Triplogue - Delhi to Agra

7-9 November, Delhi (f)

We went from Thailand to India without even leaving the Bangkok airport. The holding area where our luggage was scanned and we queued for check-in was full of colorfully dressed Indian women and their drab male counterparts. People jockeyed for position in line, nudging, bumping and even pushing one another. Just in front of us a couple dressed in western garb but of Indian heritage were carrying a number of curious-looking items. A juvenile palm tree sprouted from the husband’s backpack, and in the woman’s hands was a clump of what appeared to be wild grass complete with roots and dirt attached. Unable to suppress my curiosity I asked, "Are you allowed to bring such things into India?" She replied knowingly, "India is not as strict as America in these matters; we can bring back whatever we like." She later explained that the clump of weeds was lemon grass and the palm was of a variety she’d come to love and was bringing both back for transplant in her garden. In my mind I acted out what it would look like if she presented those items to U.S. Customs -- not a pretty picture.

In line amongst the turban-headed hoards was a lone cyclist looking a little confused, alone and unhealthily skinny. His bike stood next to the counter, un-boxed and tagged for Delhi. I shoved my way to the front of the line (I’d learned well from the Chinese) in order to introduce myself. Matt explained that he was on his way to India to begin his twelve-month trip there on his bicycle. He had quite a lot of baggage, seemingly prepared for any situation that might arise. I swam back upstream to Andy after agreeing to meet up with Matt later.

While I was away a gaily decorated group of Israelis had joined us pilgrims in line. Brightly colored hair, multiple tattoos, more piercings than a pin cushion and toting requisite drums and other bangles, they drew greater attention than the bangled Rajasthanis. It might have been because they were so loud that everyone turned to stare, or was it their attire? The four seemed noisier than the two hundred others in line. As we were about to reach the head of the line a pack of bare-footed rastas bearing dreadlocks filed in. I hoped and prayed we’d not be seated with them and the Israelis in "Bongo" class.

The boarding process was decidedly more civilized than our experience China, where one risks death by trampling each time they fly. When finally settled on the plane we found ourselves just a few rows behind the rastas and the Israelis. They provided amusement for all. Between them and the quaintly clothed Indians aboard I was beginning to wonder if we should have come in costume as well. The Sikh freaks found the Israeli freaks especially entertaining. Swathed from head to tow in white linen, beards and hair tucked-up tightly into their turbans, the Sikhs posed in front of the Israelis for a photo. They giggled and exchanged knowing glances while they acted as though recording their trip for the folks at home, Their true motive was to capture a picture of the psychedelic Israelis and the resulting shenanigans were Curly and Moesque.

Arrival was similar to that at any Asian airport. A dingy and dirty fluorescent-lit marble hall full of disoriented stony-faced travelers stood biting their lips and hoping for no hassles at customs and the baggage carrousel. We were not that lucky. Though greenhorn-Matt’s un-boxed bike appeared swiftly we were left staring soberly at the idle baggage belt. I sought assistance. I asked if our bikes might be in back behind the door marked "Oversized baggage", the reply was swift. "No sir, we have already checked. Have you sure it is not on the belt?", he asked. I replied as calmly as I could that they were bicycles in boxes and you could see them from Bombay if they were on the belt. As the aforementioned door opened and the bikes appeared 30 minutes later the clerk produced a claim form and began to ask me more questions. "I don’t think this is necessary now…."

Now that we all had our bikes and gear we rolled out to find the car. Matt tagged along. We’d agreed to give Matt a ride into town if the car could accommodate everyone and everything. This seemed a tall order, rather like the game of putting straws on the camels back. After all we had three bikes and corresponding accouterments, and how big could an Indian taxi be? Amar our willowy Sikh guide and the driver were not only willing but giddily enthusiastic about the challenge. From nowhere a small regiment of five helpers appeared and began stuffing and stacking gear into and on the cab with military precision. With a few remaining chunks resting on our laps the doors slammed and we were off. The vehicle looked not unlike the Clampet’s truck as they drove into the driveway of their new house on the first episode of the "Beverly Hillbillies." And a fine machine it was, our cab. A gleaming new Ambassador (which look surprisingly similar to 25 year-old Ambassadors) with its fifties-ish rounded lines and upright posture shuttled us into town.

