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The Taj Mahal is very clean today

I am not a sharer. My dog is never allowed in my bed, my books never leave my house, and I never ever stay in a hotel room with those I haven’t wed or given birth to—and sometimes, not even with them. So I was worried about how sharing hotel rooms for several weeks with my two roommates from University days would work. Answer: amazing. Apparently, a lifetime of responsible jobs, marriages, and kids can evaporate in an instant when someone says, “Hey, remember the time we couldn’t find our exit tickets and had to jump the turnstiles at 57th Street?”

IMG_0181 IMG_0266After the first night’s room share, we got up early to stuff ourselves at the breakfast buffet get an early start for the Taj Mahal visit. While we said goodbye to the lovely food staff at the Taj Villas, our driver, Suhinder, brought the car around for the approximately one block drive to the parking lot for the Taj Mahal. After fending off a determined army of “official” guide/carved stone pregnant elephant vendors, we decided to take their advice and hire bicycle rickshaws. The theory was that they could get us to the Taj Mahal ticket booth quickly, in order to beat the crowds they assured us were about to descend. Our rickshaw pedalers set off with mighty determination, pulled out of the parking lot—and turned into the ticket office. Right next door. As usual, the tickets for foreign guests were about ten times the price of those for residents of India. But they did come with bottled mineral water and a “preferred” guest pass. Then, after we refused the services of about a thousand guides—official, Madam, very official—we arrived at the gorgeous Taj Mahal gates.

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We passed through the darkened doorway just as the sun was rising. And there it was. The Taj Mahal, misty and heartbreakingly beautiful. Whether you see it as a monument to the seventeenth century love story of Emperor Shah Jahan and his (favorite) wife, Mumtaz Mahal, or as the embodiment of Mughal power and wealth, the symmetry and artistic vision is stunning. In fact, the only break in the absolute symmetry of the entire structure is the emperor’s tomb, added beside that of his wife when he died. Others have tried to describe the Taj Mahal, but it’s one of the few things that can only be experienced in person.

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Taj Mahal at sunrise.

And it turns out that we saw it at its best. Because President Obama was expected the next day, a massive cleanup force had descended on the monument. Roads leading up to the site had been cleaned, and beggars and dogs removed. (Still a lot of cows, though.) Inside, groups of women were working on the plantings by cleaning the edges of each bed with what looked like spoons. Seriously: spoons. [note: Sadly, Obama actually didn’t make it due to the state funeral for Saudi King Abdullah. I feel very sorry for him. Those spoon ladies did an amazing job.] The fountains and pools were immaculate, and beautiful birds were flitting around and singing. The sun came through the mist and turned the marble a softly glowing pink.

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Cleaning up for Obama. His loss.

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…And no, I have absolutely no idea why.

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It’s not India without monkeys

We spent the morning wandering through the monument and surrounding buildings and gardens. By the time we left, the hordes predicted by the rickshaw drivers had started to arrive by busload. Everyone seemed to be captured by the spirit of the Taj, as strangers from all over the world happily traded off taking pictures for each other.

Roadside parathas. With butter. [moan]

Roadside parathas. Pretty much a mouthgasm. [moan]

It was so hard to leave, but we were on a strict feeding tour schedule, so we headed back to Suhinder waiting with the car for the three-hour drive to Delhi. Since we hadn’t eaten in minutes, we stopped on the way out of Agra at a roadside open-air restaurant and changed my world. Along with the chai tea, they brought us the ultimate paratha, the food of the gods. With butter. For the rest of the trip, I measured time as before parathas, during parathas, or after parathas.

Bargaining in India: beware of the chair and the special suitcase

We arrived in Delhi and checked into our guesthouse, arranged for us by one of Jaya’s work colleagues. This is another example of why you should only go to India if you also have a lifelong Indian friend with an enormous family and tons of contacts. The place was in the heart of Delhi, and came with watchmen and several cooks who asked us what we wanted for each meal. The only time they seemed upset with us was when we had to admit we couldn’t stuff in one more bite of their wonderful cauliflower curry, carrot curry, dal, homemade curds, rice, and fresh phulka (puffed chapati), etc. But we had to be strong because there was shopping to be done.

We staggered away from the table and back to the car for the ride to Dilli Haat. This is one of the treasures of India, a huge marketplace of stalls sponsored by the Indian government. Artisans from across the country are invited to set up shops for only fifteen days each, so visitors can see living crafts that span the diverse richness of India.

And sample we did. For those who are planning a trip to India, here are a few simple rules for shopping.

  1. Like everything in India, there are no rules. Only guidelines.
  2. The “price”, “final price”, and “final, final price” are just points on an infinite spectrum of possibilities. As far as I can tell, there is no such thing as the last two; there is just a point where buyer and seller get tired of bargaining.
  3. Don’t sit down. Once you’ve accepted the politely proffered seat which even the tiniest booth will magically produce, they own you—body, and wallet. (And if you let them give you tea, they might own your soul too.)
  4. Beware the Special Suitcase. Because the vendor recognizes your innate taste, discernment—and disposable income—he will pull out a suitcase of extra special items. Just to show you, Madam. No need to buy, but no cost for looking, right Madam? Obviously, you’ll already be sitting down (see #3), so you’ll find yourself helplessly admiring the miracles pulled from the special suitcase. Every item in the case is made, if not by his own family, then by his relatives. The price? Normally, you are assured, these would be double his price anywhere else. But because you’re the first sale of the day/last day he’ll be there/it’s a day of the week ending in the letter Y, he has a special price for you, a tragic level of loss for him and his family, but tribute to your unique status. Or maybe you’d like two of them for even less?

The first time I sat down, the special suitcase produced pashmina shawls, made from baby goats and woven so delicately, the entire shawl could be pulled through the seller’s ring. But, for Madam, there was one made from just the virgin beard of baby goats. It would resist wrinkles, was fireproof, and would keep me warmer than the warmest coat. Probably it could also leap tall buildings with a single bound.

Do you think I fell for such obvious sale hype? I’ve worn my Baby Goat Beard every day since.

Bargaining in India makes you hungry.

Bargaining in India makes you hungry.

How NOT to buy in India: Have a seat. Bring out the Special Suitcase.

How NOT to buy in India: 1. Have a seat. 2. Bring out the Special Suitcase.

Tomorrow: The Happiest Temple On Earth.

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