Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Our train arrived late in Agra - just over an hour late, making it somewhere around 11:00 PM. We piled out of the station through a side entrance and were immediately bombarded with offers for rides to our hotel. We did our best to politely tell everyone "No thanks." I remember that one of the more persistent men had lost his ear to a fire from what I could tell. All that was left were some bumps where the thickest cartilage had managed to survive. I just kept watching his ear as I walked behind him while Chuck refused his tuk-tuk offer. We ended up getting a ride from a driver who wasn't hassling us at all. We stopped him as he drove by, agreed on a price and jumped in. The ride was freezing! I suppose that fact that we were technically in a desert made for cold nights, especially during winter. The tuk-tuk driver walked us right into our hotel lobby room where I think he was given a commission for bringing us there. That's something you have to be careful about with the drivers - if you don't know exactly which hotel you're going to, they'll do their best to convince you to go to one of their choosing where they'll get a fat commission for your delivery. It will most likely be a crap-hole or too expensive, despite whatever the tuk-tuk driver claims. After the lengthy check-in process we headed to our room and were slightly horrified. There wasn't anything particularly wrong with it... It just was unpleasant. Slightly dirty, completely bare, holes in the wall covered with a newspaper, toilet seat completely broken off, broken TV. It's easier to accept little problems like that when they pop up one at a time. When they're all found in the same room together it makes you really not want to be there. To add to the annoyance, the hotel's claims of wifi-in-every-room ended up being a lie. That was expected though. We'd already figured out that most of the hotels claiming to have wifi don't. I don't know if they think that having internet on one computer in the lobby is the same as wifi, or if they are just outright lying, but they usually do not have wifi. We slept that night under a short blanket and with our feet hanging off the edge of the bed and were constantly woken up by people moving around in the hallway. It was not fun.

I was awaken for the last time at 7:00 AM, thanks to a loud group of people checking out of the hotel, but I continued to lay in bed for a couple more hours. When we finally got up for the day I decided not to fully shower due to the cold water. I just did my hair-wash-in-a-bucket thing and avoided the rest. The hotel was literally right down the street from the South Gate entrance to the Taj Mahal, so obviously, that would be our first stop. On our short walk there, all the shop keepers along the street were calling to us and promising very good prices on their jewelry or statues. A little boy - maybe 10 or 12 years old - gave us a business card for his family shop and suggested we stop by later. Then he showed us where to get our tickets and where to stand in line, etc. I thought that was fairly nice of him. We got our tourist-priced tickets from the tourist-ticket window and then had to stand in a nice long line to get in. There were two lines - one for men and one for women. The reason for this is because they have tight security at the entrance and they have a woman frisker for the women, and a man for the men. Standing in the line was a bit of an experience in and of itself. First thing I noticed was that I was about 6 inches taller than most of the women in the line. That was a bit awkward. And secondly, I noticed how closely everyone stands. I've noticed this before, but now I was getting to experience it. The woman behind me always had her front-side touching my back-side, pressed up on me like a slice of Kraft in a grilled cheese sandwich. I tried my best to get all up on the tiny old lady in front of me, but I tended to only get close enough to be touching the cloth of her sari. It's just not in my cultural blueprint to stand so closely in line. After a 15 minute wait and a thorough frisk-and-search by the lady-officer (Chuck had an uneventful frisk of his own), I was inside the gates of the Taj Mahal! The first view of the magnificent white tomb was pretty impressive. There's a lovely view of it across a long, narrow pool of water that everyone likes to try and get a picture at. The Taj Mahal reflects off the water and makes for some nice pictures. So after fighting the crowd for a great picture or two, we battled our way up to monument itself. You have to take off your shoes to walk around the building, so that's what we did. I stuffed them in my purse to avoid paying a shoe-tip. Gawd, I'm cheap. We saw a number of other tourists wearing little shoes covers instead of taking off their shoes and was very glad I hadn't gotten myself a pair of those. They are ridiculous! There was a long, immaculately precise line that wrapped around the Taj Mahal that we waited in. Photography wasn't allowed inside the tomb, but