep Singh, our travel agent.  He took us to our car and driver – and gave us chrysanthemum garlands!

Then we drove to the hotel, where we collapsed in exhaustion.

12/29/10 - Sightseeing in Delhi

Qutb Minar

On our first day in India, we jumped right into a busy day of sightseeing.  Our guide and driver picked us up at the hotel at 8:30 in the morning.  Our first stop was the Qutb Minar, a tower built at the end of the 12th century.  It was surrounded by various ruins, and the walls were covered with beautiful carvings.

Jama Masjid

Next we visited Jama Masjid, a Muslim mosque in Old Delhi.  It is the largest mosque in India, built in the mid-1600s.  It is mainly a large open plaza.  Everyone had to remove their shoes, and women had to put on robes that were handed out.

Rickshaw Ride in Old Delhi

Then we took a fascinating ride in a rickshaw!  Shobhana and I shared one, while the guide and Tricia shared another.  The rickshaws are essentially bicycles with a cart in back, driven by guys who must be super strong.  In these little conveyances, we were able to zip around the extremely narrow lanes of Old Delhi, watching the street life, the bazaars, and the monkeys on electric cables that snaked everywhere.  It was quite exciting, kind of like a roller coaster.

Government Buildings

Next we viewed the government buildings of New Delhi.  They are laid out on spacious grounds, arranged around a central boulevard called the Rajpath.  These buildings and their layout were designed by an English architect, Edward Lutyens, in the early 1900s, when New Delhi became the headquarters of the British government in India.  After Independence, they became the seat of India’s new government.

Humayun’s Tomb

Next we saw Humayun’s tomb.  This is kind of a forerunner to the Taj Mahal – a monument to a departed Mughal emperor, built by his wife in the mid-1500s.  For me, the most interesting thing was that it featured my first Islamic garden – I had been reading about them in The Art of the Islamic Garden by Emma Clark, but had never actually seen one! Such gardens are designed as a 2x2 square bisected by long, narrow water pools in the shape of a cross, with a fountain in the middle.

The Money-Changing Adventure

Tricia and Shobhana asked our guide to take us to a bank so they could change dollars to rupees.  (I had used an ATM that morning, so didn’t need to change money.)  He replied that there were no banks in Delhi that would do this.  Hmm.  OK, maybe a currency exchange place?  No, no such thing was available.  The ONLY place where we could change money was a small tea store that he happened to know about.  He would take us there.

We arrived at a tiny shop whose walls were packed with shelves of elegant-looking tea boxes.  We were greeted by the proprietor and a powerful-looking assistant.  They offered Tricia and Shobhana a good exchange rate, and the currency transactions took place.  Then my friends got interested in the tea and also bought some of that.  I was highly entertained by the whole experience.

Of course there are actually banks and other places in Delhi that do currency exchange.  The exchange rate might not have been quite as good though.

Driving in India

One way in which India is really different from the United States is what happens on the streets.  The streets themselves are in excellent condition.  However, the driving is completely chaotic! There is often a lot of traffic, a crazy mix of cars, trucks, cows, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians running across the street, and sometimes carts drawn by camels or oxen.  No one pays any attention to the lane markings.  Vehicles are constantly darting around each other, wedging into the tiniest space to move forward just a bit quicker.  Sometimes they drive on the wrong side of the road, right into oncoming traffic.  On top of this, the rule is that cars drive on the left side of the road, like in Great Britain.  

Over the course of the trip, I came to enjoy the experience of being on the roads – it provided quite an adrenalin rush.  However, I would never attempt to drive myself – I’m sure I’d have an accident within the first five minutes.  While there must be a fairly high accident rate, we only observed evidence of two accidents over the course of our trip, and they did not look too serious.  I came to have tremendous respect for the skill of the drivers.

All of our drivers had little religious offerings on their dashboards – not surprising given the dangerous nature of their jobs!

Trucks in India were often elaborately painted.  Here are some examples.

Another common sight on the road was families on motorcycles.  The husband always sat in front and the wife sat sidesaddle behind him.  Children were wedged in wherever convenient.

Cows and Dogs

Cows and dogs were an extremely common sight.  Cows are of course holy, so they cannot be disturbed.  While they are not eaten, they provide dairy products for their owners.  The ones we saw often looked scrawny.  The dogs were mostly feral, although some were taken care of by local people.  They seemed quite peaceful, and the ones at tourist sites looked well fed (those were the smart ones).  In other places, they did not always look so healthy.  However, even the poorest people, living in cardboard shacks alongside the road, did not seem to regard dogs as a potential source of food.  Tricia was more interested in cows so she mainly took pictures of those.  Here are some particularly nice examples.

12/30/10 - Agra: The Taj Mahal

Drive from Delhi to Agra

We left Delhi at about 9 a.m. and arrived at our hotel in Agra at about 12:30.  The drive offered the excitement of dodging cows, trucks, and so forth outside of the city, where traffic moved a lot quicker.  It was misty and sometimes we had rain; we were anxious about whether it would rain when we visited the Taj Mahal.

Here are typical pictures of what we saw on arriving in Agra and driving through town.

Taj Mahal

The Taj is so famous that I expected to be disappointed – surely it could not live up to the hype. Imagine my delight when it exceeded my expectations!  It was truly ethereal and magical looking, especially in the mist that followed a short rain shower as we arrived.  Tricia was deeply moved and took a million pictures.

The Taj is hidden from outside view.  Visitors are routed through the structure that you can see in the picture on the left.  On the right is our first view of the Taj, from inside the entry area.

Then we came out on the other side, and got our first unobstructed views of the Taj.  It was so beautiful!

As we got close to the structure, we could see the lovely patterns of inlaid stones that decorated the walls.

There was a long line to go inside the Taj.  Tricia took great pictures of the people in line.       

Bargaining for Plates

My mother had requested that I buy two plates from a store near the Taj Mahal – one for her and one for me.  She wanted plates in the local style, with designs of semiprecious stones inlaid in marble.  So we went into a store and looked at the many gorgeous plates on display.  However, when we started asking prices, I was shocked!  The salesman demanded $1200 per plate.  I had expected to negotiate, but I wasn’t planning to spend more than about $100 per plate, and I did not think we could possibly reach common ground – the discrepancy was just too great.  Then Tricia, who had spent a lot of time bargaining in Mexico, went into action.  Assisted by my evident inflexibility – I actually walked out at one point, not as a bargaining technique but because I was giving up – Tricia managed to get the salesman down to $150.  At that point I started considering the purchase more seriously.  Based on my mother’s wishes, I had been prepared to buy plates that were not really marble but rather soapstone, a cheaper substitute.  So although the plates were still a bit more expensive than I had wanted, they were also much better quality.  I negotiated the salesman down to $140 per plate and then accepted the deal. 

I am still amazed that the salesman started out with an almost tenfold markup!  I was prepared for prices to be doubled, but not multiplied by ten.  In any case, huge kudos to Tricia for doing such a great bargaining job.  We saw similar plates later in the government emporium in Delhi, where they sold for $300 and were not as nice.  Here is a picture of the plates I bought:


We saw quite a few monkeys in India.  In the north, these were rhesus macaques.  They liked our hotel in Agra.  When I drew back the curtain of our bedroom window in the morning, I found myself staring a monkey in the face.  It was sitting on our window sill – but scampered off before I could snap its picture.  Tricia had almost opened the window during the night to get some air – thank goodness she didn’t!  Who knows what objects the monkeys might have carried off, in addition to giving us the fright of our lives.