From: Dave (email@example.com)
To: Annette (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Sep 09, 2004 11:20 AM
Subject: Guru Shmuru
I think my hotel here in Agra was formerly a prison.
It was not until two nights of hellish heat that I realized the roof was painted BLACK, making the room hot enough to broil a pot roast. When I staggered out at dawn, sweaty and delirious a few kilos had been sauna-d away.
Twilight zone indeed.
If there is a war between the traveler and the tourist then Agra, home of the Taj Mahal must be a key battlefield. There are not many places in the world where Jesus booted backpackers rub shoulders with khaki clad Sony camcorder gripping tourist herds in such concentrated numbers, but the Taj Mahal is certainly one of them. All day and everyday the beauty of India's most amazing monument plays second fiddle to the Indian tourists who gawk at the western Haves and the Have Mores whose vastly differing styles of dress is puzzling to the extreme:
'You must have caste system in your country too,' wondered a young man who was visiting the Taj with his new wife.
'Is this what it means to be filthy rich?' asked another, who was proudly off to San Diego State for a degree, trying to make a joke out of the tie dyed shirts with cigarette burns and worn out flip flops whose owners carried American Express cards.
And all the while, the two opposing armies of westerners tried their best to ignore each other, one with their noses stuck into their Lonely Planets, the other straining to hear their guides commentary blasted out of a megaphone:
'Oh my gawd therz a caow lickin' mah leyg!' shouted some woman who was beet red and frantically waving a fan to keep off the heat as her behemoth tour bus was being turned around for trip back to Delhi. A calf was in fact licking her leg and her husband was nowhere to be found to shoo it away.
'Do you take dollars?' shouted a man at the ticket booth. 'American dollars?' he thundered, waving the bills as though they would open any door in the world.
'Walter. Walter. I can't get the focus right on the camcorder. Walter….'
If you are deemed to be a 'half caste' i.e. someone who falls somewhere in between these two oil-and-water groups then expect to get asked lots of questions by visitors milling around the Taj, and more importantly to those asking them politely requested to pose in holiday pictures. In less than three hours, I was snapped more than a dozen times, standing next to grandmothers and uncles and babies, winding up in family scrap books as far away as Bangalore and Chennai.
Others came from even further away: during the day I mingled with mustached, turbaned Rajastanis, fierce, bearded Sikhs, middle class Delhi families with wizened grandmothers in tow, fat businessmen from Kolkatta, Diesel clad teenagers from Mumbai, a troupe of Kathikali dancers from Kerala, and even a Bollywood model was there, pouting prettily while having her picture taken in a designer sari.
It was like a microcosm of the subcontinent.
The monsoon actually broke over Taj Mahal today. The fierce morning heat scorched the white marble and the glare was so bright you could barely look at it; but once the thunder and lightning moved in, the cooling showers drenched the monument and turned the Taj almost translucent. The weather that day was also a strange metaphor for what is going on in India at that moment: a fierce drought was expected in Rajastan, while to the east, record monsoon flooding in Assam had killed hundreds and left millions homeless, all in the same week.
A little side note on Indian newspapers.
Each day the Times of India's front page has some tiny blurb, never more than 50 words, about either a suicide pact between two sisters because their parents couldn't afford their dowries, or a student who hanged himself because he was caught reading porn by his teacher, or a husband and wife who had drowned themselves to avoid being a burden on their kids. Whether an Indian print version of Jenny Jones or Jerry Springer, I don't know.
But it is the first thing I read each morning right along with my cup of sweet chai.
Which brings me to chai. Chai wallahs are some pretty cool dudes. Clogging train stations and carriages they taunt you to drink their tea served in earthenware cups which are just chucked out the window when you're through drinking. With train tracks popular outdoor toilets in India, a well aimed chai cup can go far in reducing the stress and that I-want-to-rip-that-fuckers-head-off feeling when yet another dolt screams at you in Hindi or acts like a fuckwit when you ask for directions. You might not hit the target every time but it does make for some cheap fun. (The train has pulled away unfortunately before the hail of swear words is hurled in your direction anyway)
Unlike Varanasi where the attraction of the place is the worn edged down at heels feel the town exudes, Agra's charm ends at the front gates of the Taj Mahal: the city is polluted, concrete ugly, and the touts particularly vicious, claiming their meat the moment their prey step off the train until the moment they leave, earning commissions off of restaurants, souvenir stalls, internet stations, and more.
Even worse are the auto rickshaw drivers, who were as deft at snatching up tourists as the flying monkeys were in The Wizard of Oz. No one stands a chance once they emerge from the safety of the Fort railway station, where they get leeched onto immediately.
And, of course, this being India your name abruptly changes too:
'Hello, Change Money.'
'Hello, Visa Cash Advance.'
'Hello, ATM, over here.'
Outwitting these vampires was all travelers talked about in Agra and actually it is easier than you think. Once they know you aren't interested in being dragged to their cousin's gem shop, or to buy some hideous marble model of the Taj, you get dropped like a millstone, and may experience what happened to me: when I made an appointment to view the Taj from across the river at six a.m., my driver simply disappeared, happier to sit at the train station at dawn, patiently waiting to vampire himself onto next wave of fresh arrivals.
