Friday, April 4, 2008

En Route - Golden Triangle 3

We top and tail the second day with a Red Fort, first in Delhi, then in Agra. In Northern India, Red Fort’s a bit like High Street back home, there’s one in every town. By now, we’d be disappointed if it weren’t a million rupees, for us to get in, and fourpence, for residents. Acceptance is key. Karma, if you like.
You know, when you scatter crumbs on a pond, there’s a mad flurry of ducks, splashing and arguing, trying to grab a beakful? It’s like that, with the hawkers, when we put our noses round the gate. We are the bread on the water.
I say, as I always say, “Later...” and the boy, with an armful of postcards, says, “Promise? Look at my face.” He gestures. “See this face? Remember me. Ali. What’s my name?” “Ali,” I say, obediently. “Be careful in Fort, Madame. Pickpockets.” So we spend the next hour, more concerned with the other sightseers, than the sights to see. Have you ever noticed, once you have decided to be suspicious, how suspicious everyone is? Even so, with the one eye we can spare for tourism, it’s seriously impressive.
On the way out, Ali steps in my path. I have absent-mindedly bought forty-eight postcards, in the Fort itself. I give him two rupees, for tipping me the wink, and his mates rib him, for earning without sales.
The journey to Agra proves even more fascinating than the World Heritage Sites. We stop to take pictures of camel-carts, to the amusement of an entire busload of local factory-workers, with nothing better to do than spectate. An hour further down the road, we get camel-casual, until we see one beast pulling his cart along, clip-clop, with the driver firmly asleep in the cart. Who wouldn’t want his job?

Here, everybody and thing carries more than you think it should. Bullocks, camels, donkeys, all bear loads the size of garden sheds. Men – either loose or on bikes – carry more than their own body-weight, on their backs, in their arms, or balanced on their heads. Buses and cars drip passengers. We count eighteen passengers, in one three-passengers-maximum tuk-tuk. In the hotel lift, with our not-inconsiderable luggage, we stop, a floor early. I assume the person will look in, and wave us on. But no, she beckons to her mates, and all seven of them get in, too. It’s cosy. Every man, beast and machine earns its keep, here.
Sanjay stops to pay road tax, as we cross the border into Uttar Pradesh. The sideshow immediately turns up, a man leading two monkeys on bits of string, who do somersaults and back-flips to command. On the other side of the car, a beggar, with shrivelled legs, knuckles his way across the dusty road. All we can see of him are his fingers, strumming the window. We’re glad when Sanjay, the litter-lout, climbs back into the car.
We step out of the gritty heat, and into the Taj View Hotel, Agra. In the foyer, the resident barberella, Mr Agrawal, reads palms and stars for guests. If you don’t want your fortune told, you can have a curling green dragon painted up your forearm. Or, you can listen to the sitar-player, with his percussive side-kick on the tabla, in the bar, with a beer in front of you. Guess which we choose. A coconut with a straw, for the first three correct answers....