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ALL Aboard India’s Fastest Train

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.

Our "coolie"

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 scene along the tracks waiting for the train. We were at least not the only tourists around. Don't think it was this bright. It is my flash.

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.

It was on time, and it actually WAS fast.

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.

On board the tourist train.

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.

Tea set from meals on Wheels! Cute eh?

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.

Agra-Cultural

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.

Entrance to the Agra fort. This is behind the first of two moats. This one was a water moat, the water filled with crocodiles. The second moat was dry, filled with tigers. Early homeland security!

 

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.

View of the concubines bedrooms from the king's bedroom. He did not bother lkearning 300 girls names, they just had numbers.

This is the Kings bedchamber. If these walls could talk!

The Kings hot tub. It used to be covered with gold. Oh the stories it could tell!

Ornate details inside the bed chamber.

The Kings "prison".

The imprisoned Kings' view of his wife's tomb, the Taj. Legend says he was goping to build a duplicate of it across the river in black Martble for himself. This is supposedly the main reason he was deposed. Wasteful government spending.

The end of an era. This is a cannon ball hole from a British cannon. They ruined all the fun.

 

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.

The baby Taj.

 

Beautiful ornate inlaid work in the marble inside the baby Taj

Sarcophagi of two of the six or so princesses buried in the baby Taj.

 

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.

Does this really need a caption?

Life With Boundaries

Everyone plays Cricket here!

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

St Thomas cathedral

 

St. Thomas' tomb. photos here were forbidden, or as they say in India "an offence" So I had to sneak this shot to share with you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Typical street scene in India. Not a placefor quiet contemplation!

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.

 

A Journey to India

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.

Why install these lights?

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.

Almost every person going to India from the UAE has four or five huge bags and a television set!

 

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.

 

Will We Get Lost in India?

Mary Ann and I were lamenting the fact that we had not gone anywhere in January. I actually like January in the Arabian Desert, it is very temperate. We have not had the air conditioner on for almost two months. Mary Ann thinks it is freezing. (Folks, it is between 65 and 80 f) She started looking for someplace warm to go in February. We were looking at Istanbul, Sri Lanka and the like. Then, like warm a wind off the desert, we got an invitation!

We have a houseboy. He comes in once a week and does floors and bathrooms, two tasks we do not want to do. He is a young man from India. He is pleasant and works his butt off. A week ago he told us he was getting married and would be leaving for home for about three months. We congratulated him and started thinking about wedding presents.

Then he rocks our world by handing us an invitation to his wedding!  We thought about it for maybe 30 seconds before we said “OK, we’ll be there!” He seemed pleased that two old white folks would come all the way to his home town to see him get married. We were excited to be invited. Indian weddings are supposed to be wondrous events, vividly colorful while saturated in custom. A great photo op for my new camera!

Now the adventure began. I was looking at the invitation and I did not understand a word of it. (Yes, it is in English.) That is not entirely true. I understood that the wedding takes place at 6 a.m. on a Monday. That was curious, but just the start.  I could not figure out where the venue was. I am not surprised that I did not recognize any city names. I started using my old pal Mr. Google. Then panic set in.

The town (at least what I thought was the town) did not exist. I went to Trip Advisor, and no one who uses TA has ever been wherever this is. My next resource was our next door neighbors. They happen to be from India, and the groomn, Kanbarasan if you need his name, also works for them.  I walked next door with the invitation and my best “I’m so confused” face and asked for help. It turns out what I thought was the city was the name of the marriage hall. She pointed out to me the name of the city and the district and told me what state it was in. “Oh thank you thank you thank you.”

I ran back to my computer and used Wikipedia to find out about the city. The name of the city if you insist on knowing is Kattumannarkoil. Wikipedia told me that in the 2001 census it had a population of about 22k. So in 2011, what 40k? That makes it little more than a village in Indian standards. I went back to TA. Nope, no one has ever been there. I checked every hotel website I know of, nope, no hotels.

So I tried to find it on Google Maps. Nope. I started to think we were headed for Terra Incognito…”beyond here lie dragons”. But this is India, not 17th century Africa. I started searching on the state. The name of the state by the way is Tamil Nadu. It is in the south of India on the Eastern side. I found an international airport in a city called Chennai. When I studied things a bit more I found out that Chennai used to be called Madras. All I know about Madras is that Rodney Dangerfield wore madras shorts in Caddy Shack..

Our local airline, Air Arabia, just happens to fly directly from here to Chennai. If you look at a route map for Air Arabia, they have at least twenty destinations in India. The reason for that being all the labor force from India that works in the UAE. The RT airfare is less than US$300. We booked our flight. There is only one flight a day to Chennai and it arrives at 3 a.m.  Oh well.

Now it was time to figure out where to go when we leave the airport in pre dawn hours.  I found the district in Tamil Nadu where this village is supposed to be. It is called Cuddalure. Or Cudalor, or Kuddalore, depending on your source.  There is no train from Chennai to Cuddalure, only busses. A six hour bus ride. And that does not get us to Kattumannnarkoil.

At this point in typing this story, and probably from your perspective of reading it, we are both tired of these multiple syllable unpronounceable names.  OK, Cud and Katt from now on.

Realizing that we would be absolutely lost with a mere three days to find the wedding, I figured out a new approach. I found a bunch of nice hotels in Chennai and emailed them. I said that if they could find a way to get me to Katt, we would stay with them before the wedding and afterwards. When I say a bunch, I mean a bunch. To quote John Lennon “I’VE GOT BLISTUHS ON MY FINGUHS”. No one wrote back. Perhaps they had no damned idea where Katt was either.

Finally, a woman who runs a B&B wrote me back. Things were looking up. Her husband runs the AMEX travel agency in Chennai. He is hooking us up with a car and driver. No folks, I am not about to drive a car in India. I would rather sword fight a ninja.

In our communications he of course offered to provide tourist type activities for the rest of our trip. So, we are hiring him to find flights for us to Delhi, and get us to Agra. In Delhi we will do what can only be described as the Slum Dog Millionaire tour, a walk thru the ghettos with young guides who worked their way out of them. The next day we will take a tour of historical sites relevant to Gandhi. (I watched the movie last night and seems how I am now an expert, it better be a great tour.)

Then we are off to Agra. Agra is of course where the Taj Mahal is. The Taj is one of my bucket list items. We will see it at sunset and sunrise and I expect to really put my new Nikon through its paces.

So, don’t forget to read my next half dozen blogs, if for nothing more than the pictures. Tell a friend, thanks for reading, and please make a comment.

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