A Travellerspoint blog

Off and on the Beaten Path in Agra - Part One

Two sides of the Taj Mahal in two days.


Uttar Pradesh

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.

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2. Off the Beaten Path…

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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.

Posted by TravelerTyler 01:25 Archived in India Tagged culture Comments (0)

Off and On the Beaten Path in Agra - Part Two

Two sides of the Taj Mahal in two days.


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3. On the Beaten Path.

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Up early this morning and I still missed Keith and Ivan’s vagabond down the east wall of the Taj Mahal. They were up at five. I was up at six. Instead of the road less traveled, I opted instead for the well-beaten path and took myself to the Taj itself.

The ticket office was conveniently located one kilometer away from the main entrance, so as to drum up a business for the rickshaw drivers I imagine, but I determinedly set off at a brisk pace to get my ticket. An old rickshaw driver hounded me for a ride. At first, I was adamant and turned him down, committed as I was to hoof it myself and not fall for a scam… who knows how close it really was? But as I was short on time and it seemed that I would be better off to hurry things along, and I had never been on a pedal rickshaw, I gave in and negotiated for a 50 rupee ride up the hill and back.

Honestly, I doubt I saved but a minute on the way up, the rickshaw driver was old and had a heavy load in his cart… me. I actually thought about getting out and pushing, he was so slow. Other rickshaw drivers laughed when they saw me squeezed in the back seat, hunched over and cramped under the canopy. We finally made it and I purchased my over-priced foreigner’s ticket for 750 rupees (20 rupees for locals), and took the Tuk-Tuk back down to the Taj. Downhill was much faster. Here, he made his easy money.

The gates had opened up, and the lines were moving along. I had to go through a metal detector and a security frisk-down to get in, but that was relatively painless. Inside the first courtyard, but before the Taj Mahal’s famous mirror ponds & gardens, I began to take in the scenery and was ready to walk in slowly and absorb the monument in silence without much photo taking. An old Indian man approached me. I knew what was coming: He saw an opportunity to give me a tour at an inflated westerner price. At first, I turned him down… but I then asked myself, “why not have a tour?” He said he would take me to all the highlights in 1 and ½ hours and this appealed to me as I needed to be out of the complex by nine and it was around seven. Why not have the full-on tourist experience? Part of me, the part that enjoys silent contemplation was disgruntled, and barked and whined like a dog defending his territory as we got started.

He took me through the main interior entry gate and pointed out that the eleven smaller domes at the top, cresting either side represented the 22 years it took to some 20 thousand workers to complete the Taj. The main entrance is mostly a red stone building, but with massive white marble inlay on the face around an archway and windows on all four sides. Intricate floral designs are woven through the inlay. A further frame of white marble inlay has script from the Quran running some sixty feet each up, then over, then back down, with words in black set on white. The entrance itself is enough to be a monument and would be if it was a standalone attraction. It is over shadowed by the Taj though and so mostly, people just shuffle in through it on their way.

The Taj Mahal is massive. The grounds are massive. Some monuments I have seen on TV or in pictures are far less impressive in real-life. The Taj Mahal lives up to its reputation. It is a majestic beauty.

Tourists are crammed together just inside the entrance, taking the first big photo-op they have to capture the Taj and its reflection in the mirror ponds. I took my requisite photo and had another taken of me squatting down with a thumbs-up sign and the Taj in the background. My guide, who said his name is Gandhi, took me around to several good spots on the grounds to snap photos. He actually knew of a few gems that I’d have had to work awhile to find myself. Perhaps this justified the 600 rupee price that he asked. I decided to just go with it and enjoy my choice to take a guide. My disgruntled dogs stopped barking and trotted along with wagging tails.

Tourists streamed along a pre-set path to and from the Taj, like so many ants on an ant highway. There are so many, it is easy to see this from afar on one of the rooftop restaurants built back and away from the outside wall. The stream runs all day long. Thousands of tourists visit every day. Now, I was one of them; On-the-beaten-path; A tourist with a guide and a rickshaw ride; taking photos; missing the pure experience of the Taj.

We got to the edge and put on shoe covers in order to protect the monument from dirt and cleaning. The first thing up was the guest house. A massive stone monument that itself would also be an attraction like the gates, except that it sits in the shadow of the Taj. A mirror image building on the other side of the grounds serves as a mosque to this day and hold services every Friday. I snapped a few more photos from key positions within the guest hall and then vowed to put the camera away and enjoy the journey.

Out behind the Taj runs the dirty river Yamuna, and Gandhi pointed out a spot on the opposite bank which he told me that the shah was planning on building his own mausoleum to match the Taj, but in black marble. The fabled Black Taj Mahal. According to Lonely Planet, this is a myth, but the locals assure me it is true.

I could see down the river that I walked along yesterday with Keith and Ivan, down towards the Agra Fort and the site of Shah Jahan’s imprisonment by his son for the last 8 years of his life. My vagabonder friends might decry spending a whole day’s budget to visit the Taj itself, but I think it is worth it. Some monuments are worth paying extra for even if on a tight budget, because they are so spectacular. The Taj is one such. Yes, I could go the free route along the East wall and explore the gardens and the river banks… I could easily find adventure and save my money… but again, some things are worth the extra cost, even on a budget.