it wasn't any more impressive inside than outside so I didn't mind so much. It's definitely the outside that counts in the case of the Taj Mahal. After the quick tour inside, we wandered around the area looking at the mosques and landscape nearby. Once done with the Taj Mahal we picked a place to have lunch that was nearby our hotel. Once again, we were accosted by the shop-keepers, including the boy who had helped us earlier. We didn't end up going into his shop, and I felt a shade guilty about that, but hardly enough to actually make me go inside. We sat on the roof of the place we ate lunch at and watched all that was going on in the streets below. The roof was basically the second floor, so we had a pretty good view. It was really interesting! We were at a busy intersection so we saw a bunch of different vehicles going past: tuk-tuks, bicycle rickshaws, tons of motorcycles and the occasional car. There were a few cow-drawn carts, a donkey pulling a cart full of manure being driven by two 10 year old kids, and some men on brightly decorated horses. Stray cows and dogs wandered around on their own, scrounging for a scrap of food. They nosed through piles of garbage and ate anything they could find. I even saw a poor cow down a piece of paper. There were also quite a few white people wandering around. It seems that when you're someplace where you're the minority, you notice others who are also in your minority. So whenever we see white people we hurriedly whisper to each other and point them out. I'm always curious about what they're wearing, how they're acting, how long they're traveling, and where they've been. Strangely enough, we hardly ever speak to any of them though... We all notice each other, but speaking is forbidden somehow. While eating lunch, we just observed from our roof-top view. It was funny watching as they fended off a little boy roaming the intersection trying to sell keychains. He followed one couple through the intersection, having been told "No thanks" by the lady already. Finally fed up, the guy turned to the kid and said something that looked very curt and final. That got the kid to leave them alone, but he was un-phased and kept trying his sales on other people. I also recall an older man with a backpack on his back and a camera around his neck, seemingly wandering the streets on his own. I thought he must be rather brave. After lunch we got a tuk-tuk to Agra Fort. The driver said he would wait for us there and we tried to tell him not to. I hate it when they want to wait for you... Makes me feel obligated to search for them when I'm done. We got our tickets and just as we were going through the big entrance gate I saw a monkey climbing on the giant wooden door! And just past the entrance we see that there are 5 or 6 more monkeys happily taking peanuts from people. I looked them up online a few days later and determined they must be Rhesus Macaques. They had red little butts that faded to a deep golden brown across the rest of their bodies. One mother had her baby clinging to her belly for comfort which was very cute. Chuck decided he had to give some peanuts to the monkeys and found the guy who was handing them out. By the time he got his peanuts though, the monkeys had eaten their fill and were scaling the fort walls to relax in peace. We saved them to try again later. The Agra Fort is a pretty big place. It has some nice sights here and there, but quite a few areas of the fort were non-descript. At one point my camera died on my because I'd been neglecting to charge it in for quite some time, so I didn't get to take as many pictures of the place as I would have liked to. I would have loved to get pictures of the cute chipmunks I fed. In attempt to see how close they would, I broke up a peanut and dropped the bits closer and closer to my feet as I stood still. It didn't take them long to be comfortable running right around and practically across my feet! I kept having to wiggle my toes at them because I was afraid they would think they were peanuts or something! They kept darting at them like they might be peanuts... I have never forgotten being bitten while trying to feed peanuts to an apparently near-sighted squirrel when I was a kid. I didn't want a repeat of the incident. They were cute little buggers though. After getting our fill of the fort we sat by the entrance where the monkeys had been feasting earlier. Chuck was still hoping they might come back down for some more food. As we sat there we got loads and loads of stares. One young boy - maybe 10 years old - walked by staring at me with a disgusted look on his face. As he walked past, his eyes stayed locked on me continuing to stare with that disgusted look, until his head was spun full around like an owl. Although his apparent horror brought up feelings I hadn't felt since elementary school, my stronger reaction was amusement. I looked right back at him and laughed good-naturedly. I was happy to see that this wiped that look off his face and replaced it with a smile of his own. Ah, the power of smiles in any