Monthly Archives: February 2011
The Taj. If it is the only thing you see in India, it is worth the trip.
When I was about 10 years old I promised myself I would see the Taj Mahal someday. Often I have heard it called the world’s most beautiful building. It is also called the world’s greatest monument to love.
I will certainly admit that when you consider it was built in the early 1600’s, while Boston was still wooden shacks, it is an astonishing feat of architecture, engineering, construction capability and artistry. It has a certain weightless feeling. It almost floats when you look at it.
The details of the Taj are almost as remarkable as the symmetry. Versus of the Koran are inscribed over the arched doorways. In contrast to that are flowers decorating the walls using inlaid semi-precious stones. That mixture of Hindu/Muslim culture is intentional. The Mughal rulers were Muslim, but most of the people they ruled were Hindu. The cultures and in fact all the architecture we saw in India reflect this delicate balance.
No space in the mausoleum is left without adornment of some type. Intricate carvings cover about every square inch. As the sun starts to set they catch the light differently than they do in full sunlight.
In the sunlight, the white marble glistens and sparkles. We went there a couple of hours before sunset. I wanted to photograph the building in the early evening light. After all, I have a new camera and I am playing with it as much as possible. (I took over 2500 photos in 8 days in India. Thank god for digital photography)
Like entering a mosque or a temple, we had to remove our shoes. But here at the Taj, we were given the option of wearing Ronald McDonald booties.
Inside the mausoleum are two crypts. This where the characters of this love story are supposedly buried. Actually Mumtaz Mahal the wife of Mughal emperor Shaj Jahan is buried a number of feet below. As you enter, the faux crypts are straight ahead of you, and there is a wall all around. You can circle the wall, clockwise of course.
The Taj seems bigger than it is. Even up close and personal. When you get inside you notice that the marble walls are quite thick, so the building seems to grow outwards. It is hard to explain. If you have ever been in a Frank Lloyd Wright building you get the feeling that it expands as you walk through it. Same with the Taj.
Entering the park where the Taj is you have to pass through a couple of very testing experiences.
First, the hawkers. These are the worst, the most relentless and the rudest hawkers I have seen yet In my travels. A typical hawker experience goes like this.
“Hey rich man. Me poor, no food, need money, Starving children. I sell you piece of shit plastic for 5oo rupees, very good price for piece of shit”
”I don’t need a piece of shit. I have plenty of shit already.”
“Ok then 400 rupee.”
“No, get that piece of shit out of my face.”
“Really great shit tourist. I give you best price. Better than any store.”
“I do not care how much it costs. It is just a piece shit. I do not want it. Go away. Leave me alone”
“Ok tourist 300 rupees. Look, you take.”
At this point the guy is shoving it into your hands like a process server with divorce papers. If you take possession, you are in deep shit with the shit.
“No no no, I do not want it. Stop. Go away”.
“How much you pay for my shit tourist?”
“Zero. I don’t want a four foot tall plastic replica of the Taj Mahal, don’t you get it?”
By now you hopefully are at the gate to the park, where they cannot enter. It is quite the relief.
But then, security.
The security procedures to enter the grounds around the Taj equal or exceed any airport security. Men and women enter separate long queues leading to a metal detector. They check any bags you might have. I saw them make a guy with a big lens on his camera take it off so they could check the camera. Then they do the swipe with the hand held metal detector. Then they do a pat down. I cannot imagine this happening at the Lincoln Memorial or Mt. Rushmore.
But in the end, it is worth it. I loved the world’s greatest monument to love. I love my wife for taking me there. I hope you loved this post. I would love it if you told a friend and make a loving comment.
After the wedding we did interesting tourist stuff around Chennai. Mary Ann says I need to write about some of that as well, so I will, out of sequence. However, I wrote this on the spot and it is ready for my hungry readers, so I’ll skip a few days and post it. Your intrepid travelers are now in Delhi after a 3 hour flight from Chennai. We also saw some stuff in Delhi worth writing about, soon. Other than the wedding, my true reason for this journey to India was to see the Taj Mahal. It is located in Agra, a two hour train ride, or six hour drive south of Delhi. We opted for the train because we have always enjoyed train rides.
