The Ultimate Monument of Love

Trip Start Aug 26, 2008
Trip End Dec 14, 2008

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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Thursday, October 30, 2008

I know at least a few of you reading this now have heckled me for my slow posting of this blog. There were a lot of factors that contributed to the delay of the India blog. Tests, papers, short inter-port intervals between countries, and various other activities that either occupied my time or distracted me. However, as much as those inconvenienced me, I think there is a more important factor that really prevented me from writing it until now. The truth is I didn't really know how or what to say to explain my time in India. India is the most visceral place I've ever experienced and nothing I say or describe will do justice to my travels through India. The country has to be experienced, more than any other country India has to be seen, heard, felt, smelt, and even tasted. India actually has a distinct smell and taste that I will never forget. It was the first thing we all experienced the morning of breakfast before we were allowed to disembark from the ship. It is sort of a sweet smell, but riddled with a million other foul aromas, that create this scent that can only be described as India. A smell that stuck with my clothes for a decent amount of time even after a wash. The smell was only the beginning of a truly unique encounter of the country that left many students with intense culture shock. There were only two responses to India; love or hate. There are no middle grounds and while there were many students who did hate India, there were many more that loved it; I was one in the latter category.
My plans for India sort of appeared hap-hazardly. I had wanted to go to the Taj Mahal and the holy city of Varanasi at first. I decided to cancel that trip prior to my departure to weigh a few other options before committing to a trip. After South Africa I had changed my course of action and decided I wanted to explore Mumbai and Goa, both west coast cities that are uniquely Indian but with very different cultures from the rest of the country. I began looking for someone who wasn't already participating in a SAS sponsored trip to the Taj. Finding people was a much harder task than it had been in other countries, because traveling in India is complicated and usually unreliable, many students decided to forego the hassles and just ride along with SAS. I eventually did find someone whom I had known briefly on the ship named Dan. We hung out once or twice in South Africa, but he is a Sigma Chi from Purdue University. We met earlier in the voyage, but didn't realize until South Africa that we have actually met each other before at fraternity conferences. The irony of how small the world is keeps beating me over the head throughout this trip. So Dan and I discussed travel plans to Mumbai and Goa just a day or two before we were supposed to dock in India. Then the night before we were going to port Dan and I decided to change our plans and became ambitious enough to try to pull off our own Taj and Varanasi trip. We booked a ticket for the first day to Delhi, which is a few hours north of Agra where the Taj is. We didn't know how we were going to get there or what exactly we were going to do there, but we decided to put some time constraints on ourselves because we also booked another flight from Delhi for the second day to Varanasi. So we had to land in Delhi and figure out how to travel to and from Agra while still leaving enough time to see the Taj and other areas of Agra in less than 18 hours in order to make our second flight to Varanasi.
But before our flight left from Chennai Dan and I teamed up with Sarah, Flynn, and Brad and decided to head into the city in Chennai for a little shopping and some lunch. I have never traveled in a rickshaw before India, and I don't think I've ever actually seen one prior to Chennai. But the rickshaw is the main mode of transportation in and around Indian cities due to the dense population and the ease with which these things can travel through crowds. Plus they are cheaper than renting taxis. For our first adventure into the city we were a little pressed for time so we opted to take a cab, but it was so amazing seeing all these rickshaws edging themselves into the roadways with cars, people, cows, and a million other things which crowd the streets. Indian traffic is almost indescribable and the few pictures I took of it cannot possibly explain the chaotic grace of how they operate. It's really overwhelming at first and everywhere at all times it feels like you're going to end up in an accident. I don't think I'll ever be able to use a horn again after India because they use it so much. One of our guides later said that there were three things you needed to drive in India; a good horn, good brakes, and good luck. The Indians use their horn differently then we do in America. Instead of using it only in aggression and to demonstrate frustration, Indians use their horn constantly to alert the sea of traffic of their whereabouts. The horn sort of acts like sonar signaling to everyone the proximity of everyone else, and it is the glue that holds the entire system together. But the cacophony of all the horns is so overwhelming and loud that it is enough to drive anyone insane and by the end of the trip I had sworn off horn use altogether regardless of situation.
