Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Taj, which was lovely. The vendors, which were not

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dad left the hotel before 6 a.m. to get to the Taj Mahal right when it opened. Both our India guidebooks recommend getting there first thing to experience the awesomeness of it.

Though this might be our only Taj visit, the mere thought of getting 3 children and ourselves up, dressed and fed by 6 a.m., was just too daunting. We thought we were doing good to get the five of us ready by 8:15 a.m., especially since we took the time for an in-depth discussion with three girls on the best way to take pictures of them at the Taj—in Indian costume—on a very hot day. The girls’ saris were too complicated to wear, the girls’ chudy-das were too hot to wear on a day that was over 100 degrees. The girls claim that even wearing bangles makes them too hot in this weather. What to do? (Just think of Dad experiencing a non-complicated morning at the Taj, while Dawn sat in a hotel room dealing with dramatic little females and Byron kept saying, “Can we just HURRY up?” Since we were supposed to meet Dad within the Taj either at 8:00 or 9:00 and it was getting very close to 9:00).

Finally, we reached the solution to bring along the chudy-das, the jingle-jangles (this is what we call the ankle bracelets) and the bangles along in a backpack, to be put over our regular clothes for pictures, and then easily removed for further Taj-Mahal touring. Meanwhile, Byron had stuffed the backpack with toilet paper (an ever-present necessity to have along just in case), hand sanitizer and wipes, water bottles, our water-mist-sprayer (email us if you want a description of this gadget we bought at Walmart), sunglasses for all five of us, the camera, and the videocamera. Keep this list for whenever you find yourself visiting the Taj with small children on a very hot day.

We emerged from the hotel, to encounter, of course, the many auto-rickshaws and pedi-cabs who wanted us to use their services. (For the record, Byron and I decided we would pay the pedi-cab driver (who was so unreasonable the night before) 300 rupees (about $7.50) if we saw him again. Dawn apprehensively looked for him the rest of the time we were in Agra, but he did not appear.)

Byron and I discussed how long it would take us to get to the Taj. Though it was only a 10-minute walk, Byron realized the walk would be much longer because of the plethora of vendors who would surround us and thus impede our determined forward trek. Thus, he suggested we take a pedi-cab. The girls were quite excited about their first time riding in a rishshaw being pulled by a bicycle, and eagerly climbed aboard. After the obligatory pictures (Have no fear—we have pictures of almost everything), and Byron verifying the price with the pedi-cab driver beforehand (this is certainly something we’ve learned to do!) we were off. In less than five minutes, we were near the Taj’s gate, but not close enough to avoid a crowd of about 50 hawking, yelling, determined-to-get-your-attention-and-to-get-you-into-my-shop vendors.

We climbed off the pedi-cab, and began shaking off vendors left and right as we rushed toward the gate. Even so, we arrived at the Taj gate with several business cards which had been shoved into our hands—even the girls were holding business cards that vendors had handed to them.

We stood in line and realized that here in this 10-people deep line were more westerners than we had seen the whole time we’ve been in India. Why—everyone standing in line seemed to be foreign, and we just basked in the lovely English accent of the couple in front of us. Because the Taj Mahal is a Muslim monument, men and women enter it through different lines. Byron took the line to the left, while Dawn and the girls and the backpack and the stroller took the line to the right.

The security personnel at the entrance frisked each of us, then instructed us that we were not allowed to take any bags other than a small purse into the Taj Mahal, but that we could take everything we had in the bags with us. Lockers for our bags were provided near the gate. Quickly, I unloaded the backpack’s contents into the stroller with Heidi, and tossed the empty backpack to Byron, who located the lockers. I started to watch the people lined up behind us, and found that every single tourist was carrying a bag that they had to empty and put into a locker. Your guess is as good as mine as to why we weren’t allowed to carry our bags in, but were allowed to carry all its contents with us.

We found that the security personnel also had given each of us some shoe-covers and that they were giving free water-bottles away at the entrance, one per person. Shoe-covers, we asked? Why would we wear shoe covers? It turns out that just like Hindu temples, Muslim mosques (and the Taj Mahal) require people to remove their shoes. In a wonderful gesture of open-mindedness, the Taj Mahal recognized that most the westerners would not be used to walking on hot pavement in their bare feet, and thus decided that if the westerners would just cover their feet with nice, clean shoe covers, that would suffice. The shoe-covers looked just like shower caps. They flapped and looked ridiculous, but I was so, so glad that we didn’t have to run around burning our feet on the hot pavement that I would have worn huge duck-feet shaped flippers if they’d offered it.

Upon entering the Taj, we found ourselves standing in front of an enormous, beautiful gate that I thought was worthy of a few dozen photographs. Meanwhile, Byron was hurrying us along to the bench where we were to meet Dad. The Taj Mahal itself is not immediately easy to see when you walk through the gate. You have to walk for about 5 minutes until you suddenly look up and can do nothing but gasp and stand in awe.

Truly, I can say the Taj Mahal is really awe-inspiring. Even Erin, Lily and Heidi stopped in mid-sentence to say, “Wow!” (and that is really saying something!).

It is huge. It is so white that when the sun shines on it, it simply gleams. Its perfectly symmetrical spires and architecture is awe-inspiring. You just want to stand there and look at it for awhile.

Of course, with every monument in India comes many self-appointed tour guides who are ever eager to part a tourist from his money for an informative, detail-filled and comprehensive tour. Byron and I decided that although tour guides can be very useful, we were tired of ignoring our children and giving our full attention to the tour guide (which is actually necessary if you are to understand the heavily-accented English that most tour guides speak). For this day of our long-awaited Taj Mahal visit, we would pay attention to our kids and tour the Taj at a pace and in the way our kids wanted to see it.

So, we had to get downright rude to the tour guides who couldn’t believe we were refusing a tour of the famed Taj Mahal. Perhaps they’ve never met someone who refused a tour. Perhaps they thought that if they kept pestering and insisting that we’d change our minds. Whatever it was, we kept insisting and they just wouldn’t leave us alone for much of our first 30 minutes there.

Suddenly, Dad appeared, looking happy and eager to explain the awesome experience he’d had as the first tourist that morning at the Taj Mahal. His tour guide had taken him inside the Taj, and they were the only two people in the tomb area. His guide told him about the "echoes of the ages" and told Dad to count the echos. Then the guide started to chant. The chant reverberated off the walls, and Dad counted ten echoes, getting ever fainter, before the sound stopped. The guide did it again, and Dad counted ten more. But by then more tourists were entering, and when 8 tourists were inside the tomb, the echoing didn’t work as well. How cool would it be to hear that?

Time to change the girls into their chudy-das, jingle-jangles, and bracelets. We found some shade and listened to Dad describe his wonderful early-morning experiences as we helped the girls into their clothes. Then the picture-taking began. No, it wasn’t Dawn wildly snapping pictures. It was many Indians who couldn’t resist having a picture taken with three little American girls dressed like Indians. We spent about 20 minutes just allowing Indians to take pictures of the girls before we even got to do anything at the Taj ourselves.

We found the famed benches where 99 percent of the Taj’s visitors pose to get their pictures taken. The bench features a place to sit down in good sunlight with a perfect view of the Taj Mahal behind you. As we waited in line to sit on the bench, we were accosted by the only vendor allowed inside the Taj—the “I will take your photo and have an 8x10 print of it ready for you to take home in 15 minutes for a small fee” vendors. Since we were equipped with our own camera, and were tired of paying rupees every time we turned around, Byron decided we didn’t want this vendor’s services. This vendor wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

The man standing behind us in line for the benches tapped Byron on the shoulder, and it turns out he wanted a picture of our family with his family. Byron and he made an arrangement that this man would take a picture with our camera of our family on the bench, then we would stay and pose with his family and Byron would take pictures of the two families together.

The photographer-vendor was not to be deterred, however, and stood in the best spot to photograph us on the bench, pushing our Indian family/photographer out of the way! Byron then took things into his own hands, and went and told the vendor that he was to stop this instant, was to get out of the way, and was to stop bothering us RIGHT NOW.

By now it was about 10:00 a.m. and the sun was already out in a full blaze. Consequently, the bench was hot, and the girls complained that they couldn’t open their eyes in the bright sunlight. Dawn pleaded, then threatened, “THIS IS THE ONLY TIME YOU WILL BE AT THE TAJ MAHAL. SIT ON THE BENCH, OPEN YOUR EYES, AND SMILE AT THE CAMERA RIGHT NOW!” I wonder how many other mothers have said the same thing in the same tone on that very same bench?

Can you believe that there were signs prohibiting visitors from using videocameras once you got to the most interesting parts of the Taj? For that reason, we ended up not using our videocamera at all. However, we took perhaps a hundred pictures, maybe two hundred.

After pictures at the bench, we went off to the side to gather ourselves together in some shade and to just look at the building. Byron, borrowing an idea from the portfolio of pictures the photographer-vendor had held in his face and hurriedly flipped through in a desperate effort to get Byron to change his mind and hire him, had each of the girls stand in a certain way and hold out their hands to look as if they were touching the top spire of the Taj Mahal. Very clever.

We saw some birds that we had never seen in our lives hopping around at the Taj, and since we were letting the kids lead the tour, we stopped for a long time just to watch the birds. Then, on to the tomb. It was a long walk, and it was hot. We had to stop every few minutes for drinks and for spraying ourselves down with the fine-mist sprayer. Some other westerners saw us with the our fine-mist-sprayer and we were surprised to hear, “Cool, what IS that?” in an un-accented American voice.

I must tell you that after 6 weeks in a place where we didn’t run into other Americans other than ourselves, and never heard American English being spoken anywhere, it was actually beautiful to hear those people hollering at us from several yards away about our sprayer. The girls stopped talking and stopped watching the bird and looked up. Dad, Byron and I looked up, and just gazed at them for a minute. I finally answered, “It sprays water on you in a fine mist. We got it at Walmart,” and they nodded, grinned, and were gone. Funny how such a casual encounter with someone from home can be a highlight of your day!

We made our way up the many steps to the main part of the Taj. It’s made of white marble, and inlaid with beautiful stones in perfect, symmetrical designs.

