Taj schmaz

Actually, the sight of the Taj Mahal did not disappoint me. Steve and I set the alarm for 5:15 am, threw on some clothes, and slipped out of the Muslim home in which we were staying. We hurried down the dark street outside, where the temperature was almost chilly. Twenty minutes later, we stood at the Western gate of one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world.

Everyone knows what it looks like, right? I’d seen countless photographs. So why is it that walking through the archway into the huge grounds that contain it made my eyes widen; flooded me with a surge of pleasure? The proportions of the lawns, the trees, the walkways, the four minarets, that swollen white dome — the way they relate together —feels so right. The famous white structure is massive, yet the recessed archways and delicate marble latticework that were cut into every side give this great landmark a soul-stirring beauty.It’s pretty from every angle…And pretty up close.I’d had to guess how many selfies are taken there. Weird posing is also super popular.

Steve and I spent close to two hours on the grounds. We went inside the great dome (surprisingly uninteresting.) But I’m not going to write any more about the Taj Mahal. You go there to feel that jolt of moving from second-hand knowledge to direct experience and wonder. There’s no recreating that with words.

Since we only had one full day in Agra, we had girded our loins for Serious Sightseeing. We walked back to our B&B, ate breakfast, then caught a tuk-tuk to the gigantic and famous Agra Fort. It’s very impressive, too, but after another hour or so of poking around in it (and more than 11,000 steps logged on my iPhone), I was flagging. We also needed money. The ATM that was supposed to be steps from the fort was closed, according to a local. So we hired another tuk-tuk to take us near the South Gate of the Taj, where Lonely Planet said we would find several ATM machines. We found: narrow lanes jammed with honking tuk-tuks, taxis, pedicabs, bikes, cows, pedestrians, ladies bearing heavy bundles on their heads. We found one ATM that was padlocked shut, and one that spat out rupees for my card (but not Steve’s.)

I think we started to feel burned out while eating a dismal lunch (our first bad meal in India) at a forlorn rooftop restaurant that Lonely Planet had described as a “friendly, family-run…nice choice” for both western and Indian food. Still we soldiered on, returning to the guesthouse to rest for only about 90 minutes before setting out again in yet another tuk-tuk.

Because we’re running dangerously low on insect repellant, we had asked our host, Faiz, where we might buy some. He said no one in the neighborhood would have it for sale. (This struck us as odd, in a country with so many disease-carrying bugs.) Faiz instead arranged for a tuk-tuk driver to take us to a large medical-supply store some distance away.

I guess I was expecting maybe… a shopping mall? With something like a Rite-Aid? You could call where we went a pharmacy, but one unlike any I ever patronized in my long-ago childhood. It was as big as some Rite-AIDS, and lined with hundreds upon hundreds of labeled bins.This shows less than half the interior space.

Customers have to stand at a front counter and tell the clerks what they need. The clerk who came to us appeared never to have heard of insect repellant, but a friendly middle-aged Indian man next to me intervened and explained in Hindi what I wanted. The clerk searched and searched and came back with anti-itching cream, which we rejected. He finally found a little stash of three bottles of citronella oil. We bought one for 85 rupees (about $1.20), even though we doubt it will do much to protect us.

I also needed Kleenex. (My runny nose and cough haven’t improved.) But the pharmacy didn’t sell any. Nor did any of the tiny roadside shops our driver stopped at on our way to the “Baby Taj,” another of Agra’s architectural wonders.Nice, but nothing like Big Mama.

We spent about 40 minutes there and another half hour at the garden across the river from the big Taj. People say it’s lovely to see the light from the setting sun on the monument, but yesterday afternoon the sun sank into smog so thick it blocked all the color.This was as good as it got.

The driver was supposed to take us back to our guesthouse at this point, but earlier in the day, Steve had managed to make a dinner reservation at the Oberoi Amarvilas. The driver looked surprised when we asked him to take us there. Rooms at this Oberoi (unlike the very reasonably priced Oberoi in Kolkata, where we stayed) run from $900 to more than $1000 a night. We knew dinner would be pricy.

We didn’t care. We yearned for quiet and serenity. To their credit, the staff at the Oberoi didn’t betray any revulsion over how beat up we must have looked. They escorted us through an exquisite garden, through the stunning lobby, to a restaurant where turbaned waiters served us delicious things to drink and eat. We savored every sip, every mouthful.

We also talked at length about whether it was a mistake to stay at Faiz’s guesthouse, which is clean and reasonably comfortable and cost less than half the price (per night) than the dinner we were consuming. But it’s hardly luxurious.Here’s the street in front of Faiz’s home. The road leading to the Oberoi looks quite different.

I had an insight. When traveling in India, you can cushion yourself from much of what’s been wearing us down. You can hire people to plan your trip and move you around in air-conditioned cars and buses. You can sleep in places that don’t cost as much as this Agra Oberoi but still are much posher than Faiz’s home. Traveling this way costs a lot more in money but less in stress.