Our taxi navigated hurriedly through the narrow streets and dense crowds and after a few minutes we pulled over at our first destination. We stopped at this little souvenir styled store that had a ton of authentic Indian dress in addition to countless religious artifacts and some beautiful rug, wood, and marble work. Sarah bought a Sari, the traditional hindi garment, while each of us guys decided to buy a dhoti which is the traditional men's garment. It is so awesome, although I've only worn it once. The Indians know how to dress for the heat and still be conservatively dressed, it's actually pretty amazing. After our quick shopping spree we headed to a restaurant that our taxi driver recommended. That's another unique thing about the taxi's in India, and something that my book Shantaram had educated me on prior to my landing. The taxi driver is actually a personal relationship in India. If a cab takes you somewhere, most often it will wait for you regardless of how long you spend in somewhere without charging you a fee and will continue to wait even if you insist otherwise. It's not just the possibility of an additional fare that keeps them there, but rather this unique relationship that each cab driver automatically binds to his customer. Cab drivers become caretakers almost and are excellent resources in India, which was quite a different approach than just a simple ride. It took some getting used to, and on more than one occasion I was frustrated that the cab driver would not leave because I felt bad not knowing how long I would be in some areas, but like I said the ties that bond them are pretty intense and so they stay. Anyway, back to the lunch. It was good, not great, but a pretty good first meal. It also allowed all of us to discover one of my new loves in food... naan. It's Indian bread similar to a pita but slightly different and usually has more flavor. They make it in different flavors and with a ton of other ingredients in the dough, cheese naan became a staple of my Indian diet and something I will definitely seek out as soon as I get back. It's delicious. As we finished our lunch we noticed that we were a little behind schedule (Sarah, Flynn, and Brad had to be back for SAS trips which were leaving shortly) so we decided to ask for our check. It was at this point that I learned another vital Indian lesson, everything in India operates at it's own pace and cannot be hurried or slowed. We repeatedly asked for the bill but minute after minute ticked by until they finally arrived with it not split up as we had asked. Another vital Indian lesson, things wont go as planned, and you just have to expect that and be ready to adjust. In the interest in time everyone just overpayed a little to make sure the bill was covered and we took off outside to meet our taxi, who of course was still waiting on us, and head back to the ship.
Dan and I decided to hop out on the way back and do a little more shopping since our flight didn't leave for a few hours. I ended up finding a sweet hand carved chess set and a few other goodies at a mall we found. Shopping in India is an experience in and of itself and I'm sure books have been written about it. Store owners are aggressive in trying to lure you into their store vs. the store next door, but once you're in the door you're waited on hand and foot. Many times in the mall once I had been forced or coerced into a store they would quickly sit me down on a stool they brought out for me and would begin asking what I was looking for only to do the searching for me. It was a hard adjustment, but it's just how Indian shops operate and after the first couple I got used to it. Another aspect that I had some exposure to, but was unprepared for, was the haggling nature of their culture. Nothing has a set price and everything is negotiable. Even in malls stickered items could be knocked down and two for one deals could easily be negotiated. Almost every transaction ended with something that was uniquely Indian and something I learned to love because it was so charming. Every time I went to pay a store owner, taxi driver, or anyone else in India they always asked if I was happy. The question was simple and although it was merely directed at my satisfaction with the transaction or service, but the phrasing was so important and I will never forget it. When I bought my chess set I knew I was paying more than I probably could, but it was still much less than I could afford so I agreed on the price, but when the owner asked if I was happy he could see that I wasn't completely content. He walked over to the shelf and handed Dan and I a really uniquely stone carved elephant and asked me again if I was happy. I smiled at him, thanked him for his kindness, and said yes. Dan found a rug store and got one of those infamous Indian hand made rugs, but shortly after that it was time to head back to the boat to relax a minute before our flight.
