All photos follow the text below...
With less than 48 hours to go until my Big Trip, I decided to fit in a small customer quilt which was not as straightforward as it could have been since I had to make its back bigger by using scraps. I tried to think what Veggie kids would cook while I was away and got them supplies. Since Freya was home to get her broken front teeth fixed (kayak accident!), she supervised my packing and we whittled everything down to a minimum. She and Bumble drove me to the airport and I flew to London in stormy conditions. There was a 5 hour wait which was good from the point of being in plenty of time but I was not in the market for a designer handbag so I wandered a bit and read a book.
The Delhi flight was full - I watched a couple of films, had a mini doze and glimpsed rugged mountains at dawn flying over Afghanistan. We landed early in the morning and immediately felt a humid heat as we left the plane. I was responsible for getting myself to the hotel so I found a pre-paid taxi stand and was ushered outside to my driver. He skilfully wove in and out of manic traffic. If there were 2 or 3 marked lanes there would be at least 5 actual lines of traffic. The vehicles all jostled for position, squeezing motorbikes, tuk-tuks and bicycles, honking constantly even if there was nowhere to move. Every car was scarred with dents but amazingly the traffic kept flowing all the way into the city. I noticed that Delhi was very green with trees and lush vegetation on every street. I was grateful that my taxi had air-con since the outside temperature was 36 celsius. The Taj Mahal hotel was very grand with a luxurious colonial style foyer. The doormen and staff were all very smart , polite and helpful. After checking in I met 3 Antipodean ladies who had arrived the day before and we got to know each other over a leisurely lunch. It was lovely to unwind after a long journey and I was glad I had taken a swimming costume so I could have a refreshing dip in the outdoor pool. The Americans in the tour group arrived later in the afternoon. We all met at dinner, just 11 of us plus tour leader, Pam Holland and Govind, our very knowledgeable guide. They seemed pleased with the tweed pouches that I had and I was delighted to have made a space in my suitcase.
On our first morning we were presented with marigold necklaces and were driven to India Gate, a war memorial based on the Arc de Triumph, dedicated to Indian soldiers who fought in WW1. We had our first taste of persistent hawkers selling bangles and gifts. Many of them were children under the age of 10. There were also pitiful beggars living under tarpaulins. Our guide advised us to give them snacks and toiletries rather than cash.
The first adventure was a bicycle rickshaw ride through the market in Old Delhi dodging scooters and hand wagons laden with huge bundles. Monkeys clambered on the overhanging electric cables and our eyes goggled at glimpses of trimmings in small shop fronts. Our skinny driver must have been immensely strong to drive two Western ladies along the rough streets, weaving in and out of marketeers and vehicles.
We had a fascinating trip to a Sikh temple where we had to wear shawls and remove our shoes. We were able to look around the kitchens where vast pots of dahl were being made for the thousands of people who can have a free meal every day. There was even a roti rolling machine to provide all of the flatbreads for the crowds. The diners sat in rows in a large hall and were served a sustaining meal on metal canteen trays.
Our guide arranged for a currency dealer to come to the bus on a scooter. It made me think of the shady characters in the novel, “Shantaram”…
The final trip of the day was to a Craft museum where there was an extensive collection of antique shawls, wall-paintings, pottery and metal work. I rather fancied an artisan oil painting of a wacky pink panther but I declined at £150.00 after bartering the original price down. The hotel was hosting a very fancy engagement party and all of the guests were photographed as they descended the grand staircase like celebrities.
My high strength mosquito repellent was useless at keeping insects away as I had quite a few bites but it was obviously rather a strong solvent as it dissolved the gold leather on my sandals.
Our bus took a toll road Agra without too many crazy drivers. As we approached the city we saw many more beggars, cows wandering along the road and goats being transported by motorbike.
In the late afternoon we visited the Taj Mahal which really is an impressive sight. It is a mausoleum made from white marble flanked by 2 red sandstone gate houses. The white marble was inlaid with black marble calligraphy as well as semi precious stones such as cornelian and malachite. There were thousands of people visiting and it was joyous to see so many ladies wearing traditional series instead of Western clothing. Many of them wanted to take selfies with us just as much as we wanted to take photos of them. One of the elderly gardeners showed us where to stand to take photos of the central line of the Taj Mahal. It’s a bit weird optically because its towers lean outward slightly but from a distance this makes them appear perfectly straight.
I went for an evening dip in the rooftop pool with a view of the Taj Mahal trying to ignore the thumping dance music that the DJ was aiming at the non-existent trendy, young crowd. On the streets below the luxury hotel could be seen people working and living in very poor conditions, reminding me that India has extremes of wealth and poverty. I felt grateful that I had opted to join an organised tour rather than attempting to travel solo without an expert guide.
On Sunday our main expedition was to the Red Fort, an enormous military fortification built in the 17th Century by Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan. There were many intricate Persian style carvings and it was originally decorated extensively with white marble and precious stones. The British Army used it as a garrison during Queen Victoria’s reign. Pam (Holland) was really helpful in suggesting ways to improve our photography and how to compose more artful pictures.
Later we had a private viewing at a museum specialising in the Zardosi embroidery of master craftsman, Sheikh Shams Uddin. We were shown how he built up a 3D structure into his pictures using thick white cotton thread underneath then stitched to vibrant colours with silk threads. His pieces took years to complete and were encrusted with precious stones. This makes the little bit of glitz that I add to quilts with gold lame and paint look understated! The museum also housed a very nice jewellery shop where it would have been possible to spend a lot of money. I bought a simple pair of turquoise and silver earrings that did not break the bank. The next stop was a shop that made inlaid marble like we had seen at the Taj Mahal. Apprentices demonstrated how they cut and polished tiny pieces of semi precious stones that they set into indentations that they made with a small, pointy tool, all done by hand. I could have shipped home a magnificent marble dining table if I had felt inclined.
After lunch and a leisurely swim we took a hair-raising evening rickshaw ride into the bazaar to see if we could find sewing supplies. This market was really scruffy, past slum housing and we had to battle our way through holiday crowds all honking their horns. We saw several trucks with loud speakers and plaster deities, all covered in coloured powder paint. I was excited to see market stalls with huge piles of my favourite snack, Bombay Mix. The market stalls were tiny and mainly sold one type of thing like incense or cheap metal bracelets for wholesalers. The alleys were narrow and the path uneven so we had to walk single file yet motorbikes still zoomed through - it was not a straightforward shopping experience. It was easier for Pam and Govind to buy a batch of fabrics and embroidery hoops for everyone rather than figure out what we wanted and bartering for everything.
I enjoyed another excellent evening meal, sticking to delicious Veggie curry options. I was being careful to avoid any salad, meat, ice cream, rice, ice or fruit, hoping to avoid the dreaded “Delhi-Belly” that some of the other ladies had suffered. I don’t want to miss a single moment of such an exciting trip. Next stop - Jaipur in Rajasthan…