Or you can do what we’ve been doing, mixing up the fancy hotels and palaces with mid-range ones and guest houses and B&Bs; riding on the trains and in the tuk-tuks; eating in some of the local joints.This takes a toll on our nerves and sometimes our mood, but it not only costs less. It gives us what feels like a wealth of information about the way contemporary Indians live. We get to see things like that pharmacy; get to shop at the tiny open stands. Steve and I hunger for that kind of knowledge, and we will go home (if we survive) richer in compassion for what ordinary Indians — not just the poor masses but middle-class ones — put up with. We’ll be stuffed with memories of one great conversation after another. And we’ll better appreciate things like Kleenex and Rite-AIDS and Amtrak.

Of course, we still have four weeks of Indian travel ahead of us. Will we hate the place by then? This morning, at least, our glum mood had lifted. We ate a quick breakfast cooked by Faiz’s mother (who lives in the house along with other family members) and bade goodbye to Faiz.We rode in a beautiful new taxi to the train station, walked in, and learned that our train this morning had been delayed. It probably would arrive at least eight hours late. We called Faiz, who hopped in his own car, drove it to the station, collected us, and helped us arrange a private car and driver.A nice one!

Once underway, I managed to get on the Indian Railways website (by connecting to my iPhone’s hotspot).But I got a message saying there’s no refund “if train is running more than 3 hours late or train is canceled.”

No further disaster struck us on the five-and-a-half-four drive…unlike this poor truck that we passed.

I’m posting this now from our hotel, which is wonderfully soothing. Tomorrow at 6:30 am, we’ll set off on another attempt to see some wild Bengal tigers. The guidebook says Ranthambore National Park is the best place in Rajasthan to do that.

The sexiest stones in the world

Many years ago, Steve and I had a friend who went to India. When she returned, she talked about her adventures, which included a visit to temples that bore remarkably erotic carvings. These shocked our friend so much — with their explicitness and wild invention — that the memory of them stuck with me. Steve and I wanted to include some temples on our itinerary, so why not the compound in Khajuraho?

From San Diego, I booked berths on an air-conditioned third-class sleeper train that was scheduled to leave Varanasi around 6 pm Wednesday and arrive in Khajuraho shortly before dawn the next day. But in a moment of true enlightenment (it came upon our arrival in Varanasi, when we stopped for some mysterious reason and then didn’t move for two hours even though our train was just outside the station), we realized we would probably loathe the 12-plus-hour night train. Amazingly, the next day we were able to book seats on a 32-minute flight on Jet Air, cancel our night train tickets, and even get a refund (about $14) for the tickets we didn’t use.

The flight was flawless: almost empty, on time, and we even got a little sandwich and water during our brief minutes aloft. Khajuraho has a new airport terminal that makes San Diego’s looks shabby, but we didn’t spend much time in it. By 2 pm we were at our hotel. We spent that afternoon relaxing, and at 8:30 the next morning, we set off with a guide arranged by the hotel.

With him, we took a tuk-tuk to the most important cluster of temples, what’s known as the Western Group. This is a vast compound covered with emerald lawns and huge old trees.Set among them are about a dozen structures. The area is breathtaking; even at a distance, it ranks among the greatest ceremonial sites Steve and I have visited: Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, Teotihuacan.These ladies were replanting the lawn with individual seeds.

Up close, it was even more amazing. Stone carvings cover almost every square foot of the thousand-year-old buildings and their interiors.This is a huge sandstone wild boar– the third incarnation of the god, Shiva.And this is some of what’s carved into his side.

As our guide escorted and instructed us, I realized I had gotten the wrong idea from what our friend described so long ago. It is true that every kind of sex is depicted: orgies……wacky positions from the Kama Sutra, masturbation……but it feels like every other aspect of human life is also captured. Soldiers slaughter each other with the aid of war elephants. A famous carving depicts a young woman applying her eye make-up. Another girl extracts a thorn from her foot:People bathe, stretch, drink together… …listen to music.The carvers’ sense of humor is obvious. In one of the most infamous scenes, a man is fornicating with a horse, while two men on each side await their turn. A third covers his eyes in disgust at the barbarism — except that the carver makes it clear he’s peeking.The elephant looks like he’s got a sense of humor too.

It’s splendid, brimming with life and motion. After about 90 minutes, Steve was so overwhelmed he yearned to wander through the whole site again, to better absorb it. But I wanted to visit the Jain temple compound on the other side of town, so I headed there with Karana, the guide.

Jainism is an alternative to Hinduism that began in the 6th Century BC. It rejects the idea of castes and preaches that liberation can be achieved by purifying the soul. The most important way of doing that is through non-violence. In an amazing stroke of luck for us, Khajuraho had been hosting a four-month-long Jain festival (that will wrap up this coming week). The compound grounds were jammed with Jains from all over the country, including some of the holiest men in all of India.Some of the Jain monks never wear clothes. Like this one. Outside of the four-month-long monsoon season, where they congregate in some location (e.g. Khajuraho this year), the Jain monks wander naked through the countryside, praying and preaching and meditating.One of their only possessions is the brush they carry to sweep insects out of their path to avoiding injuring them.