A couple of weeks later, the girls and I were reading about Muslim beliefs, and read that Muslims do not believe in re-creating any form of life in their art. Thus, their art is limited to swirls and designs that do not resemble people or animals or plants. We thought back to the Taj Mahal, and unlike Hindu temples, where sculptures of flowers, peacocks, animals, and people are carved plentifully within and without the temples, we couldn’t remember any specific design on the Taj except a lily flower that was formed on the outside of the tomb by combining many different stones within the marble. (Of course we would notice a lily flower, having our own Lily among us.)

We stood in line to enter the actual tomb, which is the center and main part of the Taj Mahal (remember—it’s the tomb of the wife of the king who mourned his wife so much that he built the Taj Mahal for her tomb.) Within the tomb, incredible carvings and inlaid stone abound. The tomb is surrounded by a marble-carved lattice-work fence, so that you can’t really get a good look at the marble-encased coffin. There were two coffin-like structures inside, and this was the only thing in the entire Taj Mahal that wasn’t symmetrical. The smaller coffin was in the center of the lattice-fence (the wife's coffin), and a larger, taller coffin sat off to the left (the king's coffin). One wonders why this one place inside the Taj isn’t symmetrical—why didn’t the king place the coffins side by side, rather than center and side, and why didn’t he make them the same size?

On the other hand, perhaps the king had nothing to do with the size and placement of his coffin.

Within this tomb area were at least 60 people milling about, taking turns gazing through the lattice-work at the tombs and making little yelps to see if the echoes would work. (The echoes didn’t work for me, but I did get odd looks for yelping.) Signs posted through the tomb prohibited cameras, but I can’t count the number of camera-phones I saw snapping and flashing away. Thus, I decided to take a picture myself. I discreetly snapped one of Byron, Lily and Heidi gazing at the tomb, then one of Erin who was resting by a wall, until Byron insisted I follow the rules and put the camera away.

We finally decided we were done with the crowds and with looking at the huge chandelier above the coffins, and made our way out into the eye-piercingly bright sunshine. Desperately seeking shade so we could see and so we could cool down again, we found a spot by a wall just outside the tomb. We decided to sit down and take a rest in the shade, and took a few pictures of the girls in front of these pretty precious-stone-inlaid walls. Soon, we realized we were surrounded by many, many Indians. We figured they must all be seeking shade as well, and vaguely noticed most of them seemed to be looking at us. After a 20-minute rest, we stood up to explore the grounds further. As we made our way away from the shade and around the corner, we saw that the entire crowd of people on our half of the entry way (who had been sitting in the shade with us) got up and left. We highly suspect that we, not the shade, were the main attraction there.

Around the back of the Taj Mahal you can get close to those minarets that just seem impossibly tall (one on each of the four corners of the Taj). These spires provide shade, and we dashed into the shade once again, seeking refuge from the blazing sun. We found ourselves gazing over a low wall at a river, and realized this must be the river that was to separate the two Taj Mahals. The original plan was to build an identical Taj Mahal across the river. The other Taj was to be identical to the first one in every way, and just as symmetrical (and by having the two of them, providing even more symmetry), except the second Taj was to be a black as the first one is white.

The king who commissioned the building of the first Taj was thrown into prison within the Agra Fort (by his own son) before he could begin work on the second Taj Mahal.

Across this river was a camel, and of course that was fun to look at. The camel’s keeper stood nearby, while a westerner sporting a very professional-looking camera with many big lenses took many, many pictures of the camel. If I had had a way to get across that river, I would have joined that photographer in taking pictures of the camel.

As we gazed at the camel, I suddenly realized that Lily had her chudy-da pants on inside out. (Lily chose to wear her chudy-da on top of her regular clothes the whole time we were the Taj—I was surprised she was willing to wear two layers of clothes in that heat). Lily and I talked about whether she should take off her outer layer of pants (the chudy-da pants), turn them right-side out, and put them back on. “Naw,” I said. “No one’s going to notice you have your pants on inside out. Who’s looking at us, anyway?”

More Indians approached us and wanted pictures of us and/or our girls. We obliged for awhile, then dashed to see another part of the grounds (wherever we could also find shade, of course.) We found a lovely large shaded area, and many, many Indians there. Though there were a few westerners here and there, by far the most tourists were Indians. There were large tourist groups of Indians obviously together, as they would all be wearing matching caps. I had to laugh and take many pictures of a group of Indian women wearing their beautiful saris and also wearing neon-orange baseball caps identifying them as part of their tour group.

We were starting to miss Chennai, and felt like we were part of the tourist group that had “Chennai” printed across their baseball caps. I wondered if they had ridden the train with us, and if so whether they had been on one of the non air-conditioned cars, or possibly ridden to Agra by bus.

In this large shaded area where many people had decided to sit and rest, we were completely surrounded by Indians wanting to take pictures of our girls. I don’t think we were in quite this much demand anyplace else in India. It was relentless—people were actually lining up to take their turn posing with us.

In the midst of the picture-taking (with Erin, Lily and Heidi wearing pasted smiles on their faces) two Indian woman approached me and whispered, “Your middle daughter’s pants are inside out.” I laughed and said, “Yes, I know. We thought no one would notice.” They replied, “But we’re Indians. We wear these clothes everyday. We notice!”

Byron pointed out that it did seem a little odd that someone would line up to take pictures of oneself with a western child (whom you didn’t even know) when you were at one of the WONDERS OF THE MODERN WORLD. One would have to agree.

Probably at least 100 people took a picture of a Burke during the four and a half hours we were at the Taj Mahal. I was amazed at how cooperative Heidi was being--more cooperative than she had been on the bench, that’s for sure. But as I had thought, after an hour of posing, Heidi suddenly got tired of smiling with strangers surrounding her, and she began to pout and then to cry (there’s only so far you can push a four-year old, after all!)

It began to annoy me when they kept begging and prodding her to smile and laugh even when she was obviously done and had no interest in posing for even ONE more picture. I whisked her away, and found that as long as I was holding her, no one would ask to take her picture. The Indians seemed more interested in her when she was walking or standing. So, I carried her almost the whole rest of the time we were at the Taj, giving her a break from the constant photographing. Erin and Lily didn’t mind posing for a bit longer, but then it just got ridiculous. I mean, really! We came to enjoy ourselves as a family at a very famous world monument, not to pose for strangers!

Dad pointed out a mosque that is within the Taj’s courtyard, which he had gone inside with his tour guide before we had arrived. He led Erin and Lily into it, when a Taj guard came running and demanded that they leave. We assumed it’s because non-Muslims are not allowed inside mosques. Dad said that his guide had told him it wasn’t allowed, but that as long as the guard wasn’t around, he could go have a look within the first few feet of the mosque as long as he didn’t go inside.

The kids were getting hungry and tired, and I thought that if one more person asked to take tired, hungry and weary Heidi’s picture I would lose all my patience, so we thought it was time to leave. (We had been told by several travel agents that we wouldn’t want to spend more than 2 hours total at the Taj. We spent four and a half (Byron could have stayed longer if we had had food and more water), and Dad had been there for 7 and a half hours. We think we got our money’s worth.)

We made our way out, wildly taking pictures of this awesome monument, and thinking that if a tomb on earth is that incredible, how beyond our imagination are the mansions Jesus has made for us to live in with Him in heaven?

We left the Taj Mahal only to encounter an onslaught of frenzied vendors who seemed to think that if they didn’t get us in their shops now, then they would forever lose their chance to make money. It was worse than it’s ever been anywhere in India. They were in our faces, grabbing at us, in the kids’ faces, pleading, demanding, yelling and entreating us to “Come in my shop one minute. Only one minute. Just one minute.”

Other vendors were carrying their wares, and would shove the trinkets in our faces, asking us, “How much you pay? Very nice carving. How much rupees you pay?”

Byron suggested that we all just return to the hotel and collect ourselves, find some lunch, and then return to these shops. We thought it was a good plan, and wearily grunted, “Later, later!” to the vendors as we plodded down the street, making very slow progress because of the cacophony surrounding us.

At one point, a vendor waved a wooden-carved cobra in front of my face. I remembered that a friend of mine had specifically asked me to find a wooden cobra for her, and this was the nicest one I had seen. I asked, “How much?” The crusty old man demanded, “900 rupees ($23). I laughed at him and said I couldn’t afford that, and kept walking down the street.

The old codger kept following me, and asked, “How much you pay?” I replied, “200 rupees ($5), thinking he’d never come down that far and that I was done with him.

We kept walking, and with each yard closer we got to our hotel, the more the vendors thinned out until we had a determined 10-year old boy who insisted on selling us some Taj Majal snow-globes that doubled as pen-holders, and this codger trying to sell me the wooden cobra. He kept coming down in his price for the cobra, and I wasn’t even bargaining with him! I heard him say, “500 rupees.” I said, “no,” and kept walking. He said, “400 rupees,” and I ignored him. After walking for about 4 blocks, he finally stood in front of me and said, “200 rupees!” That was the easiest bargaining I had ever done, and I promptly paid him 200 rupees. I would have bought more cobras if he’d had them, but he looked disgusted with himself and scurried away.

When I got back to the hotel the restaurant cook stopped me and asked how much I had paid for the wooden cobra. “200 rupees,” I proudly replied. A stricken look crossed his face, and he said, “Oh, ma’am, you should not pay more than 50 rupees for this.” Sigh.

Completely exhausted from the excitement of the morning and from the attack of the vendors, we weakly sat on our hotel beds and regrouped. Byron suggested that we try a new restaurant—something besides the one at our hotel. We followed him to a hotel across the street that had a well shaded but non air-conditioned restaurant in their ground floor.

We studied the menu, and ordered the only thing that we could positively identify—variations on a grilled cheese sandwich, and fries. We just weren’t sure that they wouldn’t serve up any Indian food that we knew of in its spiciest form. (I don’t know if I’ve ever pointed this out, but we are vegetarians, and India is the BEST place on earth for a vegetarian to eat. One mention that we wanted “vegetarian,” and we got immediate positive responses, and we never had to worry that there would be any misunderstanding. It was only to avoid the spiciness, plus our shaky knowledge of the names of Indian dishes, that we ordered the grilled cheese and fries).

We ordered some orange soda as we waited. And waited and waited.

