5 nights have sped by, and the baptism of fire is over. Delhi is the stuff of both dreams and nightmares and will be in my head forever.
Wasn't confident to begin with that I'd find my 'sea legs' - Hannah being out of the equation for the initial part and me being 'under orders ' not to be too intrepid. Am really pleased I rebelled slightly and managed to inhale its atmosphere.
Day One set the tone of the duality of Delhi.
Bonus whistlestop trip with Hannah to Khan Market (in all the guide books.) Felt quite pleased with myself that I stayed on when Hannah returned to the hotel for a meeting. Actually felt reasonably tame compared to some other places. But nothing in India is straight forward, even simple things like withdrawing cash from an ATM, getting taxis, finding food and drinking water from safe sources all present challenges for the 'newbie', not to mention escaping the hawkers and learning to haggle like you've never haggled before.
The initiation began in the taxi when beggar after beggar began tapping on the windows. Because the passenger window was down felt really vulnerable. Now after four days of it, I know how common place some of the sights are, but on Wednesday, I found my heart thumping, saying ' OMG' out loud (in full obviously ) and on repeat, seeing abject poverty displayed centimetres from my face. One sight was so hideous I can't even write it down. The instinct is to be compassionate, to go against the golden rule not to give to beggars. Actually found it really distressing, knowing I had to toughen up and show a stony face. Kept saying ' Sorrry, sorry' .
Got back to our fancy pancy palace of a hotel with its heady scent of exotic flowers, gold and silver opulently displayed, its reassuring / nerve wracking levels of high security, feeling I was on the other side of the world but also glad of sanctuary. Headed straight out to an uber smart place for an Indian dinner with Hannah's sweet Indian colleagues. My eyes were 'out on stalks' at the lavish jewel - encrusted saris being worn, Hannah had to pull me back from staring.
Met with our guide, Mr Prem, in the lobby. Seemed very sweet, very Hindu but worryingly an 'old school' formal Indian and quite elderly - he expressed obvious reluctance at a plan to climb the steps up a famous minaret. His English not that great. Being on my own, could be a challenge - he didn't pick up on some important things like me needing the occasional clean toilet.
However, spent action packed day seeing many of recommended sights, thanks more to Lonely Planet than the guide - saving some to see with Hannah when she becomes free. Loved in equal measure the first and last stops :- Hazrat Nizam din Dargh, a mosque within a tangle of ancient narrow streets flanked by rainbow - coloured stalls and filled with the heady scent of rose petals but also the exceedingly chaotic, almost medieval Chandni Chowk bazaar. Kind of felt I tapped into the city's under belly. Never have I experienced such a sensory assault : wonderful and awful sights in equal measure, a cacophony of noise, sneeze- inducing pungency. One minute it feels as if your heart is breaking from seeing so much suffering, the next you see something that enthrals and exhilarates. No wonder people say India does things to your head.
Was out of the hotel about 9 hours - Hannah close to sending out a search party :-) Came back to my, not so little, 'cocoon' absolutely filthy, tired and on complete overload. Some self preservation needed and Hannah out for business dinner anyway, so ran amazing bath with nose high bubbles and room service. Definitely time to chill. Discover instead of the Gideon bible, in bedside drawer is Bhagavad-gita.
Felt totally wiped out from yestreday & didn't venture out till tea time. Booked ayurvedic massage and it was to die for. The best spa treatments I have ever had. Loved the warm oil being poured on my head.
Out to Dilli Haat a place of regional crafts and food in the evening with Hannah & same colleagues - . Great to have them with us as bartering can get a bit out of control. Went out to a bar afterwards in a 'cool' area of the city. Very Western. You could well have been anywhere in Europe - even the food was mainly Mediterranean. Tried to ignore the fact that I was the oldest person there by a long chalk.
Back to having Mr Prem as a guide with his driver and ticking off the remaining 'Must See' places of interest. The tricky bit of the day ( and what hung like a bit of a cloud, until it was done ) was having to break the news that we were cancelling further accompanied days we'd arranged and the serene Hindu turned a bit bolshie and the driver worse. Hannah did really well to get us out of it though we did have to pay some compensation because we were too kind to tell the truth which was that Mr Prem's best days of being effective as a guide for English speaking travellers were over or, more likely, had never even started. Sweet though he was, when we asked what bird we could hear in the grounds of a famous tomb, he thought we asked if we could buy a hearing aid from a stall there.
Some well earned retail therapy needed by the end of the altercation. Again the two world of Delhi revealed in all its glory. The shopping mall was pretty much like any anywhere ( maybe a bit more Grimsby, Freshney Place than Westfield as a building) but lots of designer labels, recognisable global chains and people with obvious disposable income. It is hard to conceive there is this 21st century world going on at the same time as the squalor and suffering outside.
It is raining ! Today we head to Agra and sod's law, it is pissing down. Never mind thinking of our Taj Mahal photo outfits, we might need kagouls. Eek.
As we'd been warned, Agra's centre is not a pretty sight. Cows, Buffaloes and goats litter your route and scary looking monkeys are colonised there. The streets are filthy and ugly . It isn't a 'city' you'd feel comfortable to venture in, we drove by several men 'off their heads' on something like yabbah. It seems primitive.
Then we glimpse the reason for coming, what shines out in contrast to the rest of Agra :- the exquisite Taj Mahal. We can see it in all its glory from our hotel. From every room you get a view and we are giddy from getting an upgrade to one with a perfect vantage point and a balcony. It is spectacular.
The only slight blot on the landscape is the weather. We toy with the idea of going twice, for both sunset and sunrise but decide against this because of rain. We steel ourselves for a dawn start. The hotel arrangements are reassuring - going large is sometimes the only way. Every detail of our early morning visit is organised by the hotel, down to umbrellas, in case of rain.
Both of us slightly grumpy to begin with. It is an obscenely early start and it seems we were told to go down to meet our guide earlier than was necessary. It is only half light. Outside it is at least dry. The hotel sourced guide, Devesh, turns out to be a real asset. He is real pro and knows the protocols, the history, even the best photo spots at the Taj Mahal. He's a dab hand with an iPhone and an iPad which earns him lots of Brownie points. Genuinely passionate about his subject, he thoroughly engages our interest. Thankfully, at this unearthly hour, it isn't particularly crowded. We're both captivated by the Taj's breath -taking beauty and the sad romantic behind its construction. The feat of engineering that went into building something like this (by hand) is truly impressive. We come away two hours later, not wanting to go to the other Agra sights as our visit to the Taj Mahal had exceeded all our expectations.