Agra is closed today
After ensuring that we ate a huge breakfast, the porters on the overnight train permitted us to descend at Mathura. Met at the station by our fearless driver Suhinder—whose first question was where we’d like to stop for food since we were obviously in the last stages of starvation—we headed to our hotel. On the way Suhinder apologetically told us that because it was Friday, the things we’d planned to see would be closed. In addition, because US President Obama was expected there in a few days, many other things were closed in preparation, and internet access would be cut off. “So basically, Agra is closed?” Jaya was worried about reversing the order in which we saw things because, “After the Taj, the rest are just monuments…”
Just then we drove by one of the most amazingly beautiful gateways we’d ever seen. “Oh, that.” Suhinder was so not impressed. “It’s just Akbar’s tomb.” We wanted to see it, so he turned around and pulled into the almost empty parking lot. From nowhere, a crowd of earnest men and boys surrounded us, offering to show us their pregnant stone elephants. “Hand-carved by my family,” they confided. “Very rare. Only 3000 rupees.” They offered their services as “Official Guide”, which apparently brought the elephant price down to 2000 rupees. Jaya chose one guide and—after several head shakes, negative hand waves, and two formal about-face departure steps—negotiated a mutually satisfactory fee agreement.
Along the entryway path, the elephants dropped in price to 1000 rupees. The guide rattled off the information that the tomb was constructed starting in 1600 by the third Mughal Emperor, Akbar the Great. While repeating this several times (plus lowering the elephant price to 500 rupees), he told us that Akbar liked red sandstone, so most of the building was constructed of that, but that his son liked white marble, so that was added later. Because our special time together meant so much to him, the pregnant elephants were now 100 rupees each, just for us. Luckily, Jaya was able to tell us that the beautifully carved tombs were replicas of the real tombs which would actually be in a basement some thirty feet down. On our way back to the car, the pregnant elephants were three for 100 rupees.
We checked into our hotel and (after a huge lunch, of course) headed out to visit Fatehpur Sikri, Emperor Akbar’s incredible city and palace. Constructed in just two years starting in 1571, at earthshaking expense for the empire, the entire thing was abandoned only ten years later when it ran out of water. At the parking lot, the first man to reach us introduced himself as “Sean. You from America? Michael Jackson!”
Waving off all others attempting to approach, Sean shepherded us to bus, guide, and toilets. He owned one of the shops in the little group of stores next to the parking lot, and told us to come to his store (#32) when we got done visiting the monument. Apparently he wasn’t too sure about our short-term memory, so he repeated this about fifty times, even running to the window side of the bus to call it up to us. When the bus arrived at the hilltop site, Sean’s appointed guide rushed us through the graveyard at warp speed so he could tell us about “his family’s” stone carvings. We went into a tomb where a bunch of young men and boys were singing. The guide assured us that any wish made there would come true (if accompanied by the proper folding denomination). He confided that most wishes were made by women wanting children. After a doubtful look at all of us, he added that he thought it would work for grandchildren as well. The appropriate stork-related wishes were made and paid for.
Wading through armies of children and adults flogging necklaces, magnetic chess sets, postcards, scarves, and of course pregnant elephants “made in my family’s workshop”, our return bus was met by Sean’s father, an older man with a beautifully groomed but unlikely colored tomato-red beard. Sean Flaming-Red-Beard Sr. reminded us that we were expected in his son’s store, #32. Like Sean, he seemed to have doubts about our ability to retain information, so he personally escorted us to #32. There Jaya’s bargaining for the stone tealight holder I admired resulted in purchase of two holders at less than half of the original price quoted for one (but only after the money had been handed over and snatched back at least twice…).
Exhausted by monuments and moghuls, Jaya and Janine went to bed while I went downstairs to dine in solo splendor, waited on by the entire half-dozen waiter staff. They greeted the discovery that I’m an American with somewhat incompatible statements that President Obama was coming the next day to visit the Taj in tribute to the beauty and ingenuity of Indian artists, and that as an American they were sure I would join in their infatuation for all things WWE. A quick GFC (Google fact check) revealed that the WWE seems to be some sort of highly scripted recurring drama involving people with steroid issues and spandex outfits.
They were thrilled to hear that I wrote books and demanded proof (duly handed over in form of one bookmark to each, which they had me sign). Sadly, their excitement noticeably diminished when I confessed that I’m not personally acquainted their favorite WWE performer, a gentleman named Bad News.
Tomorrow: The Taj Mahal, Delhi is closed today, and the three scariest words when bargaining in India.