As you can see by the photos on my last blog post and facebook update we made it to the infamous Taj Mahal. So glad we did, as it's one of the more positive memories I will take home with me from this country. Moreover, we learned that in only a few years access to the Taj will be restricted to viewing from a distance and tourists will no longer be allowed to go inside, as we did. I foresee myself saying to a grandchild one day, "When I was your age I touched the Taj Mahal." Once in a lifetime experience, for sure, as I highly doubt I will ever return to the crazy planet of India.
Another highlight of Agra I will recall for many years to come is seeing the Agra Fort. It's huge. And we only saw maybe 20% of it since the rest is closed for restoration and occupied by some of India's military forces. We were lucky to visit on a clear day and we could see the Taj from the top of it!
Even though our driver Ballbinder got angry at us for taking too long at each monument in Agra (and mad at us for wanting the A/C turned on in the car- despite the fact we paid extra for a car with A/C) we had a good time in Agra. Our driver “punished us” by not allowing us to visit any other monuments before driving to Jaipur, but still we were happy with the day. We didn’t need to see anymore. Jokes on you Ballbinder-grouchy-pants!
Next stop – JAIPUR!
Our first landmark was the wind palace, which isn’t much more than a facade, but pretty to look at from the outside! Apparently it was built so that the wives of royalty could look out at the street activities and view special parades. Evidently the Muslim influence resulted in these women being prohibited from showing their faces in public.
Next up was the Amber Fort where we hopped on an Elephant who carried us to the top of the hill the fort sits on. The Amber Fort was amazing and we appreciated having a guide who was knowledgeable (we never intended to have guides for either the Taj nor Jaipur, but the travel agent (more on her later) who arranged our driver and hotels booked them anyway and charged us extra without telling us… But in the end we were happy with the Jaipur guide as he was much more knowledgeable than the broken record who followed us around the Taj for 2 hours. I guess 1 for 2 isn’t so bad… This is India, after all).
Do I sound jaded? I don’t remember having so many negative things to say about any other country I’ve travelled. Maybe it’s because I worked SO HARD for the past 2 years to save the money I needed to travel here. Maybe it’s the chaos, or the fact I’ve been sick and low on energy since we landed here. Maybe it’s that I’ve realized I’m not a huge fan of Indian cooking, and I’m mildly hangry (hungry/angry) most of the time. But I think mostly it’s that I value customer service and am disappointed that despite taking every caution possible we seem to get ripped off at every opportunity. I’ve noticed the culture here seems to focus on the NOW gratification rather than the long term payback. For example, of they can steal a few thousand rupies by conning you NOW they aren’t worried about the horrible reviews to follow on trip advisor, Facebook, blogs, etc. that will no doubt tarnish their reputation and business over time. Even the upkeep on hotels is shotty at best. Rather than get the job done right, they get it done quickly and poorly which has long term disadvantages. For example, if a sink needs some caulking added, they might add some… But smear it all over the mirror in the process. Rather than quickly clean it with a rag as we would, they leave it. The caulking hardens, is impossible to remove later, and leaves an unpleasant impression on a foreign tourist paying close to $100/night for their room. Hence, more poor reviews and dissatisfaction.
Our travel agent is another prime example of such thinking. Her name was Nishu and she is/was the go-to girl for all of the bookings made by the Canadian consulate. Moreover our friends in Chandigarh had used her countless times and been very happy with the services she offered. So, by extension, we trusted her. Big mistake. We asked her only to arrange a train trip, driver and hotels for us to start with the promise of more bookings to come if we were happy with the arrangements she made. She knew we had intended to travel here for another month, at least. Rather than take the opportunity to impress us, she charged us extra for guides we did not want (we had ALREADY arranged for a guide who was a very good friend of a man we trusted in Chandigarh to take us around Agra and had to cancel him once we realized why Nishu had booked- of course we felt terrible for our friend’s guide). In the end we could have overlooked the “guide misunderstanding” had she not tried to COMPLETELY rip us off on our 3 night stay in Jaipur. When we arrived in Jaipur our driver took us to a 5 star hotel were guests of his almost always stay. We soon realized our voucher had a different hotel name and it was a brand our driver was unfamiliar with. Red flag. He obtained directions and we tried to maintain a positive outlook as we drove outside the gates of five star paradise… Shortly later we arrived at a dumpy looking hotel with dirty yellow towels, no free wifi (as we told nishu we needed), a nasty shower and a mattress that was no more than 2 inches thick. Knowing we were paying close to $90/night this was NOT acceptable. When I approached the manager of the hotel to ask him what their rates were he informed me RACK rates were no more than 1,900 rupies but that they ALWAYS give a discount. Nishu had charged us 3,800 rupies and we know she wasn’t paying anywhere near rack rate. We were furious. We phoned her immediately and she argued with us for a few minutes insisting the hotel must not be sooo bad, but eventually she realized we were not going to back down and arranged for us to be moved to another hotel the next day. Chris ventured out to find some some pizza so we could proceed to eat our feelings while I used the one hour free wifi I managed to wrangle after 30 minutes of negotiations with the manager. The hotel we were moved to the following day was MUCH nicer. Night and day difference from the previous night’s experience!! Speaky wheel gets te grease in India… Hard to believe that had we not insisted she rectify the situation she would have simply let us stay in the nasty hotel while she pocketed a few thousand rupies a night for her trouble. Needless to say we will be making all of our own bookings from here on in! We have told our friends in Chandigarh about our experience and of course they were horrified. I’m sure Nishu will miss out on future bookings that may have been referred to her had she not been so shortsighted, and I hope the consulate hears of our experience and thinks twice before trusting her advice in the future. Like I say… Some people here have very little concept of long term consequences for short term gratification. India has a lot to learn to compete with the global economy and meet tourism standards world wide to attract more dollars and jobs for their economy.
The bright side of Jaipur was buying myself a shiny new Ruby ring. I’m holding my breath that it’s the real deal but won’t be able to find out until I get home. I felt like I could trust the salesman who helped me pick it out (which I hope wasn’t a mistake). I keep wanting to give the Indians I meet here more and more chances to show me the love that I KNOW lives here… But India is a tough nut to crack, I’m quickly realizing.
Today, even as I write this post from the beautiful beaches in Goa I am still not confident I can return home feeling like India has satisfied my hunger for her love and peace. I guess that’s why We pulled the plug today and booked tickets to Bali. We’re leaving in T-11 days. Let’s hope India can redeem herself before then. In the meantime, I will do my best to keep my heart open, let go of the negative things I have seen from her thus far, and focus only on the beauty she HAS shared. For that, I will be forever grateful.