Doug & Mom: 3/17/99

Agra, India
Wednesday, 3/17/99
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Here's the latest since the update I sent from Agra yesterday morning. After this, it will be at least a couple of days until we can check e-mail, maybe longer (we don't know what to expect in Amritsar, so may need to wait until Dharamsala to catch up on e-mail).

Yesterday and today we had lunch at an exotic restaurant here in Agra: Pizza Hut! They've opened a location near the Taj Mahal, with only chicken meat and mostly veggie food, and we loved it. The service is very western -- fast and friendly, and accurate too. These are not givens in the other places we've eaten. I guess after 18 days on the road we're getting homesick, if Pizza Hut seems this much fun. They were even playing Foo Fighters on the jukebox, to make us feel like we were back in Schaumburg at the mall.

At the other end of the scale, I saw the inside of an Indian post office for the first time yesterday. It was crowded, dark, and confusing, sort of like the train stations. I was trying to get some stamps with the Taj Mahal on them, and had a rikshaw driver (Amin) along to help explain. We went to one line, he explained some things in Hindi, then we went to another line, then they directed us to an open counter where a man came over, took my money, and returned with some stamps depicting a baby drinking a drop of water. Oh well. Maybe in Delhi I'll have better luck on that one. Nope -- we never did find Taj Mahal stamps, so maybe they aren't available.

Here's something we did yesterday afternoon which I highly recommend to anyone who visits the Taj Mahal. You have to be in a small rikshaw for this one, because you go through roads that are too narrow for even a single small car, but it's well worth it ... go across the Yamuna River and through the tiny poor village of Nagla Kachhpura to the river bank "behind" the Taj. That is, north of it. We did this, and in addition to getting an interesting view of the Taj Mahal that's rarely seen, it was an amazing cultural experience. There were people singing and chanting, people living in a huge tent camp, women and children washing clothes in the polluted river and playing in the mud, many farm animals, and we were the only outsiders anywhere in sight. Except for the dozens of tourists at the Taj itself, just across the river. And there is a life-size statue of Dr. Ambedkar hidden in the trees near the river on that side, with a holy man standing guard nearby (Mom talked to him while I took pictures). For those who don't know the name ... Dr. Ambedkar is the man who was the spiritual leader of the Dalits (the lowest poorest caste) in the 50's and convinced millions of them to convert to Buddhism in protest against the Hindu caste system. So of course he's worshipped in that tiny poor village across the river from the Taj.

Last evening, we went to a jewelry shop where I got into a discussion with the owner, Ram Singh, which may lead to some interesting things in Amritsar. Ram is a Sikh, so he was interested to hear about our plans to go to the Golden Temple in Amritsar this weekend. His brother happens to be the IG (Inspector General, like our chief of police) for the city of Amritsar, and Ram is making arrangements for us to stay at the "circuit house" in Amritsar (at no charge) as guests of his brother. This is the place where visiting politicians stay. After that, we're going to stay at the Golden Temple itself, where they have a credo that any visitor from another culture can stay up to 3 days at no charge, with free food. So we won't spend any money on hotels in Amritsar, and it should be an interesting pair of experiences. I joked to one of Ram's employees that "the taxi driver sure won't try to rob us, if we're going to the police chief's address," and he said "he probably will be afraid to even charge you anything at all" and then they all laughed. Should be interesting. These comments now look naive in hindsight -- we would later learn that things weren't what they seemed with these guys.

Today we went to the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, which was pretty interesting. There's a mosque there that Akbar designed to be a combination of Muslim, Hindusim, and Christianity, and it has architectural elements from all three styles: Muslim arches, Hindu terraces, and Catholic-church-style domes, for example. One little thing really bummed us out on the way there, though: many dancing bears along the road. These are sloth bears that have had red-hot skewers drilled through their noses, then wires are run through those holes and they're taught that the only way to alleviate the agonizing pain is to stand up and "dance." Typical circus-type stuff, and very depressing. I told our driver that it made me mad, but I think he thought I meant the prices made me mad, because he explained that they charge so much for photos of the bears because they're all from Rajhastan. (and, presumably, Rajhastanis are cheap or something).

After that, we went to see Akbar's Tomb at Sikandra, which was huge and impressive, but we've seen so many huge impressive buildings that they're all starting to run together a bit. It will be nice to get away to the Punjab tomorrow, where they say it's greener and cleaner ... we have 14 hours of train ride to get there, and after that we only have short train rides during the day for the rest of the trip.

More later - Doug & Mom

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