Well this past weekend was really great. The entire group and I took a trip down to Agra in order to primarily see the Taj Mahal, but also to see the Agra Fort, and to more generally just experience India. My friend Evan and I arranged the whole trip. I found the group a hotel in Agra, and he got the bus for us to travel down in. Ultimately, with very little planning, Evan and I worked out the logistics of the whole trip, and on Friday afternoon, we all left the program center around 11:00 and made the 5ish hour drive. As with everything here, the trip took longer than we planned, and after various bathroom stops, we arrived in Agra around 5:30. Once there, we spent about another hour driving around the city looking for the hotel. The bus drivers, who assured us they knew where we were going, more accurately knew where Agra was. In regards to the hotel however, our guess was just about as good as theirs. Eventually, I decided to call the hotel owner, and he actually drove to where the bus was on his moped. Seeing as buses aren't allowed within close proximity to theTaj , and further that our hotel was within 5 minutes walking, we couldn't get any closer to the hotel driving, so we simply got off the bus where we were waiting, and made the 20 minute walk to the hotel.
Zig-zagging our way through the crowded Agra streets, we were surrounded by various people selling all sorts of Taj Mahal tourist items, from tee-shirts to post cards to marble ash trays. As we continued to near the hotel the streets narrowed, and became even more winding, but eventually we made it to the "HotelShajahan."
The Lonely Planet guide book described the place as "a little scruffy, but a good deal" and that was exactly what it was. Before wecommitted to the place, the hotel owner showed us our room. Over the phone I had negotiated the arrangements such that all 14 of us would be staying in a large room with 10 beds. Further, there would be a bathroom and no shower; however, for two nights we all figured we could withstand a little dirt. So, after taking a quick look at the room, we all decided to stay.
The room was most definitely scruffy, but it only was costing us each $1 per night. In brief the room looked somewhat 3rd-world ish. Let me explain. The ceiling was mostly unfinished and remnants of the construction process were still visible. One of the windows was broken, and the curtains were stained all over. The bathroom had an Indian toilet. This is the type that requires one to squat over it while performing any necessary "duties." Luckily the toilet had a massive crack in it, so to our great delight more of the contents of the toilet would leak onto the ground than actually got out the toilet pipe. The 10 beds were actually old school army cots all pushed together in one massive bed area. On top was a large foam pad. The foam had all sorts of stains and holes all over it, and one of the kids nervously mentioned in a pseudo-joking tone to "watch out for the scabies," but we figured that with some sheets we'd be fine. So, we asked the owner for some sheets, and as we unfolded them it became abundantly clear these sheets with the dozen or so grease stains and the few old blood stains on them were going to be about the cleanest surface we'd sleep on. In all honesty however, I mention all of these details after the fact. In the moment, no one was worried, and the general air amongst us was one of excitement...we were at theTaj Mahal.
After agreeing to take the room, we checked in at the front desk, and in doing so had to provide our country of origin, place of stay, passport number, passport authority where the passport was issued, passport date of issue and expiry, visa number as well as date of issue and expiry, age, sex, date ofarrival in Agra, and intended date of leave. Filling out this amount of information for 14 people was somewhat of a task, but fortunately my friend Lissa helped me, and thus the process wasexpedited greatly. By this point, it was time to have some beer, and fortunately while Lissa and I checked us all in, a few other people got a case of beer. Naturally we headed up to the roof top lounge, and got there in time to see a tempting view of the near by Taj slowly fading into the Agra night. For the next while various sorts of debauchery ensued, and once a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey had miraculously become empty, we all decided to get some dinner.
The hotel owner was extremely helpful for the whole weekend, and he arranged for some bike-rickshaws to pick us up. Little did we know that these five rickshaws would become our personal escort service for the entire weekend, so to our initialsurprise and later delight, they were ready to take us wherever we wanted to go whenever we wanted to. So at around 9:00 we all got in the rickshaws and were happily taken to arestaurant called "Indiana." The food was a little expensive, but it was pretty good. I ate a fantastically satisfying meal of chicken and spinach curry, and once we all were finished and the bill had been paid, we headed back to the hotel where, in anticipation of an early rise the next morning, we went to bed.