culture. Another couple tried to be sneaky about taking a picture of us. The guy had his wife stand five feet from us as though they wanted a nice scenic picture with the fort. Only problem was that the scenery they were photographing was a flat, boring wall. I smiled and looked into the camera as he took the picture, causing him to try to hide a slightly guilty smile. It was an interesting experience. We never did get to feed the monkeys either. They never came back down. We tried to feed the peanuts instead, to an incredibly thin dog who looked about ready to lay down forever. When Chuck tossed the peanuts to the dog he flinched at the sound of them hitting the sidewalk. I'm not sure dogs eat peanuts, but Chuck thought it would be worth a shot. We didn't stick around to see if he tried though. Poor animal. We looked for the tuk-tuk that had dropped us off and promised to wait against our protests, but he was nowhere in sight thankfully. We got a chai from a dirty street cart and sat with a skinny old man that we suspect was high. We didn't really talk to him at all, but he seemed really nice and made room for us on the flimsy wooden bench he was sitting on while staring blissfully into the distance. When we went to get our tuk-tuk back to the hotel we passed by some horse-drawn carts and a horse made to eat my arm. Bad horsie! And on the ride back we saw a couple of other tuk-tuks that were packed with goats. One had three goats and a person stuffed in it! People love their goats in India. I have to admit, some of them are very cute - but I'm pretty sure they don't keep them for their cuteness. Back at the hotel we discovered - thanks to the vocal tourists in the room below us - that there is hot water there! The hotel staff has to flip a switch to turn it on is all. As soon as we figured this out we got ourselves a nice hot shower. Man, it was so nice! No hot water for 3 weeks makes a steaming shower delicious. We went down stairs to try and use the internet, but wouldn't you know it, the hotel's one computer with internet was currently not working. So we went down to the tourist information center instead and booked a hotel for when we arrived back in New Delhi. Over all, it was a pretty long day!

Thanks to having gone to bed late, we barely woke up to beeping of our alarm clock at 4:30 AM. I think I had managed to get just two hours of sleep. We packed our stuff in record time and went to check out. We found the staff curled up under blankets on the couch and floor of the little reception area - this is common in India - and were glad we had paid on arrival so we didn't have to wake them up. The streets are so different in the early hours before dawn. It's so quiet and still. Strange. Where there were 10 tuk-tuks during the day, now it was barren and we had to wait for a lone tuk-tuk to pass by to get a ride. But luckily, one did pass by and we had another chilly, dark ride through Agra - this time back to the train station. We saw a few people out jogging for their health and I wondered how badly the smog was stunting their progress since Agra is only slightly less smoggy than New Delhi. At the station we boarded our train and left the station 30 minutes late. The ride back to New Delhi was much more interesting than our trip out to Agra because it was light outside. We could see the places we were passing and were astounded. There were only small patches of garbage-free ground here and there. One little town looked like it was built on a hill of garbage whose sides were now crumbling away. In the cross-section of crumbled land we could see masses of dirty clothes stuck in the packed dirt. There were usually a few cows close at hand, grazing on the refuse, and I even saw a small group of pigs. The homes were crumbling and many peoples' roofs consisted of a sheet of metal weighted down with bricks. We saw a few men bathing outside, in the middle of their village - they wore little shorts and scrubbed themselves quickly using a bucket of cold water. We saw a school where the kids were sitting in the "back yard" area with open books. It didn't really look as though there was an area inside big enough for them. And the most interesting sight of all was all the pooping that was going on as we passed by. We couldn't go 500 feet without spotting another pooper, copping a squat just 20 feet from the railroad tracks to drop a log. It was a very deep squat they used - one that looks like it practically forces your bowels to evacuate. The kids were forcefully dropped off at the pool, only to find the pool empty - if you know what I mean. And don't ask me how wiping worked. Maybe there wasn't any need for wiping given the wide spread, thanks to the deep squat. All I know is that I was fascinated and repelled by each person we passed by. And even more interesting was that sometimes there would be a little group of 3 or 4 people all going together. A little bonding time perhaps? Geeze, it must be like walking through a mine field out by those tracks.

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