Monday, May 6, 2013

Tales from India: The Road to Agra

Day two was replete with the obligatory visit to the Taj Mahal. At least, that's how I initially felt. I know, deep down, that the Taj Mahal is a one of the wonders of the world (not technically)  and as such it must not be left off any lists. It is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is number 252 on the list. For those of you that don't know, in order for a place to be listed as a World Heritage Site it has to be of special physical or cultural significance and it is chosen and maintained by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. By the by, that's all from their website. I may be a fount of useless trivia, but I'm really not that eloquent. The ability to properly define a word still eludes me. I'm all "uhhhh, it does this and ummm, this is an example of it, blah blah blah." That doesn't lead back to my original point but I'll find it. I wasn't super excited to go to the Taj Mahal, but all those feelings changed after seeing it. Pictures do not do it justice. It is absolutely marvelous and it definitely stunned me into silence after my first glimpse. Absolutely amazing.

I did some research into travel and tour companies before I left Vietnam and narrowed it down to two places. They all offered the same things: A/C car, pick up and drop off, tour guide, tolls, parking, taxes, gas (diesel)etc. In the end I chose the tour service that came to the apartment to speak to Sunita because she was quite worried about me wandering off by myself. After seeing the recent news coming out of India about treatment of females, and by that I mean the rape and torture of a 5-year old girl and the earlier story of the girl who was gang raped on a bus and later died from her injuries at a hospital in Singapore. Ugh, I'm so mad just thinking about this but I do not want my blog post to be a commentary about the sad state of women's rights in India and the Indian governments inability to effectively run its state. I'll leave that to the people who can better argue against it.

In any case, Sunita was duly worried about me travelling by myself so I asked representatives from the tour companies to visit the apartment and speak with her the first day I got there. Shailendar from Vaibhav Tourism Services, Ltd was able to make the visit. After taking his cell phone number, the driver's cell phone number, the license plate number, the address of the agency in Delhi, the address of the agency in Agra and the tour guide's name and phone number she felt secure in letting me go.  I love her for being thorough and concerned.

I left pretty early the next day, slept most of the 4 hour drive to Agra, shopped at bit during the stopover we made, regretted that I bought a few pieces of clothing (darn my shopaholic tendencies), took countless pictures of the beautifully decorated trucks on the road and visited a Mother Laxshmi shrine on the way there. I really wish we could have visited Mathura, birth place of Lord Krishna, but I was asleep as we passed it on the way going and we didn't have enough time on the way back. It was too far off the highway we were on and we would have been extremely late getting back. I didn't fancy being with an unknown man at night on a highway in India.

There's nothing to see in Agra. In fact, when we finally got there I thought it was like every other trash filled, smog riddled, hawker infested town we'd passed on the way there. You can't see the Taj Mahal from the road. You do pass Agra Fort on the way in, but I don't have memories of being very impressed with the view from the road.

We picked up my guide, a very nice man named Hassan, and headed up to the Taj Mahal. His English was impeccable as opposed to my severely limited Hindi and he was very knowledgeable. He did give me his contact information before I left because I said I wanted to share it on my blog but I, of course, was the ultimate numpty and lost it. I sincerely regret it because he was fantastic and very pleasant. I normally despise tour guides because I really, really, really hate the endless chattering. Our tour guide in Cambodia drove me up the wall so I opted for a tuk tuk by myself and left the fam to suffer with him. Sowwie! Hassan was the opposite of that. I've included a picture of him in the post so you can print it out and show it to the tour agency to request that specific tour guide. I'm serious! He was great! He took pictures of me (not in a creepy way) and made me pose (I promise not in a creepy way), which absolutely made my heart soar. It's the kind of thing I do for others, so they ALWAYS have great photos of themselves and I'm like "was I even there?" He even made me do the obligatory tourist shot at the Taj. During our tour he asked me if I spoke Hindi and I told him that I understood a very limited amount. He responded by saying, in Hindi, that I was a very beautiful woman. I could have thanked him in Hindi, but I chickened out and just said 'thank you' in

After walking around in midday heat in India during the month of July for about 2 1/2 - 3 hours, I was exhausted, dehydrated and  in severe danger of passing out. What prompted me to do that? I love the heat but only if I'm sitting on a beach in front of beautiful clear water and white sands. Not while I'm in the middle of crowds (have I ever mentioned that I hate crowds?) who smell and are continuously hawking up something or the other. Not that I didn't smell, but I understand the power of deodorant, so I smelled less. Hassan quickly found me a large bottle of water and a shady spot and we sat there chatting for a while until he said that my face no longer looked like a cherry. We found my driver, dropped Hassan at his agency, did a shady transaction in which I had to pay for half my tour at the agency in Agra but since their credit card machine wasn't working we had to go to a textile factory to use theirs. Nothing untoward happened on my credit card, but it was shady because that's what tour guides do. For example, in Bangkok they tell you that a certain tourist location is closed and then recommend another one that will give them a percentage if tourists show up. In India, they take you to tourist sites that 'you should really visit', but it's just showrooms. In Jaipur, I was taken to a gem factory. Yeahhhh, right! Didn't they see what I was wearing? They thought I could afford gems?! 

We headed back to Delhi; the driver battled traffic and I battled drooling while falling asleep. Terrible habit that happens when I'm beyond exhausted and I can't control my body anymore. I managed to stay awake and take some pictures, but the motion of a moving car always puts me to sleep. I felt terrible because I really wanted to talk to my driver. I hate situations where I feel like I'm so privileged. I mean, I am compared to most people in the countries I've visited of late, but I hate flaunting it. My driver kept fielding calls from his kids who live up north on the Haryana/Punjab border. He lives in New Delhi which is in the state of Haryana, but down south on the Uttar Pradesh border, which is where the Taj Mahal is located. He got to see his family every couple of months. I felt bad for him, but in reality you do what you have to in order to support your family. He was a really nice guy who obviously cared about his family. I really love meeting family oriented fathers. It makes me happy. I think I gave him a tip that was almost equivalent to the price of the day trip. Of course, I'm incredibly jaded and wonder if it wasn't all a story. However, I'm sure the part about him being ridiculously poor is true and I hope he appreciated it.

I made it back in time to eat, shower, make small talk with the family and then fall into a deep sleep. After a really shaky phone call home. It's amazing what the power of an iPod touch, decent WiFi, and a Google Voice account can do. I'm seriously in love with Google and am going to promote the heck out of it right now. Tip: If you get a Google Voice number before you leave home and download the Talkatone app (or whatever free app that works with Google Voice that catches your fancy) you can call home for free. Especially if home is in the same country as your local number. I have a DC number and called my family in VA and NY, for freeeeeee. Forget Skype! Oh and this is of course if you didn't get a fancy, internet ready phone that uses a SIM card.

Day 3: Coming soon!
In the meanwhile, enjoy these pictures!
My first glimpse of the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal. Duh.

A not creepy pose.

Obligatory tourist pose.

You have to either cover your shoes or take them off to enter the Taj Mahal. Since I like having skin on the soles of my feet I opted for the booties.

I think you can begin to get a sense of how red my face was. Also, another non-creepy pose.

Hassan! Ask for him. Seriously.

Indian traffic. It was everywhere at all times.


Another truck. I was obsessed with these trucks, I tell you.

Mother Lakshmi statue.

Another truck!

Child playing on a tractor.

Dare I say it again? Truck!

Oh and I think this is a picture of a truck.

I should probably mention that I'm not posting this because I get anything kind of compensation from it. Rather, they were quite helpful and if I can help anyone else who is looking for a tour company the so be it.

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