Two sides of the Taj Mahal in two days.
03.12.2012 - 03.14.2012
March 14th, 2012
1. Welcome to Agra! Land of mystery! Land of Enchantment…
On my first night in Agra, I met Keith and Ivan at the rooftop restaurant of my hotel, Shanti Lodge, which has cheap rooms, mediocre over-priced food, and a spectacular view of the Taj Mahal - some might say, the best view in the city. At 250 to 300 rupees a night, the equivalent of 5 to 6 U.S. Dollars, we were all giddy as schoolboys over the budget traveler’s gold mine we had found, and riding the sort of travel euphoria that India provides in abundance. It didn’t matter to me that I had just spent 12 hours on an improperly booked train ride, achieving only light sleep while crammed into a 6-foot long third-tier bunk-bed along with my over-stuffed backpack. Nor that I had only 3 hours of sleep the previous night because I was up late savoring last moments with friends and up early getting ready to leave Udaipur. The trip had been pure magic up until this point, nearly four months after I arrived in Delhi.
It isn’t the sort of magic that comes from only experiencing the pre-packaged comforts that many travelers are spoon fed or hide out in. It would be nearly impossible while traveling in India to not experience the dirty, deathly, humbling side of life here in all its grittiness and grottiness. The sort of magic that I am talking about, real pure magic, is a potion of both beautiful and filthy elements. It is a spell of comfort and calamity. A poultice of the easy going and the rough-around-the-edges, and makes no apologies for what it is.
All three of us know what this sort of magic means, and through it we found common ground, and it wasn’t too long before Ivan had offered to go off and round up some beers to sneak back in for an evening of talking about our travels and taking in the sublime looming presence of the Taj at sunset. I chipped in my 90 rupees gladly - happy to make friends with a couple of older guys who had been traveling around the world for a few decades, and to maybe learn a few things.
Keith showed me a heating element which he used to boil water in a stainless steel cup for tea and cooking eggs and soup, and in this way was able to hitchhike around more expensive countries like Japan, or save a few dollars while trekking in Nepal. He offered to show me where to get one if I wanted to add another tool to my repertoire. For now, I was just looking forward to beers and a beautiful view.
Ivan returned and groused about how the guy tried to sell him 85 rupee beer for an inflated tourist price of 120. He got pissed off at the guy and yelled at him and told him he wouldn’t pay tourist prices, so the vendor agreed to 90 rupees on the grounds that it was the cost of the beer plus a 5 rupee cold-storage cost. A 10 cent mark-up he could handle, but 70 cents was too much, on principle. He was still pretty worked up about it. Apparently he had once grabbed a young man by the jaw in Nepal and threatened to beat him when the kid tried to get away without giving him change for a bus fare.
Keith got him chilled out about the injustice that tourist area vendors inflict upon their customers, and we cracked open our beers. The beer was all shaken up from Ivan’s walk back and when Keith opened up his, foam erupted from his bottle and spilled all over himself and the floor. Ivan tried to go it a bit slower, but he spilled all over himself as well. I took my sweet-ass time. It pays to learn from those who have gone before. Ivan pestered me to hurry up, and eyed his bottle opener warily as though he might not get it back, but I just told them I was building up my anticipation of enjoying the beer.
Finally, after many suds seeping slowly, and spilling only a small sample on my hands, I cracked open the beer, and we said “cheers” and “jai matadi” to each other and got off to enjoying some Haywire Strong. It was actually a decent beer. Not the best I have had, but much better than the bottled camel piss that Kingfisher sells. I really enjoyed the experience: The Taj fading in the twilight. The freshly minted arrival in Agra. The successful and wonderful journey and adventures so far. And new and fast friends for a day or two, enjoying a beer and bullshit and talking about adventures past and planned for. A great mix to happen upon.
After some time, Ivan and I got hungry and Keith decided that it was his one night in four months to have an extra beer or two. Neither Ivan nor I were up to any more beer, so we said goodbye to Keith and made loose plans to meet in the morning if we didn’t oversleep each other. Ivan and I went off a delicious and cheap meal at a little dive called Joney’s, just down the street. I think that it was attempting to emulate a 50’s American diner, but only succeeded far enough to leave me wondering. Thankfully, there was no doo-wop music. After dinner, we parted ways and I went back to the hotel to take care of a few practicalities and get some much needed sleep.
