It's one of those pictures you've seen a million times. It looks beautiful in the photos, but it is just impossible to describe what it looks like when you first set eyes on it. Oddly enough, it is more spectacular the further away you are. Today we saw the Taj Mahal - it was one of those ethereal experiences you have where you think "It's impossible that I am here - this moment cannot be existing...." But it is, and was.
India is an interesting country so far though. It grows on you quickly (maybe literally!)Noisy too. There are so many people, and none of the systems have anywhere near the capacity that is necessary for things to be "organized". Yet, everything "is" organized. There is a ministry of everything building on every corner, and one is certain that Delhi is the centre of the world's largest democracy. But at the same time there is terrible poverty in the streets and extremely poor sanitation - it is no surprise that people get sick if they are not careful here.
Kristine is not sure what to think of the groping either. Men are very different here. She says there are two kinds. The first kind is the innocent little kid who is just exploring still, and runs away laughing at the whole situation. She can cope with those guys. The other kind are the older boys who know exactly what they are doing. She had one of them try it twice today and she quickly turned him away. Good for her. It is certainly better that she's walking around with a 220 lb tall guy though - the single western women seem to have a tougher time. Sometimes they will try to talk to her behind me when I'm not looking - these are the Indian young men. The older folks are wonderful though. Some are trying to sell you stuff, but the conversations are actually quite polite, in comparison to say, Indonesia.
It's interesting to watch the male culture here actually. There is very little interaction with women, but huge male bonding going on. All the men hold hands, put their arms around each other's shoulders and walk down the street laughing (and spitting) all day long. The caste system is also visible everywhere as the poorest people live in makeshift tarp tents under the overpasses, while some people drive around in a Mercedes, although the high end is pretty rare it seems. People are generally very poor.
Anyway, the Taj. The Taj seems to be suspended in mid air due to the ingenious design by the architect who raised it on a platform to give it nothing but sky for a backdrop. As you move towards it, it is perfectly framed through a series of grand gates. It looks like a painting from a distance, and only as you approach do you begin to see the details of the marble construction and all the intricately inlayed semi precious stones. The work is impeccable. Every flower and stem is actually a different kind of stone inlaid into the marble. The various screens are carved from individual pieces of marble. It must have taken years and a tonne of patience to get the thing done. It was just great to just stare at it.
The Indian government is doing what it can to preserve it. Cars are no longer allowed within 2 km of the Taj, as they believe that acid rain caused by the car exhaust and factory pollution is actually turning the thing yellow. It seems like a futile effort as the pollution is everywhere, and a 2 km buffer doesn't seem like it will do much. The other thing that's a bit hard to swallow is that the entry fee is a mere 10 Rp for Indians but 750 Rp for foreigners. They must find that hard to justify as they modernize - that's 30 cents for Indians and 25 bucks for us - not right. But then again, modernize?
Our driver (Jeet) drove us down to Agra from Delhi. We contemplated the train for a while, but it would have involved getting rickshaws at the other end to get to the Taj from the train station (and also the fort and Akbar's Tomb in the area), and the car just makes more sense for the extra amount it is over the trains. Buying out the hassle factor is what I call it. Some will call it a cop out I'm sure, but come to Delhi and say that! Anyway, it's entertaining riding along with Jeet who tells us things about places as we go by, and makes snide remarks about the various other drivers who are obviously incompetent. There is always a few overturned vehicles carrying something - usually some sort of farm product or maybe slabs of rock used for paving whatever. It's nuts. The road gets blocked by these accidents, so everyone then moves over and drives on the same side. Good thing we had Jeet - it would be impossible to drive here on your own I think!
Along with the Taj, we went to see the Agra Fort and Akbar's Tomb, both excellent sites that are somewhat overshadowed by the publicity of the Taj. Yet, these sites have a lot to offer as well. As we move through all these various sites we are starting to get a sense of the depth of Indian history and the various empires that have ruled this land, all the way to the British colonial days. Multiple religions are represented here, overlapping each other both in time and depth, including Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, and even a very small amount of Christianity. It's all part of that mosaic that India is. Or maybe it's just a melting pot with the heat turned off (so that nothing ever melted....)
Delhi and Agra were a huge surprise. We never expected to find such sites in the area. We pretty much thought it was all about the Taj - but there is so much more to discover. And consider our luck to have been a part of the Holi festival! But I guess that's what it's all about isn't it? The things you don't expect, not the ones you do.