We managed to get more, though disrupted sleep on the nights in Lhasa, going to bed at 8:00 or 9:00 pm. Wheelies had to be brought down by 6:00 am for departure to the airport. Reminding me that everything in Tibet might neither be what it seems nor how I interpret it, as we exited the hotel onto a divided four-lane street, the bus driver turned left. Except that he couldn’t cross the divided highway to go left, so he was technically driving into oncoming traffic. He drove a block down to where there was a break in the divider, in front of Chinese government offices, and veered into the correct lanes. Perhaps, those Chinese police officers WERE on our bus ride from the airport to prevent that kind of driving.
We flew to Cheng-du, which has a Starbucks in the international terminal, and we bought Aili a frapuccino. “Our” plane had been to Hanoi or Weng-xu or somewhere else while we were in Lhasa; it wasn’t allowed to stay in Cheng-du.
From Cheng-du, we flew to a military base in Agra, India. We were hearing temperatures of 102 to 110 degrees, but either these temps were inflated or the heat was dry because it didn’t feel at all like Cambodia, where the heat and humidity sucked all the life out of you. The Agra airport was empty except for soldiers, us and the two people working customs. We then rode buses into town.
The trip to the hotel was about 30 minutes at a slow pace along city roads. The city looked as India looks in the movies. One-and two story brick buildings open to the street. A lot of trash along the sides of the streets and in empty dirt lots beyond. Mostly motorcycles, bicycle-powered vehicles, horse-drawn vehicles, push carts on bicycle wheels and trucks. We saw loose dogs almost everywhere, some lying asleep in the dirt on the side of the road. Herders urged water-buffalo along; cows just stood there. Occasionally, we could glimpse rhesus macaques along garden walls. Children and even some adults would see our air-conditioned, luxury tour-size buses going by and wave to us, happy when we returned their wave.
15% of the population of India is Muslim. In my shallow knowledge of this part of the world, I thought most the Indian Muslims lived near Pakistan. When you combine the percentage with the total population of India, 1.2 billion, you understand how India has the second largest Muslim population of any country, just behind Indonesia. Yet, I have always thought of India as Hindu, the religion of the majority. It therefore came as a surprise to me to hear multiple calls to prayer after dark and before sunlight.
The Taj, too, is a Muslim monument, a tomb. In the 1200s, Muslims swept into India from the Middle East, conquering most of India by the late 1600’s. Though the Moors were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, the Mughal rulers had magnificent, cultured palaces and courts in the east. The Taj was built in memory of the wife of one of the rulers.
Our lovely hotel was situated close to the Taj Mahal; each room had an angled view. We were urged to get up the following morning at 5:30 am to have the monument “to ourselves” and avoid the crowds and heat.
The following morning, we zipped in electric trams in the dark to the gate to be nearly the first people in line. Other people, mostly Indian, were on foot, all moving in the same direction, though it was hard to see them. We were divided into a men’s line and a women’s line and then waited a half an hour along a wall, where the air was warm and too still. Across the street, a man was sweeping the street in front of his lit-shop, kicking up a large cloud of dust. A cow went by.
One of the Nat Geo experts on our trip is Dr. David Scott Silverberg, the “Geographer.” He did his undergraduate at UCSC and got his PhD from MIT, spending years studying in the Himalayas. He has a home (and a wife) in Norway, and one in Marrakech. Even in really bad heat, he wears a casual suit jacket and a scarf he can fashion into a turban. When David speaks, it feels as though you are tapping into the Encyclopedia Brittanica told with the enthusiasm and passion of an evangelist. Geologic formations and Hindu gods, quotes from Salman Rushdie, fiction… he can and will tackle any subject.
So, David recommended that those interested in beating the crowds simply get through the gates and move as quickly as possible straight to the monument rather than stop and take photos. As a bucket list item, I had wanted to see the Taj Mahal, but I really thought I would feel no need to take any photos at all, and yet I possibly took more photos here than anywhere else so far on the trip. The Taj is larger than it looks in photos, and it is part of a symmetric larger complex, which includes the entrance where you wait for security, a massive gateway, a functioning monument-mosque and a “sister” building to the mosque. Getting there early was well worth it. The sun rose slowly; a pleasant breeze kicked up; the marble stayed cool. It was not only memorable, but enjoyable.
In the late morning, we were offered a shopping trip, and we watched how workers do stone inlay. Far more interesting to the girls was the potential to get a sari. Aili had a very serious moment of angst: was wearing a sari cultural appropriation? Honestly: this is my 10 year old thinking of her Indian-American classmates. How would they feel? And I was imagining this Indian storekeeper suddenly unable to sell sari’s to American tourists anymore because they were unsure whether wearing something so lovely could be misconstrued. The store salesman and I managed to assure Aili that this is a fashion, not a national “costume,” and both she and Anna ended up getting one.
In the afternoon, we toured “the baby Taj,” which was a smaller tomb for the father of the woman entombed in the Taj, but sharing many artistic aspects. Unfortunately, they chose fresco and paint for the ceilings, which have deteriorated.
My kids are very traveled, but the only under-developed countries they had visited before this trip were Ecuador and Peru. To me, the highlight of the tour day was visiting a local village, mostly made of cinder block. For a person with a food safety background, it was agonizing. Cow patties hand-pressed and left to dry in the sun as fuel for cooking fires. Sewage in the street. Flies in swarms leaving you to wonder what had died. At the same time, we glimpsed moments of just plain humanity. Boys playing at cricket with sticks for bats. A child who was probably six but looked the size of a four year old boldly approached me and wanted me to take his picture, and his picture with his friends. Gradually, we got Aili and a couple of girls into the photos as well. The children were very excited to see the photos on my iPhone, and then the girl closest to Aili’s age wanted to play a kind of hand clapping game with me, through which she recited. As it ended, she asked for something, and our guide seemed to tell her no, he would buy her a pack of gum. She looked disappointed. We asked him what she wanted. A pen. I pulled a pen out of my fannypack, and she lit up and took it home.
In the evening, Nat Geo hosted a party by the pool, which had me worried again about mosquito vectors. The hotel set up massive fans which kept the bugs at bay, and traditional Indian dancers entertained us. Aili and Anna wore their saris, and they and I had our hands painted with henna. The three adults sipped gin and tonics. It was an ephemeral, happy family moment, everyone contented in the day. As Scott held the door for Aili to go inside to the restaurant, Aili said, “Yes, hold the door for those with excessive clothing,” because the sari has these additional yards that wrap around the body. At dinner we discussed in which suitcase to pack it; Aili said, “What happens in the big suitcase stays in the big suitcase."