Friday, September 9, 2011

India- Part 4: The Taj and the Train

Since I'm going to have a new adventure very soon, and since I have plenty of old adventures to fill you in on, I thought it was time to "git r' dun". I mean, sheesh, took me long enough.

It was a cool, but very sunny Thursday morning. Me and my roomie had gotten up early to get some breakfast before our group headed out to see the grandest of grand things, the Taj Mahal. The beauty of going to see the sunrise over the Taj is not only in the obvious awesomeness of it, but in the fact that there was no line to wait in. We walked right in and right up the the big, beautiful building.

Photo Credit: Melia Metikos 2011
It was foggy out but that was probably one of my favorite parts of the morning. The quiet, stillness in the air as the sun rose. The eerie, yet loveliness of the Taj rising up out of the mist. Eventually we were rewarded with the sun clearing the fog and revealing the twinkle and glow of all the jewels embedded in the architectural masterpiece. While touring around, Raj told us that there was supposed to have been a black Taj Mahal directly across the river from the white one.  The white one had been built for the emperors wife based off of a dream she had one night of a majestic building. The black one was to be built for the emperor himself. The sandstone had already been laid there for the second one, but the son of the emperor thought his father had spent too much money and had him imprisoned. Now when you look across the river you have to imagine the dark copy layered over the sandstone, the only clue to it's long ago almost presence.

Before we left the Taj we took about one million and nine pictures, one of which was us all posing in the  Captain Morgan stance. Yes, we were those tourists. When I got home and looked through my pictures I found that a stranger had taken it upon himself to also do the post directly behind us. Hilarious! We then took off to go exploring around town a little more before we had to hit the road for our next adventure. 

We went to a place where they make statues out of marble, all hand made and very delicate.  We then went to Agra Fort where we got a little lesson on the Swastika. This whole time I had seen it as a bad sign, a horrible thing that symbolized an even more horrible event in time. Turns out the Swastika is an age old symbol used by many cultures and that - get this - it is actually a good, happy symbol for prosperity, good fortune, and protection. The word itself stands for "well-being".  Turns out Hitler liked it, took it and made it his own, tilting it to the side slightly so that the he could claim it for his own meaning. The things you learn when you travel!

While at the fort I became very famous with the locals. As mentioned in my India: Part 3 post, a little Indian girl had asked to stop and take a picture with me, which I thought was adorable. Well here at the Agra Fort a little boy's dad approached me and asked if I would pose with him. Of course I said yes, I mean how cute is that? Then, however, a line started to form. Now, when I say a line I don't mean like a little group of people who are watching. No, no. I mean a line of families, 20 people deep at least, all ready to go to take picture with me. At first I was confused, trying to figure out who the heck I looked like that would cause all these people to want a picture with me. Then I saw Raj laughing at me in the corner, which further confused and frustrated me. At one point I started to feel a little bit awkward as the line kept growing along with my new found popularity. I finally broke free, because our tour had to move on, and demanded that Raj tell me what the heck was so darn funny.

Turns out all of those people wanting to take my picture live out in the countryside where they most likely have never seen a white person. Not ever, so seeing one is a very rare and unusual occurrence. The way I dress and my light hair and eyes, all of it so foreign to their everyday life. I'm just as fascinated with them, all their beautiful bright clothes and heck, I'm taking pictures too, so why not let them do the same? It was actually quite flattering once I knew what was going on. I'm probably in someones photo album, just like they're in mine.
New Friends

Before we left town we saw the tomb of Itmad-ud-dullah, also know as the Baby Taj, as it looks just like the big one. Truth be told, this was one of my favorite stops of the whole trip. The tomb is beautiful and there's no one there, so you get it all to yourself. The grounds are big and open and in the far off corner there's a tower you can climb (not sure if you're supposed to but, uh, I did) where you get amazing views. I loved every second of it. 

On our way out of town, heading for the train station that would take us to Varanasi, we saw a group of people meditating in a field in the middle of nowhere. It. Was. Awesome. Just out in this grassy field, forming a circle, lead by who I assume was a guru of some kind on a stage (yes, a stage in the middle of nowhere). That night we stopped for dinner at an amazing little mom and pop type restaurant before we headed off to the Train Station of Terror.

I say this because of all the things we did, nothing was scary or uncomfortable until this point. First of all, it was almost midnight when our train was set to leave. Second, the train was running about 2 hours late due to the fog. Third, the train station was an open, outdoor place where people were nestled up sleeping along with the dozens of rats that infested the place. Plus, the restrooms were open, no ceiling, which meant the second floor of the train station could see straight down into the restrooms, so me and my bladder were out of luck. Now, all of that I can handle pretty well during the day, but something about having to deal with it in winter at night made it all so very unbearable. To top it off, this would also be the place I got stared at more than anywhere else. 

