Friday, May 21, 2004

India and the Taj

Well, I am in India. It is bloomin’ friggin’ hot here. I don’t think the high has been below 110 since I got here on Tuesday night. My arrival from Thailand was uneventful, as was the public bus trip from the airport. I was a little worried about getting from the bus stop to a hotel. I had heard a number of urban myths of people getting carried off to certain murder, robbery, and white slavery, all beginning at the Dehli airport. A number of backpackers set up a makeshift camp in the arrivals terminal to wait to make the trip downtown in the daylight. But I was sitting next to a young Mexican guy who had been studying Sanskrit in Varanesi for the last 6 years, and looked uncomfortably like a sufi mystic, and he took me to a nice hotel. Then vanished. I guess they teach you that in sufi school.

The next day I hit the highlights of Delhi, the Red Fort, Friday Mosque, and a bunch of miscellaneous tombs that looked something like the Taj, etc. etc. etc. The best part of the day was the rickshaw ride from the hotel to the Red Fort through old Delhi. It looks just like it does in the movies: hot, dirty, busy, sprinkled with random cows. The Red Fort was nice, but falling down a bit. I think they are trying to spruce it up, though. The Jama Masrid (Friday <--huh?) Mosque was nice, not my favorite mosque, but the style here is different than other places I have been. Allah is a bit more imposing and less ornate here. The funniest thing about the mosque, though, was that you can’t wear shoes, so I was in India all of 12 hours before I was running around barefoot. Then I decided I wanted to climb one of the minarets to look out over the old city. I presented myself to the ticket guy at the base of the minaret. No dice. It is too dangerous for single women to go up alone. The passage is narrow and women have been groped or mugged rather routinely. Okay. No worries. I went back out across the burning tiles in my bare feet and searched around until I found two British girls. I convinced them that this was a great idea and then the three of us went over to the ticket guy. Still not good enough. No penis, no minaret. So then, with the two British girls in tow, and across the blazing tiles again, I found an English speaking male to act as our “guide,” for a reasonable fee of course. And up we went. The view was nice, but I am not sure worth the scorching my feet took trying to arrange the whole deal.

Then on to Gandhi Park, which is the aforementioned’s final resting place. It was nice in the way Kennedy’s grave is nice. Then past the India Gate, which was nice in the way the Arc de Triomphe is nice, and on to Rashtrapati Bhavar (the President’s house and parliament.) We (the British girls were still in tow) couldn’t get in because of the high drama going on with the Congress Party and Sonia Gandhi, but it was nice to look anyway. They looked like red sandstone versions of the Washington Mall, with roaming troupes of bare-assed monkeys cavorting around the place. One of the British girls remarked how strange that was. Not to us Americans. We have roaming troupes of bare-assed monkeys roaming around IN our President’s house and Congress.

The next stop was the Qutb Minar Complex, which is a series of mosques commemorating the Muslims’ victory over the Hindus in India (it struck me as a smidge pre-mature, don’t you think?). After tooling around there for a while and doing the requisite drooling over the carved columns, I parted ways with British One and British Two, and headed to Humayan’s Tomb. It was more impressive, largely because it had recently been restored, but by this time it was well over 110° and I had had enough. After mistakenly thinking I could handle the public bus system, and a delicious lunch (oh shahi paneer, how I love thee…), I eventually stumbled back to the hotel to recover. Later, I ventured out for some dinner then hit the sack.

The next day I caught the train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. I took what they call a “sleeper” class train down there. It is the second to lowest train class (out of like 8) but it is considered the safest for women traveling alone. Plus the trip was only 2 hours, so how bad could it be? I have to admit, I was rattled when I walked on that train. There is just a crush of people squeezed into this open air car with bars on the windows. Children under 15 ride pretty much free, so there are swarms of them hanging out every opening. I got on with some trepidation to say the least. The ride turned out to be a long hot 3.5 hours, but I lived. I can see why it is considered the safest though. “Excuse me, pardon me, if you could just let me get by, I am trying to mug that white woman over there, sir, if you could just move your bags, pardon me, ma’am, can you relocate your brood, I am trying to mug that woman . . . .” It would take the guy half the ride to get anywhere near me.

I settled into my hotel, and headed to the Taj. I had been hoping to see it at sunrise, but it was closed the next day, so sunset would have to do. The place is incredibly beautiful. I walked around taking the usual obscene number of pictures for hours. If I try to describe it, I will come off sounding like one of the hippie kids here that think it’s cool to go native and paint dots on their forehead, which they have no idea what they mean, so I won’t. I won’t mention the beautiful white marble, carved and inlayed, nor will I describe at length the huge domed roof or stately minarets. And, I will not even touch upon the elegantly carved interior, with the two coffins laying side by side. Suffice to say, it is cooler even than Ankor.

Today I looked at the other lesser sights in Agra, the Agra Fort and Itimad-ud-Daulah (or the Baby Taj). Eh. Agra Fort was like the Delhi Fort. Nice but not the Taj. Then I headed back to Delhi. This involved a long protracted attempt to buy a train ticket, which I eventually gave up on, went to the station manager, gave him the big watery baby blues, and found out which official needed to be slipped a baksheesh and got on my way. I had another protracted train issue here in Delhi to get a spot on the train towards Katmandu (towards, I won’t get there for a few days . . .) but everything north is sold out since it is Friday and everyone is trying to get the hell out of this oven, but the Tourist Office found a place for me on a really, really expensive car (bed, air conditioning and dinner --it cost more than all my other Indian travel so far-- $30 if you can believe it!) but it was the only way out and it is really hot in Delhi.

Sorry this one isn’t very interesting. I will try to eat some bugs or do something death-defying (just kidding Mom) before the next one.

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