I have to be honest, India is undoubtedly the most exhausting and difficult country I have ever travelled to. I’ve never felt such a burning desire to escape a country I was visiting, nor developed such antipathy for its society. Its really quite an extraordinary state of mind to be in, considering every second day in India delivers a remarkable experience. The needlessly relentless honking, the complete absence of footpaths, the total disregard for pedestrian safety, the stenches of urine, the animal cruelty (aside from the bizarre veneration of cows), the piles of rubbish and shit (mainly from the cows), the haggling for tips and donations by priests and monks, the outrageous injustices of the caste system, the bureaucracy of buying train tickets and the unnavigable stations, the incessant staring, the hands that go suspiciously astray, the generally unhelpful locals (not all) and the constant calls of “hello my friend!” from random hawkers; they all add up to an overwhelming sense of frustration. But two things in particular irritate me about India: the treatment of tourists and the stupid money crisis gripping the entire country and ruining many people’s holidays!
Since foreigners take significant risk in travelling to India and plough huge amounts of money into the economy, I don’t think its too much to ask for the government to provide easy-to-find, objective tourist information offices at key transport junctions. When such offices do exist, they are usually hidden on station platforms or down side streets, while fake tourist offices designed purely to trick and rip-off tourists are permitted to operate nearby. The lack of English signage in touristic areas (like major train stations!) is extremely insensitive to our vulnerability and incomprehensible in a country where English is actually widely understood by the general populace. At train stations, ticket officers expect us to somehow discern the bewilderingly complex boards written in Hindi to determine the name, number and time of the train we desire. While they may offer some assistance, we’re still required to fill out a form while they recite the details to us; a needlessly convoluted layer of bureaucracy symptomatic of Indian society. I’ve found Indians in general (I must strongly emphasis “in general”) to be rather unhelpful and gruff, often brushing off my pleas for assistance dismissively as if I have outrageously interrupted their demanding work endeavours of sitting and staring into the abyss. India has the potential to become a tourism powerhouse, yet the intransigence of governmental services and the (general) unfriendliness of the locals means the country is clearly out-performed by its Southeast Asian competitors.
The ninth of November 2016 will forever be remembered as the day Western civilisation trashed its principles of liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy with Donald Trump’s despicable “win” (despite millions more people voting for Hillary). For those of us in India that day, it will also be remembered vividly as the start of a ludicrous cash crisis. Overnight, the Indian government announced that all 500 rupees ($10) and 1,000 rupees ($20) notes were no longer useable, invalidating 85% of currency in circulation instantly. India has severe problems with fake currency and collecting taxation in a cash-dominated society, which this dramatic course of action was intended to address. Personally though, I did not give a shit about these issues and was instead aggrieved by the immense inconvenience the decree caused. The government announced that banks would close for two days while ATMs were stocked with new 500 rupees and 2,000 rupees notes. But this is a country where the literal translation of its national name is incompetency. Predictably, the smattering of ATMs that did open over the next few days only dispensed old 100 rupees notes, which quickly dried up by mobs of desperate locals and tourists. Queues lasting for one hour were considered fortuitously short… to withdraw just 2,000 rupees ($40). I was incensed that foreigners could only withdraw the same amount as locals, even though our cost-of-living is so much higher. We don’t own houses in India, kitchens to prepare food in, local knowledge of fare prices in the markets or private vehicles; we must pay for accommodation, restaurant food and transport daily and almost always in cash. Like most other backpackers, for about a week I was forced to roughly halve my daily calorie intake, walk for several kilometres with heavy luggage on chaotic Indian roads (rather than pay a dollar for a tuk-tuk) and forego visiting places in the simple absence of cash. Insultingly, we were still charged foreign entrance fees to major attractions, sometimes TWENTY times what locals paid and up to half our daily ATM allowance!
After about eight days, the tremendously inconvenient 2,000 rupees notes starting trickling into circulation, which relieved the queues somewhat. The cash crisis is ongoing and approaching one month as I write this entry, though unofficial word on the street is that it will take seven months to completely resolve. The government was grossly unprepared for their plan, having failed to print and distribute sufficient currency. Astonishingly though, the Indian public have overwhelmingly supported the policy and Prime Minister Nahendra Modi, who seems to enjoy blind adulation from his people. In advanced countries like Australia, Germany, Great Britain and the US, such tremendous incompetency would surely precipitate the downfall of a government.
