Wednesday, May 18, 2016

India - Days 3 and 4:

Days 3 and 4 were spent in Agra and can be described in one word:  GARY.  "Gary" (can this really be his given Indian name??) was our guide in Agra.  We booked our vacation through a travel agent, who made arrangements with an in country Indian travel agent for each city.  This is NOT how we normally travel, we have never used a travel agent before.  It felt so strange (and a bit pretentious...) to us to PAY someone to organize it all.  Plus, normally when we travel we like to do the NON-TOURISTY things, so by booking a "tour" we worried we would be sort of restricted and not get to explore like we like to do.

Well, we have now decided that going through an agent in this instance was, for us, probably the right thing to do.  Even LITTLE things - getting from the train station to the hotel - are bizarrely different in India.  On our train ride to Agra we ended up seated by what seemed to be the only other Americans on the train.  The guy next to David was from Boston and traveling with his parents.  Turns out they also had arrived in Delhi at 2 am on the same night we did.  Only, where WE were greeted by a guide, marigold leis, chilled bottled water, and a private air conditioned vehicle to drive us to the hotel, the Boston family jumped in a TAXI at the airport, which turned out to be a big scam...  The driver was a fake taxi driver and drove them in circles a while, then pretended the "only road" to their hotel was "closed" and they could not go to the hotel!  Then he called "their hotel" for them on his cell phone and "confirmed" that "nope, can't get to the hotel...however, I can take you to this other hotel (that proved to be a dubious run-down concrete building whose tripadvisor score would have been somewhere in the range of negative numbers)"...  Luckily the dad had travelled to third world countries before and kept his wits about them and eventually got them to the right hotel. 

So it is experiences like THAT, plus the times that Gary and our Delhi guide took someone aside and argued with them in Hindi on our behalf (things that we can only imagine could be translated as, "600 rupee??  NO way, I am NOT paying your 600 rupee to haul those two suitcases on your head!  I will give you 200 rupee and not a bit more.  Take it or leave it, buddy!!!").  Did you notice I said, "Haul those suitcases on your HEAD???".  Holy smokes, the guy HAULED TWO ROLLER BAGS ON HIS HEAD.  He had a little rolled up scarf on top of his head to cushion it a bit.  Each bag weighs around 35 pounds and he walked confidently through the station with them!  Go luggage-walla!!

WHO would not be impressed by this???  These guys are at every train station.
Back to GARY, he was not really our cup of chai.  Gary was really into telling us his tour guide script - how old the fort is, why this lotus in the design is upside down, how many wives this Moghul ruler had, yadda yadda yadda.  Meanwhile, our questions to him were more on the lines of, "But GARY, is this dessert called "honey noodle with sliced cashews becauses the NODDLES themselves taste like honey or because the sauce has honey in it?  It sure is tasty..." and "Gary!  We watched a woman busting up red bricks.  Why would she be doing that??  Will she sell the busted up brick??  Use it herself for something???".  These are not the kind of questions Gary was used to getting.  :)

Gary was also a "photo Nazi".  We always take our own photos using the camera timer and sort of pride ourselves with that.  Well, Gary kept politely saying, "May I have your camera please?  Now.  There.  Go.  Stand under that arch.  NO!  Not that arch.  Yes.  There.  Now, sir, put your arm around her.  Ok good.  See this photo?  Isn't this nice???"  And it is true, his "staged shots" are nice, but it was rather like a high school senior photo shoot and secretly we kept getting the giggles about it.  The best of Gary's photo skills were put into action when he took us to the Taj Mahal.  He demanded our camera (sure, fine Gary, here ya go!) and then rather gruffly told us to, "LOOK DOWN AND DO NOT RAISE YOUR EYES UNTIL I TELL YOU TO!  Follow me!"  Umm, Gary, FOLLOW YOU through this crowd while NOT LOOKING up?  This was a funny concept, but he told us this was his special deal, only HE does this at the Taj, and it is gonna be great, just go with it.  Oooookay Gary, here we go!  He got us positioned just where he wanted, shouted a bit in Hindi for other people to MOVE OUT OF THE WAY, then ordered us to LOOK UP FOR THE BIG REVEAL!!! 

It WAS beautiful.  He had arranged an unobstructed view for us just to lift our heads and be rewarded with the grand splendor of the Taj.

