Well, it’s 2013 again. Another systematic cycle of numbers comes to a re-start. So yaay to you all! I can’t help but feel a little morose. At least from the travel point of view. I thought back to my least favorite travel destinations which I visited in the last couple of years. The list I came up with, has places which happen to be among the most popular ones in India. So here goes a significant amount of our tourism recall!
DISCLAIMER: This list is my personal opinion, thought entirely from a traveler’s point of view. Maybe even that of a first time traveler. Of course, if you have a personal connection, or a spiritual/religious agenda (which can happen for arguably every city in our country), your incentive is going to much higher than just the place itself. And hence, you will most likely not agree with me.
~ Agra ~
This was my fourth time to Agra. The following is what I myself had once written:
Agra invariably includes itself on every visitor’s list. The Taj is one cliché that is not a cliché. Seat of over three generations of some of the most dynamic dynasties of the medieval world, the tales of their talent, wealth and love are immortalized here in stone and marble.
Now the above statements are inherently flawed. I still hold to the accollades given to the Taj. Reason being that this time I was there (couple of weeks ago) on a Friday. Earlier, Fridays were free-entry days. Now, the monument among many others in the city(?) remains closed on this day. All the other three times that I visited it, the Taj Mahal never failed me. However, that is not to be said for the rest of the city.
Why I hated Agra:
Okay, I do not know why this is getting to be so difficult. Till I started writing this post, I was positively fuming and I did not have any shortage of profanities coming into my head. But now, possibly because of all the pressure that any travel blogger feels towards doing justice to a place, I find myself trying to cushion the blow.
Most of India, I agree, still feels, looks, and smells like a massive pile of dump. But yes, we usually do a pretty good job of pushing the pile under the carpet so that at least we have have shopping malls with sparkling floors and the streets of Raj Path maintained by the NDSC in New Delhi looks eerily out of the world.
But we miserably fail to do even that in Agra. It is a world renowned city. It has one of the world’s seven wonders, has at least three world heritage sites in a space of 188 square kilometers. You’d think that with a $4.06 trillion economy, we would be able to get some decent transport services, acceptably breathable roads (come on, I am not even asking for clean ones!) and some charade of fair-price fare-charts and time-tables for public transport.
Agra gave me a shocker. A very rude reminder of where I was living. Something that I had quite easily forgotten staying in Bangalore. If a travel-agent’s shop (there are literally millions of them in Agra, selling bus/flight/train tickets) sells you a ticket, you must first ask the following:
- Are you authorized to sell this ticket?
- Are you responsible or even the person the question if the bus is late by like 6 hours or even threatening to never show-up at all?
- Where is the actual bus? Where is it starting from? Who owns it?
I never asked these. Because if someone gives you a receipt, you’d normally understand that it’s legitimate and the bus will turn up near about the time mentioned on the ticket. Turns out, the ticket only gives you the right to attempt to board the (or any) bus.
If it is still not clear why exactly I hated Agra so much, here it is for you:
- Every single business – from auto-rickshaws to hotel management, restaurants to touts – seem to believe in one golden rule: “cheating is the only means to a decent living”.
- The public transport system is in total shambles.
- While there are many hotels available for the budget travelers, compared to the rest of the country, the standards are at extreme low. To give you the perspective, my wife called the place “a dump”.
~ Pondicerry ~
Pondicherry was the next eye opener. Before I went to the little Union Territory, the expectation was that it would be a tiny bohemian inspired, spirituality infused beach town were you could let your hair down. While Pondicherry did not give me as much a shock as Agra, the disappointment was big enough. Now unless you are visiting Miami or the Keys, a beach town and specially ones in Asia gives the expectation of an easy town. A place where folks of all economic standards can find decent overnight staying conditions and do not have to spend massive amounts to get a feel of the place. Least you expect is racism.
Pondicherry enjoys a free flow of foreign tourists. Most of them come for the lure of spirituality and open religion that Auroville has to offer. From what I understood in my frequent two visits with totally different co-travelers (once friends and my fiancee and once with family and fiancee), it looked like Auroville unabashedly favoured foreign nationals and ‘donation’ paying Indians to the general visitors. Ironical if you ask me, for it ts us who need some desperate spiritual reawakening.
The famed golden dome was apparently closed for the day and we had to see it from at least 500 yards away. The out of country visitors were frisked away along a different path and lo! We were kept guessing at whether or not that fairer bloke in orange pants far-far away wasn’t the same guy who was right behind us.
Pondicherry left me confused. Whenever I visit a place, I either like it or I dislike it. This place however, was the biggest gray area that I had ever stepped my foot into. There were small and pretty looking paths that led into unknowns and out of which came scooter driving western hippies. Asking around if there were cool places to see or beach-side places to stay along those ways, came with “idhar allowed nahi hai” — “you aren’t allowed there”.
Pondicherry comes with a supposedly rich Portuguese heritage. I was really interested to discover that side of the city. I failed. Don’t get me wrong. If you want to see Portuguese or French styled buildings, street and cafe names, sure! You’ll find lots to see! Want to taste some cuisine inspired by the colonization, the only options I found were over-priced promenade facing “bistros”. Now I can at least say this much: if you want to taste Indian-infused Mexican taco in an establishment which has the French tag of bistro in it’s name and which supposedly excels in Portuguese delicacy, you must not miss out on Pondicherry.
Little less than 300 kms is apparently heaven on earth – Kashmir. Did not know the gates to heaven were this disdainful. I have been to Jammu twice. The latest was a couple of weeks ago. Reason of visit: religious. Now if you have come along this far, you will remember my warning up in the front about people with religious interest will find the places better suiting them. Even that did little to make the place any better for me. I was here with family, which always adds a cushion of comfort and safety in India and for just one night. We were cold, miserably so, had walked for over 20 kilometers through the night for the trek to Vaishno Devi Shrine only to realize that you had to do the last 3 kms barefeet because there were not enough locker rooms available close to the temple. And that you can’t actually spend more than 3 seconds where the idols are placed.
There’s nothing more to see in Jammu which I found worthwhile apart from even more temples. And quite honestly, I was by then pretty much done with temples at that time. For all of you who think, ‘nah’, and swear by lonely planet, take a look:
But nothing much to see does not make a place ‘bad’, does it? But if you add to it all the facets I described for Agra, with absolutely no centralized bus services (if you are wondering about trains, in India, you have to purchase the tickets at least a month in advance), fare-charts are decided on whims and once again, the only way to earn a decent wage is to cheat. The police forces along the trek to the shrine are rude, possible from – one: not being used to people questioning them for the motive behind frisking trekkers 10 different times all along the path. Second: from being in the cold for a good part of the year. One thing that I do have to agree though, the path usually offers moderate to good photographing opportunities.
Well, that was my list of three places you should not go to. However, there are some simple steps that you can take to make the trip a better experience than what I faced.
- For Agra: Do yourself a favour and book a cab from New Delhi that will take you to Agra, stay the night if need be, and will show you around the city. This stands even for the most frugal travelers.
- For Pondicherry: Make sure you are white skinned or you have paid a hefty donation. Oh don’t forget your receipt of the donation. Or, carry a pot of gold with you for the innocent looking guru in whites. Try and develop a taste for desi-French food.
- Jammu: Do you really have to? I did. So, get your self a room to stay the night at the Vaishno Devi Shrine Board. Get yourself the trek pass through them. Don’t be cruel and avoid the horses to take you up (the poor beasts froth and bleed from the mouths).
To Whom This Does NOT Apply:
- Fellow travelers from the west who do not mind receiving preferential treatment.
- Folks who are alright with unhygienic living conditions.
- People who have a far better religious and spiritual calling than I do. And I am a believer. So go figure!