Posts Tagged ‘Tourists’

North Tour: Agra: The place with the big famous white thing

April 21, 2011

Monday, 14 March

AGRA TO VARANASI: From what I’ve heard, the Mona Lisa shocks its visitors when they see it. Most people are surprised to find it smaller than expected, nonplussed as a canvas of its diminutive size awaits them. It’s one of those famous world spectacles about which its visitors have to have an impression.

Believe it or not, the Taj Mahal is like the Mona Lisa.

I don’t know how my expectations for a 20-story high iconic monument could have been any bigger, but perhaps it’s because of them that the sheer size of the Taj Mahal didn’t jar me as much as it did.

Not to say I wasn’t impressed. I joined the throng of snap-snatchers centering themselves along a grandiose plinth, grateful my height made picture-taking an easier task than it was for my vertically challenged friends. The pictures captured today are nothing short of spectacular, the kind you print out, frame, and center on your living room mantle.

My expectations for the Taj Mahal were fulfilled, just not exceeded. Perhaps my eight months in India caused them to mount more than they aught to have. But it’s hard to ask much more of a monument like the Taj Mahal. Going to India without seeing it is like going to Egypt without seeing the pyramids, like going to France without seeing the Eiffel Tower, like going to China without seeing the Great Wall.

I’m not sure which list of world wonders is most widely accepted these days, but if the Taj Mahal isn’t on it, throw it out. There’s a reason Agra is the tourist capital of India.

You can find pictures of the Taj Mahal across the universe. You can find recounts of its history written on other pages.

What you won’t always hear about the Taj Mahal, however, is the story of what goes on just outside.

Agra is either the best or worst place for tourists in India, depending on your viewpoint. Best if you enjoy bargaining, and have mastered the art of buying trinkets and souvenirs at prices far below their Western value.

Worst if you’re claustrophobic.

Peddlers engulfed us as we approached and departed from the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. Unless the windows and doors of our bus remained closed, arms would reach through showcasing (cheap) bangles, postcards, or miniature snow globes of the Taj Mahal. Walking around, sellers would match our strides holding their products in our noses until each of us gave a firm and unwavering “no”. If uninterested in any products, I found the best strategy to walk in a straight line with my head on an unending side-to-side swivel.

That said, if you know how to bargain, the souvenirs you pick up can be astounding in scope and price. The wallah will almost always start with a price that seems reasonable when converted into dollars or Euros, but is about ten times overpriced for the Indian rupee. If skilled, you can cut the price down to size, and buy an array of products at an astounding value. Much of what was picked up today will be distributed to friends and family members around the world.

But some moments are priceless. OK, Rs. 750 and Rs. 250 are two, the price of admission for foreigners at the Taj and Agra Fort respectively. (Indians paid Rs. 20 each.) But the memories made in their shadows are the most valuable from today. Unlike souvenirs, memories are monkey-proof – Agra’s primates can’t take them, only ingrain them deeper into us. I’m happy to report a purse one monkey took while half of us were napping in the Agra Fort grass was returned with minimal damage and nothing stolen.

Only in Agra. The tourist capital of India.



North Tour: Rishikesh: On introspection, expectation, and white-water rafting

April 19, 2011

Monday, 14 March

AGRA TO VARANASI: About 24 hours after sifting through snow, we were presented with soft substances on the ground of a different variety. Rather than freezing our feet and evaporating off them visibly in the open air, this powder burned our bare feet and kept them moving. The beige stuff was just as welcome as the white. The bus had wound its way lower, to an altitude at which our breath was no longer visible.

We sat in tents on the bank of Asia’s most famous river Friday morning, the bristle and swish of its currents far sweeter to our ears than to the rocks over which they crossed.

Wide torrents of water passed us by, and the stream was so unpolluted it could have been mistaken for drinking water. (Actually, it later was.) We collected some in drinking bottles, and others were content to use it to brush their teeth. It was cleaner than the normal India tap water, anyway.

Though it’s certainly not best known for it, the Ganges, or Ganga, River is a great place to go white-water rafting. And cliff diving. And bodysurfing. 12 of us – minus Jordan, who was sick – sat comfortably in two boats with capacities of at least ten each. But while the empty space originally appeared an unnecessary luxury, we soon found we’d need all the space we could get.

See, white-water rafting is not for the unadventurous, risk-averse or hydrophobic.

For ten minutes you might flow comfortably, paddling with ease as the current ambles downstream. Then you see the rapids. You hear them. And you’re thrown into them like a roller-coaster descending – perhaps not as steeply or as quickly as at an amusement park, but with more unpredictable movement in every direction. Although there’s never worry of capsizing, the paddles do little to ease your fear of falling out.

Two minutes later, it’s over.

Then the cycle repeats itself.

We did this for 90 minutes, with two breaks for safe, voluntary, mind-shatteringly cold plunges into the water. During one long stretch between rapids, half of us submerged in the icy mountain water. Our life jackets were useful in keeping us afloat, but when returning to our boats, they provided more hindrance than help.

Our second plunge was more straightforward, but hardly any more comfortable. From a height of 20 feet, we all lined up to go jump off a cliff. Once you take the leap of faith, the only deterrent is the landing. After jumping, there’s no way to turn the gravity off. Though quite liquid, the water may as well have been ice – after all, it once was. The frigidity of the water was not helped by the mid-afternoon shade, both of which made refraining from shivering at the end of our journey an impossible task.

But both plunges were exhilarating. And we were already wet. So why not?

Actually, I have a better question for the many tourists we saw in Rishikesh:


Why are you in Rishikesh, foreigners? Why are you wearing Indian clothes that aren’t really Indian, in a failed attempt not to stand out? Why do you act so self-assured in situations wherein you obviously have no familiarity?

