Taj Mahal and Varanasi
Aug 15, 2002
WOW! Happy anniversary to me. It's shocking but as of today I have been traveling for a full year - one year of being a vagabond, one year of being a bum. Very coincidentally it is also India's anniversary - happy Independence Day to all billion them.
I've been complaining about the lack of drinking, the sexual frustration in this country (not just mine) and other aspects of India. Now, finally, after 3 months in India, I am starting to like it. It is not a fun country, so it will never be one of my favorite places, but it can be beautiful and it can be interesting.
As one of the best known tourist attractions in the world and the greatest monument to love ever, the Taj Mahal had a lot of expectation to live up to - and it did. Beautiful, amazingly beautiful, a work of near architectural perfection. I don't know what else to say.
The Taj has its reputation of being beautiful - the city where it resides has the reputation of being a horror. "Worse hassle anywhere in India." Along with the usual problems, con-men in Agra are known for poisoning tourists and then rushing them to a hospital in on the scam where the tourist is charged not quite a literal arm and leg for the hospital services. Me, I had no problems. I rather liked Agra.
I arrive around 9 in the evening. Before I'm even off the train I have three taxi drivers vying for my business. Hassle or convenience? I suppose it depends on your point of view. A cycle rickshaw driver offers the price of 30 rupees (60 cents) for a ride anywhere in Agra. I agree to his price. It's a bit high, but certainly not unbearably so, and after all the stories I'm anxious to quickly escape the potential horrors of the train station. I ask to get dropped off at the gate to the Taj Mahal instead of at any particular hotel so that the driver can't try to claim commission. I immediately get lost in the dark streets. Someone calls from a porch and offers me a room for 30 rupees (still 60 cents). I tell him that it sounds like a very good price and I may very well come back, but first I need to go and see Hotel Host that my friends highly recommended. I then ask him for directions. A few minutes later I arrive at Hotel Host. It's almost next door to the Taj, the room is clean as is the bathroom, there is a spectacular view of the Taj from the rooftop restaurant or I can order room service for no extra charge and watch cable TV - the room is 125 rupees ($2.50).
The view from the roof is indeed spectacular. The Taj is just in front of you. The city of Agra at work and play spreads out below you. Women are washing clothes, children are flying kites and monkey are climbing around everywhere. Almost best off all, pollution has been slowly discoloring the Taj so motorized traffic has been banned in a radius of one kilometer - for the first time in India I am not listening to the sound of cars, motorcycles and moto-rickshaws all honking continuously.
I am not in any sort of hurry so I have the freedom to wait a couple of days for a clear blue sky before paying to enter the Taj Mahal. The cost is 20 rupees (40 cents) for Indians and 750 rupees ($15) for tourists. Many months ago in Indonesia I was annoyed the few times that I came across 2-tier price schemes. Now I realize that I live my life by every day taking advantage of the fact that money is worth more in San Francisco than in Asia. I can't get upset the few times where I can't take advantage. Particularly, if the money goes towards keeping the honking of moto-rickshaws further from National treasures.
Varanasi is a holy city on a holy river and somewhere in the back of my subconscious I knew exactly what that should look like - there should be millions of people in colorful costumes ceremonially dunking themselves in the river. When I arrive, the riverside is pretty quiet - women washing clothes, boatmen hanging out, children doing back-flips. It's not at all awe inspiring or holy looking. I check the guidebook and find out that million of people do descend upon Varanasi, but alas, only once every 12 years.
I can't say that I liked Varanasi when I arrived. The guesthouse has a great view of the river, but it is not a pretty river. The longer I stay however, the more I like it. You never know what is going to happen in Varanasi. From certain angles, it is a very pretty city looking like Venice with beautiful old buildings hanging over the water. It's a holy city so there are festivals - not necessarily with millions of participants, but they happen all the time. One day is a Shiva festival and pilgrims are wandering the streets. A few days later is snake day and snake charmers are everywhere with huge silver-black cobras. I guy put a cobra on my table at dinner tonight - I paid him 5 rupees (10 cents). Though, the Japanese guy having his head shaved into a mohawk attracted a bigger crowd than any snake charmer - That's Varanasi for you.
I made some good friends here in Varanasi. Somehow a conversation of "I can't imagine that the water is that bad" quickly turned into a conversation of "Adam is going to take a dip in the Ganges." Sure enough I (along with the mohawk'd Japanese guy) took a quick swim in the shit filled, dead body filled, everything else that you can possibly imagine filled Ganges. I found the water to be cool, clear and refreshing. Although, I did has the sense to scrub with anti-bacterial soap afterwards.
Have I mentioned the cows yet? Holy cows? They're wandering the streets and alleys everywhere in India. If a car hits a cow in India it is the same offense as hitting a person. I took the following quote out of yesterday's paper. "People involved in the slaughter of cows could soon be booked under the prevention of terrorism act (POTA) if recommendations made by the Bharatiya Jeev-Jantu Ayog are accepted by the center." And shockingly enough, no, the article did not continue forward and explain why people involved in the slaughter of cows could be charged under POTA!