Finally, a nice older Indian gentleman came to our table and started chatting with us about vegetarianism. He wanted to tell us how glad he was they we were vegetarian, and pointed out how similar human teeth and digestive systems are to animals that are vegetarians. We were hungry, hot, and tired, but made small talk with him. He then launched into an explanation of how he had recently bought this hotel and apologized for the noisy construction He said he intends to re-open the hotel with 25 rooms by next year. He also pointed out that this is NOT tourist season in Agra, and thus he wasn’t worried about losing business. After all, this was the hottest time of year in India, and why would anyone come to see the Taj Mahal now? We smiled.

He spoke excellent English, and explained that he had lived in Chicago and San Francisco. We finally figured out that he was here to kill time until our food was ready. He spoke to us for about 45 minutes, and then went to see “how your food is getting along.” We now think that it’s a practice in Agra hotel restaurant kitchens, at least in the off-season, to stock no food. We are pretty sure the cook had to run across town to purchase the bread, cheese, etc. for our meal. Perhaps even the oil and the potatoes for the fries. It took over an hour for our food to arrive.

Looking back. . . I suspect this restaurant is where we got our stomach virus. . . as about 12 hours later Erin came down with it, and one by one all of us but Dad was stricken by a nasty bout of it. But who knows?

After lunch, Dad decided to go find an internet cafĂ© and check his email. The rest of us decided to return to the shops just outside the Taj Mahal—the ones with the aggressive vendors. It took awhile just to work up the gumption to return to that area of town.

But we found that when you DO agree to go inside the vendors’ shops, they are not nearly so aggressive. On our way to the shops, we saw a large open air vehicle (like a zoo tram) pulling a tour group down the street away from the Taj Mahal, and several determined vendors were racing along behind, shouting to the family and holding up their wares. It was actually funny enough to watch that we laughed out loud.

This shopping ended up being fun, because I had pretty much stopped looking for dolls and just went for fun. We found some gifts for friends and family, and then Heidi decided she wanted to replace her blue stone-carved kitty that had broken a couple of weeks ago in Chennai. Byron asked a shop-owner (by the way, the shop owners were much more subdued and polite than the vendors they hired to lure you into the shop) if he had a carved “cat.” The vendors who had followed Byron into the shop started spreading the word. Suddenly, the whole street of shops was alive with the word, “cat!” unbeknownst to me.

I had stopped to look at some pretty shoes for sale, and Lily had stopped with me. I had wanted to get Lily some nice church shoes, as we hadn’t had time to get them before we left Kansas, and I thought that if I could get them in India, I would save myself time and money. Lily began the arduous process of trying on shoes. She would point out a cute pair (and they really were CUTE), and two young men would carefully put one on each of her feet as Lily gave each pair a critical eye.

I was trying to pay attention to Lily but a young man appeared at my elbow and asked me, “Do you believe in getting married for love?” I casually said, “Well, of course,” and turned my attention to Lily. He asked if my parents had had anything to do with arranging my marriage. I still wasn’t paying him much attention, but laughed and said, “No. I don’t know anyone in America who has had their parents arrange their marriage.” The young man persisted, and asked how, then, did I meet my husband, how many men did I date before I met him, and at what age did Americans begin dating? My!

Meanwhile, Lily had rejected every single shoe in the shop, because none of them fit correctly (Lily has very narrow feet, with a very narrow heel. Her feet are difficult to find shoes for in America where I can explain her foot situation to someone who knows what I’m talking about!). Either the shoe falls off her foot, or it’s too tight in the toe and pinches. Lily was ready to leave the store, but the young man wanted to get into an in-depth conversation about marriage. I finally turned to him and said, “Look, the more I find out about arranged marriage, the more merits I think it has. I do not think that typical Americans use much sense in dating. Combining the best of the two systems might be a good idea.” I left him sputtering, “But I want to talk about this subject with you! This is a very deep subject, and I am very interested in finding out more about it!”

But I needed to catch up to Byron. As Lily and I neared the shop where Byron, Erin and Heidi were, a vendor dashed up to me, shouted, “Madame! Tell husband I have blue cat my shop! You come!” and wildly gestured toward his shop across the way. I said, “Huh?” and kept walking. We joined Byron, who was examining a brown stone-carved cat with Heidi. Heidi decided she would hold out for a blue cat, and suddenly I understood what the vendor had been talking about. I asked Byron, “Do you know that there are vendors running around out there talking about blue cats?”

He rolled his eyes and said, “I even have vendors telling me that they have blue ‘hats.’” They’ll say anything to lure us into their shops.

Meanwhile, Erin confided that she wanted to buy a “Ganeesh,” the elephant-nosed Hindu god which we saw all over Chennai so she could show it to her friends. (At first, we thought Ganeesh was so unattractive, but we had grown used to this popular Hindu god of wealth and now eagerly hunted out this easy-to-identify god at all the Hindu temples we saw). Erin pointed out a rendition of Ganeesh at this shop for 100 rupees, and asked me to bargain it down to 50 rupees for her. I told her that if she wanted it, then she needed to bargain it down. She hesitated. But I was so proud of her when she went over to the counter and said to the shopkeeper, “I have 50 rupees. Can I have a Ganeesh?”

The shopkeeper reached behind him, dug in a cupboard, held out a smaller carving of Ganeesh, and said, “50 rupees.” Sold! I’m not sure what we’ll do with a tiny replica of a Hindu god in our house, but it will bring back happy memories visiting Hindu temples together, and it commemorates Erin’s first trial and success at bargaining!

We had visited most the shops along the road, and started walking back to the hotel. Suddenly, two things happened. The wind starting picking up (like it had yesterday just before is started raining), and Dawn saw an incredible pair of shoes she wanted to try on. Dawn rushed toward the shoe-shop, and Byron yelled, “Make it fast! A storm is coming!”

I darted into the shop, pointed to the shoes, and they brought them out for me to try. Ugh! Too small, quick! Bring out a bigger pair. They did. Then they showed me another lovely pair of sparkly shoes, and offered each pair for 600 rupees. I said, “I wish I could, but I can’t possibly afford that, and my husband is calling so I need to leave.” (Byron's note, dark clouds were on the horizon.)

I got up to leave, and they said, “Wait! We will sell you both pairs for 1000 rupees!” I said, “I really want these shoes, but I can’t afford it! And here’s my daughter telling me that Daddy really wants to leave!” (Byron's note, the wind was really starting to blow.)

They said, “Okay, how about both pairs for a total of 800 rupees?” I put one foot out the door and said, “here’s another daughter to tell me that Daddy wants to leave, and can you hear my husband hollering at me?” (Byron's note, dark clouds were overhead already.)

They said, “Okay—pay us total of 600 rupees, and you can have both pairs!” I said, “Sold!”

Later, I told Byron that he had saved me quite a bit of money.

The wind had started blowing all kinds of debris in our faces and eyes (there is no place we ever saw in India that didn’t have trash and debris on the street, so a windstorm isn’t a small matter). We were struggling to walk, and then suddenly it started to rain. Suddenly, we were utterly miserable, wet, eyes full of sand, and we saw one of those horse-pulled carriages. We made a dash for it, and the girls were so excited about riding in a horse-drawn carriage during our 8-minute ride to the hotel. Of course the wind was blowing so hard we had to ride in the carriage with our eyes closed, which does lessen the joy a bit. But I jumped out at the end of our ride and took pictures of the girls squinting at me, so at least we’ll have proof we did it, even if we didn’t see it at the time.)

So, in Agra we rode in an auto-rickshaw, a pedi-cab, and a horse-drawn carriage. The only thing we didn’t ride was the camel-drawn carriages (I only saw one, and the carriage was very high in the air. It was empty at the time, and was really bouncing up and down. That would have been an experience! I’m not sure how one gets up into that high carriage.)

Upon our return to the hotel, Dawn stopped to ask the concierge (one of the seven guys wandering around the hotel who looked in charge) about hiring a car for the next morning to take us to Delhi and to some tourist sites in that city. The concierge said he’d make a few phone calls and get back to me. We went to our hotel rooms where the girls were playing with their miniature Taj Mahals.

We found Dad, who had gotten some rest and looked more refreshed then we felt. The concierge, meanwhile, had some news for me. Apparently we could hire a car, but whether the car could get through to Delhi was the question. There were demonstrations in and around Delhi, and all the roads leading into Delhi were currently closed. (!)

Later, upon talking to an Australian woman in the airport, we think this is what was going on. The national government had established some laws to protect and promote the growth and fair-treatment of a low Hindu caste. This caste had thrived within these laws, and its people were doing so much better that the government decided they no longer needed the protection of these laws, and repealed them. The caste was angered at this action, and was conducting demonstrations in and around Delhi, burning tires on the roads so that traffic could not enter or depart from Delhi.

Well! I asked the hotel concierge what we should do. He recommended going into Delhi by train, and that if we were going to do that, then we’d better get to the train station to buy our tickets by its 8:00 p.m. closing time. It was now 6:00. I asked what would happen if we did choose to rent a car. He said at worst, the roads would be blocked and we would sit in traffic for hours waiting for the roadblock to clear up. At best, we would probably get near Delhi and then sit in traffic for about 2 hours, giving policemen time to inspect each car for dangerous demonstrating types of people.

I asked the concierge how we could hire a reputable car with a/c to take us around Delhi for the day (since we would not be driving there). He said, “Oh, at the Delhi train station just look for the sign that says, “Government-hired vehicles. Hire one of those—they will be fair in their price.”

Hmmm. I rushed back upstairs to confer with Byron and Dad, and we decided we’d better go to Delhi by train. We decided that if we caught an 8:00 a.m. train, then we’d get to Delhi by noon, eat lunch, and see a couple of sites before catching our 8 p.m. flight back to Chennai.

We made a list of the evening’s activities: Eat supper someplace, buy our train tickets, purchase food to eat on the train, and return to one shop in downtown Agra where we had seen a couple of items we thought would make a nice gift for someone. We found our faithful auto-rickshaw driver (the only one we ever used in Agra), loaded up, and we were off. It was still raining, and those of us who were sitting on the outside edges of the auto-rickshaw couldn’t figure out if we were getting more wet from the rain, or from the puddles on the road that the traffic was splashing onto us as it passed.

We stopped at the train station first. Dad and I approached the ticket counter that said, “Foreigners,” wondering how on earth one goes about purchasing a train ticket to Delhi from Agra for the next morning. Fortunately, this ticket agent spoke English, sort of. He handed us a form to fill out before he would even talk with us, which included needing our birthdates, home address, and local address, and the city we wanted to go to. Upon completely the form, he asked, “When do you want to do to Delhi?”