While not the absolute worst place to endure the cash crisis, Agra was still a terrible city to travel to in the absence of money. The sole purpose of visiting this industrial hub was to see the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, which have the two most expensive entrance tickets of all historical attractions throughout India. Depressingly, I sacrificed almost all my precious cash on entrance tickets and skipped meals as I focused specifically on the reason for my visit. It was probably helpful I had food poisoning on my first night in Agra, because the experience certainly dampened my subsequent appetite. While I disagreed with the usual characterisation of Agra as a wretched city of rampant poverty, squalor and pollution, it was certainly a rather boring and ugly destination in the absence of heritage buildings and colourful bazaars.
Agra Fort is virtually the only component of the functional old city still in existence, though its certainly a fabulous compound of structures. The Fort was constructed by the Mughals, a clan originating from Afghanistan, and became the capital of an empire that dominated the entire Subcontinent. The Mughals were the first dynasty to achieve hegemonic rule over India in nearly 2,000 years, largely because of its policy for religious tolerance. Since Agra Fort was an imperial and Islamic capital, its architecture is quite different to Rajasthani forts, which were the seats of mere Hindu kings. The symmetry of its opulent palatial buildings and beautifully manicured Persian gardens are characteristic of the Fort, as is its immense red sandstone walls.
The Taj Mahal thoroughly deserves its status as the most famous singular building on the face of the Earth – yet I was rather nonplussed. I think lifelong overexposure to images of the Taj Mahal (combined with a foul mood!) muted my ability to be amazed by the wonder. While the Taj is staggeringly beautiful in its perfect proportions, immensity and exquisite details, the building’s appearance was of course exactly as I expected. And viewing the Taj with countless hordes of other tourists obviously stifled the intended romanticism of Shahjahan’s masterpiece. The Mughal emperor constructed the white marble mausoleum in honour of his favourite wife, after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child. The Taj Mahal is therefore perhaps the ultimate expression of love, which from my perspective is a fairly boring justification for its construction (certainly in comparison with the Great Wall’s purpose of protecting China from marauding Mongols and the Coliseum satisfying the blood-thirsty Roman need for gladiatorial battles). I visited the Taj in the late afternoon and was rewarded with brilliant blue skies and a pleasant sunset. Coinciding my trip to Agra with the full moon, I also purchased an additional ticket for a special night viewing of the Taj under moonlight. While the scene was somewhat underwhelming, it was still pleasant to view the Taj with only 20 other people in the compound.
The difficulty of obtaining tickets on the incredibly popular Agra to Varanasi train route compelled me to travel to Gwalior first in order to reach Hinduism’s holiest city. I arrived in the late morning, permitting ample time to visit the city’s World Heritage listed fort (yet another) before my evening departure. After feasting on tandoori chicken, naan and lassi at a hotel that joyfully accepted credit card, ending an 18 hour fast, I walked the length of Gwalior to reach the fort. Shaped similar to a spear, Gwalior Fort occupies a narrow ridge that spans several kilometres and its fortification walls provide spectacular views over the colourful neighbourhoods. It was here that hordes of locals requested photographs with this tall, strange looking white specimen. Throughout India, foreigners are made to feel like celebrities as locals desperately try to take selfies with them. Admirably, I usually grant their wishes; though it depends on my patience. The people seemed to be especially inquisitive in Gwalior, so I assume the city is unfrequented by tourists. Gwalior Fort’s most distinguishing structure is a palatial complex oddly festooned with yellow and blue tiles depicting ducks in water on the facades. At this point, I was most certainly unable to afford the lofty foreigner entrance ticket, so I was left to admire the ducks as locals walked passed and inside the building. I also observed two remarkably beautiful stone Hindu temples from their perimeters and may have angrily ranted to some of the security guards about the unfairness of the situation.
I should clarify that this negatively toned entry was predominately written while I was still travelling in North India; at the height of the cash crisis, in the aftermath of an episode of food-poisoning and while I was simply exhausted from incessant traffic, hassling and pollution. I’m now travelling in South India, which I’m exonerating from all aforementioned criticisms because its an unutterably different region to the North. But there’s still Varanasi to discuss before we venture southward...
That’s all for now,