29 March 2008

I promise not to pun on the word "Delhi"

The day after visiting the Taj Mahal THE MOST BEAUTIFUL MONUMENT TO LOVE EVER BUILT (and the only one, to my knowledge) I took a bus from Agra over to the UNESCO site of Fatehpur Sikri. I went because I could not resist the description "Mughal ghost town". I went because I had nothing else to do that day. I went because Kajori told me to, and Kajori will not be denied.

Fatehpur Sikri was built to be Akbar (Ahkbar? Akbhar? Ahkbhar?) the Great's personal capital city in the 16th century. Like most private capital ventures of this sort, however, it failed for lack of long-term planning (that is, for lack of available water sources). Strategically located--wait for it--on a hill, the red sandstone city lords it over the modern SLT of Fatehpur Sikri below, where tour guides mate and breed. I was quite stunned by the state of the city's preservation--quite good! The main mosque is ginormous, its entrance "Arch of Victory" possibly the largest arch of victory in Asia (and therefore the world? Europe, hello?). In the city itself, one cannot help feeling it was a pity the site didn't last, given the exquisiteness of the decorative carvings on many of the structures and the intriguing architectural styles employed throughout. I was intrigued. One lone guard tower is studded with elephant tusks.

I only stuck around FS for a few hours, because I had a train to catch to Delhi, a train I barely made. You see, I had arranged with a rickshaw driver to take me to a bunch of shops around Agra. The deal was, each shop would pay him 100 Rs. just for bringing me there to browse, and he would split that with me. I learned of this neat little scam from the Swiss guy I met in Hampi, I think. Unfortunately, I didn't get back to Agra in time for the execution, so I'm going to have to work it again here in Delhi, where I am now (in time, but not in the course of this narrative--hang on). Anyway, when I got to the train station, I met a French girl going to the same place. We had adjacent seats, so we chatted. She's studying Arabic in Cairo. We were also seated with two Chinese girls studying Hindi in Agra. What am I studying? English, in America! Anyway, the French girl was cool and is the first French person I've met who laughs at jokes and even my bad French accent, which I adopted for her amusement for the rest of the trip. An Indian guy joined us partway through the trip and ended up inviting me to visit him in Amritsar even though the first thing I said to him when he introduced himself was "Please don't ask me 20 questions!"

Upon reaching Delhi, I found a cheap dormitory by following the Japanese. That is, I looked for a hotel with a name rendered in katakana, where I knew I'd find a low price and reliable dormmates. And I did! A ten bed dorm with one Japanese guy and no other people (and a hot shower! my first in India! even though I don't need it!) for only 150 Rs. a night. Score! Everything in India closes at like 10 pm, annoyingly, so it was difficult for me to find a place to drink with the French girl. But she was flying back to Cairo the next morning--spending the entire night at the airport--so it seemed proper to get her drunk to make things go more smoothly. At last, I found an SLR that was willing to illegally sell us bottles of beer wrapped in plastic bags. Cool.

The next day, I decided to check out New Delhi. I'm an idiot, you see, and didn't even realize I'd be arriving here at the beginning of the weekend, so now I have to wait until Monday for the Syrian embassy to open. But I'll make the most of it. Everyone I've met has told me that Delhi is smelly, but so far, I think it's really an OK place. The seedy neighborhood where I'm staying is dirty and crowded as hell, but it's more (God forgive me for using this word) authentic than sucky Thamel in Kathmandu. Thamel sucks! And New Delhi is lovely enough, built at the inhuman scale of most planned capitals (except Fatehpur Sikri), but not unwalkable (ahem, for me). Kajori, I walked from Main Bazaar near the New Delhi train station to Connaught Place, then down to the Parliament area, further along to the Gandhi memorial, and then from there to India Gate and finally to the definitely-not-worth-100 Rs. Purana Qila fortress. In Crocs! Please tell these people how awesome I am for doing that. They'll never understand.

En route, I bought a copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Mediterranean Europe at the truly fab Oxford Bookstore. Luckily, the store had a toilet, because I had to run to it after looking up the prices I should expect once I *get* to Mediterranean Europe.

The Gandhi memorial deserves explication at greater length. In Hindi, it's called the Gandhi Smriti. "Smriti" reminds me of "smrt", my favorite Czech word, which means death. This is strangely appropriate since the memorial is located at the site where Ben Kingsley was assassinated. Lame Richard Attenborough jokes aside, the memorial and accompanying exhibit is one of the most top quality monuments I've ever seen. The rooms Gandhi occupied during his last 144 days are perfectly preserved. Adjoining them are several long corridors of beautifully done (if loooooong) photo-accompanied narrative of Gandhi's life, accomplishments, final days, and legacy. Upstairs is a remarkable multimedia exhibition that allows you to do such things as imitate Gandhi's seating postures, checking yourself against the real thing; light up a "tower of castelessness" by joining hands with people; and experience what salt feels like (or something). No, really, this thing has high production values. I would have loved it when I was a kid or if I were drunk. Someday, I'll take all seven of *my* kids to see it. It's really cool! Finally, outside, a paved path, complete with raised concrete footprints, follows the route Gandhi took on the day of his martyrdom, ending at a modest stone pillar. The guards yelled at me when I tried to touch it. I was genuinely moved and impressed by the Gandhi Smriti and spent quite a long time there, enjoying its informativeness and historic resonance as well as its beauty and serenity. When I learned that this whole affair is run by the government, I had to run to the toilet *again*!

My feet were sore by the time I got to Purana Qila, which is not worthy of explication, so I got an autorickshaw back to Connaught Place, the double-circus of high-end boutiques and cafes in the north part of New Delhi. I asked the driver to bring me to the subway. Next to the subway, to my delight, was a Subway! I immediately went in and ordered a 6" veggie pattie on hearty italian. I picked out an Israeli couple and sat down with them for a nice chat. We're going to meet later for beers. In fact, I'm running late, so I'd better finish up. Don't you think this is too much detail?

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