But hilariously, he was VIDEO TAPING it all on our camera.  I think the video it is hilarious.  We were dressed RIDICULOUSLY - both wearing our big sun hats (David's is even more hilarious than mine...), both wearing our bright pink TEAM SHERRY shirts (which are in support of my big sister Sherry who is going through treatment for breast cancer, and which normally look great!  However, Gary had made us put them on OVER our other shirts and WEAR them into the Taj, fearing the guards wouldn't let us in with them in our bag (as we had planned).  The Team Sherry shirts are thick cotton, we had a shirt on under them, and it was over 105 degrees.  David was carrying a Trader Joe's shopping bag (to put the Team Sherry shirts in as soon as we shot a couple photos in them, so we didn't MELT from the heat.)  Oh, and I was wearing RED CAPRIS with my bright pink shirt.  We were quite the sight I am sure!!!  So Gary taped our "big reveal", and he DIRECTED it as he filmed.  If I can figure out how to include it here I will, and I suggest you watch it the first time without sound so you, too, can get a "big reveal", then watch it WITH SOUND so you can hear things like Gary telling us to hug.  Hahahahaha.  It was SO "genuine"!!  :) 

Here is a nice shot (by Gary) of our attractive outfits.  Note the pink shirts - they are OVER other shirts. 
It was around 112 degrees F...  No lie...
Anyway, the Taj was beautiful.  We had been warned it might be a disappointment and that any photos we had seen of it in the past made it look much grander and bigger than it is in real life, but I disagree.  It was lovely!!  We walked all around the area and Gary explained the details to us.  It really is a gorgeous site (and steeped in LOOOVE Gary kept reminding us.) 

Ahhh - we are REALLY at the Taj Mahal!  (Seated on the "Diana Bench"- Lady Di sat there, too :)
I like this artistic shot by Gary :) (taken through a marble honeycomb pattern)
Photo hijinks by Gary
More photo fun by the infamous Gary

Shhhh, do not tell Gary!  We took this shot of ourselves when he left us alone to wander a bit!! 
Note the shoe covers - those are required when visiting many places, or removing your shoes. 
But it is TOO HOT to walk on marble without shoes right now.
We also went to see some "artisans in action" making inlaid marble pieces.  Inlaid marble is really a big thing here and it was cool to see how it is made.  The little film they showed gave us a good understanding of the process, then we got to see some men working and that was great.  The patience, steady head, and perfect eyesight it must take to do the work was astounding.  THEN the sales pitches started.  :)  We were seperately pitched huge marble table tops ("We can mail these to you via Fed Ex!!"), marble boxes, special embroidered art, and jewelry.  Each rubric had a different sales man, eager to show us the wares but not pushy that we buy.  I just think they do not UNDERSTAND us.  How can we be AMERICANS, coming all the way to INDIA, to celebrate a 50th birthday, and not be buying things left and right to bring home???  It has been a good reminder for me that the TRIP is the gift, and that EXPERIENCES are what we are packing in our suitcases (metaphorically speaking) to bring home.  (Though there are a couple of things on my shopping list I hope to get!)

Inlaid marble at the Taj
Inlaid marble (text of the Qur'an) at the Taj

We also saw Agra Fort and the Baby Taj - which was super pretty and very ornate.  I was glad we had learned how they do the inlaid marble before we went there so we could appreciate it even more. 

We were really tired and went back to the hotel, planning to walk around in the area but when we asked Gary if that would be a safe bet he said something like, "Ummm, yeah...  Ummm, do not take anything valuable with you.  Bring NO money.  You will get approached a lot...".  We were tired anyway so we grabbed an Indian beer at the hotel and watched the world from the terrace and outside our huge window.  Now THAT is something I could do all night. 

Our hotel we stayed at in Agra was very nice, and they upgraded us to a fancy room for my birthday (which isn't until June 16th).  When the lady first brought us to our room (they don't just give you the key here, you are "presented" your room), she presented everything with splendor.  The lotus flower on the bed made of towels, the big, bright bathroom, the spacious room...  And then she got to the BIG MOMENT - showing us the VIEW!!!  As she pulled back the curtain, I honestly thought she was being sarcastic about how wonderful the view was, because the first thing we saw was the empty dirt lot right across the street, the rundown "Buddha Tea Cafe and Bookstore", and a shanty town....  But as she gestured up a bit we saw it - we had our own view of THE TAJ MAHAL.  It was pretty, but in such stark CONTRAST to the reality we could see in the foreground.