I learned an important lesson early -- be wary of the question "Why?" Unsuspectingly I asked "Why is the taxi-meter mounted on the outside of the car?"

"Because that is where they put them," was the answer, given in a polite, firm and typically sing-song tone that indicated that there would be no further discussion of the matter.

Delhi air was thick with an ungodly amount of dust fogging my vision, adding a dreamlike quality to the streetscene but turning my throat into raw meat. Upon arriving at our rather overpriced but swank launching point for our Indian adventure we ditched the car, checked into our hotel, and helped Matt navigate to his hotel.

After dropping our gear we hit the street to discover Connaught Circus by night. Though only eleven P.M. on a Saturday night it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop; even the sacred cows were snoozing. Nothing was open, not even an Indian 7-11 and we were without drinking water at the hotel. Though chowing on the thick and chunky air, I began to feel a little hungry. We stopped at the one open food stand on the circle. I was just opening my mouth to order a samosa when behind the counter and server, a rat skittered across the stove.

No longer hungry but still thirsty as hell we sought transportation to find something to drink. We finally found an autorickshaw (a three-wheeled scooter-taxi hybrid, like a small covered Thai tuk-tuk) that would take us to find water and then back to the hotel for only fifty rupees (later we were to learn that we could have gone back and forth to the airport for the same amount). After the water mission, upon our arrival back at the hotel, our driver brought forth the rest of his broad and rich product line. With his head bobbing he said, "You want to go fucking place, one or two hours, very cheap?" We politely refused and exited the vehicle, after which he called after us, "I have very good hashish too." It was comforting to know all this was available.

The next day we arose early and began assembling our bikes in the forecourt of the hotel. Here we first learned of the mechanical curiosity of Indians. Within a few moments of cracking the box and tightening the first bolt every idle worker at the lodge was having a peek at us and the bikes. It was clear that our transportation was far more interesting than us and elicited the bulk of the questions put to us. Not unfamiliar to us were: "Did you bring the bicycles from your country?" and "What is the value of the cycles?". What was new was the rather intense fascination with the gears. "Multi-gear systems" are apparently rather rare in India and attract more than their fair share of attention.

Later that day we set out for an afternoon bus tour of Delhi. Near the tour’s designated meeting place was a rather stark little restaurant called the Coffee Home. The restaurant was relatively easy to find, however the tourist office was behind off of an alley and nearly impossible to find. Asking Delhites directions introduced us to the Indian universal answer. It is hard to describe, but have you ever seen one of those artificial dogs that sit on the rear window ledge of a car? Their heads roll around from side to side with the center of gravity somewhere near their nose. That is the movement Indians make when they answer a question of which they are unsure of the answer. We saw a lot of head bobbing before finding the tour office.

Following the first of many frighteningly cheap and satisfying meals we caught our bus at the tourist office. With us were three other white tourists from France and a gaggle of women that seemed to have rolled themselves into yards of bright fabric. Our guide entirely lacked enthusiasm except in how he shepherded us. We found some solidarity in the company of our fellow tourists. Somehow we bonded with the group of Indian women and their overseer. After just a few moments of conversation we learned that the wads of cloth were actually prison guards at the Bangalore Women’s Correctional Facility. Their tough eyes of experience beamed proudly when they told us of their occupation. In under three hours we managed to hustle through the Red Fort, Ghandi’s Grave, the tomb of the second moghul emperor and drive by various other points of interest.

One strange phenomenon we came to observe frequently was Indian tourists toting their suitcases around tourist destinations. No matter how crowded the sites, how challenging the terrain or otherwise impractical to do so, there they were with their big molded plastic bags. Most perplexing was when we’d come upon an unattended bag. Imagine if that occurred somewhere like, say, Britain?