I answered, “We want 6 tickets for the 8:00 a.m. train tomorrow.” He said, “Full.”

I said, “Okay, how about 6 tickets for the 9:00 a.m. train tomorrow?” He said, “Full.”

I said, “How about the 7:00 a.m. train?”


Okay, do you have any vacancies for a morning train to Delhi tomorrow?
”I have vacancies for 6 a.m. train.” Dad paid for them, and we were off to shop.

We bought our last couple of Agra souvenirs, and decided to return to Indiana restaurant for supper, as it had had good food and hadn’t made us wait a long time for the cook to go shopping. The food was good, but Dawn and the kids couldn’t eat as much for some reason, and Dawn, at least felt guilty for leaving large portions of the food untouched.

Erin, Lily, and Dawn weren’t feeling very good.

Returned to the hotel to pack, as Dad ran up the street to buy some of those miniature bananas that he claimed tasted so sweet. Byron decided he simply didn’t have the energy to shop for groceries for our train ride.

We were walking zombies by the time we got the kids ready for bed, but we HAD to pack tonight because we had to get up and leave so early in the morning. Byron started packing while Dawn ran downstairs to ask the concierge to help arrange a couple of auto-rickshaws to take us to the train station at 5:00 a.m. the next morning. (The auto-rickshaws aren’t powerful-- they actually putt-putt down the road. We decided we’d better give the auto-rickshaw, loaded with us and our baggage, plenty of time to get us to the train station across town.)

Tomorrow, Delhi. We have been tired ever since we got to Agra. We wonder how getting up at 4:00 a.m. to get to an autorickshaw by 5:00 a.m. to catch a 6:00 a.m. train will affect our exhaustion.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Our first day in Agra

Wednesday, May 28
We slept until 7:30 a.m., and then were happy to learn that Hotel Sheela Inn served breakfast in their rooftop restaurant. It was exciting to see our first glimpse of the Taj from their rooftop. We ordered French toast and scrambled eggs, and settled back to wait. And wait. And wait. After about 20 minutes we noticed one of the guys who had been standing around the restaurant (and had disappeared shortly after we gave our order), return holding a loaf of bread and a bag of eggs! We are certain, now, that the restaurant kitchen had NO food, and that all meals were made from very-recently bought ingredients. It took FOREVER to get our French toast and eggs. But they were very tasty when they arrived.

Dad said later that you didn’t want to look inside the kitchen of that rooftop restaurant. I very carefully avoided taking even a glance. I did tell the cook, though, that we would be having French toast again the next morning, and told him we would need it by 7:00 a.m., hoping he would go grocery shopping sooner than breakfast time.

We found an interesting bathroom set-up—the shower was a spigot out of the wall—no stall or anything, so everything in the bathroom got very wet while someone took a shower. The toilet was western, but definitely not American.

After cleaning up, we were excited to take our first auto-rickshaw ride to Agra Fort. (We decided that we would see some of the less prominent sites the first day and visit the Taj Mahal after we got a good night's rest.) Boy, was it noisy and slow, but all six of us plus the driver fit (barely) into one. This first ride in an auto-rickshaw was fun. In subsequent rides, the glamour wore off pretty quickly.

At Agra Fort, we were approached (I would almost use the word "accosted") by a man who offered to be our guide through the fort. The guide was very interesting, and told us all sorts of intriguing tidbits about the fort, such as pointing out the drawbridge over the now dried-up riverbed that used to house crocodiles, and the grassy courtyard just beyond the riverbed that used to feature hungry tigers. He also pointed out the narrow slits in the fort, just right for aiming arrows through, and the upper levels of the fort, where boiling water and oil was poured on enemies who managed to get past the crocs, tigers and arrows.

The drawbridge was lowered for the king and other officials. The fort entrance features a hollow floor so that the sound of approaching carriages would reverberate throughout the fort, alerting people inside that their king had arrived. An actual area for a bandstand stands near the entrance, and a band would sit there and play a welcome song for their king.

About halfway through this tour, the girls were just done with our tour guide. Heidi had fallen asleep in the stroller, Erin and Lily’s tongues were hanging out because they were so hot, and Erin was seriously exhausted. Poor girl hadn’t slept since 3:30 a.m., and wasn’t functioning very well. Again, we had a tour guide who didn’t seem to know what to do with children, and it is not fun to tell your children to stay quiet and close during a tour, when all they want to do is go explore this cool place and run and jump and be kids after 30 hours on a train. So, Byron took the girls off to explore for awhile while Dad and I tried to concentrate on the guide with our sleep-deprived minds.

More interesting information about Agra Fort (which I think I understood right, but wouldn’t swear to it that all this is completely true. Remember—I was never absolutely positive that I understood what Indians were telling me): The king who built this fort was the father of the man who built the Taj Mahal. This fort-building king was a powerful monarch, and knew that to please his partly Muslim, partly Hindu populace, that he needed to have two wives—one Muslim, one Hindu. He did, but he loved his Hindu wife the best and she is the one he had a child with. Surprisingly, though he had two wives and 300 concubines, he fathered only one child. This child was the one who built the Taj Mahal. You would think that after being in Agra I’d remember I’d remember that child’s name, but I can’t.

The way that child met his future wife was this: His father had the many Muslim wives (one official Muslim wife, and many unofficial Muslim wives) who weren’t allowed to talk to, interact, or even be seen by men other than the king. Yet, these wives needed to go shopping. The way the king handled this problem was to bring a weekly market into his palace, right there in a huge courtyard. Only female merchants were allowed inside. The king’s son met one of these merchants, fell in love, and married her (though she was married to someone else at the time he met her). The couple had many children—I think 11 or 14, and the wife died in childbirth with the last one. Her husband, who was by now king, was so heartbroken over her death that he built the Taj Mahal as her tomb.

Did you know this? One of those 11 or 14 children rose to power, and threw his father into a prison inside Agra Fort because he was disgusted with how his father had wasted Indian resources on building the Taj Mahal, and to keep his father from building an identical, but black, replica across the river from the white Taj.

Inside Agra Fort were lots of mosques. Apparently the king wanted every Muslim to have a place to worship within the fort, because one mosque was for the emperor, one was for his Muslim wife, one was for the Muslim unofficial wives, and one was for the public to worship in.

The art and decorations in the fort reflected both Hindu and Muslim art. Typical Hindu art includes carved flowers, and something that looks exactly like the Jewish star of David, but with a black dot in the middle. The Muslims use lots of arches in their art. You can see these flowers, the dotted Star of David, and arches throughout the fort.

A prison underneath the fort was a sort of dungeon and provided a discipline program for the king to use with his wives. When any of them quarreled (and you can imagine that happening with 2 official, much less 300 unofficial, wives!), he would put them in the dungeon for a mimimum of 2-4 hours, and a maximum of 24 hours. According to our guide, it was a very effective discipline tool.

Our tour guide seemed to take an interest in me after he asked me my name. When I replied, "Dawn," he looked aghast and drew back with a horrified look on his face. "What?!" I cried, thinking I might have a spider on my head or a piece of chapati stuck in my teeth. He explained, "Don’t you KNOW? Your name means, "terrorist" in Hindi." Sigh. For the rest of our time in North India, I repeatedly got horrified looks whenever I answered the question, "What is your name?"

Perhaps I should explain that my name, or at least the way it’s pronounced, means "pig" in Korean. For one full year (I lived in Korea as a student missionary for a year during college) I was laughed at because I had a "piggy" name. Now I was to endure horror and suspicious looks every time I revealed my name to a native Hindi speaker. What exactly do I look like, anyway? I doubt I appear anything like a bomb-wielding, bloodthirsty terrorist type ( unless I’m really tired, hungry and the kids are making me crazy).

We left Agra Fort full of new information, and dragging along hot, tired, hungry kids. Byron said that our auto-rickshaw driver said he would wait for us, and he started looking for him. We were used to Mani, who has an uncanny sense of when we are ready to leave and always meets us right away with smile and a lovely air-conditioned car (unless he’s sleeping). This time, we really had to hunt down our auto-rickshaw driver. (It ended up that he was parked across the street in the middle of all the other auto-rickshaw drivers who were waiting for their passengers.)

Along the way, we were approached by every vendor within sight. They surrounded us and kept plying us with ridiculous things such as whips, paperweights, and postcards. "Who on earth would purchase a whip?" I thought, and then turned around to see Dad paying for one! He admitted, "I need this whip like I need a hole in my head," but did look pleased with his unique purchase.

Byron, with his uncanny sense of direction, found our auto-rickshaw driver (who wasn’t looking for us at all, but was patiently waiting), and we all loaded up again. He had acquired a young man who spoke reasonably understandable English (now there were 8 people in the auto-rickshaw), and we wearily asked the driver to take us to an air-conditioned, reasonably-priced, vegetarian restaurant. He dropped us off at "Indiana," which turned out to be a very Muslim, very lovely restaurant. We nearly burst into song when we entered the air-conditioning, and sat down to a refreshing cup of bottled water. Erin revived immediately, which made us realize she’d probably been overheated and dehydrated.

After a sumptious lunch (this was my first time being served curry since arriving in India. I think it must be North Indian food? I know that Sahji and Chandra-shak-uh cook with curry powder, but I’ve never been served curry in Chennai), we were only slightly disturbed when some of us saw a mouse running across the top of some of the restaurant chairs lined up near us along the wall. I think we’re pretty used to life in India, as such an occurrence in America would make us NEVER visit such a restaurant again.

We decided to visit the Baby Taj, which Dawn had read was a delightful, little-visited monument similar to the Taj itself. (It has another name, which I can’t recall now. The auto-rickshaw driver and his English-speaking friend didn’t recognize what we were talking about until we called it the "Baby Taj," so that must be the more popular way to refer to it in Agra)

We decided that we would not accept any guide’s services at the Baby Taj, and just go at a pace that was fun and comfortable for the girls. What a pretty, quiet structure we found on a lovely, terraced grounds. Like the Taj, this was also a tomb, and decorated so beautifully with inlaid precious stones. Everything about it was symmetrical—if you saw a swirly design on one side, you saw the exact same one on the other side. We just enjoyed walking around this quiet place, even though we got caught in a rainstorm. We decided to sit out the rain for awhile, and were delighted to find wild monkeys playing inside one of the large gateways to this Baby Taj (both the Taj Mahal itself and the Baby Taj have huge, detailed and lovely gateway entrances on opposite sides.)

