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January 15, 2005

10 Days of India

I've been in India for 10 days now, and it's been quite an adventure, full of highs and lows, which is what I've come to expect from this country. My one night in Delhi was fairly uneventful, in a good way--I met up with a friend from an online travel group, so I was able to avoid most of the craziness that would have otherwise awaited me--thanks Anshu! The next morning I made my way to the bus station--I had to haggle with five different auto-rickshaw drivers before I found one who would accept the price the guy at my hotel had told me I should pay--I was feeling very proud of myself. Each accomplishment like that improves my confidence here by a longshot.

I arrived in Jaipur, Rajasthan, and checked into my hotel, and my friends from college, Megan and Ramona, met me there later that night as planned. They had stayed there a few weeks earlier so knew some people there, and I met another nice guy who worked there, so we had some people to hang out with. The next day was really lazy; we just spent a lot of time catching up and a little time running errands. That night we had a little get-together with our new friends Ashok, Kumar, Parul, and Jeet at Ashok's place. It was a lot of fun. The next day we managed to get out to do a little sightseeing in the old city, also called the Pink City because most of the buildings are made out of red sandstone (but it looks more pinkish than red). We went to an incredible observatory area built by one of the maharajas because he was really into astronomy--it looks like a sculpture park, with each enormous object designed to calculate a particular celestial body's position or some other astronomical thing. The biggest one is a huge sundial, although since we didn't get a guide I'm not sure how it works. We also went to the Hawa Mahal, a beautiful structure of red sandstone built in 1799. It's not really much of a building, but more a facade or screen many stories tall, with carved-stone screens covering the windows on each level so the women could look out on the goings-on without being seen by the public. The stone work is beautiful, and I enjoyed wandering through all the nooks and crannies and taking pictures around every turn (unfortunately, uploading pictures takes way too long on these slow connections, so I won't be able to do that for awhile). We also saw just a small piece of all the bazaars (markets) in the old city, and I'm looking forward to swinging back through Jaipur to do some shopping.

That afternoon we also went to the house of Vijay, Megan and Ramona's friend from the hotel, to meet his wife and daughter (and a bunch of other curious family members and neighbors!). It was fun--they showed us their wedding album, and I showed them some pictures on my camera from our sightseeing, and we chatted a bit. Vijay invited me to stay with them when I pass through Jaipur in a few weeks, and I'm looking forward to that. I especially hope to spend some time with his wife, because you see so few women on the streets here--all of the people working in shops, hotels, as drivers, etc. are men--it's noticeably different from anywhere else I've been.

In the evening, we met up with our friend Jeet and went to the movies to see a hot new Hindi film, Veer-Zaara, about a Pakistani/Muslim woman (Zaara) and an Indian/Hindi man (Veer) who fall in love. It was a lot of fun and really interesting, especially because we had Jeet to translate for us! There are lots of songs in Bollywood movies, and the lip-synching was sometimes pretty bad (Jeet told us most of the actors don't do their own singing). But the acting was mostly pretty good, although sometimes a little melodramatic. The costumes and dancing were great. It was particularly interesting that because these are "family" movies, the physical contact between the lovers was very chaste--I don't think they kissed on the lips a single time--yet they still managed to convey a very powerful love story. Perhaps Hollywood could learn a thing or two!

We took the bus to Agra early the next morning, after a panicked beginning, waiting for Vijay to arrive to take us to the bus station. Finally, we gave up and Ramona, Megan, and all their luggage piled into a rickshaw, and I hopped on the back of Jeet's motorcycle (with my backpack on!), and we made it there with time to spare. That afternoon we went to see the Agra Fort, which has been variously a fort, a palace, and a British garrison. It's an amazing complex, and only a tiny bit of it is open to the public. Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, had lived there when it was a palace, but was later imprisoned there by his son. I better back up and tell the whole story. Shah Jahan built the Taj as a monument to his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal--it took 20 years and 20,000 workers to complete it. It's called the "world's greatest monument to love," and she's buried inside. Shah Jahan planned to build another temple, exactly the same but in black marble, across the river, where he would be buried. But after the expense of the first one, his son was totally against it, so imprisoned him to prevent it from happening. Shah Jahan was placed in an octagonal room in Agra Fort where he could see the Taj Mahal, but could never visit it. The Taj is perfectly symmetrical in every way, but when Shah Jahan was unceremoniously buried there next to his wife, it threw off the balance. It's sweet that they're together, yet sad that his brilliant design has been ruined by his own grave.