The next day we’d arranged to have breakfast with Matt. We were anxious to hear his plans for India and share ours. He reluctantly told us that he was unsure of how to proceed. We found that we liked Matt, and were happy to have him join us when we set out the next day. He too liked the idea so we settled on a meeting time and planned to leave the environs of Asia’s dustiest capital.

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Indian tourists queuing up at Red Fort

 

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Fred with Bangalore Lady Jailers' Club

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Fred and Matt at Qutab Minar

 

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Our first camel carts

 

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Sohna

10 November, Delhi to Sohna, 63km (a)

The leafy park-like setting of New Delhi belies the fact that it’s an ecological disaster area. "Air you can chew" is what we decided Delhi’s motto should be. We rode through the murky stuff accompanied by Matthew, the Australian cyclist we met on the plane from Bangkok, away from his homeland for the first time (so we were stunned to learn later over lunch later in the day).

Pedaling south through the colonial remnant that is New Delhi was a piece of cake, pleasant even. It wasn’t until we hit the sprawling suburbs beyond the British city that we tasted the real flavor of the Indian road. "Chaos" is too generous a word to describe the noisy, smelly colorful mess, a miasma of jewels and muck, of beautifully dressed women tramping barefoot through buffalo shit.

At kilometer 17 we were mercifully provided with a break from the bedlam, in the form of Qutab Minar. An old Afghan mosque complex and current tourist attraction, its most impressive feature is a tall ornate tower built some eight centuries ago, resembling nothing so much as an over-the-top Victorian smokestack. The three of us wandered around the nearby ruined mosque, toting our helmets and other valuables, occasionally posing for photos with groups of visiting schoolchildren. The place had atmosphere to spare; I could easily have spent hours there, but the road beckoned.

We had barely left the Delhi administrative area when we met our first camel carts. Slow and lumbering, they were comically overburdened, a serious impediment to any traffic in a hurry. When we stopped to take a photo, the camel drivers stopped too, to look at us. I guessed that of the two spectacles, we were by far the more novel. Matthew had some rack trouble here and we paused for roadside samosas –a mistake?

At Gurgaon we joined National Highway 8 for awhile and I was relieved to discover how civilized it was. It’s the main highway from Delhi to Mumbai and though it’s no bucolic delight, it appears bikeable enough.

The road to Sohna was another story –poorly maintained, bumpy and narrow and choked with fume-spewing, horn-blaring suicidal trucks. When we’d reached the outskirts of Sohna it was beginning to feel like lunchtime, though none of the roadside places (called "dhabas") looked overly appealing. We did stop at one such place for cold drinks, along with a couple hundred soldiers with "SSB" emblazoned on their shoulders. "Special Securuity Bureau" explained one of them when I asked him what it stood for. It was here that we noticed a billboard indicating "Sohna Tourist Complex" and we decided to check it out. If it was decent we could always spend the night here.

And it was decent. After traversing the muddy hell of Sohna –which Fred officially proclaimed a "doomp"—and pumping up a dusty cliff, we found ourselves in a lush, well-tended park with big clean motel-like rooms and a fantastically accommodating staff. While checking in I had my first encounter with upper-class Indians, who seem to model themselves on Americans: affable, casually-dressed and perpetually enthusiastic. The couple I met were visiting from Delhi, "the south part, of course" and recommended the sulfur baths in the town below. "You can ride your bikes there," said the young woman with a brother in Tempe, Arizona, "or you can go trekking by the path."

At lunch we were surprised to see another white boy. His name was Scott and he was in town for the day to set up an Indian-Canadian cultural exchange program. It quickly became established that he knew our friend Ashok in Bombay and was m.o.t. –a member of our tribe.

We went back into town following the "trekking" route –basically a gravel track liberally sprinkled with various shapes of feces. A bunch of feral Indian dudes showed us where the baths were, in a compound incorporating several colorful temples, another (shabbier) motel and a number of grayish pools filled with skinny Indians furiously attending to their ablutions. It really felt like we had arrived in India. Fred quite understandably chose to remain dry while Matt and I took the plunge. The water coming from the spring was scalding and it did seem to have an invigorating quality.

A walk around the labyrinthine alleys of Sohna revealed the town to possess far more charm than we’d previously thought. Merchants sat cross-legged in their tiny colorful shops; old men played cards in tree-shaded courtyards; forlorn cows rooted among the garbage for edible paper products. People approached us to practice the only words they knew in English –"tourist complex?"—thus giving me one. All three of us were astonished by the number of pigs around. I tried to think of an Indian dish involving pork and could think of none. "Who eats them?" I asked out loud.

The question was answered several hours later (after a great yoga session, a shower and an amble around the grounds) by Mr. Singh, the somewhat haughty manager of the tourist complex. He said that the outcasts, the dalits (formerly known as "untouchables") ate the pigs. He explained that he himself was "100% vegetarian," patting his ample belly before continuing: "See, I’m well-fed. But if I were to eat meat it would be a chicken or a lamb, not a pig or a cow."

Matthew appeared delighted to be in a place where vegetarians aren’t considered freaks. And I wonder if this had influenced his decision to come to India for his first international voyage. Intense India is certainly not the country I’d recommend for a first foray into the developing world. "Try Mexico, try Thailand first," I’d have said, "then maybe you should brave India."

11 November, Sohna to Deeg, 113km (f)

Our night in Sohna seemed to go on forever. I woke every few moments wondering why it was still dark; shouldn’t the sun have appeared yet? It was warm in our room, but I was shivering and there were mosquitoes buzzing about my face. I pulled the covers over my head and fell into a light sleep until I awoke at dawn to find my body aching and that I was cold from head to toe. How could this be? Our first day riding in India and I was sick already! I’d always anticipated getting ill but not this early in our journey. At breakfast I picked at my food before returning to the room to sleep just a few more minutes before we set out. I was determined to ride in order to sweat out this nasty bug.

I was decidedly less energetic than Andy and Matt and lagged behind. On our way out of town we were confused by conflicting signage, maps and advice offered by villagers. We ended up backtracking to town and setting out once again, this time on the correct road. Along the narrow, broken road we watched peasants plow their fields with tractors. Surprising to see mechanized farming after months of observing the Chinese cultivate by hand and with water buffalo. Tractors laden with villagers clattered by and scooters whizzed around us. For some reason a Vespa toting two passengers blazed towards us unyielding and swerving in our direction. Matt and Andy were able to weave to the left and avoid him but I was not so lucky. The driver seemed unfazed as he clipped me head-on, first colliding with my front pannier. I was sent careening into the thorny brush on the roadside, dizzied by the experience. Only bruised, confused and scratched, I felt lucky to have escaped further injury or serious damage to the bike. Apparently the scooter’s occupants had little thought on the matter for they continued riding as though they had hit a pothole or dip. The rest of the morning I lost in a haze of achiness from my illness and the spill. I do remember a procession of tractors toting dirty looking farmers and the bone-rattling road wreaking havoc on my already pained body.

Stopping to rest, drink or pee were not as easy as in most other countries. Within seconds of our tires coming to a rest a crowd of grimy farmers gathered curiously pinching our tires and saying something about our "multi-gear system." It was hot dusty and dry and I soon ran out of water. By the time we reached Punahana, our intended lunch stop, I was deathly thirsty and even achier. There would be little rest for us in dirty, dusty and muddy Punahana. Crowds of people gathered with little else to do than stare at us and follow us around. I was tiring of being such a source of fascination. We asked a fat, rich and educated-looking Brahmin where we could find lunch. His reply was funny, "there is no place good for you to eat in Punahana." Quick-wittedly Andy responded, "then is there someplace bad for us to eat, we are hungry and thirsty?" He led us to a street stall with a legion of followers in tow. We ordered some food and then looked out at our bikes and the crowd. There were at least 300 people crowded around the front of the store interested in our every move. It made it hard to concentrate on eating and drinking. I guess it didn’t bother me too much because I managed to slurp down three mango drinks in the first five minutes of arriving.

