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Jonathan: The Taj Mahal!

February 4, 2011

Once again I am unsure of where to even begin, for this past week has been yet another major and amazing adventure.  Perhaps it is most important to begin with our trip to Agra, the city of the famous Taj Mahal.

Because all of us wanted to visit, because we had been warned that Agra was difficult to navigate, and because it was cheaper than taking a train or public bus, we opted to take private van.  The insanity began as soon as we parked in the lot of the Taj Mahal, when our van was surrounded by close to ten beggars, wallas selling souvenirs, ‘tour guides,’ rickshaw drivers, and a couple of camels.  In a city where tourist rupees are the main source of income, the wallas are aggressive, conniving, tricky, flat out liars, and at times mean.  Their tactics range from the ‘friendly local aide’ to openly verbally and physically hostile.  After pushing our way through the mass, we were set upon the challenge of finding our way to the Taj Mahal itself.  Shop keepers had set up signs saying “Market Shortcut” to filter tourists off the official path and into their souvenir shops which were so claustrophobic they were certainly meant to overwhelm and provide a haven for pickpockets.  Instead, we did so scouting and found the official path through a quiet ‘garden’ (read: mangy grass with some depressing looking bushes).  Upon reaching the Taj Mahal ticket office, an eerily friendly man claimed to come from the Office of Tourism (he showed his badge just one too many times to be legitimate, which by the way said he was from “IndiaTourism.comm” with two “m’s”) and said that because we were such a big group he would purchase us our tickets; all we had to do was hand him a few thousand rupee.  Suspicious, we insisted on waiting in the very short line, and soon had our tickets.  But he did not stop, and insisted on giving us our “government sponsored welcome package.”  Not only did he continue to flash his badge, but he even pointed to a nearby sign whose text was reminiscent of the poorly written emails so often filtered into our Junk folders.  It was clearly a hoax.  When I told him that we weren’t interested and would like to go to the line, he began to yell at me in an effort to embarrass me, repeating that he was an official, at which point he then informed us for the low price of just 100 rupees a head he would allow us to skip the “three hour security line” and give us a wonderful tour.  Needless to say, we left him sputtering and made it through security in just thirty minutes.

The Taj Mahal itself provides such a stark contrast to the insanity outside.  While filled with tourists, it is devoid of hawkers and therefore provides a deep calm.  The Agra air is thick with pollutants, but the compound felt clean, fresh, and quiet.  For the first time in weeks, we were able to stroll and talk, and felt a true sense of freedom that cannot be achieved when dodging motorcycles, rickshaws, trucks, cars, people, shop owners, and wallas in the world outside.  The mausoleum itself is a beautiful and impressive sight that is just as moving as one imagines from the pictures and stories we are so familiar with.  Its translucent marble literally shimmers in the morning sunlight, and it seems to float in the light haze.  Surrounded by lush green lawns, fountains, and large stone courtyards, it is a relaxing and oddly peaceful place.  More than anything we enjoyed being able to let down our guard and be relaxed.

The experience was not all restive, however.  While we are all used to having our picture taken by perfect strangers at this point, the tourists at the Taj Mahal were aggressive in their constant requests to take pictures with us.  One man even had the gall to follow us for half an hour.  We were an attraction in our own right in a way that was far more aggressive than the benign cell phone pictures taken in Jaipur, and we quickly tired of it and began shooing away on-lookers.  But this unpleasantness was only temporary, and we overall enjoyed the experience very much.

After a late lunch, some began to feel fatigued and ill.  Secondly, while this trip was a chance to see Agra, it was also a chance to spend time together and let our guard down from our very proper and formal interactions with our host families.  Taken together, we decided to call it an early day and went to the hotel as the late afternoon sun began to calm.  After a short rest, most of us decided to go walk around the winding Agra alleys and explore.  While seemingly benign, the experience was exhausting and frustrating.  Children followed us and some threw stones.  Shop owners yelled constantly.  Rickshaw drivers harassed us, and made sexist comments.  People were constantly talking to us, at first appearing friendly but soon letting their true intentions known.  If we paused our walking, we were suddenly surrounded by wallas.  At one point, we heard someone yell very loudly in Hindi as we passed a parking lot, and suddenly souvenir sellers began to run at us from every direction.  One rickshaw driver followed us for over ten minutes with a running commentary about how all the women were so beautiful and how they were breaking his heart (he later followed our rickshaw back to our hostel, a very disconcerting experience indeed).  It wore on my patience, and I began to feel frustrated and angry.  The constant stimuli that India always seems to provide were wearing down on me, and I needed a break.

That night, we brought up India snacks to the roof top terrace with views of the Taj Mahal, and munched on crackers, chips, and other treats with cool drinks.  It was exactly what we all needed – to be American twenty-somethings for just a few hours.  But the pleasant feelings could not last…

The next morning, Sunday, close to half the group was ill, and the rest where mentally exhausted.  While we toured the beautiful Agra Fort, we were clearly drained.  Again, we relished the quiet gardens and the amazing views.  After a long lunch at a restaurant staffed entirely by children, we headed home.  By the time we reached Jaipur that night, we slept deeply.

The weekend marked an important shift for me in that the constant mental gymnastics began to wear down as we participated in the mutually exploitative process that is Indian tourism.  The constant stimuli here provide a great number of challenging and unfamiliar images, which I inevitably try to understand and contextualize.  However, I feel arrested in my lack of concrete tools to do so.  In the United States I am able to understand phenomenon around me, and have a developed understanding of justice.  If a challenging situation arises that inhabits a murky gray area, I feel I have the tools to confront this.  However here in India I feel constantly lost and unsure of myself.  I fear two damaging scenarios: one where I impose an uninformed western superiority complex onto Indian culture and practices and the other where I accept injustice as ‘Indian’ and therein accept inequality as ‘culture.’  I don’t want to engage in either, but discovering the in-between is elusive and challenging.  I knew that this trip would be difficult and I have held no illusions that I would not be in this very struggle, however I’m not sure I completely expected it to be this intense or this isolated.  I don’t miss much about the United States, and I feel relatively comfortable here in India.  I am seeing amazing sights, eating delicious food, am in excellent company, and am engaging fascinating paradigms.  I only vaguely miss toilet paper and shower-heads (in India, everyone uses a bucket bath).  But what I do miss terribly is a sense of understanding.  I feel arrested in my lack of knowledge.

I hate to leave this post on such a uneasy note, so I should also say that I am not alone in my struggle.  The ten students I am surrounded by are engaging, fascinating, and too asking themselves many challenging and difficult questions.  There is a degree of partnership in this adventure, and we are engaging in it together.  No one said this trip would be easy, and the challenges are largely why we are here.  This trip is a process, and we will continue to engage.

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