Thanks dude, thanks very much. A well-aimed chai cup will be sent hurtling in your direction very soon. I guarantee it.
Thankfully, his colleagues were numerous and I was only slightly delayed for the sunrise. As I watched the Taj's domes turn pink and orange in the morning light, it was one of those skin tingling moments when yet another world wonder leaps from the pages of National Geographic and stands before you in 3-D.
That’s the miracle of travel. Full stop. From 2-D to 3-D in 6.3 seconds.
A troupe of villagers were crossing the river, carrying brass pots filled with water on their heads. A few hundred meters away, a fight broke out between four dogs. They had found a windfall: an unidentified carcass had washed up on the opposite shore and for a moment I thought it was human, especially after coming from Varanasi, when one morning a human body did indeed float past my boat. I was relieved to see a pair of horns.
Further up the river I watched a grandmother supervise her grandchildren wash the family water buffaloes. When she saw me, she said something to her grandchildren, who stuck their hands out and shrilly screamed, 'Money!'
Though huge, like a lot of countries India is also one of those places where you travel and see the same faces in different places. Though I have only been here a week, many of the people staying in Varanasi had moved on to Agra: five Spanish nuns who were taking a break from Mother
Teresa's hospice in Calcutta; an American woman living in Rome who had just arrived in India to shoot her first silent feature film; six Scottish students who were studying the Koran in Pakistan and were doing a comparative religions project in India; a British couple who were DJ's in Ibiza; a French woman who was traveling with her Indian boy toy, a sitar player at Baba's School of Music in Varanasi; and last, a Chinese guy from Shanghai who had bathed with the locals each morning in the Ganges and who spoke passable Hindi.
Oddly, the beauty of the Taj was never a topic of conversation, though the nauseating hierarchy persisted here. Those having spent less than three months in India were banished to the kiddie traveler table. And even after Japan, Korea, China, much of Europe, East Africa, Australia, South America, all that mattered was India.
So you know where that left me.
Even at the kiddie traveler table, the treachery and deceit at the hands of the town's touts was all that was talked about. Well, that and what color your bowel movements were the previous evening. Seriously. In India, a kind of spell falls over you and no topic here is taboo, not even potty talk. So, in India you sit, swathed in a silky shawl of humidity and swatting at mosquitoes, discussing the inner, intimate workings of the lower intestine, your deeply profound experiences with antibiotics and marveling at the geniuses working for GlaxoSmithKline.
Sickness it was deemed, and seemed, somehow tightly linked to the suffering of travel. Especially in India. Rushing to the toilet every fifteen minutes brought you closer to god; to projectile vomit was to prove your loyalty to the tribe; and to have malaria, well that was the Holy Grail. Many travelers seemed to reveal this malady as though they had earned a Purple Heart in battle, not while passed out trashed on a beach on Zanzibar.
Eventually there was no more wind left in the talk of illness and crap, and I did something very brave. I stood up and sat down at the grownups table. Just like that. When a stringy haired Kiwi girl swiveled her head round and asked me how long I had been in India, my brazen smile and complete ignorance of the English language earned me a place at the table.
I'm sorry, I don't speak New Zealand.
Here, the conversation turned to the other topic in India: spiritualism. It's what kept most of these at the adult traveler table talking to each other, despite such diverse backgrounds, cultures, and their haughty love of travel. All, it seemed, had come to India to soak up the religious vibes that India was famous for. The question was then posed around the table, what sect do you follow, who is your spiritual advisor, in short: 'Who is your guru?'
The talking went on for endless hours, trashing Catholicism, reworking
Judaism, rewriting Buddhism to include Christian elements, reviving Pagan rituals merged with crystal therapy. It went on and on and on. Each person, it seemed, had smugly found their spiritual drug of choice, in the form of ashrams, gurus and spiritual leaders, which in most cases were the sole reason these people had come to India in the first place.
The American lady swore by her ashram, she'd been there as a child, dragged halfway around the world by her mother who had ended up meeting her second husband in the ashram south of Goa. The Chinese guy wanted to start his own, and the British couple started talking enthusiastically about their ashram that was somewhere west of Chennai.
'Do you want my guru's email address? I have it if you want it.'
'My parents think I'm crazy, but my ashram never asks for money, just
'Just because these places make you take an AIDS test doesn't mean
people sleep around there, we meditate most of the day anyway.'
'My ashrams just got a website, you can find it through Google.'
Only the Scots were unconvinced and argued fiercely against these places claiming them to be shams, scams, and actually worked to remove people from the country they had come to visit. They went on bragging how they were in India with 'real' intentions, eating with the people, living with the people, and learning the language. Nothing they said or did ever compromised these principles, and one intended to spend at least two more years in Pakistan at the University in Karachi, despite the recent violent attacks on westerners there. To further prove this point, they pointed to their clothes and shoes, all made by Pakistani tailors and craftsmen.
The next morning the six had moved on and the hotel manager came in at breakfast laughing. 'Hey, your friends left behind some interesting stuff in their rooms. Five boxes from Pizza Hut!'
I’m moving westward to Rajastan next as temperatures continue to rise. It was 42 degrees today here, meaning my room tonight will probably be about 60.
Ding. The turkey is done.