Steve and I saw even more temples the next day, though none as marvelous as those in the Western group. In the morning, we rented bicycles and pedaled through the town and countryside. If it weren’t for the smog, which seemed worse than that in Kolkata, the area would be lovely. The city isn’t crowded, and there’s little traffic, so it feels quiet. A few temples are located in the surrounding farmland, and we cycled past folks drawing water from a well…...and kids swimming and bathing in a local stream.We pedaled through a village where a woman was slamming handfuls of cow dung on the facade of her house (home maintenance? We weren’t sure.)I think it’s the only glimpse we’ll get of rural life in the heart of India. I’ll probably remember it as clearly as the riotous, naughty temple stone tapestry. But we’ve left it behind us now. I’m writing this on a train heading for the heart of Indian tourism. With luck, I’ll post it from our home stay in Agra, about a ten-minute walk from the Taj Mahal.

Immersion in the Ganga

On our second night in Varanasi, the holiest city in India, Steve and I found ourselves seated in a balcony overlooking a scene that felt like a movie spectacle — something Stephen Spielberg might dream up when he was feeling manic.My photo doesn’t do it justice. It doesn’t clearly show all the small boats congregated in front of the seven platforms or the priest standing on each platform, and of course you can’t hear the continuous bells and the plaintive singing. Every night in Varanasi after sunset, before a vast assembly, the priests go through a complex ritual: blowing into conch shells, wafting incense dispensers, waving great silver candelabras. It’s part religious ceremony; part performance art.

On a balcony below us, a huge brown cow watched the activity. Cows roam everywhere in Varanasi, in narrow alleyways and major thoroughfares; they wander through the cremation ghats, munching on the flowers brought to honor the dead. We saw countless monkeys too, scampering along power lines, scaling building facades, hanging out in the byways. We were warned not to stare at them or approach the babies, lest the mothers charge and bite us. During our four days in Varanasi, we saw no cobras, though we heard that locals sometimes defang them and allow them to roam the old city. Pilgrims like them, reportedly, because the Hindu god Shiva has the hood of a cobra.

Pilgrims from all over India come to Varanasi to bathe in the Ganges (which Indians call the Ganga). It’s the mother river, most sacred; people believe if you take a dip in it, you can short-circuit countless reincarnation cycles and go directly to heaven. The city is thought to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on Earth, and in the heart of it, great stone embankments with steps built into them line the riverfront. Strolling along these “ghats,” as they’re called, is endlessly entertaining. I’ve never felt more like I was on another planet. You see……holy men……some of whom will bless you. There are……ladies in saris tidying up……kids playing street hockey……pilgrims bathing…...and shopping. These are sealed bottles of Ganga water, ready to take home for your friends. (To our friends, sorry. We resisted.)

One morning we watched the sun rise.That’s not a typo. It was sunrise, not sunset. Varanasi’s air appears no cleaner than Kolkata’s.

That same evening we were rowed to one of the two ghats where believers are cremated around the clock (another purification method ensuring instant access to paradise).To our surprise, we smelled no ugly odors.This is because the fires burn deodorizing banyan tree wood mixed with sandalwood, we were told.

Later Steve and I strolled on foot to the same cremation ghat, where around the back we saw the wood stacked up……and carefully weighed for each funeral pyre.

Over the years, I’ve asked many folks who traveled in India what they thought of it. In Malaysia, for example, we met a middle-aged American musician who had just spent two months studying classical music on the subcontinent. He replied, “India is full of many beautiful things. But most of them are invisible.”

I thought of that in Varanasi, where we spent two nights staying in a former palace located next to the most important ghat. Opened as a hotel just two years ago, it doesn’t look like much on the outside, but the inside is a haven of beauty and peace and serenity. Every night musicians played in the central courtyard while a dancer performed classical steps before them. Every morning a flutist sitting on a velvet cushion on an upper floor blew sweet, wistful melodies. The restaurant served the best Indian food we’ve ever tasted.

The other two nights we spent in a guesthouse that cost $14 a night. Compared to the palace, it was spartan. The rooms were spotless, but tiny. And the 31-year-old owner/operator was smart and knowledgeable and generous-hearted. When he unintentionally dropped and lost one of the paper clips we kept in our passports to mark the page with the Indian visa (which every hotel must photocopy!), we told him it was no big deal. But two days later he presented us with a replacement that he went out and bought for us. After we checked out to move to the palace, he invited us to return for his special spiced tea (masala chai). In the conversation we had while sipping it, he felt like a treasured old friend.Steve and I sensed a peacefulness on the ghats of Varanasi, and Sonu said he feels it too. As hard as he works and as crazy as the guesthouse operation can get, he told us he tries to spend an hour or so by the river every day. It re-energizes him. I think there’s also beauty there which you can’t miss seeing.