Taj Mahal

A journey back to north India, a mind running in place

Though my steam was running low by the end, the students and I agreed that the trip was a bit of a mental recharge to engage with where we were living. I spent many hours chatting with the students about their upcoming first graduation ceremony, gender inequality in India, and traveling solo as a female around the world. I pretended to be a guru in a cave on the train, accepting students into my lair (joining me in my double seat) for questions about life and happiness. My answers were usually, "Write about it!"

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On a trip dripping with solitude, I surprisingly felt very little in terms of personal, all-encompassing, heavy-hearted loneliness. Although, those rare times [when I did feel the weight] were compressed into quick moments that were scattered at key points on the trip. New beginning moments. Big change moments. To strap on my backpack and walk out of that Delhi apartment was sad; it was a lonely moment. After being in India for two weeks, I was finally without friends and headed towards the obligatory stops, those which I dreaded but found necessary for sanity's and discussion's sake down the road. I could have stayed in Delhi and done the city right. I hadn't yet seen one monument. I had no idea what the inside of their museums looked like. But I had met some great people, some of which hung over the balcony to watch and wave as I took my first steps from the complex stairwell into the 'turd minefields' known as streets.

Starting to clomp like a Clydesdale in my normal backpacking fashion, I began blazing the trail towards the main chowk before I gazed upwards at Mudi looking down on me. A man of my age with his own business, living in one of the harshest cities in the world, having experienced the mercurial stability of his home state Kashmir during its worst times…what this guy must already know. My knowledge paled in comparison, and though I was walking away to no one and nothing I cared about, I set out to, once again, live another day searching for sustainability, enlightenment, and a good time. I jumped on a train, stared at a blank journal page, and waited for Agra to roll up.

Being immersed in an environment where English is the language minority has its many obvious downfalls for we, the Western travelers. However, because of this acceptance [that I cannot and will never be able to understand those around me], I have learned how to ignore people…really well. I mean if I were to exhibit my skills for casting directors, I'd give it 48 hours before I received a film role as a woman who had eternity's most annoying ghost following her with persistent questions around the clock. I showcased my best work while disembarking the train in Agra. A man spotted my silhouette from a mile away, massive backpack towering over my head on the back, little backpack attached like a pregnant belly in the front, and tried to lead me towards his taxi. Since I knew exactly where I needed to go to find the honest answers, I paid no attention, never made eye contact, and plastered a permanent, unwavering half smile on my face (so he didn't find me completely unfriendly). As it turns out, my best options was to ride with this man, only after, of course, he knew I was aware of the resident scams. His tour offers were friendly but not in touch with the nature of my day…I wanted to get into the Taj and get out...fast.

I had him drop me at the mouth of the crap hole they call the Taj Ganj area, which holds cheap hostels, eateries, and souvenir shops surrounding the Taj gates. Every old man with red, rotting teeth and a cycle rickshaw surrounded me and tried to give me a ride to a café I was searching for. After walking for five minutes with a persistent little boy at my side, trying to sell me a hotel room for $2, I gave into one of the cyclists because, as Neil Young would put it, the heat was hot. The winning cyclist who won my business offered a ride for 2 rupees. I laughed at his audacity to sell me a ride for virtually 5/6th of a cent but gave him the chance to be honest and not take me to the hundreds of stores where he would receive a commission. I warned him with a smile to be honest. "Be honest, please. I'm surprised you would take me for so little when I refuse to go shopping." Since many Indian entrepreneurs don't hesitate to scam and most have big hearts (an odd combination to our way of thinking), it's easy to see through their schemes by reading their turned faces and diverted eyes. I crawled out the back of his rickshaw in pounding traffic, and he pedaled away, calculating his potentially lucrative loss.