We left our B&B so early this morning that we missed the second B. We got across Delhi with no traffic in sight until we got within a block of the train station. Then the throngs appeared. Tuk Tuks and taxis were moving in eight directions. Everyone was honking horns, and there were a thousand people carrying huge bags, balancing bags on their heads and pushing and swarming across the street all trying to be the first lemming into the train station. It took thirty minutes to cover the last block. Mentally I went into turtle protection mode and retreated into my shell.
Our driver started asking us questions like “you have ticket/ What seat numbers? What train number?” Mary Ann started deciphering our travel documents. I tried to ignore everything, but ignoring anything in India is like trying to light a cigarette in a hurricane.
Finally our driver pulled up in front of the terminal and suddenly people started pounding on our window. It is still dark and these guys are all wrapped up in scarves. They are unshaven and sorta scary looking. Or driver rolled down his window and started Hinduing with one of them, quickly and loudly. Then he turned to me and said “this your coolie. He take you to train. He show you to seat, you give him 50 rupee.”
I was still in my shell. Mary Ann had to screech at me to get me to open the car door and enter this world of mass transportation/chaos. If the fact was not that I was on my way to see the Taj, to scratch an item off my bucket list, I would have asked to go back to the B&B, had the B and a Beer, and crawled under my covers.
So now we were following this scarf wearing guy into the train station. He led us past dozens of people asleep under blankets on the floor, and past a security checkpoint that most people subjected themselves to although it looked dysfunctional. He took us to a certain spot on the platform and we waited in the cold for the train. I started feeling better because there were other tourists there who seemed like they were in the right place. Mary Ann started asking me what was wrong with me. I was not sure. Although I cannot call my sensation at the time fear, I said “I’m afraid.” She just laughed at me. My wife is a fearless traveler.
The train finally showed up. It is billed as India’s fastest train. I guess I expected a bullet train, sleek and silver. This train is something between that and the Tombstone Express Butch and Sundance robbed. Closer to the latter.
Before the train even came to a complete stop, the masses started pushing each other out of the way to board. I finally got into the groove and shoved a couple of Gandhi looking guys aside and climbed onboard.
Normally I always give my wife the window seat. I took one look at the window and realized it did not matter. In country with a billion people, seemingly half of them beggars, you think they could pay someone a few Rupee a day to clean the windows on the tourist train.
Now that I was aboard the Taj express, I poked my head out of my shell and decided to enjoy the rest of the ride.
The train has many porters. One came by two minutes out of the station and flipped newspapers at the passengers like he was tossing them onto porches from his bicycle. There was nothing in the paper worth reading unless you are a Bollywood fan.
Then another came by with a pitcher of hot water and a tea set. It was really good tea.
Then they came by and served us breakfast. Like all the food in India, very tasty.
I found patches of the window to look out. All along the tracks, there was garbage. Plenty of garbage. The type the holy cows cannot eat so it just sits there.
I am now excited. We are a half hour away from Agra, and my bucket list objective.
The station in Agra was another mass of people. I began to think that if the population of India increases in the next 20 years like it has in the last 20, there simply will not be anywhere to put everyone. They are going to have to be allowed out of their homes on alternate days.
We were met right on the platform by our guide, and before I could light a smoke we were in a cab. Our driver for the next two days is named Babu, an easy name to remember. He took us to our hotel then out on the town for some preliminary touring to build up to seeing the Taj Mahal. When he recited where he was going to take us I thought it was weird he did not say Taahg Mahaul, like we do. The local pronunciation is one word, “ozmeahl”. That is close anyway.
First we went to the Agra Fort. This fort was built by the Mughals. They were Muslim and spoke Farsi. They came into northern India from countries now called “somethingstan” bent on conquest. They ruled northern India for 400 years until the Brits came along with better artillery.