We ended up leaving the ship right on our planned time, but the airport was still something like 45 minutes away and we weren't sure how we were going to get there. We asked some of the guards at the base of our ship if they could call Dan and me a taxi for the airport. They suggested that instead we travel by the electric train which was close to the dock and had a stop at the airport. That made sense to us so we set off to find the train; a process which took quite a lot longer than we anticipated. After walking for sometime we did stumble upon the train but now we had a new issue. There were two trains headed in what seemed to be the same direction. So we had no idea which train to board and no idea which stop we should be asking to buy tickets for. We immediately began scanning the crowd asking random people if they spoke English. After a few quick odd stares, we found someone who told us which train by pointing at the platform for train 1. Now we had to find tickets. Once we got to the actual boarding area we began searching the crowd again for English speakers to help us figure out the ticket situation. Again we were received with mostly odd stares, but then another gentleman pointed quite a lot farther down the boarding area. We were hurrying to make the train before it left because we were quickly approaching being late. We arrived at an oddly shaped ticket counter with multiple lines leading up to cashiers behind a glass wall. There were no English signs which indicated where we should be heading or how to buy a ticket. Dan and I decided to split two lines and hopefully one of us could figure out how to buy two tickets. After some time we were both informed that we were in the wrong area and had to start at the back of a new line. There were four or five guys ahead of us in this line who were probably around 19 or 20 years old. Once we got closer to the ticket counter, one of the older boys offered to help us purchase our tickets. Dan and I both had reservations about handing money over to a stranger to purchase tickets in another language to a destination we weren't sure of, but we had little choice. The boy purchased two tickets for us and then asked for what I thought to be 70 rupees each, which is a pretty outlandish price for two electric train tickets. Again we had little choice so I handed him two fifty rupee notes. He was confused because what he actually had said was 7 rupees each. I only had a ten and a twenty rupee note. He saw that I was trying to figure out how to remedy this and he asked if he could just take the ten and he would take a loss on buying the tickets for us. I told him I didn't want him to do that and forced him to take the twenty rupee note. He smiled, we thanked him, and he and his friends ran off. As we were wondering towards the train, he appeared again only with the six rupee difference between what we paid him and what the tickets cost. I couldn't believe it. I was literally awestruck. Here was someone living in conditions of poverty commuting on a less than desirable mode of transportation (I'll get to that in a minute) and wouldn't even keep a few extra rupees for helping two Americans out who clearly had more money than him. It was profound and I found myself telling this story many times since at it has become symbolic of my time in India and of most all the people I met there.
Dan and I made our way to the back of a car on the train and sat down between a few older Indian gentlemen. We immediately caught the attention of everybody in our car. The train was already crowded and would get progressively more and more so as we made stops on the way to the airport. It was hot, it's always hot in India. It was a dingy cab, whose doors didn't even close when the train was in motion. I'm not sure if that was a design intention or flaw, but it was important because there were so many people on the train shortly that they were literally hanging out the door until they would almost all fall out at the next stop. It was an impressive sight. I think everyone on board was surprised to see two caucasions, especially Americans once they found that out, traveling in such conditions when most would take a rickshaw or a taxi wherever they wanted to go. Indeed it was somewhat of a shock to me, and uncomfortable from time to time, but actually I was fortunate to be in that cab. In the book Shantaram there is a scene similar to the one I encountered on that electric train. The main character and his local Indian guide are going to take a train out of the city of Mumbai. The guide introduces the main character to a very large gentleman and asks the main character to hold onto the coat of the larger Indian fellow no matter what and then the guide disappears. The doors of the train open and everyone begins to crowd in to fight for seats and the large fellow towing the main character plows through the crowds only to arrive at the guide lying across two seats being beaten by other passengers who want the extra seat he is trying to save. The main character quickly jumps to his guide's defense and takes the seat which his guide sacrificed his body for while the large gentlemen who led the main character in disappeared. The men who were assaulting the guide quickly backed off, either found other seats, or took their place in standing and there was no more conflict or anger. This confused and angered the main character, until he remembered a conversation he had with another leading character in the book. The conversation was explaining that the Indian culture is one of necessity. They operate the way they do because it has to be done that we due to sheer number of people living within such close proximity of each other. Furthermore, the conversation expands and says that only in India could that many people live together in harmony. Not Chinese, English, or American could tolerate the conditions with which most Indians live, and certainly would not co-exist so peacefully under these conditions. While this may seem counter-intuitive to the scene that happened in the book because violence was used and tempers flared in the book against the guide, it's not the same kind of violence we know. The rate of violent crime in Asian cultures, especially India, is a lot lower than most places in the world. That's absolutely amazing since poverty and population density are usually excellent predictors of violent crime, especially in the US. India is riddled with both poverty and overcrowding yet violent crimes are uncommon and the violence the author of Shantaram was using was aggression that arose from necessity not malicious intent.