The girls loved watching the monkeys run up the walls, run across a small ridge and down the other wall. When the monkeys got hold of a small tree-branch and were playing keep-a-way with it, the girls laughed so hard that the men working at the Baby Taj came to see what all the ruckus was about.

A few moments later, the monkeys left, and the girls lost interest. Then the girls decided to take a walk around the grounds, and discovered where the monkeys had gone. At least 30 monkeys were playing along the walkways around the monument. Some were mothers with their babies hanging on underneath as the mothers ran on all fours. The girls were so excited that they ran after the monkeys, trying to get close.

(I will say here that I am not much of an animal person, and know next to nothing about wild animals. Now I know too much about wild monkeys.)

Anyhow, Dad and Byron were looking at another area of the Baby Taj while I was busy trying to keep up with the girls. I was helping Heidi cross a small river (caused by the recent downpour) in the sidewalk when one of my children (unnamed to protect privacy) rushed up and said, "Mama! A monkey just grabbed me around my waist and tried to hurt me!" She demonstrated on me what the monkey had done to her, and I suddenly realized how close the other child was to the monkeys.

Meanwhile, a nearby monkey waited until Heidi walked up near it, and started to get right in her face. I snatched her up just in time to see the other child approach a group of about 15 monkeys. Then I noticed one of the Indian gatekeepers had come right up behind me, and was making a very odd noise. I wondered if I should turn around and see what he was doing, but was too terrified to take my eyes off the other child, and unsure of what to do other than keep walking towards that child.

In a matter of seconds, I saw two monkeys approach that child. One grabbed at her legs (the monkeys were about waist-high to her) and she screamed and looked hurt and confused. That’s when the man behind me started off running at the monkeys, making that odd sound at them and brandishing a branch. Another monkey grabbed at this child, and when she screamed again and began to run, it let go. Child ran to me, screaming and crying, and I wasn’t sure if she was hurt or scared or both. Later on, we were to discover several scratches and a HUGE ugly bruise on her thigh—about 3-4 inches square. And she was wearing thick denim capris! Imagine what would have happened if she’d had on thin cotton shorts, or if the monkey had gotten nearer her face! I now detest monkeys.

A few minutes later, after this child had calmed down a bit (she was scared and embarrassed, so wishes to remain nameless), we left the Baby Taj, to see a monkey rush down to a fruit stand across the street, steal a piece of fruit and dash up to perch on a store front. The fruit-stand owner yelled and threw a rock at the thief. I also wanted to pelt a few well-aimed rocks at a few nearby monkeys!

We decided to shop for a few souveniers, and our faithful auto-rickshaw driver took us to a lovely air-conditioned shop. Here was our first exposure to soapstone vs. marble. In order to show you that the marble they are selling is genuine, many shops in Agra have a lightbulb mounted on a countertop. They will hold the marble carving over the lightbulb to show you that if the carving appears to glow, then it’s marble. If the carving does not seem to glow in the light, it’s cheap soapstone. Another way to tell if it’s marble is to scrape the carving against a glass countertop. Soapstone will leave a chalky residue, and marble will not. (Now you’ve had your marble vs. soapstone lesson; we got it at every shop we visited in Agra!)

Still on a quest for authentic Indian dolls, we found some cute puppets at this shop that came in a man/woman set. I’d never seen anything like them, and they looked very Indian. In despair that I would ever find enough dolls for the people who have requested them, I bought a couple of sets of puppets. (Later I was to find these puppets for sale all over Agra, but I’ve never seen them anywhere else.)

By now it was dark, and we headed back to Hotel Sheela Inn for supper. While we were eating at the rooftop restaurant, we heard something we’d never heard before—a kind of chanting over a loudspeaker coming from somewhere in the town below. I asked the cook what was going on, and he told me that it was the Muslim call to prayer. He explained that the Muslims have loudspeakers mounted on each mosque. Five times a day, at 5:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. 4:00 p.m., sunset, and 9 p.m., a Muslim Imam will climb to the minaret within the mosque and chant out a call to prayer (or it might have been a prayer, I wasn’t sure.)

We were surprised at how Muslim the city of Agra is, and in contrast how completely Hindu the city of Chennai is.

Anyhow, after supper, Dad wanted to try shopping at a nearby shopping bazaar he’d seen (a five-minute walk away from the hotel), and Dawn is ever game for shopping. Byron said he wanted to take a walk to the Taj to see how far it was from the hotel, and that he’d take the kids along with him. Dad and Dawn started walking to the nearby bazaar, when we were of course accosted by several auto rick-shaw drivers. I had no idea where the bazaar was, but Dad said it was within easy walking distance and that he didn’t want to bother with an auto-rickshaw. Then he said, "But it’d be fun to take a pedi-cab if there was one here." One of the auto rickshaw drivers heard Dad say that, and said, "I can get one! I’ll be right back!" and dashed off. (A pedi-cab is a bicycle-drawn rickshaw, something we hadn’t yet tried.)

Dad kept walking toward the bazaar, but pretty soon the pedi-cab driver showed up, all excited to give us a ride. Dad settled on a price of 10 rupees for this very short ride, explained where he wanted to go, and we just got settled when Byron and the girls showed up. Byron took a picture of Dad and I in a pedi-cab, and we were off. In all the excitement of getting into the pedi-cab and because of the dark, Dad wasn’t sure if/when we had passed the shopping bazaar, and since I didn’t even know where it was, I was clueless. Meanwhile, the pedi-cab driver just kept pedaling, and before long Dad said, "I know this isn’t the right way, and he’s taken us too far, and this isn’t going to be good."

I naively encouraged Dad to settle back and enjoy his first pedi-cab ride. Soon it was very apparent that our driver had his own agenda, and was taking us to various souvenir shops around Agra. He pedaled us all the way downtown and kept stopping at shops. At first I was eager to go into the shops and look for Indian dolls. But after awhile I decided that Indian dolls do not exist in Agra, and I didn’t want to look anymore. I just wanted to go home. Dad had been tired of the whole thing about 3 shops earlier, so we asked the driver to return us to our hotel.

Then the pedi-cab driver became downright offensive. He said, "I get 20 rupee commission just for taking you into the next shop. Please, please go into next shop." I asked, "What do they sell?" He said, "Jewelry." I said, "I’m telling you right now, I’m not in the least bit interested in purchasing any jewelry, but I’ll walk in and walk out if that’s what you need." He seemed satisfied.

So, that’s what Dad and I did. We entered the shop, walked around, saw only expensive-looking jewelry for sale, and walked out. The pedi-cab driver looked quite startled at our hasty exit from this shop, and started getting surly with us. I was tired and just wanted to get back to the hotel. We insisted that we were done with shopping and that he had taken us to far too many shops and that they were all his own idea anyhow, and that he needed to take us back to the hotel NOW.

He started pedaling, but said that he was tired, and couldn’t hardly pedal anymore. He said that he had worked so hard for us, and wanted $50 for the evening’s work. We laughed, and he said, "Okay, I take $25." We still thought he was joking.

Dad offered to pedal for him, and so I found myself in a pedi-cab behind Dad, who did quite a nice job of pedaling. The driver wasn’t too excited about that, though, and soon took over the pedaling again. On the way home, I asked the driver to stop at a place where I could buy water bottles, and Dad wanted to buy bananas. After our purchases, we realized we were very close to our hotel and could walk the rest of the way. Dad stopped to pay the pedi-cab driver the agreed-upon 10 rupees, but decided to double it to 20 rupees. The pedi-cab driver suddenly turned purple with rage and said 20 rupees was a ridiculous amount for the evening’s ride he’d given us. Dad said, "This is double the price we agreed upon. Take it or leave it." The driver shoved the money back at Dad, and refused to take it. So, Dad turned around and started walking toward the hotel. I followed him pretty quickly.

I was surprised that the pedi-cab driver wouldn’t politely try to ask us for more, instead of just getting mad, but decided I’d better stick close to Dad until we were safely in the hotel. Just as we reached the hotel steps, I heard running behind us and the pedi-cab driver got in my face and started yelling something. Unfortunately, I let my temper and my tiredness get hold of me and I got right back into his face and screamed, "This whole ridiculous evening was YOUR idea! You took us to the shops YOU wanted us to go to—we didn’t ask for ANY of this. Don’t get mad at US when this WHOLE THING WAS YOUR idea!" Then I turned and ran into the hotel, noting the shocked but enraged look on his face.

I dashed up to the room to report to Byron that a pedi-cab driver wanted to kill me.

Byron had his own story of the evening. The Taj Mahal is only a 10 minute walk away, but on their way, they were surrounded by very aggressive vendors, hawking their wares and making what could have been a simple, enjoyable walk quite difficult as he and the girls walked up to the Taj entrance. The girls had come back to the hotel laden with business cards for the various shops they’d passed.

Meanwhile, the air-conditioning wasn’t working in one of our hotel rooms, and we had to call up several hotel people before we found one who knew how to fix the problem (the first hotel guy insisted that the air-conditioning WAS working, when it obviously wasn’t. What was THAT about?).

On one of our jaunts down to the lobby, one of the hotel guys (I think that about 7 guys are running this hotel together) stopped me when he saw me carrying the water bottles I had just bought at a nearby shop. He said, "You must not drink that water. You must drink only water bottled by Pepsi-Co. You give me that water. I will return it for you and get you safe water for foreigners." While I appreciated this gesture, I wondered about it. Later, he showed up with 6 bottles of Pepsi-Co water, and said the difference was just a few rupees, so I know he wasn’t trying to trick me out of any money. I thanked him, and made a mental note to purchase only Pepsi-Co bottled water whilst abroad in India.

I took a look at the one child’s monkey wound, and it looked worse than I’d initially thought. Drat those monkeys! I put antiobiotic ointment on it, and administered ibuprofen for the pain. I told this child what a cool story she’ll have, to tell people that she was attacked by monkeys! This child said she was so embarrassed she would never, ever tell anyone about this incident. I told her that she could hardly be related to me with that sort of attitude—who cares if it’s embarrassing, as long as it’s a good story? (Byron's note: for reference see the pedi-cab story above). Perhaps it’s a phase she’s going through.