Inside the Taj was a replica of the tomb below. For security reasons,as of a few years ago, the actual tomb is kept under lock and key. Fucking terrorists! Several verses of the Quran are framed inlayed in marble up and down the octagonal walls. Gandhi says it is a whole book of the Quran, but I doubt this as accurate. But what do I know? He points out lotus flowers, opium flowers, and jasmine on the walls and the inlay on the tomb. Mostly, I have paid for a Taj Mahal trivia guide that can show me a few details that I might have otherwise overlooked.

We keep up the troop through the Taj and I am mostly feeling as though I just am not giving this enough time and attention as I follow Gandhi around, but at least I have learned a few useless facts and have a bit of narration to go along with. I didn’t know that white Rajasthani marble is some of the most durable in the world and it takes only soap and water to clean off and is difficult to stain. That may be good to know.

They had to bring tons of this stuff up from Rajasthan over a hundred kilometers away before trains existed. When the British were thugging their way through India, and building railways to the coast to export their “booty”, they almost dismantled the Taj for the marble. Fortunately, a British officer had the foresight to fight for its protection as a national treasure. Gandhi was not my informant on this fact.
The monument is a massive testament to the love of the shah for his 3rd wife, Mumtaz. She died in childbirth, giving his fourteenth child. His first two wives gave him none. They are buried on the grounds as well, towards the front of the complex, in much smaller, but still massive mausoleums of their own.

Just down the river from here, people are regularly burnt in cremation and sent into the river so that their souls are taken away. Their bones are among the ashes left behind. A much less ornamental death.

Gandhi shows me through the exit from the back of the Taj. I recall a New Yorker cartoon. The caption reads: “The back of the Taj Mahal.” It showed a crooked telephone pole running wire to the Taj, with overgrown grass and an old rusty pickup rotting in the overgrowth alongside an old refrigerator. An old tire leaned up against the back wall. It was the sort of scene that you might see when walking through an alley behind houses with well-kept front yards in the states.

Behind the Taj is a dirty river and some crooked light poles, littered plastic tourist drink bottles, and frames of something old and rusting in the river. Not so far off from the cartoon after all. Actually, the world all around the Taj, outside the walls, more closely matches the junkiness in the comic, with wires running every which way, garbage strewn about everywhere, and old parts of stuff stored for later tinkering.

Gandhi takes me out and away from the Taj and shows me one more good spot for the picture-addicted tourist to get a shot of the building rimmed by three tree branches. I get one more good look and a shot of Ghandi-Ji himself, and we exit the main grounds towards some artisan workshop. We walk past some more guest and workers quarters where people take food. There was once a restaurant here, or so he says. Once again, I am reading Gandhi’s intent. He is going to take me out of the grounds to show me an artisan’s workshop: How they made the stone inlay and did all the carving, he says. I decide to cut him off as a guide and instead spend another hour walking back in on my own. No photos this time. I am not interested in an artisan’s workshop where they will try to sell me Taj Mahal replicas. Perhaps this is not his intention. He offers to wait for me while I head back in, but I would rather spend an hour soaking in the glory of the Taj itself than have a marble-work lesson. I pay him his overpriced guide fee and say goodbye.

For the most part, Gandhi was a mediocre tour guide. He didn’t give me super sophisticated information, but I learned a few facts. For most of our walk, I was kind of a spaced-out tourist and he was kind of a robotic tour guide. But at one point, I engaged him deeper, asked him about his life and told him I had enjoyed India for the last four months, and that the Indian people were nice and I liked them. Then he visibly relaxed and we both came more present and peaceful around each other. Now, we said goodbye. I set him free to go make some more money and myself, free to explore the grounds without pressure.

On my second time back through the Taj Mahal’s grounds, I took my sweet time walking from bench to bench to sit and just look at the glory and the beauty of this building.

It really is quite spectacular.

At some benches, I just sat and enjoyed the breeze and the spectacle of other tourists gawking in wonder or posing as though they were pinching the tip of the Taj’s main dome. An Indian mother took pictures of her cute little girls at the first reflection pond. Japanese girls in beautiful saris posed together in decidedly Indian postures. Heavily be-camera’d older western package tourists stood slack-jawed in wonder or in idle, semi-bored rigmarole. Older Indian tourists shuffled by without much noticeable childlike enthusiasm. I saw a Korean girl jump and click her heels together for a picture. A young Indian man took his bride from place to place to pose for honeymoon photos. She looked far too serious. Probably had a disgruntled dog barking in her head.

I got up and walked to another park bench and assumed a meditative pose. Nothing spectacular happened. As it turns out, I was already pretty chill from my first four months here, and my mind was blown wide open from the beauty of the Taj and the preceding adventures leading up to this moment at the monument. Still, of course, I need to do a yogic mudra here. I saw a couple of western girls also doing meditative poses for camera. Nothing new here, I am sure.

