We said good bye to the Wyndham Grand after two days. We enjoyed the luxury but to be honest it was just a bit over the top for us. Nice to experience a hotel that’s a cross between a Saudi princes’ bordello and an ancient Mughal city - but we don’t always need that height of luxury, and if you don’t come from that strata, it can be a bit wearying – all that obsequiousness from the staff.
We first drove to the ‘baby Taj Mahal’ or the tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah sometimes also called the jewel box. It is on the opposite bank of the Yamuna river. We were early enough to beat heat and the worst of the tourist rush. It’s beautiful little tomb made by Noor Jahan – wife of Jehangir – for her parents. The craftsmanship and architecture of these places continues to astonish, even when you think you’ve overdosed on it.
And that was our last stop in Agra though there is still lots more to see – I guess, like so much here, I have to leave it for the next visit.
Jaipur, the capital of the desert state of Rajashtan, is just about 250 kms away, but with Indian traffic, it took us about four and a half hours to reach the city and then about another half an hour to find our hotel – just a doorway on a busy unprepossessing street and you’re in the courtyard of an old haveli. This is the Alsisar Haveli run by an old landowning princely family – its their private palace converted to a wonderful hotel – Rajasthan is full of such places, but this has to be one of the most charming. A haveli is an old mansion typical of Rajasthan. It has wonderful terraces, patios, walkthroughs, and little courtyards. An army of servants are around to fulfil every slight demand of the guests and keep the place running like an ancient palace.
Our suite has original antique furniture, gorgeous heavy doors inlaid with mother of pearl, cool marble floors, and a giant carved bed. There’s also a little pool in which we tried to keep up our lap swimming but it’s only about 15 meters long.
Sunday morning we first went to the city palace, the home of the Maharaja of Jaipur. Lots of splendour, a textile museum with great robes. It had a pyjama the size of a Dutch kitchen – it was made for one of the maharajas who was a giant of a man – 7 feet tall and weighing in at 226 kg. Such wealth and beauty to see.
Later we went to see the Jaipur observatory, Jantar Mantar. It is really incredible to see what they knew and could do at that time. The instruments were built to measure the movement of the stars and the distance to the sun, and some of them are as big as apartment buildings.
I took the afternoon off as my foot was hurting which gave Dheera time to go shopping, one of her favourite hobbies. She came back with beautiful shawls as samples for her new business and stories of the gemstone shop she visited.
Dheera talking now: the gemstore Nico mentioned is The Gem Palace, jewellers to the old kings, and internationally famous, visited by royalty and movie stars – they have pictures of Beatrix among others, shopping with Maxima and Willem Alexander. The place is described as an Aladin’s cave, and beautiful though it is, it’s a bit out of our range. No matter – it’s enough to just go see places like that occasionally.
Last night we went to Chokhi Dhani which was billed as a virtual village and I thought it would be good for Nico to have a village experience – even if it was a fake one. But it turned out to be a tourist trap dud. We got a village style Rajasthani dinner served at breakneck speed on leaf plates and mud glasses. And later had a bit of a wander to look at the traditional dancers and child performers. But it was full of Indian and foreign tourists and every one working there were just going through the motions of serving or dancing – but their eyes were tired and dead and it was a pretty unpleasant experience.
We don’t know if it was the food there or at the dhaba (truckside road stop restaurant) we had lunch the day before or simply the heat and exhaustion, but Nico is down with the bug again. It’s always hard to know what causes these things, but for anyone travelling in India, especially in this hot rainy season, getting the fever and the runs is just an occupational hazard. We had lots of plans for Jaipur – there are as many things to visit here as there are in Agra – not to mention some of the most amazing textile and jewellery shopping there could be anywhere in the world. But we’ll see how far we get.
It’s a bit of a shame as this is our last full day here to see the sights – tomorrow we make our way back to Delhi and then to Bombay and then to Amsterdam. So we’re on our way out. I will certainly miss it though I’m dying to see my girls again. But I always feel India is just a step away, and know I’ll be back before long.
We left Delhi as planned at seven in the morning. Again an invigorating drive. Being in a car in India is sometimes like being in a playstation game where the object is to avoid as many obstacles that are coming towards you from all directions. Backseat driving is pointless and wearying – better to just put your faith in the driver and enjoy the scenery.
