Monthly Archives: May 2009

A moment of silence, please

We hired a car to take use from Agra to Kanpur, where I would be visiting the Indian Institute of Technology doing some work for CReSIS for the next week. I was excited to see the countryside. The train had come too late to the station that all we had seen during our ride were the fluorescent lights of houses and passing cities.

Except, there really is no “middle of nowhere” in India. Some is always selling something or chugging along on their bicycle, carrying impossible loads of everything. Even when cities seem kilometers apart and clearly we are speeding past farmland at 80 mph, shacks line the road. Along the way, it was obvious that the rural isolation of Kansas doesn’t translate here. And I have yet to count beyond 10 in between car horns, even in the countryside.

This part of the highway was called the Grand Trunk, or GT Road. It begins in Pakistan and extends all the way to Calcutta. The government recently renovated this road as a part of its Golden Quadrilateral initiative. Last year, I completed a semester project for my metaphor theory course on this road. Riding on the highway completely edified that all-nighter. The term “commuter village,” which Western media coined to describe mass amounts of people commuting on the highway between cities each day for better work, took a new meaning when a multiple buses crammed full of Indians careening between the roadway lines nearly hit us, or us them.

All the way, we saw women sitting side-saddle on motorcycles behind men. They steady themselves with poised, straight backs and dainty hands placed on the motor in back. They remain motionless even as their hair whips from their golden berets and their drivers weave between everyone. Farther off, in the fields, two or three figures in bright red, pink, blue, move through corn or lounge in the shade of a tree. These solid drops of beauty against the red clay brick masonries, the dull brown of the fields, and the cracked grey buildings appear unexpected but not out of place.

While in Kanpur, we took the highway again, this time on a day trip to Lucknow which is a city about 2 hours north. On our return, our driver suddenly stopped. Although the road congestion seems awful everywhere, we have only gotten stuck in an actual traffic jam one time before. Now, a train was coming.

I have never seen this place so silent. Cars idled. A few people roamed about, bored. A beggar in red tatters sat near an intersection, hand extended. When we returned to Lucknow a few days later to catch a flight, he sat in the same place deserted.

The train whizzed past in no time. The minute the tracks bars lifted, every single vehicle started honking, as if on a laugh track. Those unencumbered in the front lines honked for the sake of happiness. Those at the very back honked in frustration. All those in between honked because suddenly they couldn’t wait idle another single minute. We joined into with our own beeping refrain. We twisted into some impossible space between two large trucks, and it was off again into the loud, mad journey of India.

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Taj Tourism

Agra feels like a tourist town. The first thing anyone asks you is, “Have you seen the Taj Mahal yet?” Marble shops selling miniature Tajs (usually fake alabaster, be warned) are a dime-a-dozen, and everything Taj as a prefix. Taj Inn. Taj Restaurant. Taj Oil. Taj Tailors. Taj Taj.

The city has shut down all of the factories around the Taj because the pollution is tarnishing the marble. How much this contributes to the poverty in and around the city, I cannot tell. Factories would provide jobs for more thousands, but preserving the pride of the city takes precedence, even as its foundation crumbles. Piece by piece, the marble is replaced in the Taj every year. From the platform of the Taj, you can see the river and field below as they must have existed for thousands of years, until the Taj imposed, and later the Agra Fort beyond. A farmer herds his cattle along the banks. Men bath and wash their clothing. It’s a toss-up between survival and spirit. People must live and eat, but the Taj glows on the outskirts of the city and in the glint of every shopkeeper’s eye.

One way they have revived employment is through the “Save the Taj” project. We visited a carpet-making factory involved with this system. Artists in the city sketch and color the designs, and then send them to women in surrounding villages, the “weaker sector” as our tour guide called it, for creation. Every string is tied and cut by hand on a loom by these women. Months of work day in day out.

We also toured a marble shop. When the Taj was being built, marble carvers from all over the country migrated to Agra to contract out their skills. They stayed in Agra after the fact, and descendants from these families continue in the same fashion. We watched as a carver shaved down stones of alabaster, ruby, and turquoise to millimeters. He formed them into intricate shapes. Afterwards, he will apply a clear film of tape to fuse together all the parts of the peacock, the flower, or whatever shape he was creating. Another carver was chiseling out the spaces for these pieces in the marble slab. “It takes 10 years to become a master of this,” our guide said.