2. Off the Beaten Path…
I woke up after a deep, eye-mask and ear-plug assisted sleep. It was already 8:30. Much later than expected. I was still a bit groggy, so I sat up and meditated on whether to sleep an extra hour to recharge my batteries fully or to get out and into the world of Agra while the day was still young. I heard Ivan yelling into Keith’s room that he would be ready in five minutes to go sniff around the west wall of the Taj, so I poked my head out my hallway window and told them to hold on, I was coming too.
Keith is from the United States and makes his home in Maine. He works for about four months a year and spends the rest traveling. He doesn’t have much back home to tie him down. He has no family of his own and no house. I am not even sure where he lives when he gets home, except that he sometimes asks his six brothers and sisters for help when he returns.
Keith is at the other end of the spectrum from the sort of person who spends their life building up a household and raising kids and building a life in the world they know. He has traveled to 124 different countries so far. This is his tenth time in India. He has hitchhiked from Cape Town to Cairo, crisscrossed Europe, toured the United States, and journeyed around Central and South America, all on a budget. He is 52 years old.
He just came from Nepal where he happened across a 10-day Vipasana silent meditation course held against the backdrop of the Himalayas. Then he went trekking with some guys he met while there. Before that, he was hitching through Japan; a country that is typically very expensive to travel through. He did it on fifteen US dollars a day, with a tent, and his stainless steel cup that he used to boil eggs and instant noodles in.
He is starting to think a little more seriously about settling down and finding a good woman. But right now, he is on a two-year solo trip around parts of the world. I think he is going through a midlife crisis. The guys who stay at home and don’t live out their wild fantasies aren’t the only ones. He is starting to see the value of having a stable foundation. He is heading off to Europe soon, to meet up with a Spanish woman he met on the road recently and they will hitch down to Morocco together. At least that is his plan.
After that, he wants to head up to Norway to meet up with another girl in Oslo who he met at the Vipassana meditation. He says he is more interested in her than in the Spanish woman. In his own words, he is looking for a safe harbor for awhile. He doesn’t have big expectations for either woman, but is open to the possibilities of what could happen. He isn’t planning on telling either woman about each other.
Keith is a tall guy. He isn’t as tall as me, but probably at least 6’0. He wears smart looking glasses, and a respectable-but-worn blue and green plaid travel shirt, and Canadian-issue army green pants. His feet are dirty in his sandals, and he has a good traveler’s tan. He is clean cut, but slightly bristly with a five-o’clock shadow from three days ago. On his right wrist, he wears three cloth friendship bands he has collected from travelers on the road. A green and white plain one is nearly ready to fall off. It hangs on by a thread or two. A few splatters of paint still stain his wrist from the color festival of Holi five days ago.
He is a nice, kind-spirited guy who, in his own words, looks like a Republican. I would agree to a point. To me, he looks far more like a Republican than most of the hippies I have met on the road… He has not the dreadlocks and smell of patchouli, or massive beard and mop top, or colorful hair that you might find on a guy who has an air of, “whoa man, the world’s a beautiful place, man…” about him, but this is his aura none-the-less.
He has a down-to-earth practicality about himself as well, and he runs his own business back home as a house-painter. He has years of travel experience under his belt and knows how to make his way in the world. Still, he is kind of out there on a cloud, in the cosmos, and riding a pleasant wave of peace at this point in his life. He is pleasant to be around. His attitude is generally optimistic, and he has a lot to say about a lot of the life he has seen. He is sensitive and respectful to the culture around him.
Ivan is from England, where he works as a fruit-picker for about four months a year and he travels the rest. He has been all over the world as well, and knows how to live on next to nothing. He has a smart mind and a definitely British darkness and pessimism that contrasts strongly with Keith’s optimism.
