To the Taj Mahal

tajlong.jpgMy trip report to Agra:
This time I splurged, rather than taking the train and all that, I chose to rent a car and driver for the 400km round trip. While Agra has the Taj and some other interesting places, the guides are a massive pain in the ass. But more on that later. Yesterday’s trip started with the usual three question formalities, but this time there was a bonus round! If you missed an earlier e-mail the three questions are always asked in this exact order by everyone I meet:
Driver: “Are you traveling alone?”
Me: Yes
Driver: “Are you married?”
Me: No (Note: The fact I am not is a concept that is pretty hard to grasp in India)
Driver: (After a long pause) “How old are you?”
Me: 43
Now this had pretty well exhausted my driver’s English skills, and that was fine. I was just enjoying the scenery going by, one of the reasons I chose to rent a car to start with. But you could tell this was a puzzle and the pieces did not quite fit for him.
Driver: “Never married?”
Me: No
More thought, and then we get to the bonus round question:
Driver: “In California, aren’t there many gay peoples? Where boys sleep with boys and girls sleep with girls. I understand now.”
monkey.jpgWe had only gone 12 km from my hotel, and I silently started calculating the time/distance to Agra. As long trips go, this was shaping up to be memorable. However I was saved that fate because he really did not want to talk about it anymore. He had a puzzle, he hypothesized the missing piece and for him the world was back in some kind of balance. Now that his world was back in balance, we proceeded to the Taj Mahal. There really is not much else to speak of in Agra. A couple of amazing tombs, and the fort. Other than that, it is a pollution choked industrial area, but it is the touts, rickshaw drivers and “guides” that will send you fleeing from Agra as quickly as possible. This is a herd that the eco-system cannot handle and desperately needs thinning. You just cannot grasp the level of harassment without being there; it is quite similar to Varanasi.
tajclose.jpgTo this end, I have developed a proposal that I am going to submit to the India Ministry or Tourism. I propose that all visitors to Agra be given big sticks, preferably something heavy and indigenous to help the local economy. The benefits of my proposal are so many, it is difficult for me to imagine a sufficient accounting of them. To start with, India alone has over 3 dozen languages. Add in the tourists from over 150 other countries, and you can understand why many people wanting to help you at the Taj Mahal may not understand the word “No”. Many seem to misinterpret it as “Please, follow me farther” or “Your services interest me, please tell me more.” None of these people seem to be aware that the word “NO” really means: “If you keep following me and talking to me, my head is going to explode and then I am going to do something preemptive and American to you.”

In my vision of the future, tourists to the Taj will be able to evaluate the offers presented to them and if they decline, they can communicate this by hitting the erstwhile guide across the back of the head with the afore mentioned stick. I am suggested a particularly hard whack just in case the tourist in question has a hard to understand accent. This would break down all language barriers, and any guide could gauge a potential customer’s interest by the number of dents in the stick. A typical conversation might go like this:
Guide: excuse me sir, I am a guide..
Guide: …..
Tourist: ……
Guide: cough
Tourist: Whack
Guide: …..
Tourist: Where did that fellow with the chai go?
I realize that the “carry a big stick” theme is very overtly U.S. slanted. I will have to ask for a bit of leeway here, as running after people with big sticks is so common in the US it borders on a folk dance.