And you thought this post would be about the Taj. Well let me tell you...Agra is the pits, and going it alone and on a dirt cheap budget takes a bit of the magic out of going to that most magnificent of human shrines to love. I truly wanted to see the palace but dreaded going there because I knew exactly what was going to happen. This crap. Slimy sales pitches, the grit of scammer India, and the ridicule for being a white woman alone and without the desire to obliviously spend my funds. But this is no gripe session. I had the money to pay for a personal tour around the Taj and the Taj Ganj area. I could have paid one person to tell me the shrine's story, take numerous pictures of me with the domes beyond, and cover both of our elaborate 4 star meals…all for about $25 or less. India is a completely different world where necessity, logic, reason, assumptions, common courtesies...everything is turned around. Not only was I trying to compensate for spending a foot thick wad for my Kashmir trek, but I could see millions living in squalor around me. I could feel a potential pit of sickness in me, based on the knowledge that I was spending thousands to see the world while over 98% of the world could never be granted the privilege. The world doesn't make sense. The world is unfair. At times I acted in ways I knew were completely unnecessary…such as putting myself through unnecessary crap. This is your mind. This is your mind in India.

After finding a place to store my bags and something fizzy to guzzle, I went to the Taj Mahal. I walked in and smiled at the tour groups and visiting Indian families. I graciously said "no" to offers for tours and photographs. I clicked my camera and ignored the glares from surrounding people at my long shorts (I neglected to opt for a costume change that would have made me more common in these parts). The Taj was white and marble; its detail immaculate and mind-boggling for the time period. I could whirl up a big stink about its awe and grandeur, but it wouldn't be an different than the things you've heard before. Pull open your history book or a Frommer's guide for a wordy description. If this stop were one of my firsts on this entire trip, I'm sure I could have said a lot more. But at this point, it seemed to me that the Taj is what it is. It didn't transcend the air of a tourist trap. You know what I say? I want to see it covered in snow. Let's warm the Earth up a little more, whack India's climate around a smidge, and then revisit the big ol' mausoleum. Now THAT would truly be a beautiful vista.

With many hours to spare before my night train to Varanasi, I went out to dinner on a rooftop overlooking the timeless onion domes. I ordered my usual club soda with lime refresher and laughed internally at chance, nostalgia, and fate. A half hour before, I was leaving the Taj when I heard English…and saw polos…and caught in the corner of my eye a handmade paper sign that said "Mom," "Dad," or "Giving"…whichever word was allotted to the India port of call. Yes. I saw SASers. The Fall 2008 voyage of Semester at Sea had docked in Chennai the day before, and the entire country was crawling with American college girls and boys aimed at taking rad pictures of themselves with the historic, the strange, and the desolate with signs that say "Thank you, Mom and Dad, for giving me the World." Darling. Wearing my MV Explorer shirt on that day by chance, I got many lingering stares from kids begging their friends to use their cameras for sunset shots of the Taj and their perfect chicklets. "Is she on the ship?" No, my babies. Don't mind me. I am the ghost of travel future. Carry on, and come find me in a year when the bug sends you back to find your successors. Sitting aloft a rooftop in Agra, I felt like I had done the unthinkable. I was traveling around the world by myself. The two girls sitting near me at the restaurant identified me as a SASer and further affirmed this growing feeling in me. True, I was becoming ungrateful and jaded by this point (damn you, over-stimulated mind!), but talking to budding travel enthusiasts about the accessibility of the world was fulfilling. I felt like I was opening some minds. I was probably just grossing them out by my pizza face and stanky apparel. One of the two…

My on-going ticket to Varanasi left from a non-Agra station. I had to find a way to some city that started with a 'T' about 20km away. Hmm…what would Emily Post do? Put on her white gloves and ask the doorman to hail her a cab, which would whisk her off to the station's entrance where a previously informed, first-class railroad attendant would wheel her hat boxes into a silk carpet lined cargo space and her into a stylish dining car with Kenny G on sax? Ok.

What would a cheap-o do? I'll tell you.

A cheap-o would hail an auto rickshaw, intertwine their arms around both backpacks to avoid drive-by muggings, inquire poker playing bus officials at the station about the next bus out, sit, waiting, next to 80 year old nearly naked, sleeping men, board a bus for $0.20 and proceed to be squeezed into the back corner by a family of women and sleeping children, brace themselves on a 40 minute ride in an awkward position dangerously near a women's airing armpit, crawl over said sleeping children with failing muscles almost dropping 40 lb. bags on their faces, throw themselves out of the bus towards another auto rickshaw already packed with six bodies, and somehow end up at the back entrance of the train station where the scheduled train isn't ready to leave for hours. Man…what a cheap-o will do to save about $5.

Once again…this is your mind…in India.