I went up to the stone dais in the middle of the four long reflecting ponds, and found an empty bench to sit on that was being strangely ignored by most tourists, and settled for a moment. A couple of college-age Indian guys approached and asked for a photo with me. The guy who wanted his photo taken had a gold-tooth. He was one of very few fat Indian men I have seen. Most are rail thin. I flashed a peace sign and smiled from my bench without getting up. He was happy. I am momentarily amazed that here at the Taj, one of the wonders of the world, with a plethora of photo ops, I am asked for a photo with some guys I don’t even know. I had to ask his name at least. (I forget it now, we’ll call him Raj.) I wasn’t even sitting with the Taj as backdrop. Crazy. My strange westerness is enough to make me a bit of an attraction myself.

The guys moved along and I found a spot to sit on the edge of the dais a few feet away from a Korean girl lost in contemplation. I didn’t ask her for a picture. The young Indian couple came to pose again in front of me. She was looking as serious as ever. A twenty rupee entrance coupon floated in the reflecting pond in front of me. A slight breeze caressed my skin and rippled the water’s surface. The Taj loomed anciently in the background.

I got up and walked along the pond and found another bench by a gateway marked, “Exit only,” which many people were using to enter the main access point up to the Mausoleum itself. What an amazing site! How good I chose to come back and view it again. Each bench I sat on and the Taj was more massive and dominant in my frame of view. No one was pinching the tip from this vantage. This was the last bench on the line.

A group of rail-thin older Indian men and women shuffled by. A western solo traveler glided through the exit-only gates. I decided to follow suit. I went to the front of the reflecting pond where a machine gun-toting guard paced on the wall above a terraced collection of sixty or so potted plants. I decided to stop and smell the flowers. As it turns out, they were all pretty devoid of smells at this point in their life, which is fitting for a tomb. Even walking excitedly within the shadow of a masterpiece does one occasionally have to stop and smell the flowers.

I did some breathing exercises as I walked along, and stretched my arms Tai-chi style, drawing in breath and energy and stares. No matter. I now felt less zombie-like and more present and aware. The exercise brought details of the Taj into focus that were just drifting unnoticed along the periphery of my over-focused mind. The crispness of the marble inlay stood out sharply. The opportunity to view the reflecting pond in reverse waved me over. I stood in the symmetry of several other tourists’ distant photos and looked back down the middle of the pond to the main gates. This is an under-appreciated view. The guard watched me from his pacing; an abnormality among the stream of shufflers.

I moved on to the entry stairs to the complex again and put on my construction-style booties. There were more people crammed together here this time around just an hour later. Early A.M. first thing is definitely the best time to visit.

This time around, I wasn’t being shepherded by Gandhi, and I could enjoy myself from wherever on the grounds I wished to. I stood and looked up at the sparkling inlay shining in the sunrise. The Taj is lit differently all day long. I gazed up at the towering minarets, each with three doorways leading to parapets ringing them at intervals up the tower. I wonder who gets access to these? The gigantic dome on the top certainly isn’t what I saw up into from below when I went through the mausoleum. There would have been a much higher ceiling. Who gets to go into that? How do they get there? Gandhi had informed me that muezzins would wail their call to prayer from the towers before electricity gave us amped up Muslim caterwauling 5x a day, every day, 365 days a year. No muezzins cry from here today, but there is a mosque on the grounds and it still holds service every Friday.

I walked along the back wall and took a few photos of the trash, and the light poles and the dirty river. I had to break my no-photo rule, but just this once. Rifle-toting soldiers patrolled in groups on the opposite bank, guarding the Taj from a water attack I guess. Further down the wall, I noticed a couple of intrepid western girls who had explored their way to the spot at the back corner of the Taj, where Keith and Ivan and I got to yesterday. I looked down at them. They looked up at me. I wanted to go talk to them and see what they were all about, but time and space would not permit. No big deal.

I really should have walked on this part of the tour without my shoes on. The cold marble would have felt great on the toes and the mosque is only accessible by barefoot. It turns out that the mosque is the building abutted to the gardens that the three of us were chatting in yesterday. I didn’t take my shoes off in the garden either, even though I really felt like resting them in the cool grass. I get too protective of my shoes sometimes, I guess.

I went back into the Taj and really didn’t spend too much time with the tomb. A large group of old Indian men and women were shuffling through in front of me. They could not have been more than five feet tall and were thin as twigs. Loads of overweight westerners packed in to fill the spaces around them, and the contrast just shows how much of a nutritional disparity there is between India and most western countries.

I found a few more things to look at inside the Taj that I skipped before. A couple of corridors ending in an intricate lattice window made of marble which breathed into the central room and vented air in from outside. A blocked-off passageway had a few cracks alongside a barricade to view an empty dusty room beyond that no one was allowed into. Everything is set up at the Taj to herd us through like the holy cow, from one end of the stockade to the other. 100,000 tourists come through every day. The Indian government makes a killing here.
Coming out the back and I looked away down the river one last time. It would be flooded in the monsoon season, maybe right up to the Taj’s outer wall. Now, it was pretty low flowing.

