Today, everything clicked, and I finally had my India experience. It wasn't because of the Taj Mahal--it was because of the Old Bazaar and the Red Fort. Unfortunately, the Taj Mahal has been so publicized, it wasn't as impressive to me in person. Furthermore, the Taj Mahal is symmetrical, meaning that its consistency might appeal to math geeks, but not to people looking for design diversity. Inside the Taj Mahal, we see the raised faux coffins of the wife and her husband, who are actually buried deeper underground. The Taj is impressive on the outside, but not so much on the inside due to the deliberate lack of lighting. Visitors should make sure to visit the small museum on the left hand side, which has some interesting drawings, including ivory drawings of the king and his queen. (By the way, India also has the "Baby Taj," which is much less impressive after seeing the Taj Mahal.)
The Red Fort, unlike the Taj Mahal, is less well-known and an incredible piece of architecture. Everywhere you look, every corner you turn, you see something increasingly more amazing. The designs are intricate and diverse; the views, including a view of the Taj Mahal, are breathtaking; and the fort itself is massive. Thus far, the Red Fort has been the best on-the-tourist-trail attraction.
Nearby the Baby Taj is a very poor neighborhood. I walked around a bit and saw lots of food items for sale, mostly covered with flies. Large slabs of meat, whole fish, naan, and other items were being sold, almost all of it covered or surrounded by flies. Some of the tiny housing projects had rooms of people lying down with no furniture inside. Yet, if you you think the kids would be depressed by their surroundings, you'd be wrong. They run around, play, and seem generally energetic and happy. (Actually, anywhere you go in India, people are energetic--the general energy in the air is quite possibly India's best feature.) Groups of little kids followed me around, saying hello. A small group of girls asked me to take their picture with them, and unlike previous situations, no money was involved--these girls just wanted to take a picture to memorialize the moment. (Note: 9 times out of ten, however, the children want you to take a picture so they can ask you for money afterwards. It is best to keep 5 rupee coins on hand if you want to take pictures, although some children just enjoy seeing themselves on a digital camera after their picture is taken.)
Last up was the old Bazaar. Apparently there is a newer Bazaar, but the old one is the one to visit. It was everything I thought the Spice Market would be--busy, diverse, and vast. Our tour guide allowed me to hop off the bus and check out the old Bazaar on my own. My travelmates seemed a bit puckered out and stayed on the bus. I usually travel alone and go where the locals are, but I couldn't handle India without a tour. This tour, from Gap Adventures, has been fantastic, and I couldn't have asked for a better tour guide. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if our tour guide, Luv Jawad, was cast in a Bollywood film and became famous one day--he really is that cool. Even so, I've been itching for some time off the beaten track, and the old Bazaar is the best place for visitors who want an authentic India experience. By the way, prior to arriving at the actual Bazaar, I passed a sign that said, "Tibetan Refuge," where about twenty Tibetans were selling mostly clothing, including North Face products. It was surreal to see all these Tibetans in a small market of their own, with motorcycles for rent in the middle of everything.
Back to the Old Bazaar. First off, the place is vast. Imagine a maze of little shops stretching out in all directions and lots of alleyways, all filled with more kiosks. Everything is sold here--sandals (picked up a great pair, Elba/Stroke, and am wearing it now), hot chai, milk with coconut (Note: you have to give back the glass bottle when you're done drinking--that's how the kiosks keep the costs low), bracelets, purses (only 150 rupees for many of them), saris, cloth, and anything else you might expect. Imagine your local flea market on steroids, and that's the old Bazaar. The greatest part about this particular Bazaar is that everything is so cheap. Most items will cost you less than 5 American dollars. The nicer stuff, like the linens and saris, will cost you around 10 dollars. Although I'm known for being cheap, even I don't mind buying things at these prices, especially because the negotiating is really entertaining when you're debating differences of fifty cents.
I discovered a great chai kiosk and sat down. Drinks were only five rupees a glass, so I had about three cups. I offered to buy more for the people around me, who were eying me with interest, but none of them took me up on the offer. One of them smiled and said "Not necessary." In my experience, most locals in truly local places will not hassle you--they are bemused by your presence and are looking to strike up a conversation with you. If anything, the only reason more people didn't chat with me is because many locals are self-conscious about their English skills. People who come to India and complain about the aggressive hawkers selling fridge magnets, tourist books, Taj Mahal globes, and other worthless memorabilia need to go off the beaten track. Certainly, the Taj Mahal has its share of aggressive hawkers, but that's not something you see in non-tourist locations. (I once had a date who mentioned she didn't like India because of the aggressive hawkers, but that was the only thing she felt was worth mentioning. She got upset when I pointed out that it made sense for hawkers to be around tourist sites, where the tourist money is. There was no second date.) If you're looking for a hotel, I saw one in the old Bazaar called Hotel Ajay.
Today's experience in the old Bazaar confirmed what I see whenever I travel anywhere. When you meet locals, all of them are the same: friendly, dignified, honest, and happy to see someone new. One last thing: I walked back in the dark for about two miles before taking a small auto-rickshaw back to the hotel, and I never once felt unsafe. If you're not going off the beaten track because you fear for your safety, you're needlessly missing out.
Your humble traveler,