Rapid Travel Chai welcomes a new correspondent, Hao Tran, a third year student at Brown University, spending part of his summer interning for a multinational company based in Mumbai. Follow him on twitter or reach him by email.
While news organizations around the world are cutting back on foreign correspondents, Canada’s CBC just laid to rest its excellent Dispatches show (listen to the final episodes), Rapid Travel Chai is expanding coverage. Every day there are half a dozen things I want to write about – then daily life intervenes. So to have a fellow traveler volunteer to share with readers is a delight.
Here is Hao’s first post, from a trip to the Taj Mahal.
Sometimes savvy travelers get stuck with others that aren’t quite as relentless on the road.
We were in Delhi for a weeklong business trip, after spending more than a month in Bombay. Our company booked us on IndiGo, the only profit-making airline in India – which is really not too difficult when its rivals include Kingfisher. IndiGo does not offer a frequent flyer program. When the day for our Agra tour arrived, my three colleagues and I woke up at 4:30 AM to drive to the host city of the Taj Mahal.
Upon arriving, our driver told us: “No guide, no shop.” I understood that he was advising us to stay away from the heckling crowd of eager tour guides. Unfortunately, my colleagues did not heed our drivers’ advice.
As soon as we left the parking area, a younger looking “government-licensed” guide approached us. He was waving a yellow Uttar Pradesh tourism handbook and spoke perfect, disarming English. Despite expressing my lack of enthusiasm, my older colleague was more inclined to accept his offer to guide us. With our chatterbox of a guide alongside, we each paid our standard entrance fee of 750 rupees and retrieved our shoe covers and complimentary chilled water bottles.
While the tour of the majestic Taj and its surrounding mosques was enlightening, the aftermath was not so much.
Arif, our tour guide, led us into an obscure air-conditioned shop near the entrance of the West Gate. He shut the large wooden door behind us and we were sat down in four comfy chairs in front of a gallery of miniature marble souvenirs. It was a perfect setup. Two of my colleagues spent 10,000 rupees (170-180 USD). Arif claimed he was part of a hardworking family-run business, but the lack of carving equipment and no clear indication of calloused hands gave it away. We later found out that the collective market value of the items were worth no more than 1000 rupees from street vendors just outside the door. Photos and memories are enough for the weary, light-traveling intern.
Upon reentering the parking area to leave, an older Australian passerby exclaimed that I was “clever enough” to not be carrying a plastic bag full of souvenirs.
TIP: If you’re in Agra, it might be worth checking out the Agra Fort (similar to the Red Fort in Old Delhi), Akbar’sTomb (the grandfather of the emperor who commissioned the construction of the Taj), or the Fatehpur Sikri – another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visit the Taj at sunrise to see it in a shade of pink or at sunset to see it shrouded in a hue of yellow. Avoid visiting on a Sunday as most Indian businesses have a Monday-Saturday workweek.