We had seen the Taj Mahal from afar from the fort, but we planned to get up early to visit it at sunrise the next morning--the light is supposed to be nice then, and there are fewer people. But by the next morning, all three of us were sick--we think from some bad lentils we had the night before. Ramona, who'd eaten less of the lentils, was well enough to squeeze in a quick trip, but Megan and I were in bed all day. Thankfully, it seemed to pass relatively quickly, and they were well enough to get on their train to Delhi that night, and I moved to another hotel. I was sure I'd get sick sometime in India, and I'm glad it happened when I wasn't alone--it certainly was a bonding experience! I hope it doesn't happen again, and also that Megan can come back some other time to see the Taj Mahal. Luckily, I had the luxury of waiting in Agra until I was well enough to go.

The hotel I stayed in that night was pretty bad, but mostly because I was still kind of sick. When they dropped me off, Ramona had told them I was sick and to take care of me, but they took it to extremes, coming by five times in three hours to check on me! And, some random guy came by and asked if he could ask me about the U.S. since he's a student, blah blah blah. I couldn't believe it! I finally told them all to leave me the hell alone. I then found out hot water was only available in buckets--it was the last straw, and I told them I'd be leaving in the morning. (Hot water in buckets is fairly common here, but they didn't tell me that when I'd looked at the room, and I'm trying to stay in places with real hot water--in the pipes--if I can!) Thankfully, in the morning I was feeling quite a bit better and was able to find a much better place to stay, and I'm very happy there.

A Canadian guy at my new hotel told me he'd befriended a great rickshaw driver, so I joined the two of them for dinner last night (even though I couldn't eat very much yet). I then arranged for the driver to pick me up this morning to take me to the Taj Mahal. Finally, I made it! Walking through the courtyard and catching that first glimpse through the gate was pretty impressive--reminded me of how I felt when I first saw Machu Picchu. It really is a stunning building, and it was exciting to see it in person. What you never see in the pictures is that it's set in a huge garden, and all of it is completely symmetrical--there are red sandstone buildings on both sides of the Taj that mirror each other (one is a mosque, the other one a guesthouse where royal guests would come stay overnight so they could see the moonlight on the Taj, which must be stunning). And, the Taj has incredibly detailed inlay work of precious stones in flower designs, as well as inscriptions from the Kuran in black marble. You can't take any pictures inside, but it was pretty dark anyway. It was loud and smelly in there from all the people, so I didn't stay long. The inlay work is even more impressive inside--the flowers look painted, not like pieces of semi-precious stone placed in the marble. The actual tombs are buried below, but they have replicas up on this level, I guess so there's something more to look at. They're enclosed by carved screens that are really impressive.

I spent about 2 1/2 hours there, wandering around and taking in the sight from lots of different angles (I probably wouldn't have stayed as long, but my rickshaw driver wasn't coming back until 10 am!) and trying not to take too many pictures. I promise I'll get them online as soon as I can!

Tonight, the rickshaw driver (whose name I can't remember) is taking me to the other side of the river to see the sun set behind the Taj Mahal--should be a sunset to remember! Tomorrow, I'm taking a day trip to a deserted fort city near here called Fatehpur Sikri, then heading further into Rajasthan for the next few weeks. I'm really looking forward to it!

Being with friends was great--it was sad to see them go--and being sick has been tough, and emotional, but I'm doing pretty well overall. I'll write more soon about what it FEELS like (and SMELLS like) to be here!

Posted by Amy on January 15, 2005 01:09 AM
Category: India
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