He is uncouth. He spits when he talks. When I was at dinner last night with him, as he ate, he continuously and uncaringly spat rice out of his mouth as he loudly told me stories. Some landed back on his plate, which he ate again. Some on the floor. Some on the table. He didn’t seem to notice.
He dresses in a dirty t-shirt tucked into a pair of high cut running shorts with a tear in the hem of one leg that threatens to expose a testicle. His bare legs are exposed down to socks and dirty tennis shoes. He wears a white baseball cap which covers some scraggly wispy white hair and a mostly bald head. He is not very well kept up.
Ivan is loud and very opinionated. He regularly gets into shouting matches with vendors who try to charge him tourist prices, or other people he disagrees with. He says exactly what is on his mind and doesn’t have much of a filter for consideration of others who may be within listening distance. He has a penchant for rousing up trouble and he knows it.
He has been to India four times and all over Asia, Europe, Africa, and South America. He has hitched around the U.S.A. and would not be opposed to spending a night in jail just to get a bed if it weren’t too difficult to get in and out. He is a bit unpleasant to be around at times, but for the most part, is good company if you want to swap travel stories and get into some off-the-beaten-path adventure. He is by no means a bad guy. He was nice and patient with us as friends, and fine with locals that he didn’t feel were gouging him. He is just rough around the edges. Very rough. To my knowledge, he has no family back home. He is another guy who resides on the nomadic side of the spectrum.
The three of us went for a walk along the west side of the wall around the Taj Mahal. There is a historical garden that isn’t on the map in Lonely Planet and a path that leads to a spot on the corner of the wall along the Yamuna River where a solitary army officer sits guard. From here, you can see the back of the Taj. The guard let us clamber around on the banks and get up close to the wall surrounding the Taj complex, but we weren’t allowed to take pictures. We were the only ones back here apart from a few cows scavenging around in some garbage.
I offered him one of the coin-like dried figs-on-a-pole that I bought for the road in Udaipur. He refused at first on the grounds that he is a vegetarian. No, this is a fruit I told him. Not meat. It took some show and tell to convince him, but soon he was happy to take one and a smile spread across his face as he ate it.
We set off along the river away from the Taj and made our way towards the Agra Fort, despite the guard’s warning that it was dirty and we didn’t want to get dirty, but instead to take the road which was not so dirty. The riverbank was indeed very dirty as promised. A couple of cows who had been rooting around for food in some garbage on the ground came up to me, hungrily drawn to the smell of the figs I was putting away. I passed them by, not wanting to get a crowd of cow followers after my figs.
The river stank. Garbage and cow shit littered the banks. I had to pick my way carefully to avoid stepping in mud or worse. A partially burnt, bright orange sari sat in a pile of refuse, begging to tell a story. Up ahead, loomed the Agra Fort, massive and imposing on the horizon. I snapped a picture and caught Keith and Ivan and some curious cows in the foreground, then turned and snapped a few forbidden photos of the Taj.
We made our way up from the river onto the stone steps of a Burning Ghat, where twenty or so slightly raised rectangular platforms contained a pile of ashes and human skeletal remains. Some were still smoldering. I saw the ball joint of a femur sticking out of one; hip bones in another. I expected to get in trouble for treading on sacred ground, but the locals paid us little heed and went about their business.
We went up past open air stone temples, used by the cremation processions to gather and prepare their bodies, and onto the street. Some chanting was going on out behind another temple across the way. Keith took his shoes off, headed up the steps and went in. Ivan and I sat out front. I walked down the street and saw a massive bas-relief of Brahma with the heads of several other deities as well and sixteen arms each holding different totems belonging to the various deities depicted. I recognized Hanuman the monkey god, Ganesh the elephant-headed son of Shiva, Vishnu, Shiva, and Krishna. Several others I did not know.
Keith came out of the temple and informed us that the chanting was some Hare Krishnas getting their thing on, but without the tasty offering of North American food, as in the states. I was curious and should have gone in I suppose, but I didn’t. We walked along the road following the river and further away from the Taj. Some little kids tried to scam us into paying 200 rupees for a photo of the many-headed, many-armed Brahma, but they were promptly ignored and waved off.