At 5:00 A.M. I awoke in the darkness to my cell phones alarm, and sleepily I turned on the one florescent light in the room. Everyone slowly woke up, and around 5:40 we started the five minute walk to the Western Gate of theTaj Mahal . Surprisingly, we got to the ticket booth before any real crowd had formed, and by 6:15 we had all paid the 650 R's and were seeing for the very first time in all of our lives, the figure of theTaj Mahal slowly emerging from the misty morning darkness.
We were all sitting at the far end of the area the Taj is in so we could see the sun rise to our right and ultimately illuminate the Taj. Slowly but surely the Taj become more visible as the sun slowly rose, the outline turned from dull white, to a brighter white, to a yellowish-gold gleaming white marble wonder that is theTaj in the morning sunrise. By this point it was probably around 7:30, and with the sunrise over we all spend the next 3 hours wandering around theTaj Mahal and the various building included on the grounds. I can't even begin to explain the detail that the Taj has manifest in its design, but one example lies in the floral designs that cover various parts of it. Basically the floral designs are created by a technique called "in-lay" in which semi precious stones are set into the white marble. Now keep in mind that all the work on theTaj was done with hand tools, and its entire construction took about 20 years. Judging by the detail in just the in-lay sections alone, I wouldn't be surprised if the actual construction of the building took the least time of the whole process. The detail was truly magnificent, and however much I tend to stay away from tourist attractions, it is endlessly clear why theTaj attracts so many tourists. Simply put...unimaginably breath taking.
By this point we had seen all we came to see, and we decided to head back to Hotel Shajahan where we would eat breakfast at a nearby restaurant and then retire back to the hotel for some short naps on our clean-ish cots. So, that is exactly what we did, and about two hours later, I awoke and headed the Agra Fort.
The Agra Fort is really very nice, and again is a beautiful example of artistic architecture. After checking out the Agra Fort for a few hours, we went back, took another little nap, and then simply wandered around Agra for a while.
Eventually, I got a little hungry, so my friend Jake and Chris decided to join me in a small cafe across from the hotel. Joney's place is its name, and the only way to describe it is that it's a quaint greasy-spoon type Indian restaurant. The food was really cheap, and according to it's guest book (which had been signed by hundreds of people in at least 10 different languages) was praised for having "the best MaliKofta " in all of India. With such reviews, Jake, Chris and I decided to split the dish for a snack, and after merely one bite decided that we'd be coming back later that evening for dinner. So, around 9:00 Jake, Chris, I and about 7 other of the group headed back over toJoney's place where we feasted for about 110 R's each ($3).
Seeing as we were all exhausted, we finished dinner and then went to bed. The next morning we got up, checked out of the hotel and got onto our bus around 10:00 A.M. We then drove back to Jaipur via an old city calledFatapu Sikri, where we got out and explored the old ruins. Finally, we got back to Jaipur, and that's where I am now.
I hope all is well back in the states, and it should go without saying that I miss everyone. I hope my entries have been enjoyable, and Iapologize for the infrequency, but computer access isn't a given here.
On another note, my home stay is going extremely well. I've even accompanied my parents to a traditional Rajput wedding. The entire celebration lasted 5 days, but we only attended for a few hours on two different days. I'm also quickly learning Hindi. I'm by no means fluent, but I can form simple sentences, and it's becoming extremely helpful in regards to all sorts of everyday interaction. I'm also really learning my way around Jaipur. I know where to get whatever I need in regards to material things, and in a more emotional sense Jaipur isbeginning to feel like somewhat of a home. In the very least, it was extremely nice to come back to the relatively luxurious conditions of myhome stay family in contrast with the past weekends hotel.
Well, that's all for now. Much love to everyone, especially Mom, Dad, Jared and Rachel.