“What happens if the hole is made too shallow and the pieces stick up roughly from the surface?” I asked.

He didn’t seem to get the logic of my question. “It never happens,” he stated.

He led us through a gallery of table tops and boxes and I wanted it all. But, I knew knowledge of process and the group of all the designs made them more beautiful than they would be in my living room. He divined our birth stones. Mine was the black star stone – a symbol of love, peace of mind, and success. A fine progression, the last one especially good for his business.

In true tourism form, we scurried out after taking pictures, giving our insincere apologies for not buying a single thing.

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Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal looks photo shopped even in person. Its creamy imposition seems impossible; a mirage. Then the sun opens up on it from the clouds, and you think, I wish I would have brought a hat, it sure is hot out here.

The building’s pieces are as varied as its visitors. The builders used marble from all edges of the world to construct its looped flowers and indecipherable script designs.

I couldn’t stop taking pictures of it even though I knew all of my photos were false ideas of the thing. It’s maddening to know you can only capture something amazing in its purest form with just your shoddy memory. Perhaps this what drove Shah Jahan to spend 22 years reconstructing his love for Mumtaz Mahal in building form. Then again, the pixilation on my camera is also pretty awful.

I will add some pictures once the internet connection here stops rejecting me.

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The City of Love

We spent our time in Agra lounging in the shaded outdoor restaurant. We read, we walked around barefoot, and we petted the emaciated kitten who tickled our feet while eating. This is the sort of safety and relaxing we expected from our few weeks of vacation before school. We ask the manager to rent us a car or send some more mineral water up to the room, and he says slowly, “Don’t worry chicken curry,” and our request is filled.

Sounds of the city float in from the street – someone playing or singing a song, cows mooing, clamor of a cart, the generator that sits next to the street kicking in. On our last night in Agra, I was sitting in the courtyard reading in the waning light and I heard a louder commotion echoing closer. I went to investigate.

“What is that?” I asked a group of hotel employees chatting in a circle of lawn chairs.


I rushed upstairs to tell the others and grab my camera. As we are leaving, the boy who brings us water was waiting near the door.

“You must be very careful,” he warned, sternly. “The men will be much drunk and may cross over the street to greet you. Do not talk to them.” Again, the aid and protection of strangers surfaces at the most unexpectedly important times. This hotel especially has undertaken our well-being with vigor.

What approached us in the dark was like a moving vigil, but with trombones. Men marched blowing into brass instruments and holstered bass drums. Their notes blended with music emitted from speakers attached to a shiny cart leading the procession. Among the musicians others carried swinging bright lanterns, four per pole. The groom sat sternly upon a horse near the back of the train. Illuminated by the lanterns, his face remained somber among the swirl of beats and laughs and colored robes. Behind him a circular light show spun its colors, also on wheels. Truly, a wheel of fortune.

“Agra is the City of Love,” the jovial silver shop owner had said to us earlier in the day.  Our departure was full of it, both ours for the city and in this unexpected march of vows.

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We weren’t planning to go to the Baby Taj Mahal. Everything about it screams deflation: the name, the size, the kitsch. But our driver insisted, and we hadn’t gotten up at 6 am for nothing. So we paid our 150 rupees.

The rubble and stitch of the city outside evaporated as soon as we entered its walled parameters. The Baby Taj is breathtaking. Its intricate marble embellishment compensates for what its miniature size lacks. Every surface of the building is carved with decoration. It towers over the river below; from the front, the face of the earth drops off and its white outline superimposes against the morning blue sky. The lawn is maintained. Water pools in small aqueducts drawn like the visitors in lines to the temple and the mosques on either side. In these places, you can tell why they are sacred.

For more years than I care to admit, I had the misconception that buildings in India didn’t have doors. I mean, they don’t really. The temples like these are mostly open-air arches, and sticks and spare cloth comprise the shanties surrounding them. Of course the modern buildings have doors and locks and it’s not as if like we have just been camping out on free concrete slabs this whole time.

