Monday, December 3, 2012

NEVER GET OUT OF THE BOAT! India 2012 part 6

Line to the railway.
Woke up at the crack of dawn! It wasn't too hard as the early morning prayers were in full effect and somewhere in the city, worshipers were singing and playing instruments. It was a peaceful yet eerie sound that reverberated throughout the neighborhood. Our group had to head out early and meet our tour leader in the hotel lobby to catch a train to our next destination. It was Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. 

We piled in our cars and headed to the train station which was already packed despite the early hour. Our tour leader Saurabh notified us that we would be traveling together, except for one gentleman in our group who had to ride in a different car. Saurabh did a great job checking up on him during our trip though. One word of advice, travelers, pack as light as possible. All of my tour members have these large camping backpacks. My mom and I have bulky carry on luggage. They are heavy and are a major pain carting them around the train stations. We learned how to transfer the larger pieces later in the trip by paying a porter to carry them for us. It's still dark. I can't wait to see the Indian countryside in the daylight. 

The train ride was pretty smooth. Over the course of our three week trip, we would be riding three different kinds of trains. This particular train would be the most comfortable as it was First Class and we had assigned seating. A skinny boy, much like an airplane stewardess, came by and brought us different kinds of food. The first was a tea service. The boy brought out plastic thermoses that held hot water. Tea bags were served with small packets of sugar. My mom and I passed. The water situation still frightened me. A few minutes later, our next meal was delivered to us. It was a plastic red tray that contained two sealed pieces of brown bread ("Hearty Brown, the Original Taste of Brown Bread"), a small mango juice box, Everplus ketchup, Amul butter and a small warm tin of spicy potato dumplings. It was pretty good. The Indian Railways food had won me over.

Yum! Breakfast. Indian Railways. 
On our journey to Agra, I noticed people squatting near the train tracks. I was wondering why they were there and what they were waiting for. Were they were waiting for the train? There was no way this train was stopping and the train station was still pretty far off, but they were everywhere. I glanced a little closer at one squatter and noticed his exposed genitals. Now I got it. They were relieving themselves by the side of the tracks. I looked at the areas of the train tracks and saw little piles of excrement dotting the landscape like some bizarre Sadean version of Pacman. One of my tour members also saw the squatters. We joked about this with our group leader. He said to make sure to leave him a little flag if we find ourselves in a similar situation. 

We arrived at the Agra train station and found our cars waiting for us. The transfer situation was a perfectly organized. I commend our group leader for making sure that we had our transportation waiting for us at all at all times. There was one little hiccup in Udaipur, but again, our group leaded managed to get us out of a particular uncomfortable situation. More on that later. 

Our drivers took us to the Agra Fort or Red Fort. Another piece of awesome Indian architecture. The Red Fort had a great bloody history. Ownership had changed over the many centuries, with kings dying in the process. We walked over the bridge into the fort and there we meet our Agra Fort tour guide. He was a slight fellow with white hair and attentive eyes. There is a small video clip of him below. He had been a guide for the fort for many years. He knew everything about this place. As intriguing as his dialogue was, I kind of hung back from the rest of my group and caught up with my wife and son. I was able to call them on my cell. I think I was a little tired from waking up so early and wished we had gone to our hotel first. After our tour, we bid our guide goodbye, paid him a small donation and made our way over the bridge and back to our cars. While we were waiting for the rest of the tour group on the bridge, I heard a little voice squeaking, "Hallo, hallo." It was barely audible over the sound of the talking tourists. I turned and saw a young boy laying between a break on the side of the bridge. He was leaning on a rusty gate and he had his left hand out, waving to get our attention. His other arm was was discolored and full of sores. There was another little boy in tattered clothes kneeling next to him, shooing flies off of the diseased arm.

Entrance to the Red Fort, Agra.
The imposing Red Fort, Agra.

Inside the Red Fort. Agra.

Inside the Red Fort, Agra.

Red Fort, Agra.

After the fort, we headed to our hotel to drop off our luggage. I was hoping to be able to go directly to our room, but there was a slight delay. Our group lounged in the hotel lobby and talked about our experiences so far on the trip. It's been great traveling with this group. Everybody gets along very well. In the weeks leading up to the trip I was curious how I would relate to complete strangers, not knowing what type of personalities to expect. There were a few fellow musicians in the group and those that did not play, either listened to music or were involved somewhat in the arts, so I couldn't have asked for a better crew. 

