Thursday, October 19, 2006

#58 Trying hard to find the beauty in India

They warned us about India.
• It’s not safe to walk anywhere, and don’t get in a taxi alone. – US Consular official
• “Eve teasing” is a common form of public sexual harassment directed toward women by Indian men. – Indian inter-port lecturer
• Port security officers may demand money to let you return to the ship. – Executive Dean
• “In India, a casual sideways shake of the head does not always mean no. It can also mean, yes, maybe, or I don’t have a clue.” – Lonely Planet India

So with those and many more warnings in mind, we left the ship for 3 days to visit the Taj Mahal with Mary and another staff member responsible for a group of 68 students. We returned sleep-deprived 3 days later with all 68 students, and some first-hand observations.
• Walkers faced a constant barrage of aggressive street peddlers. Taxi riders complained about being taken to multiple shops they didn’t want to visit so the driver could collect a fee from each proprietor.
• At one tourist site, our guide warned students not to be lured away from the group by smooth-talking local men. Shortly thereafter, one female student was lured away from the group by a smooth-talking local man.
• After checking our passport, visa, customs form, and boarding card, the port security officers allowed us to return to the ship without bribes and gave us the India head waggle for free.
• The India head waggle turns out to be something like a Stevie Wonder imitation completed with the motionless shoulders. Even with practice, I can’t duplicate the move and the exact meaning remains unclear.
2217f Js at Taj Mahal AM
The Taj Mahal, for all its hype, lived up to its billing as arguably the world’s most beautiful building. It sits in the city of Agra, described by the Lonely Planet guide book as “a place to endure rather than enjoy”. In Agra, and everywhere we traveled in India, we were struck by the visible air pollution, visible and overwhelmingly smellable water pollution, poverty, overcrowding, and general filth. When I travel, I look forward to bridges as they often provide the best views. But in India where open water equals open sewer, bridges mean time to hold your breath.

The Taj Mahal would be beautiful anywhere, but the gleaming white marble and surrounding manicured gardens are in such stark contrast to the norm for India that I question my ability to objectively judge beauty. In India, I found a clean toilet to be a thing of incredible beauty.

Yours in enduring India,


  1. Can't say that I've ever had much desire to see India. Glad you made it, though - I was beginning to be concerned that pirates had overtaken your ship somewhere in the Bay of Bengal. I continue to enjoy reading your fascinating accounts and look forward to the next installments. One question - have you had any luck finding copies of "Oh the Places You'll Go" in any local libraries? If you found one in Myanmar, I'll buy you a soda!

  2. Hi Mike,
    We found "Oh the Places You'll Go" in the Kobe public library. In Hong Kong we found the spot on the shelf where the book should be, but it was checked out. In Vietnam on our only free day we found the Ho Chi Minh city library closed. In Mandalay, Myanmar, (the country's second largest city) they don't have a public library, so your soda bet was a safe one. As for India, let's just say we decided not to expend the energy.