In that time, one of the rulers built the Taj as a tomb for his favorite wife. She must have been a hottie. She bore him 14 children in 20 years. She then died in child birth. He also had 300 concubines living in the palace inside the fort. His pure white marble bedchamber looks out over the rooms for the 300, and he had a gold plated hot tub that looks like it could hold him and about 20 of his girls. If you can get reincarnated into the past, I know who I want to come back as.
Agra Fort was a great place to see before you go to the Taj, because you get the love story that led to the creation of the world’s greatest monument to love. You also get to see where this king was imprisoned by his third oldest son. Son #3 killed 1 & 2, and then had his father arrested and put in prison. The prison is in the palace. If ya gotta be in prison, well hell, why not here. It is as beautiful as the king’s chambers he used to live in and it has a breath taking view of the Taj. I imagine he got conjugal visits.
Next we went to “the baby Taj”. I had never heard of it before. It is about 1/5 the size of the real thing. It is also built of white marble. There are maybe 6 tombs inside of it, princesses mostly.
I am going to skip telling you about the real Taj until my next post, so you will come back. I get paid by the reader. So tell a friend and make a comment. Thanks for reading.
But here is a teaser.
Ok, so the groom did not enter the hall on an elephant, and there were no tigers. That is just what I was fantasizing about before I attended my first Indian wedding. There was however a bride. I’m not sure she wanted to be there, but there she was.
I’ll begin at 4:00 in the morning. The wedding was to start at 6:00. We did not want to be late, and we certainly did not want to miss it. As Mary Ann put it clearly when I suggested a 5 a.m. start time “we have travelled thousands of miles, spent thousands of dollars, and avoided thousands of traffic accidents. If we are early so be it. Besides we might have trouble finding the place”. As usual, my wife was right.
We set out in the dark. The town where the groom lives was 35Km away from our hotel. But that was not where the wedding was going to be. It was being held in a village so small it had no road signs let alone did it show up on a map. So, off we were into terra incognito.
We drove down a narrow country road in the predawn subtropical morning. The road was lined with what a cowboy would call haystacks. But they were (I believe) stacks of rice stalks drying. Later in the day I confirmed this when I found that they tied them into neat bundles for use as roofing on their indigenous housing. It made for an interesting tunnel vision view of Southern India countryside.
Every few miles we would come across a lodge like building off the road all lit up with colored strings of lights. It was obvious that they were wedding halls. As we went thru little towns in the dark, the only places showing life were many, maybe dozens of such little wedding halls. Each one had big pictures of the bride and groom to announce the festivities. I turned to Mary Ann and said “well, if we do not find the wedding we came for, we certainly have our choice of weddings to crash!” You see, it is prime wedding season in the Hindu world right now, because the monsoons are over, and the rice harvest is in, and also for luck. Also, this year, 6 A.M. on a Monday morning according to the astrologers in India was the time for the best of luck for a wedding. If someone invited to a wedding at 6 A.M. on a Monday morning in L.A., well good luck on me showing up.
We got to the groom’s home town, Kattumaanaroil, (boy my spell checker almost went on strike with that one) and stopped at a couple of weddings set to take place, asking for instructions to our wedding. Finally one man told our driver how to get to the correct town. It was like I said, barely a town, more a village. When we got there we just sort of followed gaily clad people hoping they were going to the same wedding. Remember, it is like 5:30 in the morning, and here are dozens of men dressed nicely and of course women in those magnificent saris wandering down the street in the same general direction. It reminded me of my youth when I followed the Grateful Dead from town to town. I would get to a city and have no idea where the venue was, so I would just follow the people in tie-dyes.
I have to go back a week before I tell you the ending of our search. The day before the groom left, he asked me for a picture of the two of us. I thought I understood that they would use it to make a collage of the guests, cool.