I got stuck again behind the trickle of old Indians despite trying to hurry past them to get out. My time left until check-out at my hotel was dwindling. I could easily have found nice benches to sit on all day long and contemplate or write from, whilst in the shadow of the Taj.
I got away from the old, frail Indian trickle and walked back past the flowers and the pacing guard, and the near-end of the reflecting pond. I snapped a photo and got in a few more unwary tourists masterpiece photos of the Taj. I would be providing scale for them, that’s it! No cell phones are allowed in, but the young Indian businessman in front of me casually blabbed on his, as we walked back to the front of the grounds. He had that unaware-of-his-surroundings air about him that cell phone users so often get, and he didn’t see me tailing him and approaching at a faster clip than his amble. Instead of passing him, I decided to veer off and find one last bench to sit on and look at the massive spectacle of the Taj Mahal. It was still big and impressive after two trips through.

A girl on my right sat in yoga meditation pose, hands curled into mudras, self-conscious sheepish grin on her face as she got her photo taken by a friend. The stream of travelers kept on flowing steadily by.

I got up and walked to the back of the grounds to find an exit mirroring the one Gandhi and I took. Instead, I found and exhibit entitled, “March of Indian Civilization,” which began with a goofy picture of Indian-featured cavemen sitting around a pre-historic campfire; one ripping flesh from a bone fresh from a kill, others working with tools, some women breastfeeding, and a host of them freaking out over a bear that had just wandered into camp. This amused me. A further series of photos depicting various temple ruins around India showed the progressively more sophisticated architecture that has been developed over the centuries, from crumbly old boxy temples, to more intricate Hindu temples one finds everywhere now, to the Taj Mahal, and the Lotus Temple in Delhi for present day. The last feature on the wall was a door marked, “toilet.”

There was no exit here, so I turned around and went backwards through history until passing the main gate and getting in the way of a few more photos. ;) I went over the side exit, turned around to offer Namaste and thanks to the Taj, and said goodbye. An old westerner tourist blocked the exit as he was taking photos with his huge camera of an old Indian man sitting on the wall of the gateway building. The Indian seemed neither impressed nor bothered, but the western man was very excitedly snapping up photos like this was a National Geographic photo opportunity. We are so strange to each other. He smiled at me like an excited schoolboy, snapped one more photo and turned to leave.

I walked through and out away from the Taj Mahal and headed back out away from the crowds and into the streets to ward off rickshaw drivers and touts who were fishing for some western money as the stream emptied out on to the streets of Agra.

One rickshaw driver asked me for a fare. “Come ride Indian Helicopter!” he joked. I put my arms out and spun around a few times like a copter and asked him if he was the blades like this to make us go? He and his rickshaw cronies laughed at our silliness. A sense of humor goes a long way when traveling.

I went back to my tomb of a room in the budget hotel, “Shanti Lodge,” took a few minutes to absorb and reflect on my adventure, a cold and invigorating shower, and packed up my stuff into my overfull bag. Then I checked out.

A quick two days it has been in Agra. Tonight, I take a train to the holy city of Varanasi. I could very easily explore around this city for weeks, I can tell… but my visa is nearly up and I have just a few days to get myself to Nepal before the fines and the jail time and the guns start getting pointed in my direction.

Still, I had one day of off-the-beaten-path budget adventure with Keith and Ivan, where we explored on our own and found barely noticed treasures scattered all around the Taj: the garden, the river path, the smoldering burning ghats, the cemetery, the painted walls, the river cows and the huge cows, the peacock in the park, a surprising absence of tourists, and plenty of unusual silence and peaceful spaces pocketed away from the massive crowds flowing through the Taj each day.

Yesterday cost me $11.00 (about $10.00 under my daily budget.)

Today cost me $41.00 (about $20.00 over)

The on-the-beaten-path adventure was worth it too. It cost more, sure, but I am not one to go around thinking myself superior for being an off-the-beaten-path-adventurer instead of an on-the-beaten-path-tourist. I like to find my way into the best of both worlds.

All things considered though, yesterday was a bit more fun than today. Today was amazing, for sure and I truly enjoyed taking in the Taj. But there is just something about finding treasures that most people are oblivious to, and palling around with fellow vagabonders who are willing to get their feet dirty that is really my cup of chai.

Posted by TravelerTyler 00:38 Archived in India Tagged culture Comments (1)

Mystery parade in Udaipur

What am I getting myself into today?



February 5, 2012

I went for a walk mid-afternoon, after a vigorous meditating and writing session, to clear my head and digest my latest round of inward discovery. Udaipur’s city streets are narrow, dirty and congested with all manner of transportation weaving around each other, vying for dominance, and honking incessantly. Cows wander aimlessly in search of their next meal of discarded banana peels or something tasty left in a plastic bag on one of the many piles of garbage along the roadside. Scooters and motorcycles weave around rickshaws and guys on bike. An occasional tractor towing a trailer full of rubble or crops rumbles through. Larger vans full of tourists and heavily decorated work trucks barge through the swarm of lesser vehicles. Everywhere there are streams of people walking purposefully along on their business, or meandering about looking for something to do. Shopkeepers stand on the ready to pull anyone they can hook into their store. Dogs sleep in the sun on slate porches, storing up their energy for the night’s upcoming barking competition. The streets here are alive with a constantly shifting activity and you have to stay on your toes to get around without getting yourself seriously hurt or killed.

