April 10, 1999

The India Trip ’99

Filed under: india — SiKing @ 11:11 am

This was originally written as a letter, but I thought it might be nice to share it with everyone. Especially considering everyone was nagging me for the same information.

Today is my last day here. I thought my plane leaves this morning, but after checking my tix I actually discovered that the plane leaves at 11:15 at night! That is OK, at least I will finally get a day to relax on this vacation (unless you count the day I spent at the hotel with the shits), lounge around and collect my thoughts. This past week has been quite busy, and as soon as I come back to the States, things will be busy again.

I have finally done it. This morning it took me over an hour to cram all of my crap into my suitcase. I have bought several gifts for everyone, one of them I screwed up and I bought something that is kinda bulky and difficult to pack. And I have managed to generate one more, but small, carry-on. Because of the way everything is packed, it should all survive the journey, the only thing I am worried about it the suitcase itself – hopefully it will be able to hold.

Here are some impressions that I have of India. I will probably forget these by the time I get off the plane back home, so I should write them now. I think all of you know me well enough, that I do not mean any disrespect, these are just one man’s observations. Hopefully it will be unique point of view which is not available in just any travel text. Some of the things are blown out of proportion, but I just want the readers of this to be able to appreciate what I have experienced…..

Yesterday was … well it was. I got to see people living in utter poverty, children so hungry their ribs were showing through their leathery skin, cows wondering the streets and highways with no apparent restraint, I got to see the a birthplace of a God, and I got to see the greatest gift a man has ever given to the one he loves. It was almost overwhelming, and at the same time extremely tiring. By the end of the day, like a whinny little American, I was glad to be back in my cozy, air-conditioned, dust free, and noise filtered hotel.

As the bus took off from New Delhi headed for Agra over 200km away, I did not imagine the experiences that I was to witness that day. Driving conditions in India are very unique to anything I have seen anywhere else, including the movie Mad Max! For a westerner, the familiarity of a crowded street (with pedestrians) very closely resembles how people here drive. As fast as they can, with very little regard for those around them. At a red light, everyone “crowds” in a bunch around the point the first one there gets to determine.

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This is a shot of the street from outside of my window. You can’t
see much, but I wanted to include it anyway.

Out of common courtesy you would want to permanently lean on your horn. Honking does not show annoyance with the other driver’s capabilities (this is always assumed), it indicates a courteous remainder that there are cars completely all around all other cars everywhere on the road. It almost seems that vehicles which are not equipped with a horn are illegal in India. When I asked my guide about this, he wanted me to clarify the word “illegal”. After a half hour explanation I gave up – India has no notion of the concept of “legal” when it comes to driving. There is always something to look at, when traveling the countryside, so one never gets bored. The beautiful country side kept whizzing by, and the monotony was broken approximately every half hour by a truck or bus (or both) wrecked on the side of the road. This actually stops being amusing when you realize that you are currently seated on an identical looking bus, hurling (approximately) forward at speeds in the neighborhood of 70km/h. At these speeds the driver masterfully avoided other traffic, which in India consists mostly of mopeds, bicycles, pedestrians, push-carts, and every other form of transport including cows – stray cows; no, they are not accompanied by anyone they just wander the streets because it is a convenient way to get from one meal to another. It has been explained to me, that if there is an accident in which a casualty occurs, the people who witness this must act fast. If they do not, the clothes the “body” is wearing could be damaged by the traffic driving over them; also the body might be ground to a non recognizable pulp which would make things difficult for the police when they arrive a day or so later to determine whom should be notified with the costs of cleaning the street. By noon the temperature has reached a nice sunny 40 degrees, and by this time I have determined the assumed meaning of the phrase “air conditioned bus”. The phase refers to a mode of transportation which at one time has been equipped with a cooling unit, but by this time is no longer present. You will be still be charged extra price for the comforting thought though. At noon the bus stopped for for lunch. The engine was immediately hosed down. If it were deprived of this ONLY form of coolant, it would surely mean the end to a wonderful trip which would be shameful, especially considering the establishment where we stopped served beer and the driver was paid in cash in advance… By about 1 o’clock in the afternoon we made our first goal that day.

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Once, through the main entrance of the Fort.

The first stop of the trip was the Agra fort. This is a fort where the old Indian empire (if there was such a thing) essentially held the equivalent of their entire government – leaders, courts, prisons, everything. The fort itself was kinda nice, but much like everything else in India, unfortunately, it is kept in very poor condition. Apparently part of the fort still houses, as it used to since it was built, the local militia. The next stop was at the local Handicrafts Shop (that is the actual name of it) in Agra. This is where descendants of the original master craftsmen today keep the crafts alive. They polish and carve beautiful designs into the the same white marble that was used to build all of the Taj Mahal, and then cut and grind semiprecious stones to fill in the carvings. The results are wonderful works of art. The quality of this work, as far as I know, does not compare with anything that is handmade in North America. This is one of the surprising contrasts that kinda struck me. The quality of all handmade art here is so infinitely superior to anything that anyone in North America has ever produced, and probably ever will. On the other hand, even under the best of conditions, the quality of life here is so much poorer compared to even moderate living conditions in North America, let alone anything that is actually upscale back home. Little rivulets of raw sewage running through the streets where children play and livestock feeds. People work their crafts from houses which to a westerner look like they were slated for demolition. Life here goes on in conditions which just yesterday I have seen on TV in a report from CNN about Kosovo. That last sentence is a huge contrast all by itself if you think about it.

