Friday, December 18, 2009

Agra and the Taj Mahal (December 14, 2009) Written 15 December 2009

I struggled to wake up at 5:30am, got in the auto at 6am, and was at Hazrat Nazamuddin Railway Station at 6:30am. As the dawn light was emerging, the station was fully active already, hundreds of people with huge white bags, briefcases and backpacks and duffel bags of all sizes and colors. Carts with bananas, oranges, and guava. Chai-wallahs. Crowded train platforms. India has…lots of people. I have spent the past 4 years using Tokyo as my base, which is supposedly the second largest city in the world, but umm Delhi seems pretty crazy to me too.

I was riding general class since the Taj Express fills up early and there were no other seats available. Which means I was tightly wrapped in my pashmina shawl but still shivering my butt off. Train rides in India are endlessly entertaining, as vendors come through to sell everything from peanuts, water, chai, samosas, and all sorts of sweets (I’ve decided Indian sweets are not my thing, which is good because it means I have to forcefully restrain myself only on the savory food). I was exhausted by the time I reached Agra, and caught an auto to the Taj Mahal. Well, it’s pretty phenomenal. The white marble domes are stunning to say the least. But what really did it for me was the interior, with the semi-precious stones inlay. And I really enjoyed the mosques on either side of the Taj. I’m quickly learning that at any tourist site in India, people will want to have their photo taken with me. Many times people travel from small villages to the big sites like the Taj Mahal and they are so excited to see foreigners. I don’t know if I’ve experienced that in many other places – maybe Vietnam.

I pretty much headed straight back from the Taj Mahal to the train station and caught the next train back to Delhi. Oh, the lines at the train stations. I have become way too used to the way people orderly arrange themselves in Japan. This is a free-for-all and I think people see me and think, ah! Submissive Japanese girl, for sure she won’t say anything if I just elbow my way past her. Hrmph. I had some sort of unreserved ticket so I sprinted onto a train that way pulling out of the station, showed my ticket to the people in the compartment and they communicated to me, I think, that I was supposed to proceed to the back of the train. A few cars later, a guy stopped me, asking me for my ticket, and motioned that I should sit in his seat. I sat, not really understanding what was going on but decided I would figure it out if I had to. It turned out that I had to buy a ticket to occupy that seat, no problems at all, and I shared this metal bench with this lovely man and his friend. They were clearly from the lower classes, and spoke no English at all, but they offered me everything they had. Tea, Madam? Samosa, Madam?

I have yet to discover (I forgot to ask Padma and her family) what the deal is with the transvestites in the trains. Twice on the train from Agra to Delhi a few very dark-skinned people dressed in bright, low-cut saris came through, caressing the men in the car and asking for cash. Are they hijras? That’s the only Indian group that came up in my Homosexuality seminar in Anthropology when I was in university…

There is definitely poverty, and I must admit that I am a bit surprised at the lack of reaction to it that I have had so far. I think it’s a combination of Bangladesh having shocked the crap out of me, totally traumatizing me, and so far India’s poverty (that I’ve seen, which probably is a tiny fraction of what I could see) is far less visible. Yes, there are lepers and many dismembered people roaming through traffic begging. There are boys only a few years older than my 2.5 year old nephew who are cleaning windows of vehicles, their eyes listless, staring off into space. Yes, when I gave my extra samosa to a barefoot, nearly naked girl who was probably 5 years old, 5 or 6 more kids her age instantly appeared before me. Yes, there is an endless pile of trash lining almost every road and railroad track, and an undeniable stench in many places. We’ll see how things evolve as my trip continues.

I arrived back at the apartment in time to hear the ending of music class. Padma’s mother is a vocalist, and she plays the harmonium. The harmonium has 42 keys and is like a cross between a piano and an accordion. As you pump air into it with your left hand, the sound gets stronger as you press in, and the vibration is really captivating. I have heard the harmonium only in association with kirtan and yogic chants, and I got to play around with it a little bit with Padma’s mother, who has a magical voice. Lovely.

Remi and Rohit had become my all-in-one saviors (Smriti and Gautam did this too!) – they were my travel consultants (negotiating India’s trains is much more complex than I had hoped, but at the same time completely understandable given the size and population of the country!), my advisors on my yogic path (haha – I have been debating tremendously about what sort of program I’m looking to do – more on that later), and cultural ambassadors in every way. I can’t thank everyone enough.

I was keen to check out the Indian early morning routine in parks and gardens. Padma’s mother goes every morning to Jahanpannah Forest, about a kilometer away from their complex, and so I joined her and Krishna-ji this morning at 7am. People are inside doing yoga, you walk by people doing kapala-bhati, the breath of fire, people are walking their dogs, and a few, but not many, are jogging. We slowly walked 3km, stopping halfway on a bench where Padma’s mother sang a few songs, we did a stretching routine, and talked about all sorts of things from Japan to the US to views on marriage, religion, child custody, etc. What an interesting experience to be able to hear 3 generations of opinions of Indian women. But Padma’s family is not typical; Remi is 24 and living with her boyfriend, Padma’s mother separated from her husband of 28 years just two years ago, and strikes me as a fiercely confident yet compassionate, tender woman. It’s hard to explain, but I felt graced by all of their presence. So after this lovely morning walk, I had a coconut (agua de coco gente!), first drinking the water, then eating the supremely tender flesh, and then I went back into the forest to go for a run. I had been really craving this for awhile, since New York was too cold for me to do anything outside.

A few more hours hanging out with Remi and Rohit and then off I was, back to Nazamuddin for the train to Sawai Madhopur. That’s where I am right now, but today I’m sitting in a reserved AC compartment, with reclining chairs, white cloth covers on the headrests, well-dressed wallahs bringing through meals, chai, and all the usual assortment of snacks. It’s so orderly, organized…I don’t know which I prefer.

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