Sunday, May 9, 2010

Week 22: Delhi & Agra

Pictured here are Kris and I celebrating our 27th wedding anniversary at the Taj Mahal in Agra. The view from our Taj Plaza lodging at sunset was wonderful -- though not as spectacular as being at the historic grounds the day after (on Mother`s Day). The beauty of the place was only tarnished a little by the fact that Kris has had trouble sleeping for several nights and I have been making too many emergency runs to a toilet! Finally, finally, I may be blessed with an ailment that can peal a few pounds off my whalish belly!

Much of this week has been spent in New Delhi where we had lodging at the Asian Guest House on Kasturba Gandhi Marg at Connaught Place. The lodging itself was a good introduction to the capital of India: an aging structure with the lobby under construction (dust everywhere and elctrical wires exposed) on the second floor (above a modern art gallery) and with very friendly staff who sought to be helpful in every way they can. At about $20 per person per night, we were able to secure two air-conditioned rooms, each with its own western-style toilet and TV. Basically clean, though with bugs, our room had no window outside, the toilet seat was broken, and the advertised hot water was scarce.

Day temperatures these days in New Delhi sour up to 48 degrees celcius (about 115 farenheit) and left all four of us drinking lots of bottled water! Mira and Naomi the prize for best shoppers, scoring many items for themselves as well as for friends. I would give myself the prize for most miles walked, as forays to the Gandhi Peace Foundation, Fulbright House, and the train station (where I was unable to refund a ticket) helped me average at least 3 miles each day. My walking was by choice, helping me see life up close and slowly while avoiding the overcharging of auto rickshaw drivers who see often treat tourists as cash cows. Many good conversations were had during my outings, including time to visit with current staff at the Gandhi Peace Foundation which had sponsored my travels throughoput India 39 years ago. Some had been employed there that long -- allowing us to discuss people we knew who are no more of this world.

Kristine gets the prize for sheer endurance. One day we hired a taxi to drive the four of us to the bmain mosque in Delhi, the Red Fort (built when moslems ruled north India), and other historic sites. She must have walked well over a mile that day, in the scorching heat, up and down stairs, and across broken pavement. Though she was sore the next day, she and I still managed to spend two hours in the National Museum, viewing displays of paintings, sculpture, and artifacts dating back over 6,000 years! Incredible India is the slogan on many posters which advertise for tourists, but it is all true: India is incredible!

To enjoy the beauty, however, is also to endure some pain (oneself, as well as the obvious problems visible most everywhere). Images of estreme poverty, organized begging, and children selling pencils come to mind -- as well as the smells of garbage mixed with sewage. It is rare for a public toilet to be found, and even then it will be at least 10 rupees (about 20 cents). Many people in India`s capital live on less than 100 rupees today, with 1/3 of the population estimated to be malnourished. my most touching moment in the city was with Kris when our auto rickshaw was besieged by several people asking for money at a stop light. One old woman saw the water flask I carry with me and clearly gestured her desire for a drink. I shared it with her, pouring the precious liquid into her dirty hands as she requested. Even water, so basic to life, is becoming less available here....

As I write now, it is Mother`s Day and the Taj Mahal can be seen from where I sit near a window. The Taj, one of the wonders of the world, a tomb built by Shah Jahan out of grief for the loss of his beloved wife while she was giving birth -- is a remarkable work of art. Still, the Shah taxed his people heavily for the resources needed to build this tomb and many died for it -- including the artisans who were executed so as to insure they could never build another monument like it. The amazing marble structure is, in fact, stained in the blood of the poor -- and yet it still commands awe as a thing of beauty. How full of contradictions we are who build such structures, and how human also are we who can appreciate them.

Tonight we travel north to the cooler climates of Rishikesh and Manali. We travel back to New Delhi by car ($100 round trip) to catch an overnight bus ($54 for all 4 of us) to Rishikesh. Put together with the cost of our modest accommodations, fees assessed to tourists who visit the Taj, and a little shopping, the four of us will have spent in two days what the old woman needing water in Delhi will likely have in an entire year…. If, from one viewpoint, we have a right to enjoy such times as these, from most any other perspective we also have a duties to help improve the lives of others….

Tune in next week to hear of some of the adventures which, no doubt, will be in store for us there! Know that we are thinking of our friends and family every day, with love.

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