Published: March 31st 2009March 31st 2009
Three weeks in and we are still loving India, which keeps finding new ways to awe us and keep us on our toes.
On day eight, we flew from Varanasi to Khajuraho, where we spent the afternoon exploring around--and blushing at--the town's two dozen eleventh century erotic temples. The original inspiration for the three tiered, two-foot high carvings chiseled into Khajuraho's fleet of red sandstone temples has been lost to history (or so we learned while listening to an audio tour on early 80's Casio Walkmans before Anna's ate her tape), but the stunning, deeply-recessed images include thousands of men and woman in various states of undress, and many more depicting scenes that rival anything found in the Kama Sutra. (We found ourselves asking, "would an elephant really do that with its trunk?" ). Aside from obvious skill that went into the carvings and the populist appeal of their subject matter, the temples were also impressive because (1) they are almost perfectly preserved--far more so than anything at Angkor Wat; and (2) other than a buck-naked Jain priest we almost ran into upon our arrival, and a few families with bored and/or confused looking children, the temples
were nearly deserted, which--after the intensity of Varanasi--infused our afternoon viewing and sunset beers from a rooftop overlooking the site with some much needed tranquility.
In the morning we set out with a driver for what we'd heard was a 10 hour ride to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Our plan was to arrive in time for dinner and then hit the sack so we could get up early Friday and tour the Taj at sunrise before catching a train that we'd booked weeks before. The first few hours in our retro-looking Ambassador car were pleasant enough, as we passed wrecked hillside forts and small towns whose residents were still covered in the colors of Holi. But then two potentially traumatic events occurred in quick succession. Upon cresting a hill at 80 km/hr we saw a puppy laying in the middle of our lane. With no time to swerve our driver made a slight adjustment, and the puppy went right between our tires--we looked back in relief as he lifted his head and looked around. We then told our driver about our plan to visit the Taj Friday at sunrise, and he cheerfully informed us that the Taj
is closed on Fridays. The five stages of grief proceeded to play out in classic form. We told our driver he was obviously mistaken--but then confirmed his info in our guidebook. Then came anger, mostly at the India Tourism Board, but also at Jub, who put this leg of the trip together (and who has since graciously accepted 49% of the blame). But somewhere on the way to depression, our driver said that if we skipped lunch and made no other stops, he could probably get us to the Taj an hour before closing. His subsequent speed and staunch refusal to yield to vehicles five times our size filled the next six hours with nervous tension--and ensured that neither of us will need manicures anytime soon. But he actually beat his own estimate, and we dodged the Taj's three-deep ring of touts, were aggressively frisked, and were inside the main gate around five thirty--a full hour and a half before closing.
And it was good that we had time to linger, because the Taj Mahal is easily the most beautiful man-made thing we've seen. It exceeded our expectations, and we were expecting a lot. From a distance the memorial's
combination of perfect symmetry and translucent white marble literally captured our eyes, while up close, there were a ton of beautiful flower motifs, lattice-work, and flowing Arabic inscriptions that we'd never noticed in photographs. When we arrived the sky was mostly overcast, but the clouds evaporated towards sunset, and we joined a group of mostly Indian visitors on the stairs of the adjacent Mosque, watching in silence as the memorial slowly changed from blazing white to soft pink, and new details in the masonry lept out at us, and then faded away.
We woke Friday with no agenda except catching our evening train, so after touring Agra's impressive fort (where the man responsible for the Taj was imprisoned by his son for the last decade of his life, with only distant glimpses of his creation as comfort), we decided to splurge on lunch and cocktails at one of the city's luxury hotels. We strolled to the Oberoi with visions of souvenir swizzle-sticks dancing in our heads, only to be stopped at the curb (not the gate--the curb) by guards who told us that following the Mumbai attacks, non-guests weren't allowed inside. We were genuinely surprised--Jub had combed his hair
and everything--but the guards remained steadfast in spite of our pleas, and we eventually set out for fancy hotel #2, with Anna exclaiming, "If I can't get a cocktail with lunch, then the terrorists have already won." In the end, the Sheraton graciously allowed us to purchase what for India was an outrageously expensive, $20 lunch, but then wouldn't let us check our email or lounge in their bar. So we decided to cut our losses and head to the train station early. But the nearby rickshaw drivers had all seen us come out of the ritzy Sheraton, and now they all wanted 300 rupees for what we knew was at most a 50 rupee trip across town. "We're not staying here," Anna explained (while we both signaled for an incomplete pass). "Only eating" (circular spooning motions). The drivers shuffled. Anna tried slower: "Understand . . . No stay. . . Only eat." They were silent; we made more spooning motions. "OK, OK, boss." One of them finally said. "No problem boss . . . For you, special . . . 280 rupees." Ugh. We eventually hauled our bags a hundred yards down the road and hailed a market-rate ride
Scene after scene of masterful carvings
to the station--with a quick stop for bottles of beer en route.