One especially frantic moment was when I realized I’d lost our BikeBrat bunny wallet with all of our money. There were several panicky minutes where I wandered amongst the hoards in search of our money. As testimony to my disorientation due to my sickness it turned up exactly where it should be, in my handlebar bag. Though after lunch I felt even shittier than when we arrived I was happy to leave the scrutiny of all the villagers. Just mounting our bikes and pedaling off was clumsy. The crowd around was so dense it was nearly impossible to ride down the street.

The last fifty kilometers were even more difficult than the first eighty. Now I was nearly exhausted and suffered from the bumpy roads, dust and the hot sun. Luckily the sun began to set and the air cooled as we reached Deeg. The dusky dusty light played on the peasants walking home form the fields dressed in brightly colored saris and carrying precariously balanced vessels of water on their heads. Our last obstacles of the day were the massive muddy potholes that pock-marked the streets of Deeg. Hazarding them we found our way to a quaint three-room motel where we settled in for a warm shower and candlelight meal. The power failed just before dinner.

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Itinerant snake charmers on the road to Punahana

 

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After a long day's ride

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Deeg's palace

 

 

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Pink pilgrim on the road to Mathura

 

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Fred enjoys a cruise on the Yamuna

12 November Deeg to Mathura, 42km (a)

As promised, I knocked on Matthew’s door early this a.m. in order to wake him for a morning tour of Deeg’s palace. But the person who opened the door looked more like a corpse than Matthew. "I feel awful," he stated needlessly before heading back to his bed.

So Fred and I went to the palace by ourselves, worrying about our new friend. The palace was awesome; built by the maharaja of Bharatpur as his summer residence, it resembles a Hindu version of Versailles, perched above a fetid lake in which villagers were bathing and washing clothes. An scrawny, rodentine old guy called Gopal greeted us at the door and acted as our uninvited guide. He answered a lot of questions, however, and spryly led us through the confusing maze of rooms. Without him we probably never would have been able to identify the dusty, threadbare, cylindrical object in a corner of the immense living room ("tiger" offered Gopal). In the maharaja’s vast bedroom he instructed us to leap over the velvet ropes in order to check out the royal bathroom, which was suitably grand.

After wandering around the palace grounds and stomping back through Deeg’s muddy streets we bought Matt some bananas and water. We told him of our planned itinerary for the upcoming days so he could meet up with us later. I suggested Bharatpur, where we’d be in three or four days, since it was less than 40km from Deeg. But Matthew said he’d prefer taking the bus to Mathura, where we were headed that day. So we helped him negotiate a seat on a bus and loaded his bike on its roof before pedaling gingerly through the cesspool that constitues Deeg.

Outside town the road became much, much better. It was wide enough for two lanes of traffic (mostly camels) and had been recently resurfaced. The kilometers slid under our wheels like ghee. And while the scenery was flat and marshy, the route was not without visual interest. Much of it was lined with chanting Krishna-mad pilgrims, covered with bright pink powder and heading on foot to god-knows-where. Most were chanting variations on the Hare Krishna song and many were in a trancelike state of spiritual ecstasy.

The towns we passed through were interesting too, much more orderly than yesterday’s towns and far more colorful. The first town we passed through, Govardhan, was full of active temples, its streets clogged with pilgrims and wild-eyed sadhus. The next town’s most memorable feature was its water buffalo market. For miles in either direction the road was full of oiled and groomed beasts on their way to or from market.

We wisely had lunch at an "upscale" hotel at the edge of town before plunging into Mathura. The amount of traffic in the confused jumble of ancient streets –most of it animal-driven—is unbelievable, overwhelming even. Finding our intended hotel (where we’d told Matthew we’d meet him) proved more difficult than we’d anticipated. We were first instructed to turn off the chaotic main street into the ancient atmospheric bazaar –looking more middle eastern than Indian—then down some steps, through a riverside temple called Vishram Ghat and along the frenzied madness of the temple-filled riverside road. As the birthplace of Krishna, Mathura is one of the holiest cities of the Hindus. With its streets clogged with Brahmin priests, blissed-out pilgrims and countless mystics and sadhus, its air filled with chanting and incense, the place struck me as a livelier version of Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges where lucky Hindus go to die.

The Hotel Agra was atmospherically situated on the riverside across from some ghats (steps leading down to the holy river on which one can ritualistically bathe, or just do laundry), but it was a dump nevertheless, and obscenely overpriced at $10 a night. We deduced Matthew’s presence by his bike in the courtyard, and after settling in we ran into him on the street. He didn’t look any better. "I’m just on my way to the telephone office to call my mom," he told us ominously. Both Fred and I wondered if Matthew would stick to his plans and actually spend an entire year in this strange, disorienting land.

We spent the afternoon getting lost in the confusing jumble of streets and alleyways, occasionally followed by large bands of hyperactive urchins. The best part of the day, though, was a sunset rowboat cruise on the mighty Yamuna river. As the sky turned colors our oarsman guide pointed out the various sights: cremation ghats, important temples, fortresses and towers –all overrun by hordes of leaping monkeys. Disembarking from the boat, a friendly, slightly crazed young sadhu we’d met earlier presented me with a necklace of saffron-colored beads. I’ve vowed to wear it until the end of our voyage through India.

The temples at Vishram Ghat were abuzz with activity for evening puja. Con men posing as priests invited us into sanctuaries where we were instructed to leave "donations" of 500 rupees. Better spent were the two rupees asked for miniature boats bearing candles which we set adrift on the murky waters of the Yamuna.

Next stop was Krishna’s birthplace, a surprisingly long –and fascinating—pedicab ride (or more precisely push, as it was mostly uphill). The original temple was destroyed centuries ago and now a simple cell marking the holy spot is located in the foundation of a giant mosque. All visitors here have to pass through a metal detector and submit to a rather thorough frisk before being granted access to the compound. Armed security police are everywhere, making the whole setup uncannily reminiscent of Jerusalem’s "wailing wall."

To get inside the sanctum one has to file past stands of suspicious-looking soldiers, down a long narrow corridor made to look like a dungeon (for Krishna was born in a prison cell according to legend). Inside the small chamber pilgrims bow to the rock upon which Krishna came into the world to the raucous accompaniment of a group of tambourine-beating Hare Krishnoids who appear to be permanently ensconced there. A much larger temple stands adjacent to the shrine, and it was here that the real party was going on –dozens of worshippers pounding drums, singing and banging on tambourines –all in all, a lot more festive that your average Catholic mass. One can see why the cult of Krishna has caught on in the West more than that of Shiva, Vishnu or any of the other countless gods in the Hindu universe.

Falling asleep in my bed that night, the mysterious sounds and smells of India wafted in through the window, causing me to ponder upon the utter unfathomability of this bizarre land.

13 November, Mathura to Agra, 79km (f)

I awoke before the sun rose, just as I fell to sleep, to the rhythmic sound of the hand water pump at the riverside just below our window. This morning the percussion was accompanied by an old man singing his praises to Krishna in time. When we finally rose from bed it was Andy’s turn to feel under the weather, my sickness having subsided overnight. We said goodbye to dusty Mathura and headed towards Agra. The road was to be a main artery, a dual carriage way full of traffic. Instead we met with a peaceful surprise. The divided highway was under construction and both halves were complete, but only one-half open to auto and scooter traffic. We rode on the closed half alone most of the way to Agra. Portions were open on both sides where we did have to contend with traffic. Strangely the drivers treated the road as two parallel two-way roads as opposed to a divided highway on those segments.

