Thursday, October 06, 2005
the taj mahal...labor of love in more ways than one...
out trip to see the greatest monument to love proved laborious at best, but in the end, we surmised that it was well worth it, if only to be able to cross it off the proberbial "things to see before i die" list.
we set out at the crack of dawn, awakening at the brutal hour of 4:30am to get to the train station by 5:15ish or so to buy tickets on the shatabdi express (2 hour train ride) to agra, home of the taj. hurtling along in our taxi on the strangely empty and peaceful delhi streets was in no way an indicator of what awaited us at the station. we arrived before sunrise and the chaos of the place was entirely disorienting. leery of any good samaritans (we're not even sure if they really exist in train stations) based on the scam warnings in our lonely planet book, we resisted everyone's counsel about buying tickets anywhere other than the box office windows (which of course had lines 50 people deep, proving catastrophic to our timing).
with only 5 minutes to spare we rushed from this office to that, through throngs of travelers, over the sleeping, emaciated bodies (some children) and campfires littering the filthy platform floors and passed countless "friends" all trying to get us to part with our money in one way or another. it was recommended that we only buy our tickets upstairs at the foreign nationals window, but of course the book mentioned nothing about it NOT being open at that hour.
i knew from the very beginning that we were not going to make it...the instant i saw the mayhem of the station, i knew we were goners. we were forced to finally head back to the hotel and hire a car to make the trip. on the way, we saw the sun rise over delhi gate and watched as delhiites practiced yoga on the dewy grass.
as disappointed as we were at missing the train, the car proved better in the long run for the daytrip as we soon realized in hindsight.
we drove deep into the countryside, past agricultural fields of what appeared to be sugarcane, dotted with the circular grass huts occasionally overgrown with yellow flowering vines that i love so much. we zipped past flood plain villages and buildings surrounded by lush marsh vegetation and shallow waters. the roads leave something to be desired as we were jostled and jolted over every pothole as if the driver was aiming for them.
we took a detour deeper into the country to visit fatepuhr sikri...a now deserted city built by akhbar the great in the 15th century that in many ways looks a lot like the amber palace in jaipur.
we got suckered into paying for a guide and resolved then and there to never fall prey again. they only prove entertaining for a short while before becoming completely annoying as we attempt to shoot through their narration.
we were assaulted by throngs of children (we therefore dubbed the place, 'city of lost children') as it seemed they were all in cahoots to try and get us to part with as many rupees as possible before leaving. we finally had to toughen our skin and start denying them brusquely to get our point across.
as we made our way towards agra and the taj, we came upon the first drive-thru mcdonald's to grace india.
as we approached agra, i noted a truly bizarre trend. the closer we came, the more signs we saw for amusement and water theme parks, such as "the Dolphin...wet fun for the whole family"! i don't know about you, but personally when i think of the great taj, i think...water slides, cotton candy and sunburns. an alarming development if you ask me, but the lonely planet did peg this one...it described the taj as something that once used to be enjoyable and now must be endured.
after the constant onslaught of beggars and hawkers at fatehpur sikri, we had become thoroughly impatient and disenchanted with anyone who approached us. i began barking definitive "nai's" (translation: short for no) at everyone, refusing to make eyecontact and pretending not to speak any english. jake saved the day by intervening whenever possible by saying, 'why are you talking to my wife? do you think she has the money? talk to me!' and while this would have set off a 3 alarm feminist fire 4 or 5 years ago, i was supremely grateful for our unspoken agreement and ruse. i was delighted to defer to him in all matters as it got me completely off the hook and left me to take pictures in peace.
at the gates of the taj we were again approached by guides who jaked teased mercilessly by saying, "hey, i've got an idea...why don't YOU give ME 250 rupees to hang out with me and listen to me talk?" they were confused at his counter offer and we had a good laugh about it. we got on a (miraculously) free shuttle and were soon joined by 30 or 40 japanese tourists. it was completely surreal. going through security was equally strange. after being searched, we were ordered to surrender our granola bars to the visitors' lockers before gaining entrance. we were so harried by the time we got inside the gates that we followed the lead of some other tourists and plopped down on the grass, closing our eyes...grateful for a few moments of rest. we awoke to worker donkeys grazing quietly beside us.
we went inside the taj complex and it was truly spectacular in scale. i have to admit however at the risk of sounding cynical, that i expected to have a more profound reaction. in comparison to humayun's tomb, the taj was overrun by camera happy tourists (ah, the irony in that statement) posing in some of the most hilarious ways in front of the tomb.
we took off our shoes and went inside the tomb itself. there is something so terrific about being barefoot and feeling the smooth inlaid marble designs that have been worn down through the centuries. we marveled at the amazing acoustics of the full dome overhead and the beautifully golden westward light filtering through the marble screens as the sun was setting.
i commented on the strange rules observed inside the tomb prohibiting pictures and videotaping. and yet throngs of indians clustered around a grate-covered stairwell leading down to the actual burial site and pitched coins competitively down the stairs. those with coins closest to the hallway down below were rewarded with whoops from the crowd. the signs listing the prohibitive rules cited archaelogical preservation and i noted sarcastically that pictures and video were definitely more destructive than the coins that were surely chipping slowly away at the marble staircase. jake teased me for my emerging cynicism. i like to think it was the sheer exhaustion of the day that got the best of me.
so after making a bunch of stupid and irreverent jokes ("seen one 15th century tomb, seen 'em all"), we left the taj. but not before taking our own tourist snapshots...
outside we were assaulted by the usual pedicabs and horse drawn carraiges and just out of spite, i asked jake if we could please walk the mile and a half back to the car. we felt triumphant despite our fatigue as we left them all behind.
we climbed wearily into our car and the driver turned to us expectantly and asked, "we go to delhi?". we affirmed and jake said, "no more tourists, no more guides!" and even through the language barrier, we all shared a laugh.
the ride back was borderline terrifying, the village air pregnant with smoke and exhaust making the road virtually invisible as our driver dodged (often by inches) the throngs of motorcylces, scooters, bikes, overloaded trucks and passenger tractors (yes, tractors). it was mayhem and quite clear that our driver had an agenda to get us all home at breakneck speed. we giggled at the ridiculous road signs that merely requested, "please do not drive in the wrong direction". we laughed until we saw oncoming headlights through the smoke in our lane, despite the divided 4-lane highway. the road signs are suggestion and not mandate. we suffered through a couple of close calls and commented on what it would be like to nail one of the many darting pedestrians at 90km/hr.
finally home safe and sound, albeit righteously exhaustednby the events of the day, we enjoyed the indian version of very spicy combination pizza hut pizza (fresh-izza) and the movie 'contact' on hbo. sometimes it's the little things here that offer such comfort.