Mandy and Jon's Journey 2005 travel blog













The crown-jewel of India's tourism industry, and not to mention one of the true man-made wonders of the world - the Taj Mahal. Agra, the town it calls home, is centered around this fabulous mausoleum and with good reason more people visit this place than any other in India. For this reason we almost thought of sidestepping it for the moment, but logic and geography made it ideal to see it now, before we headed out to Rajastan. We are glad we went when we did and of all the places that are 'must see' this was perhaps the most must-see-able.

The train from Delhi was a pleasant mid-afternoon affair, and as we went on a local mail train and sat in general seating we received a nice dose of what most Indians experience when they travel the rail lines. An open seating arrangement with two lower birth benches which face eachother with two additional upper births that are mainly used for luggage. Sometimes, however, when the train gets (more) overcrowded you will see people crammed into these upper seats in cramped fashion. Mandy and I sat opposite one another, each of us pinched between the three other people who shared our bench. One other traveller, a very nice guy named Jon, several single middle-aged Indian men, and an older couple who were forced out of their seats about half way down the line. Across the compartment we witnessed an aggressive exchange between two men who were in competition for the same seat. Both spoke in opposing native languages and one of the nice men next to us explained that one of the men was from the South of India had no idea what the other was saying, and vice versa. They haggled over their respective tickets for some time before an agreement of a sort was bridged. We watched all this out of the corner of our eyes, but mostly we just watched out the open windows to see the dusty country side roll by.

The rains are now gone from this part of India and already the earth has dried and dust lifts up anywhere there is a wind or traffic. The communities you see from the train are often the most poor and it is common to see the huge refuse piles that are concentrated near the tracks where large cows and pigs, and often enough young children, pick through for scraps for this or that. The tracks also serve as communal toilets and you couldn't count on your fingers and toes the number of evacuation displays that we saw on a simple two hour journey. But also, you see the communities beyond the filth of the outskirts - boys playing cricket in an open field, men smiling and smoking on the small crest of a hill, young girls gathered around together giggling, and the women washing or cooking or tending to a crying child. You wouldn't think that joy could occur in some places like this, but always you do and the happiness is that shared experience that neither poverty, filth, or want can prevent. To witness these events, as we speed by on a long rumbling train, is a strange way to take in the spirit of this country, but I think it must be one of the only ways to begin the process of understanding a country as diverse, foreign, and majestic as India. Perhaps it is a country, that for people like me, only makes sense from a moving train. Anyway.

Arriving in Agra we feared the onslaught of the notorious touts and over-eager rickshaw drivers in the tourist focused town. To be sure they were there, and it didn't take Mandy long to spot several young men who put their greedy eyes on us from the moment we stepped to the platform. Our new friend, Jon, was travelling alone so we invited him to join us for a ride to the hotel. We got a bounced a bit by this driver and that driver, but it wasn't nearly so bad as I expected - nothing so bad as our arrival in Siem Reap in Camboia. We found the prepaid booth without trouble, and the three of us split a cab to the Shanti Lodge without incident.

At our hotel we enjoyed a bucket shower and then a late lunch on the rooftop restaurant where we were greeted by our first glimpse of the Taj. And what a glimpse. The Shanti was a deal not only for its inexpensive rooms, but for its unbeatable view. We ate lunch, and enjoyed our first Indian beers, with an unspoiled and dramatic view of this architectural beauty. In fact the rest of the afternoon and into sunset was enjoyed with Jon and a handful of KingFishers as we relaxed and took in the free view.

We were to bed early, though, in hopes of an early rise to see the Taj at sun up. The alarm clock (always an enemy at home) was nice enough to get us up just at dawn and the entrance was a only a short walk. We skipped even breakfast so as to be sure we didn't miss what we hoped to be the best light. Now, if it hasn't been said, India is a polluted country and the haze that hangs over Agra is thicker than a New England fog. This being said, and cognizant of the environmentalists out there, the haze does something to the morning sky that is hard to replicate with natural air. It holds the color of the sun like a clothesline and perhaps in combination with the fine marble with which the Taj is made that morning light is truly otherwordly. Because the Taj is raised on a large twenty meter base that whole building looks like it is floating. It is this that gives it such astounding presence, I think. It is certainly the reason that it is so photogenic. And speaking of photogenic, I would be interested to know the number of photographs taken of this building in one year, indeed, over all time. The number would be astounding. (anyone who wants to see all photos we took can come over for a weekend and see sometime.)

But also, the photos say it alot. We'll put up a few so you can see. The only thing they don't say is what an experience it is to walk around the complex and see its enormity and magnificence up close. It is truly the most impressive structure I have ever seen. It is simple, elegant, and a symbol of man's beauty. Of course, I imagine much of the work was done by slaves, or at least poorly paid craftsman, but that injustice withstanding it is a monument built in the name of love, and if I was to be a slave or a poorly paid marble-cutter I would little rather my labor be used for anything else. In any event, now that it does exist I hope it always does, and if you ever get a chance to see it for yourself, certainly do.

I mean, you simply 'must see' it.

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