Monday, March 12, 2007

Elephants, Monkeys, Chipmunks, and Cricket

What an amazing weekend! We dragged ourselves out of bed at o'dark thirty (okay, o'dark forty-five) to meet the car and driver who picked us up here at the Beautiful Global Fortune Select Hotel. We had a moment of curiosity when the guide got into the front seat with a very nice, older Sikh gentleman at the helm and another man crawled into the "wayback" of the Indian version of a Honda Odyssey (actually I think it was some sort of Toyota, but you get the idea). Two American women surrounded by strange men. Hmm. The guide (Dubaya, I think, was his name) explained that the young man in the trunk was our driver but he didn't know how to find the hotel, so Mr. Singh drove over and we were dropping him off somewhere on the outskirts of Delhi. And, so we did, although Mr. Singh drove very carefully and with remarkably little horn usage. Even at 5AM, the horns still blow. The sun doesn't make an appearance for another hour or so, but those horns are a'blarin' everywhere.

We drove for a while through the Uttar Pradesh countryside until we reached our first stop, the Country Inn. Read: tourist trap but cleaner than anyother tourist trap for 250km. Vicky and I had breakfast while watching the local boys play cricket. Cricket has to be some form of Divine Retribution. A guy runs at an upright stick, throws what appears to be a tennis ball at another upright stick while the person with the butter paddle attempts to hit the tennis ball. A whole bunch of guys stand around in the field with their hands in their pockets until they begin to jump up and down excitedly.

We resumed our journey through rural India. The drive was worth the price, just for the experience of seeing some of the things we saw. Camel and elephant drawn wagons, every possible form of wheeled transportation, people making dung cakes for fuel, and as Vicky put it,
"more brown bottoms than I ever wanted." The men seem to just do whatever, whereever. We never saw any women taking care of things, but the guys seem to just pee and poop whever the mood strikes.

Livestock. Livestock everywhere. Cows wander where they will, and apparently, everyone is expected to give them something to eat, the only rule is that they can't eat the last of your food. Given the way that Indian drivers conduct themselves, it's a small wonder that more cows don't meet their maker and more Indians don't wake up as cockroaches. Imagine the eternal damage to your karma for hitting a cow! Among the other livestock let to wander we saw dogs, dogs, dogs, water buffalo (usually tied up because you can actually consume water buffalo milk), donkeys, goats and feral pigs.

After close to four hours, we finally arrived on the outskirts of Agra travelling at the sedate speed of 900 km an hour,. At that speed, we calculate the total distance traveled would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,600 km. We knew we'd arrived because the traffic went from a four lane divided highway (meaning anywhere from 4-8 de facto lanes going either direction) to a two lane pothole studded vehicular melee. I'm sure the traffic laws make sense to someone, but I'm not sure to whom. It would appear that passing any sort of driver test is a suggestion but not a requirement. Cars will squeeze in between walls, sidewalks, other motorized vehicles including those 10X their size. No problem. If there's a milimeter of space on each side, it's all good. I think that they must sell new vehicles predented because there is not a single vehicle in the entirety of India that isn't scratched and dented. I do not make this up. The public transportation services appear to go out of their way to buy buses with parts torn and/or missing. They probably charge extra on the routes serviced by buses that are missing more than a quarter of their structural steel.

Anyway, we checked into the Jay Pee Hotel. Not making it up. Jay Pee. It was the biggest hotel either of us had ever been in. In the 24 or so hours we were guests of the Jay Pee, we never used the same staircase twice. It was also chock full o' tourists in big, intact buses which is how you know they're not from India. Actually, the hotel was very nice and the grounds were maginificent, despite the admonitions taped to the exterior doors of the rooms. See left.

After checking in, we met the guide and off we went to the Taj Mahal. India did something very smart in the early 1990's and shut down all factories within several miles of the Taj to protect it from the continuing effects of air pollution. The government helped those factories relocate and they subsidize the folks who live in Agra, because the entire city makes almost all of its' money on tourism.

Upon arrival on the grounds of the Taj, we changed cars to an electric vehicle because no gas powered vehicle is allowed within 500m of the Taj. There is nothing like the Taj Mahal and there simply aren't words to describe it. It's huge; much, much bigger than I ever imagined and so beautiful it's not possible to capture it in a photograph, but here is one attempt. We explored the grounds for about an hour and a half. The mosque and the mirror image royal guest house are beautiful but pale in comparison. The Taj was built in the 17th century by the Moghul king, Shah Jehan ,to memorialize his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who gave him all of his fourteen children and died in childbirth with the fourteenth child. After fourteen kids in 17 years, she deserved a Taj.

After a short nap at the hotel, we headed off for Agra Fort. The guide told us tons of stories about the various walls, moats and palaces within the fort, some true, some questionable but good stories. Agra Fort was also built by the Moghuls and at one time, was Shah Jehan's prison when his ungrateful wretch of a son, Aurengzeb staged a little coup, killing his brothers and imprisoning his father and sisters. Thinking about it, if my parents had given me that name, I probably would have a chip on my shoulder, too. Jehan asked that he be given a view of the Taj from his prison, and here's a shot taken from his window. As prison views go, it doesn't totally stink.

So, anyway, we did a little shopping at some "very good shops" the guide knew. Everything seemed really expensive and neither one of us cared much for the high-pressure ("Come on, you know you can't go home and disappoint your daughter.") sales pitch so we disappointed several salesmen and our guide and didn't buy much.

It's getting late and there' so much more to tell. Tomorrow: Vicky and Cheryl say hello to monkeys, parrots and Akhbar the Great, Mr. Singh reappears (or was it his evil twin, Skippy?) and Les spends the night trying not to get malaria.

Dinner at the Jay Pee

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