So, following red, yellow, orange, green and blue saris we turned a corner, and I went into shock. There was a big billboard sized sign announcing our friend’s wedding and in the lower left corner, almost as big as the photo of the dear couple, were us! Huge! With the words “Special guests from the U.S.A.”
Now we were greeted like sahibs. People came running out of the hall to welcome us. Mary Ann and I got married at Dodger stadium, and we are both huge fans of Dodger HOFer Sandy Koufax. If I could have afforded it I would have paid him to attend our wedding. However, then the wedding would not have been about us. We did not want things to be like this, we were just people attending the wedding in our mind. In this village in rural-off-the-beaten-track India we were a special added attraction, we were Sandy Koufax.
We were probably the first white people in the village. The children looked at us like specimens from another planet, as did most of the adults.
After warm hugs, we were introduced to the groom’s family. All of them. One of his brothers is an EE who works in Singapore. All I could think of was how do you get out of HERE and go to Singapore or Dubai, and what must the culture shock be like in either case.
Everyone wanted their picture taken. Everyone brought us their children and held them up for the camera. All the 10ish boys jumped around in front of me trying to pose. I wanted to take photos of not only the cute little girls, but their big sisters. Most of them were somewhat camera shy. I photographed the band. The band consisted of two horns which I have never seen before, some bells and two drummers. Pictures were taken of the family, and us with the family. All total I took 450 pictures in an hour and a half. You need to follow this link.http://www.flickr.com/photos/the_other_side_of_the_coconut to see a portion of them
The ceremony was of course a traditional Hindu service. It included washing the parent’s feet, “christening” a “tree of life”, and a dozen other rituals I enjoyed, but did not grok. Neither did the groom I figured. He had perplexed look on his face from start to end. He was “blessed” first by the holy man running the show. Then the bride came out for her ordeal of blessings. She looked like she was in shock, denial, terrified, anything but the picture of the blushing blooming bride. None of my photos so far were destined for the cover of Bride Magazine.
Then they joined up and both of them sat in the thrones of honor and they did yet more ceremonies. One of the ceremonies included the parents. The whole time the bride was next to her father she was showing signs of a serious daddy complex.
Somewhere near the tail end of the ceremony a man came around with a tray of orange colored rice. Everyone took a little. I had mine in my hand and looked at Mary Ann. She said “eat it”. So I did. Everyone around me started laughing at my expense. The purpose the rice, as ANYONE would know, was to throw it at the newlyweds. So the man came back, still humored by me and gave me some more rice.
The next ceremony was three circuits by the newlyweds around the tree of life, with a pause for some words from the holy man at each completed circuit. These words, as were the rest of the ceremony, were in ancient Sanskrit language. Nobody speaks it anymore. It is like going to a wedding in a church in L.A. and having it done in Latin.
Then it was time to give presents. Besides a nice cash present we gave the groom back in Sharjah, we found a really pretty marble photo frame for the bride. We had it wrapped and we gave it to a family member while we were being mobbed upon our entrance. It sort of disappeared.
The gifts from the other guests were ether some Rupees, or in most cases, gold. Everyone passed by the bride an put a gold chain on her, or a gold ring on the groom, or both. We realized that was just another thing we were clueless about. The bride started smiling a bit more as her chest became laden with that certain metal that causes fevers in us all.
We were out of Rupees because the ATM machine was not working that morning, and our present had been taken into some holding room. But then the groom’s brother showed up with it and told us to get in line to present it. An 8 x10 marble frame is heavy enough to make her think she was receiving a gold bar. I hope she is not disappointed.
The ceremony was now over. Right on time, 6 to 7:30. The band stopped playing and everyone made a dash for the dining hall. At first, Mary Ann was not so sure she wanted to eat anything here. But everyone was insistent we eat. They took us outside to wash our hands and sat us down at a community table where the only place setting was a banana leaf. They put generous helpings of wonderful dishes in front of us. We had to eat with our hands of course, and mind you, as we were reminded, not the left hand. The food was really tasty. I know I’ll never eat anything we had ever again, but not because I don’t want to.
