I arrive in Agra, tired, dazed. I find a hotel half a kilometer from the Taj Mahal. I visit the Taj Mahal. It is spectacular, and the sun is shining, but I am unfortunately unimpressed. It's not quite as big as I had imagined. And I can't stop thinking about how it was built as a testament to the king love for his wife. She died while giving labor to his 14th child. If really cared *that* much for her, maybe he should have considered giving the dangreous child-baring a rest!? She could have been around longer. All I could see was the Taj Mahal as a great (and very symmetrical, I might add) monument to some selfish, twisted version of "love," and it was just uninspiring. Did I mention it cost 750 rupees to get in? That's the foreigner price. Indian nationals pay a fraction of that to see the twisted love-monument.
This is yesterday. Yesterday it hit me. I came here thinking, "I've turned myself inside out so many times, nothing can rattle me any more." I had a realization this monring about half an hour ago, about my trip, about everything. Maybe even an ephiphany: I have now become totally overwhelmed here–the phones, the trains, the rickshaw drivers, the rain, the language barrier, the pestreing insects, the pestering men….. And then I was thinking, "Well, that sucks. I didn't figure it out. Sure, I've collected lots of wonderful pieces here, and I'll come home and put them together, and create a story that gives it meaning, as humans do." But truthfully, I'm kind of just sick of India at this moment. I fought the phone guy over 10 cents this morning after getting off the train. And realized how silly that is.
What I realized… is that India has touched me. Has stripped away a mask of politeness I wear much of the time and is now asking me to reach deeper and find what's underneath. Not the angry, reactive part necessarily, but that it's touched me in this way is a sign that this place has affected me deeply. And now…?
I'm off to Varanasi on the train tonight. The City of Light, the "Soul of India". Rested and ready for the last leg of my Indian adventure.
Thirty miles from Pakistan, Amritsar, home of The Golden Temple, is full of Sikh pilgrims. In fact, I am on a pilgrimage to see The Golden Temple. I arrive late in the evening. The driver keeps asking which hotel, but I want to stay at the Temple, so drops me off at the gates. People are sleeping all over the stone courtyard, families, old men, dogs. There's a place for foreigners to sleep with lockers and a big room full of cots. It's maybe midnight. I put my things away, cover my head, and skip along with a couple of people going to watch the sacred text be transported from the temple to its resting place. The Temple at night is shining and reflecting gold light on the water below. I'm suddenly really happy. I made it here. I eat a free communal meal of dahl and chapatti there and then get about three hours of sleep before everyone in the courtyard wakes up and begins yapping for who knows what.
Turns out I've missed my train–it was at 8 am, not 8 pm. I've had three hours sleep, I'm carrying both my backpacks, I'm sick of waiting in line at the train station, watching people cut in front of me. I walk to the tracks and wait for the next train, to wherever. Maybe I'll go to Chantigar. Maybe I'll just go a little ways and find a hotel to rest. I'm tired and hungry. I walk outside again, and go to three ratty, run-down hotels that are all full. I walk back to the station. People give me the wrong train information over the next three hours. I try to get on a train to Chantigar, but the kids helping me show my ticket to the agent, and he says it's not valid. I walk up the steps, and for the first time, realize there's another side of the station. Rickshaw drivers are pestering me, and I just have a meltdown, sniffling and crying, and telling them to leave me alone. Finally I let one of them take me to a nice hotel nearby, and it turns out the new city has been there all along, quietly laughing and waiting for me.
The hotel manager books me a train to Agra for the next day, and I'm grateful until I realize it's a 16 hour overnight ride instead of the 7 hours it should be. My rickshaw driver friend brings me back to the station, now in the absolutely pouring rain, that seems like the real monsoon kind. I'm dripping wet completely. The stupid train spends more time in the stations than it does moving. I could have gotten to Agra faster if I'd walked there backwards. And, no, dude, you do not get a kiss for helping me get my bags onto the top bunk. I fell asleep listening to the rain and Krishna Das on my iPod.
I had folded the piece of paper with my flight reservation exactly where the departure time was printed. And consequently missed my flight to Amritsar. Spent a night in a nice hotel, with the first bathtub I've seen in India, and caught a flight to Delhi the next morning. On the flight, I met a guy who does political work in India. He put me up in his state's residential house for free that night, not far from the Prime Minister's house. Went with "his boys" to the Indian airlines booking office and ended up getting my flight to Amritsar booked for free as well. People like meeting foreigners! While sitting around with this political guy, who was constantly on one of his two cell phones, I was engaging in one of my guilty pleasures here… watching American movies on HBO India. My friend handed me the phone and said, "Talk to the King of ____." So, I spoke to the king for a few minutes, who was quite fun, and also according to wikipedia, one of the most elligible bachellors in the country.
Turns out flights to Amritsar leave from the Intrnational airport–9 kilometers from Domestic! I had 45 minutes to drive there, check in, go through two security checks, customs, and find the gate. I ask the taxi driver, how much to the International terminal? "As you like." he says. So now it's two drivers, who are trying to rush me to the airport for my flight are also trying to rip me off. Consequently, they emit an air of danger that put me on high alert. They wanted 20 American dollars for the ride. I said, "You're joking, right?" and then after a moment said, "Whatever, just bring me to the airport" and thought I'll deal with it when I'm safely there and in public. I arrived fine, took my backpacks, threw them 200 rupees, and took off, shaking, for the ticket counter.
The setting of the sun in Alleppey and Cochi brings a beautiful, diffuse pink light every evening that I've only seen very occassionally where I live. I went to two parties in Allephuzah with Jay and Bones, the young dudes of Nani Residnce where I was staying. They were funny–constant tricksters and jokers–very different from the multitudes of serious Indians I've been meeting. Watching Indian guys dance with each other to "Om Shanti Om!" (a dance-pop hit here) was wonderful and hilarious, and I successfully avoided actually dancing with them… the young drunk Indian man is, if you can believe it, even more persistant than the sober one.
Took the train up to Cochin and stayed just inland of the giant fishing nets. Got a palm reading from an old man by the shore who said I'd have five kids. Ha!? Took a cooking class with a sweet retired couple and learned how to make an exquisite south Indian meal of coconut thoran, vegetable rice, and tomato fry. The next day I had a perfect cheese and tomato omlette and a warm death-by-chocolate cake at an adorable cafe called Teapot.
Afterward, I walked across the peninsula to Jew Town where I took a couple of illegal pics of the synagogue. Jews came from Israel somewhere between 1000 BC and 1400 AD (they're still not sure) and inhabited a few parts of India. In 1568, they built the synagogue I visited. There were about 2000 Jews left here, and all but 12 are not in Israel. And guess what?! I met one of the last surviving Cochin Jews! Her name is Sara Cohen, and she's 70 or 80. A total sweetheart. Met a family of South African Jews a the shul as well and we walked around Cochi for the evening. That night, we ate at an Italian place called Upstairs (which was.. upstairs). I ordered a panacotta for desert, hoping to eat it with my second piece of death-by-chocolate cake, and sadly the panacotta melted in its hot chocolate sauce on the way home. I ate it anyway. It's only a week since I was doing yoga four hours a day. What happened? Rickshaw drivers are constantly wanting to bring you here and there, and they're stunned when you want to walk somewhere.