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Published: January 1st 2012
FROM VARANASI WE BOARDED A TRAIN WEST in the direction of India’s pride and joy, the most famous symbol of this immense land, the Taj Mahal. This first experiment of using the large and complicated Indian rail system was essentially…a train wreck. We were completely clueless as to how the several tiered ticketing system worked. Just before midnight we climbed aboard the sleeper car, which in the eerie darkness resembled a scene out of a science fiction movie. The steel metal bars and blue berths were overflowing with unfamiliar faces and huge black eyes that peered out of the darkness at me. Of course, they were just the outward expression of inquiring minds but at the time they seemed intense and unkind. We had booked our rail tickets online but not having access to a printer, we had no proof of our purchase. This ended up causing quite a mess. The first conductor that approached us could not find our names on his list so he asked us to move back to a different sleeper car, which meant another round of penetrating stares. Just as we were settling in to our new spot a second conductor came around. He could not
find our names either, so again we moved. After a long uncomfortable wait both conductors convened around us and just at the pivotal moment when they were to send us to the treacherous back lurches of the train (where we would have to squeeze between the sweaty haunches of unfamiliar men for the next ten hours) when I asked to see their paper with list of passenger names. I looked down at the paper and instantly the big, bold letters jumped out at me, “Claire Staley, W Travis Staley.” Our names had been there in plain sight the entire time. Similar situations have occurred at other times during our travels - I assume people are just unfamiliar with our names and therefore don’t know how to spell them or what they look like on paper. Once at a hotel someone checked us in under the name “KATHY.” I hope the real Kathy wasn’t pissed when she showed up and saw that her room was booked. Even though our names had been found, not all was solved, as one of our berths was far away at the other end of the train car. Not wanting to separate in this new, unfamiliar
environment we both climbed into one of the bunks with ALL of our luggage and attempted to lay down and sleep in this impossibly cramped space. We laid down, limbs tangled in most uncomfortable ways. I used Travis’ feet as a pillow and he used mine as his. Ten hours later we arrived in Agra limbs aching.Thus began our rail journey across India.
Our stop in Agra was quick. We did very little the first day other than sit at the restaurant and watch the hordes of mischievous monkeys bounce around from rooftop to rooftop trying to steal food from the nearby restaurants. Our restaurant even had it’s own “monkey control” - a guy with a large bamboo stick who stood close by as we ate and chased the monkeys away every time they dared to come near. A few kilometers away, the outline of the milky, white Taj Mahal rose out of the rooftops. We woke up early the next morning to get to the Taj for sunrise. Unfortunately, even at this early time there was still quite a lot of tourists. Despite this it was lovely to see this monument that has been embedded in our collective
minds through endless photographs, movies and tales. We spent the morning wandering leisurely through the grounds; taking in the serene fountains, gardens, and of course the mausoleum itself where Emperor Shah Jahan and his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, are buried. That afternoon we attempted to go shopping at a bazaar but the constant fear of being hit by a car and the deafening horns were so intense that we gave up and instead visited Agra Fort, a red sandstone fort constructed by the Mughal emperors in the 1500s. It had beautiful dark corridors, large open courtyards, and stunning views of the Taj across the plains.
Aside from the Taj Mahal and the fort Agra did not have much to offer – it was a typical dusty Indian city – full of cows roaming the streets and the usual chaos. Our time there, however, happened to coincide with a large Muslim festival so the streets were full of families celebrating in all forms of rivalry. This made the experience more fun – there was singing, dancing, drumming and music blazing out of loud speakers. It was really fun to see the Indian people in this heightened state of joy, and
for the first time I felt like I could connect with them. Their smiles and laughter dissolved any and all cultural differences we may have had. As we were walking through the streets one evening a little boy accidentally swung a neon sword in my direction and came inches from hitting me. I jumped back in surprise. His family looked up to take note of the situation, and upon seeing who I was, erupted in hysterical laughter. They swooped in and surrounded me on all sides, roaring in laughter and begging me to take photos with them. Of course, I obliged.
After Agra we traveled to the small, Hindu pilgrimage town of Pushkar (navigating the trains more successfully this time). The tale of Pushkar is so beautiful that it would be a sin not to share. As the story goes Brahma (one of the three main gods of Hinduism) dropped a lotus flower on the earth and from it’s seed, Pushkar appeared. I wanted to visit Pushkar based solely on this tale - how could you not want to visit such an idyllic setting for a story?! Even though Pushkar is now a bit touristy, the story
still fits. The highlight of the town is the large blue lake that sits in it’s center, surrounded by multiple temples and ghats. On our first day we were lured in by it’s calm waters and decided to go closer to investigate. As we walked towards the water two men approached us and handed us flower petals. One of them asked Travis to follow him while the other lead me a couple feet away in the other direction (men and women are frequently separated in India so this did not cause concern). I sat down with him at the edge of the water and he explained to me that he was a Brahmin priest and he would like to lead me in a blessing for my family. He began chanting something in another language and then had me repeat the words after him. The foreign syllables tasted strange and sticky on my tongue. Next, he translated the words into English, and again I repeated (good health, good mother, good father, good marriage…). Finally, he had me name all of my family members. It felt really special to say each of their names out loud in this holy place thereby offering
each of them an individual blessing. Finally, he showed me how to throw the different colored petals into the water and ritually wash my hands. Once the blessing was finished he asked me if I would be willing to make a donation to him and the other Brahmin priests. I knew this was coming of course (nothing is free in India, even things you don’t want) so I told him that I would talk to my husband and we would decide on an amount. I walked over to Travis and discovered that he had already left a donation with his priest that was intended for both of them. I kindly explained to my priest that we had already left a sizeable donation and this would have to suffice. He quickly explained that these donations would help us acquire merit and give us good karma. My karma is different than Travis’ karma, he insisted, therefore we must both
leave an offering. Although I don't believe in acquiring good karma by paying people off, I do believe in supporting the communities we visit, so we forked over more cash. It was slightly irritating, but none of the sights in Pushkar cost any
money so we just regarded the donation as our entrance fee to the city. The next few days slipped lazily by - we slept in late, drank lassis and chai, and watched the sun set from rooftop cafes.
For more pics see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thejarvisproject
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