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.

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