Thursday. I am beginning to get used to the days having names again rather than just numbers; on Friday we fly back to London and Monday it’s back to work. How surreal does that seem here from the Oberoi in Agra?
It’s also our last morning in Agra, and for a few minutes the view from the hotel offers more of what I had hoped for: We can see the Taj Mahal right in front of our room and through the fog see that it is bathed in subtle sunlight. It’s a great way to be reminded of what we saw yesterday, although it makes me sad that we can’t go back and relive the experience 🙂
The Oberoi is a luxurious and opulent hotel, but the service does not live up to its architectural grandeur. Breakfast is nearly over before we get our first cup of coffee, and staff in general seem much less engaged than at the Taj Lake Palace – our new benchmark for what fantastic, outstanding customer service is like.
After 3 weeks in India you might think we would have gotten used to the display next to the road, but it is just not so and we spend much of the 5-hour drive to Delhi being amazed at what we see: a heady mix of squalor and luxury that really has to be experienced.
We also see 3 real first-hand examples of how corrupt the system is – if you read my post from a few days ago, you’ll have an idea of how endemic and damaging it is.
First, Mr Prakash points out a traffic police officer climbing into an adjacent lorry, explaining that he’ll be wanting money for something – if not, a ticket will be issued. And sure enough, moments later we see the driver pull out his wallet, count out notes, and hand them over. The police officer leaves the vehicle and walks toward the next in line; I cannot believe my eyes. It is so blatant and open, it’s disgusting!
Next, I notice that the lorry in front of us seems rot be in particularly bad repair (which is saying something!) and that there is no number plate, and suggest to Mr Prakash that the corrupt police must really like that one as they don’t need to make up any charges to get a bribe here. However, he explains that the vehicle most likely is operating under a “pre-paid bribe plan” where the owner pays a monthly fee to the relevant people and in return is left alone, including running red lights, parking wherever he wants, etc. I find it hard to believe, but it’s probably true nevertheless.
Just 10 minutes later we arrive at a toll booth for the highway and just before it a policeman indicates to Mr Prakash that we should pull over. Mr Prakash is asked to come out of the car and the next 5 minutes are spent with the two in vigorous discussion, interspersed with Mr Prakash demonstrating that some feature or other is in order: The fire extinguisher, the first aid kit, the car paperwork, the insurance, the drivers licence, the lights, etc, etc. It is clear that the policeman is looking for something to pin on Mr Prakash, but everything seems in order.
Eventually Mr Prakash returns, and he is not happy: He was fined 600 Rs for two alleged offences: For not having a first aid kit, and for not cooperating with the police. Astonishing: There clearly is a first aid kit in the car (I looked at it myself) and I guess that the only way in which he did not cooperate with the police was that he did not agree to pay a bribe when first approached and instead said that all his papers etc were according to regulation, hence the detailed inspection.
It is of course possible to complain, but the next level of the bureaucracy is also corrupt, all the way up the chain, and even if you find someone who is not then it will take a huge investment of time to follow through on a complaint. It seems hopeless, and it makes me very sad and angry; how can the country ever get out of this vicious corrupt cycle where every official abuses his position of power for personal gain?
As it is Mr Prakash’s responsibility to look after the car for TransIndus, he is also liable to personally pay any fines that result in the car or paperwork not being in order. That seems fair, until you realise that the fine is completely arbitrary and grossly unfair; I think the company ought to be able to make an allowance for this kind of thing rather than penalise their drivers for the police being hopelessly corrupt.
If the TransIndus tipping guideline is any indication, I imagine that the driver is paid relatively little: they suggests a tip of 200 Rs per day for the driver, but 500-1,000 Rs for a local guide. In most locations, I think the driver has been much more valuable than the guides, and tipping them 5 times more seems completely disproportionate to me – I wonder if the suggested tip is proportionate to what they are paid. It reminds me how large the income inequality is in India, and here is a real example.
Suitably chastened, we continue towards The Grand in Delhi, looking forward to meeting the relatives tonight, before we depart for London tomorrow. Unfortunately, the hotel is very far from where they live – the 25km distance will take 1.5-2 hours to traverse and we realise it’s not feasible for us to do so and get back in reasonable time.
Fortunately, Babita and the other relatives are set on meeting us in spite of the distance and 7 of them agree to come meet us at the hotel, yay 🙂
They arrive at around 7pm and after meeting in our room we all go down to the hotel’s Italian restaurant for dinner. I am surprised to learn that they all think it’s terribly early to eat – normally they start dinner at 8:30 or even 9:30pm and as such are not terribly hungry yet. I show them a small selection of “just” 300 photos from our trip, and afterwards we go around the large hotel lobby to take more pictures of the group – it’s a lot of fun!
Well fed, we return to the room and have a hop-in on the big bed; there is a great atmosphere 🙂
Then around 10 it’s time to say goodbye. I knew that they had arrived at the hotel by car – there is no metro station nearby – but I was astonished to see what car it was; it has to be the smallest car ever! Somehow, they managed to fit both the driver and 7 passengers in there, sitting or lying in multiple layers, and I got to see first-hand just how so many people get into a car. And they were of course smiling and jolly about it – I hope it wasn’t too uncomfortable a ride home!
Sated with impressions and tired from the long day, we finish the packing and dive into bed for our last night in India. Boo hoo!