Sunday, April 06, 2008

Road trip.

When I told a friend I was going to the Taj Mahal this weekend she told me about the picture she had seen of her parents there. She said it looked like one of those posed shots where you pull down the backdrop of where you want people to think you are... Kind of like in Wayne's World when they use the blue screen to visit exotic locations. Like Delaware. Really glad I was at the Taj instead of Delaware, no offense.

Our morning started at 5am when we hopped in a little silver Corolla and hit the open road. Well, hardly open (pics later). It was a cool and rainy morning. I was praying that it would break by the time we got to Agra, locale of the Taj. About halfway there, circa 7:30am, the rain broke and we stopped at a little motel off the side of the road for breakfast. I had some French Toast that made me nervous. It looked a little too batter-dipped and fried for my taste. Regardless, it ended up being okay, but I'm still curious what the clear stuff they gave me for syrup was. It was sweet, so I chose not to ask any questions. The drive continues through an area that, due to the tourism, has pretty much moved all activity to the road-front. This was sad since it was very common to see crumbling living quarters, animals everywhere, men reliving themselves wherever they saw fit, and many a pants-less child wading through makeshift landfills. Tourism has become their livelihood. Which I don't know what it would have been otherwise if tourism weren't there. From there you see a lot of open farm fields and agriculture. A lot of which has been purchased and will be developed into corporate complexes, housing, and hotels. The drive takes your through Mathura which is the home of Lord Krisha, incarnate of Vishnu, considered to be Supreme God by some schools of Hinduism. As we traveled through that area and on our driver commented that in this state, Uttar Pradesh, the people are very happy. Hard to tell since women are rarely expressive and men seem somewhat stoic. I'll take his word for it. Along the highway there are also many colleges of various trades, from medicine to business and everything in between. Our driver, Vikas, told us that there is a huge investment on the governments part to grow the educational opportunities for India. It must be working since we also saw a lot of schools being built too. This country really is all about growth. The caste system is leveling and the infrastructure is growing.

We pulled into Agra at about quarter to ten and met up with our guide, Ali (kinda like the boxer, sans the floating and stinging). Before we got to him though you have to navigate the crowded and twisty streets of Agra. At one point there is a railroad crossing where you get an onslaught of window tappers. They put the beggars at the Tijuana border crossing to shame. They are persistent and direct. You really do have to ignore them because if they see your window crack they'll all come a-runnin. Back to Ali. He has been giving tours for 30 years and he really knew his stuff. You first park your car and take a little 3-wheeled people mover thing (pictured later, green/yellow) to a road block where you get out and walk. There are little stands on both sides trying to pedal cheap goods. More than anything they are trying to distract you so they can pick your pocket. I kept my hands in mine and kept walking. You then go through a makeshift security check with a metal detector and a quick frisk. Nothing in my back pockets...good thing he checked. After you get to know security, or rather they get to know you, you are on the same parcel of land designed for the Taj Mahal. We entered through the east gate and proceeded west. After about 100 yards you are in a courtyard with the south gate on your left, west gate straight ahead, and the north or Love gate to your right. Through the Love gate is the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, aka the Taj Mahal.
Looking east at the east gate.

Love gate.

The early 17th century, time of the Muhgals in India, had a prince named Sahah Jahan, who loved his wife, Mumtaz, greatly. She died an early death during the birth of their 14th (I think) child. To honor her and to show his deep love for her he built her a tomb, the Taj Mahal. It is said to have taken 22 years all-in-all to complete at the employ of 22,000 laborers.

As you walk through Love gate the Taj comes into view, and it's absolutely magnificent! Surreal, breathtaking, and beautiful. Way better than any backdrop...
View after passing through Love gate.

You just kind of stand there for a minute and think, "Really!?" So you double take, and when you look back its still there, just as beautiful!

Ali took us around the grounds telling us about the gardens, the aqueducts, and other tidbits about the construction. They really thought of everything when they built this thing.

On either side of the Taj is a Mosque. The one on the east is not used since it doesn't face Mecca, but does offer a cool perspective of the Taj. When you look through this archway and back up slowly, its as if the Taj is growing and getting larger as it fills your view through the archway. I tried to capture it on video mode on my camera but it didn't work out. Sorry.
View from the non-mosque mosque.