Smooth roads free of traffic left my mind free to wander. I thought mostly of my unhappy truce with India. Why wasn’t I enjoying my stay here? Was it the people? Surely not; aside from a few dishonest folks in Delhi they are probably the most friendly folks on the planet. Many are concerned that we have a favorable impression of their homeland and I feel guilty every time I have to say that I am not enjoying myself thoroughly. The peasantry is remarkably curious about us, our origins and our now not-so-shiny mounts.

The towns are bustling affairs choked with beyond colorfully dressed people engaged in frenzied commerce. The streets are clogged by vehicles of all flavors and sizes, farm animals, pedestrians, cows and dogs and frightfully hard to negotiate. The countryside is consumed by agriculture. Wide varieties of crops grown include rice, eggplant, onions, cucumber, carrots and many others. A welcome change from the almost oppressive homogeneity of Southeast Asia’s obsession with rice.

What of "Indian logic?" I’ve learned that here seldom does a question yield a direct or thorough answer. Often they result in an entirely new tangential conversation. Conversations rarely follow the roadsigns of western discourse and often end with all parties involved less understood than before the discussion began.

None of these things on their own were off-putting to me. Each, to the contrary, thought-provoking and stimulating. However, the profound foreigness of everything is sometimes overwhelming. That taken in combination with the radically inhospitable nature of the environment make it hard to let one’s guard down. In the center of cities I’ve found street urchins reaching in my pockets, tugging at the zippers of my bags. While in the countryside I find myself absorbed with the road in order to avoid obstacles like huge potholes, speed bumps, patches of sand, tractors, busses, scooters and trucks. On top of that the air is so filthy that I blow dirt clods out of my nose and wash cubic yards of dirt off of my body daily. In fact, it is not India or Indians I dislike, but the care I must exhibit here in order to avoid harm.

In the midst of my reflection we’d come upon the outskirts Agra. The first sight was the tomb of the first Moghul Emperor. Akbar was said to rest in this red sandstone compound. At first I thought we’d leave our bikes unattended in the parking area outside. As we wandered away to be tourists a crowd of nosy schoolchildren descended upon them ringing the bells, shifting the gears and digging in our panniers. I stayed with the cycles while Andy visited and then we reversed roles. As I waited three of the fiddlers told me of their studies, the youngest speaking in rather stunning English.

Once inside the compound I found the tomb to be a rather gaudily decorated edifice. Too much stone inlay distracted me from the exceedingly light lines for a sandstone building. Another diversion was the hundreds of monkeys swarming all over the lawn. One lumpy looking man dressed in burlap kept pulling small brinjals (eggplants, aubergines) from his clothes and feeding them to the monkeys. When I returned to the bikes and my student entourage Andy was having his fortune told by a man who my friends said was "deceiving" him. My "friends" were just as commercially minded as Andy’s fortune teller. All asked for money as we left.

Mounting our bikes we headed towards the Taj Mahal. Our route was much more crowded than the earlier part of the day. Most of my effort was spent avoiding accidents. We did have a few spare cycles to ponder what the Indians thought of us. Could it be rich, weird and stupid?

While looking for lodgings Andy was struck by a scooter. The impact dislodged his rear wheel and we spent several moments repairing it. I was enraged by the response of the scooter rider who laughed as a response to the accident. Was tempted to pummel him with my tire pump and see how funny he thought that.

After settling in Agra we rode our bikes to the Taj, arriving in time to enjoy sunset there. I’d expected hoards of foreigners crawling around the grounds snapping photos. To the contrary, most of the tourists were Indian nationals. "The great thing about Indian tourist sites is that someone always appears to show and tell you about them," Andy had just advised me. He was right. Just as we entered the tomb a fifty-ish year-old dude knocked over a couple of Indian tourists on his way over to us. He marshaled us through the crowd, told us a little history and flashed his light on the most important features of the interior. He pressed his light against the marble where it had been inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones and they cast colored light around the room. After touring the inside we sat on the lawn and watched the oxen driven lawn mower being put to bed. Our last moments there were spent watching the Taj’s marble walls change color in the dusky light.

 

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At Akbar's tomb

 

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Now we can go see India


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