The Golden Triangle they call it. Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Dehli the bustling metropolis of wall to wall people, manic traffic and molten streams of chewing tobacco expectorate. Agra is home to the Taj Mahal and Jaipur the Capital of Rajasthan and centre for all things fabric and jewel laden.
It’s not my first time in India, but my Third. I imagined I was a seasoned India traveller having weathered and survived Mumbai, Goa as well as quite a few southern states after all! Well, nothing prepared me for what awaited in Delhi… on arrival I discovered that 500 and 1000 Rupee notes were removed from circulation by Prime Minister Modi in order to reduce counterfeit money, so there was no money in ANY of the ATM’s and also then a limit of £20 even if you could you could get it!
So it took this seasoned traveller 20 mins to get the nerve to cross the road… It was bedlam on the first day, but there were Angels and Demons all around. Angels in the fact that one man on arrival warned me I was in a dodgy area, a nice hotel but not so good surroundings. He dragged an unwilling young Tuk Tuk driver into the fray by asking for a map and then telling him ‘Take this man to a bank and charge him local rates only!’
I had 10 Euro which eventually gets exchanged to pay Ajay (I eventually get my first Tuk Tuk and its driver to take me around for a few days) and we luckily make it to one of the few banks that has cash in its ATM. As a minor celebration I get escorted to one of the Government gift shops – they are well run and a lot of the profit goes back to the workers. You can also trust that what you are buying is the real deal, not a knock off. Good if you want some jewellery or good textile items.
I’m given the hard sell but I relax into it, I’m in no rush after all and the building has aircon. Rugs first; I get the knots, the patterns, the frame the whole nine yards and get hit with the price – a cool £1,000 plus shipping of course. I take photos and say I need an OK before I even think about it. Next floor is textiles, pashmina’s, scarf’s, shirts, & bedding you name it; its there. I’m offered a hand made shirt and tailor made suit – the books with the styles are decidedly dodgy. A polite no. Paintings are next, they start on camel bone and are extremely kitch as well as very expensive – ‘Everyone will love this Sir!’ I’m told. ‘Money means nothing here Sir!’ I’m told – It’s a mere (a quick tap on the calculator) £750!’ I’m told. He sadly uses the family card next in response to my silence, ‘My Father made this 40 years ago’ which translates to I’ve been trying to flog this crap for 40 years! I move on and he’s pissed.
On the way back downstairs I ironically have to ask about the jewellery section, which seems to be cordoned off. I go in. Its pretty cool and the guy behind the counter is more relaxed and less a sales person. He asks what I’m after – I tell him honestly, I don’t know. He starts by showing me some stones, first in a raw state, then the cut gems. I feel like Rockerfeller – there’s diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, rubies the list goes on. But it’s interesting. He talks about how the stones were formed, the minerals in them and what region they are from. He offers me a beer, its 10am, I almost accept! But remember I am in the most expensive section of the shop!
He shows me some beautiful bracelets and rings and I opt for a silver garnet bracelet and matching ring – the colour is deep purple and blows the lighter rubies out of the water. He explains that these garnets represent what older rubies used to look like. I see a nice plain silver ring for me and as we chat he says ‘we could make a ring for you, maybe add in a stone?’ Now I’ve been wearing what’s called solidarity rings for years. Solidarity for people who cannot afford expensive jewellery – some were wooden, my current one is stainless steel, bought for the princely sum of 6 Euro in Barcelona many years ago. I ponder on the moral right to make this purchase? The place is a cooperative too, I ponder on it, so I don’t feel too bad.
But we speak more and begin to haggle a bit. It’s not an enormous amount of money and I’ll never really get the chance to do this again so after agreeing a design, a stone and getting the size right, I buy it. 6 hrs later I become the proud owner of a solid silver Ruby ring of almost 3 carats – its decadent, its OTT, but I love it! As I leave the shop the gem dealer shakes my hand and honestly tells me – ‘I really enjoyed working with you today, You are happy and I am happy’. Result.
Ajay eventually became my legend for the next few days and keenly showed me around the city, his only indulgence was to snap madly with me in tow in his selfies. He was kind enough to also ask me to lunch with his family, his gentle wife and lovely children giggled away in their tiny kitchen and only came into the room for a quick photo and to say thanks for the inadequate box of chocolates I bought for her. He picked up some stragglers who turned out to be Demons in disguise. Each morning he picked me up someone or two new people were with him. He confided in me later on by saying not to have anything to do with those people, I was his guest and he was looking after me. I worked out that it was either extended family or just shysters looking to get something out of the ‘rich guy’.
I saw the sights, the forts, the towers, the temples all amid the hectic traffic and the not so luxurious (or safe) confines of a Tuk Tuk, but what inspired me most was Ghandi’s home and the ultimate place of his death. It was moving just to see a bare bed with a rolled up mattress and a glass case with all of his worldly possessions including; glasses, a staff, pocket watch and assorted cutlery. It was a bright sunny morning and I pondered on the strength of a man to ensure passive resistance and to pay the ultimate price for that. I ponder on my purchase of the previous day too.
The lure of the west proved my undoing. A large La Vazza coffee sign outside a little café snared me to my doom. Once inside I spied a focaccia bread sandwich and was hooked. The coffee was sublime and the sandwich seemed to have raw chilli’s in it, which were rather tasty! However 2 hrs later my cup runneth over with some of the worst stomach issues I’ve had in my 20 years of international travelling. To add insult, the next 24 hrs had me flat on my back hallucinating – things crawled out of the walls, the floor turned itself upside down ‘Inception’ like and the bed was like something out of ‘Train spotting’. Only constant self-badgering and two litres of water keep me going and sane. The next day it was slowly getting better and thankful as I was going to be in a car for over 3 and a half hours, that was the trip to Agra and the Taj Mahal.
Agra can only be described as a nasty little town, hawkers multiplied the closer I got to the Taj and £10 entrance fee for Tourists was a little steep especially by Indian standards. Yet it did not disappoint! Its glorious three gates in dark stone with the main building which seems pure white at first until you get closer (wearing obligatory disposable overshoes) is bedecked with marble marketry of exquisite flowers and Islamic text. Stunning does not come close.
Afterwards I’m ferried to a shop to see ‘How its made’ marble work. They are good, but after a quick offer of tea, the hard sell starts, no beating about the bush here. The first small tabletop rolls in at £450 – ‘Don’t worry about carrying it Sir!’ I’m told ‘ We ship it directly to your home for only an extra £100!’ The prices go up from there on in. I’m led to the fabric department, there are only so many pashmina’s a man can look at only so many sariee’s, only so many elephants… I purchase nothing. I’m met with chargrin, as this is the shop keeper who has agreed to take my credit card payment and give me cash, it’s a modest 3% mark up – well worth the hassle. Having said that most of the cash goes to my driver and guide anyway.
I’m led back to my hotel to leave the following morning, I had arranged for Ajay to pick me up. I had a bottle of Whiskey and a large tip for him but sadly he’s a no show and I need another taxi ASAP, so off I go. I still have no cash (I pay by card at the hotel) so an extremely happy Nepalese taxi driver gets a tip of a bottle of the good stuff. I must admit I’m a little disappointed then wonder who else might have come along and maybe he was actually doing me a favour by not showing up?
As I sit in the airport I ponder on what the week had for me – it was the basics; water, decent food, sleep and companionship. I never would have made it without Ajay or saw quite so much and avoided a few nasty people. Thanks.