#SAS India Part Two

Day 3 (March 14)

Today began with another early morning wakeup call at 4 a.m. We packed up and grabbed a quick breakfast before boarding the buses to head to the train station. But of course, we had to wait for a late person. Turns out one of the guys didn’t check to make sure his roommate had left the room and the kid had fallen back to sleep. But when the trip leaders had asked if anyone was missing, the kid didn’t check to see if his roommate had boarded a bus. So, 45 minutes late, they finally figured out who was missing, called the room, and the kid came running downstairs and onto the bus.

As we frantically drove towards the train station, our tour guide joked about doing something illegal and needing to bribe the police in order to make our train on time. No one actually knew if he was joking or not but after stopping across the street from the exit of the train station, we ran through the mess of cars and people awake nice and early. We walked through security and made it onto our coaches with a few minutes to spare, just before 6:15, when the train left. The group was spread out over at least 10 cars so it was a little hectic trying to make sure we ended up on the right car. A group of SAS kids traveling on an independent trip happened to be on our car so our train car was full of SAS people. I had drank too much coffee that morning to make sure I stayed awake so as everyone slept, I journaled and watched the countryside fly by. We were served tea and later a breakfast of bread, jam, butter, pineapple juice, and a hot thing that I think was like a lentil samosa and was SO delicious. That small meal was almost more delicious than any of the meals I had during our time in India because of how simple it was. I feel like I can really appreciate simple after this trip. An extravagant meal is nice once in a while but I had an overdose of tourist-induced extravagance and just really did not like it.

When we finally arrived in Agra, there was an almost panic as everyone on the train tried to get off while everyone off the train tried to get on and everyone was pushing through one skinny door per car. I really appreciated the double-door trains we have at home because I literally had such a huge moment of panic that I might not make it off the train as a family if probably 10 people tried to squeeze towards me with large suitcases in hand. I finally pushed free and then yet again panicked as I looked around and saw no one I recognized, although the train had all but emptied. I worried at first if the other SAS trip was exiting at a different stop but walking forward I finally saw our gathered group waiting for everyone.

As we walked towards our buses, we were practically attacked by children asking for money and food. I had nothing to give them but had also learned it’s better to not give because most children on the street are pimped out by thugs and giving to the children only supports that thriving business. As we tried to weave through the group of children, we noticed a man on an old school wheelchair with elephantitis. His feet were so swollen they were larger than soccer balls. It was sad to see some of the more ignorant students stand right in front of the man and gawk and take pictures like he was a circus show. Not to say I did not stare or take a picture, I simply tried to do it much more discreetly. I had never seen someone with the disease firsthand, I had only seen pictures. It was hard to see it up close and personal. As we boarded the bus, a problem started outside as the apparent “pimp” of the beggar children began to beat one of the boys who came back empty-handed from trying to get something out of our group. He hit the boy with a field hockey stick and smacked him to the ground. The boy was clearly pleading with him to stop and seemed to almost be asking forgiveness but the man hit the boy again and by then our bus was driving away so there was nothing more to watch.

As we arrived at a hotel for breakfast, I yet again had a wave of confusion sweep over me. Let me tell you, while in the moment, it’s not easy to process an event. We had just left these beggar children on the street with nothing and here we were for our third meal of the day and it wasn’t even 11 a.m. That was hard to handle. For our next stop, we went to the Agra Fort, a huge red fort surrounding beautiful buildings inside and a view of the back of Taj Mahal across the river. The builder of the Taj Mahal was actually imprisoned at the fort by his son because the man had gone bankrupt and a little crazy, so imprisonment was the way his son punished him. After the fort, we headed to the Taj Mahal. After walking past camel carts and many children trying to sell all kinds of Taj Mahal trinkets, we arrived at the front gates and got into our lines. The lines were sectioned off by “Indian Ladies,” “Indian Gents,” “High Value Ticket Holders Ladies” and “High Value Ticket Holders Gents.” We apparently caught a good day to visit because our line went very quickly and only took about less than 10 minutes to get through. The day before, the line had been miles long, down the street and around the corner. After getting a pat down and having them check our bags, we finally walked through the giant archway of the wall surrounding the grounds. There were massive amounts of people crowded around, trying to get good pictures so we joined in and took the typical touristy pics, right alongside women in Saris pretending to grab the top of the Taj. We even got to be models for people taking pictures of us. We quickly learned we would need to get used to people asking to take pictures with us, as it continually happened throughout the trip. My favorite was when guys would try to be sneaky about videotaping or taking pictures of their surroundings but it was obvious they were just taking pictures of our very out of place group. I made sure to smile for the camera!

