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Sunset, Sunrise

November 29, 2017

I pondered what to do in Agra on my first afternoon, knowing that I had a boat trip to see the sunrise at the Taj Mahal on my second day.  I suggested to the woman checking me in that I might go for a walk and she laughed  “it is not possible to walk.”

I checked into my room and brushed my teeth.  That’s what will ultimately do me in – brushing my teeth.  I have a bottle of water near me at all times, yet I immediately forget and put my toothbrush under the running water.  So far so good, but when it happens, that’ll be why.

Then off for a wonder.  The hotel in Agra is more resort like than I am used to.  On their website they tout that Conde Nast Traveller dubbed them one of the top five hotels with a view of Taj Mahal.  It seems to me that there can only be about 5 hotels here with a view of the Taj Mahal, but it’s not my cocktail party.

I wondered the beautiful marble lobby, watched the preparations for an Indian wedding and dodged the shops selling saris, pashminas, and jewelry and eventually made my way to the in-house travel agent Mr. Rajeev.  “I have a boat trip scheduled for tomorrow to see the sunrise, but what else shall I do?” I asked.  “What boat trip?  There is no water in the river.  Last time there was water was July,” was the reply.  Ok – that’s something do deal with later, I thought.  He probably just doesn’t want me to be booking with someone else.

He proposed that he could get me a drive to take me to the mini-Taj first and then the gardens behind the Taj Mahal for sunset.  Then tomorrow, I could get a guide and got to sunrise at the Taj, back for breakfast and then the Agra Fort.  I would see there was no water in the river, but if I still wanted a boat trip, I could go at sunset.  Fine – That worked for me.

Booked, he began to share with me the details of what I would see.  First the “mini Taj” a mausoleum built five years before the Taj Mahal.  It is a mughal style temple built by a woman for her father.  She earned the money to build it by selling her knitting.  “That’s incredible!” I exclaimed.  “I know,” Mr. Rajeev replied “a woman!” I let it go and he went on.  The garden would be the perfect place to watch the sunset.  “I think you will be safe there.”  Another one to let go.

Then we began to talk about sunrise at the Taj Mahal.  “What time do you want to get there?” he asked. “What time is sunrise?”  “Well, I don’t know.  Does it really matter if you’re there for sunrise?”  Um YES.  “Ok – I will let you know when you come back.”

I told Mr. Rajeev that I didn’t not want to shop.  Please don’t have them bring me to shops.  “They may just want to show you what Agra is famous for. If you don’t want to buy, no worry.”  “I won’t buy, please tell him no shopping.”

At 3pm I headed out with my driver Lal.  He pointed out large the old city and the preparations for the many weddings that would be taking place through the town.  Young men pushed carts with giant, flower bedecked Ganesha statues and glittering lights.  Women rode on the back of motor bikes in a flurry of pinks and greens.  In the distance, I could see the familiar dome of the Taj Mahal looking like a painting against the sky.

We arrived at the mini Taj and Lal pointed me inside.  It was breathtaking.  The marble inlaid with brightly colored flowers.  Like the Taj and I suspect all Mughal temples, there was perfect symmetry. I wandered to the far side and looked down to the river, or river bed as it were, where children were playing where water once ran.  There is no possible boat ride here.

From there we went to Mehtab Bagh, a garden on the north side of the Taj Mahal.  I followed the crowd to find a mall looking at the great tomb.  I actually caught my breath when I saw it.  I don’t know why it made me teary – Machu Picchu, Angkar Wat didn’t – but this did.  I could feel the tears well up.  I walked to the river bed and sat on what remained of the foundation of a planned black Taj Mahal, that was never completed as the king was sent to prison by his son.  The international crowd was in great spirits as we passed cameras around and compared photo angles.  When the bright orange sun melted into the horizon, the sky turning pink and dark as it did, we all cheered.  There was some hugging and I got teary again.

Back in the car, Lal stopped unexpectedly, opened my door and said come now.  This is what we are famous for and ushered me into a shop selling marble.  The door closed behind me and there was no sight of the outside.  Several men surrounded me telling me about the marble.  “No no, it’s beautiful, but I cannot buy it.”  I moved towards the door and men stopped me, saying “this way out,” and pointed me into another room, this one filled with silks.  I turned to move out of the room and men blocked me, their arms full of pashminas.  The next room was full of trinkets “these are cheap.  You can buy,” they cajoled.

“I WANT TO LEAVE,” I shouted, frustration mixed with fear.  The all moved aside and opened a door for me.  Back on the street Lal said “very nice, no.  you should buy.”  “Thank you, it was lovely. Let’s go back to the hotel now.”  “Yes yes,” he said and stopped at a fabric shop.  “I don’t want to go in.” I said.  Just for a moment, then we will go back. I went in, at least there were windows here.  I looked at a few saris and got back in the car.  Lal stopped driving at a jewelry store.  “I’m not going to buy anything,” I promised him and he finally brought me home.

Mr. Rajeev was there to greet me when we arrived back.  “How was it,” he asked.  “I told you no shopping. You can’t have a woman alone go into a store with many men and no exit.  It is very scary.”  He made many apologies and told me he would fire Lal, and I backed down.  Seriously, do men traveling alone have to deal with this?

Early this morning, I met Manish, my guide for the Taj Mahal.  We got there about 6:30 and waited til they opened the gates about 7.  “So much for sunrise,” I joked to the brits near me, but I was wrong.  The sun was stunning on the mausoleum and I got teary all over again.  A photographer joined us and posed me in all the usual ways.  Any photo you see of someone holding the Taj in their hand, or sitting on the “Diana bench” is, I have now learned, the work of the roaming photographers at work at the site.

After my photo shoot, we donned booties over our shoes to protect the site and Manish told me how it was built for the beloved wife of the Mughal, one of four wives, the other three got nothing, who died giving birth to her 14th child.  I looked up at the glowing dome and noted that no one would love me enough to build something like that for me.  “If he really loved her, he wouldn’t have made her have 14 children,” Manish replied.  He is my favorite guide.

We wondered the sit for a while and sat on a bench as he told me of his dream, god willing, to ride a motorbike around the country to raise money to send children to school.  I love him.

Next stop, Agra Fort.  The home base of the Indian army,  as well as a historic part to visit.  There were four palaces available to us of the many that were originally on the site.  The first was the home of a Hindu and his four wives.  “He was a very good politician,” Manish informed me.  “One wife was Muslim, one Hindu, and one Christian, all the people loved him.”  Then he showed me the sex room.  Apparently all palaces of the time had one.

The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort are connected by a 2km garden walk which I suggested we take rather than go shopping.  Manish seemed surprised, but game.  We had to cross a busy intersection, cars and motorbikes zipping everywhere.  On the other side Manish cheered me for my bravery in getting across.  I thought it was fun.

The garden is in a bit of disrepair and is overrun with monkeys and was great.  Devoid of tourists, Manish and I had time to talk about politics (like everyone else I’ve met, he expressed shock and despair that Trump is in office) and the Indian government and pop music.  i was back at the hotel by 1 for lunch, a nap, and some pool time.  Now I am off for an Ayurvedic massage.  I’ll let you know how it goes.









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