India (1 of 3): Delhi and Agra

I’ll be posting my India trip in a series of three posts, one for each city. I’m trying to get caught up this weekend before I get back to work, but I don’t know if I can-I have over 1200 images to sort through! Here’s the first part-our arrival in Delhi and day trip to Agra.

What a trip! India is so many things-exotic and exhilarating, overwhelming, heartbreaking, beautiful. I can’t capture everything words but I’ll try. And, as promised, I have lots, and lots, of pictures.

When Jess and I booked our flights back in October we were going for super cheap since we also had to book our December trips around that time. Which meant we left Beijing around 11pm on a Saturday, arrived in Guangzhou, China around 2am, then had a five hour layover before our flight to Delhi, where we arrived around noon on Sunday. It took forever to get through immigration and get to our hotel but we got there around 3. Next issue: we knew we didn’t want to stay in Delhi, so I booked our trip to see the Taj Mahal in Agra the day after we arrived, then we were going to leave for Jodhpur. However, we really wanted to see the sunrise over the Taj Mahal. (Okay, I really wanted to see the sunrise over the Taj Mahal and didn’t really give Jess a choice.) However, Agra is a 3 hour drive from Delhi, so to ensure we arrived in time, the tour operator had to pick us up from our hotel at 2:30 am. Not fun. So we walked around a bit and got dinner across the street from the hotel, then came back and crashed so we could at least get a little sleep before leaving.

In hindsight, I would have booked another flight or train to Agra and spent a couple nights there instead of staying in Delhi and making a day trip. But we still enjoyed the tour a lot and our guides were great. Our driver, Prem, picked us up promptly at 2:30 am (did I mention A. M.?) and let us doze in the backseat most of the way. He stopped about halfway through at a small, lively roadside stand and introduced us to masala tea, to which I became instantly addicted. It’s similar to what we call chai, but so much better. When we reached Agra, we stopped to pick up our tour guide, Subhash, and then drove straight to the Taj Mahal. We got there at the perfect time. Subhash got us our tickets and showed us which line to wait in. There were several, including one specifically for foreign women. (There’s a security check at the entry and there’s always a separate line for women, even at the airport, for the body scanners.) We were the first in line, before the gates even opened at 6:30.

I can’t even describe how surreal it felt to be at the Taj Mahal. It’s been at the top of my list of places to go for years. It’s magnificent in its own right, but I’ve always been captivated by the story behind it as well. It was built as a grand mausoleum in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, by her husband Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor of India from 1628-1658. When Shah Jahan eventually grew ill, their son, Aurangzeb, declared himself emperor and imprisoned his father in Agra Fort until he died; he was then buried next to Mumtaz Mahal. Although they are buried beneath the structure, there are two sarcophagi representing them in the central chamber. Everything is carved of white marble in intricate designs and inlaid with semi-precious stones.

By the time we left, around 8:30, the whole place was packed with people. I’m so glad we got to see it early while it was still relatively quiet. After we left, we went to a local hotel for their breakfast buffet, then to Agra Fort.

After leaving we drove through Agra and stopped at a few local shops. The first was a workshop where they carve stone in the same style and patterns as the Taj Mahal. Everything is still done by hand. I wish I’d had more money-everything was gorgeous!

Driving through town, we saw cows and water buffalo everywhere, some roaming free, some tied near homes or shops. We kept snapping pictures, little knowing we would see them everywhere else we went this trip! Our guides told us the water buffalo milk was especially popular for its high fat content, and Jess wanted to try it, so they made a special stop to procure some fresh milk at a roadside shop.

 

We dropped of Subhash, then Prem drove us back to Delhi. He stopped on the way back (on his own time, not part of the tour, which we thought was really nice) so that we could walk around and see the India Gate memorial and the park surrounding it, then drove past the Parliament buildings before dropping us at the hotel. It was a fantastic day!

Spain, Day 13-Barcelona

Actually I’m posting this from the airport in Rome, where I have a 5 hour layover, but all the pictures are from yesterday, my last day in Spain (for now). I will definitely come back someday though. I think Barcelona is my favorite of the three cities I’ve been so far. I wish I’d been more organized; I was trying to find something to do Tuesday night when I got back there but all the things I wanted had to be booked in advance, like the monasteries, winery tours, Dali’s house. So Wednesday I decided to go see Park Guell:

After that I went back and wandered around La Ramba area for a while. This area is so much bigger than I thought, especially once you get off the main road. I found La Boqueria market, a gourmet paradise. I probably could have filled another suitcase with cooking supplies. They had stalls with spice, all kinds of flavored salts and olive oils, fresh fruit, dried fruits and nuts, candies, marzipan, vegetables, dates, honey, seafood, meats, even whole rabbits and pheasants and quail still covered in fur and feathers (I’ll spare you a photo of those). Basically, everything.

For now I’m actually looking forward to getting back to a normal routine for a while. The last couple months have been crazy!

Spain, Day 7-Granada

This was actually a couple days ago-I’m playing catch-up here. I’ll maybe get a couple short posts up tomorrow too.

Finally I got to see the Alhambra. I’ve wanted to visit this place since I first saw pictures of it in an art history class, probably 15 years ago almost. And it is-lovely is an understatement-but that’s how it feels-lovely. Almost every inch of the Nasrid palaces is carved with inscriptions, poems, geometrical patterns, or covered with colored tiles. Outside, the gardens are still maintained and full of flowers, and orange trees and small pools are everywhere.