However, the free structure of the Baby Taj, and of the other temples and tombs we have visited, invites communion from anyone, anytime. I glide through the rooms of the dead, which somehow repel the light and heat and noise. I run my hands over the fading flower collages and the chipped marble. I don’t know who is buried in the raised white tombs. What I am recalling in this portal is not the dead, but my own thoughts. I try to gather them for later use. Every moment, even in the present, is an act of remembering

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The Great Railway Bizarre Part 4

The train ride to Agra lasted 5 hours, and we alternated turns sleeping to keep a watch for our stop, lest we miss it. The train ran through the night. Only the headlights of cars hauling cattle on parallel highway and the father’s snores punctuated the dark cabin. The night passed quickly and without consequence.

We departed the train at the Raji-Ki-Mandi station at approximately 5:00 am. The train had stopped near rough-looking platforms, but multiple people told us this was Agra, so we grabbed our belongings and rushed off the train with the same bustle in which we had boarded. A ways down we found the small station, and we passed the haggard men sleeping on bench to sit in the waiting area. Multiple rickshaw drivers had come to solicit to us, but we knew the place we were staying in Agra would sent a driver to us.

When we called, however, the hotel employee said they had sent their only driver to the Agra Cantt station to meet us, which we were actually supposed to get off on after this station. We had thought this was the Agra Cantt station, and related our mistake and frustration and mostly abandonment of the last 24 hours to him as best as we could. After two pushy, angry calls, we got him to send the driver, so we went outside to wait. In the half-hour since we had arrive, the misty, rough station had transformed into a hub of activity and the sun shone brightly already.

We waited on the steps until our half-closed eyes saw, like an enchanting dream, a rickshaw driver distinguished himself from the pack of those circling the exit. A tall, handsome, well-dressed, but very thin man, he was holding up a paper with ANNETTE written in big sharpie letters. I cannot describe how comforting it was to see one of our names affirmed in English, correctly written and pronounced, among the current and very recent madness. For once, our fate had a direction, a little steering wheel, and a bright yellow top.

We nearly hugged the man as he shoved our backpacks in the rickshaw.

“Your train was grand late,” he observed.

“I know it,” we exclaimed nearly in unison.


The last twenty-four hours obliterated, and our sense of time seemed to reset as we sped through Agra. People and animals roamed the town already before 6. As if from a fairy tale, camels tugged carts through the streets and monkeys stared back at us with their stout grey faces as they played along the tops of the walls.

Soon we reached our hotel. Having fallen head over heels with dizzying frustration after an entire day of little to no help, when the man at the front desk offered to show us the room first before paying and told us that we had free internet, running water, a generator to back up during power outages, we feel head over heels in love right then and there with Agra.


He led us through a gardened, quiet courtyard, cloistered from the street noise, and up a white tiled staircase to our room. When we were stranded in Delhi, I thought I would never see a mattress again. Although the hotel is about as standard as a Motel 6 in America, we felt like we had uncovered a treasure chest of comfort and we nearly etherized ourselves onto the beds right then and there. I have never been so happy to see cracked, white-wash walls, and a toilet seat with a seal reading, “This toilet has been disinfected for your protection.” For our sanity, really.

P1060071 Agra

hotel FOOD


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The Great Railway Bizarre Part 3

Although the time approached 10 pm, the station still bustled as it had when we arrived at 1 pm. However, the stares increased with the night, and stray dogs circled our bags. We were not unsafe, I knew, with so many people around, but we just wanted some answers and literally no one was left to give them to us. Of course, why should anyone concern themselves with our troubles when we ignored beggars in the middle of it? And of all the times I had given uncertain directions to foreigners in America, I couldn’t blame anyone except my own language barrier.

We decided to go into the Ladies Waiting Room, which was near the entrance. We had written if off before because of its location, and seemingly decrepit condition. However, when we poked our heads in, we found a plasma TV screen with all the information on any train that we could have used all day. We wearily sat down, and tried to decide what we should do for the night. Our train’s arrival time kept bumping back by the half hour ever half hour. We determined staying overnight in the train station would be foolish and dangerous and made a string of calls to local hotels to get a cab to pick us up and stay in this mad town for another night.