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This is where the court was held. People stood outside in the searing sun,
while the judges sat in the shade.

The next stop was the Taj Mahal itself.

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Click the image to see a much larger one. Use
your Back button to get back here!

There are definite indications around this monument of an attempt at preservation. As you make your way through the sea of street peddlers all trying to pawn off the exact same thing on you all for the same price, you arrive at the front gate. The main door is only halfway open, held so by a chain. This apparently is to prevent the street peddlers from swarming through the gates and gaining access at the unsuspecting tourists who are in at least temporary sanctuary inside (well I just made that up, it sound plausible, I can’t think of another reason why they would simply not open the DAMN DOORS). Past the gate is a long walk down a row of what used to be small shops. Now all of the doors are chained shut. In some places the doors have started to deteriorate, and if you peek through you will notice that he chains on the doors are holding behind: the mysterious nothing! They chain these doors shut, actually expend the energy and costs to create the chain and lock, to lock up an empty dusty room. I figure this is done so that they would not have to upkeep that part of the monument, as it is probably more cost efficient to simply put a lock on the door. From there you finally arrive at the front gate behind which there is the actual Taj. The big main front door is actually an exit. I am still pondering the intelligence responsible for this confusion. Paying customers are herded through a small side door, which has been cut into the historical monument using modern techniques. There ONE guard searches each and every person for unspecified electronics and smokes! Meanwhile, the main “exit” – as it has now become – is wide open and people are casually strolling through it in small numbers at a very leisurely pace. When you finally make it through the door, before you lays a large, once luscious and beautiful garden. There are small copses of trees being pissed on by men who have no problem with being captured by thousands of tourist cameras; those with decency and manners go piss up against the garden walls. I never saw a woman take a leak, except in the park outside my hotel window.

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The park, from the vantage of my 7th story window.

The large green garden in front of Taj Mahal also has large water fountains, which by now serve as conventional depositories of garbage for tourists. There are no obvious trash cans anywhere in sight, and I suppose you do not want to waste all the convenient space which the ancients have thoughtfully enclosed with many hours of slave labor, which by now contains no water as that is a precious commodity. You make your way down the ancient stone pathway. Many years ago, kings and rulers of entire empires have walked down the exact same path, and you feel awed almost humbled, even thought there is a guy standing within an arm’s length from you, relieving himself on the nearby tree. As you near the the monument, you can clearly make out the ancient text along the sides of the building, made from black onyx, and the intricate flower pattern made of many other semiprecious stones, ground down by bare hands many years ago to the exact fit into each of the carved grooves made by the long dead master craftsmen. Closer still will reveal a chaotic crowd of people gathered around ONE man who is charged with sorting and keeping track of all of the visitors’ smelly, moist, fungus-infected footwear. That is nice, the people of India are at least conscious enough of preserving their ancient monuments, to convince tourists to walk around barefoot. Actually, they probably don’t feel like cleaning up after the tourists, the tourists will do it themselves with their socks, but the first sounds much more decent. So you remove your footwear, and make your way up the final flight of stairs to the foot of the building itself. Your excitement of where you find yourself greatly outweighs the unbearable stench coming from people’s feet in the moist 40 degree searing sun. And there you are, it is there right in front of you! A long time ago, one man blinded and mad by his love for one woman, built this to shelter her fragile body, and presented it to her as a gift and an attempt to show just how great his love for her is. Only one who has been in love himself (the self – trying to keep all the nazi feminists happy), can possibly understand such a drive to try and quantify such a love. And in the end, all of it is futile, because nothing in this world can possibly measure up to the love a man can have for the right woman.

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Detail on the outside walls.

