Sunday, January 13, 2008

India: Day Eleven (Agra)

This morning, we got out of bed at 3:30 AM, in the pitch dark. I had slept three hours, and my mom five. We quickly packed our things and shuffled in a dream to the lobby, where Jasvir was waiting for us, having, we later found out, spent the night sleeping in the car with a blanket loaned from the hotel. He was, nevertheless, bright-eyed and smiling, as always, and as we crawled into the backseat, fussing for comfort and trying to determine who would lie in whose lap, he started us off on the eleven hour drive back to Agra. Even at this hour, the road was busy with trucks, and we had the usual difficulties sleeping in the car, since honking horns shook our ears and the unpaved sections of road shook our bodies. I did manage to semi-doze for a few hours because, when I woke up at seven, I had a brutal crink in my neck, and Jasvir was pulling into another A-1 for breakfast, where I drank tea and had "omelet over bread slice," which turned out to be a very circumferous, crepe-thin sheet of egg marked with red and green vegetables, with two tenaciously attached slices of white toast underneath. I decided that the best way to eat it would be to fold all of the egg up onto the bread, then flip one slice of bread up onto the other, making a toasty egg sandwich, and it turned out to be rather tasty (although mom had the same and loathed it).

Back on the road, the trip was without interest. Mom dozed, wearing the elastic banded eye cover she got on the airplane, and I read The Satanic Verses and looked out the window at villagers starting their mornings: huddling around small fires on the ground, sweeping, cooking breakfast. At lunchtime, we stopped, much to mom's chagrin, at A-1 again, the same one we'd had lunch two days prior. The same eager-to-please waitstaff served us, I drank the same espresso-strong tea, but we ordered different food, since the thali plate we'd had before had been so dreadful. Mom asked the waiter for a recommendation, and he suggested the malai kofta, although he couldn't describe it as much more than "sweet" and "good." When it came, it was sweet and bad—something fried and soggy (cheese? a vegetable cutlet? couldn't tell. . .) swimming in a puddle of muck the color and consistency of Gerber carrots. I had hedged our bets by ordering the always-safe palak paneer (same as saag paneer, I'd thought), but that came out tasting rather odd too, tinny and somehow unidentifiably off. I asked for rice to help diffuse the flavors, but it came to the table cold and somehow wet, and I didn't eat much of it either. The garlic naan, though, was perfectly delicious, and we had seconds of that. After the meal, the waiter brought me another survey, remarking that last time, we had indicated on the survey that we hadn't liked the food, and he was wondering whether it was better this time; we had to disappoint him.

Mom had begun again to ask Jasvir repeatedly how much longer the trip would be, but we actually made pretty good time after lunch, entering Agra around three-thirty, and getting to the Taj Mahal around four. First, we saw it in the distance, a marshmallow dream, and then, stuck in the traffic of cars waiting to enter the parking lot, it was back out of sight. Jasvir told us, parking the car, that we would have to take a rickshaw (the lot being about 1.5 km from the monument), and gave us into the hands of an old man with orangey-gray hair, whose clothes hung off of his skeletal body. We had to leave all of our things in the car's trunk, since bags aren't allowed into the Taj—just wallets, cameras, mobile phones, and water bottles (odd, no?). We instructed Jasvir to guard everything carefully, and packed our pockets with wallets and cameras. Five hawkers had circled around us at once, one adolescent boy trying to sell us a book of glossy photos of the Taj, one smaller boy trying to sell us Taj snow globe key chains, one man trying to convince us to take a camel ride instead of the rickshaw, and two men posing as government-approved tour guides, showing us their "official" badges, and telling us that there was a three hour queue to get in, but that they could bring us in without waiting. As always, mom hesitated a bit longer than I did, and I led her into the rickshaw, impotently waiving my hand in dismissal, as they continued to follow us, even as the rickshaw began moving. The book salesman, after lowering his price, as my mom tried to explain to him that she didn't want the book, she didn't like it, told us okay-maybe-later, remember me my name is Raj (and sure enough, when we returned to our car, he was there again, remember-me?, and we still couldn't get it through his head that we didn't want the darned book). None of the salesmen would stop running alongside us until our driver turned around and yelled at them in Hindi, waving them away the way one waves off a fly, and they disappeared.