We had found a stunning bargain on the internet for the Wyndham Grand 5 star hotel in Agra. So we booked ourselves in for a couple of nights – the hotel is a cross between the Arabian Nights and the kind of architecture all around this amazing historical city.
Our first stop was the Taj Mahal, which defying all efforts to reduce it to chocolate box clichés, is still – even in the 40 degree monsoon heat and with thousands of noisy Indians enjoying a public holiday – so beautiful it makes you cry to look at it.
It must be the most beautiful building in the world. The architecture, the colours which change with the changing angle of the sun, the indescribable workmanship – it literally takes your breath away.
We got through 4 litres of water in two hours but it’s hard to tear yourself away from the Taj Mahal. But Dheera says she never says goodbye to it because she knows that somehow, sometime, we’ll be back.
After the Taj we visited a factory where they made the stone inlays in marble as they did at the Taj. The factory owner told us his family were actually descendants of the people who made the inlays at the Taj. They did have some beautiful things including a table inlaid with semi precious stones in the shapes of animals and flowering creepers – two artists spent a year making it so it was a steal at 5000 euros, but no room in the suitcase unfortuntately.
That evening we had a lovely dinner – no avoiding Muglai cuisine here at the heart of the ancient Mughal capital, and you just can’t go wrong with biryani or tandoori.
The next day, we first visited the ancient abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri. The main curse of visiting these beautiful places in Agra are the dozens of relentlessly pursuing guides who don’t leave you alone and a considerable part of just getting in means running the gauntlet of being chased by these guys till you feel you’re running from a swarm of bees.
But once we were in, it was beautiful – after the crowds at the Taj yesterday, this place is an oasis of serenity. The two of us were alone for much of it and had lots of freedom to look around at least at first. That changed when we entered the Mosque which was a clattering noisy bazaar – maybe like it would have been centuries ago when this city was alive – but in those days, they wouldn’t have had a white man to target the way they do now. No matter how often you tell people you do not need their assistance it does not help.
This place is often ignored by tourists doing a quick trip to the Taj but it’s truly wonderful and certainly worth visiting though perhaps not always at this time of year. It’s very humid and hot and you need to make sure you’re drinking constantly or you’ll end up with heatstroke. After we completed our visit we drove back to Agra. Had a lunch pause and set out to the Agra Fort. Temperatures had increased now to serious heights for a by nature sweaty Dutchman. We decided to take an audio tour and it was very good. Good information and entertaining. The Fort also has such incredible buildings. It took us through the various gates, courts, pavilions and thrones. In places like these – the lost grandeur is highlighted not only by what you see, but what you miss – the great peacock throne of Akbar, the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the paintings, miniatures, furniture that would have brought palaces like these alive. The narrow stairways of the harem are now stinking of piss and the wells are covered with mesh but its an exercise in imagination to try to make these places come alive again in your mind’s eye.
Two hours at a time is about the limit in heat like this, so its just as well we have this superb air conditioned room to come back to - the king size bed is as big as a raft. My advice to anyone who comes to Agra – splash out on a good hotel – you’ll need a refuge after a day of sightseeing.
Dheera has realized the benefits of telling all and sundry that we’ve just got married and are on our honeymoon – the word in Hindi - Shadi seems to have magic properties to it in India – she only has to mention that we're recently married and on honeymoon and pooffff our room is upgraded to suite (Claridges in Delhi - whooooeeeee gorgeous) or we are suddenly rung up at 10.45 at night by room service to say they've made us a cake!! - here in the Grand in Agra –
Last night as we were recovering from a massive biryani meal and nearly asleep, they arrived with a frothy cream and chocolate concoction with a chocolate sign that read: CONGRATULATI-
(because they'd run out of room on the chocolate sign). We didn't know what to do with it so asked them to store it for us and today got them to pack it and then took it to our driver at tea time so he could share it with the other drivers there.
Anyway - funny how sentimental Indians are about marriage - and Dheera says she’s enjoying the looks on their faces and occasionally their "YOU maam? got married? Just now?” Meaning that everyone is super surprised to see people at our age who just got married. And then she throws in a casual mention of our four children – she gets joy at their visible confusion.