Dad made plans to be at the Taj Mahal the next morning at sunrise, so we bid him good night and said we’d try and meet him at 8:00 a.m or 9:00 (if we didn't make it by 8:00) on some benches that he and Byron talked about. He said he would make do with bananas for breakfast, since the hotel restaurant didn’t open until 7:00 a.m.

The girls had decided ‘way back in Chennai that they wanted to have their pictures taken at the Taj Mahal wearing full-Indian dress, including either saris or chudy-das, bangles, ankle bracelets, braids, and jasmine flowers. We pulled all the Indian attire out of the suitcases and put it in a backpack for the next day. We haven’t seen jasmine flowers in any women’s hair since we left Chennai, and haven’t seen it for sale on every corner in Agra as it is in Chennai. (Later, we learned that jasmine flowers are a very South Indian thing, particularly in Tamil Nadu (the south Indian state where Chennai is located).

Dawn had a headache, so took two caffeine-laced pills that I bought at a Chennai pharmacy that the pharmacist said were specifically for headaches. (I stayed awake nearly all night, but I was headache free.)

To bed. Thus ends our first day in Agra. Tomorrow, the Taj!

The train ride from Chennai, South India to Agra, North India

Monday, May 26 through Wednesday morning, May 28
Dawn spent the entire day frantically doing laundry and packing for our trip up to North India.

All day long, Heidi kept asking for jasmine flowers for her hair, but I simply didn’t have the time to run up the street and purchase them from the nearby jasmine lady on the corner. I toyed with the idea of sending Erin, Lily and Heidi up to the jasmine lady, but thought that wouldn’t really be a good idea. About 4 p.m., Mani arrived in our apartment with a gift "for Heidi." Don’t ask me how he found out, but he had bought each of the girls a string of especially fragrant jasmine flowers. He told us that these flowers were smaller than the normal jasmine flowers (they were quite a bit smaller), but much more fragrant (and they were!). I took the time to braid the girls’ hair and put the jasmine flowers in. (Jasmine simply doesn’t work in hair unless your hair is braided. A ponytail might do in a pinch, but not really.) Heidi was much happier after that.

Sahji and Chandra-shake-uh seemed nervous about us venturing forth to other parts of India, and asked if we would like them to make us some chapatis to take along on our trip. (Chapatis are a round, flat bread, similar to a tortilla, but with a thicker and more interesting texture.) They made us 21 chapatis. We found out later that you can make quite an acceptable sandwich with peanut butter and chapatis.

Byron arrived home a bit earlier than usual that evening from work (about 7:45). Our train for Agra was leaving at 10:10 p.m. Some tense minutes passed as he ascertained that Dawn had over-packed, and he unpacked everything and re-packed it in a frenzy of panic. (So much for Dawn knowing where everything was, or even if Byron had even included it in the re-packing process!

Byron managed to pack everything he thought we’d need into three suitcases. In addition, each of the girls carried a backpack, and we brought the stroller, and a large cardboard box holding 12 two-liter water bottles. Dad brought a compact backpack and impressed me with how lightly he could pack. We loaded up the car, and were off to the train station.

Mani helped us unload, and walked us over to the train station’s entrance ramp. He stood there looking at us like he wasn’t at all sure we could handle this trip on our own. He looked like he wanted to say something along the lines of, "Now, don’t talk to strangers. And don’t get separated, and for crying out loud, don’t do anything stupid!" He watched us until we were out of sight, just shaking his head.

After wandering in generally the right direction (following Mani's instructions), we decided to ask someone for directions (can I just say here that I LOVE always being able to find someone who can speak English, wherever I go in India? This doesn’t happen in every country!), and found our train. We pulled all our luggage onto the train, and found a rather delightful sleeper car, with 6 bunks to a berth. We began to get settled in an empty berth, when it occurred to us to see if our ticket indicated which berth was ours. Indeed, we were in the wrong one, so located the right one and the girls immediately started climbing bunks and bouncing around delightedly. Children under 5 years (Heidi) didn’t pay for tickets, but they also had to share a bunk with an adult, so the Nesmith/Burke clan only took up 5 of the 6 bunks in our berth.

We soon met the brave Indian gentleman who would be surrounded by an American family during all his waking and sleeping moments for the next 30 hours. He had the bottom bunk on the right, and couldn’t have been more friendly, helpful, and curious about us. Dawn and Heidi slept above him, Lily across from us, and Dad beneath Lily. Byron slept on the bottom bunk across the aisle, and Erin quickly set up a little bedroom for herself in the bunk above Daddy.
Pillows, sheets, and blankets were provided, and I attempted to make Lily’s bunk first. After struggling with the sheets for 10 minutes, I gave up and said, "Just lay on the sheet and pull the blanket over you. The Indian gentleman said, "Why don’t you make it like mine?" and gestured to his perfectly-made bed. I came close to asking him to make up each of our beds, but grinned and said, "Americans don’t know how to do things like this," and left him chuckling.

It was about 11:30 p.m. by the time we got the girls all settled, and the luggage shoved under beds. The girls were tired, and we forgot that perhaps we should take each of them to the bathroom before bedtime. We would find the folly of this forgetfulness throughout the night. Every time someone needed to use the bathroom, Mama and Daddy were awakened. We would fumble in the dark for our toilet paper, then walk to the next car where we found an interesting squat-pot set-up. The squat-pot was porcelain, but everything that goes in just dumps out onto the train tracks below. I suddenly remembered a newspaper article I’d read the week before about how many people do not follow the rules about waiting to use the train bathrooms until the train has pulled out of the station.

Fortunately, metal bars and handles were in front of and to the side of the squat pot, so you could hang on while using the facilities. This was totally necessary, as the swinging and swaying of the train made it hard to walk, much less balance in a bathroom.

To Dawn’s utter joy, the train bathroom also featured a very nice, clean sink with running hot and cold water, and a full soap dispenser!

After multiple midnight visits to the squat pot with each of the girls, Byron and I didn’t have the greatest night’s sleep. Also, sleeping with a four-year old on a narrow bunkbed is superior only to sleeping on an airplane, which is the worst form of travel for sleeping, in my opinion. At least on the train you could stretch out, sort of.

Morning dawned through our large picture window on the train, and a major form of entertainment for us throughout the day was to just sit and watch the countryside pass by the window. We saw water-buffalo, monkeys, little huts out in the middle of nowhere, people working in fields (maybe rice-fields?), cows, goats, and many cultivated fields. Many of the fields looked too uniform to have been planted by hand, but not really uniform enough to have been planted by the kinds of tractors we have in America (as if I know what an American tractor is really like!).

We passed through tunnels, and through mango groves, and saw small, remote villages where I wondered how they eked out a living. Our Indian berth-mate was more than willing to answer questions and talk about what we were looking at out the window.

The landscape between south India and north India is basically pretty dry and sparse. Definitely not lush and green like a jungle. But not sandy like a desert. There was wild grass and scrubby trees growing almost everywhere, and the land was very flat.

During the daylight hours, Byron and the girls taught our Indian friend how to play Uno, and watched him eat his lunch (a very spicy-looking rice dish) with his fingers (I don’t know how they do it—but the Indians can eat with their fingers and keep clean and mess-free), as we ate our chapatis with peanut butter. He could also drink from a water bottle on a rocking, lurching train without letting the bottle touch his lips and without spilling. Vendors also walked throughout the train cars calling out their wares, such as various kinds of ready-to-eat food, and drinks. I was awfully tempted to buy some "Chai" from the tea-vendor, as the girls and I adore Indian tea (which consists of a small spot of tea with loads of cream and sugar!), but wasn’t sure it would be as sanitary as we would need it to be.

We did a little homeschooling, but soon tired of doing math problems when there was a window to look out of. Dad, Byron and I took turns reading the book, "Swift Arrow," to the girls. It’s an old book, but a very interesting true story about an American pioneer boy who is kidnapped by the American Indians and raised as a chief’s son, but when he reaches adulthood, escapes back to his pioneer family and village. It did feel odd reading aloud within our Indian friend’s hearing passages such as, "George watched as the tall Indian brandished the scalps on his belt and waved a tomahawk in front of his friend Robert’s face." Parts of that book don’t really put Indians in a good light, and I was worried that the Indian Indians would think we were making comments about THEM. At one point we ended up drawing a picture of a tee-pee versus a wigwam for our Indian friend, and he didn’t seem at all familiar with these terms which are so second-nature to Americans.

People would go past our berth on their way to the bathrooms, and once they noticed we were Americans, they would stop and talk to us, or wave. (It hasn’t stopped amazing me how unusual and compellingly interesting we are to much of the Indian population, just because we’re white and/or American) Two women just came and sat with us for awhile, staring at us, listening to us read "Swift Arrow," and finally talking to us. They kept asking Heidi if she understood what the book we were reading was about. I was surprised that they would think a 4-yr old wouldn’t understand a storybook being read to her, but perhaps they couldn’t believe that such a little girl could understand English so much better than they could.

The girls had a wonderful time playing on their bunks, crawling and climbing back and forth and up and down. Our Indian friend (whose very long name we obtained just toward the end of our trip, and which I now can’t remember) said he had three daughters of his own, just about Erin’s, Lily’s, and Heidi’s ages. He enjoyed holding Heidi and talking with her for awhile, and laughed at how the girls enjoyed looking out the window and playing in the train.

One older Indian woman stopped to chat with me about Heidi’s limbs, and told me that the best place in India to obtain artificial limbs is in the city of Jaipur (about 3 hours from Delhi). She insisted we stop there. I smiled and told her we aren’t big fans of prosthetics at this point, but maybe in the future Heidi would appreciate and use them more. People who aren’t amputees (or very closely associated with them) usually don’t have a clue as to the true usefulness of prosthetic limbs, and sometimes I just wish they’d keep their opinions to themselves. Anyhow, this lady told me about a famous Indian dancer who lost her leg in an accident, and who got a prosthetic at Jaipur and came back as a brilliant dancer again.

Then, she left and returned with her 3-yr old granddaughter, Tusha. Heidi was enchanted to meet a little girl her age (doesn’t happen very often), and the two enjoyed sharing a couple of picture books and coloring a few pictures together. Then Tusha dashed down to her berth, and Heidi wanted to follow her. Byron took her down, where they met all of Tusha’s family.