Call me a cynic, or blame it on the others’ jet lag, but something was missing from the puja our group attended that evening with scores of outside tourists. About two thirds of the crowd was foreign as mantras were sung, hands were clapped, and the sun made its way below the horizon. No matter what the faith, poignancy has been inescapable in every religious service I’ve seen in India.

But for once, it wasn’t there. In its place here was pretentiousness – not just a misguided attempt to be appropriate, but an aura of knowing without knowing. The bodies were in place, and the music was in tune. But the performance had no soul.

Perhaps its because we’ve spent seven to eight months in India, but there’s something about foreigners new to India that often perturbs us. In particular, it’s the stereotype of Westerners visiting India. Further, the concept of a spiritual journey, a quest to find yourself through various combinations of meditation, loose clothing, and whatever illegal drugs you can find. On at least one occasion, we were offered something illegal without a touch of subtlety, and we refused.

I can’t help but think it was only because of our skin color that drug-dealers were talking to us at all.

These kinds of situations make me ponder the perception of Westerners in India, one influenced by fair and lovely cover girls in Bhartiya advertisements and item girls in Bollywood dance numbers. Given our exposure in popular culture here, foreigners must seem an odd bunch, ambivalent about our futures, unable to bargain effectively, and unwilling to refuse a wild party. They make me wonder how exchange students are viewed – appropriately-dressed, Hinglish speaking teenagers who actually know how to barter. Forget that we’re spending a year immersing in Indian culture – we’re always assumed to be as wide-eyed and jet-lagged as the near-doppelgangers around us. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard someone call out “Welcome to India!” and how many times I want to call back “I’ve lived here for eight months!”

But I still have to think. Are we really any better than those tourists on their own “spiritual journeys”?

Take myself, for example.

The majority of my high school graduating class is well on their way to finishing year one of college, most committed to majors that will makes their careers fruitful ones. Meanwhile, I haven’t a day of worthwhile academic credit in ten months, I’ve yet to choose a major at my university of choice, and navigating my life after this exchange will be about as tough as navigating a Hindi-speaking auto-wallah through a crowded city without street signs, stoplights, or a map.

Heck, just the fact I’m taking a gap year is enough. Who in their right mind needs that much time to introspect?

For what it matters, I find the Ganga River a beautiful and uplifting place. I’ve meditated several times whilst on tour. I even packed my pajama kurta in my suitcase, though I haven’t worn it yet. Does that make me one of those annoying, gullible foreigners on a quest to find themselves?


But what I think separates – or at least what I like to think separates – us from hippie college kids on spring break is something really simple.

Understanding. At the very least, an honest attempt at it.

Oh, understanding Indian culture is a task that I have yet to complete. But the 13 of us on this tour are somewhere on that path – further than we were at the start of the year at any rate. We understand some Hindi. We understand why women wear burkas, shawls and scarves. We understand why the push to get to the front of every line isn’t rudeness, just a way of life.

Whatever you want to call this journey – spiritual, social, or some kind of bizarre extended vacation – I’m going to learn from it.

And no one, not even misinformed parachute pant-clad tourists, can stop me from enjoying it.


North Tour: Dharamsala: An antidote for hubbub

April 19, 2011

Monday, 7 March

DHARAMSALA: Hubbub is an unintentional, unavoidable side effect of manmade monuments.

I have never visited a famous structure anywhere in the world devoid of human hustle and bustle (at least during operating hours). As we saw at The Golden Temple yesterday, people will inevitably come if a place is worth visiting. Where people go, chaos follows. Only natural beauty can be exempt of the undertone of human noise, but as we noticed on the beaches of Goa, that’s no guarantee of silence. Great places always attract great masses of people, in turn transforming them into tourist traps. And tourist traps are not tranquil places.

At least, that’s what I thought before visiting the Dalai Lama’s house today.

Amidst steep green hills and towering snow-capped mountains, we saw our share of foreigners in Dharamsala. There may have been more tourists from outside India than in, and they appeared to have come a long way. Westerners in NFL jackets walked amidst Buddhist monks in maroon and yellow robes. This was a place for tourists.

But it wasn’t really a tourist place. It didn’t have the feel of one, anyhow.

Hubbub was utterly absent. The quietness was striking. Maybe it had something to do with the surrounding air, brought in chilly gusts with a far lower concentration of car exhaust than in most parts of India. The omnipresent pine trees visible for miles in every direction cleaned the air effectively, and the thin winding roads nearby weren’t SUV friendly anyway. The silence wasn’t quite pindrop, but it was close.

Quietness is another of those things that’s hard to come by in India, so it’s even more rewarding when it comes. Walking through Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama’s modest abode, there was no need to speak. Sometimes beauty requires no spoken words.

As we were about to leave, I spotted a man wearing a Chicago White Sox baseball cap.

Chicago’s two baseball teams – the Cubs and White Sox – are bitter enemies. Tension between the teams is always high. Banter between fans of opposing allegiances has the propensity to escalate. At each of the team’s six matchups every year, fights inevitably break out in the stands. It’s not a friendly rivalry.

I pulled my Cubs hat out of my backpack and put it on.

I looked at him.

Seconds later, the man looked at me.

Something came alive in his eyes as he saw the hat I was wearing. He was in the midst of a conversation as he saw me, but it seemed to lull for just a moment. It had just taken a split-second for a connection to be made between us. No matter that we were over 8,000 miles from Chicago. He knew the meaning, the history, and the symbolism behind our headgear, and so did I.

He looked away and continued conversing with his friend.

There was no need to disturb the peace.