At the station, we sat on the platform, transfixed for two hours as a sea of Indian travelers passed around us, as men, women, and children threw elbows in the crush to board and find seating in the unreserved carriages (with some avoiding the scrum by standing precariously on a pipe between tracks and leaping up through open doors on the opposite side), peddlers selling chai, peanuts, soup, and naan barked out their wares up and down the platform in regular cadences, and groups of Bangladeshi migrant laborers passed through, barefoot and sun-hardened, but wearing the most beautiful saris and sporting over-sized gold hoops in their noses. We strained to understand the announcements until an Indian woman traveling with a crying baby and piles of luggage asked to see our tickets, then waved for us to stay seated as several trains arrived near our time of departure, and finally gave us the thumbs up when ours steamed in. Once ensconced in our 2-Tier A/C Cabin, Jub insisted on asking our possibly devote Muslim or Hindu cabin mates if they minded us drinking beer in the cabin. They
shrugged and said "No," and Jub flashed an extra wide, part friendly, part "see how considerate we are for asking" smile at them while opening our first bottle of Kingfisher, which promptly exploded, soaking his pants, t-shirt and bedding, and leaving our cabin reeking of alcohol. Fortunately, a combination of traveler's towels, a nearby sink, a new shirt, and some hand sanitizer helped us take care of the worst of the problem before reaching our first stop. Otherwise, the train was great, and we both slept well--with modernity rather than our carriage's relative antiquity striking the only sour note, as our birth mate's cell phone was on all night, waking us when it rang, and making us work to fall back asleep while he talked in Hindi (probably saying things like "Yeah, I guess it was an accident, but then why was he smiling when he did it?").
We arrived in Jodhpur a little groggy, but alert enough to avoid following a tout who tried to lead us away from the station's main exit, and out a side gate. After breakfast at our hotel, we headed to Jodhpur's amazing hilltop fort, which Rudyard Kipling described as "shaped by angels
We were told to pay special attention to the way the fabric wrinkles show against the skin. Yes, amazing carvings!
and giants." And his words seemed apt as we took in the ornate verticality of the overhanging fortress walls, massive entrance gates covered in spikes intended to deter surging forces from battering them down with elephants, and gold and ivory trimmed interior rooms filled with multi-hued beams of light streaming through dozens of stained glass windows. The fort also afforded spectacular panoramic views of Jodhpur's bright blue old city, whose indigo stained walls used to signify Brahman status, but are now used by most residents to help keep their houses cool and (allegedly) repel mosquitoes. On both our days in Jodhpur, we walked out the fort's back exit and let ourselves get lost in the old city's winding blue alleyways, taking pictures of the street-scenes and friendly residents, practicing English with the kids we met, taking note of the camel carts intermingled with donkey carts, trying in vein to find Indian bangle bracelets that would fit Anna's Norwegian wrists (although not for want of effort on the part of eager bangle saleswoman, a succession of whom treated the task as some type of Arthurian legend as they strained to jam their bracelets on), and stopping for $0.15 samosas and Safron
The carvings were gorgeous
and Jub enjoyed a moment to himself to fully contemplate the details.
lassis when we got hungry. On our last day, we checked out the Maharaja's garden, which was fragrant and serene and offered more stunning views of the city, followed by the Mandore Gardens on the outskirts of town, which have not definitely not received a royal upkeep, and were depressingly trash-filed and overrun with ballerina-sized monkeys who looked like they could turn on us at any moment--and win. From there, we were off to catch our flight south, to Udaipur.
Thanks for reading; stay tuned for more stories and pictures from India as we made our way through Rajasthan and up north.
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