He seemed to be having a bit of trouble, though, pulling our weight, and was cycling very slowly, standing up off the seat. He turned and explained to us in terrible, but somehow completely comprehensible English, that when we got to the Taj, we should ignore everyone and proceed to the ticket window. When we had arrived at the initial gate (the Taj still invisible behind trees and a 1/4 mile walk), our rickshaw driver parked and helped us out. He wouldn't take any money, insisting that he wait for us outside, and we take him back out to the car. This seemed rather unorthodox to me—in all this mayhem, what was to guarantee that we would find him—but he insisted, which, since he alone knew where Jasvir was parked, was probably a good thing. We agreed to meet in one hour, at five o'clock, and walked into the gates. Here, a gazillion Indians were milling about (very few white tourists, to my surprise, although I admit it would be rather dumb to go to the Grand Canyon, for example, and express shock that all the tourists there were American), and the end of an interminably long queue revealed itself. Mom gravitated toward the line, but something about it seemed wrong to me, so I took her in arm and suggested that we just keep walking. As I looked at the cue, I tried to determine, subconsciously perhaps, why it was so monochromatic—gray and blue and brown—until I realized that it was comprised completely of men. As we walked, a number of "certified" tour guides approached us, but I waved them all away. We arrived at the ticket counter, and paid our INR 750 each (nearly $20; there is a different, lower charge for Indian nationals, believe it or not) and were given tickets, small water bottles, and paper socks to put on over our shoes once at the building. Here, another smooth-talking tour guide approached us. He waved his hand toward the queue, telling us that we would have to wait three hours, but that he could get us in immediately. I pointed out to him that the three-hour queue was for men only, and that there was only a five-minute tops wait for women, indicated the ten or so brilliant saris lined up adjacent to the endless line of monochromatic men. "Oh, yes," he conceded immediately, "you are absolutely right," and he disappeared. Mom hadn't noticed the two queues for separate sexes, and found this discovery of mine rather brilliant. And so, we waited a few minutes before being searched by the female attendants (that's the reason, by the way, that so many queues in India are separated by gender; the airport security lines are the same) and let onto the grounds of the Taj.

From a distance, it does look rather like a dream in spun sugar, and the light was bright and crisp despite the falling hour, making my one picture all the more postcard perfect. Up close and inside, though, I had to ask my mom whether I was a spoiled brat, since I wasn't at all impressed. I felt, simply, that I had seen much more glorious things, both the day before in Varanasi, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Stonehenge and other ring stones across the British countryside, and at a variety of spots in Italy (the Tivoli Gardens, Hadrian's Villa, even tiny churches in Florence and Venice whose names I never knew); this building was somehow pristine but cold, distant, hollow, devoid of any. . . presence one feels at all these other spots I've listed. Inside, there's nothing to see, just swaths of smooth, white marble, with inscriptions in Arabic—no paintings, no statues, no chandeliers or furniture or baubles, no peeling paint or crumbling cement—I felt the opposite of inspiration. Mom agreed; we're equally spoiled, I suppose.

And so, we left, and our rickshaw driver found us, and waved away the second round of hawkers that encircled us, even though my mom had made the mistake of engaging with a boy selling jingling anklets, who ran after our rickshaw, lowering his price from $10 for one to $2 for four, culminating in my mom whinging at me because I refused to give her any rupees, as usual. We got back to the car without any other incident, and had Jasvir drive us straight to our hotel, the Taj View (with no view at all, other than the pool, which we did not use). Here, we made ample use of the spa, having excellent Indian-style deep tissue massages and detoxing in the piping-hot steam room, and then separated so that I could blog while mom used the gym and later had a drink at the bar. Tomorrow would be another early day, waking at 5:00 AM to leave the hotel by 6:00 for the drive back to the Delhi airport, where we thought we should be by 11:00 AM in order to make our 2:00 PM flight (better safe than sorry, particularly in India). I slept, as usual, like a dead person.

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