Even though there are no sidewalks here, just an ant’s path lining each side of these narrow roads that everything tries to squeeze through, and I can’t walk along in the sort of absent-minded bliss I can on a street in the Seattle, I still find walking around Udaipur to be a good way to unwind and get out of my head. I was walking north, away from the main city core, on a road winding along the dirtier end of Lake Pichola, with no specific aim in mind. I was walking fast and I came up behind a couple of Muslim men dressed nicely in their white robes and white caps. They were walking purposefully in the same direction as me, and I could have passed them, but I decided to pull back and meander a bit more. No need to work extra hard just to get in front of them and then probably slow down while I was looking at something else interesting in someone’s store or sticking out of a pile of trash, and block them anyway.

We walked a little bit further and I noticed that there were several groups of Muslims all heading in the same direction. It was Sunday and normally the Muslims take Friday as their day for worship, and have Saturday off. Something was going on out of the ordinary. Maybe a special mosque service? I don’t know all that much about the specifics of Islam and what little I do know is most certainly skewed by what I have been shown in Hollywood movies where Muslims are depicted as psychotic terrorists, and in western media which focuses on the more extreme elements of a vast spectrum of Muslim peoples. I imagined that I might receive a stern lecturing-to about my non-Muslim ways, if I got too close. Some of these guys seemed kind of serious. A couple of the guys noticed that I was following behind them and turned to look at me. But that was it. They had somewhere to go, and probably they don’t make a habit of lecturing people out of the blue on the street, anyhow. Where did I get that idea?

Green and silver tinsel streamers were alternately strung across the street from building to building for the next block or two. The crowd of Muslims I had joined on my walk steadily grew to a few dozen. I could hear music blaring up ahead. The unmistakable energy of excitement began to thicken the air. Something was going on. What was I about to get myself into? The crowd made it to a roundabout intersection and spread out, each in their own directions. Streamers ran from a pole at the center of the roundabout to buildings and light posts on all sides, like spokes in a wheel. Muslims of all shapes and sizes hung out along the side of the road, waiting for something unknown to me to happen. The bridge heading north and away from the city was completely streamered and lined with waiting people. I could see the road continuing around the other side of the lake was also decorated and led to a collection of red and yellow tents and along this road were more people waiting. It looked like a parade was on its way. A gap in the people by the edge of the bridge gave me a chance to stand out of the road and observe. Maybe this would be my parade spot, and I had gotten lucky to find a place to stand.

There was a lot of activity on the other street leading back into town. It was blocked off by traffic barricades and police, and packed full of people. A lot of music and the unmistakable roaring sounds of a large and active crowd came from somewhere past hundreds of people and around the 1st bend in the road. People streamed in and out between the barricades. I reasoned that the parade must be coming from that direction and heading to the tents for a big party. I could head over to the tents and see what was going on and get away from this mess if I wanted to find some more peace and quiet in another quarter of the city. This option appealed to the lazier and nervously reluctant part of my comfort zone. The other way was packed full of Muslims who might not want outsiders at their party. I was the only westerner on this road as far as I could see. The religiously clad men on my sides stared at me without saying anything. Men across the street and down the street stared at me, wondering what I was up to. I decided I didn’t feel like waiting here and walked between the barricades and into the fray.

The normal hustle-bustle of the cars and haggling Udaipur merchants had been shut down here for this parade and the narrow streets were packed wall to wall with people. Mostly in the middle were white clad Muslim men and boys, while the women and small children had found places along the sides to watch from. Hindis could be seen watching from their homes here and there, but were not to be seen in the sea of parade-goers. I found a trickle of guys squeezing their way through the crowds and fell in line behind them, to head deeper into the action. The going was slow. A cart full of loudspeakers blasted really loud music and all around it people were dancing wildly. Tables were set up and amped up men served some think bluish drink in plastic cups to the crowd nearby. People made frenzied grabs to get their drink, and a small swath opened around them by others who didn’t want to get pushed around or splashed or trampled. Another trickle of Muslims came from the other direction, trying to get away from the louder and more energized parade core that I was headed towards.

I was the only westerner in this crowd. Udaipur is a tourist city, but the other tourists were nowhere to be seen. I began to feel paranoid that I was intruding on something sacred and this would not be looked upon favorably. I clasped my hands behind my back and tried to appear a bit more humble. Every step I took, someone new turned their head to stare at me. Young Muslim men stared at me from behind large sunglasses. Women and children stared at me from either side. Proud and seriously bearded Muslim men turned to regard me in a fixed gaze. I smiled and kept walking. Most of the throng was fully engaged by the rest of the parade and not looking at me. Drums were beaten strongly and people danced. More food was passed out to more frenzied crowds of young men around other tables. Others just stood along the sides and waited for whatever was up ahead to come along. I pressed on and began to feel a thrill of fear creep in that someone would realize I was from America, and I would get taken by a group of angry militant Muslims and beaten to a pulp, or shanked as I walked along, or shot. I was deep enough into this crowd now that I was completely at its mercy.

