Travels with Elena: the Golden Triangle
I timed my return from Bihar to land in Delhi the same day my friend Elena flew in from France for a two-week visit. After a few days in Delhi, we came back to Jaipur for four or five days before taking off for a short trip to southern Rajasthan's resort towns, Udaipur and Mt. Abu. Then a night in Jaipur, a night in Delhi, a night in Agra (these three cities are known as the "Golden Triangle" of Indian tourism), and back to Delhi the next evening so that Elena could get her flight home: whew!
But we had a great time; in addition to the pleasure of seeing a friend, it was fun to do some of the tourist sight-seeing stuff that I've mostly been putting off (except for a bit during the trips to the south and east). My Hindi comprehension took a bit of a hit from speaking so much English for two weeks straight, but I'm getting back into it now.
We didn't take in much in Delhi beyond the National Museum (a really fascinating place with an especially interesting textiles collection, and a very nice arrangement of sculpture scattered on pedestals throughout the corridors), the Red Fort, the Handicrafts Museum at Pragati Maidan, and of course some shopping in Lajpat Nagar, one of the big bazaars for everything from auto parts to silk shawls. Elena had a bit of "reverse sticker shock" reaction to all the handmade goods simultaneously so attractive and (considered in dollars or euros) so cheap. I'm acclimated enough by now to the bargaining process that I don't openly praise the beauty or inexpensiveness of anything I want to buy, so I made a nuisance of myself nudging her and hissing that every squeal of delight put another twenty rupees on the asking price!
It's been a while (eight or nine years) since I saw the Red Fort, the Delhi palace complex where Mughal rulers of India had their court. It's now much more carefully safeguarded than it was then (you used to be able to enter most of the buildings and see where recent visitors had carved their names on the inlaid pillars and so forth), but considerably more inaccessible (many of the buildings can now be seen only from the outside). They seem to be doing a lot of restoration work, though, and perhaps someday we'll be able to see the place in something like its former glory. In particular, it would be wonderful if they could get the water running once more: the Fort's use of water flow is smart and lovely, from open water channels along the floors of buildings for air-conditioning, to fountains flowing from a narrow horizontal crack above a wall composed of candle niches, to show the flickering flames through a thin sheet of waterfall.
Udaipur is Rajasthan's famous "Lake City" and Mt. Abu is its hill station, a higher-altitude escape from the hot weather. We liked the City Palace in Udaipur, although we got pretty lost in it. It hadn't dawned on me before that forts and palace complexes and such are deliberately laid out to be confusing; this way, if alien invaders break in, they'll get lost and bewildered. Works. Udaipur is much more tourist-centered than I'd realized, with goods for sale from all over India and signs in English, French, German and Hebrew. In the evening we saw an impressive display of Rajasthani dancing at one of the palaces, culminating in a spectacular example of what I think of as "pothead" dances---the dancers imitate water carriers by balancing big jars on their heads. This dancer gradually added pot after pot till she was supporting a stack taller than herself, all the while doing fancy steps including treading on swordblades and broken glass and other items that looked pretty difficult to balance on. Never dropped a pot.
Mt. Abu has hills, forests, lakes---all the perks of an Indian hill station, and of course very popular with honeymooners and other vacationers. Interestingly, we saw very few other foreigners, which made a nice change. We took a two-seater paddleboat out on the lake; at first I wished we had got one of the fancy swan-shaped ones, but after a half-hour of pedaling I was glad not to have to deal with the extra wind resistance! Our second day we went out to the famous Delwara Jain temples a couple of kilometers away---absolutely spectacular carving in white marble, incredibly ornate.
We touched down in Jaipur and then in Delhi (so I could go to the World Book Fair and Elena could finish up some sightseeing and then some shopping) on our way to Agra for another white-marble fix. Agra largely lives on the tourists who flock from all over India and all over the world to see India's iconic monument, the Taj Mahal; it's a very high-pressure town, from the rickshaw drivers who almost fight one another over your business the second you step off the train to the station shoeshine boys who pester you to clean your sandals until the second you step on the train to leave town. Whew!
Security has gotten quite a bit tighter at the Taj too; you can't even take in a cell phone, so those of us who didn't plan properly formed a surging squirming bottleneck to check them at the cloakroom. The Taj Mahal itself, though, is unspoilable. Elena and I tried to decide if it was the color of the marble, or the use of space so you never seem to be looking at just a piece of a building but always a deliberately designed vista of a building, or the way it just floats in the blue sky with no other buildings or objects in sight, or what. We couldn't really figure it out; it's just the way the Taj is.
—— Kim Plofker
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