Back from the Punjab and into a capital fully ready for some event or other. The turnaround now is remarkable, though the current manifestation is lifeless and sterile. It's Gandhi's birthday and instead of a day of jubilation and rejoicing we see a day of closed shops and streets. Worse yet, the few food-serving places open can sell no beer - Gandhi didn't approve of liquor. The following day is yet worse - almost everywhere has been ordered to shut for the commonwealth opening ceremony. We conducted an idle protest by boycotting 'out' and staying in for most of the day. This trip on the Delhi-go-round has been a short one, marked by fun. While being here for the eve of the Games meant a day of shutters and closed signs, it also meant we could see friends and colleagues. It was great to catch up with a friend from Japan, even if we had to do some quick telephoning to find anywhere nearby selling coffee! We've also made more of an effort than last time to see sights, even in just two days.
In honour of Gandhi's birthday (though not on the day itself), we trekked to the National Gandhi Museum, and enjoyed being impressed, stunned and perturbed by the man who, along with an elephant and curry, represents India. His creed of non-violence and ability to inspire, calm and lead so many people was remarkable. Equally, some of his ideas were worryingly unrealistic or simply unjust with a stange patriarchal authoritarianism. You can't help but wonder what he would think of India today, and, had he lived, how his ideas would have changed the shape of the country. Might the caste system have been abolished in practice as well as theory? Would women be better off? Would India be a massive series of Ashrams, all spinning their own cotton and making their own clothes? Humayun's tomb was impressive as an indicator and sampler of early Mughal pomp. It's an enormous maesoleum built on an octagonal base - do the pictures remind you of anything? The site itself was wonderfully green and had children playing cricket outside and squirrels chasing one another inside. Large raptors wheeled and circled as is so common in India, while parakeets flitted and tweeted all around - just like Greenwich park! The Ba'hai Lotus Temple was our Petronas towers for India, twice we went but twice we were denied an entrance. Built for the Persian-descended (and very rich and influential) Parsis who follow the Ba'hai faith (aka Zoroastrianism), it is called the lotus temple on account of its unusual design which resembles the opening of a lotus flower and not at all the Sydney opera house. We arrived late one day and found it had closed leading us to share a motorickshaw to the metro with an Iranian (fittingly) who was odd in the childlike way that is so typical of middle eastern men and a young Afghani-German who the Iranian kept shyly hitting on. All a bit uncomfortable both temporally and socially, especially when the guy started running down India in the middle of a crowded metro train. The second time we took two hours to travel nine stations down two lines on the metro and gave up and came home. The line had just opened - literally that morning and it was also the line with the commonwealth opening venue on it. The whole system was crawling with army and police and everything was running as though it hadn't been finished (which of course, it hadn't). The whole thing was rather laughable and hopefully safe too. The Metro museum that we paused at on the way back home was a bizarre thing, though nicely done. One could view a mocked-up control room where the trains went around on a big display, there were examples of all the different colours of helmet for maintainance workers and who they signified. Strangest of all was a explanation board telling the story of why they chose broad gauge over the standard gauge common to other metro systems. It was quite evident that they held the government who made the decision in contempt for it and provided numerous examples of why it was a bad idea.
The trip to Agra was almost a day trip from Delhi - the YWCA are getting very used to us checking in and out like yo-yos. The three hour train journey turned into a five hour one, and the hotel had Oli singing 'Living in a Crack Den' every time we opened the doors, but major tourist sights rarely bring out the best in an area, and the Taj is probably the biggest - a huge erection in the name of love, or so they say. It was about six in the morning when we first saw it from our hotel rooftop, stuck behind the jumble of buildings that have sprung up on the doorstep. It wasn't such an edifying sight right then, but when we walked through the gates a little later, it made us eat our words. It's well placed, a little stroll through a large archway brings you quite suddenly to that classic, cliched view of it at the end of those long gardens. In the early light of the day it looks almost pinky and soft, as though it were some giant marshmallow from an insanely ambitious confectioners. The marble is cold and austere, even up close it remains in fairly good condition. The inside is pretty basic, but the effect relies on the unity and simplicity of the construction. It's not over-fussy or overdone, sticking to elegant design and a single colour and material. Note also the Arabic lettering on the walls - bigger at the top than the bottom to give the effect of being uniformly sized when you stand at the base. The towers were the best bit, so neat and concise as they spiralled into the sky, set off most perfectly by some migrating birds. By the time we were leaving it had started to be more obviously white, beginning to dazzle in the direct sunshine.
Does it deliver on the hype? Well, no, not really, but how could it ever? A stunning sight, yes, but not the world's greatest building. There are plenty of hassles, too, it is indeed a singularly difficult sight. The gates are staggered for entry, you can't bring food nor drink in with you and there's nobody selling it inside - a problem because there is no re-entry allowed. We can't see the play of the light change through the day because we can't get back in, are unwilling to collapse from dehydration inside and can't get a decent view from outside! With that plan scuppered, we retired for an astonishingly cheap breakfast and considered the fort. We decided we'd seen enough of them recently and enough indeed of Agra, so we skipped town on the first train we could and returned to Delhi. You see, dear reader, there simply wasn't anything else of interest. Monkeys, cows and dogs were battling with humans for the right to crap in the street and all sides seemed to be winning. Every shop was a cheap replica of the neighbouring one and the food looked mainly vile. It's one of the oddest things about India that they so rarely bother to try to conceal anything. So much is always out in the open and this is true of the Taj itself. Right up to the gates monkeys run riot across shit-stained streets and the whole area looks like a municipal dump with people in it, then one of the great buildings in the world pops up. In almost every country we've visited, the entrance areas and surrounds would be extremely clean and respectable, but in India this is rarely the case.
Our time in Delhi is drawing to a close, but we're determined to enjoy it as much as the city is trying to thwart us. In this vein we find ourselves in a slightly surreal and rather moneyed bar listening to some pretentious art-jazz with too much bass, watching an artist render a picture and drinking, for the first time in a long while, IPA. Unlike much of rich Delhi, this place has both character and cool. So many places around town have a rich, young clientele with horrendously vulgar tastes. More emphasis is placed on being served and being seen than the quality of food or drink. So it is that we come to places where battalions of waiters pull out your chair, bring you menus, pour your beer and wait on you hand and foot, yet all we can order is Fosters. The more one pays, the worse the food is, but we shall discuss this in our India round-up (coming soon folks!). Another frequent problem in India, especially Delhi, has bizarrely, been choice. With hundreds of millions upon millions of people, there's still remarkably few places to grab a beer and to a lesser extent, food. A night ago we were in Khan market, one of Delhi's trendiest areas, yet there were no real shops of interest and only a couple of drab bars. The one we chose in the end contained two delightfully misinformed young Indians who slagged off Singapore and Japan having never been outside India in their life, and seemed to think that Kerala was a backwards state with no infrastructure.
We've tied up many of our loose ends and by the time we leave tomorrow we will have done them all save that accursed Punjabi scimitar, hanging oo'er our heads like the sword of Damacles. (Neither the Post Office, nor DHL will send it back to England as it's more armament than ornament.) It's been long and at times annoying in Delhi, but then it always was going to be - this was our land of chores and of stuff to do. The important thing is that they are done. Stuff has been posted, suits have been measured, three new visas bought and supplies replenished. Some of it has been baffling, some of it frustrating and all of it time-consuming. But now we are finished and looking back, it's been a special time in the city.