Towards the end of our train ride, Dad found a western toilet at the other end of our train car, which we tried to get into several times, but always seemed to find it occupied. Dad also found a train car with 3-tiers of bunks, which I was so, so glad we hadn’t booked. With three-tiers, you either sit up, or lay down (and all three people in your row have to agree). I am sure that God led us to the travel agency and agent who knew that we would be miserable if we couldn’t lie down and take naps during a 30-hour train ride, and riding in the air-conditioned two-tier cars made that possible. In our complete ignorance of Indian trains, who knows what we would have booked if we had tried to do it ourselves? (For future reference, traveling by 2nd class, air-conditioned, two-tier is a perfectly acceptable way to travel with children. Just remember to bring your own toilet paper, hand sanitizer, water, and food, an alarm clock and a few things to entertain yourself and your kids during the ride.)

The train ride really was enjoyable. All 6 of us took naps during the day, which was easy to do because the constant swaying of the train naturally lulled us to sleep. After about 20 hours, we felt pretty "done," but weren’t at the end of our ropes yet. We were nervous about getting off the train in Agra (our train was to arrive in Agra at 3:45 A.M.!), because we had noticed that the train usually stopped at the little train stations along the way for a maximum of 5 minutes—usually more like 3 minutes. We thought, "how are we going to get three sleepy kids and all this luggage off the train in the short amount of time, and THAT time of the morning?"

We were also nervous about waking up on time. The conductor and another woman who was going to Agra both told us they would ensure that we were awake in time.

Dawn and Byron both set alarm clocks, and the kids willingly went to bed about 8:00 p.m.. At 3:00 a.m., Dawn awoke and took a full 15 minutes to force myself to sit upright. At 3:30 a.m. I started getting kids awake and taking each of them to the bathroom. Byron awoke and started getting the luggage all into a pile. Dad awoke and looked alert. We wondered how we would know when the train got to Agra—the only way to tell where you were at each stop was to look out the window and search for the sign that listed the town’s name first in Tamil or Hindi, then in English. Sometimes that sign wasn’t immediately obvious, especially at night.

3:45 a.m. came and went, and the train hadn’t stopped. 4 a.m. arrived, and the other lady stopping at Agra came to make sure we were awake. Then the conductor came to awaken us. I was glad we had not relied on them to awaken us, as they would’ve woke us up only a few minutes before we would be getting off. Apparently they don’t understand how Burkes travel—with kids and MUCH LUGGAGE to deal with.

At 4:05 a.m., the train finally began to slow down, then got slower and slower and slower. Now sure this was the Agra stop, we gathered around the door. I clutched Heidi in one arm and a suitcase in the other. Erin and Lily stood ready with their backpacks, and Byron and Dad stood with the rest of the luggage, poised for our 3-minute disembarking opportunity.
The train slowed down even more, and I figured we might as well get off. "Jump!" I cried to the girls, and we made a leap for it. We landed safely on the platform and turned to see Byron struggling with the luggage, but still on the train that was moving further down the platform. We rushed to follow him, and then the train finally stopped. We hurriedly hustled all the luggage off, then Byron and Dad rushed off the train themselves. Whew! We made it!

Fully expecting the train to start up again and leave in three minutes, we realized that the Indians were slowly getting off, taking their time, and that no one else seemed in a hurry (certainly no one else had jumped off the train while it was still moving). Later, we discovered that since Agra is a major stop, the train stops for 30 minutes at this station! We had a good laugh at that one. How ridiculous did the Americans look-- leaping off the still-moving train?

We had emailed our Agra hotel, the Hotel Sheela Inn (that we had booked through the internet), and had also asked them to send a car to pick us up at the train station at 3:45 a.m. They had responded with one word, "ok."

A young man approached us at the train station as we stood there looking rather sleepy and dazed with all our luggage, and said, "I have car for you." Byron asked him if he was with the Hotel Sheela Inn, and the man replied, "Yes, yes." Later we discovered that he was merely being agreeable, and had no connection at all to the Hotel Sheela Inn—he didn’t even know where it was!

We gullibly followed him out of the train station to a car which actually was big enough for all 6 of us and our luggage. Byron and he agreed on a price for driving us to the hotel, and we were off. The man drove to a hotel, and attempted to drop us off there. We saw no sign that said, "Hotel Sheela Inn," and refused to get out of the car. The man drove us to another hotel, which wasn’t Hotel Sheela Inn either. And another. It became very clear that either he didn’t know where our hotel was, or didn’t want to take us there. Finally, with Byron’s help, the man and he talked to a couple of people on the street who seemed to be familiar with our hotel and gave directions to the driver. A few minutes later, we arrived at yet another hotel—this one had NO sign out front. Byron decided to go in and investigate, and soon gestured that we should come in. (We are still wondering why the Hotel Sheela Inn doesn’t post a sign out front.)

Byron found a lobby full of sleeping hotel owners and workers, and was surprised to find that the hotel had not only skipped sending a driver to pick us up, but also had no idea we were coming and didn’t have a reservation for us, much less at the price we had confirmed via the internet. We still wonder who we communicated with via email. It turned out that since we were visiting at the off-season, the hotel had rooms available (in the whole three days/nights we were there we did not see any other guests), and gave them to us for slightly more than we had arranged via email (with someone!). Byron went to pay our driver, who looked rather disgusted at the price he had agreed upon but which had ended up being a whole lot more driving than the driver had originally thought he’d do.

We settled into two rooms, and all the adults and Lily gratefully fell asleep, still feeling that swaying, jolting sensation of being on the train (we were to retain that sensation for about 24 hours after getting off the train). Erin and Heidi were fully awake by the time we got to the hotel, so stayed awake coloring in a coloring book together. (This wasn’t a good idea, but Dawn was too tired to make Erin and Heidi lie down and try to sleep.)

Visit the SDA pastor’s house, and experience T. Nagar shopping with Byron

Sunday, May 25

Spent the morning organizing all the little souvenirs we’ve bought thus far, and organizing ourselves to pack up for our upcoming trip to Agra (the Taj Mahal) and Delhi.

We had planned on going to the pastor’s house for lunch today, and afterwards he would go with us to visit the SDA orphanage. This morning we got a call from Israel, the orphanage coordinator. Israel told us the landlord for the orphanage has decided to rent to someone else, and the other tenants had actually moved in already. Fortunately, the new tenants allowed the orphans to live and sleep on the porch for a couple of days while the director scrambled to find new lodging for them!

Apparently the orphanage landlord is Muslim, and the neighbors are Hindu. The neighbors complained about the Christian singing, praying, and stream of visitors at the orphanage. Sadly, after several complaints from the neighbors, the Muslim landlord wasn’t hard to convince that these Christians needed to leave the neighborhood.

Israel explained that this wouldn’t be a good time to visit the orphanage, and asked if we could postpone our visit. He hopes they’ll get settled soon, and that we will still have time to visit before we leave India.

At 1:00, Mani dropped us off at the SDA church to meet the pastor for lunch. Confusion reigned, as we saw a young man, and a 14-ish year old girl there, but the pastor was nowhere to be seen. The young lady (who we’d seen at church often) took Heidi and stood outside the church gate, and kept saying that we were going to her house (but all the children like to tell us, "You come my house," so I didn’t take her seriously). Meanwhile, Dawn, Erin and Lily stepped into the church courtyard, wondering where the pastor was. Finally, Byron, who had been running around following the young man, gestured that we were to leave the church courtyard and walk down the street. That’s where the young lady had wanted to take Heidi in the first place. We discovered that the pastor lived down the street and behind the church, and that this young lady (about 14 years old) is his daughter (who knew?). We still aren’t sure who the young man was, but think he was sent to meet us and take us to the pastor’s house. We are ALWAYS confused here; the only thing that varies is our degree of confusion.

We entered a house that was larger than the other two Indian houses we’ve visited. It had a nice-sized living room with two couches for visiting, and a built-in china cabinet which seemed to be used for storage of toys, knick-knacks, and papers. The living room was large enough for the girls to run around in, and soon our girls discovered that the Pastor had this 14-year old daughter (who enjoyed playing with our girls) and a 9-year old son, and (oh joy!) a mama cat with 3 baby kittens. (Normally, our very allergic family cannot stay in a house with a cat for more than a few minutes before we experience dreadful allergy symptoms. However, Indian houses don’t have carpets, and are very open (we didn’t visit anyone’s house that had air-conditioning, so the houses were very, very open to let the breeze in). Apparently that did the trick—none of us experienced ill effects from the cats.

The girls played with the pastor’s kids and with the cats, while Byron, Dad and I chatted with the pastor. His wife, Ruby, was busy in the kitchen.

We had a delightful discussion with the pastor. Here are a few of the things we learned from Pastor Johnson:
He gave us his opinion of the Jewish heritage of the highest Indian caste, the Brahmin. I believe that his research has shown the similarities between Jews and the South Indian culture, particularly the Brahmin caste. The languages are similar (Tamil, he said, also bears many similarities to Greek, which is where the Jews passed through on their way to south India). The Hindu religion also bears some striking similarities to Christianity, including a Trinity godhead.
The pastor pointed out that Christianity generally elevates people in the Indian culture—and that has been a major draw towards Christianity (for example, among our Indian friends, we noticed that Shaji and Mr. Jacob, who are Christians, are better off financially, for example, than our Hindu friends Chandra-shake-uh, Odyssey, and Mahalakshmi. But in contrast, Mani, our Hindu driver, seems to be in a rather comfortable financial situation compared to the other Hindus we knew.)

In the past three or four years, however, the information technology industry has BOOMED in Chennai, and the number of Indians working in the computer industry has grown by leaps and bounds. Those Indians have found a new level of financial comfort, which has not only made them prosper, but has influenced the whole economy of Chennai, driving up prices in food, rent, and gas particularly. Apparently, the lure of success in business has become more appealing than Christianity, and it’s becoming more difficult than ever to reach the professional working class with the message of Jesus’ love.

This booming I.T. industry has drawn not only Chennai-ites, but also Indians from all over India, and foreigners from all over the world to Chennai. I was very surprised to learn that because so many languages are spoken in India, that when Indians from different parts of the country meet, they reply on speaking English , as that is the one language they seem to have in common. And of course, English is also the language spoken by most foreigners.

