A Teardrop on the face of Eternity, or whatever
Trip Start Apr 11, 2009
40Trip End Aug 06, 2009
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The man, Bob, I think, from Tulsa, assured me that I didn't need to worry. He had been traveling all his life, and in his experience there were only three things on earth that could never, despite all the hype, despite the miles of travel it took to see them, and despite every printed image of them you'd seen, disappoint you. The Grand Canyon was one. The other two, in his opinion, were Uluru (Ayer's Rock to the still-colonial among you) and the Taj Mahal.
And believe me, there is hype. Three hours of driving down to Agra from Delhi is enough time to thoroughly think over every time you've seen that famous image from Incredible India posters to every Sci-Fi movie where a UFO hovers ominously over it. The Taj is undoubtedly the most famous building in India, and in close competition with, say, the Eifel Tower for the international recognition. And everyone, I mean everyone, in Agra is aware of it.
The Taj was the first monument to introduce a two-level pay scale - 20 rupees for Indians, 750 for foreigners - and that's down from the old 970. Guides line the streets, touts follow rickshaws, and the whole city runs of the myriad creative ways to sucker money out of tourists. In order to avoid most of the hassle, you have to get a guide which is, in and of itself, a hassle. Mine was named Jack, and I have no comparative standard to decide by just how much he ripped me off, but I'm sure it was the usual amount or thereabouts. Even now, in the off season, the city is choked with traffic headed between the Taj, the Red Fort of Agra and Fatepur Sikri, the abandoned royal city just outside Agra. The Taj has lines stretching out from all three of its gates, and there are hidden costs everywhere - rickshaws from the parking lot to the gate (which, only after you have taken them, turn out to be totally unnecessary) , flashlights to see the marble illuminated (actually incredibly cool, if possibly/certainly not allowed) and a hundred other tiny things. At least the 10 rupee bottle of water's free.
But it doesn't matter. None of that matters. Because once you get past the main gate, and it looms in front of you, and you realize why guide books never bother to describe it. "The embodiment of all things pure" was Kipling's phrase, and not a bad one - neither is the more famous "teardrop on the face of eternity," - the description used by an Indian poet. I won't bother to add my own. Suffice it to say that Bob (or maybe Mike) from Tulsa has scored two out of three. Now I just have to see Uluru.