Cows, Collisions and Haute Couture
Shopping in Jaipur, India’s center for gems, can be quite an eye-opener. Our budget does not, however, allow for ruby tiaras, so I settle for a length of hand-stamped silk. Choosing one piece from the myriad of designs is not an easy feat and the kids are not too supportive, so I settle quickly. I am set on taking a few meters home, when suddenly I am surrounded by lengths of measuring tape and a flurry of notations between two men who have appeared from nowhere. It turns out that the price of my purchase includes the custom tailoring of an outfit of my choice, so I settle on a design and leave, being reassured that the garment will be delivered to my hotel in a few hours...I have my doubts.
On the way back to the hotel, Don has a little run in with a cow. One thing I have neglected to mention about the freewheeling Indian cow is that many have very big horns. The cows are quite complacent and generally ignore the World around them, happily munching on cardboard. The danger involved in the mixture of horned cows and human pedestrians comes when the crowds on the streets reach a certain mass, the probability of getting stabbed by a horn increases greatly, thus the goring of Don on a downtown street. Luckily Don escaped virtually unscathed, his shirt however became the cow’s dessert. Back at the hotel, the night wears on and I am fearing that my rupees have actually bought a few Tuborg for the shopkeepers, when a knock on the door heralds the arrival of a perfectly crafted dress; Don should have ordered a shirt.
Our next stop is Agra. One simply cannot journey all the way to India and not see the Taj Mahal! We leave early in the morning as we’ve a few stops to make on the way: the ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri and Kaleadeo National Park. The road to Agra is extremely busy, and our pal Jack proves his prowess at driving (or perhaps his good karma) along the way. We pass through many roadside towns, which seem to be built for the expressed purpose of fixing Tatas. These towns are built right along the edge of the road, with their wares (bits of rubber, old alternators, batteries etc.) proudly displayed piled on the tin roofs. The children play amid the broken-down vehicles with glee, and, as children are apt to do, with little regard for the traffic streaming by inches away from their doorsteps. Suddenly a little girl darts out from between two dwellings, and Jack’s lightning-quick reflexes land us all safely on the curb. I don’t know how Jack’s heart was, but I think I found mine under my tongue, and the boys’ eyes were as big as Tata hubcaps. Jack berates the parents of the little girl, with the support of the crowd which has gathered, our hero Jack has "done good" and we’re off on the road again.
Kaleado Park is a World Heritage bird sanctuary, and we thought a little fresh air and a break from the road would be welcome, so we head in. The variety of feathered friends here is quite astounding; there have supposedly been 415 species sighted. The highlight for us, though, was being able to get within a few feet of a seven-foot python dozing in the sunshine.
Fatehpur Sikri was the Mogul capital during Akbar’s reign in 1570, and the huge fortress sits, virtually unchanged, on a hillside overlooking the dusty plains. The fortress is actually a city, which you enter through an impressive 54-meter high gateway. The interior has many beautiful buildings rich in stone latticework, and inlay surrounded by massive walls. You can almost hear the history.
Weary, we continue on to Agra, to have our way impeded by the bear men. The much-traveled road from Fatehpur Sikri to Agra has become a lucrative spot for the folk with dancing bears. The performers leap out in front of your vehicle every twenty feet or so, with their bear on a short chain, dancing for all its might, in hopes that you’ll slow down and pay a few rupees for a private show. The bears are smallish (as bears go) but what amazes me is the length of their fur; surely any animal native to this sweltering climate should be better equipped? Feeling sorry for the bears and slight contempt for the masters, we continue off to Agra.
Upon arriving in Agra, I decide to change some money to save time in the morning. Changing money in this country can be an adventure in itself. The last time we were here, I made the mistake of heading to a bank, which took over two hours, and ended up hot, frustrated and shortchanged. I now deal exclusively with exchange kiosks. The rupee has a way of making you feel like a millionaire; you can cash a few travellers’ cheques and fill up two moneybelts and every pocket as well. The problem with exchanging money is that there never seems to be any small bills, and with baksheesh expected at every turn, those small 10 rupee notes (25 cents) are invaluable. I, for one, after my experience in Agra, will never again complain about getting too few small bills. I headed to an exchange place and promptly signed away $200 in traveler’s cheques, to have the whole lot given to me in 10-rupee notes! It takes a lot of creative packing to conceal those many (560) bills on your body!
The Taj Mahal, probably the most recognizable landmark in all of India, epitomizes the over-the-top opulence and spirituality of Indian architecture. Pictures cannot do the building justice. The size and detail of this structure, the surreal setting, and serene majesty meld together to make an unforgettable experience. The construction took over 20,000 laborers twenty years to complete, and in the end it is actually but a tomb. The fairytale romance that spurred the construction is a testimony to love. Constructed by Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died after 17 years of marriage and 14 children, the Taj Mahal is her tomb. Jahan intended his own tomb to be constructed across the river, in similar opulence, of black marble; he was, unfortunately, deposed by his son Aurangzeb and spent the remainder of his life a prisoner in Agra Fort, overlooking his wife’s tomb. Romantic to a fault, the story of the Taj contains deceit, intrigue and love, a fairytale story if ever there was one.
Onward to Agra Fort, we are becoming a little fort-weary. Nonetheless , the views towards the Taj, shimmering in the heat across the Yamuna River, are fabulous. This red sandstone fort, yet again constructed by Emperor Akbar in 1565, is to be our last fort in India, and we head off for a rooftop respite watching the sun go down over the Taj.