The road took us past several temples and a small cemetery where bodies were briefly displayed on a stone dais before being taken to the burning ghats and cremated. The smell of burnt death lingered in the air and filled my nostrils on each breath. I put my face in my shirt as we walked by; a habit that is becoming more and more common these days.
We said Namaste to people as we passed them on the road. Most were friendly and returned our gesture or beat us to it. Some were drunk or too down and out to care. Actually, Keith and I said Namaste to people. Ivan did not.
The stone wall hid a different picture of a Hindu deity or religious scene painted on every other segment. I saw pictures of Shiva and Krishna and cobras, and what looked like Zeus. The paint was chipped and fading, as though it hadn’t been touched up in three decades. The wall and the paintings went on for a good kilometer.
Large cows, bigger than any I have seen so far, like I would imagine an auroch to look like perhaps, were in the underbrush of a wooded area up from the road, and doing cow things like pooping and resting in the sun; but in a bigger way than normal.
We made it to a traffic circle near Agra Fort, and walked across the street to a big park named after one of the Gandhis. Keith stopped for some 30 Rupee Thali lunch at a street vendor who normally catered to rickshaw drivers. He was in heaven. I wasn’t so keen on risking my intestines on something that sketchy, but his intestines are more road-hardy than my own. I passed out figs to the drivers who were happy to have a treat. Keith finished his meal and said thanks and we headed for the park entrance. One of the drivers offered to let me take a picture sitting on his rickshaw, but Keith and Ivan were well into the park by now, and so I ran after them instead. I felt that I should have just taken the picture though.
The group dynamic changes things for people. In some ways, we inspire each other, and in other ways, we hold ourselves and each other back to keep it all together.
The park was not very busy. A few Indians were on walks and looked at us, but mostly, and certainly compared to the Taj Mahal, it was empty. We took a side path and startled a peacock out of hiding, which ran and flew away from us. It was bright and beautiful and much bigger than I would have expected. The tail was long and flowed behind it when it flapped up over a seven foot wall. I never got close enough to for a very good picture as it ran away, faster than we were ambling along, but I snapped a grainy picture from thirty feet away just before it disappeared into some bushes. Keith said that the Indians used to keep them as “watchdogs”.
We found our way back on to the main path and kept up our walk. The park was large, and still we saw only a few souls about. Ian found a stone bench off the beaten path to sit on and we settled onto it for a break and took in the silence. Not too far away, Agra and its hordes of tourists and touts bustled, but we couldn’t hear too much of it. The forest here was still, but for the chirping of birds and chipmunks. When we got back on our feet and walked away, I felt slightly refreshed in that way that only uninterrupted nature can achieve.
Finally, we made our way out of the woods and onto the main road of the park and quickly found the massive crowds. A stream of camels pulling carts for giving tourist rides made their way along from the bus parking to some monument in the park. One of the camels had black fur. I had no idea that they came in a color other than tan. I bet they still chafe your legs when you ride them though.
Keith wanted to head back to the garden by the Taj one more time, and so we went past the thousands of queued people waiting to get in, walked through the gate just next to them, and went back into this tranquil garden.
As before, we were the only ones there aside from a few Indian gardeners who paid us no heed. We found a couple of plastic chairs and sat in the grass in the shade. Ivan found one in the garden’s office and plunked it down. A section of the Taj Mahal’s outer wall and attached mosque rimmed the garden on one side. If this building was here in isolation along with the garden, it would have been a monument itself, but as it is over-shadowed by the Taj Mahal proper, no-one pays it any heed, and most tourists don’t know it exists. The contrast between the hordes and here was amazing. It was quiet and peaceful and only the birds seemed to know of it.
Keith and I sat there for three hours, talking about travel, women, meditation, and adventure; about North American optimism and English pessimism, about respecting cultural boundaries and when it wasn’t worth a fight over difference. Ivan took off partway through this to get some lunch, and it gave Keith and I a chance to open up to each other a bit deeper about meditation, what sort of women and relationships we have been in and want, and how Ivan is a bit too combative for his own good. Keith says he would travel with the guy for a couple of days of adventure, but not as a long-term travel partner. I agree. I think it is just as important to carefully select long-term travel partners as it is to select romantic partners, and especially important if they are both.