Green carpets were covering the ground. Colorful swaths of fabric swung in the breeze whipping between the buildings. The crowds became denser as I moved along. I couldn’t do well by barging my way through and had to shift to dodging and weaving between the revelers. I didn’t think that this was the time to act like a big American and throw my weight around anyway. I was trying to act tough in the face of my fears, which I knew were probably mostly irrational and fed by misinformation, but ultimately, I just decided to embrace them. I might look a little weak at first, but I wasn’t going to let this media-fueled paranoia keep me from having a good time. I felt ready to fight back if I was attacked. Then I started to feel angry at the American media’s perverse need to focus on only the extremist Muslims and to not actively show the certainly much larger group of people who were more moderate and peaceful. Most of these people were probably nice. Firecrackers were exploding on the ground in a pocket in the crowd just ahead of me. I walked through it when nothing was going on. Someone tossed a large one at my feet and I stepped out of the way just in time for it to explode loudly, but safely behind me. The explosions reminded me of gun shots. How many Muslim gatherings had I heard about where a bomb went off in some parked car and killed dozens of people?

The street opened up into one of the many town squares. I walked into a sea of white-clad Muslims. I wore brown pants, a black shirt, and a black bandana on my head. I have never felt more out of place. The air was electric with excitement. The parade was snaking its way into the throng at a terminally slow pace. Music blared. All around people were dancing and hollering in joy. A fighting spirit stirred deep within me. I was outraged that the people in this world, my own country especially, aren’t doing everything that they can do to fight for love and peace. I was outraged by the fear-mongering politicians of this world who lead us continually into war with each other. I was outraged by the way that the media skews the truth in order to sell more commercials. Most of all, I was angry with the American public and the public of so many lands who keep buying into this crap without thinking for themselves and fighting against each other when they should be fighting with all of their hearts for each other. There was so much life at the parade. Why would anyone want to destroy it?

I weaved my way over to one side and found a nice place close to the parade to stand, in the middle of the a cluster of motorcycles, where I could take some pictures from without getting jostled or harassed. I felt a little more vulnerable now that I had stopped moving. People would stare at me for a long time; especially if I pointed my camera in their direction. I wondered if I was breaking some sort of Muslim code about not taking pictures at parades, but I saw plenty of them doing it too, so I didn’t concern myself any further. Occasionally, someone needed their motorcycle and I had to move, but that was it.

The parade procession moved along at a snail’s pace. There were heavily decorated trucks full of Muslim men of some authority. Young men danced in the back. Some pointed at me and waved when I took their picture. Auto-rickshaws were decorated up and more men were packed in these. A horse drawn cart carried a very serious and religious-looking bearded mullah. Both he and his driver glared at me and, in no way looked any less angry by the time they were done. They were followed by a trio of camels each pulling a low cart heavily laden with small children. They waved at me and screamed and giggled when I waved back. Two lines of cars and horse-carts and camels were coming from separate streets and merging into the one main procession, which was already moving very slow owing to the fact that it had to plow through hordes of revelers up the way I had come from. In twenty minutes, the glaring mullah had only moved about twenty feet. There was a massive line of cars coming down the hill from the city center and I wasn’t going to see them any time soon standing here, so I decided to hoof it across the square and make my way alongside the procession as it came in.

These streets were even narrower and the constantly disappearing footpath brought me right alongside the parade cars. Kids waved at me from the top of a truck and wanted to shake my hand. I was happy to oblige, but then they decided to make a game of holding on as tightly as they could. I would get out of one hold and shake hands with another kid and the game would start again. The next truck was loaded with loudspeakers and a group of young men danced in an ad hoc moshpit which filled the street behind it. A fight started to break out, and a lot of yelling and shoving was going on just as I was trying to pass it. It was quickly suppressed and everyone got back to dancing. Some guy who had seen me waiting tentatively to pass waved me through. Cloth pillars and bands of fabric hung from building to building formed a tunnel over the road, which I had seen being set up two weeks earlier. I had assumed then that it was for festival that night and not for something two weeks later. This festival was massive. There were at least a hundred thousand partying Muslims here. I was the only white boy. I still had no idea what was going on.

