If you read my post about Saturday #74 you might recall that I enjoyed my visit to the Taj Mahal but I didn’t experience the epiphany that many have reported. To wrap up that post, I promised to return to the Taj on Tuesday. I figured that if so many people have been so moved, perhaps Stone Cold Hamilton should give it a second chance.
It rained on Tuesday morning so I sat under cover on the hostel roof and took in the view. You won’t find this view on any of the postcards or fridge magnets sold by the millions in India, but I found it interesting. Even the monkeys get up on their hind legs to get a better view.
Okay, maybe not that one with non-existent mountains and tulips, but you do get a better view from inside the gates. And before you get inside those massive wooden gates you must put your elbows up and plow through a throng of for-hire guides, touts, pickpockets, cheats, cheating touts, cheating tour guides, and something I didn’t expect — scheming government employees who man the official ticket booth.
It was already mid-afternoon when I arrived at the Taj and upwards of 100,000 people had already been through the turnstiles. It doesn’t bother me that Indians pay 20 Rupees (40 cents) and foreigners pay 750 Rupees ($15). Fifteen bucks is a very fair price for admission to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and if a tourist surcharge allows a few more Indians to see the building their country is famous for, then I’m happy to help. However, I do resent being scammed by employees of the Ministry of Tourism.
This wasn’t my first day at the rodeo – or the Taj Mahal – so I knew the drill: Join the line marked “Foreign Men” (as opposed to Indian Men, Indian Women, Foreign Women), purchase ticket, join the appropriate line at the adjacent entrance, present ticket, submit to a pat down more vigorous than the one I received in the back room of that dark Bangkok bar (but let’s not go there) and then submit to a very thorough bag, er, backpack search.
When I stepped up to the ticket booth the clerk grunted something that sounded like “how many?” I noted that he didn’t say “my friend” so I was momentarily at ease. I presented a 1000 Rupee note in payment for the 750 Rupee admission charge, which to me makes as much sense as handing over a $20 bill for a $15 movie ticket.
The guy looked me in the eye and said “no change.” He then suggested that I could get out of line and try one of the nearby food vendors. The odds that a guy selling chai at 10 Rupees a cup would want my 1000 Rupee note were very close to zero and the ticket agent knew it. He also knew that I knew it, and he assumed that rather than get out of line I’d just say “keep the change.”
“Nope, not happening,” is what I said. “I just watched you take 1500 Rupees from the last two guys and it was in 50s and 100s. Maybe try the cash drawer; I think it’s in there.”
I joined the ticket holder’s line a minute later and one seriously pissed-off government employee was out his usual 250 Rupee tip.
Aside from having three AAA batteries confiscated at the security check, the rest off the entrance procedure went smoothly. I had a full three hours before closing time and for three hours I viewed the Taj from every possible angle. I mingled amongst the tourists, some of whom stood in silence for ages. I stood with my back to the Yamuna and watched as the sun set behind the Taj. I didn’t see anyone who had been reduced to tears, although thousands were clearly in awe. In the end I concluded that it’s me, not the Taj. There’s something about me that effects how I view it and how I feel about it.
Although there are plenty of reasons to be jaded in this neck of the woods, I don’t think I’ve been affected nearly as much as some foreign visitors. It’s not the constant need to be on your toes, as some have speculated, because I treat that as a game between me and the scammers – and so far I’m winning. It’s not the air pollution, the flies on the food or the day spent on the throne after drinking even a sip of tap water. It’s not the insane traffic or the noise of a bazillion honking horns. It’s not the crowds, the beggars or the lepers. It’s not the cow patties in the street or worse flowing through open sewers. It’s not the constant attack on every one of your five senses (six if you count gaydar). I’ve decided that if I am a bit jaded, it’s a result of the twin scourges of the 21st century: information overload and high expectations.
Horrible Photoshop manipulations aside, is there an adult in the western world who couldn’t pick the Taj Mahal out of a lineup of world landmarks? Thanks to YouTube and a virtual tour in full HD, I knew what every inch of the structure looked like years before I landed in India.
In Brazil I was totally blown away by Igauzu Falls. In Turkmenistan it was the Darvaza Gas Crater that rocked my world. In Mongolia it was a snowy June day spent making mutton stew and cutting the talons off an eagle the nomadic family had just shot, then sleeping in a very authentic and very chilly yurt.
Everything about that day was so foreign to me that I’m sure it’s one of the last things I’ll forget. The common denominator here is that I had done very little if any research into these places before experiencing them for myself. I didn’t know what to expect and I certainly hadn’t been told what I should feel.
And for precisely that reason, I will do no research into the rest of India, Cambodia, Vietnam, rural Thailand or any other place I might visit in the next eight months. I’ll figure it out as I go. There is probably a downside to traveling as if one were an alien who had just landed on earth, but there’s also a huge upside that is akin to being a toddler who sees everything outside his home with a sense of wonder.
I’ll gladly be that three-year-old for the next eight months.
NEWS ITEM: Getting serious about pollution
NEW DELHI — India’s Supreme Court has ordered a state government to remove a wood-burning crematorium from near the Taj Mahal to protect the iconic monument from pollution damage.
The judges said Monday that the government of Uttar Pradesh state could either move the crematorium away from the Taj Mahal or install an electric one in its place.
They made their order after a letter from another Supreme Court judge, who said that he’d noticed the mausoleum spewing smoke and ash during a recent visit to the monument and was concerned about the effect of air pollution on the marble structure.
In their order, the two judges suggested that the state could move the wood-burning crematorium and also build an electric one at the current site. This would allow people wanting to use wood pyres to do so, while others could use the electric crematorium, they said.
Hindus traditionally cremate their dead using wood fires. The government has been trying to encourage people to use electricity-powered crematoriums.
With its gleaming dome and graceful spires, the Taj Mahal is one of the world’s most recognizable buildings, visited by more than 3 million tourists a year.
The monument’s domes and minarets, inlaid with semi-precious stones and carvings, is considered the finest example of Mughal art in India. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
Resting on the banks of the Yamuna River in the city of Agra, the Taj Mahal was built in the 17th century by Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child.
Over the decades, the once pearly white Taj Mahal has been turning yellow due to pollution. The government has closed scores of factories near the monument and has tried to provide uninterrupted power supply in Agra so that residents do not have to use diesel-operated generators.
Earlier this year, the state government banned the burning of cow dung fuel cakes by city residents to prevent the dense black smoke from affecting the Taj Mahal. Dried cow dung cakes are commonly used in rural areas as a cheap source of fuel for heating and cooking.
The court ordered the government of Uttar Pradesh to come up with a decision on its plans for the crematorium within 15 days. — TheStar.com