What, already internet available again? How come? It’s a luxury I’ve learned these last days not to take for granted. On Saturday Shabnam arrived in Delhi. Meeting her again was a real wedding gift. When Shabnam and Dheera are together I only have to observe. The talking will be done by the two ladies. It took a while before the decision was made what we would go and see. Some 11 possible variations had been discussed beforehand and also a small visit to the bank had to be fitted in. We started at the bank. Though that may sound boring for me everything here in India is a new experience andI’ve never been to a Dutch bank where you are greeted like an old friend, where they serve you tea and where you bring a gift for the girl who’s giving you personalized service and making all sorts of allowances for official forms that need to be signed – including sending them to your home address by a peon. The girls were getting excited as the next stop was Khan Market and that meant shopping. We had a little lunch first. After that we split up. I visited a bookshop and bought a new shirt and then went back to the hotel for a swim. The ladies started shopping and went to the beauty parlour. They were back in time for cocktails in our room and then Shabnam went off and Dheera and I had a pretty good Chinese meal at the restaurant downstairs – she’s convinced that Chinese food in India is better than Chinese food in Holland – and who am I to contradict? The next day - Sunday morning - we first drove to the Qutub Minar. The tallest and oldest tower in India built by the Mughals. It was my first taste of Mughal architecture and it blew me away. How did they manage to build such an incredible carved tower in the 12th century? No machines, no nails, nothing except human inenguity. We then drove off to Old Delhi. What life!! We stopped and visited the Jamma Masjid mosque. Again amazing architecture and a good view over Old Delhi. It was time for lunch and we stopped at Moti Mahal the place for a tandoori. We stopped at some sportshops to by sport shoes and gear and then met up with Rani, who used to attend Shabnam’s slum school in Delhi when Dheera was teaching there 13 years ago. She’s now married and she brought her husband and 3 kids – all of them on a motorbike – they travelled 50 kms round trip to meet us for a few minutes on the street. Then it was back to Khan Market where Dheera had signed me up for a head oil massage. I was told that in India it is an absolute must to have a massage and never having had one they thought it was a omission in my education. I have to say it felt great and I tried not to feel too strange about sitting in a beauty parlour with women having their hair done all around me. It was my first head massage, and most definitely my first visit to a beauty parlour!! Don’t tell my navy colleagues. The next morning we left early for the northern state of Himachal Pradesh in order to avoid the Delhi morning traffic. We were headed for Kasauili were we had booked a room for 2 nights. The drive went swiftly and we arrived just after lunch. For a Dutch man, it’s always a thrill to see hills – and her we were in the foothills of the Himalayas. Lots of green forested hills, covered in a moving mist. But still, like the rest of India, there was life everywhere: busy little markets, cows on the road, water buffalo, women in bright colours working in the fields, cycle rickshaws moving along the road piled two meters high with mysterious bundles, men standing around and staring at nothing in particular – there’s always something to see out of the window. The hotel was a kind of spa resort and they were offering massages – and of course, now that I was initiated, Dheera insisted that I try the full body massage – with four hands. It was an absolute must she said. And when she told the masseur that I’d never had a massage in my life, he looked as if she’d told him I’d just landed from Mars. Apparently no Indian can imagine a life without a massage at some point. But first we had a little walk in the neighbourhood – it was pretty misty which is a shame because everytime the mist lifted a bit we could see that the hills are beautiful and the views are spectacular. Back at 5 p.m. for the moment supreme. I have to say the massage was nice but not as spectacular as expected. Maybe I am too Dutch for it or maybe I just need some more massages to really start appreciating it. The dinner we had at Baikunth was very good. The next day was a lost day. Mist and rain for the whole day. We drove to the Mall of Kasauili but it was pouring with rain and most shops were closed. The market was very small and after a chai and coffee we drove back in the rain to our hotel room. The only thing to do was give the driver the day off and relax in the room with a book and room service – and considering how busy it’s been, it wasn’t a bad thing at all. In the evening it somewhat cleared so we where hopeful for the next day. We had another great meal - Tandoori Trout a real treat. The next day the weather had not improved. Mist and rain, we intended to drive further north and did but the weather did not improve. The hills and valleys are beautiful but if you cannot see anything it loses its charm. We estimated that the weather would not improve in the coming days and therefore made a drastic decision which was to break off the trip in the Himachal Pradesh and turn back to Delhi and head for Agra and Rajasthan instead. So some 8 hours later we arrived back in Delhi in good old Claridges. Dheera uttered the magic words: marriage and honeymoon and they upgraded us free to a wonderful suite which we are enjoying right now. There are a million pleasures and sights waiting for us outside, but right now, nothing can seem to beat a really good shower, a gin and tonic and the luxury of our room. Tomorrow its an early start for the Taj Mahal. Photo's kan be seen HERE.