WOW!  What a fancy room!!
COMPLETE with a birthday treat!

Umm, wait, WHAT is the view???  
(Actually, once you look past the forlorn foreground, the Taj is in the distance :) )
But it turned out that little slice of life we were watching was perfect.  We saw so much!  The shanty town had 3 units, none of which had roofs.  They had crumbling brick walls but were open on top, and our room was high enough up that we were looking down into their lives...  We watched as they sat in the hot sun.  We watched as the women sat on the hot sidewalk outside the Buddha Cafe with their big barrels, waiting for the cafe to turn on a hose and let them fill up with water.  We watched the women, dressed in saris, carry those heavy barrels of water back to their roofless shanties on their HEADS, then come back for a second fill up.  We watched the little boy run around naked after his "bath".  We even watched a water buffalo (ox??) standing in the middle of one of the houses!!  When cows are sacred and you don't have a front door, I guess this can be expected! 

These were our neighbors.  They lived right across the street from our fancy hotel.

This is the mother from one of the houses without roofs bringing water for her family.
We watched lots of dogs, goats, and cows meander around the big dirt area.  We watched people walking with BIG bundles of sticks on their head.  This morning we watched a man walk through the dirt, choose a spot, pull down his pants, squat, and take his morning dump.  But for a long time we watched the BRICK LADY.  She started this morning around 9:00 am, when it was already very hot.  And she squatted with a hammer and BROKE UP BRICKS.  Over and over and over - crunch, crunch, crunch.  Periodically she would sort the bits she had broken.  We could see she had made 3 large piles in earlier brick breaking sessions.  But WHY???  We asked a couple people who worked at the hotel and none of them could really explain it to us.  I wonder if they didn't know, or if talking about the "people across the street" who live in squalor is frowned upon in a fancy hotel.  We also asked Gary when he came to pick us up, and he thinks she sells them to people putting in new flooring - some smashed up bricks mixed with cement would be the underlay.  I hope she gets good money for them, because it is back breaking, hot work. 

Brick lady hard at work - the temperatures have been well over 110 degrees (it is 109 right now as I write this at 11:00 am...)
Once again I was reminded of the inequality of it all.  I have what I have in life largely because of where I was born.  People in other countries do not have many of the luxuries that we take for granted.  Even being HOMELESS in America is head and shoulders above what some of these people have. 

So day 4 was spent taking a swim at the hotel, watching brick lady, walking around the neighborhood (we stood and watched a man MAKE CHEESE in an alley and another man iron clothes as a business on the sidewalk!!!), visiting another Fort (Fatepur Sikri) and then catching a train to Sawai Madhopur.  In the train station a little boy came up to us begging, and because Gary was still with us I asked him if it was ok if I gave the kid a lollipop.  Gary said it was fine, and I felt confident with him beside me in his Sikh turban that no one would bother me, so I gave the boy a lollipop AND some bubbles.  They made him smile really big!  I offered some to the other kids nearby (who were not begging and with their family) and they took some, too.  So now the count of loot given out is 4 bottles of bubbles and 7 lollipops :).  It was awkward taking photos so I only have this one from my camera, but I have lots more in my mind. 

Next up - Ranthambore Park, where we will go out in a jeep looking for TIGERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(Oh, we saw some MONKEYS in Agra!!!  Monkeys just out in the wild!  It was fantastic!!!  There were some in a fort, too, and Gary was a bit scared of them, which I am sure is very justified!  There was a "monkey fight" and Gary shooed us away from them.  :) )

Juuuuust before a big ol' monkey fight started...


Kirsten Ghatasheh said...

Oh my goodness!!! Thank you for posting. What a lovely trip and point of view. The Gary reveal of the Taj is my favorite. I would have been laughing I know it!! But...worthy of a big reveal! So happy you are there with your sweetie and seeing so much with so much gratitude and awe!

Kirsten Ghatasheh said...

Oh my goodness!!! Thank you for posting. What a lovely trip and point of view. The Gary reveal of the Taj is my favorite. I would have been laughing I know it!! But...worthy of a big reveal! So happy you are there with your sweetie and seeing so much with so much gratitude and awe!