I noticed during the ceremony that the bride’s father had a righteous moustache. I goaded him into a little moustache twisting competition. He won, his is a better moustache. We bonded on that one and I think he will remember me for it.
I made the decision that I was tired of being Sandy Koufax, and decided we should head for the showers before we started being asked for autographs. We said or goodbyes. No one thought we should be leaving, but we wanted to give the day back to the couple, so off we went.
I hope you enjoyed crashing this wedding as much as I enjoyed telling you about it. Tell a friend. Stay tuned for the Taj Mahal, I hear it is a real shack!
This is not a blog about Cricket, but it might turn into a recurring theme as I go along.
On this side of the coconut, my diamond shaped temple with four stations perfectly spaced at 90 feet apart, has no devotees. In case that was too cryptic, no one knows a baseball from a mango here in India.
However, here in India, that game with wickets is the national sport. This year they are hosting the ICC Cricket World Cup. You wouldn’t know it unless you looked closely.
This being Super Bowl Sunday back in the USSA, I need only to reach into the decaying memory banks I call a mind to remember that the words Super Bowl appear in front of your temporal lobes at least once every waking minute for the week before the game. I am sure that you could not breathe in South Africa without spitting out a soccer ball for at least a year before their version of a world up.
But here in this country with one sixth of the world’s population, I cannot find a ball cap with a cricket logo on it to save my dharma.
We are in Chennai, prepping ourselves for the excursion down the coast and into the interior to attend the wedding we came here to see. We have a driver and an itinerary of sorts. This is not a tourist destination. Our driver is not a guide. What we know about this town is from Lonely Planet, Trip advisor and my new source of travel information, Matadortravel.com. I did the outreach to hotels and such for this trip. Usually Mary Ann marshals that and I am happily along for the ride. Because the flight took us to Chennai, I wrote about a dozen hotels to ask if they could help us with a driver. Only one wrote back. The manager’s husband runs a tour agency. After a couple of emails, I hired him to set us up with tours in Chennai, a driver to and from the wedding, the flight to Delhi and the train to Agra to see the Taj.
Like I said we have a driver, not a guide. We have been on our own for information about the sights. That is OK by me. After the trip to Nepal where our guides relentlessly told us fables from Buddhist and Hindu lore as if they were talking about history, it is nice to just look and see.
We basically told him what we wanted to see and he drove us there. However, I stumped him when I told him to take me to buy a cricket cap. He really tried. The look on his face when I came out of sports shops empty handed was both disappointing, and to me humorous. I would not give up. Every trip to a museum, fort or cathedral was sidetracked by a trip to another sporting goods store. This is a city of 6.6 million people and 12.6 million busses, cars and tuk tuks. So navigating the streets was something was happy I did not have to do.
My last attempt was the largest sporting goods store in town. The name of the local Cricket team, who by the way happen to be the national champions, are the Super Kings. I went into the store, pointed at the ball cap I had on and said “I want a Super Kings cap.”
They responded positively and I thought my search was over. They took me over to a rack of caps and pulled out a Super MAN cap. I officially gave up my search.
We saw a few interesting things in Chennai, but by far was St Thomas Church. This is where St. Thomas, Doubting Thomas, one of the 12 disciples is buried. It is one of only three cathedrals built over the grave of one of the 12. One in Spain, and of course the third is St. Peters in the Vatican. Pretty cool. Here are a couple of shots.
INSERT ST THOMAS
In my last post I told you my friend summed up a trip to India in 3 words, “you’re in India.” I can beat that, I can do it in one word. THRONGS. Every place you go it is like standing outside of a stadium when the game is over. Thousands of people everywhere, you cannot get away from people. For my friends in Bocas, Imagine Isla Bocas having two hundred thousand people on it, and everyone over 12 has a motorcycle. I am enjoying the experience, but after I see the Taj, I do not know what would make me come bac
The next post will be the wedding. Promise. It takes me hours to make posts, sorting photos, writing, re-writing and editing the prose. And that does not count the time living the experiences and taking the photos. AND, doing it on the road often means having to use slowwww, internet connections in hotels, which takes all that more time. So I will probably wait until I am back in Sharjah to post.
