Friday, March 24, 2006

Stunning Taj Mahal in Shitty Agra

I have seen a lot of amazing things while traveling, but I was not ready for how impressed I would be by the Taj Mahal. On the flip side, as impressive as the Taj was, Agra was equally unimpressive. Quite simply, Agra is a shithole. I cannot think of another city in the world where I would rather not live.

Climbing off the train, I was fortunately saved by a gentle 24-year-old autorickshaw driver named Shabu. He was friendly, spoke excellent English, guided me everywhere and, most importantly, never once lied or tried to rip me off. For not trying to rip me off or lying to me (you have no idea how much I cherish this) I gave him an excellent tip. This gives you an idea of my current travel mindset, especially in India.

Shabu took me through the back streets of Agra - filled with poor kids, cows, goats and beggars - across the river where I got my first glimpse of the Taj. We went to the back of the Taj where we watched the sun set, causing the colours on the Taj to change. It was stunning.

As always, I drew quite a lot of attention and soon enough I had a small contingent of young boys following me, just staring. I am starting to get used to this, but it is still strange. Sometimes I feel like I am the Queen or on some diplomatic mission. I cannot understand what their fascination is.

A group of boys were playing cricket in the sand on the bank so I asked if I could try. This drew laughs, but they obliged. Misjudging the first throw - I thought that it was going to miss me - I was nailed squarely in the mouth as the ball bounced off the ground. Now, if the group of kids were laughing when I first asked to play, when I got hit in the face I thought that some of them were going to pee their pants with laughter. I couldn't help but laugh myself because it was pretty funny, but it left me with a swollen lip for the evening. Finally, on the second toss, I made quite good contact and they cheered for me. Leaving the back of the Taj, Shabu taught me how to drive his autorickshaw and let me drive until we hit a street where there was traffic.

Shabu's friend joined us for dinner and while we were eating we saw fireworks. Shabu told me that this was a wedding and took me to see it. In Canada, weddings are intensely private affairs, but this one was out in the middle of the street and drew quite a crowd. It consisted of a massive brass band of about 15 men, hundreds of people dancing and about 25 men holding what looked like street lamps on their heads to light up the party. It was loud and I was invited to join in the dancing but declined because - as it seems everywhere you go in all of India - it was only men I saw celebrating. I have been told several times by Indian men - rather frankly - that they think that Western women are "sexy", "easy in the sex", "like to go to bed a lot" and are "whores" (they like that word a lot). So I am trying not to indulge these perceptions.

Seeing the Taj up close the next day was obviously amazing but I was surprised by just how impressed I was. It was just so imposing and beautiful. Just like Angkor Wat, I won't try to describe it, but it left quite the impression. It was, however, a little strange being by myself at the world's most famous monument devoted to love. Fortunately there seemed to be no shortage of men and women who seemed to want to give me company. By the end of the day I felt how I am certain that mascots and those who dress in costumes at theme parks must feel. So many people asked to take photos with me, and as the day wore on, people stopped even asking. One woman just walked up and threw my arm around her, had the photo taken and then walked away without saying thank you. Several young boys tried to stealthily sit or stand next to me as their friend took their photo. An entire family who spoke no English simply surrounded me and took a family portrait with me.

I was told that if you look back as you leave the Taj Mahal that it will ensure your return. So as I left, I looked back...again and again and again.


Anonymous mom said...

People are so different and yet so much the same. I chuckled when I read you comments about people wanting to have their picture taken with you. Dad, Sandra and I were at Hakone,Japan and a large group of Japanese young ladies asked if they could get their picture taken with us. Of course we agreed and must say we could not stop laughing. We liked the idea so much that we made sure we took pictures on our camera as well. No idea who they were but we have a great picture of the group of us. Following the trend I asked another group of young ladies (who were eating black eggs) if I could take their picture. Smiling young women definitely enhance a picture.

12:53 PM  

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