Ahmedabad and Delhi
After our Bombay experience we took the early train to Ahmedabad. A journey which took us some 7 hours. It started off with a fight between porters over who was going to carry our suitcases. The trip was wonderful. The landscape quickly changes after leaving Mumbai. If you put a stick in the ground it will probably grow. Loads of people live alongside the train rails, their entire life takes place there. Every train station we pass is full of life. In Ahmedabad we are picked up by Dheera's friend Mala in her brand new car. By the end of the day, she'd been bumped into twice and she had also run into a pile of stones - so three scrapes on a bumper that was just a day out of the showroom. Traffic here is far worse than in Bombay - hard though it is to believe. We were staying with Mala, her sister Bela and Mala's daughter Nirali. Three of the sweetest persons I have ever met. Such hospitality and kindness is hard to describe for those not used to Indian hospitality. In the evening we visited the beautiful stepwell of Adalaj. Adajal Stepwell l That night my introduction to India started. My stomach started to rumble and before I knew it I felt sick/ Vomiting and diarreahea all night. I woke up looking so ragged that the whole house was concerned - they took me to the doctor who immediately gave me antibiotics, and all day I had 4 girls taking care of me, so I was lucky and recovered fast. The next day we went to Mala and Bela's workshop where they make some beautiful textile toys and cushion covers. But more important that morning we saw the birth of Dheera Sujan going into business. A man from a village close by came to show the silk products they made - some incredible beautiful stuff. After business it was time for pleasure and we drove of to the Ghandi Ashram Museum. Very impressive and moving museum to walk and read through. The area along the river is beautiful as well. In the afternoon we packed and around 4 we left for the night train to Delhi. For me sleeping on a train was again a first time experience and I think I will need a bit more practice before I am as comfortable with it as most Indians. Although the katjoekatjoek katjoekatjoek is a nice rhythm to fall alseep. Now only if the beds were a little softer. At seven in the morning we arrived in Delhi. After finding the right taxi we arrived at the very luxiorious Claridges hotel and had the shower we both very much felt entitled to. Foto's can be found HERE. We were perhaps a bit more enthusiastic over the very extravagant breakfast though because as soon as we'd reached our room again, Dheera's breakfast ended in the very luxe loo. And so it was her turn to get sick. We managed to go out for lunch to visit her Aunty Janak who is old, frail and sick but as soon as we came back, Dheera was in bed with a fever and we spent the afternoon waiting for a doctor to come - more antibiotics and sleeping. Lucky we're taking it in turns. The next day though all is fine - touch wood. Dheera says, its a lucky trip to India when you get sick only once, so hopefully we're done with it now. We met up with Shabnam, who took us to Humayan's Tomb and then to what Dheera calls her Mecca - Khan Market - some of the best shopping in Delhi. I'd pretty much finished in an hour and went back to our nice hotel for a swim and relax while the ladies spent a couple of hours getting the works at the beauty parlour. Not a very ambitious day, but a pleasant one - and you can't be too ambitious in this heat, so we're pacing ourselves.
We will move into the Himachal Pradesh now and are not sure if we will have internet available at regular times. It may take some time before our next entrance.
Wedding photos available
If you want to have a look at our wonderful photos from the wedding go to
WEDDING PHOTOS DHEERA AND NICO
Preparing for India
After a really stupendous wedding day, we've spent the last couple of days trying to get the house back in order, enjoying the last days of having family in the house and looking at the first wedding photo which look terrific.
Chris was the first one to send over some really wonderful pics - he's a deft hand at portraits - and Hanne our photographer has sifted through her hundreds of pictures to get a selection of 300 shots.
We're now in the process of picking the best ones to put on a site and you'll all get a link to it real soon.
We are now busy packing for India. For me that is quite easy as I am not allowed to take much with me. Dheera has stated that my suitcase is for one purpose only - to take gifts for aunties on the way there and to carry the fruits of her shopping on the way back.
We're going to try to keep up this blog of our adventures in India that you can all follow and see that your generous gifts have been well spent Cheers, Nico
Ahmedabad and Delhi
Wedding photos available