Midway through our talks, a member of a group of nicely dressed older Indian gentlemen who had congregated in the shade under the same large tree that Keith and I sat in, came over and offered us chai. I love how easily they do this. Of course we would. We went back to our discussion which was at this point, on what sort of women we were into. Keith’s particular strategy is to have low expectations so as not to get disappointed. He said that most younger guys have too high of expectations and therefore get let down too easily. I know what he is talking about. If someone were to tell me that a particular movie was great and it turned out to be mediocre at best, I would be let down; but if instead, I watched a movie that I had no expectations about and it turned out to be great, I would love it. I would imagine that the same truth holds to some degree in relationships. Still, I am not quite settled in total agreement on this with him.
The chai was taking a long time to come around, and I was feeling the anxiousness of expectation; wondering when the chai would arrive; wishing that it would hurry up and get here; wondering if the chai would arrive; wanting to go soon to get lunch; and not wanting to just get up and leave with a gracious offer of chai before us. Keith and I spoke a bit more about Ivan’s uncouth nature. We moved our chairs out of the sun and into the shade again. Keith mentioned that he was glad that Ivan went off for lunch because he wasn’t the sort to get into the deeper introspective conversation we were having. He would have been trying to compare travel stories and one-up us. One of the business men assured us that the chai was coming soon and offered us a piece of a samosa.
Keith and I were running out of steam and Ivan showed back up to talk loudly about his lunch, and how some tailor he went to get his shorts fixed at was going to try to rip him off and how we was ready to give him only twenty rupees no matter what. Keith mentioned that he should have agreed on a price first so that they could avoid a fight. If Ivan heard him, he didn’t say so. Instead, he started talking loudly about “these people” and how they do business with tourists. He was making both of us uncomfortable. Keith admonished Ivan that there were four nice Indian men who spoke perfect English within feet of us. It was as if we were all part of the club and the Indian guys weren’t, in Ivan’s world.
Finally the chai arrived and there was an extra cup for Ivan, and two of the business men came over and offered it to us and struck up a conversation. Keith and I had been planning on joining the men since they had offered. But when Ivan returned, it changed the dynamic just enough that we didn’t get on our feet faster than the Indians. They came over and started up a conversation about where we were from. Upon learning that Keith and I were from the states, one of the gentlemen told us that his son was in school in Carnegie-Mellon in the states. He said that though many kids in the U.S. did what they wanted, he still told his son what to do via a call every day on the internet. Eventually the kid would be returning. Keith told him that this was a very good school, and if his kid was applying himself, he would surely do well for himself once out of school.
Ivan started blundering into a conversation about how these guys were sitting around not doing any work. One of guys informed him that they had a weekly academic meeting here in the garden. One guy was a psychologist. Another was a teacher. One of the other guys was a retired cabinet minister, and the other had once curated this garden. He said that they were here after work or retired. I took command of the conversation before Ivan could start doing any more damage. I asked them what they were discussing today, and the psychologist told us that it was about politics and he wasn’t a big fan of politics, but he was obligated to be part of the conversation. Keith sneezed and told him that he was allergic to politics and that just talking about it was making him sneeze. They laughed and the psychologist said, “me too.”
The chai was truly excellent, and I told them so. I took out my figs and stood up to offer them some. The psychologist said, no, they were all strict vegetarians and they couldn’t eat pig. I laughed and told him that this was a fruit, and had to show him before he understood. They all took one and enjoyed it, but the psychologist had to explain to the other guys that it wasn’t pig.
Then they had to go, and we thanked each other for the chai and the figs and graciousness, and went on our separate ways. Keith said he was happy with how the conversation ended up, and said it was a nice touch to offer them figs. Ivan got on to talking about how nice and empty it was without all the tourists and how he had been to Petra once when it was empty. I mentioned that I had been to the pyramids in Egypt and Hatshepsut’s temple when it was empty in the aftermath of 9/11. Ivan said, “oh yeah?” and was quiet for awhile. And I told them, truthfully, that it was the best cup of chai that I had had since arriving in India.