Our day in Agra began with a four hour car trip through India’s spectacular traffic. Cars, buses, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, camel carts, water buffalo. You name it, it’s on the move and on the road in India. Traffic lanes appear to be optional, and the occasional cop directing traffic is like the title character in Where’s Waldo.
Ashok, thankfully, is an incredibly skilled driver, so much so that T. and I were able to doze off a couple of times. He was still very quiet, a little shy about his English I think, but he pointed out things along the way he thought might interest us. What interested other road warriors though was, well, us. Stopping for gas gave some local truck drivers a chance to ogle at us; stopping at a checkpoint produced some enterprising boys who thought they could make a buck. One had a small monkey who leapt onto my window and scared me half to death, and the other was a snake charmer who tried to tempt me with his slithery sidekick. I’m not sure which one of these terrifying creatures was supposed to part me from my cash but I was never so happy to be in a locked car.
We arrived in Agra in what had to be 110 degree heat, and were immediately accosted by our guide, Vinnie. Vinnie is something else. Apparently, he was Oprah’s guide when she visited awhile back, and he’s clearly been holding court as no. 1 Agra guide ever since. He’s also got the hook-up with the Nigerian Embassy and conducts all their tours as well. Apparently, I remind him of his Nigerian friend, Linda. A word about black tourists in India: yes, we’re here ( we saw several groups in Delhi) but we’re still a rare enough sight to inspire the double and triple-take reactions, and the celebrity picture posing requests we got in China. Many of theNigerians, according to Vinnie, come take advantage of India’s doctors, as the medical system at home is far more expensive.
Our first stop in Agra was the impressive, formidable Red Fort, complete with alligator moat, built by the 5th(?) Mughal emperor. The second most interesting part of this excursion was peering out of the window of the “prison” where the king who built the Taj Mahal spent the final years of his life, imprisoned there by his youngest son to keep him from building another crazy expensive tomb, this time one for himself, in black. He was placed under luxurious house arrest in quarters which afforded him a breathtaking view of the white marble homage to his queen. The most interesting part of the Red Fort visit though was the late arrival of the first monsoon rain; never was rain more welcome or more romantic. It doesn’t get any cooler than watching monsoon rain in old Indian fortress. The heavy showers only lasted about 30 minutes, but this was enough to cool things down considerably, which automatically meant improved conditions for our next excursion, the Grande Dame herself.
There are no words for the incredible white marble wedding cake edifice that is the Taj Mahal. No matter how many pictures you’ve seen, and it looks just like all the pictures you’ve seen, you will walk through its gates and gasp. It will look like a gargantuan cheesy backdrop of itself at a carnival, but you won’t be able to find the tell-tale frayed edges of the canvas because it’s real. You will feel the full weight of the love that inspired it, and your tendency towards cynicism will vanish…
BUT, we were there with Vinnie, so my opportunities for reflection were limited. As soon as Ashok parked the car, we found ourselves on an overpriced camel cart, courtesy of Vinnie (paid for by us), which dropped us off at the front gates of the monument. On the camel ride, we found ourselves in the company of a ” government trained” photographer, a 20 year old with a Nikon camera, whom Vinnie recruited as our official photographer. From there, Vinnie, much to my mixture of consternation and grudging relief, led us in cutting every line, with personal paparazzo in tow. We watched haplessly for a good 40 minutes as they managed to clear prime picture taking positions for us, even though people had been patiently waiting for their turn. It was nothing short of surreal. The end result of all this was a set of incredible pictures, so this crazy experience will have to live in memory and on this blog. The pictures won’t say a word.
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