The outside walls of the Taj have small delicate flowers both carved from the same white marble, as well as created like a life sized puzzle from pieces of semiprecious stones. Most of the carvings are large pieces which are completely symmetrical about the origin (just to remind you that the author of this is an engineer after all). Each one would be way too large to carry for one man, and each is surrounded by a frame of small flowers of the inlaid pieces of the colorful semiprecious stones. The inside of the Taj Mahal comprises of only one room of several hundred square feet in area. You just barely squeeze by the huddle of bums who have gathered conveniently enough in the doorway of the monument. One of them accompanies you, similarly to a leech sharing a swim through a scum pond. Without provocation or restraint the man starts telling you everything he knows about the Taj. At this point you are grateful for the astounding skills of the ancient architects, who have built the Taj Mahal in such a way so to create a permanent soothing breeze through the middle of the building. Also, it is actually kinda nice to have a free guide through unknown territory. Every single square inch from floor to the ceiling is made out of white marble. There are no paintings, all art is carved into the stone and filled with semiprecious stones. There are carvings of all sorts of flowers, anything from tulips, roses, to lilies and lotus flowers. In the center of the main chamber is a large fence, also made out of the same white marble, also containing various carving and flower arrangements. The meshing in this fence is actually a carving from a solid slab of marble. Inside of the fenced off area one can clearly see two sarcophagus. Again, same white marble, more flowers everywhere. One is smaller and perfectly centered. The guide you “voluntarily” picked up at the door is still crooning in your ear, that this is where the body of princes Mumtaz, for whom all of this was built, is buried. Her body is perfectly centered in the room, and perfectly lined up with the front entrance of both the Taj as well as the main gate at the far end of the garden. They believed this was the way to heaven; in case you are getting disoriented, this is where the masses of street peddlers are today. The line extends the other way towards the Agra fort, which is where the architects were imprisoned after completing the work. The guide beckons you to stand on this imaginary cosmic line, helps you get positioned, and generously offers to take your picture. Next to Mumtaz lies the body of her lover, Shash Jahan, the creator of all of this – well he at least ordered the slaves to be beat, and I imagine he showed up at least once or twice on the construction site.

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This is where the kids are now. Check out the intricate patterns everywhere.

His sarcophagus is larger, but it still contains the same make and motif. On the ceiling blooms a huge sunflower, which spans over 20 feet in diameter. From the center is suspended the only object which is not made of marble. It is a lamp, made of gold, silver, (and spice and everything nice … sorry I could not resist) and brass, and weighs several hundred pounds. This lamp, according to the broken english of the guide, was presented by one of the British royalty as a gift to the Indian rulers. Leave it to the Brits to fuck up perfection! Completing the “once around the room”, you find yourself back at the entrance. Considering your direction of travel, you notice that it also serves as a convenient exit. The guide thanks you with broken english and teeth, and reminds you that in your infinite generosity you might want to consider making a small donation to his pack-a-day nicotine habit or he will report you to the police for taking pictures inside the Taj Mahal. As you leave the monument, you walk over to the side of the plaza on which it stands and take in the beauty of the magnificent view. You try to imagine how it once must have been, without the car fumes, and the obnoxious smells coming from the large masses of rotting garbage floating down river, which stretches infinitely in front of you in two directions. You turn and start to walk away, and yet you must see the magnificent Taj Mahal once again, if only for a brief moment. The last thought that goes through your mind, as the hot marble tiles burn your feet is: “Shit, I still gotta get my damn shoes!”

On a relative scale, the Taj Mahal easily compares to the beauty of the St. Basilica in Vatican City. On a global scale, it is unfortunate that such a magnificent work of art has been allowed to fall into such a state.

Back through the masses, and on to the safety of the bus. Safety from the peddlers that is. At this time of the day, the bus acts as a solar house, all the windows must remain closed, for to open one is equivalent to inviting the street peddlers with the phrase: “I am loaded and gullible!” The driver reminds you that the bus will leave within ten minutes. Approximately an hour later, the driver got behind the wheel, and we took off for the next destination. By nine in the evening we made Matura. I have been told when we arrived that this city is not “as advanced as the cities we have seen so far”. At least it was dark so it was hard to tell, but the smells coming from the street peddlers here confirmed this. The city of Matura boasts a temple which is said to be the birth place to Hari Krsna (that is not a spelling mistake). Goodie I thought! At the main entrance, I was reassured by a guard searching people. I asked the person accompanying me if they are looking for cameras, as we were given explicit instructions that there are is no picture taking allowed. He replied that they are looking for extremists from other religions carrying bombs. Maybe I’ll go quick and I will be out of my misery I thought. The temple is actually composed of several buildings. So off with the shoes again, and off to explore. Hari was one of seven siblings, and everyone had a place to stay. Hari’s just happen to be (according to legend) a prison! When I made it into the main temple, I looked around at all the beautiful art (no precious stones here, just paint) and saw all the people gathered there, I thought “They are more crazy here than in America”. Here they not only shave their heads and wear orange, they also make as much noise as possible. There were large bells everywhere. Paintings depicting various important moments in this religion were all over the walls. Various alcoves were scattered throughout, each for a different aspect of the “one God”. In different alcoves there were priests yelling out prayers, and in several splashing people with water. I was in the presence of true greatness, trying to ignore the thoughts of how many different diseases could possibly be in one single splash of water.

By this time of the day I was utterly exhausted, and losing patience with the beggars. The only thing that kept up my spirits was to see how many of the beggars that had swarmed me I could guide into the oncoming scooters with no lights. The temptation to stay awake and enjoy the sites on the trip back was overwhelmed by my hunger for some sleep. The driver woke me up in front of the hotel. I got off the bus and waved good bye to my companion. Even as tired as I was I looked first left and then right before crossing the street; I was immediatelly reminded by a car horn to look first right and then left, and crossed the street with a silent curse at the entire English empire.

As a closing thought I want to say that I very much enjoyed the stay that I had here. I can finally say that I have visited a third-world country. I am glad I came, but I have no desire to repeat this again in the future. Perhaps one day I will change my mind…..

New Delhi, India. April 10, 1999.


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