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!

No comments: