Wednesday, June 19
After Varanasi, we flew to Khajuraho by way of Agra; that’s like flying from Chicago to Indianapolis by way of St. Louis. The one positive was that we got to see the Taj Mahal from the air.
In Khajuraho we visited the two temple complexes, built over 1,000 years ago. These temples are famous for their carvings of the Kama Sutra, and the largest of the temples took 22 years to complete with over 6,000 artists working on. They were absolutely stunning and well deserved of their UNESCO World Heritage designation.
Random thoughts for the day:
•On guided trips like this, half of your money goes to tipping people.
•What does monsoon season mean for us? Significantly cooler weather, though sometimes ridiculously humid. Not that I’d recommend planning a trip purposefully during the monsoon season, but God has most definitely been working things out for us.
•My prayers go out to the poor person who will be doing my manicure when we get back to the States.
Thursday, June 20
We had a long car ride to Orchha Fort today before our train from Jhansi to Agra. The fort, built over 22 years for a king who only stayed at it one night, was stunning. The architecture, half Hindu and half Muslim, survived attacks from both factions over the decades. It was situated on the bank of the Betwa River, the only clean river we’ve seen so far.
We took an evening train from Jhansi to Agra and had a curious dinner. Actually, it was the Indian evening tea which included a “sweet bun,” a bag of spicy hot roasted peanuts, tea, a packet of ketchup–the Indians love their ketchup–and Soan cake. The sweet bun was just a regular hamburger bun with candied fruit in it. (Yes, we ate it.) The Soan cake looked like wood shavings and fiberglass and tasted like almonds/pistachios. It was basically the Indian version of cotton candy, but it was surprisingly good.
Random thoughts for the day:
•Matthew read that a person dies of tuberculosis every two minutes in India.
•Why is it you can get on any train carrying a thousand people with zero security checks, but flying in a plane requires a multitude of checks, scans, pat downs, and interrogation?
•The countdown is on! I miss my boys and will see them again in less than a week.
Friday, June 21
This morning we visited Agra Fort and Sikandra, both of which were fascinating. We had some cool views of the Taj Mahal from the fort which took 90 years to build. Ahmed, our guide is Muslim so we’re being educated on the Muslim/Islam religion and lifestyle.
Ahmed has quite a good sense of humor, telling us the three Gs of driving in India: 1) having a good heart, 2) good brakes, and 3) good luck. The autorickshaws here are only supposed to carry four passengers, but we’ve seen some with a dozen people. No one really polices anything here, especially traffic rules.
Two common themes that everyone from Vinay to Allen to all of our guides in the north have told us are 1) the Indian population is coming under control and 2) government corruption is rampant. Regarding the population, most families are limiting themselves to two children, a big improvement, and they do not impose a one-child only policy like China does.
As for corruption, apparently people with government jobs are paid well and their jobs are secure which makes them lazy. In order to actually get anything done, bribes are necessary. It is very difficult for Christians to do well in government jobs. If they work hard, they can be criticized by their peers and made to look bad on the job. (Oh, the irony!)
Despite the problems of America’s government, I’ll take our system any day to what most of the rest of the world is subject to.
We visited the Taj Mahal from the “Moonlight Garden” across the Yamuna River this evening. Those first glimpses left me in a stunned silence, partly because it was simply breathtaking and partly because . . . what do you say when you are at that moment when a dream has come true? The only thing to put a damper on the evening were two little beggar boys asking for money and food. We ignored them as we’ve been instructed, but after a few minutes one of them grabbed my hair and gave it a good yank before running off.
On the way back to the hotel we visited a marble shop where we learned how the marble and inlaid decorations on the Taj Mahal were created. The artists today are all descendants of the original family who worked on the Taj Mahal. Only members of this family are allowed to do this type of work or any restoration work on the Taj Mahal, and they still use the same tools and techniques that were used hundreds of years on the original construction which took 22 years and thousands of artisans to build.