I told that story because the culture of necessity in Indian culture governs almost every action of their daily lives. It certainly was apparent on the train that I was on and was actually the subject of conversation among myself and another Indian gentleman who spoke very fluent English. He was a very kind guy, and was very interested in Dan and I. After some conversation he let me know that he was getting off the train and then spoke to the many Indians around us in Hindi. He had told them to make sure that we get off at our stop safely because we had to make a flight. Even though no one else around us spoke English they obliged and when the time for our stop came the sea of people around us came to life pointing and hurrying us to get out bags and file through the solid mass of people to fall out the door. Once out the door we had another slight problem. Our flight was boarding in like 10 minutes and while this was the airport stop, we weren't actually at the airport and again signs were in Hindi. We made our way towards what looked to be stairs leading up to the main level of the street and on our way encountered a man who seemed to be in just as big of a hurry as us. He asked us where we were headed and what time our flight left. When we told him, he hurried even more and told us to follow him. I didn't get the chance to speak with him because we were running the entire time, but he lead us straight to our departure area before leaving to go to his own. We hurried through security and made it to our gate just in time to board with most everyone else. The first big hurdle had been jumped and we were getting ready to be on our way to Delhi, the capital of India.
On the plane Dan and I ended up in different sections, both of us sitting between two Indians. I was a little tired already and knew we had a long night ahead of us in order to make it to the Taj so I decided I wanted to get some rest. Before I could doze off though, I happened to strike up a conversation with the guy in the seat to my left. His name was Gopi, he owned a medical company, had studied English at his university and had traveled extensively. He was truly genuine and intelligent man. My plan to sleep on our three hour flight was foiled because I spent the entire time talking with Gopi. Since he was well educated and traveled he knew much about the world that I didn't, and what I did know, he knew from a different perspective. We discussed Indian history, the caste system, Indian religion, modern politics, American history and politics. He even tempered my disdain for Bush by enlightening me to certain foreign policies enacted by Bush that benefited the world community. While he was not a bush supporter, it was truly amazing to see his tempered views. Gopi has a daughter currently working for the Clinton foundation in international aid. She was one of two or three non-US residents chosen and was taken from her post in Darfur to work for them in America. Gopi knew more about my country than I did and talking to him was mesmerizing. I learned more about India and US-Indian relations talking with Gopi for three hours than I have in four years of college and over a month of concentrated education on board the ship. Gopi asked me if I had liked India so far and what was my favorite part. Even though I had only been in India for less than a full day at this point I could already tell that I was going to like it. I told him about my experience with the boys buying our tickets earlier,  and the guy on the train, and then the guy that helped us get to the correct terminal at the airport. I told him how impressed I was with the hospitality of the people I met so far and how it surpassed every country I'd been to so far, including my own most of the time. Gopi responded with a story about one time when he was in America traveling across country by car with his wife and daughter. They were in the South traveling and made a stop in Texas to see a rodeo. At this point in time I wasn't sure where he was going with the story, because I had a movie playing through my head of the reception an Indian family would receive at an authentic Texas rodeo. He continued his story saying how once word got out that there was a family from India traveling across America people were very warm to them. They even made an announcement over the intercom and introduced the family! I couldn't believe it. The story goes on though. As the night progressed some of the locals noticed that Gopi and his family weren't dressed for the cold Texas nights. Gopi not realizing the dramatic temperature fluctuations in certain parts of the country didn't have any cold weather clothing with him and neither did his wife or daughter. After a little while in the cold some locals showed up with authentic gaucho style cold weather clothing and dressed the entire family before sending them on their way. Again I was in shock! He concluded by saying the American people were among the best people on the planet, people are just waiting for their government to do the right thing again. Amazing guy that Gopi.
When the flight was winding to a close the topic of the Taj came up as I had explained our itinerary to him earlier. He asked us how we planned on getting to there and I told him we were just going to go hopefully find a cab. As we were getting off the plane he gave me his business card with his name and number on it and told him that if anything came up or if I needed anything to just call him. He then told me that the company that he owns contracts with a taxi service and that he was calling them to have a car sent over for us. I was speechless at his generosity. He just said be sure to learn while we were in India and tip the driver well. I assured him I would do both and we parted ways, but he left such a profound impact on me that it changed my entire stay in India, and probably all my travels for the rest of my trip. I told Dan about everything that had happened because I could hardly comprehend it. He had slept the entire time, but was excited to hear that we had a car lined up. We grabbed a quick bite to eat from the only food stand in the airport. What we ate I couldn't be sure but it was some sort of meat inside some sort of pastry. It was really, really good actually. We also stocked up on a few red bulls each in order to survive the night and the following morning. We were waiting for some time outside the airport in a sea of arriving passengers and cabbies trying to negotiate fares or pick up pre-arranged passengers. We kept getting approached by other taxi drivers who saw us waiting offering us fares for the whole night. The drive to Agra was supposed to take five hours each way and we had to be back by early afternoon the next day in order to make our next flight. Given the time constraints, after an hour of waiting for Gopi's driver Dan and I became anxious and started considering hiring a driver from the pool of cabs outside the airport. We set a time that the driver had to show up by otherwise we would be forced to go with another driver. Wouldn't you know it, not but a few minutes before the deadline a short older Indian guy walked up to me out of nowhere and asked if I was Josh. I said yes, and he motioned for me to follow him. Our cabby had arrived just in the nick of time. Turns out it wasn't the cabby, but a friend of the cab driver who he had picked up because he spoke English and the driver didn't. He was explaining this to us before telling us that he was going to be dropped off in a few minutes and we'd be on our way to Agra. He was dropping off the English speaking Indian so that the only person was the driver and us, even though the driver didn't speak English.