I found another empty space to stop and take pictures from. There was a beautiful silver horse-drawn carriage sitting at standstill with another stern-looking mullah as sole occupant. He stared straight forward and didn’t turn to look at the crowds. The carriage was actually built of wood and covered with silvery tin or aluminum paneling on all sides. Each panel had been metal-worked so that patterns decorated it in bas-relief. Lanterns hung from curved poles in the front corners. It was the best looking piece in the entire parade. I snapped a couple of pictures. People turned to look at me, but the stern-faced-mullah kept up his staring contest with the back of the truck in front of him. Behind him was a thin man riding a camel decorated with bright fabric and a pair of large semi-spherical drums slung across its back. The camel-riding musician beat out a lively tune. I snapped another picture. Some kids saw me with my camera and wanted their picture taken as well, so I snapped one of them, and one picture of the kid sitting next to me who realized what I was up to. Indian boys love to have their picture taken. As a game, it has achieved competitive proportions. I asked his parents what this parade was all about. They told me that it was Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. I wondered if I had insulted the honor of the prophet with my ignorance?

The parade was not moving one bit. The stern-faced-mullah hadn’t budged his head in ten minutes, and I decided to keep walking. As I made my way past one truck loaded with kids or young men and loudspeakers, each blaring their own individual loud music and each followed by their own group of dancers, I was continually pressed upon to shake hands or to wave. I passed dozens more cars. I shook hands with dozens of people. I waved and smiled at hundreds. I danced at every truck. One of the trucks even wanted me to join them as part of the parade. I was getting as much attention in this crowd as the people in the parade were themselves. More and more, I was feeling good and beaming with friendliness which was reflected and amplified by almost everyone I met. It was getting easier to shake hand after hand and smile. I was starting to feel a bit like a politician or a celebrity.

I stopped at another intersection where two trains of cars were converging, and found a place to watch for a moment. Kids waved. A group of serious-looking men saw me and I nodded a hello and watched the parade for awhile. I looked back and they were still staring at me. I nodded again reflexively. They came over to stand next to me. One asked me where I was from. Canada. I told him I was from Vancouver B.C. There was no need to risk any problems by admitting to my U.S. Citizenship, but I did feel a bit cowardly by not owning up to it. Canada, Canada, Canada. I told this to a few people who asked me. I doubt that they would have started anything with me if I had said America. The city is crawling with American tourists and there isn’t any problem between them and the local Muslim community that I am aware of. Everybody here asks you where you are from if you aren’t Indian. My fears of getting killed for being an American in this crowd were probably remote fantasy.

I left them and walked past more trucks and shook more hands and waved at more kids. I danced a couple more times for a moment, and I made my way past the last of the parade trucks and waved goodbye to the kids on the top of it. I wondered how long they would be sitting there without moving, and the massive crowd of Muslims would endure the glacial pace of the very long parade procession that they would have to wait through in order to see everyone. The kids all seemed to be having fun. The young men were making a big party of it all and dancing their hearts out. I wonder how long the stern-faced-mullah stared straight ahead and how stern he would be when he was done. I left the electric energy of the parade behind, not quite sure where I was, but ready to find my way back to the hotel.

The streets beyond the parade were filled with a daytime silence and a calmness that I had never encountered before in Udaipur. The normal hustle bustle and honking craziness was blocked off by the parade route, and I was in some residential area now, so there wasn’t any traffic. A few kids were playing in the street and said hello to me, and their mother smiled at me from her porch as she watched them. A couple of cows sat in the middle of the street to soak up some sun and lazily regarded me. A few dogs sniffed around the trash unhurriedly. The sun found a few places to beam onto the street from between the high buildings above and lit up motes of dust floating slowly through the air. After the lively parade, the stillness made me think of death. It was peaceful.

Posted by TravelerTyler 00:25 Archived in India Tagged culture shock Comments (0)

My First Walk in Delhi

Nothing, but nothing can capture the experience of Delhi... but here is an idea.

sunny 24 °C

November 23, 2011

I went out yesterday on a walk to the local shopping mall in an attempt to purchase a few items that I need and to finally get out of the hotel. Before I went, I firmly decided that I would take no pictures and write no emails until I had fully digested the experience.
I doubt that I will fully digest the experience any time soon, but here it is anyway.

New Delhi.
Vivek Vihar neighborhood.

This is where I went walking yesterday in an attempt to find a set of travel plugs with a ground pin, which I need for my netbook, and also to find a SIM card for my phone as I neglected to get one at the airport.

Where to begin? What to say that could possibly encapsulate the experience that is New Delhi? I have spent the whole day today in the hotel recovering. It was a beautiful disaster.
Delhi is a sea of disparate juxtapositions.
It is at once beautiful and terrible, surreal and utterly real, chaotic and organized, living in the past 4 centuries at once and developing at rocket speed towards the future, enchanting and filthy, lovely and heinously, heinously wrong.

Delhi makes my heart both soar and cry at the same time.

I went to the Cross River Mall to try find the electronics that I need: To no avail. The one electronics store only sold Sony gadgets.

Things I saw in the mall:

That made me laugh:

-A sign advertising the brand: Whoopi - "It's good for Kids!"
-A McDonalds (in a country that holds cows sacred.)
-A Bowling Alley called. "Viking Bowl" with a cheesy fat and happy cartoon Viking mascot.