Random thoughts for the day:
•I have eaten more ice cream in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years. Then again, it is 105 degrees outside.
•I have not run in 16 days, and I don’t really miss it. This could also have something to do with it being over 100 degrees outside.
•I can’t wait to get back to the Oberai Maidens Hotel in Delhi; they had great pancakes.
•There is a McDonald’s not too far from our hotel so Matthew went there for dinner, but not a hamburger was to be found. KFC and Pizza Hut are becoming more popular in India as well, and Burger King is soon to set up shop. I wonder if they will change their name since they can’t serve beef.
•Ahmed tried explaining cricket to us–he plays–but I tuned out pretty quickly . . . too complicated for me.
•After four days, I had almost 400 emails waiting for me.
Saturday, June 22
We were up at 4:30 to tour the Taj Mahal at sunrise, and a perfect morning it was. There was a sweet breeze, and the temperature was quite pleasant. We saw the runners out on the streets. Even though it was over 80 degrees at 5:00 a.m., it’s still the coolest time of day.
We were treated to a horse-drawn carriage ride to the Taj Mahal where we were the second tourists in line, but were the first ones to enter. Why is this important? Because our guide hurried us to all the prime photo spots before it was crowded with thousands of other people. As we were preparing for our first photo op, Matthew knelt down, opened a ring box and proposed to me again, “I know I didn’t do this right 15 years ago so I wanted a chance to do it again. Will you marry me?”
I was completely taken off-guard, and we were immediately surrounded by people taking pictures. They must have thought this was a first-time proposal. Regardless, I said yes and cried more than I did the first time. I’m not sure I even cried the first time. Ahmad has been a tour guide for eight years, and he said we were the first couple he’s seen to propose/be proposed to in front of the Taj Mahal. This made our visit even more special, though the word “special” doesn’t quite do it justice.
This was the fifth of the Seven Wonders of the World we have seen: the Taj Mahal, Chitchen Itza, Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China, and the Colosseum. Each one is spectacular in its own way. We still need to visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Petra in Jordan.
Ahmed said a lot of wives want their husbands to build them a Taj, but the husbands quip their wives must die first. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum built by the Mughal Emporer Shah Jahan for his third wife Mumtaz Mahal. I don’t need a Taj when I have the husband I do. We got to talking about marriage with Ahmed who is not married. Arranged marriage is still the way to go in India, and Ahmed is just fine with his parents finding his wife. Divorce is quite rare and difficult due to the poverty, but in the more Western cities and wealthier areas, divorce is sadly becoming more common.
We then toured Fatehpur Sikri, a deserted royal town made of pink sandstone that was quite fascinating. Being the only white people around, groups of Indian teenage boys and girls flocked to us asking to have their photos taken with us. I saw several subtly trying to photograph me from a distance. My pale skin and light hair intruding in their out-of-the-way corner of the world is as unusual to them as their daily life is to me–water buffalo walking in the middle of the roads, washing colorful saris on a rock in a river, and trimming grass with machetes. Why not document the uniqueness of one another?
We drove to Jaipur and visited a carpet factory. They also did color blocking and we ended up buying more than we intended, but why not? We’re only here once, and the prices are a lot cheaper than they would be for the same stuff in the US. Plus, it’s beautiful.
Vinay sent me a message via Facebook to let us know that he received calls from the Intelligence Department and Emigration asking about us. He didn’t say what they wanted to know, but we’re a little baffled why anyone would be inquiring about us.
Random thoughts for the day:
•Chicken is the only meat I’ve eaten for the past two weeks. I really want a bacon cheeseburger now.
•The countryside is quite bucolic, kind of reminds me of driving thought the Texas hill country, with a few scattered palm trees but without the hills.
•I despise bathroom attendants, especially when you have no choice but use them. Need toilet paper? Pay me. Want to wash your hands when you’re finished. Pay me. I can turn on a faucet by myself and dry my own hands.
•I don’t really enjoy haggling, but I’m pretty good at it.