I hope you enjoyed it. Please comment.
OK so I stole the title of this post. It was an excellent movie and I will try to write something worthy of it.
At the moment Mary Ann and I are at 35,000 feet in an Air Arabia A320. We are the only white people. That includes the Pilots and the cabin crew.
The plane we were supposed to fly didn’t work. With 178 brown people, Mary Ann and I had to march across the airport from our gate to another. This was 45 minutes after our scheduled departure time. We loaded up on busses and they took us out to a plane out at the edge of civilization. We all boarded plane that had not been swamped out after it arrived from Jeddah earlier that day. It had not been refueled either. It takes a long time to fuel up an A320. There was no air conditioning. It was a cool night but 180 people in an aluminum tube can really build up the BTUs. It got hotter and hotter. People started to push that little button to call the stewardess all about the same time. Ding ding. Ding ding ding. Somehow she recognized that if we did not get the air cooled down, this situation could replace Thahir Sq. on AlJazeera. So, about the time I was about to strip down to my BVDs, the air came on. But we were still sitting there. I went up front to get a glass of water and I looked into the cockpit. I wish I had not. Two ground techs and the pilot were in an argument. They were each holding some sort of manual and pointing at stuff, busily turning pages. None of this bothered me, I was starting a journey to India!
We took off at 11:30 instead of 9:30 p,m. I felt sorry for the driver in Chennai who was supposed to meet us at 3:00 a.m. and would now have to wait until 5. However, we are big tippers.
Along the way a thought came back to me that I get every time I fly. I do not think there is a single airline left on the planet that allows smoking on-board. Yet Airbus and Boeing continue to build aircraft with a no smoking lamp over every row of seats.
These lamps glow all night annoying light sleepers. They also serve as a perverse reminder that I cannot have a cig, which I would love to do while I pondered why the pilot had to read the manual before the flight. The simple cost of including no smoking lamps in a new airplane should be something the cost accountants would red flag. Also, as new models of planes get launched, someone is paid to design a snazzy new version of a red X over a burning Marlboro. Then, there is the cost of maintaining them when invariably the little light bulb burns out. And what IF it burned out? I for one would take advantage of it and light up. This would of course cause a confrontation with the cabin crew.
“Sir, Sir, you cannot smoke!’
“But the captain turned off my no smoking sign, didn’t he?”
The ground crew guy back in Sharjah must have provided excellent tech support because we landed safe and sound in Chennai Intl. One neon sign said Chennai Intl, another said Madras Intl. It made me think that change just might come slowly to India. It has only been ten years since India rebranded many of it’s cities. Madras became Chennai, Bombay became Mumbai while Old and New Delhi just became Delhi. I am sure there countless other towns and villages that shrugged off the last vestige of colonization and changed a name like SmytheTown to Rakamannaroil. When you are in a struggle to supply meaningful employment to a billion people, employing a few thousand cartographers and highway sign painters to celebrate your nationalistic pride cannot hurt. Now if they would only learn to drive on the right side of the road.
The reason I decided to cop the title of this post that my favorite scene in that movie is when they board the train to go to the caves. They have enough luggage for a circus. Every time I leave the Sharjah airport I am amazed at the amount of luggage the Indians take with them. Here is a photo taken at the luggage carousel in Chennai.
That covers it for the journey. The next post will be my first impressions of India. I’ll give you a preview. A close friend of mine, whose talent with a quill I can only envy, who can humor me with colorful descriptions of a grey wall, went to India last year. When he got back I asked him “how was the trip?”
“The flight was fine. When you get off the plane, you are in India.”
That’s it. That is all a man who gets paid by the word to write for journals could come up with. I am beginning to think he nailed it.
But I won’t let you off so easy so stay tuned, tell a friend and make a comment.