As we walked around the beautiful gardens I really experienced how different the Indian culture is and how important traveling to local monuments is to them. I know people who have never visited D.C. or historically significant places in the US, or even local landmarks, like the Space Needle in Seattle, yet visiting the Taj Mahal is extremely important for the people of this culture. I really wonder what it is that causes people to be drawn to visit this structure. Could it be the age of the building, the architecture, the love story of a man building something so extravagant for the woman he loved? Or is it simply a structure that has been turned into something much more meaningful than it was ever intended to be? I really enjoyed the experience. As we walked barefoot up through the front of the massive entryway, I heard some foreigner ask if this was ever used for anything else, like if someone ever lived there. I was embarrassed for them. Maybe it was a little presumptuous of me to assume everyone knows that this place is a mausoleum and has only ever been a mausoleum. But I assume goodwill, so finding out people truly have no idea what they are looking at or why they are visiting this place, is a little frustrating. As we entered the center room of the mausoleum and saw the two graves side-by-side it was interesting to get a glimpse of a far away history. Where building a giant mausoleum for a loved one wasn’t as crazy as it sounds to us. Where there was enough space to do something like that and where electricity, building codes, fire hazards, and blocking a neighbors view weren’t issues an architect would have to worry about. We continued on through the central area and out through the back entrance facing the river. We could see the Agra Fort from the edge of the balcony. After walking around and taking a few more pictures, we were suddenly bombarded by a large family who all wanted to take pictures with Alexa, one fo the girls I was with. Each of the older boys wanted their own pictures. After a few pictures and a large commotion, one of the guards started yelling at them, and I’m assuming he told them to stop taking pictures, because then they all walked away thanking her. A few minutes later, as we were just about to leave, one of the little girls ran up to me and asked if I would take a picture with her. I said yes and then the whole family came back over and they took a few more pictures with me and then we told them we had to leave. We walked back towards the main entrance of the grounds to meet up with our group, take a group photo and then headed back to the buses. As we walked back, of course the children came back up to us and tried to sell us a few things. I ended up with bracelets and a Taj Mahal trinket, of course, because I can’t say no… Haha.

Our next stop was an item not on the itinerary: a stop at a marble inlay shop. It was cool to see the people shaping the marble pieces and cutting the small pieces to make flowers and such. They use similar techniques that were used to decorate the Taj Mahal. However this was after lunch and right before our 6-hour drive to Jaipur, so as the shop owners gave us a sales pitch of thousand dollar marble coffee tables and other expensive marble creations, I felt really awkward sitting there. It felt as if they expected us to actually buy something and most of the stuff was well over the affordable limit. Of course people still bought things but it was only extremely small items, and things that would be easy to transport on our trip back to the ship. I just went back to the bus and sat around forever as we waited for everyone to get back on the bus. After what seemed like forever, we were finally on our way to Jaipur. After an hour, we had another stop at Fahtepu Sikri, “The Deserted City.” We had a quick restroom stop and then took little transfer buses to the fort, which had been empty for hundreds of years and was in the middle of nowhere. They gave us a very long time to walk around but most everyone was exhausted and a lot of people just ended up sitting around. Finally we got ready to leave and got back on the little transfer buses to take us back to the coach buses but, of course, we had to wait forever for people who were late coming back to the bus. After getting back on the bus and waiting for people who didn’t make use of the first restroom stop, we were back on the road. Three and a half hours later, we made another stop at a roadside store which sold all kinds of goods, was way expensive, but many kids still spent a bunch of time in the store, and yet again we were waiting for people so we could get back on the road.

FINALLY around 9:45 p.m., we drove into the main area of Jaipur. We drove by a wedding that was happening and a few other things but because it was so late at night, there wasn’t much to see. 30 minutes late, we finally arrived at our hotel, exhausted and starving. My roommate and I set our stuff down in our room, yet another beautiful hotel and went down to grab dinner. It was an extravagant buffet, yet again clearly catering to the American food tastes. I always enjoyed the food but I felt that I wasn’t able to experience the really good food I would have had we stayed in different hotels. I ended up talking to one of the chefs and he told us they turned the spice level down about 50% when cooking at this hotel because they catered mostly to Western tastes and most people could not handle the normal spice of true Indian food. I told him I loved the spice and he should make it spicy so he told me to just ask and they could always make it spicier. Since we were almost done with dinner, het brought me outside a dessert of this delicious doughy cheese ball and even brought me ice cream, which was not part of the dessert buffet. I had told myself I wouldn’t have dessert since I’d been eating so much but of course I had to try it, and I’m glad I did because it was SO delicious! Finally it was time for bed, after some Internet time, and I settled into my nice comfy bed.

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