Pastor Johnson foresees that the bigger the I.T. industry gets, the bigger the demand and interest for English-speaking churches. Thus, he has set up two English churches in Chennai in the past year, and intends to set up more English-speaking SDA churches throughout Chennai, particularly near the areas with I.T. offices, in the next few years. He has also started a television ministry, which he thinks will be more likely to reach the higher castes (the higher castes are usually the ones who are better educated and thus better employed—often in some capacity related to the I.T. industry) than other evangelistic efforts.

The pastor asked Byron and I if he could interview us for his television ministry our last Saturday night in India (by that point, Dad would be back in the U.S.). We thought about how much packing we needed to do, and how busy we’d be at that point, but agreed that it would be rather exciting and interesting to help out in a television ministry, so told him yes.

The pastor also told me specifically that the women of the church were afraid of me. "What?!" I asked. "Why on earth would I be frightening?" He said that they all felt their English was too inferior, and that I would get very impatient listening to them. I told him that I have been communicating with cooks and housekeepers and drivers with very limited English ever since our arrival, and would find it so enjoyable to talk with women at church. The pastor also admitted that he knew that EDS was taking care of us, and that he told the church people not to call or bother us, as we might find it annoying. That might explain why no one has been over-friendly at church. I am sad that some women might have been much more friendly and nice, but felt that they needed to stay away. Sigh.

Ruby emerged from the other room and announced that the meal was ready (she was very quiet—and seemed either to not know English, or was hesitant to use it. I don’t think she said a word to us the whole time, but would say occasional things to her husband in Tamil.) We found a table laden with plates and familiar-looking Indian food. Thank goodness Sahji has been serving up South Indian food and encouraging us to use our fingers. Otherwise we would have been quite out of our league. I didn’t think a thing about it when I noticed no silverware was available, and after the pastor offered grace, we all dug in with our fingers.

(Later, Dad admitted, "At least one of us at the table went through a momentary, yet silent panic, when no silverware was offered!" I had forgotten that Dad hadn’t been in India as long as we had, and thus of course would be rather confused about what to do. But he did well—and acted as if he’d eaten with his fingers all his life. . . .!)

One thing I’ve noticed about eating in India is that no one seems to wash their hands before a meal, but after the meal the hostess is quick to show you to a sink or to bring out a bucket for handwashing. I’ve never been offered soap nor seen it available near the sink, either. As an extremely germ-conscious mother, I am befuddled. Do Indians get sick less easily? Are their immune systems stronger?

The meal was delicious (even the girls enjoyed it) and we were surprised that the pastor had gone out and bought some pizza rolls, some donuts, and some bread, just in case we didn’t care for the Indian food. As we have found wherever we have eaten in India, ‘way too much food was offered and then the Indians seem to be surprised and almost insulted when you don’t eat it all, nor ask for seconds. But the portions are so HUGE, it’s daunting to eat your way through the first serving.

Again, we found that the host-family did not sit down to eat with us (at Odyssey’s and Mahalakshmi’s houses, part of the reason for that is that there was no place else to sit after the Burkes took up all the sitting space.) At the pastor’s house, there was plenty of room in the dining area, but admittedly no more chairs nor table space for additional people. This time, though, the pastor stood near the table and ate. This was the first and only time a host actually ate with us. It felt terribly awkward having the host stand, though, and we kept offering to put one of the kids on our laps (Heidi was already on my lap) so that he could sit down, but he kept saying he was fine.

Ruby bustled around making sure that we all had enough to eat (!), and offering napkins. She had a gentle, sweet face, and I wished that she would come talk with us. The pastor’s children disappeared during the meal.

After the meal, we chatted a little longer with the pastor, but decided we’d better leave after staying for a total of about two hours.

I really wanted to go to T. Nagar for the afternoon and pick up some jingly ankle bracelets for Heidi at the same store where Lily and I had hung out waiting for Sahji last week. I also thought I could get an inexpensive sari for Erin at that store (Jayachandra Textiles is the name of the store, for the record), as I had seen very low prices on ready-made saris and chudy-das during our long wait there.

Byron was game, as he hadn’t been to T. Nagar with us (he’d only gone fruit-shopping with Sahji that one time, and ended up having to stand in the corner and act like he wasn’t with Sahji so that Sahji could get better prices on the produce!).

The Jayachandra Textiles store is not near any drivable street, so Mani had to drop us off as near as he could get us. We soon discovered the meandering alleys and market stalls of the backside of T. Nagar shopping district, and had great fun wandering through them, shocking store-keepers who were sitting at their stalls when an American family swung around the corner. We were like a carnival attraction—storekeepers and customers would come out of shops, come out of alleys, and just stare at us. Many of the younger ones would holler, "Hello! Hello!" at us, and a few would try to entice us into their stores but they weren’t nearly as aggressive as the storekeepers at Spencer Plaza (either that, or we are learning how to ignore them).

We stopped to watch a sugar-cane machine, as I’ve had a hankering to see how they make the sugar-cane drink (these sugar-cane stalls are all over Chennai) and wondered if it would be clean enough for us to drink. The machine looks something like an old-fashioned clothes wringer. Two metal cylinders roll in opposite directions, and the operator picks up a few 8-foot long stalks of sugar cane and shoves them between the cylinders. Underneath the cylinders is a large metal cup, which catches all the juice that comes from the sugar cane. The smushed sugar-cane stalks come out on the other side, where the operator grabs them and puts them through the machine again, and again, and again, and again, folding them over occasionally until the stalks just disintegrate. By then the cup is full and overflowing with juice. I believe that you are to pay for the drink, then hold that metal cup up and pour the drink into your mouth, keeping your lips and mouth from touching the cup.

After watching the whole process, I found my interest had been fulfilled, and I no longer wished to drink sugar cane juice. We went on.

Byron, who has an uncanny sense of direction, was able to find Jayachandra Textiles, and we quickly located the same floor full of salesclerks who enthusiastically greeted Lily, whom they had all befriended last week. They were so excited to see she had sisters, and happily helped us find ankle bracelets for Heidi. It wasn’t as hard as I had thought it might be to find ankle bracelets for a child who doesn’t actually have ankles. It was hard, though, to decide whether to purchase ankle bracelets that were tight enough that they’d stay in place, or whether to purchase them loose enough to be comfortable, but they’d probably fall off. We ended up purchasing two sets, because we just couldn’t decide.

The clerk asked if we wanted anything else, and I said, "A sari for this child," pointing at Erin. Later, we all wished we hadn’t said anything.

The clerk took a deep breath, and then led all 6 of us out of this particular store, down an unbelievably crowded alley, and into another store which was also called "Jayachandra Textiles." This was the one that sold children’s clothes. We had been at the one that sold ankle bracelets and women’s clothes. The clerk told me that there were five Jayachandra Textile stores in T. Nagar. Now I understand Sahji’s confusion. I think he visited all five of them before finding us.

How can I explain how crowded this store was? The clerk led us in, and took us up to third floor via the stairwell. As we entered the stairwell, we had to wait our turn to take a step. Bodies crushed each other from all sides, and I clung to Lily’s hand with a deathgrip, telling Erin not to let go of Daddy no matter what happened (Byron was carrying Heidi). But after awhile, the crush of the crowd forced us to let go of the girls. But there was nothing to worry about—nobody was going anywhere. Step by step, we made our way up the stairs, desperately trying to keep our clerk in view. (Every head in the stairwell except for 6 of us had very dark, black hair, including our clerk. She was also shorter than average. Keeping track of her was a serious challenge!)

Finally, she squeezed out onto third floor, which was only slightly less crowded than the stairwell, and we followed, popping out of the stairwell one by one like Fritos in a bag that’s just burst open*. We were presented to two clerks who brought out a few saris which looked about Erin’s size. I had learned my lesson, though, and before we proceeded any further, we were going to try on a sari or two to make sure we were looking at the correct size. When I started to put the sari over Erin’s clothes, the clerk stopped me and led me into a crowded storage room with a tiny little dressing room in the very back.

(*Byron says Fritos don't pop out of a bag. Dawn reminds him that they do when she opens the bag.)

We proceeded to try the saris on Erin, all of us roasting in this stuffy, un air-conditioned tiny room. Erin, meanwhile, was not happy to cooperate because she didn’t even LIKE the saris we were trying on. She had her heart set on an orange and white sari, just like the clerks wear at the infamous Saravana Shopping Center.

We tried on four saris, and found problems with each of them. Too small, or too itchy, or wrong color, or not looking "sari-enough." Surprisingly, the clerks tried to convince both Erin and I that each sari was perfect, and it was rather strange to insist with the clerk that we wanted to try different ones, when these so obviously weren’t working. (Also, try explaining "this it too itchy" to someone whose English doesn’t even include the words, "too small" and "wrong color.")

Anyhow, one of the three clerks who were crowded into this tight, hot dressing room finally left and we stood around waiting for her for 15 minutes before she returned with four more saris.
These didn’t work either, and Erin liked them even less than she had the first batch or saris. However, the clerk insisted we try every single one of them on. Twenty minutes later she was also convinced they wouldn’t work, so went out to find more saris. Another 15 minutes passed until she returned with a bunch of festival saris, which weren’t at all what we wanted. Erin wanted a typical sari, which wraps around your waist and hang over your left shoulder. We’ve found that when we ask for children’s saris, clerks often assume we want the festival sari, which looks more like a fancy, beaded shirt and skirt.

Erin definitely did NOT want a festival sari, but the clerks’ English was so limited that she couldn’t understand that we didn’t. Erin was nearly in tears, I was frustrated, and then I wondered what Byron, Heidi and Dad had been doing all this time. (Lily had come in to watch Erin and Mama get more frustrated by the minute.)

We finally found that not even one sari in this whole store was going to work for Erin. I emerged from the dressing room to find Byron holding a sleeping Heidi and surrounded by a bevy of adoring clerks on a floor that was full of people and barely air-conditioned. Byron was not amused that all this waiting had been for nothing. Meanwhile, Dad was interested in shopping for a "Nehru" shirt. We found that the floor selling mens/boys shirts was much less crowded than the floor selling ready-made girls’ clothing.

We emerged with a Nehru shirt and a hot, tired group of Americans. Byron had had enough of shopping, so we walked back through the alleys and backways (I’m telling you, Byron is really good at finding his way around) and somehow found Mani again, who probably wondered if we’d ever return.