Earlier in the trip I had started to realize that I stood out a lot as a tourist and I didn't want to do that. Everyone there was so nice, but also a little wary of me, so I wanted them to know I appreciated them, their culture, and everything that I was experiencing. Instead of us just staring oddly at each other I would catch their eye first (on purpose), smile and nod, and see what they did. Almost every single time they smiled back and waved at me. It was an ice breaker of some kind and it worked. I did try Namaste-ing everyone, but the nod was much more effective when I didn't have much time to make an impact.

I had become accustomed to being looked at and wasn't offended or taken back by it at all at this point. I knew to expect it even. All my nodding worked like a charm the entire time up until this point. Again, maybe because it was nighttime, but no one seemed to want to nod or smile back. They just wanted to stare and it became uncomfortable to the point where I think Raj was even a little worried. Eventually everyone in our group kind of huddled around me and the suitcases, maybe for warmth, but more likely to break the stares. Around 1am a couple from Europe walked up and suddenly things seemed better. They were friendly, talkative, and managed to break the ice with everyone around us. All was well, for the time anyway.

The train didn't show up until 2am. We had been sitting outside with rats and cold weather for three hours. The original itinerary was for us to sleep away the night and wake up refreshed in a new city. Things clearly weren't going as planned. Plus, the train ride was the one thing I had been warned about over and over and over again by books and friends who had lived in India or travelled there. Women are not exactly safe on the train, not alone, and pickpockets abound there. 

Once the train arrived we all found our bunks, conveniently and unconvieniently located right by the entrance. I had the top bunk, Raj had the lower one, Mary and Tony had the one next to us and Sunita was a little bit down the aisle, but not far. Each bunk came with a pillow, sheets and a curtain that was to close around you giving you privacy. My bunk only had 1/3 of the portion of the curtain that it was supposed to have. I decided my head was the most important part to cover since it kept the light out and of course hid me in a way, so my midsection and lower half were in plain sight. Mind you, we were in first class. Plus, it was a tiny little bunk, and I'm fairly short, so tiny for me means it was really, really little. I attempted sleep, but after about an hour or so I woke up and had to pee. Of course.

You see, I have the worlds tiniest bladder. I am certain of this. I do drink a lot of water, but when I travel I plan things like this out better since I never know what my day holds. Regardless, it was about 3:30am or so and I had to pee like a pony. I was a little scared. We were right by the front door and the train kept stopping what seemed like every 15 minutes. A group of locals were talking and playing cards right outside my 1/3 curtain area. Of course during this particular time all of the "beware of being alone on the train" stories filled my head. I peeked out and realized that the bathroom was all the way down at the other end of the train. Hmm. Even though Raj was under my bunk and I could have woken him up, there was no way I would do that to the poor guy. But I was scared, especially after the staring contest at the train station earlier. I decided that I needed to appear badass so no one would mess with me, and this is what I came up with...

I'm on the top bunk which requires a little ladder to climb. I could either climb down OR I could jump down all martial arts like, elegant like a cat, and (in my mind) appear awesomely well equipped with self defense skills. I do have a purple belt in Kenpo, but that purple belt is from high school. I still like to think those were some good life skills that I attained and I do, admittedly, work out to Tae Bo sometimes just to get my speed bagger and roundhouse kicks in order. I'm pretty certain I have mad skillz, fo sho. OK, maybe not.

Anyway, I pushed my curtain aside, poised myself just right, and leapt. I actually landed just like I had planned and looked over my shoulder at the group of strangers with a look that said, "That's right. I got moves. Do not even think about messing with me." I then stood up and proceeded to the bathroom, the most awkward bathroom in the world with a window, mind you, with no curtain. Apparently whoever stole my curtain pieces took this one too. Also, one could not tell if this was a one way or two way window and we were of course at a stop at the particular time I chose to use the restroom. Lucky me.

I went back, decided I was never going to sleep, and whipped out my Nook. This was probably the smartest purchase I had bought for this trip. It literally saved me that night. I read, I kid you not, four or five Nook books on that eight hour get-your-rest turned thirteen hour wide-awake train ride. I also had to pee two more times that night and with each time I tried to do my kung fu leap down to the ground. Unfortunately, each leap looked less and less awesome, and by the last one I was looking like a fool. I totally biffed it and gave up all hope of looking badass. Instead I just went about my way praying I had fooled them good that first time. Several hours later we finally arrived at our destination super, super late and also kind of smelly.

Related Posts
India Part 3: Jaipur and Agra
India Part 2: Delhi
India Part 1: The People You Meet

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