I won’t get into all the gory details, but the history of it is quite fascinating too. The original fortress was small and built in 889 A.D. on the remains of Roman ruins, then evolved over time. If anyone is interested, this is a good overview of how Muslims came to what is now Spain and eventually developed their kingdom in Granada, including the Alhambra, before the last sultan was forced out by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in 1492. The palace, towers and gardens, even part of the bathhouse and other buildings remain, but the mosque was destroyed and replaced by a Catholic church-Iglesia de Santa María. What sticks with me most though, especially this week, is that this happened over 500 years ago, and yet, here we are, still persecuting Muslims for no reason. Will we never learn to learn from history?

Still, there is a strong middle eastern influence here; even the name of the region in southern Spain-Andalusia-comes from the Arab name-Al-Andalus.There are many shops devoted to tea, medicinal herbs, and spices (I keep wandering into them just because they smell so good.) There are silks and woven clothes and scarves and leather goods everywhere. There are tearooms, Turkish restaurants, and bars offering hookahs to smoke. All in all, it has a very different feel from Barcelona.

Spain, Day 1-Barcelona

Apparently, the flight to Spain is about the same length as to the U.S. I was so excited to be going to Spain I didn’t really think about that when I booked my tickets…Two long-haul international flights back-to-back is draining. But I fortunately got a seat in an exit row so I had plenty of room to stretch and good books to keep me company. I flew into Rome first to change planes and sadly that’s all I had time for. Probably for the best though as the Rome airport appeared to be one giant designer shopping mall with a few gates squeezed in here and there, and I don’t think my wallet could take it.

I arrived in Barcelona a little after 5pm Friday local time, managed to navigate the subway to la Sagrada Familia stop, then emerged into a light drizzle and turned in circles trying to figure out which direction to walk. My Airbnb host’s directions were pretty clear but I wasn’t sure if I’d come out of the right exit. I turned back and forth few times, then happened to look up…and up…and up. I knew the apartment was near the cathedral but it still startled me to find it looming over me!

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First view of la Sagrada Familia!
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Sidewalk cafes are all over here, some with little tents around them. There were a couple tables with people drinking coffee in the rain.

From there I was able to orient myself and found the apartment easily. Svitlana and her husband Uri were very friendly and welcoming. Svitlana knows little English and my Spanish is seriously rusty but we managed to understand each other. I pretty much crashed about 8pm as it was 3am for me. But that meant I was able to get up early this morning and go out sightseeing, and, oh boy, I did. I got breakfast at a little deli/bakery across the street:

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I walked around Sagrada Familia to admire the facades, then through a little park nearby. I needed some contact solution but none of the pharmacies were open yet so I kept walking, and walking. It was barely 9 and not many people were out. The weather was trying to be sunny, with sporadic bursts of light rain throughout the day, but it felt like spring to me. After Beijing, 55°F feels positively warm, and I have missed rain. Anyway, I had no particular destination, so every time I reached a corner I did a mental coin flip and headed that direction. At one point I saw an odd, iridescent,  cylindrical building at the top of a hill, so I set off to see what it was. On the way, I admired all the variations in architecture, then stumbled across an enormous open-air flea market with people selling everything imaginable: antique books, chandeliers, furniture, kitchen implements, clothes, shoes, miles of fabric and ribbon, as-soon-on-TV whatnots, you name it. It turned out to be Encants BCN, one of Europe’s oldest markets; the structure is new but the origins go back to the 14th century.

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The buildings are so beautiful and varied. Of course, I’ve gotten used to the standard, matching, communist block buildings in Beijing, so anything’s an improvement!

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I browsed around for a while, and when I came out the other side I was right next to the funny looking building, which turned out to be Torre Agbar, a huge office building that marks the area of the tech district. Up close, it’s even cooler. The outside is actually painted in big blocks of bright colors-green, orange, pink-but then the whole of it is covered in layers of glass shutters, some open, some closed, some frosted, some clear, making it look iridescent from a distance.

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From there I wound up wandering into this long pedestrian mall that stretched for blocks and blocks. There were tons of boutiques and restaurants and cafes, fruit stalls, flower vendors on the corners. It turned out to be La Poblenau, and I had walked a long way, so I took the metro back to my apartment for lunch and a very short nap. Then I went out to find Placa Catalunya, considered the heart of the city. The plaza itself I wasn’t too impressed by-a big circle filled with pigeons and tourists taking pictures with the pigeons.

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That little dog in the florescent raincoat (bottom right) was having the time of his life chasing birds!

But the area was pretty , with fountains and statues, and I ended up wandering through the little alleyways full of shops and bars and tapas restaurants. I wanted to try some tapas but it was too early for dinner so I kept walking down Las Ramblas, a lively pedestrian boulevard. I found a beautiful hand-made felt purse from one of the craft vendors so I won’t have to drag my backpack everywhere, admired some paintings, and watch the street-performer “statues” come to life:

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I ended up walking all the way down to the harbor at Port Vell, with some spectacular views, then back up the street again for dinner.

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Port Vell

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I had tapas and sangria at a little cafeteria in an alley off of La Rambla, and by the time I was done, the street was packed with tourists. Apparently it’s an evening hotspot. At this point I already had my 27,468 steps in for the day so I got the metro back to my apartment. My feet, they’re not so happy with me right now. Think tomorrow will be a bus tour day…

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So the guy in the bottom left made his own instruments out of 5 gallon buckets, frying pans, etc. Sounded pretty good too! The subways are full of music. Earlier I was on a train with a man playing the accordion. This afternoon, it was two guys with a saxophone and a keyboard. Street musicians everywhere too.

 

 

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