After a few minutes, we were notified that our rooms were ready. We freshened up, got our bearings straight (I had a beer) and headed outside of our hotel to wait for our transportation to the Taj Mahal. Again, we were warned to expect touts (scam artists) and to be careful of their intentions. Our driver let us off a flew blocks from the monument. We were given bottled water and thin booties to put around our shoes as the marble inside the Taj Mahal is easily damaged. We got our belongings and ventured through the streets towards the great monument. We passed through another set of dubious metal detectors. The women line up in a different area then the men. We were waived through and a security guard with a metal detector wand waived it around my body. A second security guard patted me down asking "Are you Indian." in a real creepy voice. He seemed to enjoy his job a little too much. Once we were in the courtyard swarms of local amateur photographers came up and asked if they wanted us to take our pictures. I had my own camera so I declined their offers. We haven't even seen the Taj yet. One guy said that he could take pictures of me kneeling by the Taj Mahal, or me "holding" it in my hands. A few of them kept following my mom and I. 

There was a huge building that you walked through that would lead you to the magical monument. Our group separated as soon as we entered the courtyard. Once the Taj Mahal was in my view, I shuddered. I've seen this building countless times in books and magazines but once you actually have it in your sights and you know you are actually seeing the real thing, it's sort of shocking. Unsurprisingly, it was very crowded. My mom and I couldn't get any good shots due to all of the visitors. One persistent photographer who followed us in said that he could get good photos of us without showing any people in it. He was dirt cheap, so we said yes.  We took his orders as he snapped photos of us in front of the Taj, next to the Taj, he even took a photo of me with the building reflected in my sunglasses. He was good. He told people to get out of his way as he snapped photo after photo on his digital camera. We were amazed when we saw the results; there were no people in our shots. This guy was a magician. He managed to shoot at all of the right angles. We were very pleased. After that photo shoot, we felt like movie stars. I hammed it up a bit too. What the hell, this is a once in a lifetime experience, right? He told us to meet him at his shop after we were done sightseeing to pick up the photos. 

You pass through this gigantic building to get to the Taj Mahal.

Yup, kind of made my knees wobble a bit!
My favorite view of the Taj Mahal. 

It's huge!!!
The marble monster!


The sun during our visit.
The majestic mausoleum. 
I felt bad because I lost my set of booties. My mom elected to go barefoot. She's the best! There were huge lines leading inside. One line was for the tourists and a longer line to the right were for Indians. That was kind of strange. Why are we so privileged? We're the ones that should bow to the locals. Eventually both lines turned into one and we were herded in. Once inside, the odor of feet hit you hard. It must be all of the bare tootsies shuffling around. Inside was incredibly small and tight. We slowly walked the interior of the dark tomb. We were literally face to face with each other. I was feeling rather claustrophobic and couldn't wait to get out. There were guards inside blowing whistles and yelling something. I found the first exit and gladly made my way outside. 

Once outside, I took a needed deep breath of fresh air. It felt good. I was then treated to a spectacular view of the Yamuna River (the Taj Mahal shares its banks). It felt like I was at the end of the world, gazing into those cool waters. This was a real treat and I'll remember this river (another Apocalypse Now reference?) forever. 

We side-stepped to a near empty side of the monument and took some photos. It felt great. Nobody yelling or pushing. There was great moment of serenity. 

Once we untangled ourselves from the Taj Mahal experience, we visited our photographer friend. He was waiting for us in front of his shop. He had our photos, plus some extra ones of stock photos of the Taj Mahal. A member of his group tried to sell us some magnets and postcards. My mom bought a few.
The photographer wrote down his name and told me to friend him on Facebook. I lost the paper he wrote his name on. He said that he was the only guy who had that name.  

Our photographer friend. 
After the sale we strolled down the street to met our group leader. He was waiting at a nearby coffee sheep talking to other group leaders. Sitting down, we watched a bizarre parade of people riding camels, people walking camels and sometimes camels all by themselves. Where were they going? There were people on bikes carrying wood planks, metal, I even saw a guy riding a motorcycle balancing a full sized table on his lap. Amazing! One of the things that I'll never forget was seeing whole families riding on one motorcycle. The youngest up front and the oldest in the back with dad steering. Sometimes you'd see three or four generations on one bike. 

Outside the walls of the Taj Mahal. What a show!

Outside the Taj Mahal, waiting for the rest of our group.

In India, everything is possible. 
We walked to our bus with the fading sun behind us. My mom and I tried to do some last minute shopping at the nearby stalls. Our group leader got worried and thought we went missing. Luckily he found us as were were bargaining with some vendors. Sorry Saurabh! 

Once home, a few of us piled into the hotel restaurant and had dinner. Yup, you guessed it; lentils, rice and naan. Delicious!

Great place to leave your shoes. Taj Mahal. 

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