I was sitting in the waiting room with all of our baggage after Annette and Anne had left to make some more calls down the platform at the STD phone (STD stands for Standard Trunk Dialing, but it is still strange to say). I casually glanced up at the tv screen, and saw the 1450. For the last hour, it had read Status: Delayed Arrival. I didn’t process the truncated version at first then, when it the screen displayed 1450: Arriving.


After 10 hours, the train would of course arrive at the exact and only moment we really separated. I started in fits, looking confused and frantic at our luggage. The British voice announced it too, but I knew Anne and Annette were too occupied and resigned to be listening. I looked down the hallway to see if they were rushing back, but I knew I would have to come to them.

I started cursing, quietly by desperately, while attempting to pack our three backpacks, one duffel bag, a camera case, and a purse onto my one person.  Of all times! I couldn’t do it myself. Two young Indian women had been chatting across from me, and I turned to them with my crazy eyes and exhauled, “Do you speak English??” Yes, a nodded, for the third time all day. I explained that I had been waiting for my train for 10 hours and my friends just left, and could one of them maybe help me carry a backpack down to the phone?

One of them immediately jumped up and grabbed a backpack. She also grabbed at the water bottles and chips that I had intended to abandon for the sake of occupied hands. I bolted off, and she followed after offering to take another backpack. “I am so sorry, they are so heavy. Thank you, thank you, I am so glad you speak English! You are the most wonderful human being,” I shouted back as I ran as fast as I could.

I shouted “It’s coming! It’s here!” at Anne and Annettes small forms in the distance, while bobbing up and down with the weight of the luggage. Anne apparently turned to Annette, saying “That looks a lot like your backpack…” after just relating between each other their utter frustration. Anne then recognized me and ran to greet my shouts, and Annette followed shortly after. The man at the STD boothm, having witnessed our plight via telephone for the last hour, gave her a thumbs up as we rushed up the stairs.

“But we don’t even know if it is departing!” shouted Annette to me, sensibly.

“I don’t care! I just want to see it! I just want to know it exists!” I yelled, pushing through the ever constant throng of people.

We reached Platform 7 and rushed down the stairs. There was no train. We stopped for a moment, and I looked right. Farther down the tracks, I saw a line of green cars.

“There!” I shouted, and we were off again. Anne managed to get a few yards ahead, where I couldn’t see her. Annette lagged behind, burdened by the duffel bag. “I am not running,” she said, flatly. I mediated between the two, screaming madly, “Anne! Anne! Wait!” certainly to the amusement of every Indian waiting on the platform.

Somehow, we all caught up to each other, and Anne was already accosting a train employee. “1450? Agra?”

“Yes, yes.”

She pulled out our ticket, which by now was ripped and tattered from all the folding and pointing and running.

“Sorry…it is kind of sweaty. You were supposed to be here at 2:15?”

“Yes,” the man said, trying to suppress his weariness, too.


“That way.

At 11:00, we board our train, after verifying in all possible ways that we were on the correct train to the correct city, and we wouldn’t be thrown off halfway to Agra.

Somehow in the rush, we found our berth. As soon as we sat down, I started laughing uncontrollably. “It exists! It exists!” I cried. I knew whatever little thread of information we had clung onto for the last 10 ½ hours could not have gone to waste.

on the train

We were sharing our berth, which included 8 seats, with a small Indian family – mother, father, and daughter. The girl could not have been more than 3, and she smiled to us constantly but would not even shyly say hello. Their timidity counterbalanced our commotion. After literally throwing our bags down, we relived the experience in quick, exasperated, amused breaths to my voice recorder. When the ticket counter came around, the father helped us certify our places, and we gushed at him for his kindness. Even though I doubt he understood our words, our sweaty, relieved faces spoke it better.

We got settled into our mattresses, which jut out of the sides of the compartment like shelves, three high.

“Is that smell your handkerchief?” asked Anne to Annette.

“No…its my feet,” she observed.

“Who votes we keep our shoes on?” Anne said. We all raised our hands, and if the family could have really heard us, they would have too.

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