Not going to lie, that worried me a little bit. It worried me even more that after only an hour into the journey we pulled over to the side of the road with our driver getting out frantic. The car was overheating and he began combing through the engine pouring water on it. Not a positive start to what was going to be a time constrained and testing journey anyway. We waited at this gas station for almost 45 minutes with him toying with the car engine. Anytime Dan or I asked about the car, or if another car was coming we would just get the same wide eyed response... Any question we asked our driver he responded by smiling and simply saying 'yes.' At first it was frustrating but after awhile I thought it was hilarious. We were pulled over along the side of the road at a small gas station in the middle of nowhere, with a car that was overheating, no one spoke English, and Dan's phone was dead. So I decided to take a nap, or at least attempt to despite the heat. After finally falling asleep the car jerked forward and we were on our way again with the temperature needle in it's proper place. It wouldn't have any issues for the rest of the trip. Most of the students who visited the Taj traveled by a speed train from Delhi. Even though they saved time, I think they missed out on an important part of Indian culture and that whole concept of Indian necessity that is found in the driving habits of Indians. I already commented about the chaos and how everything worked despite the seeming madness, but that was in a fully functioning city. At night on a highway was even more insane. Roads stopped and started without warning, people were driving at high speeds in oncoming traffic lanes, semis would scream past cars swerving aggressively between traffic.
I slept intermittently on the drive to Agra, but was wide awake once we reached the city. Dan and I pointed to a hotel on a map in our travel guide that showed where we wanted to stay that night. He figured it out with little difficulty, and the hotel was really quite nice. Granted we arrived a little after three in the morning and were supposed to be up at six for sunrise at the Taj. We didn't get to enjoy the nice commodities before setting out for our crash course of the Taj. We hired an English speaking guide for the day, although that proved to be a poor decision all things considered. He had extensive knowledge of the Taj and the history surrounding the Mughal emperor who built it, but he rushed us through the Taj in order to take us to shops surrounding the area where he would receive commission from our purchases. The shops were cool don't get me wrong, but we had little say over what we were doing and didn't spend enough of the little time we had actually at the Taj. It is as beautiful as everyone says it is and more. The white marble makes the Taj shine in the sun in a way I've never seen before. The architecture is so grand and unique, I loved it. There are precious stones inlaid into the actual marble which was just icing on the cake. Our guide showed us how brilliant the quality of the stones were by shining a flashlight in a dark area and the stone lit up from the light. It was also really unique to see how intricate the designs of the flush stones were in the marble and how many of them there were. The Taj Mahal was built as a memorial, from the king to his dying wife as a symbol of his love because of its beauty. It was also where she was entombed. The fact that something this grand and everlasting was built for nothing more than love is one of the main reasons the Taj is so admired and well-known. One thing that I learned that was less well known was that the Emporer himself was planning on building a replica in black marble across the river from the Taj for his own tomb. The black taj never made it very far, and only recently have they discovered some of the foundations. After our crash course through the Taj and a few quick photo ops we were jetted off to a slew of shops whose products will remain nameless so that I don't ruin the surprise of any gifts.
Our trip back to Delhi was less eventful but more scenic. Since it was day time there was much more going on as we drove the highway back. We made a quick stop at a rest station along the side of the road where I got the chance to see a snake charmer. Pretty cool sight. We ended up nervous as hell about missing our flight again because we hit some ridiculous traffic once we actually made it in to Delhi, but eventually made it to our flight and the plane was delayed taking off so we even had enough time to charge Dan's phone in the airport. We were off to Varanasi.
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