20 February 2020
I can’t remember why we decided to go from Agra to Delhi by car. It may have had something to do with flight availability. Anyway, our Toyota SUV came for us at about 11 a.m. after we’d had a spirited discussion with the hotel cashier at bill time about being gassed. Michelle’s overview of polyurethane’s effect on the human lung won us a dinner credit. Then it was into the impossible traffic along the road Trump’s motorcade will follow on 24 February.
Trump’s Indian visit will include Agra where the Taj Mahal will be closed for the day to all but his official party. All the streets on his route are being cleaned and planted with fresh mature trees. The existing dusty leaves will be hosed clean. Fences are being painted to hide rust. Spaghetti tangles of electric wires are being taken down and replaced with orderly bundles. A work force of thousands was making footpaths where there was only mud previously. New, fancy electric light poles were being erected. People will be under curfew when his motorcade comes through and kept right away from the streets he will see. The entrance roadway to the Taj Mahal was already being tarted up when we visited and there was a smell of fresh paint everywhere. In other words, Donald won’t see the real Agra.
The same type of farce was enacted when President Bill Clinton visited. He commented that Agra was a ghost town because there were obviously no people living there. However, when he returned for a private visit after his presidency, the place had miraculously become over-populated and surprisingly filthy. On that occasion the only concession made to him was a few accompanying cops while he strolled around beguiled by the saris, muttering “I did not have sex with those women, either.”
As we approached Delhi, the traffic made Agra look like a quiet country town. I must pay a tribute to our driver who had been outstandingly skilful in combining dodging with safety. Coming into downtown Delhi there was a sharp left turn with a traffic light perched up high among the trees, which you don’t notice until you’re virtually past it. 50 metres further on the cops had set up a well-manned trap. I suspect they work the traffic light and when they switch it to red the next cars to arrive are guilty of a ‘serious travel offence’. Our driver was summoned for a dressing down and a fine of 5000 Rupees (about A$115 – a huge sum to a local with an ordinary job like driving). We could see our man in earnest conversation with one of the cops – who dress like soldiers to make themselves look more menacing. Our driver came rushing back to the car to borrow 500 Rupees from us. He’d done a deal for an ‘on the spot fine’, pay now thank you, all forgotten. On your way sir!
All over India cricket is an obsession. As soon as you say you’re from Australia, Indian men start talking cricket. They all mention Shane Warne, Glen McGrath and Steve Smith, but above them all, like a major Hindu god, is Ricky Ponting.
My last visit here was 20 years ago when the most popular car was the Ambassador – in reality a Morris Oxford unchanged for about 50 years. Now they’ve all but disappeared, mostly replaced by the Suzuki Swifts, followed by small Toyotas. Aftermarket bumper bars are fitted to the rear of most cars for obvious reasons, with dents on them like notches on Don Giovanni’s bedpost. Serious motor accidents are relatively rare in the inner cities. There isn’t room for them.
Buying from Indian retailers follows a set pattern. The first announcement of the price is delivered quickly, with the shopkeeper averting eye contact. The buyer’s response, which is generally half the asking price, must be delivered with a scoff and one step towards leaving. The shopkeeper then puts on a face that looks as though he has a stomach complaint and mutters his best price. The response is to offer about 10 percent less than that and flash the money. The shop keeper grunts, nods, wraps up the purchase in a barely-there plastic bag and the deal is done. Both parties are happily dissatisfied.
Guides take tourists to government approved, clean, air conditioned, neatly and profusely stocked shops where the tourists are ripped to shreds and the guides get a commission. But if you persist, you can rough it in the peoples’ markets where you dodge honking vehicles, cows, buffeting crowds, shit, dust and yelling. But if you want Indian emersion, this is it. And it’s nothing short of wonderful.
On one such adventure in an Agra street market, Michelle was sharply told by a local woman to cover her bar arms and neck because it was obscene. Michelle promptly bought a scarf, took her advice and then noticed that all the women stopped scowling at her. Yet large Indian ladies in saris don’t mind showing stomachs and generously proportioned underarm saddlebags.