After a tour around the exterior we went inside (cameras prohibited) to see the tombs and decoration. It is incredible that this was all done at the time that it was. The Price spared no expense and it shows. All of the decoration is hand carved stone inlay using precious/semi-precious stones from all over Asia.

I don't really need to say again how amazing this beautiful this building is. The pictures don't nearly do it justice. You'll just have to come and see for yourself.

Ali then took us to some places around Agra where we could get a closer look at its and the Taj's history. Translation, store owners he knows that probably give him a cut of what ever we buy.
Stop 1: The progeny of the real artisans to did all of the stone inlay by hand. Really just some people trying to pedal marble. It was impressive work.
Stop 2: A jeweler who has the same authentic precious and semi-precious stones used in the Taj Mahal. Really just some guy pedaling rocks. They were pretty though.
Stop 3: Real rugs being made by hand. The history, the process, and the finished product. Really a guy selling rugs. These guys almost got me. I managed to only leave with a business card.

A piece of advice for your visit: Either don't let your guide show you around Agra or just be ready to hear some great stories and politely decline the product. Otherwise, the magnificense of what you have just seen at the Taj will be overgrown by sales pitches from the perifery.

The drive back to Delhi was hot and long. But hey, we're in India after all. The whole road trip was fascinating to me. Everything was worth writing about, yet impossible capture in words or pictures. Ill list a few. So read each one then close your eyes and imagine it in your mind.

Monkey on a rope:
Outside our breakfast stop there was a man with a couple monkey dressed up like women, make-up and all, that he would cue to jump when people walked by. Poor monkeys...

Pass on the right:
Nope, its not just Utah drivers. Even when the flow of traffic is reversed people just don't get the fast lane. Speaking of the flow of traffic... Cows, being holy and all, get the right of way. Even on a major highway, against the flow of traffic. Seriously though...cows everywhere! Since they are holy they really do just roam the streets, neighborhoods, and anywhere else at their leisure.
Holy = right of way.

The Indian Straddle:
Previously mentioned as the driving style here, I found it very annoying on the open highway. Cars, buggy's, and semi's just chill on the line until someone comes by and honks or flashes their dipper to pass. Cultural note: Dipper = high beams or brights. The straddle is also very annoying in a traffic jam. By the time we rolled into Delhi it was rush hour. With no mind for lanes it makes maneuvering very difficult, and a little scary.

The Burqa biker:
You will see fully-saree'ed women with just an eye-slit in their burqa doin 50 on a motorcycle. It is a fascinating sight.

Just not the same:
No fast, friendly service. No fresh ingredients. And actually no beef in sight. Except what we just passed on the road (see above).

The infamous:
I've seen a lot of pictures of the musty Indian sunset. Here is last nights. You just missed it...that SUV was just straddling. They moved over to pass the little green/yellow thing (also just straddling).

Well, my friends, there you have it. My trip to the Taj was wonderful. It was eye opening in so many ways. I am really glad that I was able to get out of the hotel and office to go see what is really happening here.

Cue the blue Taj Mahal back drop...

To see all of the pictures from Matt's trip to India, visit:


Kelly O. Cardon said...

QUESTION: When in a foreign country, aren't you supposed to expose yourself to the foods of that country in order to heighten your cultural experience? FRENCH TOAST?? Really??

QUESTION: How come you don't approve comments to be posted on your blog?

Eden MaRee said...

Nameste! It looks like you are having a great time! My parents are excited to be headed in your direction next week! Give the Taj a hug! Love you!!!

Stephanie Kaye said...

Love the post! Great pictures Matt! It looks like you are livin' it up!!!

aric & jess said...

Hey Matt! We found you through Randi. Aric and I are enjoying your posts...India...WOW!

We are totally working on the office cast. We LOVE that show, we even had an office party in January...anyways...even if we don't always comment, we'll be reading:)

::ana zaida riquelme:: said...

i'm utterly and completely jealous. the pictures are breathtaking. i can only imagine what it must've been like to see it with your eyeballs. lucky!

Andy • Drew • Andrew said...

and there it is. he made it. great pics man, looks like a lot of fun!