Sunday, January 05, 2003

Leaving Jaipur three days before Xmas, we made a quick swing through the small town of Bharatpur, home of the Kaledeo National Park, a famed bird sanctuary and the place where it was first noted that the white-backed vulture was declining. Nesting sites in the park, even before the drought had kicked in full effect, had diminished to near about zero in Y2K -- and while we saw an Egyptian vulture while wandering the dusty backroads on heavy, steel single-speed Hero touring bikes, the white-backs were nowhere to be found. Even so, with the help of a local naturalist, we managed to make good work of Kaledeo, spotting dozens of Indian resident birds (the migrants have dispersed due to lack of water) and enjoying the countryside, spotting mongoose, nilgai (Indian antelope), spotted deer and other furred and feathered fauna in the company of our fine professional guide. The Acacia trees and dusk chorus of jackal reminded me a bit of Africa, where I visited Tanzania and Kenya with family many years ago.

The next day, we split Bharatpur for Agra and the Taj Majal. We arrived Xmas eve, and headed to take in the great building in the late afternoon. But we ran into a snag: All through our travels, C and I have been able to use our India residence permits to visit monuments at the cost to Indians. This has saved us many rupees, translating into a few dollars, but it's not until you get to the Taj that you really feel the need for a deep discount. As the Taj is the premiere tourism site for both foreign and domestic visitors in India, the government is very strict about the somewhat inflated prices hereabouts, which top out with US-type entry fees totalling a whopping $15/person. This would not be a big deal for most, but we were running a little short of cashish, and had anticipated as elsewhere that our money-saving residency documents would put us on par with the Indians, who pay about 50 cents for the privelege of visiting this famed monument.

We wheedled, and whined, and wheedled some more. We paid a few rupees bribe to enter a side alley, near the Taj Majal gardens, and to walk by the Yamuna River, where we saw a few storks and other wading birds plying the polluted waters. Then we went back to the ticket office and tried again to find some sympathy -- it was not forthcoming! Dumbfounded that we were being treated like the foreigners we are, we noticed a group of Kenyan youth standing at the gates arguing with the guards, and learned that they were in similar straits. Guests of the gov't, students at a local business college, this equally obvious team of non-Indians were also being denied their rightful discount. So we stood together, and waited for the "Big Boss" as he was dubbed by the guards, and finally I was led along with one of the Africans to the inner sanctum of the Taj Majal administrative offices.

I stood back to watch my fellow wheedler ply the chief bureaucrat behind the massive desk, but my play for obsequeince didn't last long. "What do you want?" the paunchy Indian demanded. I thrust forward our Indian "passports" and stammered something about being "guests of the government.... my wife, she's doing research... these work everywhere else...." Not at the Taj, it turned out. "You are not Indian," the bureaucrat observed. "You must pay the full booking!" Case closed.

Not so bright and early the following day -- Xmas, for those keeping score -- we knuckled under and paid the foreigner's entry fee, Rs 750, and when that bright white mausoleum with its gardens and reflective pools appeared out of the foggy December mist, we were happy we did. Elvis Costello has sometimes been credited with saying that "Writing about music is like dancing to architecture." Well, suffice it to say, the charms of the old Taj Majal made us want to dance.

That evening we caught a train back to our home away from home away from home -- Prem Singh's flat in New Delhi -- where we spent the past week. I'll save tales of train travel for another day. But stocked up with real English cheddar cheese, peanut butter, pasta and a few other essentials, including a nice wool shawl for me that complements C's Rajasthan purchase, we have returned to the mountains. It's nice to know that the two-day journey from Delhi is getting easier, and the roads seem a little less trecherous as we are familiar now with the hairpin turns they hold. We'll see how Dharchula welcomes us back now, won't we?