Last night I was transported into another dimension by way of a crowded Indian bus & tuk-tuk packed with 11 people en-route to Vrindavan.
When I arrived by foot just outside the ISKCON temple, an unexpected familiar face dressed in a t-shirt (distinct from all the orange-shawle'd Hare Krishna devotees) called to me. L, an old friend I met in Auroville, was staying <1km from the temple. After briefly visiting the temple (full of happy Hare-Krishna chanting & dancing Indians & foreigners) we walked to what would become my home in Vrindavan for the next 2 nights.
It was a 2-bedroom apartment shared by 10+ travelers from America, Europe, and India alike. Everyone's funds were tight, so their sustenance was fed by free rice & gravy twice daily by the temple--supplemented by simple white bread and (local) honey.
I had no sleeping pad or bag, so I spent my nights sleeping on cardboard, covered with my thin dhoti.
My first day in Vrindavan, I had a long conversation with 2 men who moved to India 40 years ago. Both were born in New York, which is also where ISKCON was started by Bhaktivedānta Svāmi.
I was unexpectedly pelted in the back of the head by a fistfull of flowers.
Later that day we took part in a grand procession with hundreds (if not thousands) of Hare Krishna devotees chanting, dancing, throwing flowers petals, and passing out free fruit & water. Many times I was unexpectedly pelted in the back of the head by a fistfull of flowers. Before long, the streets were covered with flowers & plastic bags (from mineral water).
The following day I caught a train with 5 friends to Delhi, then hopped a bus north to Manali, where I greeted the Himalayan mountains for the first time.
Sad packs of technicolor-painted donkeys wander down the street outside my hostel just next to the East Gate of the Taj Mahal.
I sit nibbling at my peanut butter & raisin burrito trying to overcome the weakness due to hunger following this morning's stomach issues from the Dal Fry I had last night at the Bob Marley Cafe (Bob Marley--a true legend that will never be forgotten as the icon of commercialization, a perfect marketing tool to attract the middle-class youth backpackers to hostels). More donkeys pass and I'm reminded of the sad camels I saw pulling carriages of tourists between the Agra fort and the Taj Mahal. The camels, unlike horses, don't have shoes. They are massively tall with their snouts covered with a bag and their back bound to carts full of jeering Indians. I could see the misery in her eyes as the driver hit her with a stick to go faster.
But Agra is more than just unconscious lovers, tourists, rickshaws, and animal cruelty--it's a grand city of history & architecture. They say its best to go the Taj for the sunrise, but I didn't want to queue for an hour, so I decided to catch the sunrise from the hostel roof--where I'm told the Taj can be seen in the distance.
a permanently-affixed, wall-mounted, scrolling LED marquee hanging on the old mosque assured visitors to the Taj Mahal that the air pollution today was "safe" for today.
I waited until 06:30. The sun was up, but not visible behind the cloud of post-Diwali pollution that blocked visibility to only a few km in every direction. When I arrived at the Taj a few hours later, a permanently-affixed, wall-mounted, scrolling LED marquee hanging on the old mosque assured visitors to the Taj Mahal that the air pollution today was "safe" for today.
I saw piles of burning trash in the streets...poorly tuned exhausts of autos spat thick black smoke into my lungs. If you look carefully at the ubiquities photos of tourists pinching the top of the Taj, you can see a dark horizon of pollution that hangs sadly on this awkward city.
The Taj Mahal is located just south of a wide river, but the ubiquitous "fog" covering the magnificent structure's white marble edifice is anything but water vapor. Last night, constant streams of firecrackers were exploding in nearly all directions from our rooftop of the Bob Marley Cafe. This morning I saw piles of burning trash in the streets as I walked to the Taj ticket counters. In the afternoon I was choked in the streets as poorly tuned exhausts of autos spat thick black smoke into my lungs. If you look carefully at the ubiquities photos of tourists pinching the top of the Taj, you can see a dark horizon of pollution that hangs sadly on this awkward city.
After Admiring the beautiful gem-inlayed flowers surrounding the tomb at the center of the Taj, I went to the backside, plopped down upon my backpack, and studied the impressive structure. But my mind hardly had time to take it in, for within a minute someone and his boy came up to me asking for "one photo" of me. He did his pose, I tried to smile, they switched, snapped the second photo, and thanked me. Then another, "one photo please sir?" And another. Before I knew it, there was a queue of Indian tourists standing between me & the Taj Mahal. Everyone wanted a selfie with me. The impatient ones wouldn't queue, the just stood next to me with a stranger, as their friends traded turns snapping the photos. A passer-by told me I should charge 20 bucks/snap or they'd never stop. Sadly, he's right. Eventually, a guard came and made it clear that I wasn't allowed to sit here, so I took the opportunity to rush away from the crowd.
My time in Agra is all but finished. When I finish my lunch, I'll head to the station for a trip to Vrindavan. I can only hope that the mass of Krishna devotees are more grounded than the people here in Agra.