That engaged me:
-A trio of 20 year old girls who asked me to take their photograph and gave me a slice of birthday cake from their friend after singing to her.
-A big, fat tall Indian guy who leaned into me menacingly and wanted to shake my hand. (My hands were full and he spoke no English, so he grumbled something in Hindi and walked off)

That concerned me:
-A metal detector, bag check and frisk down upon entrance.
- An indoor sling shot bungee jump ride.
- The proposal of checking my bags at the door should I want to visit the cinema.

That intrigued me:

- lots of stores selling Saris and assorted designer clothing.
-the view from the 4th floor of all the stuff going on outside. There were lots of stages being set up with stages for who knows what?
- Hindu statue salesman.

That satisfied me:
-Capsicum, Onion, and Tomato Pizza (mmmm... capsicum)
-Banana "shake"
-cake from the girls (oh thank you very much!)

That saddened me:

-An old lady begging for bahksheesh out back, who followed me.
-A ~3 or 4 year old boy begging in the front with his grandma or mother or ???
-A complete lack of Travel converters and SIM cards.

That being said, the mall experience was positively tame compared to what came next.

I decided to go for a random walk and get somewhat lost.

Things that enchanted me:

-statues and idols of Ganesh and other Hindu gods wrapped up in the stalks of every Banyan tree I walked past. most were plastic (not the trees)
-the fact that everyone stared at me, but generally left me in peace (except beggars)
-running into the guy who tried to menace me into a handshake, and he was all smiles and friendliness and waves when I passed him.

Things that sickened me:

-The river. The stench coming from the massive amounts of garbage and shit clogging up the river was overwhelming. It was the single worst smell that I have ever encountered and it still haunts my nostrils a day later.
-The massive amounts of trash everywhere. Sanitation is beyond out of control here.
-The open sewers running along the sides of the residential buildings (with guys using them), and having to walk across "overflow" (I understand why all Asian people insist on removing shoes now)

Things that enlivened me:

-dodging traffic at every street crossing
-puddle jumping (as in, over the puddle)
-the general crushing humanity of it all

Things that were lying on the sidewalk that I walked around/jumped over:
-open manholes with garbage in them. (Thank you, Gabe)
-Dog shit, dog shit and more dog shit (and human shit?)
-Feral dogs lying in the sun, (especially pregnant ones)
-streams of piss running off the walls
-a sleeping 3 year old boy (with a fly crawling on him)
-an old lady at the bus stop, attended to by friends

More things that disgusted me:
-walking back over the bridge crossing the river
-looking down at the massive garbage piles in the river and seeing pigs rooting around in it.
-and thinking about the people who lived just up from this

Construction projects that would violate Redmond city code:

-Rickety scaffolding that looked as if it belonged in a Dr. Seuss book, 15 stories high.
-Only the project lead had a hard hat on
-A building where they were laying the next level up of concrete (this floor supported only by a large collection of tree limbs
-Massive ground level transformers with wire going everywhere... (fenced, but easily breeched)

-vendors selling motorcycle helmets at regular intervals along the street (for those people who hitched a ride with no helmet - and who actually cared to buy one)
-guys peeing on the wall along major city streets (Aka, public toilet)
-"No photograhi permitted" at the public water tower

-people living in tents and hovels along the road wherever they could manage (including along the river)
-a guy selling bicycle tubes along the side of the road.. just a few natty old tubes hanging froma tree were his entire livelihood. (He was on a cell phone)
-constant movement of massive amounts of people, everywhere

There was a part of me that wanted to go jump on a plane and call the whole trip off.

I may be communicating this here in lists, but the reason that I am doing so is that I am still reeling from the very strong culture shock of it all.
I have been to a 3rd world country before (Egypt), and though it was very different itself from America, India is way beyond what I saw there on my random walks.
The culture shock blew my mind over and over again.
There will be a time when I can sit down and write some prose about this, but not yet.

I will not be cancelling my trip of course. I knew what was going on was culture shock, as that resistance was happening - but still. India is a VERY DIFFERENT PLACE from United States. Our ghettos are not even remotely close to as bad as what I saw (and these were not ghettos)

India is magical and India is obscene. It is amazing how everything works together in the crazy chaotic hectic way that it does.. .but it works. It works very shittily in many regards - the garbage is horrendous. They are polluting their land air and water beyond belief. The class systems create a wide disparity of wealth and responsibility gets passed off as "not my problem." And yet, there is a beauty and a kindness that erupts in every moment.
India is a very alive place.

And did I mention that I HATE mosquitoes?! They are vile creatures and whoever designed them needs to be beaten silly.

I will wake up tomorrow knowing that it is Thanksgiving, and I will be spending every moment of that day giving all the thanks that I have that I was able to come on this trip to see this very different world and to learn how to relate to it... and I will be saying thanks with all of my heart that I was not born here on the streets or as one of the sweeper caste, or living alongside a pig- stocked, shit-filled, putrid river, or even that I don't have to walk over it more than twice in my life.

And I am thankful for all the generous and kind people in my life both at home and abroad, and so much more that words still cannot begin to express.

Posted by TravelerTyler 23:43 Archived in India Tagged culture shock Comments (0)

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